If you know me, you will know that nothing winds me up faster than telling people they must do things like confess to be forgiven. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, confessing your sins does not compel God to forgive you. God does not forgive us on account of our confession but in accordance with the riches of his grace (Eph 1:7).
Since I bang this drum loudly and often, some have concluded that I am opposed to confession. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I have said from the beginning, confession is good for you.
Or rather, confession can be good for you – if it’s done properly.
In the pursuit of self-righteousness, confession is a hideous thing. It is introspective navel-gazing that promotes sin- and self-consciousness. Among Catholics and Protestants alike, confession of sins is often sold as the price you must pay to receive the gift of forgiveness. To enjoy God’s grace and fellowship, we’re told to admit to all our crimes, no matter how small. To the natural mind this seems like a good deal; you talk, you walk. But it is an abomination, a prostitution of a great and priceless love.
Let’s be clear – either the love of God is unconditional or it’s not love. Unless you receive his love and forgiveness as a free gift, you won’t receive it at all.
There is no doubt that the practice of confession has been abused on all sides. But as a friend of mine likes to say, the correct response to abuse is not non-use but proper use. So what is the proper use of confession and why should we do it? Let me suggest two good reasons for confession:
1. Confession helps us to receive grace
Grace is not for everyone, only the needy. If you don’t see yourself as needy, you’ll never receive grace. This is the essence of 1 John 1:9. While I personally think John was addressing unbelievers in this passage, the lesson is for all of us: To receive God’s grace, we must first acknowledge our need for grace. Paul said, “My God shall supply all your need…” (Php 4:19). If you don’t acknowledge your need, you won’t receive his supply.
This point is often lost among those of us who proclaim grace. We preach that “you are as righteous, holy, and perfect as Jesus” – and we are right to do so. In Christ you are all those things.
But what if there is a disconnect between your identity and experience? You may say, “I know I am righteous but I don’t feel righteous. I’m battling with unrighteous thoughts.” Well you’ve got two choices. You can pretend that there’s no problem or you can come to the throne of grace to receive grace in your hour of need.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago the face of a beautiful woman entered my head and got stuck there. It just wouldn’t leave. She wasn’t my wife so I had a problem. I didn’t want to dwell on this woman’s looks so I battled valiantly against the temptation. But nothing I did would make her face leave my mind. At this point I hadn’t sinned but I was vulnerable. I was heading in a bad direction and felt powerless to stop.
So what did I do? I confessed. I prayed the best prayer a needy man can pray: “God, help!” I cast my anxieties upon him and he helped me. Within a day the stronghold was broken and her face was gone from my mind. I was completely free. That’s how grace works. God gives grace to the humble, to those who are honest and open about their needs and weaknesses.
In this case I confessed and was set free by his grace. But what if things had gotten worse and I had fallen into sin? What then? What if you have sinned? Again, confession can help but not for the reasons usually taught. Remember, confession doesn’t manipulate God into forgiving us. So what good is confession when we sin?
2. Confession breaks the power of sin
God designed humans to be intolerant of sin. We may enjoy the pleasures of sin for a time, but sin is always followed by guilt and other unpleasant reactions. Guilt is a sign that something is wrong, that something needs to be addressed, and confession is a good way to address it.
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long… my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” (Ps 32:3-5)
I hear from people all the time who are torn up inside on account of some past sin. They may have some understanding of God’s grace and they may even accept that they are forgiven, yet they still battle with guilt. It’s like there’s this sin parasite inside them, eating them alive. Like David, their bones are wasting away and their strength is sapped.
If this is you, drag that dark thing into the light! Talk to your heavenly Father. Or find a trusted friend and talk to them about it. Sin thrives in darkness and we are called to be children of the light (1 Th 5:5). Note that David suffered because he “kept silent.” Here’s the equation:
Sin + silence = suffering
This is the maths of Adam that leads us to hide behind bushes of blame and facades of self-righteousness. Now let me show you the new math of Jesus:
Sin + confession = healing
And here’s the scripture reference:
Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. (James 5:16, MSG)
Sin is utterly destructive and we must not be passive with it. If my temptation had led to lust and sin, it would’ve brought a harvest of death in my life and marriage. It didn’t get that far but if it had I was fully prepared to talk about it to a trusted friend or my wife. Just as sunshine kills germs, the light of God’s grace breaks the power of sin and darkness.
As a church leader, James knew this. He understood that one of the ways we receive God’s grace is through our grace-giving brothers and sisters. James was not trying to shackle you with an accountability partner; he was giving you a key for living free and whole. Confession – acknowledging your need for grace – is that key.
(Incidentally, the epistle of James is a great guide for those of us learning to walk in grace. But if you don’t see grace, don’t read James – it’ll kill you!)
Quit pretending and ‘fess up
Sin has power over us whenever we try to resist it in our own strength. If you’re thinking, “I’m okay – I can handle this. I’ve got it altogether. I can’t let anyone know I’m struggling,” then beware the slippery slope! God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Want to practice humility? Then stop pretending and honestly admit your need for grace.
In my next post I will contrast healthy and unhealthy confession, but to recap: Confessing our sins does NOT compel God to forgive us. (He already did.) Neither does confession restore fellowship with an offended Father. (He promised to never leave nor forsake us.) Confession – freely acknowledging our needs and total dependency on God – is our faith-filled response to God our Helper. Confession helps us walk in the supernatural power of his grace.