What is Christian confession and why should we even care about it?
“Dear friend you don’t have to lie to me
When I ask you what’s going on
Are you doin’ right or are ya doing wrong
If you do right will there not be a lifting up
Sin is crouching by your grave
We can begin to make amends
Fill your sails full with wind
I know you’re tossed and tempest turned, but make no mistake
I’ll never sleep on your faith
But don’t you pull the wool over my eyes
Don’t you pull the wool over my eyes.”
– G. Love & Special Sauce, ‘Pull the Wool’
An ancient and influential theologian in church history put it this way: “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.” In another place he restates the theme like this: “God gives where he finds empty hands.” It’s like the kid who reached down into his mother’s priceless vase and then couldn’t get his hand out. The family tried and tried and tried but it wouldn’t come unstuck. Finally they surrendered to their situation and broke the vase only to find that the child’s hand was balled into a fist and so couldn’t fit through the mouth of the vase. They asked the young man what he was holding onto that caused the loss of this family heirloom and he opened his hand to reveal a single penny.
I find the metaphor of holding tightly to something of lesser worth and missing out on a greater gift useful when thinking of confession of sin. The Scripture is clear that Christians must confess sin – this theme is carried from the Psalmist to Apostolic teaching. There is a physical transfer of energy when sin is confessed.
Do we need to confess?
One popular statement I bump up against is, “my sin is between God and me.” Although I agree with this in a principled sense, and I think there are very wise boundaries concerning who and how and what we confess, confessing sin to another human being is an important part of the spiritual journey of our faith. Don’t take this at my word – take it from Jesus.
In John 20, after Jesus has risen from the dead, he appears to his disciples (one of several occasions that occurs between the time he rose and the time he would ascend into heaven). Take a look at the text for yourself before I offer comment:
19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” – John 20:19-23
Notice the order of events. Jesus first breathes the Holy Spirit onto them (whatever that means, but that is an entirely different blog post!) and then gives them this directive to forgive sins, going so far as to say that if they don’t forgive the sins of others, those others are not forgiven. Here’s what I don’t think Jesus is doing. I don’t think he is conferring the power to forgive sin from God to man – that power is God’s power alone imputed, by grace, and through the completed work of the Son. I also don’t think that he’s claiming that any person is sitting in the seat of judgment over another.
Rather, what I think Jesus is saying is that we are to serve as the physical conveyors of God’s forgiveness here on earth, the vessels by which God gives reassurance of forgiveness. We’ve been given each other for a reason as the physical body of Christ on earth. One of those reasons is to be witnesses to each other of God’s forgiveness and to offer both verbal and physical reminders of God’s forgiveness.
To hear another’s confession and to place our hand on that believer’s shoulder and utter the words, “in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” is immensely powerful. God designed it that way – it’s a means of grace and I consider it tantamount to a sacrament in itself.
What are we scared of?
Confession has been widely held over the years as a spiritual discipline – a behavior or ritual or act that Christians do or take part in that has a proven track record of producing spiritual fruit. For a modern collection of spiritual disciplines as a whole see Richard Foster’s classic text Celebration of Discipline. However, in most Protestant circles today, confession is viewed as a “Catholic thing.” In my experience serving in Evangelical Protestant ministries this is essentially a curse word. “Isn’t that where priests eavesdrop on your sins and then make you say ‘Hail Mary’ a bunch? Empty ritual.”
I think the discipline of confession is much more robust and infinitely more valuable to the church that simply dismissing it as some optional (and unnecessary) tradition of some branches of the faith is unwise. Bonhoeffer said it like this: “all sham ended in the cross.” He goes on to describe how, in view of Jesus’ suffering and death, we all stand on equal ground as sinners. When we recognize this we shine a light into the dark corner of our hearts where we judge the missteps of other believers and think things like, “well, I’m not that bad, at least.”
Confession is Freedom
Here’s the bottom line: confessing releases the overbearing burden of carried sin. There is a redemptive power in opening our spiritual hands and letting go of the things we are holding onto – and unconfessed sin is a doozie. It is then that God is able and willing and waiting to put good gifts inside our hands to use both for our benefit and in his service. Don’t hear this as a “name-it claim-it” theology; hear it for what it is and for the spiritual law that Augustine was driving at.
What confession doesn’t address is reconciliation – giving and receiving forgiveness, admitting wrongs and righting them, and repairing relationships. These are equally sacred in our faith walk but I see them as the things that come after (or at least congruent with) we are able to confess, to humble ourselves before God and before a brother or sister and receive divine forgiveness. We can confess in confidence, knowing that we are loved first by a God who relentlessly forgives.