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Walking in the Light
Toward an understanding of Christian Confession
When the word "confession" is heard many may be assailed with
thoughts of small booths where one must tell all to a Roman Catholic priest.
I equated confession with punishment at a very early age when a best friend's
mother would threaten him with going to confession whenever he spoke forbidden
words or otherwise disobeyed. Some kids hear "wait til your father
gets home," this friend heard, "you're going to confession."
I remember feeling horrified, filled with awesome dread at the thought that
one day she might up and decide that I needed to go as well!
What is confession? How is it to be practiced and why? Biblically, confession
is not limited to the confession of sin but also the confession of faith
and the confession of praise and thanksgiving. These three elements are
all central to the worship of God and so vital to Christian fellowship.
Here we will focus on the private confession of Sin because though a confession
of faith serves to define and protect the way in which one understands and
communicates the object and content of faith, without the confession of
Sin the proclamation of the Faith falls by the side of the road; furthermore,
if one does not need God's merciful forgiveness of Sin then what will be
the content of one's praise and thanksgiving?
The confession of Sin is practiced in three ways: (1) corporately, (2) privately
before God alone and (3) privately before God to a brother or sister in
Christ. The corporate confession practiced in various liturgical worship
forms is an important companion to private confession to God and another
human being, but will not be specifically discussed herein.
In chapter 1 of his first epistle, the Apostle John calls his readers to
walk in the light, in Jesus who is the light of the world. And what is the
door that leads us into the light? Confession.
Confession of Sin is the catapult that hurls us out of darkness and into
the Light, exposing our Sin, setting us free to live openly in the fresh
air of forgiveness. In the light we can dare to be sinners, knowing that
God loves the sinner but hates the Sin.
Confession is the entryway to fellowship. Sin wants each of us alone. Sin
wants to draw me into myself and away from others. The more isolated I am
the more control sin can have over me. Sin seeks shadows. Sin holds me in
the dark, robbing me of complete fellowship. We may have a kind of fellowship
with one another as believers or fellow church goers and still not have
fellowship as sinners. It is the fellowship of confessing sinners that distinguishes
true Christian fellowship from a mere product of human gregariousness. The
fellowship that is not the fellowship of sinners saved by Grace is no Christian
fellowship at all. While we were yet sinners Jesus died for us and it is
as confessing sinners that He sends us to sinners. In Psalm 51:13 David
says that only as a confessing person, intimately acquainted with his sin
and God's cleansing forgiveness of his sin was he in a position to teach
sinners about Sin.
Confession is not to be used as a license to sin but rather that one not
sin at all (1Jn. 2:1). Confession is God's way of keeping us aware that
though as believers we are Justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ,
we still struggle with our Sin infected nature. Confession is one way God
helps us to keep our old nature in check, respecting its influence in the
fear of Christ. It is a great defeat to fall into sin, to turn away from
God for even a moment. When we do sin, though hating and despising the sin,
still we ought not be afraid to confess our sin to God because we have an
Advocate--Jesus Christ the righteous--who has gone before God on our behalf
to secure for us the absolution of Sin that God's judgment requires.
In 1John 1:7 we see that John calls his readers to walk in the light as
He [Jesus] is in the light. Not that we become imitators, we don't walk
in the light as God does. John is talking about our daily walk, our life
lived in identification with an essential element of God's being--God is
light. Only in the light do we have fellowship with one another and with
Jesus. In the light, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. The verb
cleanse here carries a sense of continual activity. This is what is called
Sanctification or "the realization or progressive attainment of likeness
to God or to God's intention for human beings" (1) . It is by this
process of walking in the light, of practicing the truth that God grows
us to spiritual maturity.
One of the greatest gifts God has given us, save Jesus Christ himself, is
the gift given in John 20:23, "If you forgive the sins of any their
sins have been forgiven them; If you retain the sins of any, they have been
retained." James 5:16a says, in speaking about healing in the body
of Christ, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for
each other, so that you may be healed." Sin kept in the shadows brings
about separation; when responded to with the absolution of Sin that God
freely gives for Christ's sake, sin confessed brings about healing fellowship
in the Body of Christ..
What and to whom should we confess? Section 5 of Luther's Small Catechism
(2) is helpful in answering this question. As to what you should confess,
Luther says to confess only those sins which trouble you in soul and spirit.
Never get so wrapped up in yourself so as to go looking for or inventing
sins to confess; this is abuse in the opposite extreme. Character defects,
sinful attitudes, thoughts and behaviors are a dime a dozen when life is
spent in the endless excavation of them. It is enough to confess, true guilt,
that Sin is a part of who you are and, by faith in Christ's substitutionary
atonement, to practice walking in the light that exposes every thought,
word and deed and holds all accountable to God's righteous judgment.
Our audience in confession is God himself and so confession is quite private,
however God has given us one another and, as James encourages us, we are
free to confess to God in the presence of another brother or sister in Christ.
Though Luther sets his teaching concerning confession and absolution in
the context of confession to God in the presence of a pastor, this is not
a necessity. However, if you wish to confess to someone other than an ordained
minister, I strongly suggest only to a fellow Christian who practices confession
in his/her own life; one whom you trust and know understands the sacredness
of the act. The person hearing a confession privately must respect the confidentiality
of private confession, and be ready to proclaim absolute forgiveness in
Jesus name. In his book, Life Together (3) , Dietrich Bonhoeffer
offers an insightful argument for confessing one's sin to a brother or sister
in Christ. He asks why it seems easier to confess our sins only to God and
not to our brother in Christ. God is Holy, the enemy of all Sin; our brother
is a sinner just like we are. It should be easier to confess to our brother
rather than to God, but often, Bonhoeffer says, we deceive ourselves in
confessing our sins to God in that we actually merely confess to ourselves
and grant ourselves absolution. He wonders if it could be that the reason
for our many relapses into sin and our weak obedience as Christians it attributable
to our "living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness."
He goes on to say that God has given us each other so that we might not
remain alone in our sins, that our darkness can be brought to the light,
and that we might be made certain that our sins are absolutely forgiven.
The key point to remember is that confession of Sin consists of two parts:
Confession and Absolution. The negative factor often associated with confession
in the little booth is the tendency to have confession responded to with
a set of punishing or corrective "to do's" rather than a simple
pronouncement of absolution. Correctives may be addressed in accordance
with Eph 4:22-32 and Col 3, but only after assurance of forgiveness is established.
Confession to a brother or sister in Christ is not a law, rather it is the
offer of God's gracious assistance. God's purpose in confession is to strengthen
the faith of His precious children, to help them overcome their daily individual
acts of sin and to bind them together as a fellowship of ransomed sinners.
It is with great confidence and joy that God would have us to enter the
"confessional booth" and it is with a clear conscience and confident
assurance of faith that He would have us exit.
I believe that the private confession of sins has been largely neglected
in the evangelical church today. There is a biblical place for the "confessional
booth" in our churches. The growing self-help support group movement
and the larger psychotherapeutic community are responding to the need that
God intended to be helped in the mutual confession and absolution of sins.
In the great quest for identity, for self-realization, the confession of
sins practiced under the umbrella of God's absolving forgiveness in Christ
is the doorway into the light of the true truth of who we are, why we exist,
and for what reason shall we go on living. May God grant us anew a place
of confession according to His perfect intention.
1 The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, (Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1982) Vol. 4, 210
2 Martin Luther, The Small Catechism, in Timothy F. Lull (Ed.) Martin
Luther's Basic Theological Writings, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989)
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, John W. Doberstien trans.,
(San Francisco: Harper & Row,
Written by Kevin