Conversatio Divina

Part 9 of 14

Confession as Essential Practice: An Evangelical Perspective

Gordon Smith

We both grew up in a standard Evangelical church—as it happens, both within the Christian and Missionary Alliance. But what we observed then and now would be fairly typical of most Evangelicals. In those years, confession and repentance were taken seriously—all of us as young people being taught the ACTS acronym, which suggested that prayer should include adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. But now, it seems that confession and repentance have either disappeared entirely—they are not part of public worship in evangelical circles—or, if they are still included, they are treated almost as something passing and incidental.

The reasons that one hears for this development are interesting and instructive. Some are more pragmatic in their reasons. They insist that the church needs to be more seeker-sensitive in its worship, and seeker-sensitivity requires the removal of such “discouraging” acts as prayers of confession. Confession is a bit of a “downer”; it is not necessary for the spiritual life and may actually undermine a healthy and positive self-image. These Evangelicals have dispensed with confession and perhaps even the observance of Good Friday in an effort to get to the celebration of the Resurrection, the “real” focus of the Christian faith—the “positive” side of the gospel.

Others, though, are more theological in their reflections. They say they have dispensed with the practice of confession because they see it to be a violation of the gospel. The argument, put simply, is that we need to confess our sins when we become Christians, but not afterward. Why? Because, they say, in Christ a person’s sins are forgiven—past, present, and future. These preachers proclaim that to confess regularly is to “nail Christ to the cross again and again”! Rather, they urge their followers to “live in the forgiveness they have already received.”

Both of these responses may be an understandable reaction to the ways in which confession has been practiced and understood—either by other traditions, such as Roman Catholicism, or even earlier forms of Evangelical practice. Even so, to dispense with confession is to lose out on one of the most vital practices of the Christian life. We propose that this recovery come first through a rereading of the ancient text, the Holy Scriptures. And second, we see great value in an intentional reflection on the Evangelical spiritual tradition— though at its best, this reflection will come in conversation with Christians of other theological and spiritual streams. What we discover in both cases is that the penitential is integral to the spiritual life, and, perhaps something not fully appreciated as we grew up within the tradition. Confession and repentance are not merely an episodic component of the spiritual life—such as when one feels that one has “sinned” and needs to ask for forgiveness, however legitimate that may be—but rather, the penitential is part of the fabric, the very rhythm, of the spiritual life. It is inherent in what it means to be a Christian.

01.  A Scarlet Thread through the Biblical Witness

The theme of repentance runs like a scarlet thread through the Scriptures. A dialectic of sin and redemption arises with the events of Genesis 3 and continues to Revelation 22, and repentance is a key component in the movement from sin to redemption.

This is highlighted, for example, by the sacrificial system. While Christians tend to view sacrifice in the old covenant as a “covering” of sin, it is important to highlight that sacrifices were offered out of a penitential disposition. The Hebrew word typically translated “guilty” (asham) is better translated “feel guilty,” suggesting disposition, specifically the remorse that would follow a verbal admission of guilt. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that within the sacrificial system, confession of sin was to accompany certain sacrificial acts (as is suggested by Numbers 5:6–8), and in this we see a precedent in the priestly system for both a penitential disposition as well as penitential confession. And this is showcased on a communal level in the yearly rhythm of the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies and made atonement for the sins of the people, an action that included a confession of the sins of the people (Leviticus 16). It is not surprising that such confession is ultimately linked to the agenda for renewal after the anticipated apostasy of Israel, which would bring on exile (Leviticus 26:39–42). The people were told that after they had been disciplined, penitential confession arising from a humble heart would be essential to their return to the land and their renewal as the people of God.

The perspective within the sacrificial system is complemented by Deuteronomy, a book linked to the closing chapter of Moses’ ministry among Israel and the delivery of his final sermon on the Plains of Moab as Israel was poised to enter the Promised Land with its many blessings but also dangers. Here, Moses called the people to the core values of covenant relationship and renewal. In similar fashion to Leviticus 26, in both Deuteronomy 4 and 30, the people were told there was a great possibility that one day they would falter and turn away from God, placing their affections on idols. If they did so, God would discipline them, scattering them among the nations. The people, however, were offered a pattern of response: they were to “seek the Lord your God” and “look for him with all your heart and with all your soul” and “return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 4:29; 30:2, NIV Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ), a response made possible because “God is a merciful God,” who “will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers” (Deuteronomy 4:31, NIV).

