Dangers of Confession

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Even though we are commanded to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16) this does not mean that confessing our sins automatically accomplishes the goal, which is forgiveness and transformation into Christ’s image.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer mentions three specific dangers of confessing our sins and I want to add one more. First, there is the danger of being too general in confessing our sins.

For the sake of this certainty [the forgiveness of sins] confession should deal with concrete sins. People are usually satisfied when they make general confession. But one experiences the utter perdition and corruption of the human nature…when one sees his own specific sins. Self-examination on the basis of all Ten Commandments will therefore be the right preparation for confession. Otherwise it might happen that one could still be a hypocrite even in confession to a brother and thus miss the good of confession.

When we confess to our brothers we need to be specific with the sin. Give it a place and time and a biblical name.

Second, he notes that there should not be one person that everyone else is confessing to. This will burden the person being confessed to and thus it will all become routine. Instead of being able to shepherd each individual through God’s grace the confessional will become a place for “the spiritual domination of souls.” He also says in this section that anyone who hears confessions should also himself be confessing to others.

Third, there is the danger of confession becoming a pious work, a source of pride. I confess my sins. Do you? Here is what he says about that.

For the salvation of his soul let him guard against ever making a pious work of his confession. If he does so, it will become the final, most abominable, vicious, and impure prostitution of the heart; the act becomes an idle, lustful babbling. Confession as a pious work is an invention of the devil.

To these three dangers, I would add the danger of confession becoming a substitute for repentance and change. Here is the problem with a lot of accountability groups. They confess their sins to each other and often in very great detail, but there is little change. Everyone leaves feeling better about themselves, but no one leaves ready to stop sinning. If confession is a substitute for real change it is a lie. I am not saying that once a person confesses they will never commit the sin again. But I am saying that after confession we should find ourselves climbing the mountain of holiness not sitting at the bottom feeling good about ourselves.

Without the Holiness of God

Here is another quote from David Wells on what happens when the holiness of God is lost.

Holiness is therefore so much more than just a moral code or a set of rules. It is all about what is right because it is all about what God is in his utterly pure being. It is his being in its burning purity that drives us in the pursuit of what is right. And he has disclosed to us in Scripture, in a multitude of ways, what is true and right.

Without the holiness of God, sin has no meaning and grace has no point. God’s holiness gives to the one its definition and to the other its greatness. Without the holiness of God, sin is merely human failure, but not failure before God. It is failure without the standard by which we know it to have failed. It is failure without guilt, failure without retribution, failure without any serious moral meaning.

Without the holiness of God, grace is no longer grace because it does not arise from the dark clouds of his judgment that covered the cross. Without God’s holiness, grace would be nothing more than sentimental benevolence. It is this holiness that shows the graciousness of grace, its character as unmerited, because it also shows us the offensiveness of sin.

Without the holiness of God, faith is but confidence in good fortune, optimism about our prospects, hope in some future happiness. It is not what takes hold of the one in whom God has wrought his propitiation. It is not that trusting in the utter reliability of the good character of God that makes his promises “Yes and Amen” in Christ.

Sin, grace, and faith are emptied of their meaning when they are separated from the holiness of God…That is really what the third mark of the church [discipline] is all about. It is about the people of God showing the same kind of moral seriousness that is in plain sight on the cross.

Psychological Wholeness vs. Biblical Holiness

Psychology 1In this quote David Wells explains what happens when psychological language replaces Biblical language and when psychological wholeness replaces biblical holiness as the goal of the Christian life. All bold is mine.

In our modernized societies in the West, we are faced with an epidemic of lying, theft, abuse, rape, and other predatory behavior, but we are far morel likely to blame it on bad self-image than on bad character. Even in the church, the story is not much different. We have seized upon the language of our therapeutic culture and insist that our preachers toe this line and speak to us in this language. What is often missed, however, is that this language comes from the psychological world, not the moral world, and the chief consequence of this is that responsibility has vanished. We do not accept responsibility because we have no sense at all that we stand in the presence of a God of blazing, majestic purity. And when we lose this sense of the moral “over-againstness” of God, this opposition of what is Good to what is not, we lose all moral urgency. Indeed, we lose our gospel and the whole point of the Christian faith.

