by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

January, 2015

One day late last year, I was involved in a discussion about confession, specifically personal confession as in the Roman Catholic Church and corporate confession as practiced in Protestant churches. We don’t see much confession today. People talk about how they “misspoke” or “misremembered.” They didn’t lie, they didn’t withhold the truth. Just a simple little “oopsie,” no big deal, let’s move on now, next question please. Politicians, business leaders, athletes and others set the standard. Nothing is ever their fault. At the same time, though, I’d like to think most of us do try to be honest and do what we know to be right.

There’s something about confessing individual sins that’s convicting. We don’t necessarily have to confess to a particular person but we do need to confess to God. Confession depends on admitting we’re in the wrong. But, as I said earlier, our natural inclination is to deny that we have anything to confess. The late American journalist who used the pseudonym “Dorothy Dix” wrote, “Confession is always weakness. The grave soul keeps its secrets, and takes its own punishment in silence.” This seems to be the world’s attitude toward confession, that it’s a sign of weakness. But Paul wrote that “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;” (1 Cor. 1:27b ESV). When we admit our weakness, God’s strength is revealed. And when we confess our sin, God will forgive and cleanse us (1 John 1:9).

For us as people of God, confession is vital. The Israelites were called on to confess: “‘But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, . . . then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.’” (Lev. 26:40 & 42 ESV). This was not only corporate confession but individual confession. The entire people had to confess.

Of course, there are other confessions in scripture. The other gospels describe the scene differently but in Luke’s gospel, Peter’s meeting with Jesus is very dramatic. Simon (who would later be called Peter) and his friends and family had been fishing all night but they hadn’t caught anything (Luke 5:5). But Jesus told them to “‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’” (vs. 4b ESV). They lowered their nets and caught so many fish their nets began to rip (vs. 6). “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’” (vs. 8).

Later, in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the Pharisee boasted to God about how righteous he was (vs. 11-12). “‘But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”’” (vs. 13). “I am a sinful man.” “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” That is real confession and we don’t see it much today.

The other side of confession is repentance. It does us no good if we confess and then return to our old behavior. French sociologist Jean Baudrillard asked “When you go to confession and entrust your sins to the safekeeping of the priest, do you ever come back for them?” There’s a temptation to “come back” for our sins. But Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “‘. . . go, and from now on sin no more.’” (John 8:11b ESV).

You may be wondering why I’m writing about confession at New Year’s. First, I’m writing about it because it’s been on my mind. But more important, confessing our sins wouldn’t do us much good if we couldn’t be forgiven and begin again. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, . . .” (2 Cor. 5:17-18a ESV). A new year marks a time of new beginnings. Redemption is always possible when there is confession. This was the message of Jesus and the apostles to the people. And it is our message to the world.

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10 ESV.)

Copyright © 2015 by David Phelps