This twofold perspective on repentance (the priestly perspective of the sacrificial system as complemented by the book of Deuteronomy) is foundational for seeing how repentance developed in the rest of the Old Testament. One could even say that at the heart of the ministry of the prophets is the call to “turn” (shub); the prophet’s message to both Israel and Judah in 2 Kings 17, a passage that recounts the reasons for the exile of the northern kingdom, includes the call to “turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees, in accordance with the entire Law that I commanded your ancestors to obey and that I delivered to you through my servants the prophets” (2 Kings 17:13, NIV). In the latter prophets, this regular use of the verb “turn” (shub) is a constant call back to covenant relationship. Superb examples of this are Hosea’s invitation in 6:1 (NIV): “Come, let us return to the Lord,” and Jeremiah’s cry in 4:1 (NIV): “ ‘If you, Israel, will return, then return to me,’ declares the Lord.” The covenantal character of this cry is exemplified in these two prophetic citations; that is, the call of repentance is primarily focused not on behavior, but rather on relationship with this covenant God, an emphasis echoed in one of the final prophetic voices of the Old Testament, the prophet Zechariah, in his summary of the message of the prophets as, “Return to me . . . and I will return to you” (1:3, NIV).

Of course, this has implications for our behavior (that is, our obedience), as Zechariah immediately reminds us: “Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices” (verse 4, NIV); but repentance is fundamentally covenantal, that is, relational: it is turning to God.

The call to repentance is so fundamental to the prophetic message that it comes as no surprise that the New Testament begins with the ministry of a prophet named John calling the people of God to repentance (Matthew 3:2, 11; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3), as the people await the restoration promised by the law and the prophets. So also is Christ a preacher of repentance (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 5:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7), a sign that his intention was to usher in the promised Kingdom of God, but that the arrival of such a restoration must be preceded by repentance. Indeed, a people did repent, recognizing Jesus Christ as the Lord whose promised coming would be inaugurated by repentance.

But it did not end there. Repentance was the essential component of the gospel cry of the early Church as they proclaimed Jesus not only in Jerusalem and Judea, but also to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38–39; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; 26:20; cf. Mark 6:12). Furthermore, for this community of God inaugurated in the Old Testament and now enduring in the New Testament, repentance was an essential rhythm to life in covenant relationship with the Lord. Such repentance was always a response to divine justice as well as grace, qualities expressed climactically in and through the death of Christ on the cross. God is a just and holy God, and his love demands that he call his people to account for the ways in which they have violated his justice. Thus, as in the Old Testament, such a rhythm of repentance for the people of God was to flow from an awareness of God’s both just and merciful character.

The emphasis in the letters of Revelation is clearly on the justice of God’s wrath (Revelation 2:5, 16, 21–22; 3:3, 19), but the divine voice reminds us in the final letter, “I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent” (3:19, NRSV Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.); and those who respond have the privilege of covenant intimacy with the Lord: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3:20, NRSV).

In similar fashion, the apostle Paul mixes emphasis on God’s justice and God’s mercy to motivate believers in Rome to repentance: “Do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:4–5, NRSV). This same balance can be discerned in the invitation of 1 John 1:9 (NIV): “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

02.  The Evangelical Spiritual Heritage

This clear biblical call to repentance is, in turn, matched by the call we hear through the wisdom of the Evangelical spiritual heritage. With the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564) reacted to the Roman Catholic practice of penance and any suggestion that confession somehow makes satisfaction for sin. But then they also insisted that true faith in Christ would always be demonstrated in repentance. For Luther, this was the essential means by which a Christian would enter into the grace of baptism, and then throughout the Christian life renew the faith experience represented by baptism. While rejecting penance, he still held that repentance is necessary for the spiritual life.

