Confessing and forgiving in "Return of the Prodigal Son"

How Confessing and Forgiving are Inseparable

To forgive, combine confessing and forgiving as Jesus taught. Part 3 of “Forgive Intentional Sin—Don’t Just Manage Emotions.”

Jesus said something astonishing in the Lord’s Prayer about confessing and forgiving. He said we should pray,

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Matthew 6:12

In so doing, he linked confessing and forgiving. He followed up with this:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Matthew 6:14–15

New Testament scholar D. A. Carson says, “There is no forgiveness for the one who does not forgive. How could it be otherwise? His unforgiving spirit bears strong witness to the fact that he has never repented” (Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World, 75).

Confessing and forgiving in "Return of the Prodigal Son"

A wayward son finds forgiveness and his father’s embrace in “Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (circa 1668)

Confessing and forgiving are strongly connected. True repentance is the necessary path to true forgiveness, for those who haven’t honestly and deeply repented of their own sins lack the capacity to forgive others.


In my last two posts, I discussed what forgiving isn’t and said that the first step towards forgiving is committing to forgive. I began the story of how I realized that I had been excusing my mother’s sin by saying, “I forgive her because she doesn’t know better.” When the fact that she had known better bowled over my excuses, I felt betrayed. Rage overcame me. Instead of excusing sin, I needed to do the much harder job of forgiving sin.

Confessing and Forgiving Come Before Confronting

When we’ve committed to forgive, the next step is not confronting those who’ve sinned against us in the hope they’ll apologize and make forgiving easier. Tim Keller explains why: “Only if you first seek inner forgiveness will your confrontation be temperate, wise, and gracious. Only when you have lost the need to see the other person hurt will you have any chance of actually bringing about change, reconciliation, and healing” (The Reason for God, 197). Yes, Jesus said to talk to Christians who’ve sinned against us (Matthew 18), but we must forgive first.

The next step is to pray to forgive in the way Jesus taught: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). The prayer’s order is essential: confessing and forgiving.

Confessing and Forgiving: “Forgive Us our Debts”

When I need to forgive someone, I begin by confessing my own sins. This reminds me of the grace I need and thus prepares my heart to offer grace. Without regular confession, pride slithers in, and pride doesn’t forgive.

1) Ask the Holy Spirit to Reveal Recent Sins

I ask the Holy Spirit to reveal my sins, and then I allow my mind to skim over the events of the last day or so. If anything causes a twitch in my conscience, then I stop and ask the Holy Spirit to show me if I’ve done wrong. I ask him to remind me of verses that might apply.

If I’ve sinned, then I name the sin and confess it to my heavenly Father along with a Scripture that applies: “Father, I took up a reproach against Kathy. But Psalm 15 says those who draw near to you must not take up a reproach against a friend. I confess this was wrong and I ask for your forgiveness.”

It’s important to name the sin so I don’t treat it lightly.

2) Ask the Holy Spirit to Reveal Similar Sins

Jesus taught confessing and forgiving

The Hundred Guilder Print, by Rembrandt

Next I ask the Holy Spirit to show me if I’ve ever committed the same sin I’m about to forgive. Most often I have. If not, I look for similar sins.

With my mother, some offenses I had surely repeated, but no, I’d never committed some of the worse offenses. I had, however, intentionally hurt others. One example rushed to mind: at twelve I lied to my friend Kathy’s mother to get her in trouble.

Initially, I wanted to excuse this because I was retaliating. She had told our schoolmates that she had seen my mother hitting my head as I tried to get out the door on the way to school. She told them that there must be something terribly wrong about me for my mother to hate me like that. I was furious and wanted to pay her back by proving her mother hated her too. Was that a good excuse? No. God judges us by how we judge others, not how we judge ourselves. I had intentionally tried to hurt someone. I needed grace, and I needed to give it.

Besides, retaliation is itself a sin. Kathy may have hurt me unintentionally when she gossiped (at twelve, she may not have known her words would wound). But I believed it wrong; when I retaliated, I did what I believed was wrong. That’s always sin:

For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.
Romans 2:1

3) Ask the Holy Spirit to Reveal Associated Sins

I ask the Holy Spirit if I have sinned in any way that is associated with the sin of the person I want to forgive. For instance, if there was a disagreement, did I misspeak in any way? If so, I need to not only confess that to God, but I need to apologize to the person for my part in the difficulty, no matter how small.

