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The Practice of Confession
May 27, 2009
Some time ago I was reading the site of a Roman Catholic apologist and read a statement that showed a misunderstanding of Protestant theology. And there may be good reason for this error. The author said simply, “Protestants do not believe in confession.” The statement is correct only insofar as Protestants do not practice auricular confession (confessing ones’ sins to a priest in order to receive forgiveness). That statement along with others I have heard and read shows that there is a misunderstanding about the Protestant view of confession. That God calls us to confess our sin is clearly supported by Scripture. The Bible offers us clear teaching on this subject. Yet this is not an aspect of Christian living to which Christians tend to give a great deal of attention. Today I want to look just briefly to the practice of confession.
Leviticus 16:21 shows that confession is an integral part of forgiveness. “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness…” Though confession is implicit in asking for forgiveness (an admission of wrong-doing is necessary before one is able to properly ask for forgiveness), the Biblical model is one of explicit confession. The priest did not simply send the scapegoat into the wilderness as a sign of forgiveness. Nor did he simply mumble a few platitudes and consider that sufficient. Rather, he first laid his hands on the animal and confessed the sins of the nation. The implication is that the priest would have confessed specific sins rather than simply offering a vague admission of guilt.
Psalm 32:3-5 shows the burden of unconfessed sin. “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; And You forgave the guilt of my sin.” David says that while he refused to confess his sin his bones wasted away, God’s hand was heavy upon him and his strength was sapped. The burden was psychological, spiritual and probably physical as well. Finally, after David confessed his sin before God he experienced God’s forgiveness. At the close of the psalm we see a radical transformation. David is glad - singing and rejoicing in song. David shows us that confession is a necessary aspect of spiritual health.
Most Christians have, at one time or another, learned the acronym A.C.T.S. as a model for prayer. Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication is a good and a logical way of ordering prayer. There is logic in this model. Giving God the adoration due his name will inevitably prepare us for confession. Focusing on God’s attributes will help us see where we have fallen short of his standards. A part of our adoration is focusing on the attributes of God that we shared with him before our fall into sin. For example, we may give God glory for being perfect in holiness. As we do this it opens our eyes to the fact that this perfection is God’s standard for us. He demands and expects no less from us. Once we have established who God is and what he has done we cannot help but see how our lives and character fall short of the perfection he demands. The reaction of a contrite and broken heart can be nothing other than confessing our sinfulness before him as we begin to pour out our requests before him.
So what does confession actually look like? Here are a few pointers:
Confession is specific. Like most things in life, and in the Christian life in particular, speaking in specifics is superior to speaking in generalities. We commit specific sins and thus need to confess them specifically. Consider, for example, someone who struggles with feelings of jealousy. Praying “I confess that I am a jealous person” is less specific than praying “I confess that I am jealous of the talents You have given to someone else.” The more specific we are, the more we show to God that we have thought about our sins and that we are truly sorry for them. A vague admission of sin shows that we are only vaguely repentant.
Confess the consequences. True confession involves looking not just at the sin we commit but also at how this sin has affected us. It is more than an admission of guilt but is a process of soul-searching to see where sin has taken root in our lives. So we need to search our souls and then confess not only the sin but also the effects of the sin. “I confess that I am jealous of the talents you have given to someone else” is a good place to start, but praying “I confess I am jealous of the talents you have given someone else, and this makes me resentful towards you for not blessing me in this way. It also damages my relationship towards this person…” shows that I have searched my soul and seen how my sin has affected me.
Confession precedes forgiveness. Confession leads us to ask for forgiveness. Confessing leads us to fall on our faces before God, literally or figuratively, to ask for forgiveness. A confession is not, in itself, enough. In our court system a criminal may plead guilty for a misdeed, but this does not necessarily indicate that he is sorry for what he has done. Similarly we need to ask God for his forgiveness, not just confess our sins to him.
Confession before someone we have harmed. There may be times where our sin requires us to confess and ask forgiveness from someone our sin has affected. We must be careful with this because there are times when our sin should remain only between ourselves and God, especially if revealing it to others would only hurt them further and damage relationships. Knowing when it is appropriate to confess before men and when it is best to confess before God is a matter of wisdom, dependent on knowing the Word of God and being filled with his Spirit.
Confession before Men. At times it may be wise to confess our sins before a friend or other trusted individual. This is an aspect of confession that we often overlook, perhaps because it is not part of our Protestant heritage or perhaps because it is so unnatural for us to want to confess sin to others. Confession is therapeutic (in the best sense of the word). While we may not have to confess our sins to a person we have sinned against (again, this is dependent on specific situations), it may still be helpful to confess this sin to a close friend so this person can then pray with us, pray for us, and help us believe in God’s assurance of forgiveness.
On his album The House Show, Derek Webb provides a lengthy spoken introduction to his song “I Repent” where he says that often it might just be the best thing for us if our deepest, darkest sins, the ones we work hardest to hide, were exposed to the world and broadcast from the rooftops. After all, if our sins were exposed, we would have no way of hiding from them and we would have to deal with them. Of course this is exactly how our sins have been exposed to Jesus. Jesus sees and knows them all. Yet, praise be to God, if we know him, all our sins have been forgiven! Having confessed our sin and asked for forgiveness, we have God’s assurance that he has forgiven us. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” We need to believe in this promise, believing that our sins have been paid for by Christ. Naturally, our reaction should now be one of joy as we thank God for allowing Christ to take our sin upon himself. Finally, having confessed to him and having thanked him for forgiveness, we can pour out our requests to him, asking that he would help us turn from our sin and become more and more like his Son.
Confession, then, is an integral part of the Protestant faith and a necessary part of our Christian walk. While vastly different from Roman Catholic confession, it is no less important a part of the faith.