Can You Confess Sins To Yourself?

Rick Phillips’ post about corporate confession of sins got me thinking about the PCA’s proposed resolution on race and civil rights. That personal resolution from Ligon Duncan and Sean Lucas confesses the church’s complicity with racial injustice.

Phillips attempts to find a biblical procedure for such confession.

But if he were to use the Book of Discipline from his sister communion, the OPC, he’d find judicial processes laid out quite thoroughly.

I imagine the General Assembly of the PCA would come as its own accuser:

When a person comes before a judicatory as his own accuser, the judicatory may proceed to judgment without full process, determining first, what offense, if any has been committed, and, if a serious offense (cf. Chapter III, Section 7.b [6]) has been committed, what censure shall be pronounced. (5.1)

Next comes the the work of the trial judicatory in establishing the seriousness of the sin and determining the level of censure:

In judicial discipline there are five degrees of censure: admonition, rebuke, suspension, deposition, and excommunication. Censures shall be pronounced in the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, as an act of the whole church, by the moderator on behalf of the trial judicatory. (6.A.1)

This raises a real problem since everyone in this scenario would be guilty of the sin and so finding someone to serve on the trial judicatory could be difficult if not impossible. Everyone is guilty. Can the sinner determine his own form of censure? Would he not have mixed motives?

And then there is the question of the sin’s seriousness. What kind of censure will the PCA General Assembly apply to itself?

1. Admonition

Admonition consists in tenderly and solemnly confronting the offender with his sin, warning him of his danger, and exhorting him to repentance and to greater fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.

2. Rebuke

Rebuke is a form of censure more severe than admonition. It consists in setting forth the serious character of the offense, reproving the offender, and exhorting him to repentance and to more perfect fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. Suspension

a. Suspension is a form of censure by which one is deprived of the privileges of membership in the church, of office, or of both. It may be for a definite or an indefinite time. Suspension of an officer from the privileges of membership shall always be accompanied by suspension from office, but the latter does not necessarily involve the former.

b. An officer or other member of the church, while under suspension, shall be the object of deep solicitude and earnest dealing to the end that he may be restored. When the trial judicatory which pronounced the censure is satisfied of the penitence of the offender, or when the time of suspension has expired, the censure shall be removed and the offender shall be restored. This restoration shall be accompanied by a solemn admonition. Restoration to the privileges of membership may take place without restoration to those of office.

c. When a minister has been indefinitely suspended, the judicatory shall immediately notify all the presbyteries of the church.

4. Deposition

a. Deposition is a form of censure more severe than suspension. It consists in a solemn declaration by the trial judicatory that the offender is no longer an officer in the church.

b. When a minister is deposed from his office, the presbytery shall erase his name from the roll of the ministerial members of the presbytery and dismiss him to a particular church or enroll him as a member of the regional church without membership in a particular church.

c. Deposition of a pastor or his suspension for an indefinite time involves the dissolution of the pastoral tie. The sentence of deposition or suspension shall be read before the congregation, and the pulpit shall be declared vacant. In case of suspension for a definite period the presbytery, after giving the session an opportunity to be heard, shall decide whether the pastoral relation shall be dissolved.

d. When a minister has been deposed, the judicatory shall immediately notify all the presbyteries of the church.

5. Excommunication

Excommunication is the most severe form of censure and is resorted to only in cases of offenses aggravated by persistent impenitence. It consists in a solemn declaration by an ecclesiastical judicatory that the offender is no longer considered a member of the body of Christ. (6.B)

Depending on to whom you listen, racism is pretty grievous sin. But if it were sufficiently serious that the PCA General Assembly pronounced a censure of Deposition on itself, the recent graduates of Reformed seminaries might be grateful for the new calls available, but is the Assembly really prepared to wipe out its entire set of elders and deacons? Depose Tim Keller?

But if the Assembly only rebukes itself, would those most offended by racism be satisfied?

I wonder if those who support this corporate confession of sin understand how complicated it might be.


65 thoughts on “Can You Confess Sins To Yourself?

  1. I do wonder what those who labored for the civil rights movement in its beginnings think of all this pious Johnny-come-lately stuff. Nothing like letting others do the hard work when its unpopular, then swoop in when the coast is way past clear and set alight the bandwagon.

