What is the Proper Manner for Confessing Sins?

It is one of the basic parts of the doctrine of Christ that the believer repents of their sins. Because it is so basic and common a part of the core of the gospel, it is also easily exploited by false leaders and incorrect policies. But first, let’s look again at the definition of repentance.
The Lord said in a revelation to Joseph Smith, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:43). This accords with a translation Joseph Smith did of Mark 9:40: “Therefore, if thy hand offend thee, cut it off; or if thy brother offend thee and confess not and forsake not, he shall be cut off. It is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands, to go into hell” (Joseph Smith’s additions in italics).
The first entry for “confess” in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary reads:

CONFESS‘, verb transitive [Latin , to own or acknowledge.]

1. To own, acknowledge or avow, as a crime, a fault, a charge, a debt, or something that is against one’s interest, or reputation.

The other entries are not much different than the first, so this definition will suffice.
The full entry for “forsake” is as follows:

FORSA’KE, verb transitive preterit tense forsook; participle passive forsaken. See Seek .]

1. To quit or leave entirely; to desert; to abandon; to depart from. Friends and flatterers forsake us in adversity.

Forsake the foolish, and live. Proverbs 9:6.

2. To abandon; to renounce; to reject.

If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments – Psalms 89:30.

Cease from anger, and forsake wrath. Psalms 37:8.

3. To leave; to withdraw from; to fail. In anger, the color forsakes the cheeks. In severe trials, let not fortitude forsake you.

4. In scripture, God forsakes his people, when he withdraws his aid, or the light of his countenance.

The word history for “forsake” reads:

forsake (v.) Old English forsacan “object to, oppose, refuse, deny; give up, renounce” (past tense forsoc, past participle forsacen), from for- “completely” + sacan “to struggle, dispute, wrangle; accuse, blame” (see sake). Related: Forsaking. Similar formation in Old Saxon farsakan, Dutch verzaken, Old High German farsahhan “deny, repudiate,” Danish forsage “give up, refuse.” Forsake is chiefly applied to leaving that by which natural affection or a sense of duty should or might have led us to remain: as, to forsake one’s home, friends, country, or cause; a bird forsakes its nest. In the passive it often means left desolate, forlorn. [Century Dictionary]

The reason we have gone to a greater length to lay out the definition of “forsake” will become obvious in a moment. If you look at the word history, the prefix “for-” means “completely”, and together with the suffix, the possible full definition includes “object to, oppose, refuse, deny; give up, renounce.” Each of these similar verbs and behaviors are still different enough as to lead to ambiguity over what it means to forsake one’s sins. Does it mean to completely “give up” and abandon the behavior, with no slip ups in the future? Or, does it simply mean to completely “object to” the behavior in one’s heart, even if you continue to make the same or similar mistakes throughout your life? This ambiguity has led to religious leaders holding sins over people’s heads so long as they continue to fall prey to temptation. They would likely have denied Nephi a temple recommend with the “completely abandon” definition, though, as he confessed:

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. (2 Nephi 4:17-19)

However, Alma’s example proves that forgiveness from repentance is immediate, and not a process over time:

Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! (Alma 36:18-20)