This has become an especially pressing concern for the church today. What we see on all sides is the constant preoccupation with psychological wholeness as a substitute for biblical holiness. This inevitably changes the way we think about God. The God of the outside, who stands over against us in his holiness, loses his point for our lives. We find ourselves yearning for comfort, therapeutic comfort, and at the same time the self-discipline and sacrifice of a faith grounded in God’s holiness have become distasteful to us. As this God, the God of the Bible, becomes remote to us, worship loses its awe, his Word loses its power to compel us, obedience loses its attraction, and the church loses its moral authority. That is our situation today, and that is why discipline is so important in the life of the church.

This quote is in a section on the necessity and practice of church discipline, which he defines as, “private rebukes, teaching for the purpose of correction, and…excommunication.”

Guilt Has Staying Power

hands-in-bloodHere is a long but fascinating essay on how despite the loss of God in our culture we are still guilty and how that guilt leads us to identify with victims and in many cases become victims.  Throughout the author discusses forgiveness as therapy, the idea of war reparations, the loss of the concept of sin, and the rash of fabricated memoirs and what those indicate about our world. My take away is that without the substitutionary atonement of Christ there is no remission of guilt. Without Christ men will try to alleviate their guilt, but without success. Here are a couple of paragraphs to get you started.

In the new therapeutic dispensation, however, forgiveness is all about the forgiver, and his or her power and well-being. We have come a long way from Shakespeare’s Portia, who spoke so memorably in The Merchant of Venice about the unstrained “quality of mercy,” which “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” and blesses both “him that gives and him that takes.” And an even longer way from Christ’s anguished cry from the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”And perhaps even further yet from the most basic sense of forgiveness, the canceling of a monetary debt or the pardoning of a criminal offense, in either case a very conscious suspension of the entirely rightful demands of justice.

We still claim to think well of forgiveness, but it has in fact very nearly lost its moral weight by having been translated into an act of random kindness whose chief value lies in the sense of personal release it gives us. “Forgiveness,” proclaimed the journalist Gregg Easterbrook writing at Beliefnet, “is good for your health.” Like the similar acts of confession or apology, and other transactions in the moral economy of sin and guilt, forgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards entirely, standards without which such transactions have little or no moral significance. Forgiveness only makes sense in the presence of a robust conception of justice. Without that, it is in real danger of being reduced to something passive and automatic and flimsy—a sanctimonious way of saying that nothing really matters very much at all…

Victimhood at its most potent promises not only release from responsibility, but an ability to displace that responsibility onto others. As a victim, one can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor, and in projecting that guilt lift it from his own shoulders. The result is an astonishing reversal, in which the designated victimizer plays the role of the scapegoat, upon whose head the sin comes to rest, and who pays the price for it. By contrast, in appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, the victimized can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence. It is no wonder that this has become so common a gambit in our time, so effectively does it deal with the problem of guilt—at least individually, and in the short run, though at the price of social pathologies in the larger society that will likely prove unsustainable…

For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or die for.

And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably, precisely by rendering us able to be in control of, and therefore accountable for, more and more elements in our lives—responsibility being the fertile seedbed of guilt. That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution or expiation without which no moral system can be bearable.

Marriage is Corrupted by Us

Marriage

We might think that marriage has become harder in the last few decades. There is some truth to that statement.  Cultural pressures, easy divorce, failure of good fathers to train sons to be good husbands, failure of good mothers to train daughters to be good wives, bad preaching, etc. have decimated marriage, which for most of Western history provided stability to our communities. But marriage itself is not any more difficult than it used to be. Men have always been sinners and so have women. The temptations have not changed since Genesis 3.  Hearts remain the same. Herman Bavinck writes this in his book The Christian Family. 

There are many unhappy marriages, more than we might suppose or know. There are people by the thousands bound to each other for life [you can tell he wrote a long time ago by that phrase. PJ] and who in their marriages are already living a hell on earth. When the best gets corrupted, it becomes the worst; love that wanes becomes hatred, and affection that dissipates gives way to aversion.

Marriages are bad all around us Bavinck said in 1908. And we would say the same. What is the solution? Bavinck says there are two directions we can go. First,

One can attempt to justify those facts and defend them as normal, and then all blame falls on the institution of marriage, and the person, and the person in such a marriage who commits harlotry and adultery goes free, and for his dissolute passion receives a crown on his head. Then divorce, open marriage, and free love are the solution to the problem. Then science and art, lectern and stage, must cooperate in undermining and overthrowing existing marriages.

