In a chapter on confession and communion in Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that “he who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. . . . But it is the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come as the sinner you are, to the God who loves you.”
I’m sure that most of us agree with Bonhoeffer that the confession of sin, grounded in the gospel, is a vital component of our personal spirituality. But we get a little uncomfortable when it comes to corporate dimensions of confession. It’s not too threatening to engage in silent confession when the liturgy calls us to do so in the weekend service, but when it comes to times of confession in small-group settings, we often settle for less-indicting statements like “I’m struggling with . . .” Even then, we have the gnawing sense that our vague, toothless non-confessions aren’t fulfilling the exhortation of James 5:16, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed.”
Three Reasons We Avoid Confession
Our failure to engage in the corporate dimension of confession stems from at least three possible sources.
1. What Will They Think?
The first is a disconnect between our so-called public and private lives. We fear what people may think of us if we really told them our secret thoughts, our implacable greed (not simply monetary), our censorious spirit, our constant irritability. Wouldn’t they second-guess our every action? Wouldn’t we lose their respect? Failure to confess sin to others is, in essence, a failure of integrity.
2. Whom Do We Fear?
And this is intimately connected to the second source — a misplaced fear. Tragically, we more greatly fear those with whom we have sin in common than the one whose very presence is the splendor of holiness. He knows precisely and intimately (and with perfect clarity) all the dimensions of our sinful hearts (Psalm 44:20–21; Proverbs 21:2; Luke 16:14–15). From him we cannot hide (Jeremiah 23:24). Isn’t it a prick of insanity that we fear those who could do nothing more than shame us rather than the one before whom we will one day appear and the secrets of our hearts will be disclosed (Luke 12:45, 8:17; Romans 14:10)?
3. What Is Confession?
Both the first and the second sources are linked to a third — a deficient understanding of what confession is and does. Confession is not optional for Christians. John asserts that the mark of genuine fellowship with God is not only the recognition of one’s proneness to sin (1 John 1:8) but also corresponding confession (1 John 1:9). And, as we’ve already seen, it is expected in corporate life, according to James 5:16.
Why We Confess
For Christians, confession of sin, ultimately, is application of the gospel. Authentic confession of sin is a mingling of humble contrition before God, faith-filled appropriation of the grace of reconciliation, and heartfelt gratitude for the satisfaction that has been accomplished in the cross of Christ. “The Christian way,” writes Martin Luther, “essentially consists in acknowledging ourselves to be sinners and in praying for grace” (Luther’s Large Catechism).
Confession of our sin before God also acknowledges our very real need for his sanctifying grace — for though we are manifestly set apart as God’s own children (1 Corinthians 6:11), we still sin (see Colossians 3:1–11). Thus, confession is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. That’s why Bonhoeffer says that “confession is discipleship” (115).
Jesus teaches us that regular confession should be a vital part of our fellowship with God (Luke 11:4), especially in the context of secret prayer (Matthew 6:6). The Scriptures also provide us numerous models for expressing genuine contrition over sin (Psalms 51 and 130). By exhortation (James 5:16) and example (Acts 5:1–11), we are warned against a hardness that avoids confession (1 John 1:8) or a deadly pride that seeks its public exercise (Matthew 6:1–18; especially Luke 18:9–14). Most of all, the Scriptures remind us that the purification and expiation that come in response to confession are grounded not in our own actions, but in the perfection of Christ’s broken body and shed blood (1 John 1:9–2:2).
Confessing in Community
Finally, the Scriptures also teach us the importance of community in dealing with our sin. Confession of sin in the presence of others is applying and celebrating the gospel, together. We are sanctified sinners who all need more grace for holiness, and we must rehearse this together. John beautifully captures this: “My little children, I write these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1–2).
Confession to one another celebrates the expiation of our sin and the sanctifying work of God through the cross of Christ (1 John 1:9). Confession to another Christian also guards us from absolving ourselves without true repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). Bonhoeffer writes that God gives us certainty that we are dealing with the living God “through our brother” (116).
When we bring our sins to another Christian, they become concrete and their ugliness cannot be hid from view. Confession, whether in secret prayer or in the presence of a caring fellow Christian, honors Christ (Galatians 6:2). “It is fitting,” writes John Calvin, “that by the confession of our own wretchedness, we show forth the goodness and mercy of our God, among ourselves and before the whole world” (Institutes, III.IV.10).