So I tweeted a couple days ago that there’s a way to do a weekly confession of sin that actually makes things worse rather than better. And there were a few questions. So here are a few thoughts on the matter.
First, the Bible verse: “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” (2 Cor. 7:10). In other words, you can have two different guys come into your office (say you’re a pastor) or two different kids sit down to talk to you (say you’re a parent), and they might both be sorrowful, sad, in tears and make confession to you about some particular sin in their life and ask for forgiveness. And on the surface both situations may look entirely identical, but Paul says that one guy will be forgiven, cleansed, saved, while the other guy is actually closer to death. Now that’s the principle, and I believe worldly sorrow is even more likely to creep in whenever you schedule repentance, like say, a weekly confession at the beginning of the service. Now I happen to believe that the dangers inherent in the planned weekly confession are to be preferred to not planning it at all. There are other dangers on the other side, and given the full biblical witness, I’m convinced that weekly, corporate worship should normally include a confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness. But, the Bible says to watch out for worldly sorrow, a kind of false repentance that actually produces death. There’s a way to do confession of sin that actually makes everything worse.
Second, there’s a deep down human nature sin problem that people have that wants all the glory. This is the self-god problem. I want to be my own god, my own lord, the master of my own fate. And this translates into being your own savior, your own deliverer. And we are so sophisticated with this idolatry that we can twist perfectly good things into a moments of self-worship. And confession of sin is just as good as any other, if not better. So there we are called to remember sin, called to remember our sinfulness, and the self-god doesn’t mind lots of vague guilty feelings. Lots of vague guilty feelings are an opportunity to be magnanimous, to bear up under it. And the advantage is that vague guilty feelings are completely worthless as far as getting rid of them. Jesus died for particular sins, particular offenses, specific transgressions, but guilty feelings hover and cloud and remain ambiguous. And if you have a fairly distorted picture of God as the great angry Zeus in the sky, then you have vague, generalized guilt coupled with a vaguely angry God, always rather annoyed with all the stupid people and all their stupid sins. So what a weekly confession serves up is a big pile of mud and invites all these false, distorted versions of confession and who God is to lumber into the room. This doesn’t mean that everyone just gets morbid and depressed (they might), they might actually have some kind of false version of joy. But what the absolution, the declaration of forgiveness becomes isn’t a release, a promise of free grace, it becomes, rather, a sort of pep-talk. Of course that’s not what the words mean. But if sin is vague, and God is vaguely mad, then when the pastor says joyful words, the only way to grab joy is to assume that you’re just supposed to feel joyful and try your best to force it. And this is just old fashioned self-righteousness, the surest way to Hell.
Third, and related to the last point, is that apart from the full, free pardon of our sins by God for the sake of Jesus’ death on the cross, people are left to try to get rid of their own sins. Whether they can articulate this or not, it’s like gravity and it happens regardless. This is because sin is a burden, a prison, an abuser. We might not know why we feel so empty, so lost, so confused, so hurt, but God does and it’s called sin. But apart from His grace interrupting our status quo, apart from Him intervening and taking the burden off, breaking us out of prison, forgiving all the sin, we’re left wandering in the dark, stumbling over our failures, wincing at our self-inflicted wounds. And people instinctively rub their wounds, bat away the demons, try to feel their way through the dark. And people do this by volunteering to teach Sunday School, leading prayer meetings, doing door to door evangelism, writing deep theological mumbo-jumbo on their blogs, going hyper-liturgical, eating only organic, wearing certain clothes, obsessing over diets and workout routines, etc. When it hurts, when it’s dark, when people have lots of vague, unnamed guilt, they grasp for freedom, gasp for air because it’s suffocating and oppressive under the yoke of guilt. So people build their ladders to heaven, assuring themselves that they are wretched sinners (but who isn’t?), and well, they’re doing their best to be good. Well isn’t that nice, maybe you can get your own planet too and a set of holy skivvies while you’re at it. Joseph Smith would be so proud of you.