This is the option America and most of the American church has chosen. Marriage has been destroyed because marriage is the problem. Being confined to one man and one woman is bondage, not freedom. Easy divorce, fornication, adultery, sodomy, and sexual abuse are for the most part winked at in our culture and often promoted as social goods. How many movies portray cheating on your spouse as necessary and good? We believe marriage and its attendant obligations and duties is the problem. So we burn marriage to the ground. Bavinck goes on to note that there is a second way we can address the difficulties of marriage.

But people can also be convinced that this cure, though recommended in the name of reality and science, of beauty and poetry, is worse than the disease. This conviction finds support in the conscience of every person. In the modern era, as the notion of sin is slipping away, the culpability for every misery is being sought outside the person and located in the institutions, in social circumstances, in the organization of the state.

That last sentence sums up the modern man and his view of sin. The problem is always outside of him. He is never the problem. His black heart is not the dangerous thing in the room. His bloody hands are not what stains the walls. We are innocent. Thus if there are problems in marriage, it can’t be me. It must be marriage itself or my spouse or the government or  my parents or my pastor.  Bavinck continues,

All deliverance is expected then from social and political reform. But conscience speaks a different language within every person who seriously examines himself and ventures to confront this moral reality. Such a conscience lays the blame not on the institution of society and the state, but on the person himself; you are the man! That is how the prophets and apostles spoke; this was the teaching and example of Christ; just like the entire moral law, marriage is wise and holy and good, being of divine origin and rich in blessing for the human race, but human beings have invented many schemes.

Later in the chapter Bavinck writes this,

Modern realists view the risks of marriage as the results and fruits of this institution itself, and for that reason they rebel against it and curse marriage. The Christian sees adversities and crosses in marriage, which overcome us on account of sin, and accepts them as a means to exercise one’s faith. No Christian says that the person is corrupted by marriage, but he confesses that marriage is corrupted by the person; the modern realist blames the circumstances, the institutions, the laws and ordinances, ultimately God himself, while the Christian finds within his own heart the source of all impurity.

The point is simple. Do we believe we are the greatest problem in our marriages or do we believe that something or someone outside of us is the problem?  Do we believe the dirtiest hearts are those of our spouse and children or our own hearts? I often tell my teenage sons that biggest danger in the room is them. That is not scare them into inaction. But to encourage them to take responsibility for their actions and to not blame others. Maybe we should stop waiting for the government or society to save marriage and start saving it ourselves by realizing that the biggest obstacle to a godly marriage is the person in the mirror.

Repentance Comes First

When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound. For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah. I, even I, will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue. I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me (Hos 5:13-15).

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When the Lord rebukes Israel through the prophet Hosea, Israel recognizes that she is sick (Hosea 5:13). She can see that something is wrong. But instead of turning to the Lord who can heal her she turns to Assyria. Israel flees to man and the strength of man to cure her disease. Yet the Lord says that Assyria cannot heal her and cannot make her whole again (Hosea 5:13).

Israel was under political oppression. Their enemies were closing in. But their enemies were not the problem. Their sin was. Instead of getting to the root of the problem, their covenant disobedience, they focused on the symptoms of the problem. They thought the disease would be cured if they just had a bigger army. They thought the answer was in an alliance with other nations. The problem however, was their disobedient heart, not their lack of chariots.

The Lord says in Hosea 5:15 that he wants Israel to acknowledge their offense or their guilt.  The answer for Israel is not more chariots or horses. The answer is not getting in bed with Assyria. The answer is repentance. Here is what Israel refuses to do. They are willing to try to fix things. They are not willing to repent and confess that they are wrong.

We are all this way. God in his mercy disciplines us. He gives us consequences for our sins. It might be a broken relationship, the loss of a job, a child that is in rebellion, a rebuke from a parent or friend, a note in book reminding us that our worship is out of line, etc. But like Israel we are not interested in repentance. We are interested in alleviating the consequences of our sins. We want to remove the embarrassment of our sin, but not the sin itself.  So we try to fix things. We try to cover things up.  Instead of repenting of our sin of selfishness, we try to be more generous. Instead confessing that we have harmed our children with our anger, we try to be kinder. Instead of admitting that our worship is not in accord with the Scriptures, we run another outreach program. We do everything but the one thing necessary, admit we are wrong, confess our sins, repent, and turn to Christ. But the gospel does not begin with you getting your life together. It begins with repentance.

