Reframing Confession

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In the Church, the somber and reflective shroud of Lent has given way to the glorious dawn of Easter morning, and even now we lean forward in eager anticipation of the promise of the Father revealed on Pentecost. As a young Christian, I am beginning to appreciate the sublime depths of the Church’s liturgical year, noting the unity of the church across time and space as it is gathered as one into the life of Jesus Christ, ebbing and flowing like the tides.

And yet, this year, as I reflect back on Lent, that season of confession and contrition, where the gravity and weight of sin is unveiled as we journey alongside of Jesus toward the cross, there is something that just doesn’t sit well with my conscience.

Confession.

I can remember very clearly the Wednesday evening in college ministry when the problem crystallized in my mind. I stood in front of fifty college students and held up a white sheet of paper with a large black dot that I had darkened in the center of it with a Sharpie.

“What do you see?” I asked them.

Every single one of them had the same answer. We see the black dot. Yes. That is the problem.  What about the white page that the black dot is on?

At times, we degenerate into people of the black dot.

All too often during Lent (and throughout the year), we readily confess with Isaiah, “Woe is me! I am lost! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips,”…. And yet we forget to complete his sentiment, “yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”  (Isa.6:5)

With Joshua we stand before the Lord and confess our agreement with Satan’s accusations against us, and yet we forget to confess the response of the Lord, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this person a brand plucked from the fire?” (Zech. 3:1-4)

Frequently our confession emphasizes the darkness and depravity of sin that has abounded in our lives without simultaneously confessing the God who makes grace abound ever more. (Rom. 5:20)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines confession as, “a written or oral acknowledgement of guilt by a party accused of an offense.”

At times the Church, like the culture that surrounds us, defines and practices confession in a manner that scrupulously identifies the black spot while turning a blind eye to the radiant purity of the white page by which it is enveloped.

In our illumination we have cast aside our rose-tinted glasses, yet, rather than taking the opportunity to look at the world as it is in all of its broken glory, we slip on lenses that have muted gray tinting which casts a dull pallor on all that we see. At times, our confession is predominantly sin conscious rather than radically aware of grace. We do this even despite the witness of the book of Hebrews informing us that a perfect offering for sin would cleanse worshippers once and for all, removing all consciousness of sin. (Heb. 10:2)

Sin conscious confession presents a piety that claims to exalt the cross of Jesus Christ. However, any confession that truncates the narrative of God in such a way that it embraces the cross while excluding the empty tomb dishonors the eternal purposes of God in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the dictionary definition of confession that we frequently embody in the Church, particularly during Lent but also throughout the year, is insufficient.  If our confession focuses on the darkness of sin yet omits the confession of the grandeur of God we all too readily descend into a brooding skepticism rather than a hopeful expectation that, “the God of peace himself (would) sanctify us entirely, and keep our spirits, souls, and bodies sound and blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess. 5:23-24)

We are the people of the white page. Although we are aware of the black spot and do not discount it, we should never confess the black spot apart from simultaneously confessing the radical beauty and sublime purity of the white page.  To the definition of confession that reads, ““a written or oral acknowledgement of guilt by a party accused of an offense,” I would add a Christian ending, “and a written or oral acknowledgment of the majesty and beauty of the God who revealed the depths of His love and mercy toward us by sending His Son to die on a cross for our guilt and raising Him from the dead for our reconciliation.”  Confession in the Church must reclaim its positive dimension, and if there is an imbalance, let it be in favor of the radical grace of God.

John Wesley, in his treatise The Character of a Methodist, captures both dimensions of confession in the following words:

 “He is therefore happy in God, yea, always happy, as having in him “a well of water springing up into everlasting life,” and overflowing his soul with peace and joy. “Perfect love” having now “cast out fear,” he “rejoices evermore.” He “rejoices in the Lord always,” even “in God his Saviour;” and in the Father, “through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom he hath now received the atonement.” “Having” found “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of his sins,” he cannot but rejoice, whenever he looks back on the horrible pit out of which he is delivered; when he sees “all his transgressions blotted out as a cloud, and his iniquities as a thick cloud.” He cannot but rejoice, whenever he looks on the state wherein he now is; “being justified freely, and having peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” For “he that believeth, hath the witness” of this “in himself;” being now the son of God by faith. “Because he is a son, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into his heart, crying, Abba, Father!” And “the Spirit itself beareth witness with his spirit, that he is a child of God.” He rejoiceth also, whenever he looks forward, “in hope of the glory that shall be revealed;” yea, this his joy is full, and all his bones cry out, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten me again to a living hope–of an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for me!””

We are the people of the white page. We are people of hopeful anticipation. We are a people who embrace the reality of the cross always with an eye on the empty tomb. Let our confession no longer remain in the murky depths of morbid scrupulosity, but rather let it climb to the lofty heights of the mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)

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For the past several years, David and his wife Mary Beth have been working inter-denominationally with the Inspire Movement in the U.K. and the U.S., assisting local churches to develop and implement the vision and practice of robust Wesleyan-style discipleship. This reflects his passion to encourage other believers to flourish in their God-given giftings and to reclaim a biblically grounded spirituality that interweaves discipleship, evangelism, prayer and incarnational living.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Having grown up in the Roman Catholic tradition, I would counter that the Catholic sacrament of Confession does this well, and even protects against putting all the focus on the “black dot”. When a Catholic confesses to a priest, the priest responds with recommended acts of contrition as well as blessings from the Father. You shouldn’t get one without the other, and that is the point of Confession – acknowledgement and contrition from sin; awareness of the grace of God.

    Even the Methodist prayer of confession (which my local congregation uses on Communion weeks) reminds the participant that (1) we have sinned and (2) “by the Grace of God, you are forgiven.” And the glory goes to God!

    Guess this is another example of where people like to re-frame an element of the life of a Christian away from the organized and towards the individual. In the process, the theological significance is often minimized, if not lost completely. Maybe the church fathers had some right ideas all along!

  2. Glory to God! Maybe (and I believe it is determined by the individual) there will be a day where we forget altogether about that black dot and live like God see’s us, as He see’s His Son, His dearly beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased… That is when Romans 14:17 is accomplished!

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