    Maybe they’re happy for the apparent repentance, but some might say it not only looks like white privilege ironically at work (you work, I’ll reap) but if these good Presbyterians are so serious about repenting for oppressing a minority group then maybe getting behind the gay rights movement would lend credibility. Insert collective choking here.


  2. Taking a cue from TKNY, why couldn’t Lig and Sean — instead of calling racism a sin — just say it’s “not best for human flourishing”? That, after all, is how TKNY describes homosexual practice.


  3. Glad to see this discussed on Old Life.

    Interesting, but not surprising, that Dr. Phillips draws his example from the OT and specifically from national Israel under the Mosaic Covenant.

    Ever since I read of this resolution, I’ve been wondering if and how the idea of national / corporate confession and repentance carries over from the Mosaic Covenant to the NT Church and to a present day denomination? And does that question have any implications for the Republication debate and whether or not national Israel was under some form of a typological Covenant of Works? Or are the two issues completely separate?

    I don’t pretend to have an answer, but I am curious if any more studied persons have any thoughts on the question?


  4. David, there’s about 500 years of all kinds of thought on that topic. My readings are that several of “the greats” are vague on their conclusions, some are too insistent.

    To me the only flaw is to start a battle over tiny differences on how it was, how it should be, and how it should be applied. The way you wrote your questions tilts towards your views, which I think I would agree with, but again not to the point of banishing believers from my life over it….


  5. Last I checked, many opc/pca churches have corporate confessions of (grevous) sins during worship. It is not that complicated.


  6. Born, the General Assembly is not gathering as a congregation for corporate worship.

    A congregation doesn’t draft and then pass resolutions as a form of prayer.

    Time’s yours.

    Use your name or I will.


  7. Thanks. Appreciate that linked post and it’s appeal: “to ask for the Lord’s help us act as one”

    and also the Ezra reference which reminded me of the ‘one man’ Ezra 3:1 verse I love – “the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem” and also Neh 8:1:where “all the people gathered as one man” preceding the collective sorrow when they were read the law; now in the NT, the anticipating of attaining the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. Eph 4:13

    Thinking surely the Lord takes pleasure in the move as ‘one man’ to confess this sin.

    Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed. James 516


  8. Curt, so what’s your theory? How does a denomination in 2015 or 2016 ask forgiveness for actions of men from decades ago who may or may not be asking for forgiveness? It would be one thing if the denomination officially sanctioned discrimination (“blacks can’t hold office”) but that doesn’t really seem to be what they’re after.

    On Sunday mornings it is understood that in corporate prayer we are asking for individual forgiveness. I’ve never prayed forgiveness for what some other guy in our church did in the 80’s.

    Empty symbolism annoys me.


  9. Yeah, Curt — what sin? Being white and southern? Having been raised by their parents who had been raised by their parents? Not being completely renewed in their minds and hearts? Smells like marketing of the SBC variety to me. And revivalism — I watched the do-right crowd walk the aisle to sign the pledge on the GA video feed. Piety and pathos signifying nothing.


  10. MG,
    So being silent in the face of significant sin is cool? I don’t think that is how the OT prophets or the apostles saw their job in terms of preaching. And it isn’t our job when we see a brother sin. Is it cool to see a brother in Christ commit adultery and then relate to that brother as if nothing was wrong?


  11. Binding the consciences of (many, much) younger men regarding sin which may have already been repented of by (many, much) older men doesn’t exactly scream “OT prophetic voice.”


  12. Let me get this straight, Curt: for anything that does not measure up against the plumb line we must do something. Well, if you want to react that way in the civil realm and promote laws that may not improve the situation and may, in fact, be worse then the problem that’s one thing. But don’t conscript the church and the name of God for the job.

    Interesting that Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you.” He preached compassion on such but had no illusions that every problem can be given a “cure.”

    “Is it cool to see a brother in Christ commit adultery and then relate to that brother as if nothing was wrong?” This is individual sin that may be addressed by individual discipline. Explain asking forgiveness for the individual sins of others.


  13. It’s latent or full-blown evangelicalism at work in the PCA. There’s probably an unspoken fear of generational curses and an unconscious pragmatism picked up from their mostly Southern Baptist upbringings. “If only we do this, God will do that! We can fix this brothers!”


  14. And why is Keller so silent on this late paroxysm of racial angst in the PCA? Is it because he sees it as a no-win or irrelevant to his NY situ — does he feel that he has personally/locally mastered it in the Big Apple? Just tacky? Not best for organizational flourishing?


