The role of confession in the history of the church is unmistakably early and significant. Didache told early Christians, “In church you shall confess your transgressions, and you shall not approach your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life” (Didache 4.14). However, the rather simple practice of confession became entangled in the more complicated issue of the Roman Catholic priesthood. For the purpose of this article, I’ll follow Marjorie Thompson here in simply skipping over that quagmire in favor of a simpler understanding of confession:
“There is also a kind of middle ground between purely private and purely corporate forms of confession. It is the age-old tradition of confessing to one particular brother or sister in faith. Before the rise of professional priesthood, Christians confessed to each other and prayed for each others’ healing. … Over time the practice of confession became identified with the ordained priesthood. But along side such official confession the less formal practice of meeting with a trusted friend or elder continued through the centuries. We can still seek out holy hearts among the people of God to listen to our deepest hearts and hopes.”1
Confession & Forgiveness in Psalm 32
In Psalm 32, David discusses the blessing of being truly forgiven (v. 1-2):
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
He continues by explaining that forgiveness comes when we break the silence concerning our sin that weakens us. In this case, David is confessing his sins before God.. It is in the open acknowledging of sin that we find forgiveness (v. 3-5):
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah.
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. Selah.
We tend to stay longer under the yoke of our own guilt because we do not seek forgiveness through confession and prayer. David compares this to being stubborn as a mule. Sin and guilt are a terrible burden. Confession of sin is where trust turns sorrow into joy (v. 6-11):
Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah.
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you. Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD. Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!
Acknowledging Sin in Confession
We should also notice that the baptism offered by John was connected with repentance and the confession of sin (Mark 1:4-5). Baptism itself is an act that acknowledges sin, as there is no reason to be baptized unless you first acknowledge that your life has been crushed beneath the burden of sin and guilt. Baptism is a desperate plea to God for forgiveness. As in Psalm 32, forgiveness can only take place after sin is acknowledged, and baptism is no exception. However, even after baptism, Christians will too often find themselves tangled up in sin. What does a Christian do in that case?
The epistle of First John points us toward an answer. He forces us to recognize that through our actions and words, everyone is saying something about their sin, whether they know it or not (1 John 1:6-10):
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 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.
Through silence, we are saying that we have no sin. This kind of pious pretense is a lie. If our goal is to have fellowship with God and His people, we cannot ignore the sin in our lives. Confession is how we acknowledge our sinfulness and maintain the fellowship of God and His people. The absence of confession is the same as saying we have no sin. In confession of sin, we renew the saving power of baptism by turning to God with the same desperate plea that brought us to the water in the first place.
The Baring and Bearing of Burdens
Once sin is exposed and its private shelter banished, we discover yet another blessing. The baring of burdens leads to the bearing of burdens (Galatians 6:1-5).
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.
Once we expose our sin, we can find help with its weight. Sin is something that we fight together. This is what Christ intended: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” We must release the pride that fights against confession. We must realize that we make sin stronger by keeping sin secret.
James describes in practical fashion what a community of faith is supposed to look like (James 5:13-16). Together we offer prayers for the suffering and songs for the cheerful (v. 13). Together we attend to those in need (v. 14-15). Together we confess our sins to each other and pray for one another (v. 16). In that shared experience we access the true power of prayer: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Likewise, we read in Proverbs 28:13, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” Sin rules the heart in secret. As Bonhoeffer wrote, “The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him.”2 The exposure of sin is the beginning of its defeat.
It is past time for us to stop thinking of our battle against sin as an individual endeavor and start relying on each other for help. You cannot do this alone, and you were never intended to try. We read in Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” You cannot defeat sin alone, and you should not try! God works with us to overcome sin, and the strength of God can be experienced in the strength of sharing this life with His people.
Concerning Traditional Views
We typically say that “confession should be as public as the sin,” however this typical rule of thumb is not actually found anywhere in Scripture. A better statement might be that confession should be as public as it takes to expose sin and to experience the forgiveness of the sin. The goal is God’s victory in your life over your sin, and you should feel at liberty to confess as much and as publicly as you need to in order to experience forgiveness. When we pray for forgiveness, there is no chiming bell to us that the guilt of sin is no longer upon us. We believe it in faith, but the whole process seems confined to the mysterious, invisible throne room of God. However, when we confess to others, we do hear the chiming of the bell, the voice of our sisters and brothers telling us that they forgive us. It provides not only relief, but it reaffirms that in their forgiveness we receive the forgiveness of Heaven.
There is no reason for you to continue to carry around the weight of sin and sin’s guilt when it can be shared by others. As it turns out, those people need to share their weight with you as well. Forgiveness is a Christian gift that is offered by God, but experienced together as a Christian family. Do not overlook this powerful practice of true Christianity.