God wants us to confess, to forgive, and to receive forgiveness. However, many of us are reluctant to repent, fail to forgive, and are woefully inexperienced with confession to another human or to God. For those who don’t yet know the living Jesus, being convinced they’ve even done “wrong” may be a stretch. For those of us who follow Christ, admitting our continuing sins feels shameful and discouraging. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of this latter dilemma—“Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.”
Instead of living isolated in blindness and hypocrisy, we can recognize that we are all “real sinners” and live together in authenticity. Though confession is tough and receiving forgiveness sometimes seems impossible, our triune God, in infinite kindness and tender mercy, wants us to receive His forgiveness.
Repentance, which is a change of heart, is the first step. Next comes confession, then receiving forgiveness, which will increase our love for God and others. Jesus told Simon the Pharisee, “Whoever is forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47b). The message is clear: Receive forgiveness from God and others, and your love for God and others will be greater. Might this principle be exponential, not just linear, like an ever-expanding spiral of forgiveness and love? We repent and confess, and as we receive forgiveness, our love increases; so we repent and confess more and are willing to receive more unearned forgiveness and love; and so forth…
What about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer—“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”? Are our debts (sins, trespasses, what we owe) forgiven only in direct proportion to how well we forgive others? Martin Luther thought so. He believed in a one-to-one correspondence between the two. However, British theologian John Stott approaches the question a bit differently. He said, “God forgives the penitent, and one of the chief evidences of true penitence is a forgiving spirit.”
Confession is a practice well-known to Catholics and is also an integral part of the popular A.C.T.S. prayer (Adoration of God, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication). In James 5:16a, we are instructed, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” In The Life You’ve Always Wanted, John Ortberg writes, “God is not clutching tightly to his mercy, as if we have to pry it from his fingers like a child’s last cookie. We need to confess in order to heal and be changed. Nor is confession…mechanical. It is a practice that, done wisely, will help us become transformed.”
In Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren notes, “Repentance is not usually a moment wrought in high drama. It is the steady drumbeat of a life in Christ and, therefore, a day in Christ…Our failures or successes in the Christian life are not what define us or determine our worth before God or God’s people. Instead, we are defined by Christ’s life and work on our behalf. We kneel. We humble ourselves together. We admit the truth. We confess and repent. Together, we practice the posture that we embrace each day – that of a broken and needy people who receive abundant mercy.”
How do we practice confession?
1) Ask the Holy Spirit to highlight areas (actions, motives) that need to be confessed as you examine your conscience. Some review the 10 commandments. Others the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) or the “seven deadly sins”—pride, envy, anger, lust, greed, sloth and gluttony. Always remember the example and teaching of Jesus as you examine yourself. Consider also sins of omission.
Be specific. Don’t excuse yourself—your genes, your upbringing, what others said or did to you. However, keep in mind that the Holy Spirit tends to be quite gentle with believers, whom He indwells. If you are getting pounded with “You’re a mess, a mess, a big hopeless mess! You will never change!” that is NOT the Holy Spirit but the enemy, who is our accuser.
Also, remember that as a human being, you will make mistakes. God did not choose to make us perfect “mini-gods.” Mistakes are accidents or errors in judgment. These are unfortunate and may necessitate apologizing to another person, but mistakes such as these do not involve choosing against God (which is the nature of sin). Scripture tells us that even Jesus “grew in wisdom,” but he never sinned.
2) Decide you do not want to turn away from God again. Tell God you are sorry. Ask for His forgiveness.
3) Deliberately receive the forgiveness of God. 1 John 1:9 promises us, “If we are faithful and just to confess our sins, he will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is true. Choose to believe it.
4) Ask the Holy Spirit to help you know how to respond to anyone else your sin has harmed. How can you apologize in a way that accepts blame for your part without blaming others or excessively blaming yourself? Should you offer restitution or not?