Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What is confession?

As we begin in earnest this blog series on the churchly practice of Confession and Absolution, I believe it makes sense to answer the basic question first:

What is confession?

There are probably enough people who have enough familiarity with the practice of confession to answer that. "Oh, confession! That's where you go into a little box in the church every so often and confess your sins to a priest.? And to that I say "No, it's not." What's just been described is an action, not the essence. A mental picture of a physical deed, but not what confession is.

What is, fundamentally speaking, confession? What is its essence? What is the thing that makes confession what it is?

When we dig deep enough down we can begin to properly understand what confession is. Confession is, at its heart, a Godly sorrow over one's own sins. It is not a sorrow that indulges in self-flagellation, a constant and bizarre psychosis which believes that somehow heaping enough abuse on one's own ego will be sufficient to cure sin. Neither is it a self-centered sorrow that mourns only the negative effects that sin?s consequences have brought into one's own life. Confession is a Godly sorrow: a sorrow that is compelled to seek out the cross and Christ's forgiveness there offered. In that aspect it is much like the distinction we tend to make between remorse and regret.

When a particularly heinous crime has been committed and the perpetrator caught, people begin to watch him very closely. They want to see whether or not he feels truly sorry for what he has done. And if he does not, it is almost inevitable that when his trial has come and he is about to be sentenced the prosecuting lawyer will argue for a stronger sentence and claim, "Never once has this man shown any remorse!"

Now contrast that with an event like a nationally known politician who has been caught in a scandal of some type. With his shameful conduct exposed for all the world to see, he quickly arranges a press conference in which he reads a prepared statement that more often than not goes, "I regret my actions . . ."

Typically, we see a person expressing regret only after they have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. The person in question regrets the damage that he has done to his career. He regrets ever having made such a bad choice in the first place. In short, he wishes that things could be different in this aspect: he regrets that he ever got caught. It is primarily self-centered, self-occupied, and self-preserving.

Remorse, on the other hand, is typically viewed as being true sorrow. Not just sorrow over being caught, not even sorrow over the destructive consequences of an action, but sorrow over the action itself. It is an other-centered lamenting over an injury (be it emotional, verbal, or physical) that cannot be taken back or undone.

When it comes to confession, then, remorse is a type of sorrow over sin that the world does not understand or, in fact, feel. Remorse is Godly sorrow. The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 7:10, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death."

In confession, Godly sorrow seeks out a confessor that will hear of my sins, will hear my acknowledgement that I have injured others and sinned against God, will hear my cry for mercy, and will pronounce God's judgment upon me. Godly sorrow seeks out God's judgment, because by faith it already knows what His verdict is: "Guilty of sin, and yet forgiven in Jesus Christ."

Godly sorrow leads to salvation! It leads to salvation because it trusts in the cross of Jesus Christ above all else. Godly sorrow knows that even the reality of my own sin, my own disregard for God?s holy commands, cannot separate me from God, because the blood of Jesus Christ, dripping down from the cross, has already earned forgiveness for me! It knows the sting of the verdict of "guilty" but does not fear it, because it also knows that the true words "and yet forgiven" will also be spoken. And so Godly sorrow seeks out confession.

Wordly sorrow, however, fears God's judgment so much that it would rather hide from it and instead judge itself. And so it flees from confession and consoles itself with the words, "I'm not as bad as some others." It lies to itself by saying, "None of this would be a problem if I hadn't been caught." And strangely enough, worldly sorrow often fears God's judgment so badly that it would rather condemn itself, saying, "I'm worthless. I'm an idiot. I'm unlovable."

Worldly sorrow leads to death . . . because it leads me away from God?s judgment. It leads me away from confession. It has no hope, it has no trust. It only knows fear and deceit. It is a lying trap that flees the hope and forgiveness offered by the cross of Christ.

So what is confession? Confession is, at its root, Godly sorrow. A sorrow that acknowledges the reality of sin, and yet trusts in the reality of the cross all the more. It is a sorrow that knows the path to salvation and trusts in it enough to follow it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Confession has two parts . . .

The church's ancient practice of private confession has much to offer God's people, and yet I see that it is frequently misunderstood and consistently underused. I wonder why that is?. Why, when the practice of confession has a Biblical foundation, solid theological backing, and enormous personal benefit, is it so often dismissed?

The Lutheran fathers themselves encouraged private confession and strove to retain it in the church even after their break from Rome, and yet modern-day Lutherans shun the practice as being "too Catholic." Evangelicals often place great stock in person-to-person accountability, but yet they frequently dismiss the churchly practice of private confession as being entirely unnecessary. In my experience even Roman Catholics--the very group most people would expect to practice private confession--are uninformed of the practice and generally consider it an antiquated practice belonging to a bygone era.

I'm thinking that's really too bad. It saddens me to think that private confession has, for many--probably most, actually--Christians, gone the way of the dodo. It's not just that private confession seems strange. After all, fasting is awful strange, too, and there are no end of books on that subject. For that matter, fasting even seems to achieve fad status once per decade or so. It gets to the point where you can't invite 1/2 of the church out for after-worship lunch as they're all fasting for one thing or another!

So I've come to the conclusion that the reason private confession isn't done much anymore is not just that it seems odd to people, but it must be something more. Perhaps it's misunderstood. Perhaps it has a certain stigma. Perhaps people just plain don't understand it. So what can I do? If only there were some way that I could write about confession and instruct people on just how fine and wonderful it truly is. If only I had some avenue, some way of reaching out via an electronic medium to untold numbers of Christians . . .

*idea*

Yes, you've guessed it. I'm starting off a blog series on the practice of private confession. Why? Because I think it's a valuable practice, and I'd like to encourage you to think about it and try it out, no matter what your denominational stripe may be. It is valuable because of what it does and what it offers: conviction and forgiveness.

You Christians know from personal experience how those two things go hand in hand, but have you ever wondered how they are worked out in practical, actual ways? Have you ever struggled with doubt over whether your internal battles with lust or greed or coveting had crossed the line and spilled out into your life in the form of actual sin? And did you ever wonder, "Is this something I need to confess to God?" And have you ever been so burdened by a sin that you longed to hear God Himself declare to you, "Your sins are forgiven" just so that you could know that you know that you know it was really, actually, true?

If you've ever struggled with doubt, asking yourself the question, "Yes . . . but how do I really know I'm forgiven?", then I invite you to come along with me as together we explore the ancient and beneficial practice of private confession. It is my hope that our explorations will both challenge and edify you, but it is my certainty that they will not leave you disappointed.