What comes to mind when you think of the word “confession”?
Maybe the word reminds you of someone confessing to a crime in front of a judge or jury. Maybe you think of a written statement in a police station. Perhaps you remember a relationship that deepened – or collapsed – when something was confessed.
Maybe the word brings to mind a picture of a person sitting in a closed room and speaking to a priest on the other side of a screen. Maybe you remember a bedtime prayer or a youth camp where you confessed your sins to God.
Maybe the word “confession” makes you uncomfortable. Maybe it just doesn’t mean anything at all to you.
I would like to suggest that confession should play a role in our spiritual growth and development. Confession is part of the way in which we experience God’s love and new life.
In our religious heritage, we do not have much of a history with confession. Sure, we encourage people to confess their sins when they become believers, but we generally ignore the practice of confession beyond that point. If anything, we relegate confession to the private practice of individual believers; we really do not give space for honest, authentic confession in our communities of faith. We do not allow for people to express their failings and mistakes in a safe, healthy, loving environment. We do not allow each other to admit that we are, in fact, people in need of God’s present-day activity in our lives.
Our church tradition at Mt. Haley is the denomination called “Church of God (Anderson, Indiana).” When people ask me what that means, I say that we are most closely related to Wesleyans, Methodists, and Nazarenes. We are Jesus people who traditionally have emphasized salvation, unity, and holiness as key theological concepts.
I would like to focus on this last concept: holiness. Our belief in holiness is that God enables believers in Jesus to live holy lives, lives that are completely dedicated to God and God’s purposes. We believe that God’s Spirit empowers believers to overcome the power of sin: the good news is not just that our past sins are forgiven through Jesus’s death and resurrection, but the good news also includes the work of the Holy Spirit to help us live free from sin in the present tense. In the words of Charles Wesley, a spiritual ancestor in our branch of the Christian family tree:
He breaks the power of canceled sin. (a line from the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”)
Jesus forgives our sins, canceling their effects on our lives. But that’s not all. He also breaks their power over us, so that we are no longer enslaved to sin. In short, we can live free from sin. We can be completely united with God as we love God and love others wholeheartedly.
We call this “entire sanctification” or “Christian perfection.” It’s a goal for many of us, but perhaps only few of us achieve it. Holiness is something that we usually only discuss privately or in hushed, semi-humble tones. But it deserves saying out loud: we believe that God can make us spiritually mature so that sin does not pose a problem for us any longer.
(Notice I didn’t say “so that we will never sin.” There is a difference.)
There is plenty of scriptural support for such a stance; see, for instance, 1 Thessalonians 5:23. I am less concerned with the question of whether holiness is scriptural and more concerned with how our beliefs about holiness have affected how we behave.
Our traditional belief in entire sanctification resulted in an era of Christian practice in which it became a badge of honor to avoid “obviously” sinful behaviors, including drinking alcohol, smoking, going to bars, watching movies in theaters, gambling, playing with standard playing cards, wearing jewelry, and wearing neckties (for men). You could prove your spirituality, prove your holiness, by avoiding these kinds of negative behaviors. After all, holiness is supposed to show your freedom from sin, so how else could you display that freedom, if not in your outer behaviors?
This led to the identification of two key dates in a believer’s life: the day you were saved (accepted Jesus as your Savior), and the day you were sanctified (received the gift of holiness). Knowing those two dates was, again, a badge of honor for real believers; it proved that you were on the right path and that you were on God’s side.
Over time, Christians in our circle developed a distaste for admitting sin in their own lives. If you had been saved and sanctified, how could you acknowledge current sinfulness in your life? If God’s Spirit lived inside you and gave you power over sin, how could it be that you succumbed to temptation and sinned? Wouldn’t that be terrible, even heretical?
Friends of mine, pastors, have told me stories of their church members who have said, “It has been thirty years since I last sinned!”
We have outgrown the need for confession as a regular spiritual practice. We have replaced repentance with entire sanctification.
Take this as evidence: Which church groups have regular practices of confession in their worship services? Which Christian traditions help people confess sins in their lives? Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians… but, to my knowledge, none of the Wesleyan denominations do that, including the Church of God.
Is it possible to believe in holiness and to practice confession? I think so. The bigger question is whether we can learn to be comfortable with confessing our sins before God and, perhaps, in front of other people.
More on this topic another time…