“Forgive Us Our Debts”: Getting Specific When Confessing Our Sins to God
The familiar phrase, “forgive us our debts,” is probably known to most Christians because it comes from the Lord’s Prayer. When Christ’s disciples asked him how they should pray, Jesus identified the confession of sin as one of the key elements of prayer (Matt. 6:12).
I suspect that most Christians recognize they are sinners—recognition of this fact, after all, is one of the fundamental elements of making a valid profession of faith and joining a church. We have to acknowledge our need of a savior, Christ, which means we are in need of salvation. In simple terms, we are sinners.
As simple as this fact is, I think one of the more difficult parts of prayer is making a serious effort at confessing our sins. In my own personal prayers, I have no problem confessing my sin. I regularly pray, “Lord, please forgive me of my many sins.” Who of us can go but a few moments without sinning? Hence, I feel the need to confess my sins quite regularly any time I bow my head in prayer.
It is every person’s duty to repent of his or her particular sins.
Even so, at times I struggle with some pastoral guidance that the Westminster Confession offers concerning repentance:
Men ought not to content themselves with a general repentance, but it is every man's duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins, particularly.” (WCF 15.5)
As important as it is regularly to confess our sins, we shouldn’t be satisfied with a general confession. When we seek Christ’s forgiveness for our sins, our prayer should go beyond the general, “Forgive me of my sins.” As the Confession counsels, we should get specific.
Are you spiritually “asleep at the wheel”?
Admittedly, I find this to be a challenge at times. Mind you, I have no delusions of grandeur that my inability to get specific in my confession of sins is due to any degree of impeccability on my part. Rather, I owe my generic and unspecific confession of sin to the fact that I’m often spiritually “asleep at the wheel.” I’m simply not paying careful attention to my conduct and don’t realize when I do engage in sin. I grow accustomed, for example, to certain patterns of behavior and fail to recognize that what seems mundane to me actually transgresses God’s law.
When I covet a sports car or my neighbor’s new swimming pool and envision myself having a pool of my own, I then begin to run through different scenarios and ways that I might be able to get a swimming pool. As a passing thought, such things are likely innocuous; yet, the more I begin to dwell upon such desires, the more likely I begin to drift into coveting. I may be blissfully ignorant that I have drifted into sinful waters, but the truth of the matter is that I have allowed the winds of temptation to fill my sails of desire, which have carried me into the dark murky waters of sin.
How can we be more aware of our sinful conduct?
While I certainly do not want to encourage anyone to become morbidly introspective, at the same time we should strive to be acutely aware of our conduct—our words, thoughts, and deeds. One way, I believe, we can become more aware of our sinful conduct is by meditating upon God’s law—plumbing its depths as we read, think, and pray through Scripture.
At the end of his day as he lay in bed, Martin Luther would pray through the Lord’s Prayer and run through the Ten Commandments. In so doing, he became aware of how he sinned throughout the day and could thus confess his particular sins particularly. Another way to explore God’s law is to study Reformation catechisms, such as Luther’s Large or Small, the Heidelberg, or the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. These documents can teach us the full scope of God’s law and help us understand how we break it.
Avoid the temptation to develop a “checklist spirituality” in your life.
Keep in mind, however, that I by no means want to encourage anyone to develop a “checklist spirituality” by making your own list of commandments and checking off the list each day. Such a mentality, I believe, breathes the stale air of legalism and works righteousness rather than the fresh breezes of the new heavens and earth. Rather, remember that when you study the law, you ultimately draw nigh unto our triune God and learn what conduct he finds good, acceptable, and pleasing.
Moreover, as you reflect upon the law, first recognize the ways in which you fall short of its standard. Second, remember that Christ has fulfilled it on your behalf. Third, remember that Christ through his Spirit has raised you to walk in the newness of life, and as such, enables you by his grace to live unto holiness and righteousness. In other words, seek the grace of Christ in your efforts to obey God’s law.
Reflecting upon God’s law and how we fall short of its standard helps us to mature in our faith.
In the end, move beyond the shallow general confession of sin and into the deeper maturity of confessing your particular sins particularly. In so doing you will not only discover the depths of the riches of Christ’s grace and mercies to meet your sin, but you will also make greater strides in your sanctification.
This article by J. V. Fesko is adapted from “A Pastor’s Reflections: Forgive Us Our Debts” at Westminster Seminary California's Valiant For Truth blog. For more helpful content by Dr. Fesko, please visit jvfesko.com.
J. V. Fesko is Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. He has written numerous books on the Christian faith, including Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights and the newly released commentary, Romans (Lectio Continua).
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