CONFESSION: KNOWING FORGIVENESS AND HEALING
This morning I want to look at the spiritual discipline of confession. What do we mean by confession? Confession is the admission of our deepest failures to God. It is the admission of our weaknesses and sins to God. Now most us who follow Christ, do confess our sins to God at some time or the other. Or, at least, I hope we do. Regular confession is an important part of what it means to follow Christ.
The wonderful truth of the Christian faith is that we can go directly to God, without a priest or a pastor or any other spiritual figure to make our confession. Paul writes in:
1 Timothy 2.3-6: 5 For, There is one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus. 6 He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone.
Thank God! We can go to God through Christ Jesus and confess all our sins and find forgiveness there.
You see, the point of confession is to receive God’s forgiveness for our ongoing struggles with Sin. The point of confession is to receive God’s grace, his healing and restoration. The purpose of confession is that our lives might increasingly, over the course of a lifetime, be transformed into the likeness of Jesus to the glory of God.
THE BIBLICAL ROOTS OF CONFESSION
The habit of confession is a discipline that the follower of Christ Jesus should be engaged in on a regular basis. Let me try and explain why.
SAVED FOR TRANSFORMATION
Coming to faith in Christ Jesus is about being transformed by the power of God. When a person comes to faith in Christ, they receive the presence of God, the Holy Spirit who starts changing them. The Holy Spirit starts the slow work of maturing us and perfecting us so that we become more like our Lord Jesus.
Of course, this change doesn’t take place overnight. And, of course, no follower of Jesus experiences perfect holiness, perfect goodness, perfect righteousness, not this side of eternity. We all, who come to faith in Christ Jesus, are works in progress. But the promise of God is that we will get there with his help.
THE PROBLEM OF SIN
The great obstacle that keeps tripping up that progress towards greater maturity is the ongoing reality of Sin in all our lives. We see it in ourselves every day.
In fact, one of things that happens when you become a follower of Jesus is that we become even more sensitive to how we are broken in so many ways. We were perhaps always greedy. Now, we see the evidence of greed in us in so many of the things that we do. Perhaps we were always green-eyed with envy and didn’t know it. Now the light of the Holy Spirit shining into our inner lives suddenly exposes how envy grips us.
And just when we think Christ Jesus has given us victory over our greed, envy, anger and so on, we suddenly discover how we are guilty, perhaps, of another sin, pride. Because now we feel we are better than those greedy, envious, angry people.
The truth is that as we grow in Christian maturity, we come to realise that sometimes sin can even masquerade as righteousness. That’s the reality and problem of sin that everyone must deal with.
RESPONDING TO THE PROBLEM OF SIN
Now, there is the danger that as we become more aware of the reality Sin, we feel more hopeless. We are tempted to despair. And the Bible speaks about the burden a child of God can sometimes feel of carrying the guilt of sin. Listen to the Psalmist cry out overwhelmed:
Psalm 40.12 (NLT): 12 For troubles surround me—
too many to count!
My sins pile up so high
I can’t see my way out.
They outnumber the hairs on my head.
I have lost all courage.
Well is that what we are left with, despair that piles so high that we can’t see over it? Is that what we are left with, burdens so heavy for us to bear that we lose courage?
And the answer to that is, of course, not. God’s presence in us is not to condemn us. God’s presence in us is to spur us on to a deeper dependence for life upon him.
Let me go back to another Psalm:
Psalm 32.3-5: 3 When I refused to confess my sin,
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
4 Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Interlude
5 Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the LORD.”
And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. Interlude
What the Psalmist is telling us then, is that the process of confession is the process through which we not only identify sin, but also the process through which we find forgiveness and restoration. Confession is the means through which God takes us to a place of greater maturity.
Listen to the way, John, the disciple of our Lord puts it in his first letter:
1 Jn 1.8-9: 8 If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. 9 But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.
WHAT DOES CONFESSION LOOK LIKE?
So, what might the spiritual discipline of confession look like. I want to lay out here a sequence of steps in which you and I might practice the habit of confession:
Here’s the first step:
Prepare for confession with prayer. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you through the whole process. Ask God to make you sensitive to those areas of your life you need to address, those sins he needs to deal with in you? Are there blind spots in your character and conduct that compromise the Lord? Are there any sinful activities or attitudes that are hindering your walk with God?
Now, of you feel apprehension or nervousness, trust the kindness and gentleness of the Lord. Be encouraged if you find yourself nervous. Your anxiety is because you do take your sin seriously.
WHO DO I CONFESS TO?
When you are exercising the spiritual discipline of confession, who do you confess your sin to?
In a minute I want to speak to you about the value of confessing to mature Christians who can help us. But before I get there, I want to say something about confession. It is ultimately God who must forgive us. Confession is always directed towards God. We may need to apologise to those we wrong here on earth. But God is the ultimate offended party.
One of the great psalms of confession is Psalm 51. The superscription of the Psalm tells us that it was written after David wrongs Bathsheba in an adulterous relationship he has with her. To make matters worse, to conceal his own sin, David has Bathsheba’s husband killed. Bathsheba is eventually pregnant with David’s child, a child who will die shortly after birth. You’ll find the account in 2 Samuel chapters 11-12. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading.
After being confronted by the prophet Nathan, David is profoundly remorseful and repentant. And that’s when he pens this great psalm of confession. You can read the whole psalm sometime, but listen to what he says especially in verse 4:
Psalm 51.4: Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just.
David recognises that appalling as the consequences are for Bathsheba and her dead husband, God is the one who has been most wronged. In sinning against Bathsheba and Uriah, David has, in fact, rebelled against God.
You know why? It’s because evil and sin is defined by what is contrary to God. Evil and sin is not defined by what is offensive to humans. Evil and sin is not based on the approval or disapproval of society. Evil and sin is not based on whether a human feels wronged or not.
Let me try and explain this.
Imagine a scenario where Bathsheba thinks to herself, “There’s nothing wrong if the king desires me. After all I might be flattered by such attention. I might be the envy of many a subject in this land’. You don’t have to look far in society to see how that scenario might be played. Even if David and Bathsheba were, as they say these days, ‘consenting adults’, what David has done would be still be wrong because it’s offensive to God.
Imagine a scenario where Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, is philosophical about the whole affair his wife has had with the king. After all, it isn’t the first time this has happened. Even in such a scenario, should Uriah not be offended, what David has done would still be wrong because it is an offense against God.
Sin is an offense against God. Society may think nothing of that offense. There may or may not be human casualties because of our offense. But, because we sin against God, we confess and seek forgiveness from God. And it is, ultimately, he who has the power to take away our guilt. And his promise to us is that if we confess our sins, he is faithful, he is just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all our wickedness.
A MATURE FOLLOWER OF CHRIST
But let me add something here. Although our confession is always to God, there is great value of confessing our wrongs to a mature Christian, someone who follows Christ and is perhaps a bit further along in their journey of faith.
I say that for several good reasons.
MODEL OF THE EARLY CHURCH
We see it taking place in the early church. One of the marks of discipleship in the early church was their openness to confess to each other. Listen to the Book of Acts:
Acts 19.18: 18 Many who became believers confessed their sinful practices.
James, notes in
James 5.16: 16 Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.
You can confess to a believer is what the Bible is saying. Now we read something else that is remarkable. We read that Jesus gives authority to his disciples to forgive sins. Listen to what he says in one place
John 20.22-23: 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
How remarkable is that! A follower of Christ who is living under the authority and the power of God can lead someone, who has just confessed their sins, to experience the forgiveness of Jesus.
CONFESS TO EACH OTHER
So, make it part of your spiritual life to let someone in a position of spiritual authority to listen to you pour out your repentance to God. Let a mature Christian hear your confession. Open your heart to someone who is living under the cross of Christ, someone like a pastor, an elder or a spiritual mentor.
If they are mature as Christians, they will take their relationship with God seriously. If they take their relationship with God seriously, they aren’t going to judge you for your sin. If they take their relationship with God seriously, they will have known what it means to struggle with sin and to find the grace of Christ more than sufficient. If they love Jesus, they will know how easy it is to wander away from the Good Shepherd. You see a mature Christian hears you and counsels you, not like a doctor who prescribes medicine to a patient. A good spiritual mentor counsels you like a beggar telling another beggar where you can find bread.