Character development over time is indeed a legitimate teaching, but it is not what repentance is defined as. Denver Snuffer contrasted the two by saying, “The development of a godly character happens in stages, gradually. We are forgiven in an instant, suddenly” (See Denver Snuffer’s posts here and here).
It is for this reason that we think the scriptural definition of forsake is “to completely oppose a behavior in one’s heart”. A criminal may admit that stealing is wrong, for example, but he may still love doing it; but, if he has confessed it as wrong, and forsaken it in his heart, he may still be tempted and commit a crime if he were homeless and wanting bread, all the while hating what he is doing. In the latter example, the criminal has repented, but hasn’t developed the necessary character to sacrifice for principle’s sake.
Confessing to the priests is an extension of the Lord’s command to let your yea’s be yea and your nay’s be nay (3 Nephi 12:37). If, in your understanding, your culture commits you to certain agreements with your priests, then you are duty bound to make an accounting of your discharge of those duties. The duties, in and of themselves, however, may not be moral issues at all. What is at issue is your understanding of what you agreed to, your priests’ understanding of what you agreed to, and whether or not you truly broke that trust, and if that agreement between the two of you (or between you and the rest of your fellow congregation) is mutual. A bishop of an LDS Ward offers a convenient way to confess the breaking of that trust you owe to your congregation and your leaders.
However, if you gain correct insight into the meaning of the scriptures and the true requirements of the Lord, the truth shall set you free (John 8:32). There may be some moral issues you owe to your congregation to confess to if you cross certain lines, but certainly many traditional views on what needs to be confessed to another person go out the door the more you understand the scriptures. Most things are between you and the Lord, and reconciliation with others follows common sense principles that the scriptures often touch upon (see D&C 42:88-93). If no one else is offended by your actions, leave it between you and the Lord. However, if “thy brother hath aught against thee–Go thy way unto thy brother, and first be reconciled to thy brother” (3 Nephi 12:23-24). A bishop need not be involved unless you’ve offended the Bishop with an actual offense (and not a made up one they are persecuting you about). If you’ve done something that affects your standing in society, like committed a crime worthy of jail time, you probably owe it to your Bishop to mention that fact so he can take the necessary precautions for the group he represents, and so that he can do his duty in removing any privileges you have among a congregation that you shouldn’t have, for as long as is necessary.
What is most important is to see that the Bishop is not a representative of the Lord in this role, with whom you must go to for spiritual absolution. There is no intermediary between you and God. The Bishop is merely a representative of a congregation appointed to hear confessions of crimes AGAINST THE GROUP ONLY, who mediates reconciliation efforts between you and that group…PERIOD. He does not, and never can, represent God’s absolution of your private sins against God. A church and church representatives only offer an official community confession forum. Other sins are not their prerogative. The same goes for Priesthood holders. Priesthood is a relationship with the heavens, and the only rank and file leader you need to be concerned about is God Himself. You take care of your own Priesthood stewardship, and if you are not worthy in the Lord’s definition of the term…which more often refers to procedural worthiness, like having the correct priestly qualifications, common consent, and most importantly, the Lord’s permission for every act in the Priesthood, then you meekly excuse yourself from service for the necessary time (see Mosiah 21:33). If you have done something serious that affects your standing in the community, like adultery, then you ought to confess to your community and relevant concerned groups.
We are far away from understanding what it means in the scriptures where some few are given power to retain or remit sins on earth and in heaven (see John 20:23 and D&C 132:46), and certainly the Bishop’s role as judge amongst the people (D&C 107:74) does not rise to this level of trust. It is merely a common place role of being a representative chosen by a group. This is the outward ordinance style of the Aaronic Priesthood, and the temporal labor appointed someone who should take caution not to go beyond their bounds in authority with the Lord. And, as the Lord has ended the priesthood claims of the leadership of the LDS Church (see here), there is certainly no Stake level or General Authority level leader with this power to absolve sins as a representative of the LDS Church.
When we were in the Church, we felt the obligation to confess to our leaders when we went contrary to the cultural expectations there, and we were not rebellious. We confessed every time our consciences told us we weren’t towing the line like it was expected of us. I was a lifelong member and my wife was a convert. From the days of my youth, when I needed to confess serious sins, I did so. As I got older and established a family, I kept pace with smaller concerns. My wife did as well. We had no serious transgressions needing confession at the time of our resignation and we have none now. We have clear consciences when it comes to the discharge of our duties and obligations as former members of the LDS Church, and we have “gone not only the second mile, but paused and considered what more we could’ve done” to paraphrase an injunction in my Patriarchal blessing that we both took very seriously as it concerned our work in every calling, and for me, as it concerned my Priesthood service. Anyone who knows us and our labors in the Church over the years can attest to this fact. We only mention it to qualify what we are saying concerning the true nature of confessing sins as the scriptures outline them, having faithfully jumped through the hoops, implied and explicit, that the LDS Church has set up concerning this topic. We know somewhat of the contrast, and we appreciate the plainness of the Lamb of God and His requirements for forgiveness, in comparison to the traditions within the LDS Church. That being said, we are always learning more about the Lord’s intended meanings and are astonished at His doctrine as the Atonement plays a role in our lives. We hope you find the same measure of peace that we have found in going directly to the Lord for forgiveness, and in reconciling with your neighbor in the way and manner He reveals to you when necessary.
The Lord invites: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
The scriptures talk about a godly conversation (1 Peter 1:15; 2 Peter 3:11; D&C 20:69). Perhaps confession to God is more about understanding the category of sin, than it is about the particulars He already knows about. Surely acknowledging the incident with God can play a part, but overall, do you think God would be more satisfied with the person who confesses that the time they stole bread was wrong, but then goes on to steal time from their employer, ignorant of the continuation of their stealing mentality; or with the person who recognizes how their desires and actions are contrary to His commandments in general, and forsakes the breaking of those commandments no matter how sin manifests itself? Like King Benjamin said, “I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them” (Mosiah 4:29), and Jacob: “O be wise; what can I say more?” (Jacob 6:12).
Overall, what is important is that, as a part of our confession of faith, we acknowledge the law of God and confess which activities and behaviors really are sinful, showing a godly conversation in that we have the intelligence communicated to us about what is the wrong course for our lives, and we know how to articulate right from wrong. Besides, this gift is given freely (see Helaman 14:30-31, 2 Nephi 2:4 and 2 Nephi 26:27). Denver Snuffer mentioned how the Lord’s instructions for prayer benefited the person confessing sins: “In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ said prayer should be in secret. Matthew 6:5-8…When praying in secret, we do not need to consider what others may think of our vocabulary, content, sentence structure, dangling participles, or embarrassing confessions. It is between the individual and God” (Preserving the Restoration, p.382). The Lord articulated more in the law to the church in D&C 42:

