In a recent sermon on guilt, my pastor said to the church, “I know you people. You come to my office for counseling, and most of the problems you have come because y’all don’t deal with your stuff.” What my pastor was saying is that most of us are not great at dealing with the sin in our lives. Even though we believe the gospel, that our sin has been taken care of at the cross, we still need to deal with the indwelling sin still lurking in our hearts. My suspicion is that the local church where I am member is not alone here. In fact, this problem goes all the way back to the garden.
When God did not accept Cain’s sacrifice, and Cain was sullen, God said, “Why are you furious? And why do you look despondent. If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:6b-7). The great Puritan pastor John Owen put it this way: “be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Because Cain did not deal with his sin, his sin dealt with him, and he killed his brother. We need keep watch over our lives because sin looks for any opportunity.
What my pastor, the Book of Genesis, and John Owen are all saying is that it is the duty of every believer to confess their sin and repent of it. Sin keeps us from fully experiencing the joy we were designed to have in Christ and damages our relationships with God and with other people. The mechanism God has given us to deal with our sin is confession and repentance (1 John 1:9; Mark 1:15). Repentance is not simply what brings us into faith with Christ, but it sustains our faith in Christ as we grow. We say no to sin and yes to God. That is what Owen had in mind when he wrote about killing sin—we continually repent of sin throughout our Christian life.
Our small groups are the ideal place to invite people into your personal battle against sin. Yet how few of us ever confess our sins to another believer as James suggested we should (5:16)? No, we typically do the opposite. We try and hide our sin from other people, afraid of what they might think of us. But guess what, everyone in your church and in your small group is a sinner. Therefore, after confessing your sin to God, the community of faith is the next best place to express your struggle with sin and find encouragement.
In her book Openness Unhindered, Rosaria Butterfield writes about the grace of confession in the community of the church: “After Pentecost, believers were ‘continually devoting themselves…to fellowship’ (Acts 2:42). In a real Christian community, there is no shame in repentance. Real Christian communities view repentant sinners as God sees them: cleansed and robed in Christ’s righteousness. And we know that that battle with sin is not finished until we die or Christ returns. For this reason, ‘from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh'” (2 Cor. 5:16).
Butterfield’s point is that when we entered into the community of faith, we found a place where we are accepted despite our sin, because we aren’t recognized by our sin, but by the grace of God at work in our lives. Confession then is not a weight, but a freedom we can only find in Christ.
The people in your group should know about areas of your life where you are wrestling with sin. They should be aware of your struggle so they can pray for you and support you. They should know so they can hold you accountable. Confession is not an embarrassing burden but a great freedom secured for us by the blood of Christ.
All of this begins when you are open and honest about your own struggle and model what confession looks like. Lead from the front, and confess what is going on in your own heart. Be vulnerable to ask for prayer and accountability. Receive others confession with acceptance and grace while addressing it with prayer and pointing them back to the gospel. Make your small group a place where people can “deal with their stuff,” as my pastor suggested.
As small group leaders, you are on the front lines of ministry. You are the arms of the church and the first stop for pastoral care. Humbly embrace this responsibility and lead your groups to become a refuge where people can experience the life giving grace that comes from confessing sin and looking to Christ.
 Butterfield, Rosaria Champagne. Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ. Pittsburgh, PA: Crown & Covenant, 2015. Pg. 90.
Reid Patton is a Content Editor for the Custom Content Team at Lifeway Christian Resources, where he produces biblical small group studies for Discipleship In Context and SmallGroup.com. He is the thankful husband of Kristen and proud father of Ceile and serves with the Life Group leadership team at the Church at Station Hill in Spring Hill, Tennessee. In his free time, Reid likes reading and going to record stores. You can find him on Twitter@jreidpatton.