Flourish 6/7: Confession
We may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater when we dismissed the 'Catholic' tradition of confession, when addressing the faulty system of paying for absolution. The Bible teaches us to make confession to God and to others a regular habit. And Jesus has given us all the ministry of forgiveness.
Today we continue our Flourish series, focusing on spiritual disciplines, with discussing the discipline of confession.
"Confession?" You might say. "I never saw that as a spiritual discipline… And by the way, isn’t that a catholic thing?"
I think that, when it comes to the Catholic tradition of confession, Evangelicals may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. There was something very wrong with the way confession and absolution was done before the reformation. Certainly. People confessed, were told to say these prayers, do those things and pay an X amount of money – and then they would be forgiven. They say that with the absolution money, the St. Peter’s cathedral in Vatican City was built. This way of doing confession was part of a corrupted system where religion was used to manipulate and oppress.
The Reformation brought us the understanding again that we cannot earn forgiveness, but that all forgiveness comes from the Cross, where Jesus died for our sins. He has paid the price! But does this make confession obsolete? No. This understanding actually confirms the invitation to confess.
Today, I will discuss three things with you:
1) How to confess to God, 2) how to confess to others, and 3) how to become a person others can confess to.
Confessing to God
In the 18th century there was a revival in a small town in the Netherlands. During this revival, people fell down on their knees even while the pastor was preaching, crying and grunting as a deep realization of their sinfulness overwhelmed them. This is a good thing. True confession starts with a deep understanding of our shortcomings before the Lord. We have to come to an acknowledgement that Jesus had to die on a cross to pardon our sins. He did it for ME.
Within many Protestant circles, people have a deep understanding of their sinfulness. I believe that this is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t keep us from understanding that anyone who is in Christ is now a saint as well. Rather than sinners by identity, who are capable of doing good things, Jesus turns us into saints by identity, who are still capable of sinning. And so, confession of sins should still be part of our relationship with God.
1 John 1:8-10 (NLT)
If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts.
John makes clear that sin is still part of our lives, even after salvation. He doesn’t give us a certain frequency or habit for confession, but he does make clear that it is a necessity in our walk with God.
Through regularly confessing concrete sins, mistakes and shortcomings to God we position ourselves to receive His grace which transforms us to live differently. By recognizing our sinfulness and bringing it before God, we put ourselves in the right standing with Him as recipients of grace. Through confession, we invite God to cleanse us and transform us.
Through regularly confessing concrete sins, we invite His grace to transform us.
Now, let me give you a few points that are very important to remember when it comes to confession and forgiveness:
1) Heartfelt sorrow is the key to repentance
If you have a neverminded attitude about your sins, you are not going to be able to receive God’s power to change. Remember that John said that, if you deny your sinfulness, you are making God out to be a liar.
2) God is not angry with you.
He looks at you through the eyes of forgiveness because of what Jesus has done. God meets your brokenness with grace, not with harshness. What happens when we confess to God, is that we receive His forgiveness and cleansing.
3) Don’t worry if you may have missed one This text does not say that unconfessed sins will not be forgiven. Unconfessed sinfulness will keep you from salvation – but if you’ve missed a particular sin in your confession, this doesn’t make that sin unforgiven.
Don’t go desperately confessing all kinds of sins you might have done out of fear that you might lose your salvation – this text is about cleansing and forgiveness, not about condemnation.
Confessing to others
When it comes to confession, something that I think we have forgotten, is that it is not only meant to be done to God, but also to fellow believers.
James 5:16 (NIV)
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
Something powerful happens when we bring our sins out of the hidden places and into the open, with witnesses.
Listen, we all got issues. We are all incomplete and flawed people that struggle with sin. By keeping that struggle private and hidden – masking our shame by saying to ourselves it is just between us and God – we fall prey to self-deception.
In self-deception, we tell ourselves it is not that bad. We end up making all kinds of excuses for it. We even may end up justifying our own sin, blaming others for it, or settling for the ongoing cycle of sin-confess-sin-confess.
By keeping the struggle private and hidden we fall prey to self-deception.
But! Jesus didn’t only come to pardon your sins, but to set you free from them. His purpose for you is not to get stuck in that cycle sin-confess-and sin again, but to take you out of that. Yes, you receive your forgiveness from Him, and then He is sending you to His people to find healing and cut the chords that hold you in bondage! When we confess to others, we find healing.
The verses in 1 John 1 that precede the verses we read earlier say this:
1 John 1:5-7 (NLT)
This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.
By confessing to a brother or sister in Christ, we are bringing our sins out of the darkness of self-deception, into the light of the Gospel of grace and forgiveness. There is a relief that comes in this confession. It brings this deeper sense of ownership of our sins and desire to change. Confessing to a fellow-Christian also brings a sense of accountability and commitment to a process of transformation.
If you are hearing this and you know you’ve got stuff to confess, then write it down, find a trusted friend, and just begin confessing. You will be amazed at the deep relief and healing this brings.
Through confessing to a fellow-Christian, you make yourself accountable and you commit to an ongoing process of transformation.
One more thing. You really want to bring your sins into the light before God does.
What do I mean to say? When God brings someone’s sins into the light, it is usually His purpose to prevent that person from doing any further damage or corrupting His Kingdom.
Think for example of someone in an adulterous relationship. If that person comes to a realization of sin, repents and brings that sin into the light, there is a chance of restoration for that marriage. If, however, God decides to bring that sin into the light in order to stop the deception of the marriage partner, chances of restoration have become very slim.
Confessing our sins to God in the presence of others nips the destructive power of sin in the but and can lead us to healing and restoration.
Becoming a person others can confess to
Take a look at what Jesus says to His disciples shortly after the Resurrection.
John 20:22-23 (NLT)
Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Do we decide who is forgiven and who isn’t? Are we the ones who make it happen? No. Jesus is giving each Christian the ministry of forgiveness. We are announcing forgiveness, pronouncing forgiveness, extending forgiveness and helping people to walk in forgiveness. This is a beautiful privilege that we have been given.
Jesus has given each Christian the ministry of forgiveness - to announce it, pronounce it, extend it and help people to walk in it.
So, what makes you a person that others can confess to?
1) Be a safe person
If you gossip and often talk about others negatively, no one will trust you with the things they’re most ashamed of.
2) Be a graceful person You need to be full of grace like God is full of grace. If you often speak about others in a judgmental and disapproving way, people won’t see you as someone that extends the grace of God.
3) Be a truthful person What people that confess their sins to you really need is a truth-encounter. They need you to receive their confession in a way that acknowledges their need for forgiveness and then they need you to present the truth of God’s forgiveness to them. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven. The blood of Jesus does not lack in power. It is that encounter with truth of which the Bible says that it will set people free.
Jesus did this in one sentence. When the woman caught in adultery was brought to Him, He said: Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more. (John 8:11)
4) Be a humble person
If you present yourself as someone that’s got it all together, who is going to trust you with their secrets? Your humility – yes, even your brokenness! – is an invitation to people to be vulnerable with you. This is absolutely necessary if you desire God to use you to minister forgiveness to others.
5) Be a Spirit-led person
In moments of vulnerability, what you say weighs heavy. Listen to what the person is saying, and listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to you about that person so that you can speak words that bring healing and restoration, and lead people to take steps of transformation.