Fourth, and last, the weekly confession of sin can be one of the most convenient places to actually avoid dealing with sin. It could work as a convenient inoculation against the Holy Spirit. Confess my sins? O yeah, we do that every week at church, the flaming hypocrite says in pious tones. But one of the ways you can tell you’re walking with Jesus is that you routinely come to the weekly confession of sins and you’re full of joy and have a completely clean conscience (1 Jn. 1:7, 3:9). You smile happily as you proclaim with the congregation that we are sinners in thought, word, and deed, and you know it because you’ve owned your particular sins throughout the week. But it’s not oppressive to say it now because every time you dealt with your sins, you were freed, the lights burst on, and the sweet, delicious air of the Spirit filled your lungs. For those who are walking with Jesus, the confession of sin may regularly be more of a confession of faith, a public proclamation of the reality of sinfulness, and the radical, scandalous grace of God in Christ. This isn’t to discount the times where the Lord brings something in particular to mind to confess or the pastor exhorts the congregation to consider some particular area in their lives that is convicting. There is also a place to ask God to forgive unknown sins (e.g. Ps. 19:12). But the natural tendency of the human heart is to avoid God. In our sin, apart from the intervening grace of God, we are all like Adam and Eve grabbing fig leaves and arranging them sheepishly, hoping no one notices that we’re naked. And one of the fig leaves people grab for is the fact that they said a prayer of confession at the beginning of the service. But rather than honestly crying out to God, claiming forgiveness in the blood of Christ, and being cleansed, it’s a way to say you have when you actually haven’t. And this is called lying, and now you’re worse off than you were before.
Ok, I said the last paragraph was my last point, but here’s one more concluding thought: the normal state of a Christian is joy. When Christians sin, their joy fades. This is why David would pray that God would restore the joy of his salvation. But there’s a false gospel that parades itself as the true gospel that says you really haven’t suffered enough, you really haven’t wallowed around in your unworthiness enough, you’re a worthless sinner and you need to get good and depressed so you can really get how wretched you are. Then and only then perhaps (maybe) God will give you a slight smile (but only a little one). But this is you trying to suffer for your own sins. This is you trying to bear your own burdens. This is you trying to gin up your own peace, your own joy, your own salvation. But grace is free. Grace is radical, scandalous. Grace says you don’t have to. It’s already paid. You’re already free. You’re clean. You’re righteous. You’re already seated with Jesus in the heavenly places. You’re already crowned with His glory by the Holy Spirit. You don’t battle your sin hoping to overcome it. You battle your sin having already seen it dead on the battle field. You don’t battle your remaining lusts of the flesh by hoping to get the victory. You battle your remaining lusts of the flesh by already being crowned with the victory.
If confession of sin is that: a proclamation of the victory of Jesus over sin, then it is a powerful tool of the Spirit for sanctification and growth in righteousness. But if it’s a whip constructed out of vague standards that create vague guilt with a vaguely angry god glaring at the pitiful, wretched people and their disgusting follies, and it’s an occasion for hoping for the best, and regurgitating all your old past failures without really being released from them and avoiding others that are far more insidious, then the confession of sin is just a weekly practice in pious sounding satanism. Satan is the Father of Lies, and he is the Accuser. Vague accusions and guilty feelings are unanswerable lies, but Jesus died to set us free. He died to make us clean. He died to restore our joy. He died and became our Answer to every fear, every doubt, every sin.
So encouraging…I cant tell you how sinful I am over and over I screw up .
Peter Jones says
Toby, great word on how a liturgical practice can become death. I had one point I was hoping you could clarify. Under number 2 you say that we do not need general feelings about sinfulness. That is insufficient. We are guilty of particular sins. Which I agree with. But how is this reflected in corporate confession if we follow #3 and own our particular sins throughout the week? If our particular sins have been confessed throughout the week, how do we not end up with a vague confession of vague sinfulness on Sunday morning? Is this primarily a issue of how we see ourselves?
With Thanks, Peter Jones
Peter, Good question. I can think of at least two ways people could pray a general corporate confession of sin that don’t require vague guilty feelings. First, would be praying the confession as a profession of faith. So taken together with the assurance of pardon, we confess out loud to God and one another that we are sinners and we are forgiven. We don’t pray the confession trying to feel guilty, we pray the confession with joy and relief. Because it’s true: we are sinners, and there is forgiveness. Second, I think it is also fully in keeping with Scripture to confess sins on behalf of others we are connected to and bear some responsibility for. Job offered sacrifices on behalf of his children, Jesus prayed that God would forgive those who crucified him. This isn’t to be self-righteous (we need to take the log out of our own eye first), but as priests on behalf of the world, we can confess the sins of our community, city, state, nation, denomination (unjust wars, abortion, unjust taxation, violent coercion, heresies, etc). This isn’t a vague guilty feeling; it’s thinking of the particular sins of friends, family, rulers, etc. that need to be forgiven and cleansed and lifting them up to the Lord in love.
Amanda Evans says
Do you have a time of silent confession before or following the corporate confession? It seems that if the confessions is actually more along the lines of a profession then the time for silent personal prayer could lend itself more towards unhelpful, vague feelings of guilt.
Peter Jones says
Thanks Toby, that was helpful.
John McCann says
Just what I needed. Good teaching.
Fantastic blog.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic.