In this series of posts, we've been attempting to probe the question, "How can Christians live genuinely distinctive Christian lives in the midst of a culture where everyone would claim to be Christian, but where a good many may have an incorrect idea of what it means to be a Christian?" We've discussed the ways in which definitions, preaching, membership, and supernatural love factor into this question.
Today, we're taking a look at a lost Christian distinctive that would help immensely in making clearer the distinctions between cultural and genuine Christianity: confession.
In most churches, one of the last things you might here is any serious confession of sin. Confessions of faith we have. Posters with confessions of God's Name are plentiful. But corporate, and often individual, confessions of sin is a rarity. People blush and become awkward at the suggestion that our sins ought to be spoken of to others. And certainly many are disturbed by prayer in the corporate setting a prayer that has as its main feature an admission of sins specific enough to be meaningful and general enough to apply to all present. Confession, it seems, is a lost discipline.
But God's people have historically made confession both a public and a private factor. And I'm convinced that the Holy Spirit often uses such confessions as sparks for personal and corporate revivals. We see that in several places in the Old Testament. As God's people came to their senses, awakened from their sins, and acknowledged their sinfulness and need for forgiveness, God often granted new spiritual zeal, holiness of life, and love for God. And in the New Testament, "repent" is the first demand of the Gospel. Consequently, there can be no entrance into the new covenant and saving faith without admitting in the first instance that we are sinners, without confessing in other words. Confession accompanies conversion, but it also marks the Christian life after conversion, for we continue to sin and continue to need and desire fellowship with God.
So one might ask, "Why has confession of sin gone the way of T-Rex and Triceratops?" I think, in part, because nominalism is more pervasive in its effects than we sometimes realize. And one thing nominalism gnaws away at is the sincerity and humility required to confess our sins to others or in the public gathering of the church. Nominalism exalts privacy and "a personal relationship with God" over bearing with one another, restoring a brother who has fallen, or the continuing discipline of repentance.
We need to recover this discipline for the health of our individual and corporate lives, and for the health of our Gospel witness. One thing non-Christians rarely ever do is confess sin. In our sinful nature, we don't want to be found out. We would rather hide and take cover like our first parents Adam and Eve. Because of our pride and self-love, we can't bear any discrediting of our person. So, in our flesh and as non-Christians, we shade the truth. We soften the blow to our egos by blaming others, qualifying our admissions, and making light of our injury or offense to others. The unregenerate delights in his sin and enjoys the company of those similarly minded (Rom. 1:32). So, admitting and acknowledging said sin to others--much less to God--isn't really something they're inclined to do.
Here, then, is our opportunity to set the Christian life apart by confessing our sins.
We should confess our sins to one another and pray for one another. That practice brings healing among God's people (James 5:16). I don't think I know a better model of this than that demonstrated by the Sovereign Grace pastors and congregations I've had the pleasure of knowing. They are a model of humility and of aggressively warring against pride and hypocrisy by confessing their sins to one another. They watch over one another by actively participating in accountability groups as pastors and by putting their people into tight small groups where confession and healing are one part of the agenda together.
As pastors, we should either include confession of sins in our pastoral prayers or add a prayer of confession to our order of service. We should groom our people to see confession as a healhty spiritual practice that gives life. And by confessing publicly, we make such acknowlegements of sin "normal" for the Christian life. Shame lies in the sin itself, not in the confessing of it.
We should confess our sins to non-Christians. Once I felt so convicted by the Lord for not having a submissive heart with a supervisor. I did what she asked and tried to do it well, but I did it grumbling and complaining usually. Until conviction fell so heavy that I had to go to her office and confess my sin against her and the Lord. A non-Christian, she nearly fell out of her chair. She was quite surprised by the confession. I don't think a Christian had ever apologized to her for any sins against her. Then the conversation turned toward Christ when she tried to hurriedly assure me that everything was okay. I had to tell her that it wasn't okay because I was there to work for Another Boss, Christ Jesus who knows my heart, unto whom I am to do every labor without complaint. It was a good conversation. It's to my shame that I haven't done this more often because I've certainly sinned against non-Christians since then. But this instance suggests to me that actively confessing our sins as Christians aids our evangelism and our making clear the difference between "Christian" self-righteousness and genuine Christian humility and faith.
I can see this distinguishing and evangelistic effect at times during a sermon, when on occassion I'm lead to apologize to non-Christians for the sinful ways we have responded to some issues in the public square or for how we have been self-righteous and botched Gospel conversations with them. There is first a slightly surprised look (like... "hey, he's apologizing for something") followed by a kind of appreciative look (like... "thanks for being real enough to admit Christians aren't perfect").
On the whole, I need to grow a great deal in this area. My pride wars against me; my flesh stiffens and fights. But I need to be filled with God's Spirit and cross-centered enough to know that my sins are real, that they affect others, and that I must war against them, in large part, by confessing them. Confession is good for the soul, for the church, and for non-Christians who are often witnesses to a kind of nominalism that would deny indwelling sin and avoid confession.
Luther and the Tower - Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the ...
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