Fessing Up

Restoring confession and repentance as part of discipleship in the church

Confession and repentance are increasingly disappearing from the church, despite the clear witness of both Scripture and our spiritual heritage. What has contributed to this trend? Although there are many factors, I've identified three of the main ones.

One of these, no doubt, is the influence of the so-called "seeker-sensitive" movement, with the notable influence of those who insist that references to sin and confession are not positive and affirming.

Others contend that confession is a violation of the gospel; they argue that Christians no longer need to confess our sins because they have been forgiven—past, present, and future. Indeed, one radio personality declares that every time we confess our sins after we become Christians, we "nail Christ to the cross again."

Finally, some therapists suggest that confession is not consistent with our experience of being victims. They observe that every time we sin, we are acting out the ways in which we have been wronged or wounded. Confessing our sins only legitimizes those who have wronged us.

A Missing Peace

Yet neglecting confession has serious consequences and distorts both the gospel and our real capacity for transformation. One of the great longings of our generation is for someone to explain how we can be forgiven of the guilt we feel. We simply do not know the gospel unless we come to terms with our sin; even though we are "in Christ" and no longer under condemnation, real spiritual growth demands that we learn what it means to be healed. Both the Puritan and Wesleyan heritage, for example, demonstrate that confession is integral to genuine spiritual growth. And, while we are certainly victims, through confession we learn to take personal responsibility for our lives and insist that we will not wrong others as we have been wronged.

Confession is a means of appropriating the grace of God that enables us to live in the freedom of God's forgiveness as we grow in faith, hope, and love. We need to know that we are forgiven—and here the church becomes the sacramental embodiment of God's mercy as we forgive one another.

We urgently need to rediscover the power of confession as a vital element of our worship, spiritual friendship, and pastoral care. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes in Life Together, our sins are too great for us to bear alone. When we confess our sin to another, we break its power by bringing it out into the light. Such a conversation might take place with a peer, with a mentor, or in a small group. Through confession—both corporately within the rhythms of our prayer and worship and in private, through our confession through a trusted friend or small group—we confront sin with the power of the gospel and the grace of the Spirit. And we turn, in humility, from darkness to light.

A Missing Practice

Consequently, we need to teach how to practice confession. Doing so involves introducing those we serve to the basic elements of this practice, which would include:

  1. Acknowledge sin—that in thought, word or deed, we have acted in a way contrary to God;
  2. Take personal responsibility for what has happened, claiming no excuse or extenuating circumstances;
  3. Plead for the mercy of Christ—the ancient prayer, historically known as the kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy);
  4. Claim the mercy and forgiveness of God; and
  5. Turn from sin and renounce it.

Through confession we come again to live under the mercy of God. We live as forgiven people who, in the grace of the Spirit, continue to grow—never assuming we have arrived, but always attentive to the prompting of the Spirit and the call to grow yet deeper in our faith.

Gordon T. Smith is the president of reSource Leadership International and a professor at Regent College in Vancouver.

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