What comes to mind when you think of confession? Think about it for a moment.
For some, the thought might be a simple private prayer, or for some a confessional booth. For others, no specific images might come to mind, but just a feeling of someone “out to get you.” I expect some of you thought of the Spanish Inquisition, or at least the Monty Python skit making fun of it. Where do these ideas come from?
The blame belongs in many places: secular culture, bad experiences with church, an emphasis on external over internal religion, and even Monty Python comedy skits. My fantasy baseball league even has a team named “Spanish Inquisition” because the manager of that team thinks no one expects him to win – not even himself.
The mocking of secular culture aside, confession is an uncomfortable topic even for sincere Christians. In Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, he shares the tension over confession between Tolkien and his then-fiancée Edith. Tolkien was a practicing Catholic, while Edith was a member of the Church of England. They had agreed as a couple to be Catholic, but Edith “began to dislike making her confession. It was therefore all too easy when she was worried about her health (which was often) to postpone going to mass. She reported to Ronald [Tolkien] that getting up to go to church early in the morning and fasting until she had made her communion did not agree with her.” She insisted “my health won’t stand it.” In my own Protestant church, we have a weekly prayer of confession, which the pastor regularly defends the importance of. Few of us probably look forward to confession, whatever form we practice it in.
This discomfort with confession seems to be a shared part of mankind’s fallen nature, but if we look at well-known Bible verses on confession, we find that it is really about restoration, a rebirth of man’s relationship with God and a renewal of man to his ideal nature. It is as different from God being “out to get you” as it could be. 1 John 1:9 encourages confession, because: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God wants to give us forgiveness and cleansing, not condemnation and guilt. Isaiah 1:18 explains this cleansing more poetically:
“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.”
Confession doesn’t need to be a dirty word. The word “confess” means loosely to say the same thing about something, so confession means we agree with God (say the same thing he does) about sin – that it is bad. But confession also applies to the rest of 1 John 1:9, that God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Full confession includes agreeing about the steadfast and dependable character of God, His faithfulness and justice, as well as His desire to forgive and cleanse. If we doubt this desire, consider what He voluntarily suffered on the cross to provide for this forgiveness, and to demonstrate His enduring love.
By adding confession about the good things of God to our confession of our sin, our confession does not make us miserable about our own condition but shows us how different we are from what God wants for us, how deeply our sin needs to be corrected, and how wonderfully God has provided for the removal of sin.
But this does not come easily. Referencing Hebrews 4:16, which says, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” Puritan preacher Thomas Watson wrote that “Christ went more willingly to the cross than we do to the throne of grace.”
Why is this? Could it be that we have trouble whole-heartedly confessing that “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”? Monty Python joke that “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” but do we fully expect God’s throne to be one of grace when we come to confess?