  15. “to ask for the Lord’s help to act as one”

    I guess on the positive side of this am’s discussion is inspiration that some are way ahead on seeking the Lord on this and have received His guidance. On the negative though, can it be from Him that response includes motive-assigning and accusation (it’s marketing, pietism, latent/full-blown evangelicalism at work, other denomination/same denomination brother denouncing, etc.).

    Not to deflect from the sin confession of this post, but maybe re: corporate confession, maybe it should be argued there is need for more of it?


  16. Ali,

    It would interesting to see (if it could be known) how many churches/church leaders are calling for denominational repentance don’t have a corporate confession in their liturgy already.

    “We need this in our churches!” they yell.

    “We’re already doing this,” many reply back, unheard because it’s not glamorous or relevant.

    Big government and big gospel, baby.


  17. Like I said jasitek, it’s inspiring that some are way ahead on seeking the Lord on this particular matter and have received His guidance.


  18. Deez, how’d it take THIS long for you with Ali?

    Don’t invest a picosecond more than you can afford and don’t express it into the wind’s direction…


  19. @ DGH:

    Sessions and Presbyteries have been known to apologize for their actions without a formal process and accusation necessary.

    What’s different here? (Just asking for precision)


  20. DC, the board has various functions, some of them are actually amusing who do nothing but throw mud and excrement at us.

    Ali sometimes amuses me.


  21. Deez, could it be that TKNY has no real affinity with the South? Race is their thing. Just guessing. But for a guy who let Anthony Bradley emcee for him and Piper, you’d think with Eric Garner’s name in the news and all TKNY would step up.


  22. CW: the way of the Unificator is long and hard.

    aww CW, be the l’unificateur, l’unifcator, etc (all cultural versions)

    CW: your opinion is of no use.
    I try not to have too much of it, remember, I’m just a Bible-verse-quoter


  23. Jeff, is an apology a confession of sin? Not trying to get all Jesuitical, but if sin is involved and we come as our own accusers, don’t we need to apply rules of church discipline? So maybe the apologies of sessions and presbyteries needed to follow the BCO. Or maybe they weren’t admissions of sin.

    The question as always, except for Mermaid, is sin.


  24. Jeff and DGH, doesn’t it matter whether the sins were indeed corporate sins, i.e., misdeeds of session qua session or Presbytery qua Presbytery? We could have a conversation about that. But a General Assembly confessing the 1977 sins of a particular church member is a non-starter.


  25. here’s a roll of apologies, looks like a roll of toilet paper

    line up everyone and take as many sheets as you like

    about as much good as options on a going-nowhere internet start-up


  26. DGH. I’m probably slicing the bologna too thin. I’ve offered one category for the non-starter division and one category for something that at least makes some conceptual sense. The latter – a church body wanting to show some remorse for what it has done as a body – leaves the starting blocks but soon staggers and falls. How about just rescinding the offending action and append a rationale that expresses remorse?

    But the subject of your post is in the non-starter category as far as I know.


  27. A court of the church is generally apologizing for an action or error though, right? Show me where the PCA had a policy of racial discrimination. A few churches had the practice – yes. This is church marketing and conscience-denominational esteem massaging I fear.


  28. DC-16, it’s all a bit fuzzy to me. From the link:

    “The personal resolution called on the PCA to confess its sins in its complicity with those who opposed the Civil Rights movement. This was a bit strange to me, since the PCA was not in existence at the time.”


  29. Hey, with all the defective denominational DNA which the PCA has — a modest proposal: Fold the denomination. Merge with OPC but — as an act of contrition — the former PCA churches will be subservient to their new OPC presbyteries for a period of 20 years with their officers not voting, only submitting. But they still have to give their OPC masters all that fine Southern money. THAT would be demonstrating some serious humility.


  30. MG,
    Again, social justice issues basically involve groups committing two sins: murder and theft. Would we be silent if we saw someone about to commit murder? Would we be silent if we saw someone steal?


