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Walking in the Light

Toward an understanding of Christian Confession of Sin

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) 486-488 3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, John W. Doberstien trans., (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1954) 115-117

Written by Kevin Fenster