If any shall offend in secret, he or she shall be rebuked in secret, that he or she may have opportunity to confess in secret to him or her whom he or she has offended, and to God, that the church may not speak reproachfully of him or her. D&C 42:92.

Embarrassing private sins can remain between an individual and the Lord. For the example the Lord set for how to pray, Denver mentioned, “John chapter 17 is the great intercessory prayer. Look at how He addressed His Father: ‘These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven.’ [He did not bow His head or fold his arms. He spoke aloud with His eyes lifted upward.]…How would you like it if someone spoke to you with his back turned? Look up. Speak to heaven above. as we reach up to Him in prayer, He will reach down to us….If receiving His fullness required a course in rabbinical reasoning, or an advanced theological degree, there would be almost none who are saved. But the Book of Mormon gives us account after account of encounters between mankind and God where the only qualification was a broken heart and a contrite spirit” [and we might add, there was no qualification to confess to a priest or bishop in these examples, only instances where the repentant endeavored to repair the wrongs they had done when their crimes warranted it…see Helaman 5:17] “Those who do not have the required broken heart and contrite spirit come away saying, ‘God maketh no such thing known unto us.’ Like Laman and Lemuel, their iron necks and brass brows prevent them from looking up to God to be saved” (Preserving the Restoration, pp.382-383).
We’ll end this post with a simple review of the story of the ten lepers who were cleansed by God who was with them, for He was the true Priest. Having leprosy made someone unclean under the Mosaic Law, much like many of the transgressions maintained by Latter-day Saints as warranting a need to confess to a bishop make someone “unclean” in LDS culture.
And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off: And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger. And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole. Luke 17:11-19.

To the cleansed leper that found the true Priest, even Jesus Christ, the Lord said “Go thy way,” as in, there was no need for him to go to see his ecclesiastical priests.

3 comments

  1. This is really good info.

    Confess to God in every instance. Confess to another if you have injured them. Forgive often, so that we too may be forgiven.

    I once asked God: “God, I will do anything you ask.” Then He told me. I replied ” . . . anything but that.”

    What He asked me to do was confess my sins to someone I had offended, but they did not know about it. I wrestled back and forth for over 2 years, almost every day, if I really needed to it. My personal belief was to confess to God only.

    After studying all that I possibly could, draining all possible resources, there was nothing left to study to try and persuade me not to do it. Finally, I just had to ‘get it over with’, so to speak, putting my character, good name, family, etc cetera on the altar. When God gives a command, do it! Trust Him.

    So I did. The next day, I had one of the best experiences of my life.

    Great post! I look forward to purchasing Lectures of Repentance.

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