by Steven Clark Goad
The Catholic Church encourages its members to confess their sins to a priest. Though many churches have not formalized confession to that degree, they nonetheless encourage confession among their members.
In many congregations an invitation is offered for those who need to come to Christ, or confess sins, or be restored. Some may walk down the aisle during a worship service to share their sin with a church leader. Is this not a form of confession?
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “People think the confessional is unknown in Protestant churches. It is a great mistake. The principal change is that there is no screen between the penitent and the . . . confessor.”
Confession takes on many expressions. To those who trust in the Lord confession of faith in Christ becomes a constant profession and lifestyle. Jesus taught that those who confess him before others will be confessed by Christ to the Father.
This is comforting to all disciples. In law enforcement the confession of a suspected criminal is considered weighty evidence in a court of law. Lovers confess their undying devotion to each other. In a similar way, those burdened by sin must have somewhere to turn with contrite hearts. “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
Most Christians are eager to confess their failures and shortsightedness. Knowing that God sees all and is aware of what we think as well as what we do, it is rather silly to think that somehow we can keep God in the dark regarding our sin.
God knows we aren’t perfect. The law made it clear that we are unable to live up to God’s perfect standard. That is why Christ took our place on the cross. The only perfection we can obtain comes through him. Thus the conditional “if” is provided, perhaps the biggest two-letter word in the English dictionary. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Continual confession is purging and conciliatory.
A Sign of True Faith
The early believers listened to the teaching of the apostles and witnessed the working of the Holy Spirit among the people. They observed the power of God with their own senses and were instilled with faith in the gospel that was being taught. “Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done” (Acts 19:18). To accept Jesus as Lord meant one had to divest himself of his excuses for sin. One living for Jesus could no longer continue in sin.
Sam had been unfaithful to his wife for three years. He had an ongoing relationship with his secretary. Both Sam and his wife were Christians. Sue trusted Sam in every area of his life. He was devoted to the children. He was a good breadwinner and generous to a fault. His position as a deacon in the church allowed him to supervise the benevolence committee. Their marriage resembled a storybook romance. But Sam and God knew better. A revival meeting got Sam’s attention. One of the Bible lessons seemed aimed directly at him. He repented of his infidelity at that meeting, but had other matters that needed attending. Though it required great determination, he confessed his affair to Sue and risked losing his family.
Sometimes confession isn’t easy. It exposes to others how very selfish we can be. To allow our worse behavior to be made known to those we harm calls for tremendous soul-searching. To acknowledge embezzlement might send one to prison. To confess an adulterous affair could easily destroy a marriage. But what is the alternative for a Christian? There is none. Living with deceit is not walking in the light. Confession is good for the soul.
Confession and Salvation
One cannot become a child of God apart from penitent confession. At Pentecost Peter required confession from those who were pricked in their hearts by the good news of salvation. He told the believers that day to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Confession of sins is a key aspect of repentance. One cannot repent without confessing the need for redemption. And that need involves sin and its consequences. “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matthew 3:6).
From the moment we accept the mercy of God in the story of our risen Lord, we become confessors of our failings and sinful ways. Not only do we confess to God (who knows about our sins before we confess them), we also confess to those we betray and abuse by our selfishness. Parents must learn to confess to their children when they are unduly harsh or make glaring mistakes in their presence. Children must learn to confess disobedience to parents. Mates must confess to mates, brothers to brothers, sisters to sisters, and so on. Living with the guilt of sin takes its toll on body and spirit. Divesting ourselves of the yoke of sin is refreshing and enables us to walk in the light and know our salvation is sure. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
The Missing Snickers
It was warm and humid that July summer day in Indianapolis. Mikey O’Conner, the good Catholic kid from across the street, and I were playing basketball. I invited him into the house. Dad had just purchased a package of 12 Snickers candy bars. He put them in the freezer. Why he did that I didn’t analyze, but on a sweltering day it seemed wise and I shared my bounty with Mikey. He enjoyed his candy bar. I enjoyed mine. Mikey finally went home. I got another Snickers and devoured it in record time, in spite of the fact that it was frozen.
After supper Sis and I washed the dishes. Dad went to get a Snickers bar for dessert and found them missing. “Stevie, where are the Snickers?” Silence. Total, heart-stopping silence. At the time I was enjoying my treats I wasn’t fully aware of the consequences that would ensue. Dad asked again. I stuttered a bit and finally said, “Mikey was over today and ate them all.” Most parents know when their kids are lying. God knew. My dad knew. Had it not been for my mother I think my father would have whipped me senseless that evening. He could probably smell peanuts on my breath.
In this case confession came quickly and completely. Full disclosure was my only hope. “I ate them, Dad. Mikey only had one. I had two, then four, then the rest. I’m sorry. They just tasted so good. I couldn’t help it.” I avoided a whipping that evening, thanks to Mom. But I learned a lesson that has stuck with me all these years. Deceit is not the path to take as a child of God.
Confession unshackles the soul. The heavy load of unconfessed sin is destructive and robs us of our zest for living. Oscar Wilde said, “It is the confession, not the priest, that gives absolution.” I get his point. But it is really God who gives absolution. Confession simply puts his promise of forgiveness into action.
Confession of sin comes from the offer of mercy. Mercy displayed causes confession to flow, and confession flowing opens the way to mercy. If I do not have a contrite heart, God’s mercy will never be mine; but if God had not manifested his mercy in Christ, I could never have a contrite heart. We must never fear confession and run from it. Rather, we should embrace it as part of the ethic by which we live.
Steven Clark Goad is a minister and freelance writer in Blythe, California.
Modern-Day Confession Stories
In this age of technology, websites that promote online confession have cropped up over the years. In 2008 Time Magazine did an article about this phenomenon in religious and secular circles:
When Confession Takes Place Online
by Harriet Barovick
In his book, Blue Like Jazz (Thomas Nelson, 2003), Donald Miller recalls an experience when he and his small Christian group set up a confessional booth in the very non-Christian environment of their college. Read the moving story here: