To understand why confession is such an extraordinary spiritual discipline, we have to get the plot right. We tend to think the storyline of confession goes like this:
- I do something stupid, sinful, hurtful, foolish.
- I feel guilty and/or ashamed. I feel like I need to get something off my chest.
- So I confess my sin to God.
- I'm now forgiven (again!), but I still feel burdened.
- I confess to a fellow Christian.
- My soul feels light once again.
When we live in this plotline, we naturally hear things like, "Confession is good for the soul." And indeed when we confess to both God and others, our souls do feel light once again.
So confession is good for the soul, yes, but not in the way we think. That's because the real story arc is different than we imagine. The problem with the storyline above is that it's all about me. The story starts with me and ends with me. But the Me of this story is confused. It doesn't understand the story in which it thinks it's the star. It mistakenly thinks of God as the supporting actor, and the church as the supporting cast—there mostly to solve the star's problem.
To get a better handle on confession, we need to hear from another storyteller. This story doesn't start with, "In the beginning, I sinned." It starts, "In the beginning, God …." And without going into lot of detail, continues, "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." The plot begins with God in Christ doing something for us long before we were aware of our sin. Long before we were guilty or ashamed. Long before we set out on a journey to stop feeling so uncomfortable.
When you start the story on that note, it changes everything. Now the main actor is God in Christ, and we are his supporting cast. And the storyline goes like this:
- God so loved the world he gave himself in his Son.
- God established his church to proclaim this incredible news, which is called the gospel.
- Through the preaching of this gospel we recognize that we are indeed people who are guilty and lost—and yet are forgiven and found!
- We respond by acknowledging this new reality—admitting that yes, indeed, we are most surely guilty and lost, and rejoicing that we are forgiven and found!
Point three in the story—recognizing reality—is what the New Testament calls faith. Point four—acknowledging the new reality—is called repentance, or what we also call confession.
This is why the word confession has always had a double meaning for Christians. It means to acknowledge sins, yes. But it also is a synonym for professing faith. Thus many creedal statements in church history have been called "confessions," like the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, that church's statement of faith.
In this story, confession is not primarily about getting things off my chest, although it often has that effect, thank God. Confession is mostly speaking with God and others about reality, about the way things are. And the way things are is like this: While we were sinners—long before we knew that reality and experienced its pain—God loved us and died for us. In the moment of confession, we acknowledge our sin, yes, but more importantly, we acknowledge that his love prompted us to speak about our sin—already forgiven sin!—so that we can participate in the new life he offers us.
Despite what some verses seem to imply, confession isn't a quid pro quo—we confess, and then and only then does God forgive. We must keep in mind the difference between what God does and what we experience—otherwise we'll find Scripture contradicting itself: as in, Paul says, "when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son" (Romans 5:10), but 1 John says only if we confess will God forgive (1:9). So what gives?
The answer is that Paul is speaking about what has actually happened already in Christ—we are forgiven!—and John is speaking of how we participate in Christ—and thus experience the reality of forgiveness already given.
You can see why confession has been such an important spiritual discipline in the history of the church, and why many are trying to revive it today. It's a way to rehearse all of salvation history, the gospel, the good news—and to do so in a way that is applicable in the most personal way. So go ahead, get something off your chest, and then bask in the marvelous story of God.