Forgiveness Hocus Pocus

GardenOfGods

Last week I was getting ready to leave a coffee shop after spending the morning worship planning when I overheard a conversation between two men. They were having a lively conversation over coffee, complete with hand gestures and animated facial expressions. I could tell that they were talking about religion from the few words I overheard. Now, I don’t make a practice of eavesdropping, but after a few more people left the coffee shop, I could hear every word the two men were saying. They were discussing forgiveness, where it comes from, and how a person can receive it. They talked about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and then one of the men made a statement that stuck with me.

“We receive forgiveness if we confess our sins. If we confess our sins.” (Emphasis his, not mine)

Is that really how forgiveness works? I did not grow up in the reformed tradition, and I heard statements similar to this one on a pretty regular basis as I was learning about the basics of the Christian faith. At the time, it made sense to me. If I sinned, I needed to confess to make up for it. It is how we are raised as children. When you hurt someone or offend someone, you have to apologize. Parents of young children may find themselves insisting that one child say “I’m sorry” to a sibling who has been hurt or offended in some way. But, is this really how forgiveness works?

When I began to study reformed theology, I encountered a new idea that flew in the face of everything I had been taught: God’s forgiveness isn’t contingent on our confession. Yes, confession is important, but to believe that our confession somehow guarantees our forgiveness is a tremendous over-simplification that can lead to a few disastrous theological consequences.

1. If we believe it is up to us to confess our sins before we can receive forgiveness, it sends the message that we believe we’re more powerful than God. The reality is, God doesn’t need our confessions. Just like God chose Abraham before Abraham was circumcised (see Genesis 12, and 17:26), God offers forgiveness to us before we’ve done anything to deserve it.

2. If we believe we receive forgiveness by confessing, it can turn our prayer life into a kind of hocus pocus. There isn’t a special set of words we can say to guarantee God will forgive us. Repentance is a condition of the heart, and not just something we say when we’ve been caught with our hands in the cookie jar.  Our prayers are powerful and they are important to say, but we cannot manipulate God with our words. The Bible isn’t like a spell book that gives us tools to use to manipulate the forces and powers of the world for our own benefit. Our lives should model confession just as our mouths ask for it. But, even then, forgiveness is something God does, not something we can arm-wrestle out of God’s hands by the things we say.

3. If confession is a guarantee of forgiveness, our salvation would not be grace. Throughout the pages of the New Testament, Paul reminds us that salvation is a gift of grace. “For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) is just one of many examples of the centrality of grace in Paul’s writings. Grace is something unearned, undeserved. Grace is unpredictable and a bit unruly. Grace is something beautiful that grips us when we least expect it. Or as Anne Lamott put it so perfectly, “Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain of air that gets in through the cracks.” [1] Nothing we can do can earn our salvation; it is a gift from God.

4. If forgiveness depended on our ability to recall every sin we’ve ever committed, we would all be in serious trouble. In the short time I’ve been in ministry so far, I’ve encountered many people who lived with a deep, debilitating fear of condemnation because they did not believe they had effectively confessed all of their sins. The truth is, if all of us sin all of the time, and if sin is an inclination to do what displeases God just as much as it is the “bad” things we do, none of us are able to confess every sin we’ve ever committed. We sin so often that we do not even realize we are doing it. Or, as John Calvin put it in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, “But our mind has such an inclination to vanity that it can never cleave fast to the truth of God; and it has such a dullness that it is always blind to the light of God’s truth.” [2] Thanks be to God for the gift of salvation – something none of us could ever earn through our works, no matter how honorable our works might be!

Confession is an important practice for Christians. There is something profound that happens when we reflect on our lives and we confess our sins. We can experience healing, transformation, the presence of Christ, the reassurance of God through the Holy Spirit, and myriad other blessings when we confess our sins. But, we have to remember that the agent of our forgiveness isn’t our confession. The One who forgives us is our merciful God, and it is a gift we cannot earn or repay. Good news, indeed!

So, what do you believe about confession? Do you have to confess in order to be forgiven? What did you grow up hearing about confession and forgiveness?

Through Grace,

April

—-

[1] Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually), p. 20

[2] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.ii.33

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15 thoughts on “Forgiveness Hocus Pocus

  1. Do you distinguish between confession (asking forgiveness) prior to salvation versus after? I agree that once we become Christians we no longer NEED to confess our sins as a means for staying “saved” because it was made clear that God had already forgiven us and tossed our sins from East to West, but I can’t wrap my mind around how someone could accept Jesus as their savior and at the same time, refuse to acknowledge themselves as a sinner and ask forgiveness at that moment. Wouldn’t confession of sins be a pretty integral part of first recognizing who Jesus is and why we need him?

    • Lynn, in my mind there is a difference between the moment of initial repentance and subsequent confession. Our initial repentance doesn’t earn our salvation, but to me it is indicative of a change of heart and life. If we “turn away” from sin or “change our minds” in metanoia/repentance, there has to be an acknowledgement that our previous way of thinking and living was leading to death. In that instance, I think that repentance is part of the process, but God is still the agent of forgiveness.

      I would certainly not want someone to read my original post and think I advocate for a life without repentance and confession. When we enter the presence of a holy God and when we have the Spirit within us, we will be a people who repent and confess our sins. I think it is part of the identity and life of the believer. The trouble comes in when we think that somehow our confession makes the forgiveness happen.

  2. April,
    Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with most of what you say, but allow me to refine the perspective a bit.

    The person you heard was correct in his statement, unless you don’t accept 1John 1:9. John was quite clear in his statement… “If we confess…” I believe you will find that the original language bears it out… There is the condition that we confess.

