Let’s say you’ve blown it really big. I’m talking about a several year porn problem with lies and cover ups. Or maybe you visited a strip club on a business trip and committed adultery. Maybe you’ve been embezzling money from your employer. Maybe you’ve been getting drunk or smoking pot or you’re addicted to prescription medications.
You want to repent. You want to change. What do you do now?
1. Repent with all your heart before God. Cry out to Him. Pour your heart out to Him. James says that when sinners cleanse their hands and purify their hearts it means being afflicted, mourning, and crying (Js. 4:8-9). This can be turned into a show, so don’t do this at the front of church on Sunday morning. Do this privately first. Unload. Cast your cares on Him. Pour out heart to the Lord. Ask Him to forgive you, to deal with you, and to give you the courage to do everything it takes. Central to this is believing with all your heart that you cannot save yourself, but that Jesus can and will because of His death and resurrection.
2. Tell someone. Tell someone you trust. Tell someone who you know is wise. A pastor is often a good place to start, but this could also be a trusted teacher, another elder, a parent or grandparent, a spouse, a close friend. You should do this is as quickly as possible. Strike while the iron is hot. Don’t allow the devil to sneak into your soul and tell you that won’t be necessary. Confessing to God is the first and most important step, but if you want to really deal with this sin, if you want to kill it, you’ve got to keep going. Remember it is not good to be alone. Two are better than one. If you’ve fallen into big sin, you need a good friend and probably several along the way. You need someone to help you think through how to talk to those you need to talk to.
3. If you haven’t already, confess your sin to those you have directly sinned against. Sometimes it can be helpful to do this with a friend. Sometimes it’s best done just between you and the offended party. If you committed adultery, confess to your wife/husband. If you have been lying, confess to those you have been lying to. If you have stolen, confess it to the one you have stolen from. Sometimes the nature of the sin requires special care. This should not be an excuse for not confessing it, but wisdom must be used. If the sin is also a crime, the criminal ramifications should be understood, not in order to avoid the consequences but in order to face them in the right spirit. If the offended party is a minor or young child, parents should be involved first.
4. Often people stop here, but I think it’s incredibly important to understand that big sins do not appear out of nowhere. Big sins grow on particular kinds of trees. Mold grows where it’s warm and moist. If you just throw out the mold and don’t change the climate, it will be back next week. In Ps. 19, David prays that God would cleanse him of secret faults, keep him back from presumptuous sins, so that he will be innocent of great transgressions. If you have committed great transgressions, you need to recognize that this is because you have allowed presumptuous sins to roam freely and there are probably many “secret sins” that you cannot yet see. Often confessing the big sins is like turning the windshield wipers on for the first time in years. Getting the windshield all wet is a good start, but it’s likely that your view is still smeared with mud and grime. That shouldn’t be a discouraging thing since that really is the right idea, but you can’t expect to have 20/20 vision five minutes after repenting. So once you’ve repented of the big stuff, start repenting of the second tier sins. Have you routinely lied about things? Have you twisted the truth, spun your stories just a bit? Have you disobeyed parents, hid things from your spouse, cheated on tests? Maybe the list is pretty long, so start by making a list, confess them all one by one to God, then start sending letters, making phone calls, whatever is possible.
5. Related to the previous point is the fact that often the tangles are so significant and have gone on for so long that we honestly can’t remember every detail. Here, the point should be to confess what you know, confess what you see. You are not saved by confessing your sins perfectly or by having a perfect memory. You’re saved by the blood of Christ. In 1 John, we are told that if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That’s a precious promise to every trembling heart. What if you don’t remember all of the sins? God is faithful and just and He will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That certainly must not be an excuse for ignoring sins we actually know about, but it’s a wonderful assurance for those areas where you know there was probably more sin going on but you just can’t remember. But the first half of the verse is really important as well: confess your sins. This means confess actual sins. Don’t confess what might have been sin. Don’t rake yourself over the coals for stuff that might have happened. Leave the questions to God. Ask God honestly to show you what you need to see. Practice ongoing confession and repentance for the actual sins you can see and name, and then leave the muddled what-ifs to God. He sees all things. He knows all things. And He is good and kind.
6. Fight the devil with the gospel. Often in the aftermath of big confessions and ongoing repentance, Satan pounces. He loves to kick the saints of God while they’re down. Satan is the accuser, and so he comes armed with accusations. Some of the accusations may be related to what you have already confessed. But they are questions like ‘How could you?’ ‘How could you be so cruel?’ ‘Would a true Christian really do that?’ and the accusations are built on top of the questions: ‘You’ll never be able to fully recover.’ ‘You’ll never be a good husband, a good wife, a good son or daughter.’ ‘You’ll never be able to change.’ ‘You weren’t really sorry enough.’ ‘Other Christians don’t struggle with that.’ Other accusations may be connected to other areas of life. ‘You may have confessed that, but there’s tons more.’ ‘You’ll never be able to remember everything.’ ‘You’ll never be completely clean.’ ‘You’ll never have complete peace.’ The first thing to remember when these doubts and fears and accusations come is that they are not from God. This is because God is not an accuser. He sent Jesus to be our Advocate, our defense attorney. The ascension of Jesus is good news to every sinner because the ascension of Jesus is our ongoing assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God. He is in heaven as our downpayment of acceptance with the Father. And our names are written on His his pierced hands in the indelible ink of His blood. But secondly, this means that anything Satan brings up that is true is already settled. If you have confessed it to God and to whoever you sinned against, then you have agreed with God that it deserved death and have received His mercy because Christ paid your debt in full. But lastly, remember that Satan is the father of lies. He is a liar and has lied from the beginning. Some of his lies are straight up and simple and you must learn to call them lies. But often he loves to lie in the form of unanswerable questions. ‘Did you really mean that confession?’ ‘Were you really sorry enough?’ ‘Have you confessed everything?’ And here you must fight the devil by refusing to give any time to the unanswerable questions. Here the best answer is to point Satan (and your doubting heart) to the promises of God. We do not stand because we have confessed perfectly. We do not stand because we know all things. We do not stand because we have remembered to check every box. No, we stand because God holds us up. We stand because He called us from the grave. We stand because His Spirit lives in us. How do we know that His Spirit lives in us? How do we know that He holds us up? Because we’ve confessed our sins, because we haven’t hidden anything we know about, because we love His grace. It’s sweet to us. It’s lovely to us.
Following Jesus is not always easy. It is often hard. There are crosses involved. But what is the cross of Christ? It is our glory. It is our hope. It is our peace. So whether you are at the very beginning of putting things right or you have been struggling in the aftermath of your confession, do not lose sight of the cross of Jesus. Don’t give up the fight. Because we are fighting for glory. We are fighting for true peace, for true joy.
And there is a crown laid up for us.