In the case of my mother, at the moment I discovered she had known her actions were wrong I hadn’t reacted in any sinful way. But something was nagging me about Kathy. I remembered that when my mother saw Kathy watching her, she ducked behind the kitchen cabinets. I had realized then that she knew her actions were wrong. There was another time, too, when a security guard threatened to call the police if he ever saw her speed around hairpin mountain roads with us in the back of the car again: she turned red and hung her head in shame.

Speaking Truth in the Heart

In my heart, I had known she wronged us intentionally. Why then had I grabbed so quickly to my teacher’s explanation that abusive parents were either ignorant or abused? Besides, it didn’t even make sense biblically. Jealousy drove Cain to kill Abel, not ignorance or wrongful hurts. My teacher was wrong: ignorance and hurt aren’t the only reasons people hurt others; we can, like Cain, choose sin.

I’d lied to myself and to God. Why? Partly because I held the false belief that thinking bad things about people made me a horrible person. But also because I believed good Christians forgive and good Christians aren’t filled with rage. Clinging to the lie pushed the anger underground and let me believe I was a good Christian doing the right thing.

I confessed my lie and the presence of anger and rage I knew shouldn’t be there.

My prayers changed that day: I started examining my emotions as I prayed so I could be utterly honest about what was inside me. Such honest prayer was humbling: it forced me to admit I’d thought too highly of myself.

Confessing and Forgiving: “As We Forgive our Debtors”

When I’ve confessed my sins, I pray, “Forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me.” Then in prayer I move to forgive those who’ve sinned against me.

1) Ask the Holy Spirit to Reveal the Truth about What I’m Forgiving

Rather than brushing all sin under the carpet of unintentional, I now try to understand whether the evidence supports intentional or unintentional sin. Because “Love … believes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), I give the person the benefit of the doubt based on the actual evidence. I refuse to judge hidden motives:

Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts
1 Corinthians 4:5

This helps me forgive what actually happened. Forgiving something that didn’t happen isn’t true forgiving. Scripture calls sin a debt, and we can err on both sides of the debt equation. If someone owes me $1,000 dollars and I accuse her of owing me $10,000, then I will have a difficult time forgiving because doing so demands that I hold to a fantasy of having been wronged more than I have. On the other hand, If someone owes me $1,000 and I offer forgiveness for $100, the hundred is easier to forgive, but it requires I hold to the lie that the other $900 wasn’t taken.

Christ preaching on confessing and forgiving

Christ Preaching (La Petite Tombe), by Rembrandt

Either way, the truth has a way of poking through lies.

Those who wish to dwell with God must speak truth in their hearts (Psalm 15:2). If what we’re forgiving is unintentional sin, then we must forgive it as such. If we’re forgiving intentional, even malicious, sin, as much as it hurts, we must acknowledge it.

2) Name the Person and the Sin

When in prayer I forgive someone, I name the person and the sin:

  • “God, I forgive Kathy for gossiping about me”
  • “I forgive my mother for driving at high speeds around hairpin turns while drunk with us in the backseat”

Naming people individually keeps me from letting this be a flippant exercise rather than part of worship. Naming the sin ensures that what I’m forgiving is an actual sin. If I cannot name the sin according to what it’s called in the Bible, then I confess that I have held something against someone that was not a sin and ask the Holy Spirit to show me why I’ve done so. Naming the actual sin often leads to meditation on why God calls that action sin. It also leads me to the next prayer part.

Confessing and Forgiving: Ask God to Forgive Me as I Forgive

I then ask God to forgive me as I forgive this person: “I forgive my mother as I want you to forgive me; I give her the grace you’ve given me.”

This prayer does not mean forgiving others causes God to forgive me, as if I must pay for forgiveness (a paltry payment indeed, compared to what really bought my forgiveness). Rather, it reminds me of what my Lord wants me to do so I may do it at once.


In most cases, confessing and forgiving as I’ve outlined here is all I need do. But if I’ve suffered a great loss, I must pray three more prayers.

Confessing and forgiving are linked because true forgiving requires true repentance Click To Tweet
Forgive Intentional Sin—Don’t Just Manage Emotions | In this series: 
  1. What Forgiving Isn’t: 5 Stand-ins that Masquerade as Forgiving
  2. Must I Forgive THIS Sin?
  3. What Makes Confessing and Forgiving Inseparable
  4. Four Sins that Require Faith to Forgive
  5. The Ultimate Reason Behind Unforgiveness
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  1. Pingback: Must I Forgive THIS Sin? | Jean E. Jones

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