Confess Your Sins — Book Review
John Stott shows why forgiveness requires confession and who we should confess to
John Stott’s Confess Your Sins is a little gem of a book. Originally published in 1964, it has been reissued by Eerdmans. As far as I can tell, the only change to the original is that Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, come from the NIV (2011).
All Christians agree on three truths, which Stott names at the outset of the book: “the fact and guilt of sin, the possibility of forgiveness, and the need for confession” (emphasis in original). These three truths come together in 1 John 1:8–9:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
“So,” as Stott puts it, “the forgiveness of sins by God is made conditional upon the confession of sins by man.”
The crucial question that his book addresses — the question that divides Protestants from Catholics — is to whom we must confess. Over the course of five chapters, Stott argues that “confession must be made to the person against whom we have sinned and from whom we need and desire to receive forgiveness” (emphasis in original). Drawing on Scripture, Stott identifies three types of confession: “secret confession” to God, “private confession” to a person whom we have offended, and “public confession” when we have sinned against “a group of people, a community, or the whole local congregation.”
Stott further argues that “auricular confession,” i.e., the confession of sins to a priest, “is a practice to be deplored.” That’s a strong term, but Stott’s argument is both theological and practical in nature. “Confession is never to a third party,” he writes, “both because he has not been offended, and because he is not in a position to forgive the sin.”
Throughout the book, Stott makes his primary appeal to Scripture in support of his argument. However, he also appeals to church history, especially the history and theology of the Church of England. These appeals to church history — which include an appendix of several official Anglican statements on confession — may limit the appeal of the book to some readers.
On the other hand, given that 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, these appeals to the writings of English Reformers remind us of the evangelical character of the Church of England. That church produced George Whitefield and John Wesley, two evangelists whose ministries shaped — and continue to shape — evangelical Christianity throughout the world today, including global Pentecostalism. Perhaps we should learn from those who have gone before us in the faith, rather than eschewing history as irrelevant to contemporary concerns.
Stott concludes this book with twin appeals to take both confession and forgiveness of sin more seriously. “Christianity is a religion of forgiveness,” he writes. “God is willing to forgive sinners through Christ. We must forgive one another.” Our obligation to do so flows from the gospel itself. As Scripture says, “[forgive] each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
John Stott, Confess Your Sins: The Way of Reconciliation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017; orig. 1964).