So, who do you confess to? You confess to God always. But, do seek out a strong committed follower of Christ and make confession to them.
In the sequence of confession, what takes place next is the assurance of forgiveness.
You see, the assurance of God is that if we confess our sins, he will forgive us from out of his own perfect justice and from out of his own perfect faithfulness. The assurance of God is that if we confess our sins, he will cleanse us of our guilt, he will cleanse us of our sin. He will cleanse us of our unrighteousness. He will cleanse us of our wickedness. What a wonderful truth this is. And it isn’t a truth that is easily grasped.
The Holy Spirit gently assures the one who has confessed, that they have been forgiven. Sometimes the reality of that truth sinks in right away. But sometimes it doesn’t. For some people, the damage of their sin is so enormous that it may take years of hearing the voice of God and of hearing the counsel of God’s people before the truth of forgiveness finally dawns on them
A spiritual mentor can help work through the forgiveness that has taken place. They can help understand the full implications of forgiveness.
You see, forgiveness is not an end. Forgiveness makes it possible to experience, what comes next, transformation. Forgiveness is the beginning of the kind of change God can bring about in us. What this means is that an act of confession (whether it is made directly to God or to one of his people) must lead to spiritual direction. And that’s the next step in the sequence of confession. You’ve got preparation, confession, forgiveness and now spiritual direction.
A person may gain this direction through the study of God’s Word and through prayer. But God has put us in the community of faith and often it takes the help of a mature spiritual mentor, a wise counsellor or a pastor to guide us from a place of guilt to a place where we understand the full implications of forgiveness, to the full implications of restoration. The full implications of what it means to be governed by the power of God.
So spiritual direction may involve guidance on how to keep from falling again and again into the cycle of sin. Spiritual direction may involve how to create structures of accountability to protect from areas of temptation. How to avoid being in situation that might tempt you to sin.
Spiritual direction may also involve guidance on how a person may make restitution to those they have wronged by their sin. The pastor or mentor may advise on ways that the person might want to go about seeking forgiveness from those they have sinned against. If the sin is of a criminal nature, the pastor may recommend that the person turn themselves in to the law.
But this whole process of confession, forgiveness and spiritual direction is really for one object. It is to allow God to transform the person into the likeness of Jesus. It is allow our lives to bring glory to God.
The Gospel of John tells an incident where there’s a woman who is caught in adultery. She is brought to Jesus by the religious leaders. Jesus first addresses the poor woman’s accusers. And one by one they walk away slightly embarrassed for bringing charges against the poor woman. Finally Jesus addresses the woman.
Listen to the words of John’s Gospel.
John 8.10-11: 10 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
11 “No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
That’s what Christ Jesus offers us, the possibility that we might not sin anymore in the way we have. That we might commit to turn away from sin.
I suppose I do need to clear a possible misunderstanding. A commitment to turn away from sin doesn’t mean we will never sin again. We are frail. We are prone to wander. We are prone to trip up again and again. Sometimes we trip up again on the same sin that we have confessed and been forgiven for.
But please listen to this, precious child of God, never tire of confessing again and again with a sincere heart. Never tire of receiving forgiveness again and again from a Heavenly Father who doesn’t tire of you.
Do you not know, your Heavenly Father wants your restoration, not your condemnation? He doesn’t delight that you are burdened with guilt. He doesn’t delight in the burden you suffer for your sin, the burden you suffer for the wrongs you’ve done. He waits for your repentance and confession that he might forgive and restore you and set your heart free to be transformed for your good and for his glory.
One of the most beautiful pictures of the Father’s heart that we find in Scriptures is found in the Parable Jesus tells of the Prodigal Son. A young man demands from his father the inheritance that he feels entitled to. He takes all that he has been given and squanders it. He eventually finds himself in a far country, penniless and hungry. He lives on the pods that are fed to pigs. Let me quote a part of the parable as I close:
Luke 15.17-20: 17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’
20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’
22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.
My dear brother, my dear sister. Your Heavenly Father is not wagging his finger, waiting to say, ‘I told you so!’. His arms are open wide ready to forgive you. Won’t you confess and come home to him.