Lessons in Christian Community

Christian Community (Part 5) - Confess to One Another

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This is the fifth week of our miniseries on Christian community.  We are exploring what the New Testament has to say about why it is important and what it looks like.  We are using Jn. 13:34 as our base text (read).  Jesus says the most compelling evidence that he is the Truth is not a slick marketing strategy or mass rallies; it is a community of people who know how to succeed in love relationships.

As we have seen, the apostles took this to heart.  That's why in their letters they unpacked what it means to "love one another as I have loved you" through a number of more specific "one another" imperatives.  This week, we will explore "confess to one another."

What is confession?

This word dredges up a lot of images to people (which we'll address in a minute), but its meaning is very simple.  The Greek word is homologeo, which is a compound verb meaning literally "to say the same thing"--to agree with someone about something.  It and its strengthened form (exhomologeo) are used frequently in the New Testament with a meaning ranging from agreeing with God that he is great ("praise"), to agreeing before others that Jesus is Lord (Matt. 10:32), to agreeing with testimony in a court case (Acts 24:14), to agreeing with God and/or others about our sins (1 Jn. 1:9).

It is this latter sense that we want to explore to today.  To confess our sins mean that we "say the same thing" God says about them instead of calling them something else (indiscretion; legitimate; etc.).  And we are talking about verbalizing this to other Christians.  Biblical confession in this sense is acknowledging wrong behaviors and/or attitudes to another Christian in order to be reconciled or seek help.  This definition presumes that there is such a thing as sin, and that it is destructive both to the individual involved in it and to relationships.

Common misconceptions about confession

"Confession to others is necessary in order to gain or keep God's acceptance."  Of course, the main source of this misconception is Roman Catholicism. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, the priest has divine authority to dispense God's forgiveness through the sacrament of confession and penance.[1]  Unless you are willing to confess your sins to a priest and follow his instructions on doing penance, you cannot be forgiven by God.

I am not here to bash Roman Catholicism, but this teaching directly contradicts the main message of the New Testament.  The good news is not that God doles out forgiveness week by week through a priest prescribing penance--but that God grants you complete and permanent forgiveness once and for all when you confess your guilt before him and receive Christ's full payment for it (read Rom. 5:1).  This is the basis for all biblical confession to other people.  When you have received Christ and know that God now accepts you apart from your works (including rituals like this), you can afford to be honest with him and other people.  If you want to experience the benefits of confession to other people (and there are many, as we will see), you first need to experience the benefit of God's complete forgiveness.

The second most prevalent misconception is that "since God alone ultimately forgives sin, there is no need for confession to others."  This is the Protestant over-reaction to the Roman Catholic error.  Confession should always begin with God because all sin is first and foremost cosmic treason--an act of rebellion against God (Ps. 51:4).  But the Bible teaches that we should often confess our sins to other people (Jas. 5:16) for reasons we'll discuss in a moment.  To use God's forgiveness as an excuse for not confessing to others betrays a serious misunderstanding of God's grace. 

This same passage corrects another widespread misconception: "Only professional Christians should handle confessions."  With many people, this professional is the pastor or priest--the old unbiblical clergy-laity distinction.  With others, this professional is the counselor--the new priests of our therapeutic culture.

You may need some special advice from vocational Christian workers for special issues, but you need to get to the point that you experience the liberating comfort and power of confessing most of your sins to other Christian friends.  Jas. 5:16 does  not say "to the professional"--but "to one another."  All Christians should be involved in reciprocal confession whenever it is needed.  Otherwise, you will lead a defeated Christian life.

This is one of the most practical ways to gauge whether your involvement in Christian community is on a biblical level.  Are you involved enough with other Christians that you are sharing your sins and defeats with them and asking them for help?  Are you involved enough that they do the same with you?   Then you aren't involved enough--and you're missing out on one of the most wonderful provisions God makes for your spiritual growth . . . 

The benefits of confessing to others

Most people think God wants you to do this for his benefit--that he derives some weird pleasure or meets some strange need from your confession.  But nothing could be further from the truth!  God doesn't need anything, including your confession.  He already knows about your sins, and (if you have received Christ) he has already forgiven them.  When he calls on us to confess our sins to one another, it is altogether for our benefit.  When based on an understanding of God's grace and preceded by sincere confession to God, confessing your sins to other Christians is a wonderful source of spiritual help.

Confession may enable you to experience God's forgiveness.  God wants us to experience what the author of Hebrews calls a "cleansed conscience"--a personal assurance of God's forgiveness of specific sins so that we can move forward with him without the pangs of unresolved guilt.  For a variety of reasons, it is possible to have God's forgiveness without experiencing it. 

You may have received Christ, but be ignorant of the Bible's teaching that you are now completely forgiven.  You may know this teaching, yet not experience God's forgiveness for certain things because you won't personally confess it to him, or because you insist on doing penance instead of simply appropriating Christ's forgiveness ("dead works" in Heb. 9:27). 