  31. D. G. Hart: Ali, and maybe Matt 6:1; Ali, don’t forget that your quoting could be cherry picking.

    Matt 6:1. That’s an important verse DG, but you can’t use it for everything, all the time like you lie to do, speaking of cherry -picking, since we are told to practice righteousness and, related to confession, told to confess to one another for healing So, the distinction is motive: ‘to be noticed by them” -man pleasing. That is a judgment that the Lord is able to perfectly make, but us – not so much, or really at all, right? [I would say only ‘not at all’ except we’re told Peter knew a heart Acts 8:21 (there may be other verses I’m not recalling)]


  32. Muddy, Cw,

    On Sunday mornings it is understood that in corporate prayer we are asking for individual forgiveness. I’ve never prayed forgiveness for what some other guy in our church did in the 80’s. Empty symbolism annoys me.

    Just filing my not-useful (per CW’s criteria) opinion in agreement.

    Reminds me of a sign I saw an hour ago in front of a 1692 Presbyterian parish in Lewes DE – “We are an eco community.” That’s nice, I guess, but is it coherent, and where does one stop with such things?

    They might at least apologize in a similarly odd way for congregants who were in favor of the Mexican-American and Spanish-American Wars (Manifest Destiny), or for the impact NAFTA has had on Mexican farming (2m out of work) and its drug wars (100k dead since 2006).

    Not that they bear any particular guilt, but apparently they don’t see that as a requirement for an apology.


  33. Kevin was that eco as in ecologically friendly or eco as in evangelical covenant order – a recent break away from the mainline?


  34. Curt, you don’t seem to have any ecclesiology or any particular interest in the church qua church. So you paste a social justice sentence from your archives without any interest at all in the topic of the conversation. But you have your cause and others have their causes. There is probably some legitimacy in about 50 + causes that could inspire remorse if one is the hand-wringing type. Should denominations discipline themselves for all of them, all the symbolic gestures piling up like leaves in the fall?


  35. 1890 seems to be the key year.
    1890: Toilet Paper on a roll was introduced by the Scott Paper Company and quickly becomes the nation’s leading producer of TP. Scott bought large rolls of paper from paper manufacturers and then converted them to become toilet paper on a small roll. The TP was sold through intermediaries, private labelers and drug stores. Scott private labeled the wrappers and cut the paper according to the specification that each reseller wanted. Scott did not want to be associated with this Victorian era “unmentionable” product. The owners did not want their name on the product. The strategy worked and Scott expanded – Scott soon had over 2,000 reselling customers.

    Scott Paper started in Philadelphia. At this time of the morning I’ll spare everyone the pre-toilet paper alternatives.


  36. sdb –

    The latter – my mistake.

    The church from the outside (was too late to be open) is impressive, wood frame with a number of different planes – here’s a photo:

    The large graveyard surrounding had fairly simple tombs simple, some with inscriptions such as that of the first-generation US Citizen below, conceived around November 29th, 1778

    (as an aside this was just a few years after the resolution in the High Chancery in London of the century-long dispute between Penn and Baltimore (& heirs) regarding who had legitimate title to Delaware’s 3 counties – Penn’s side won, which caused property-owners in Delaware to be Loyalist, as may have been most of the Presbyterians of this congregation – no idea).

    to the memory of
    JOHN HOUSTON, esquire
    Who departed this life the 7th day of
    January 1828, Aged 48 Years 5 months
    and 9 days.
    He was an affectionate husband,
    an indulgent parent, and a useful citizen.

    He was a member of this church
    in which he sustained the office of Ruling Elder
    for eight years. He took a lively interest in all
    the concerns of religion and contributed liberally
    towards the support of the Gospel.

    His life of piety has furnished an example
    worthy of imitation and his triumphant death
    gives us an earnest of his future blessedness.
    He was a man much respected
    generally loved and greatly lamented.

    Hear what the voice from heaven proclaims
    for all the pious dead:
    Sweet is the savour of their homes
    And soft their sleeping bed
    Far from this world of toil and strife,
    They’re present with the Lord.
    The labours of their mortal life
    End in a large reward.

    This slab and the remains beneath, were
    removed from the grave yard of the
    Old Presbyterian Church at Laurel,
    Delaware June 13, 1881.

    The church is set three blocks from the main commercial street and 17th century Anglican parish church – the Anglican church property was allocated by Edmund Andros, perhaps the Presbyterians hadn’t been permitted to be immediately on the main street since the English Civil War was living memory for some?


  37. D.G.

    Have no doubts about TKNY being involved in this. It is happening through his proxy, RE Bruce Terrell who moderated the 41st General Assembly. Moderators not only serve one General Assembly they are given a 5 year term to sit on the denomination’s Cooperative Ministries Committee. So via Mr. Terrell TKNY is getting lots of things done (and there are nearly three years left in his term). I don’t mean to insinuate that he doing this single-handed but that committee is not all that large. Sadly, IMHO there is too much group think going on.