Calvin made an even stronger call to repentance, insisting that repentance is not only the fruit of faith but also the necessary fruit of faith. Without the inclusion of repentance, for Calvin, “any discussion concerning faith will be meager and defective, and indeed almost useless.            Repentance not only always follows faith, but is produced by it.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book III, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979 reprint) Chapter III, Para. 1. The call to a faith that produces repentance is reflected not only in the way in which one enters into Christian faith; it is also integral to the entire Christian experience, both as disposition and as a practice that we are obliged to cultivate during the whole course of our lives.

Evangelicals are particularly indebted to the wisdom of the Puritans on the one hand, and to John and Charles Wesley on the other; and this perspective is complemented by the spiritual wisdom of the Anabaptist traditions. The Puritans called for a “mind of repentance.” As one Puritan preacher put it, “the vigor and power of spiritual life is dependent on mortification of sin,” reflecting the words of the Westminster Confession: “Repentance is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it,” James E. Bordwine, A Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1991) Chapter XV, Para. III, 85. and “it is every man’s duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins, particularly.” Bordwine, Chapter XV, Para. V, 86. Indeed, for the Puritans the Christian life is a penitential life. A genuine life of faith is evident in a penitential habit of heart, that is, both the attitude or disposition of contriteness and the practice of repentance.

John (1703–1791) and Charles Wesley (1707–1788) emphasized that the Christian lived with an assurance of forgiveness—a deep, heartfelt confidence in God’s acceptance. But this was not a once-and-for-all-time experience. In his sermon on “The Repentance of Believers,”   John Wesley, “The Repentance of Believers.” The Works of John Wesley. 3rd ed. Vol. V: First Series of Sermons, No. XIV (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1986) 156–170 (Subsequent references are to Section and Paragraph numbers). Wesley observes it is commonly thought that repentance and faith are only the “gate of religion,” only a time-bound practice or disposition concurrent with coming to Christian faith. He notes that appeal is sometimes made to the line in Hebrews 6:1 (KJV Scriptures marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible.), “not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works.”

Wesley insisted, however, that while faith and repentance are certainly needed in coming to faith in Christ (the experience of justification and regeneration), “repentance and faith are fully as necessary in order for our continuance and growth in grace.” Wesley, Introduction, Para. 1. He counseled that although sin does not “reign” in the Christian believer, it nevertheless “remains” in the heart of the new Christian, thus necessitating ongoing repentance. The new believer is always prone to love the creature more than the Creator, to be a lover of pleasure rather than a lover of God (see 2 Timothy 3:4), and thus there remains the need to be watchful and to guard over one’s life. For Wesley, just as “sin remains in our hearts . . . so it cleaves to all our words and actions.” Wesley, Sec. 1, Para. 10 and 11. He uses the image of sin as sickness in want of healing, and notes that unless “we are sensible of our disease, it admits no cure.” Wesley, Intro., Para. 1.

Wesley especially emphasized that in repentance, the Christian believer must give particular attention to pride: “We may therefore set it down as an undoubted truth, that covetousness, together with pride, self-will, and anger, remain in the hearts even of them that are justified.” He goes on to speak of the ways in which pride infiltrates all our actions, and how fear or timidity leads us to sins of omission—the failure to do what we know we should do. Wesley, Sec. 1, Para. 9 and 14.

For the Anabaptists, there are a number of sources to which we could turn, but one that is familiar to many Mennonites would be the Menno Simons’ exposition of Psalm 25, which is written in the form of a highly autobiographical penitential prayer. Noteworthy here is that what motivates this is not so much the terror of hell and death as, rather, the goodness of God. Simons (1496–1561), the penitent, deeply aware of his own failures, cries out to God, “Accept me in grace and give me your mercy, blessing, and confidence, Lord, for the sake of your own goodness”; and later, “I do come before your throne of mercy, for I know that you are gracious and good. You do not desire that sinners should die but that they repent and have life.” Daniel Liechty, ed. and trans. Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1994) 253. For Simons, the goodness and mercy of God summon forth a profound longing expressed through the imagery of sickness and healing. As in Wesley’s sermons, Christ is the healer. When Simons despairs before God of his wanton failures and error-prone life, he recognizes that “your word alone can heal all things. I seek and desire this grace, for it alone is the medicament which can heal my sick soul.” Liechty, 257.