Or you may be unable to personally appropriate God's forgiveness because you are unwilling to tell some other Christians about it.  Prov. 28:13 teaches this principle (read).  David experienced the cleansing power of God's forgiveness when he confessed both to God and to Nathan.  I know it's been this way for me many times.  In a group this size, there are probably many people who need this (SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET). 

Closely associated with this benefit is a second one: Confession can unleash God's empowering for moral change.  Sin thrives in darkness.  When we keep it hidden, its power over us grows, even though we may struggle to free ourselves from it.  But when we bring it out into the light, this often breaks its power.

This is why James connects confession and prayer with other Christians with healing (Jas. 5:16).  The preceding context is specifically about physical sickness, but I think this verse is a more general maxim that includes healing from the power and damage of sin.  John teaches the same principle in 1 Jn. 1:7 (read).  When we walk in the light (which involves being open and honest about our sins with God and other Christians), the power of Christ over sin is unleashed.

Internet porn is epidemic in our society.  I have talked to dozens of guys who are enslaved and defeated in this area.  They know they're forgiven, they try to break free--but they go back to this destructive habit.  For many, the first step toward real freedom in this area has been to bring it out into the light with other Christian friends.  This step, coupled with ongoing accountability, prayer, encouragement and other practical steps (both resist and replace) unleashes God's power for moral change!  I've seen similar results for people with other sin-habits (OVER-EATING; LYING).

Confession can be a crucial step in restoring an alienated relationship.  The parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15) is a beautiful story of God's willingness to forgive repentant sinners.  But it is also a picture of the power of confession to restore broken human relationships.  If you have violated a key relationship through betrayal, bitterness, neglect, etc., God may be calling on you to go back to them like this son did.  It is scary--but it's worth it!  You may experience reconciliation.  Even if you don't, you will experience God's cleansing and encouragement and righteous closure.

This is important not just concerning big, past issues.  It is also important for smaller offenses that inevitably arise in close relationships.  This past week, I needed to apologize to my wife and daughter for the harsh way I spoke to them.  It would have been easy to rationalize this--but this is what allows alienation to build up.  It's so much better to humble yourself, admit and apologize, be forgiven--and have the closeness restored.

This brings us to a question many of you may be asking yourselves right now: "When should I confess to someone, and when should I keep it to myself?"

When to confess

As we saw with admonition last week, there is no formula answer to this question.  Because we are dealing with personal relationships, there are many variables.  If you are being honest with God and willing to do what he wants in this area, he will show you.  Many times, he will say "The issue is settled now.  Go on."  Sometimes, however, he will say "You need to share this with . . ."  As you ask God for wisdom on this, consider the following questions:

Are you unable to get peace by confessing this to God?  If so, why not get it out in the light with another Christian who can pray with you and assure you of God's forgiveness?

Do you lack insight or ability to gain increasing freedom from this sin?  If this is the case, there may be a connection between the help you need and disclosing it to some mature Christian friends.

Is it causing alienation in your relationship?  If so, you should seriously consider confessing to them what you have done.  If you need advice on whether, when, or how to do this, why not ask another mature Christian friend for this?

Do you tend to over-confess or under-confess?  Some people over-confess, turning confession into neurosis or dead works.  While there are cases where this is true, is that really the problem with most of us?  Aren't we much more likely to confess too little?  Aren't we usually more concerned with saving our own pride, not risking rejection, or avoiding consequences?  If we're going to have a "default," shouldn't our default be that we will confess to someone rather than that we won't?  Wouldn't it be nice to be in relationships that had this kind of openness?

This kind of openness is a key ingredient for healthy community.

Read Eph. 4:25.  Paul is telling us to lay aside the fakiness and be honest and open with one another.  I've been around a lot of Christian groups (including groups in this church) where you sense that no one is being real, that everyone is posturing, putting on a front.  When you try to engage people about what's really going on in their lives, you get a lot of bobbing and weaving.  When they ask you how your walk is going, you sense they don't really want to know.  When you share about your own current defeats and struggles with sin, you get an awkward response--like you just farted or have body odor.  What is this?  This is hypocrisy--and Jesus said, "Beware the leaven of hypocrisy" (Lk. 12:1).  Like leaven, this falseness can quietly and gradually infect the atmosphere of a group and destroy the life of Christ.

How different it is to be around a group of Christians who live under God's grace and practice real openness with one another!  How encouraging it is to know you're not the only one who struggles!  How much easier it is to be honest about your defeats!  How many doors it opens up for help!  How much more real God's forgiveness and healing power is!  What a refreshing and attracting alternative for people who don't yet know Christ!  Recently, a young Christian told me the thing he appreciated most about our home group is that "people are real."  I hope we never lose this!

[1]"The forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism is conferred by a particular sacrament called the sacrament of . . . confession (and) penance . . . Only priests who have received the faculty of absolving from the authority of the Church can forgive sins in the name of Christ." Catechism of the Catholic Church (Ligouri, Mo.: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), pp. 373,374.