    At the link below see who nominated Mr. Terrell. Note that a very confessional man was also nominated but the National Partnership made sure he didn’t get elected. Too much at stake for that to happen.


  38. Another angle: in confessing the sins of others you are implicitly accusing and convicting them without input from them. What if they don’t think they committed sin? I wouldn’t be too crazy about a church body apologizing for my alleged sin from a few decade ago.

    So, OK, maybe this is a bit strained. They won’t name names and will be generic about the sins committed. But the more vague it gets, the more meaningless it is.


  39. MG, which brings me back to seeing this from the (for lack of a better phrase) victims’ point of view, and isn’t that at least part of the point? And if I’m watching all of this, it sure looks like a lot of easy remorse–no names, no consequences, etc.Just a lot of self-praise and congratulations for jumping on the look-at-us-now bandwagon.



  40. Zrim,

    You are onto something. The real story is that is begins with the Strategic Plan the PCA adopted back in 2010. There we were told that the denomination was no longer “one of the fastest growing denominations” after posting its first membership decline. The solution included an appeal to reach minorities and include them in leadership or else the PCA like other white denominations will be irrelevant to the culture in 20-30 years. So the Cooperative Ministries Committee has been busy about that task, providing minorities “a seat at the table” and listening with rapt attention.

    Part of the dialog includes discussions about injustice (real and perceived) that minorities in the PCA believe need to be addressed. So, in order to reach more minorities these leaders are quick to admit to being “tone deaf”, insensitive, oblivious to social justice, and unaware of white privilege. They are also quick to point out the “racist” history of the PCA and the need for the church to repent of those sins immediately. Interestingly, such a call to adopt a denomination-wide statement of repentance will include Korean Presbyterians who make up about 15% of the PCA. I wonder what they think about being told that they need to confess and repent of other people’s racism.

    On the last night of our General Assembly it became pretty clear that those who “get it” (e.g. the PCA needs to repent) argue that a revival is breaking out while those don’t fall in line are viewed as Neanderthals (I’m not sure the lines can be clearly drawn between New Side and Old Side Presbyterians but it kind of looks that way).


  41. MG – “in confessing the sins of others you are implicitly accusing and convicting them without input from them.” — but you gotta know that the motivations of those repent-cuse-victing are whiter than snow, gospel-centered, gospel-shaped, for the city, etc. Hater.


  42. Dave, and yet plenty of skepticism for leftward political correctness like this happening in broader civil society.


  43. Jeff, I wonder if the folks in the PCA studied the experience of the Afrikaans churches and how (if) they handled apartheid which was on a scale of discomfort somewhat higher than Jim Crow. (But there I go beating up on the Dutch again.)


  44. MG writes: Another angle: in confessing the sins of others you are implicitly accusing and convicting them without input from them.


    “You’re guilty of racism.”
    No I’m not.
    “Yes you are.”
    NO, I’m not.
    “Why are you being so defensive?”


  45. If they want to listen to the voice of minorities, here’s a start: from a Cuban American, it’d be nice if they believed their confessional documents and obeyed the regulative principle.

    Geez louise, the Faith is not a white social construct x_x


  46. John 20: 23 If YOU forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if YOU retain the sins of any, they are retained

    I hope you know that this YOU is not you. If you think you can pick and choose to get absolution from a opc pastor instead of from a pca or lutheran pastor, then your rebel against the pope who is the only one who gets to set the terms for forgiveness.


  47. Mark Mcculley
    Posted September 5, 2015 at 8:25 pm | Permalink
    John 20: 23 If YOU forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if YOU retain the sins of any, they are retained

    I hope you know that this YOU is not you. If you think you can pick and choose to get absolution from a opc pastor instead of from a pca or lutheran pastor, then your rebel against the pope who is the only one who gets to set the terms for forgiveness.

    FTR, the Catholic Church claims it’s not YOU either, for the Reformation broke with apostolic succession. [Unlike the Eastern Orthodox. All schisms are not equal.]

    Only the Twelve were there in John 20. Read the whole thing. [Actually Thomas (also known as Didymus) was missing. He shows up in verse 24.]

    Presented for information purposes only. Don’t try this at home.


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