All three of these variations on the movement, then, are insistent on the vital place of the penitential in the Christian life. What catches one’s attention is the motive for repentance: one’s grief at having violated a relationship of love and, second, the desire for healing. At its best, the Evangelical spiritual tradition affirmed that the Christian lives in humble awareness of the goodness of God, who unfailingly calls the believer from a disposition and pattern of behavior that is inconsistent with the Christian confession. A distinctive strength of the movement was its stress on the need for honest self-appraisal and understanding, and on the Christian’s capacity to take personal responsibility for his or her life.

03.  The Recovery of Confession

What strikes us, from both the biblical witness and the input from the Evangelical spiritual heritage, is that while repentance is not synonymous with conversion, it is so integral to conversion that the Scriptures often speak of conversion by speaking of repentance. Further, just as there is no conversion without repentance, even so, repentance is vital to our spiritual growth. The Bible and our spiritual heritage call us to an appreciation that the Christian life is one of continuous repentance and conversion.

This call to repentance is terribly distorted, however, when it is not rooted in the context of the love and acceptance of God—that is, when the call to repentance is divorced from our covenant relationship with God. Both the Scriptures and the Evangelical heritage stress that what motivates our “turning” is the knowledge of God’s covenantal love. But more, confession is a way that we bring integrity and consistency to our lives, and ultimately, healing. The Christian seeks a realignment in thought, word, and deed around a personal awareness of and conviction of the call of God to be holy.

The Evangelical tradition is at its best when the approach to confession highlights the wonder of the goodness and mercy of God. This is not an act of judgment; when we come to confession, we meet not our Judge but our Healer! In faith, knowing that we are loved and accepted, we turn from self-absorption, from self-preoccupation and pride, and from self-reliance. And we joyfully receive the forgiveness of God, an act by which the Spirit empowers us to turn from sin and live in the light.

As we mature as Christians, confession becomes less and less a matter of identifying particular sins or thoughts, and more and more a realization that we are “prone to wander,” as the hymn writer has put it—prone to become occupied with ourselves and self-reliant rather than dependent on the grace of God. We need regular confession because it happens so easily and invariably.

Finally, we need confession because this is one of the most crucial ways by which our lives are anchored in the joy and peace that are the gift of the Spirit. It is not surprising that the hymns of Charles Wesley feature the place of both confession and joy in the Christian life; the two go together.

We thus conclude that we must eagerly seek to restore the practice of confession and repentance—indeed, to embrace this practice—as integral to what it means to be a Christian community and what it means to be a Christian. For the community, all of this logically finds expression in the liturgy—in Sunday worship, either as a stand-alone prayer or as an integral part of the prayers of the people.

Our reading of both the biblical witness and the Evangelical spiritual tradition leaves us convinced that prayers of confession are integral to Christian worship because to be a Christian is to be a penitent. We are always conscious of our identity as part of a fallen and broken world, and we are always turning, always seeking the Kingdom and righteousness of God. Always. It is part of the fabric of our lives.

Effective pastoral leadership, then, must include teaching the people of God to confess—not as an unusual or episodic element of the Christian life, when one has sinned grievously, but as part of the very rhythm of life. Confession can and really must be a part of our personal prayers—our daily time of prayer, communion, and reflection in the presence of Christ. We intercede for others, we give thanks, and we meditate on Scripture. But surely our daily prayers should include the humble prayer by which we allow the Spirit to convict us of sin and invite us to make our confession. And this is a simple act: we acknowledge our wrong; we accept responsibility and refuse to blame others or compare ourselves to others. And, yes, we appropriate the forgiveness of a merciful Christ.

Crucial here is that we are not comparing ourselves to others or judging others! Indeed, we are appropriating the forgiveness of God only insofar as we are forgiving others (as we see so clearly in the Lord’s Prayer). In confession, we are asking God to illumine our hearts and lives—asking the Spirit where it is that we (not others) are being called to repent.

And then, through confession, we always come once more to joy—the joy of forgiveness, the joy of a life lived under the mercy of God.


GORDON T. SMITH is the president of Overseas Council Canada; he is also adjunct professor of theology at a number of theological schools.</br></br>MARK BODA is professor of Old Testament at McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.