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.