Four Components of a True Confession

The path of repentance begins with confrontation and leads to confession, reassurance, and finally, restoration. But so many of us want to skip to reassurance and restoration without true confession. In Psalm 51, we see the anatomy of confession through David’s poem written after Nathan had confronted him about his sin against Bathsheba.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians that there are two kinds of “sorrow” for sin—one that leads to repentance (and life), and one that only leads to more spiritual death. The example that David gives us in Psalm 51 is the first, displaying four components that separate the true confessions from the false ones.

1. True confession takes personal responsibility for sin.

There may be factors that influence sin, but at the end of the day, when we take personal responsibility for our sin, we say, “I have sinned. Nothing excuses it, and I have no one to blame but me.” We don’t seek to justify, minimize, or deflect what we did in any way.

And when we apologize for our sin, we don’t say “if,” “but,” or “maybe.” We own up to it. Others may have indeed wronged us first. We might have been facing some challenging circumstances. We might have felt intense peer pressure. But our sins—our choices—are always our own.

So often, people are confronted in their sin yet still blame someone else. No matter what evidence is brought against them, somehow they are always the victim, focusing on where everyone else fell short. But if we are to truly repent, our focus will be on our own sin, not on what others did or didn’t do.

2. True confession acknowledges that sin is first and foremost against God.

David says, “Against you [God], you only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4 ESV). By saying this, David isn’t diminishing his sins against Bathsheba, Uriah, or the nation. He’s using a Hebrew poetic device, and the repetition of “you” emphasizes that as bad as his sin was toward others, it was even worse against God. In so doing, David demonstrates an important component in confession that we often overlook—the Godward dimension of our sin.

David’s sin, on a human level, was horrendous. It’s not hard for us to see that. And yet, David says that even the horror of his sins against others pales in comparison to the wickedness he’s committed against God. His sins of sexual abuse, betrayal, and murder (all of the highest order) are not as heinous as his offense against God.

How evil must our sin be in God‘s eyes?

3. True confession realizes that sin is at the core of humanity.

Similarly to the blame game people tend to play with their sin, they also try to say that they “weren’t themselves” when they were sinning. They might say, “I got caught in a weak moment,” or, “I made some poor choices,” or “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. That’s not really me.”

But David points out that sin runs deeper, saying, “No. My sin came from the depth of who I am. What I did in that moment was consistent with things I have buried in the depths of my heart. It didn’t come out of nowhere. It flowed from the heart.” After all, if what happened wasn’t really us, then where did it come from?

Sometimes we become so good at filtering ourselves to shield us from embarrassment that we fail to remember that just because we don’t say something out loud or do something, it doesn’t mean that evil isn’t inside of us. No one had to teach us how to sin. It was there from the start.

If someone confronts us, we ought to think, “You don’t know the half of what’s going on in there.” And that would be discouraging, were it not for the gospel.

What God offers us isn’t reform: It’s resurrection. It’s new life. Confession gets us there.

4. True confession knows that we offer nothing that can excuse or offset sin.

Before David, Saul had tried what a lot of other religious people have tried, before and since: He tried to atone for his own sins, following God on his own terms. He used good things to avoid obedience to God—which means they weren’t actually good at all.

We can’t offset our own sin. You know how large companies sometimes try to offset their carbon emissions by planting a bunch of trees to reduce their toxic contribution? They make promises that seem to cover the pollution they’re producing. They “offset” it. But if you look a little closer, you’re not impressed with what’s going on.

Sound familiar?

Many people begin confession by making promises to God. They say, “OK, God, I know I’ve messed up, but I’m going to be faithful to church now. I’m going to give a lot of money and pray every day.”

What they’re really saying, though, is, “Give me your blessing now, God, and I’ll earn it back later.”

But God doesn’t want any of that. Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” All God wants is brokenness.

Brokenness is painful. But God always brings good. He doesn’t want brokenness for its own sake. He wants restoration. God can use a broken relationship, a broken heart, or a broken life to make us realize that all we need to thrive is to stay close to him.

Are you breaking? Don’t resist him.