How to handle sin in a God-honoring way isn’t often clearly addressed in the church. So what steps should I take in order to deal with sin? First, I must admit my sin to myself. I need to call sin what it is: sin, not just a mistake or a little slip. I must quit rationalizing and making excuses. Jesus died for our sins, not our excuses for our sins.
Second, I must confess my sin to God. Since He knows about it already, the purpose is not to inform Him. It is to verbally agree with God that what I have done is, in fact, sin. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”
Though we are forgiven by Christ of our past sins, including some we don’t remember, we are called upon to confess our sins as we become aware of them: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). (This article assumes those reading have already accepted Christ’s offer of salvation. If you never have, I encourage you to read more here.)
It may seem confusing that we must continue to confess recent sins in order to experience new and fresh forgiveness. But while we have a settled once-and-for-all forgiveness in Christ, we also have a current ongoing relationship with Him that is hampered by unconfessed sin.
Remember, God has seen us at our worst, and He still loves us. Arms wide open, He invites our confession and repentance, which He always meets with His grace and forgiveness.
Third, as a part of my admission and confession, I must genuinely repent. True confession is not a begrudging or flippant admission of wrongdoing, but an expression of guilt, regret, and desire and intention to change. It always points us to Jesus, our Savior.
I’ve had people tell me they were sorry for adultery yet refuse to quit seeing their partner in adultery. Actually, their sorrow is for sin’s consequences, not for sin. They admitted something—but they confessed nothing.
Fourth, there is a place in the family and church to confess my sins not only to God but also to others (James 5:16). Two cautions should be exercised in such confession: first, it is made to those who have actually been hurt by the behavior (this may or may not include a whole church body), and second, details should be shared only as necessary. God has no problem forgetting the details, but people do. Why etch on their minds images that will be hard or impossible to shake?
But once confessed and repented of, sin should be put behind us. We should embrace God’s forgiveness. David described it this way: “Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:2, NRSV).
When I was a boy, I had a golden retriever named Champ. Whenever we gave him a bone, he’d chew it until it was bare, then take off to bury it. But once it was buried, he would never let it lie. Every day, sometimes several times a day, he would make his rounds, going to every buried bone—dozens of them—and digging them up to chew on some more. Then he’d bury them again, only to repeat the process until the day he died.
Unlike my dog, God buries our sins and lets them lie; He never digs them up (Micah 7:18-19). Like my dog, however, sometimes we do. We dig up old sins, chew on them, confess them again, and bury them—but in a shallow grave whose location we memorize for convenient access.
We do this not only to ourselves, but others. We piously say, “I forgive you,” but dig up old sins to chew on at our pity parties, wave in front of others as gossip, or use as weapons of revenge or tools to barter and manipulate. In doing so, we become obsessed with sin instead of the Savior. We give more credit to its power than to His.
(One clarification: the Bible teaches not only forgiveness of our sins but also consequences of our choices. Forgiveness means that God eliminates our eternal condemnation and guilt. But it does not mean that our actions in this life have no consequences on earth. Forgiven people can still contract an STD or go to jail for drunk driving, for example. And forgiving those who wronged us does not mean giving them opportunity to hurt or harm us or preventing them from experiencing sin’s built-in consequences.)
Once confessed, our sins should be forgotten. We should choose to dwell on them no longer:
Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14).
An evil man is ensnared in his transgression, but a righteous man sings and rejoices (Proverbs 29:6).
How secure are we in God’s love? Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).True happiness can come only in realizing sin, admitting it, and seeking the only solution—the forgiveness of Jesus based on His redemptive work. In forgiveness alone we can have relational oneness with God and, hence, enduring happiness
For more on forgiveness and happiness, see Randy’s book Does God Want Us to Be Happy? See also his blogs What If You Struggle to Forgive Yourself for a Past Sin? and What Is True Repentance?