I was 15 years old when I had my first motor vehicle accident.
It was a warm Sunday afternoon, and I had tagged along with a friend after church to a country home belonging to his parents’ friends. Several of us teenagers took a four-wheeler out for a spin in the field. I was the oldest of the crowd and should have known to respect the soft ground. Instead I rode too close to an old parked car and slid into the front side, leaving an unforgiving dent behind.
My heart raced. What would I, a jobless teen, have to pay? What would my parents say?
I knew I had to confess. I had been trained early on to fess up. I loathed it enough at home, but admitting fault to a stranger — I didn’t think I could go through with it. That proverbial lump in my throat was suffocating.
To make matters worse, my friends thought the whole ordeal was rather humorous — me being the oldest — and they were eager to break the news if I didn’t. We reached the house, and I sat down with Ray, the car owner. My friend’s father said, “David has something to tell you.”
With a gulp I sputtered out, “I was riding your four-wheeler in the field, and I got too close to your car. I tried to swerve away, but the wheel slid in the dirt, and … I hit your car.” There. It was done. “It’s not bad, though,” I blurted out. “I just grazed it a little.”
The confession was out, but even then I watered down the offense. Sure, I did try to swerve, and the dirt mixed with my inexperience on four-wheelers got the best of me. But why was I so recklessly close to the car in the first place? I didn’t acknowledge my own fault.
Ray looked at me, and although disturbed, he thanked me for being honest and let it go at that. He said it was an old car anyway. The only punishment that day was no more four-wheeling. I was happy to oblige — I didn’t want another confession!
Once I made the confession, a great weight was lifted. I no longer needed to face the fear of retribution, anger, and punishment. I still felt guilty and foolish for being so careless — I was the oldest one out there after all. Nonetheless, having absolution freed me from fear. The anxiety of having to admit my fault had passed.
Saying “It’s Me”
No one likes to say they’re wrong. And even when we realize internally that we’re at fault, we downplay the seriousness of our behavior and make excuses. That stems a long way back to the first sin when Adam told God that Eve shouldered the blame for him eating the apple, and Eve in turn blamed the serpent (Gen 3:1–19).
We say, “If only I had a safer environment or better parents. If only my genes didn’t predispose me to a bad temper. If only you didn’t make me this way, God, then I wouldn’t have screwed up.” In other words, it’s not my fault.
But though we want to get out of confession, what we need is to get into confession.
My friend Luke attends a Lutheran Missouri Synod church, and each service begins the same way. They recite 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Blame-shifting and excuses only turn us into imposters and self-deluders. We can’t escape who we are: Sinners in need of grace.
The congregation then reads a communal confession and recites 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” At that point the pastor turns and faces the congregation as a representative for Christ and verbally proclaims God’s forgiveness as declared in Scripture. Then, and only then, can the congregation worship, once their sin has been dealt with.
Some may think such focus on sin is too negative and depressing: “Don’t give me tears; give me the joy!” Others may call this the trappings of formalized religion. But the meaning behind this practice derives from the pure teaching of the Bible, that we are sinners and that Christ is our Savior — it’s the gospel.
Gerhard Forde explains that when we call sin what it really is, we can embrace truth, sin can die at the cross, and life can spring again through Christ’s resurrection. Confession is key for living this out each day. When we call sin, sin, “the addict is not deceived by theological marshmallows but is told the truth so that he might at last learn to confess, to say, ‘I am an addict,’ ‘I am an alcoholic,’ and never stop saying it. Theologically and more universally all must learn to say, ‘I am a sinner,’ and likewise never stop saying it until Christ’s return makes it no longer true.”Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 17.
Isn’t this what Christ taught his followers to do in the Lord’s prayer? There he lays out the pattern, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12).
King David resisted confessing his adultery with Bathsheba, but when Nathan confronted him, he confessed his sins and found mercy. As he states in Ps 32:3, keeping silent caused his bones to waste away and made him groan all day long. Psalm 51 records his cry for the Lord to blot out his sin, and there he says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps 51:17).
And the beauty of confession as described in 1 John 1:9 is that even though we are faithless creatures, constantly turning away from God and his ways, God is faithful, forgiving the rebellious ways of his children when we confess, washing us clean in a shower of mercy so we can stand firm in Christ at the last day.
The Benefits of Confession
Practicing confession is a scriptural command that makes us better people. It has genuine benefits for living out the Christian life. Here are a few:
Confession makes us real. It stops us from creating a web of lies to cover up our sin, and allows us to acknowledge our shortcomings to ourselves and those around us. This humbles us, but living in humility is living in honesty. Trying to hide our fallen-ness only makes us think more highly of ourselves than we ought.
Confession sometimes heals relationships. I wish I could say it always heals relationships, but some people will never forgive you, even if you confess your sin. Their response is outside of our control, and we must leave to God what we cannot force. Yet when we confess our sins to a person we’ve wronged, that humble action opens a door for a softening of heart and a reconciliation that transcends pain inflicted.
Confession saves us from greater sin. It stops sin in its track and makes us face the consequences of our current sin and see the heavy consequences of further sin. Regular confession stunts sin before it becomes overpowering, allowing us to deal with it in its infancy.
Confession confers God’s forgiveness. As Ps 32:5 states, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” When we stop pretending we’re innocent and admit our failures to God, only then can we experience the cleansing and healing of forgiveness.
With all these benefits, it’s easy to see how confession can be abused. People mutter “I’m sorry” and never change a thing. But confession not only gives benefits; it also demands betterment. When no one would cast a stone at the woman caught in adultery, Jesus’ words brought shock and relief: “Neither do I condemn you.” How sweet these words must have fallen on her ears. Jesus had just saved her life! Then Jesus added, “go, and from now on sin no more” (Jn 8:11).
Can you imagine her responding, “Now just wait a minute, pal. Don’t get between me and my lifestyle. I like my sex, and I’m not giving it up. Thanks for getting rid of those religious fanatics, but I’m off to find a new lover tonight.” Such a response totally devalues God’s forgiveness. His divine pardon demands change — not perfection, but real transformation. True confession acknowledges guilt and pursues purity.
Some may abuse regular confession, living hypocritically and promulgating the lie that forgiveness means they can dispense with moral refinement. But despite the abuse of some, confession is too important to discard because in it we are daily reminded of our true rebellious nature before God and can embrace anew each day the indescribable mercy and forgiveness through Christ that transforms us forever.
Have you any wrecks to confess?
Copyright 2008 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.
|Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 17.