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Confession and Repentance

May 8, 2013

While pondering God’s interaction with Adam and Eve immediately after they eat the fruit in Genesis 3, I’ve had to think about the relationship between confession and repentance (the connection between those ideas and Genesis 3 will be explained Sunday). Repentance is something that receives a lot of air time in Christian churches – as it should. But it occurred to me that confession, at least as a word, isn’t used very frequently; nor is its connection to repentance always made clear. (Perhaps this only describes my own failure to clearly connect the two.)

So I thought it would be helpful to draw out the connection a bit as confession and repentance go hand-in-hand. Repentance, for those who may not know, is turning away from one’s own righteousness (which is like filthy rags before God) and from one’s own sin, and turning to Christ to receive him by faith and to live a holy life before him. Christians should therefore be in a constant state of repentance: Always looking to Christ alone for salvation and always working to live a righteous life before him. Confession is a verbal acknowledgment of sin, which would mean that it’s a part of repentance – an important part. When a Christian confesses his or her sin, they are admitting that they did something which was wrong, a sin, a violation of God’s law. In the Garden we see an admittedly weak confession of sin when Adam and Eve tell God, “I ate.” But even as weak as it is, it still has the elements of a confession: The action is confessed and the personal responsibility acknowledged.

In Hosea 14 we see a much fuller example of what a confession of sin looks like:

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,

for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.

2  Take with you words

and return to the Lord;

say to him,

“Take away all iniquity;

accept what is good,

and we will pay with bulls

the vows of our lips.

3  Assyria shall not save us;

we will not ride on horses;

and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’

to the work of our hands.

In you the orphan finds mercy.”

The Lord tells Israel to acknowledge her sins, “to take words”, and what words the Lord wants to hear is then spelled out: They must acknowledge that they have sinned against the Lord. The first step in returning the to the Lord and repenting of sin involves a verbal confession of failure and lawlessness.

This is important for at least two reasons. First, it challenges our normal, passive-aggressive approach to dealing with sin, whether with our God or with our neighbor. In terms of our neighbors, we sin against them but don’t confess that sin. Instead, we try to “repent” by just picking up where we left off, hoping both that time will encourage them to forgive us and that our behavior will get better simply because we’ve grown older. But if repentance involves a change in behavior, and if confession is the beginning of repentance, then we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that we’ll simply be more righteous because we’ve add more days to our lives: Age is no measure of righteousness. Moreover, if repentance is an important part of forgiveness (and it is) then by refusing to confess our sins to our neighbor we’re actually hindering their forgiveness not helping. Time does not heal all wounds.

In terms of our God, it forces us to take sin seriously. Confessing sin keeps us from pretending that he doesn’t really mind if we have idolatrous and murderous hearts and minds, acting like it will just go away if we ignore it – a classic passive-agressive move. In other words, confessing our sins forces us to take it seriously, both in terms of our neighbors and in terms of our God.

Second, it challenges our desire to hide our sins from God and justify ourselves. In the garden, Adam and Eve hid from the face of God because they didn’t want him to see their sin. Throughout Scripture, we see people hiding their sin rather than confessing it because they’re under the mistaken impression that – in the end – they can make up for it. But a confession of sin (e.g. “I have sinned”) will require a necessary corollary: It requires the confessor to both ask for forgiveness and for the righteousness of another (Can someone say, “Psalm 51“?). Confessing sin begins the first part of repentance, looking to Christ’s righteousness and not my own, and establishes the ground for the second part, trying to live a righteous life.

Certainly there are other reasons why confession is important and I’m sure I’ll blog about them some day. In the mean time, I hope this brief reflection will encourage you to make confession of sin an important part of your repentance; by which I mean, a central part of your relationship with our Triune God and all those people whom he places around you.

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