Is it enough to confess our sins to God privately, or is the church needed for confession?
We’ve all heard the saying “Confession is good for the soul.” But for many, confession is an abstract idea that isn’t part of their daily lives. Many associate confession exclusively with a person speaking to a priest or telling their sexual secrets to an accountability group. But confession simply means telling the truth about our sin. Deception brings death. Truth-telling brings life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together gives great insight into confession. He explains that while we enjoy fellowship with one another as saints, we remain alone if we cannot openly admit our sin to each other. Without confession, we live with lies and hypocrisy. Through confession we embrace the gospel truth that we are sinners in need of God’s loving grace. Through confession we break through to true fellowship because we break through to community, to the cross, to new life, and to certainty.
Community. No matter what community we otherwise enjoy, if we’re isolated in our sin, we remain alone. We shouldn’t settle for a superficial fellowship that allows us to be only saints, never sinners. Admit not only that you are a sinner but also what sins you commit. In transparency we find true communion with each other as we truly are.
Cross. At the cross Jesus died publicly to sin, and in confession we participate in the public killing of the flesh. Just as Jesus died publicly, so our flesh must die in the presence of others.
New life. Public confession effects a true break with the past. As long as sin is kept private or confessed to God alone, we may remain linked with our past, the victim of dark memories and longings. But as we name these for what they are, we break free from our sinful past.
Certainty. In confessing to others, we break the cycle of continual unrepentant confession to God and have certainty that our sins are forgiven. How many of us are caught in a perpetual cycle of sinning, confessing to God, and then turning back to sin? The way out is to confess to others, receiving the concrete assurance of their, and God’s, love and forgiveness (Proverbs 28:13; John 20:22, 23).
When we are isolated, we are most vulnerable to temptation, but in the context of confessing relationships, we are most resilient. Painful though it be, there is joy in confession. Each time we confess, it becomes easier to be honest about our sin and, in turn, more difficult to return to it.
At the same time, we should be careful to confess in ways that are discreet, safe, and focused on repentance. Careless confession to immature and untrustworthy people is as bad as no confession. But the rewards of finding true fellowship with maturing and trustworthy siblings in Christ are great. Glorious peace is found in fellowship in which nothing is hidden. Rest and safety follow in the assurance of true communion.
The Christian life is a group adventure, not an individual quest. Christians die in the dark isolation of sin every day. The cure is confession within community. Escape from guilt and growth in grace happens through communion with Christ and the church. In community we confess our faults and failures to God (1 John 1:9, 10) and to one another (James 5:16) in pursuit of forgiveness and healing from sin and its terrible effects. By God’s grace we find healing and true communion with God and each other through confession.
— Elder Israel Steinmetz
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