Note: The sacrament traditionally called Penance or Reconciliation will be discussed under the heading or Forgiveness in a separate article. Here, I mean confession as in the “good confession” that Jesus is Lord, not the penitent confession of sin.
On that great Pentecost, Peter and the apostles end their sermon with a singular declaration.
“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36)
God’s people are a proclaiming people. The proclamation of Christ is the launching point of the church collectively and of the Christian individually. One enters God’s people with proclamation of Christ, and one continues to live out that proclamation until death.
For many church traditions, confession comes with confirmation, a recognition of baptism already received and identity already bestowed. Even in such churches, baptism remained “the sacrament of commitment,” and confirmation was “never regarded with that kind of gravity.”1 Confirmation was not a conversion to Christ, but a reenlistment as a soldier of the cross. Indeed, military imagery is often associated with confirmation, perhaps drawn from the language we will discuss in a moment in 1 Timothy 6. Confirmation is about “holding fast” rather than discovering something new (Hebrews 4:14; 10:23).
This view of confession/confirmation is especially difficult to develop from Scripture. As Robert Middleton acknowledged, himself referencing the New Catholic Encyclopedia: “It is recognized and freely admitted that confirmation can claim little or no warrant in Scripture. It is explicitly admitted that ‘absolutely nothing in the Gospel indicates that Jesus Himself instituted the Sacrament of Confirmation.'”2 It is a practice developed prior to the third century when it was mentioned by Tertullian. The Scripture offered as precedent is a loose reading of the laying on of hands in Acts 8:16; 19:1-7.
Confirmation now exists almost exclusively in churches practicing infant baptism.3 For those of us who practice believer’s baptism, confession accompanies the more obvious watery sacrament as a verbal statement of the faith expressed in baptism. In fact, in the Anabaptist debates with other protestants, the model of baptism considered has been at times called both “believer baptism” and “confessor baptism.”4
That confession may be called a sacrament warrants some explanation. It is a certainly material, visible in the sense that it recognizes the element of speech as necessary partner to the inward act of faith. The confession contains words which ought to be spoken in this world and alter reality when they are so spoken. That these words carry force is seen in how fiercely they have been opposed in history. Tyrants have always recognized the Christian confession for what it is – insurrection, defiance, and treason.
Unlike confirmation, a believer’s confession can be found more clearly in Scripture. Confession of Christ separates the faithful from the fearful during the ministry of Christ (John 12:42). In acknowledging the generosity of the Corinthian church, Paul references the “submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ” (2 Corinthians 9:13). Theologically, confession is rightly called submission, because to confess Christ as Lord is to demote all others, including self.
Appropriately, the German churchmen who resisted Hitler’s regime took the name of “the Confessing Church.” As their Barmen Declaration, largely written by Karl Barth, states:
As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures. We reiect the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him. (Barmen Declaration 8.14-8.15)
Confession is thus the submission of every area of life and creation to Jesus as Lord. This is also why it qualifies as a mystery. The world looks to the obvious sources of power and swears allegiance to them. Christians swear fealty to a crucified Jewish rabbi. Outside of the realm of faith, it is senseless, bordering on insanity.
If it is to be a sacrament, confession must bring one into the presence of God. Indeed for John, abiding in “the teaching” is necessary for one to have “both the Father and the Son” as well as the fellowship of the church (2 John 7-11). Those denying the teaching are “not of us” (1 John 2:19).
Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. (1 John 2:22-23)
To confess Christ as Lord is to identify and be identified with God and his people. Confession denies the lie of this world and enters the reality of God, coming fully into his presence.
The lengthiest passage detailing confession is in the pastorals. In 1 Timothy 6, Paul describes confession as the beginning of “the good fight of the faith” (v. 12). The “good confession in the presence of many witnesses” is the anthem of faith directing the life to be lived thereafter. As with baptism, Jesus himself is the model, making “the good confession” before Pontius Pilate (v. 13). In his image, the disciple declares Jesus to be King and therefore begins resistance against the false powers of this world. Christ did not proclaim in secret, nor did he deny himself at the moment of crisis. The Christian confession is likewise both public and open to hostility.
Every day that passes makes the Resurrection of Christ a little more distant, but confession, as with communion, joins the confessor to the chain of faith stretching through time from Pilate’s hall “until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14). Paul himself cannot pass up the opportunity to add his own confession to the text, and so exclaims:
He who is blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. (v. 15-16)
May our lips also give him glory and honor and thereby be drawn into his presence.