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David said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” (Psalm 32:5).  Why?  Because “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4).  People living with unconfessed sin groan.  They groan about this, they groan about that.  But really, they are admitting that they have sins still unconfessed.  Their strength is dried up.  They are sluggish, unmotivated, always looking for ways to minimize their obedience, because the joy is gone.

Living with unconfessed sin saps a believer’s spiritual strength.  But living moment by moment in confession and honesty and realism – “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight!  Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty!” (Psalm 32:1-2, NLT).

In some churches, nobody admits anything.  Confession would be foolhardy, because it would be used as evidence against, rather than for, a person.  If not dead already, such a church eventually will be.  But God welcomes all of us sinners to confess and get free forever.  It’s like being born again again.

Biblical confession also includes a horizontal dimension – confession to one another, where we find powerful healing.  Confession to God alone often does not lift us into the freedom we desire.  With God alone, confession can be too easy.  It is too easy to save face, and there is no healing, no release, in saving face, however earnest the confession to God might seem to be.  Confession to God alone can be a way of not really facing ourselves and our sins.  James 5:16 shows us where freedom can be found: “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, writes, “You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you.  He wants you as you are; he does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; he wants you alone. . . . You can hide nothing from God.  The mask you wear before men will do you no good before him.  He wants to see you as you are, he wants to be gracious to you.”

Then, with James 5:16 in mind, Bonhoeffer also writes, “The last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned.  The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil.  He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother.  The expressed, the acknowledged sin has lost all its power.  It has been revealed and judged as sin.  It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder.  Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother.  He is no longer alone with his evil, for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God.  It has been taken away from him.  Now he stands in the fellowship of sinners who live by the grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ.  Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God.  He can confess his sins and in this very act find fellowship for the first time. . . . If a Christian is in the fellowship of confession with a brother, he will never be alone again.”

To whom do you confess?

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10 thoughts on “Confession”

  1. HL says:

    This has been the hardest thing for me working in the church. To whom do I confess. Fear has had its way with me for so long. Thanks for this post. I needed to hear it.

  2. Joe Cook says:

    What do you think of the idea that this verse in James. was written to the “unbelievers” in the midst of the church who had not yet made the initial confession of being a ‘sinner’ and realizing their need for Jesus’ one time all encompassing forgiveness of sin where all the wrath of God against Sin was poured out. So that now that we have been cleansed of sin, we’re actually not supposed to go around focusing on asking forgiveness because Jesus has already forgiven all of our sin, past present and future. It seems that if we’re living in “moment by moment confession” we haven’t turned from sin, we’re actually living in the grip sin has over us, that seems to me like being consumed with trying to confess every sin rather that abiding in the perfect work of Christ. It takes my eyes of the author and perfecter and turns it back on me, making forgiveness and righteousness something I must attain by my work of confession rather than Jesus’s already accomplished work on the cross. I do think it’s good and healthy to share our struggles with one and other, and ask for prayer, help , but I don’t think our righteousness comes from confession, it comes through what Christ has already given us. The verse in James can’t mean that the prayer of a righteous person is someone who has confessed all their sins – the pharisees thought that made them righteous – but instead the Holy Spirt that has been given to us when we confessed Jesus as lord and believe in our hearts has made us righteous because we have been given the only real righteousness, Christ himself.

    1. Ray Ortlund says:

      Thanks, Joe. The same could be said of every aspect of Christian obedience. The spiritual validity of all obedience hangs on whether it is a response to God’s grace in Christ or a bid for God’s grace in Christ.

  3. Anon says:

    I grew up in an environment where confession was mandated, to various appointed confessors/counsellors… No, it was not the Catholic church, but a Pentecostal mission station. The basis of it was always James 5. Before long, ‘confession of sin’ became synonymous with being a Christian, or being saved – and it was always in context of confessing to a counsellor. In fact, confession to God was mocked as ‘it’s the easy way out’.

    Now I know you’re not coming from this angle, but I do believe there’s a danger to ‘pragmatising’ the issue of confession – saying that ‘confessing to the Lord is not enough, you need to go further’. The Bible primarily calls us to “confess to the Lord” and be reconciled to one another. Exegetically, one cannot use James 5 as a blanket command to confess all sins to one another (and I know that’s not what you’re doing here). There is a healthy confession of sin that brings us into deeper fellowship. As John Piper once said, “sanctification is a community project”. A person who blithely ‘confesses his sin to the Lord’ without conviction, repentance and remorse is not truly confessing his sin. When your sin has involved others, offended others or was witnessed by others, you are compelled to confess and repent to them – in as far as it involved them (public sin, public confession). Moreover, if there is a struggle in sin, we should go to those who are more spiritual and together in prayer, accountability, and submission to the Word, confess and repent of that sin.

    There is one thing that gets to me – almost everyone who speaks on confession of sin (to one another) draws from Bonhoeffer. When I traced his understanding of confession, it was always in sympathy to the Catholic system of confession. He was in awe of, and loved the ecumenism of the Catholic church (you see it clearly in his letters as a young man during his travels to Rome, etc.)

    I truly did appreciate your article, Ray, but I must say that I’m still struggling with the many abuses that arise from an over-emphasis of confession to one another. It seems that if you take the argument (too far) that ‘it’s easy to confess to the Lord, and often that is not enough’ it leads to a system that demands confession to one another in dealing with any and every sin, which leads to bondage.

    What are your thoughts?

    1. Anon says:

      Sorry for my rushed and scattered comments… I was in a bit of a rush.

      1. Ray Ortlund says:

        Thank you, Anon. Please see a new post from this morning, “Emotional blackmail at church.” God bless you.

    2. totokoko says:

      If I understand you correctly, I agree with you. I come from a pentecostal church that is not very clear on many things like this: Confession is to the pastor or to a few other elders (actual older people). They never spoke about accountability partners, or confessing to a fellow brother or sister at church (a group of loving christian friends). Honestly, the topic probably never came up. It was just what everyone did – oh you want to confess? Lets see if the pastor got time. It is never admitted, and would probably have been denied, but I chose to take it at face value and I realized that they believe that a pastor is some holy role that God created just for us to obey his command and confess to him so that the pastor can know what his flock is up to. They also speak of us having to be careful of who we let pray for us if we were to go to another church and things like that. It is so hard for my brain to process just what is wrong with the church I used to go to – It seems like there are genuine Christians there, but, at the same time, I question it, then I fear that I might be judging them or undermining the work of Christ…

      I have discovered that I must let the spirit be my only teacher, and TRUST God, that he hears me and guides me… I guess that having a background like I do makes me skeptical of what people say. But I am learning to trust people – genuine bible believing people that havent had their spirits pressed down on- that they also trust God and that HE leads people to the truth…. and that they understand that being discerning should be an assumed characteristic of all Christians. A belief that my upbringing didn’t raise me with.

      The problem with this article is that it assumes certain things as being common knowledge. But I usually just give articles the benefit of the doubt. Learn only what the spirit teaches. and remain discerning (which are all God-given abilities what I pray for constantly).

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Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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