Jesus’ central mission was to clear a path for God’s forgiveness. At the heart of God’s relationship to us is his desire to give and forgive. That forgiveness comes to us when we repent, confess our sins, and ask God to forgive us. Confession is liberating! What is the critical role of confession for the Christian?
God and Confession
God has a plan for your life. He has a plan for all of humanity. His plan is to bring everyone into his loving presence. Because of this, he sent his Son, Jesus to teach us how to love God. Jesus then died on a cross to pay the price for our sins. He rose again on the third day to conquer death and give us eternal life.
Some see the cross as the culmination of God’s anger and wrath. Nothing could be further from the truth. God’s love sent Jesus to the earth and God’s love sent him to the cross (John 3:16). The cross is proof of God’s longing to forgive, not to punish.
Confession then is an important part of grace and salvation. But, why is it considered a Spiritual Discipline? Something to be done again and again. If all our sins are forgiven why do we have to keep confessing them?
The answer is that confession is both a grace from God and a Discipline. Unless God gives us the grace to confess we can’t do it, but it’s also a discipline because accepting God’s daily grace is a choice. It is a conscious choice to live daily under the grace of God.
Confession as Corporate Act
And why is it one of the corporate Disciplines? Isn’t confession a private matter? Again, it’s both.
The Apostle Paul writes, “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). And Jesus proved that he had been given authority to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6).
However, James tells us “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another…” (James 5:16).
And Jesus gave us the authority to receive the confession of sin and to forgive those sins in His name. He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).
This is one of the greatest privileges of the Christian life! To be able to assure a fellow Christian that their sin is forgiven. Why would we shy away from such a powerful and life-giving action?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Our brother…has been given to us to help us. He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s stead and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name. He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.”
Paul tells us that we have received from God a ministry of reconciliation because (through Jesus) God is reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:18). And Peter reminds us that God has made us into a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).
The function of the priest was to act as a conduit of God’s grace and forgiveness. They did it through the sacrificial system. Jesus, of course, is the final and supreme sacrifice. And Jesus has given to us the role of offering that sacrifice to the world.
Again, Bonhoeffer writes: “A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light.”
The Advantages of Corporate Confession*
What are the advantages of Corporate Confession?
1. It does not allow for excuses.
Our natural tendency, when confronted with a wrongdoing, is to deny, deflect, or diminish.
- Deny — I didn’t do it.
- Deflect — She made me do it.
- Diminish — You’re making a big deal out of nothing.
When you confess your sins to another person you have come to the place where you stop doing those things. No more excuses. Just confession.
2. The word of forgiveness is expected and given in the absolution.
The promise of Scripture is that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
There is something about hearing that out loud, spoken by another person, that makes it real. As Foster writes, “The assurance of forgiveness is sealed in the Spirit when it is spoken by our brother or sister in the name of Christ.”
3. The sin is given a name and taken seriously.
The greatest danger today is that we tend to take sin too lightly. Before you can be done with something, you have to name it. And once you name it — you unmask it — you see it for what it really is — and, you can take it seriously.
Penance, for example, is often a part of confession.
Penance is where you decide to do something to make amends for your sin. It might be a self-imposed punishment. It might be going to the persons you offended with your sin and making amends (not an easy thing to do).
Penance can be a powerful way to find healing because it takes the sin, and therefore the forgiveness, seriously.
Penance can be dangerous and abusive if you begin to see it as payment for sin. However, properly applied, the purpose of penance is to help us move into a deeper sense of the sinfulness of sin.
What Does Biblical Confession Look Like?
The 18th century Bishop St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote, “For a good confession three things are necessary: an examination of conscience, sorrow, and a determination to avoid sin.”
- Examination of Conscience — An honest and ruthless self-examination.
- Sorrow — Genuine remorse for sinful actions.
- Determination to Avoid Sin — A true desire to change your ways (this is called repentance).
Practical Suggestions for Confession
1. Put a time limit on it — otherwise, healthy self-examination can become a permanent habit of self-condemnation.
2. Be careful who you confess to — Find someone who is spiritually mature, wise, compassionate, and able to keep a confidence.
3. Live in the Spirit and Under the Cross
When you live in the remembrance of his grace you are less likely to fall into the trap of self-righteousness or oppressive judgmentalism.
4. Pray for increased discernment.
5. Cultivate the ability to say quiet and listen.
6. Pray for each other more than you counsel each other.
The general loss of the Discipline of Confession in the church may be the reason for her increasing secularization and spiritual poverty. This discipline, more than any other, does away with pretense.
A church that openly confesses its failures and humanity, and practices the spiritual grace of forgiveness, actually empowers its members to live out the mission of God in the world.
Honesty and transparency lead to confession, and confession leads to transformation!
* These are taken from Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster