Confession is NOT counseling
I’ll say it again, confession is NOT counseling. To get the most out of confession, the distinction between the two needs to be understood. The two are different things with different purposes that are even done differently! And yet I perceive that the average churchgoer doesn’t understand that difference, tends to consider confession and counseling as being very, very similar, and thus robs themselves of the special blessing God has for them in confession. So let’s talk about the difference between the two things for just a minute and hopefully, in the end, we’ll appreciate confession for its unique contribution to our daily lives in Christ.
First off, let’s defuse any potential argument by agreeing where confession and counseling (in this case, specifically pastoral counseling) are similar. 1) When done correctly, they both rest on the foundation of God’s Word. God’s Word offers guidance and direction for us as we live this life, and we should recognize that and allow our pastors to speak God’s Word to us. 2) When done correctly, both confession and counseling are done with a pastor’s heart that seeks to heal brokenness and bind up wounds. And 3) Strictly speaking, it is the duty of every Christian—and not just the pastor—to both hear confession and offer Godly counsel. It is, of course, nevertheless something that the pastor is specifically called to do as part of his vocation of ministry.
So yes, confession and counseling have some similarities. But as I can imagine my grandfather possibly saying, “Just because it has teats, tail, and teeth doesn’t mean it’s a cow!” Similarities do not mean that two things are identical. And though I’m in danger of belaboring the point, confession and counseling are NOT one and the same.
Pastoral counseling is in order when a crisis of any form shakes up a person’s life and they need Godly assistance sorting and arranging the various bits and pieces back into a meaningful, healthy whole. This sort of counseling can range from dispensing Biblical wisdom in a single session (what I call the “church-member drive-by”, it begins with a parishioner popping their head in my door and asking, “Got a minute?” and ends anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours later!) to wrestling with a complex set of interrelated issues over multiple sessions (as in premarital counseling, for instance). Such counseling t is what 2 Timothy 3:16-17 looks like in action: “16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In other words, pastoral counseling is in my estimation mostly useful for rebuilding or establishing a Biblical worldview that will serve to guide an individual in the path of righteousness.
Not so with confession. Whereas the primary usefulness of counseling is in rebuilding, confession’s main point is reconciliation. It is the simple understanding that one’s own sinful choices have strained or even perhaps broken one’s relationship with God and the desire to have the comfort of being right with God once again. That understanding leads them to confession, where the full truth of God’s Word will be pronounced upon them: the truth that while sin does separate, Jesus Christ nevertheless forgives and reconciles.
This means that the beauty of confession is that it does not require a crisis in order to function as a valuable part of the Christian’s life! Imagine how weary you would be if every week you had to endure yet another crisis that required counseling, and yet adding regular confession to your spiritual disciplines of prayer, study, and worship gives the rare combination of being both easy and rewarding.
The reason is this: confession’s words of forgiveness are just as valid for monumental moral lapses as they are for life’s small daily sins. The confessor does not need to have committed atrocities or feel an incapacitating burden of sin . . . they only need to know that 1) they have indeed sinned and 2) in Christ, God stands ready, willing, and able to forgive them for that sin!
Counseling offers guidance and hope for the future, but confession grants peace and comfort for right now. Counseling offers a plethora of Scriptural advice, but confession needs no Scripture other than 1 John 1:9, “9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Counseling is training for righteousness, confession declares one righteous.
No, confession and counseling are NOT the same. Both are good, but when it comes down to it, while counseling might be good guidance, confession is pure Gospel.