The Sinfulness of Sin is Fuel for Evangelism

There is a deep connection between our doctrine of sin and evangelism. The more serious sin is the more serious a church will take her call to evangelize. If sin is minimized then the importance of evangelism diminishes. If man is born good and social structures cause him to do evil then the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection is of little value. If man simply needs more knowledge, more education, then again Christ’s death will not help much. If man’s problem is lack of resources, such as money, food, opportunities, then again Christ cannot help him. But if man’s problem is that he is an enemy of God, separated from Him because his heart is overflowing with selfishness, pride, anger, lust, malice, and bitterness, and therefore God’s wrath rests upon him, then the Cross is the only answer. And evangelism becomes a priority.

Paul Preaching to Lydia

What are the practical effects on evangelism of a low view of sin?

Hell is Ignored
Hell is real. Hell is where men who never turn to Christ spend eternity. Christ rescues men from an eternity where “the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Isaiah 66:24, Mark 9:47-48). Sin against a holy, perfect, just God puts men there. God’s wrath sits upon them because of their wicked hearts and lives. When we believe this, we want to rescue men and women from this plight. We don’t want them in Hell. Despite some of our over-zealous brothers from the past, Hell is still a good motivation for preaching Jesus Christ.

But if sin is minimized then Hell is as well. Hell only makes sense when God’s holiness and his hatred of sin are fierce and real. If sin is not a big deal then Hell will either be ignored or denied and our zeal for evangelism will weaken.

Men are Left in Bondage to Sin
However, evangelism is not just about delivering men from the ”second death” (Rev. 2:11). When a man turns to Christ he is set free from the power of sin. Sin destroys a man’s life here on earth, not just after he dies. One of the great causes of pain in this life is guilt.  Guilt gnaws at us. We try and try to clean our hands, but we cannot. Christ can make us clean. Men and women are slaves to their lusts and greed. They are slaves to the fads of this world. They are not free to give. They are not free to have deep joy. They are not free to suffer on behalf of others. They are not free from the terrors of death and the pangs of their own conscience. When a man comes to Christ, his sins are forgiven and he is given the Spirit. He is now free from sin’s mastery (Romans 6:22). When sin is properly understood, evangelism becomes a way to tell men of the One who can break their chains and release them.

But if sin is minimized then we leave men as slaves. Their lust, anger, greed, malice, and hatred may be small inconveniences that occasionally cause trouble, but not chains that bind them. We look at them clapped in irons and held captive by sin and say to ourselves, “It is not a big deal. They will be just fine.”

Christ is not Glorified
But the biggest fallout from a failure to take sin seriously is that Christ’s glory is smeared. When sin is seen as a the great enemy of man’s soul then Christ’s atonement and resurrection become the greatest and most powerful event in history. Death, that dreaded enemy of man, has been destroyed. Sin, which ravages our souls and bodies and leads us to ravage others, is forgiven and defeated. Satan our great accuser has been silenced. God’s wrath has been turned away because “his own arm brought salvation” (Isaiah 59:15-17). Those who were exiled from the garden have been brought back in.We have great news for a world living in darkness and the shadow death (Isaiah 9:2). A Child was born who took our stripes and healed us (Isaiah 9:6, 53:4-6). Sin, properly understood, leads a church to evangelize and this in turn brings glory to Christ and His work.

But if sin is not a big deal, if sin is not the great enemy that we have been told it was, then Christ’s work is not that big a deal either. If sin is a slight wound, healed lightly with some ointment and a band-aid then the Cross is overkill and slightly embarrassing. It is like rushing a child to the ER for a splinter. Was that really necessary? After all, we are really good people.  If people aren’t really perishing then why rescue them? If folks are not dead in their trespasses and sins then why preach life to them? And when Christ is not preached and His death and resurrection not proclaimed then he is not glorified.

Understanding the depth, power, and ugliness of sin leads a church to love evangelism. We will delight to tell our communities the good news that there is deliverance from Hell, bondage to sin, death, and Satan. We will love to glorify our great King and Savior by telling others of His work. But if our doctrine of sin is weak then our evangelism will be as well. The deeper our understanding of sin the deeper our love for Jesus and those he came to save.