The Nature of True Confession

May 24, 2012 at 10:25 am | Posted in Grace and Faith, Questions for Pastor Glenn, Theology | 6 Comments

“If I’m pretty sure that I’m going to commit the same sin again, how can I repent and turn the other way?  Does confession at some point become a lie?”

What a great question!  It came to me from the comments of a fellow blogger, who then asked me for my opinion on it.  It’s a great question because it is so honest, because it reveals the depth of our sinfulness, and because it reveals the nature of genuine faith in Christ.

The simple answer is, “No.  Confession of that nature is not a lie; it is, in fact, more honest than most confessions.”  Moore to Ponder’s words about 1 John 1:8-10 are a great commentary on this point.  (My gut reaction is to say that the most damaging lie we could utter is “I have no sin.  I sinned once, but I will “never” commit “that” sin again.)  True confession recognizes not only the sinful act but also the sinful heart from which the act proceeds, and it admits dependence on God to overcome that sinfulness because we know we probably will do it all again, if not the same act, another which comes from the same heart.

A more in-depth, theological answer could take an entire book, and indeed the theological issues that touch on this have filled many books.  But here is my brief attempt:

Those who follow the biblical teaching are quick to confess that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone.  And this question was wisely asked on a post about that very issue.  However, those of the Reformed tradition are also quick to point out that, though salvation is through faith alone, genuine faith is never alone.  In other words, saving faith is always demonstrated by how we live our lives.  Biblical faith is not simple head knowledge, or even assent to the facts of Jesus’ death for our sins.  Biblical faith is a total trusting of one’s self to those facts.  Faith and repentance, as understood correctly, are two descriptions of the same thing.  Faith emphasizes turning to Christ, while repentance emphasizes turning away from other things; for if genuine faith is total trust, then nothing else can be trusted, and whatever one trusts before following Jesus must be trusted no more.  Just like faith in Jesus has a beginning, sometimes in an event, but is an ongoing experience for the Christian, so also repentance may have a beginning in an event, but is really an ongoing experience of Jesus’ disciples.  In other words, confessing and repenting should be a part of our normal and daily experience.

This thought raises the question of what confession really is.  We often think of it as admitting certain acts of sin to God.  However, confession should go much deeper than that; it must include the heart attitude that gives rise to the act of sin we committed.  Acts of sin come from a sinful heart, a heart that in some way or another puts self on the throne where the Lord belongs.  Many Christians may confess a certain act, like offending people by speaking out of turn (I know that one well), but never confess the heart attitude of wanting to be noticed or thinking of one’s self as the expert or of wanting to prove someone else wrong.  Yet those things are the deeper sins that also must be confessed.  Sometimes we don’t even know the depth of our sinful motives. I addressed that issue in this post.

Also confession must never be seen as the condition of our forgiveness.  That attitude puts our salvation into our own hands, but the truth is that our salvation is in God’s hands and not ours.  We are forgiven because of Jesus, not because we confess.  The popular misunderstanding of 1 John 1:9 that gives rise to this idea is one I addressed here.

There is much in 1 John that touches on this topic.  This little New Testament book was written so that Jesus’ followers would have assurance of their salvation (5:11-13), and it gives many tests of the true believer.  True believers, according to John, trust in Jesus; they confess their sinfulness; they love Jesus’ other followers.  However, there is one particular test in 1 John which is important to this discussion:  True believers make some sort of progress in righteousness.  Though we are and always will be sinful, if we are truly regenerated by God’s Spirit, then we will demonstrate that regeneration by how we conduct our lives (2:4-6, 15-17, 29; 3:4-10; 5:4-5).  The discussion of faith in James makes this same point; genuine faith is demonstrated by good works.  I mention this here because we must understand the nature of new life and of true repentance.  If your attitude is, “I will go out and sin as much as I want, because I can confess it to God and be forgiven,” then you either confuse the sinful act with the sinful heart or you may not have experienced a genuine conversion.  God’s people may have to confess the same sins over and over, maybe even for a lifetime, but they will not intentionally sin with the attitude that they can simply confess later.  When they do sinful acts, and when they see the depths of their sinful attitudes, they will be repentant in attitude and action.

If you struggle with certain sinful activities and attitudes, confess those to God, trust Jesus’ death as the payment for your sin, and tell God that with his help, you will go out and live a righteous life.  When you fail, do it all again, knowing that Jesus’ sacrifice has already covered all your sinful acts and all your sinful attitudes and motives.

I think this post is too long already.  If some of you are interested in more on this topic, read a good theology book about regeneration and/or perseverance of the saints.  Those are the theological terms that I’ve touched on here.  In the meantime, keep pursuing righteousness and keep confessing when you don’t

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6 Comments »

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  1. Thank you so much for explaining this complicated matter. I hope it is okay if I ask one more question. I am thinking about the following New Testament scripture passage that use the words “confess” and “confession”:

    “9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Romans10:9-10

    With that in mind, did you mean “continual confession of sins” when you made this statement below?

    “Also confession must never be seen as the condition of our forgiveness. That attitude puts our salvation into our own hands, but the truth is that our salvation is in God’s hands and not ours. We are forgiven because of Jesus, not because we confess.”

  2. Ahh, that’s a great question. See, you are a better theologian that you will admit! In this context, my meaning is “confession of an individual sin must never be seen as the condition of our forgiveness of that sin. . . . We are forgiven because of Jesus, not because we confess every sin.” Continual confession of sin is something a follower of Jesus is willing to do, because he knows the depths of his sin. So also continually confessing that Jesus is Lord and that he was raised from the dead is what a believer does. That is the “confession unto salvation.”

  3. Reblogged this on Moore to Ponder and commented:
    I have a precious friend who asked a very important question that all of us ponder at times. I decided to ask for help here: https://pastorglenn.wordpress.com/2011/04/18/salvation-by-grace-through-faith-look-at-the-overwhelming-evidence/
    and he was so kind and helpful that he actually devoted an entire post at his blog to my request for help. Pastor Glenn has a great blog. He studies hard and thinks very deeply as he strives to know the heart of our Heavenly Father and his Holy Word.

  4. […] strives to know the heart of our Heavenly Father and his Holy Word. Here is the link to his post: https://pastorglenn.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/the-nature-of-true-confession/ This entry was posted in Uncategorized.Bookmark the permalink. Leave a […]

  5. Today I added part 2 with examples from Ezra and David. You can read it here:
    https://pastorglenn.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/the-nature-of-true-confession-part-2-two-examples/

  6. For a great description of true repentance, taken from the world of literature, see my review of Leif Enger’s novel, Peace Like a River.
    https://pastorglenn.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/book-review-peace-like-a-river/


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