    Please note that even though the condition exists, fulfilling that condition does not guarantee forgiveness. John acknowledges the fulfillment of the condition, then notes God’s faithfulness. It’s God’s faithfulness that causes or guarantee the forgiveness, not the act of man. (God is also faithful to condemn all those who do not confess their sinfulness.)

    I believe that the condition, “if we confess…” should not be interpreted to mean literally, every single sin. It is more general. When we repent and are saved, we admit to, or confess, our sinful condition. At that point, one might ask, what sin have I committed or will I commit that Jesus has not already paid for? And yet, in the previous verse, John said, “If we say we have no sin, we are liars.”

    That said, one must not get the idea that confession and repentance are a “one time covers all” action. Only God’s redemption is a “one time covers all” action. Since we live in time and experience life in time, our daily walk with Jesus also progresses in time. Even though all of our sins were forgiven long ago, even those we will commit in the future, we are not perfect and we continue to sin. The natural result of sin is separation from God. We suffer from an understanding of our dirtiness or repulsiveness in God’s eyes. If we desire to walk with God… to live close to Him and to enjoy the benefits of that daily closeness, then confession is the present means that God uses to change us… Cleanse us… perhaps one might use the word “sanctify”. A continuing process throughout our lives of being drawn closer to Him. This cleansing is in our eyes, not His, because He has already cleaned us.

    Our daily confession is not the condition of forgiveness but rather the process that God uses to change our lives and our walk with Him. Maybe the way to look at it is that, knowing our sinfulness, and understanding our repulsiveness on a human level means that God has to continue to convince us of our forgiveness… every day… every time we sin.

    If we aren’t close to God, who do you think moved?

    • ltenclay, I really appreciated this comment: “Maybe the way to look at it is that, knowing our sinfulness, and understanding our repulsiveness on a human level means that God has to continue to convince us of our forgiveness… every day… every time we sin.” That’s a really neat way of putting it. Thanks!

      I definitely do not think repentance/confession is a “one time covers all” sort of thing. Confession and repentance are part of the DNA of the believer. One of the Holy Spirit’s characteristics (as we see from the Upper Room discourse in the Gospel of John) is that of convicting us of sin. The point I hope to make is not whether or not we should/need to confess our sins, but whether or not that act of confession is salvific in some way. If we are in relationship with a holy God, our unholiness should be pretty apparent. It should drive us to confession, for sure.

  3. In “The Message,” Eugene Peterson paraphrases of John 20:23b as , “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” I have always liked that idea that not forgiving something means that the forgiver, not the sinner, is stuck with it. But imagine applying that to God: if God must wait for us to confess, then we get to burden God with our sins. Doesn’t sound like the relationship between humans and God that I understand.

    God forgives because God forgives. We confess as a way to allow us to participate in the process, not because God needs us to, but because God allows us to. So confession, as well as forgiveness, is an act of God’s grace.

    • “God forgives because God forgives. We confess as a way to allow us to participate in the process, not because God needs us to, but because God allows us to. So confession, as well as forgiveness, is an act of God’s grace.” – I absolutely love this!

      And wow…what an image the Eugene Peterson paraphrase brings to mind. For some reason I got the image in my mind of someone who hoards the sins of others – keeps them on display. We know that God does not do that with our sins. They are cast into the depths of the sea!

  4. I think forgiveness is the flip side of justice. Sin is an injustice. If someone sins against me, my immediate, visceral response is to demand justice. By offering forgiveness instead, I offer to bear the penalty for the injustice myself. This is what God has done. I wrote more about this on my own blog.

  5. April,

    I confess that as I read your post, I didn’t understand what you meant, because I had always been taught that we DO need to confess in order to be forgiven. However, then I read this comment of yours in response to someone:

    “The point I hope to make is not whether or not we should/need to confess our sins, but whether or not that act of confession is salvific in some way.”

    Somewhere along the way, I had been taught/came to understand that confession was salvific in some way. It fits in with my angry image of God, but here’s what I saw as a result:

    Because I was not aware of sins or didn’t have time to confess them before I died, I would be ushered before the judgment seat and be shown every place, time, and act in my life where I had gone wrong. This horrifying display, would of course, make me feel shame that would cause my face to burn almost as hotly as God’s anger. Then (I hoped) I would hear the words, “But I forgive you.”

    Now, I don’t claim to know what will happen at the end of earthly life, but I do hope the picture is different from the one I just painted. What you have helped me to see though, is that confession is not salvific for God, but it is salvific for ME. I need to be aware of what I have done if only so that I can reorient myself back into a relationship with the God who loves me.

    • “What you have helped me to see though, is that confession is not salvific for God, but it is salvific for ME.”

      Jill, thank you for wording this so much better than I did! That’s pretty much exactly what I meant 🙂

  6. April! I love this post and how very, very reformed it is: our forgiveness is dependent upon the abundant grace of God and not upon our response to it. I love your use of “hocus pocus.” True religion vs magic is something I have been meditating on for some time now.

    I am a bit less comfortable with where some of the subsequent discussion might point us: a strong distinction between first time confession and confessions made there after, a strong ontological distinction between the Christian and the not yet ‘saved.’ I may be over-reading some of the comments. I’m not sure.

    What I do know is that I despair the understanding of confession/repentance and becoming a Christian that I grew up with. Essentially that meant being raised with a basic knowledge of Christianity, going through typical teenage rebellion stage that may or may not lead to a time of more severe actions and consequences, followed by a time of repentance where one becomes a Christian (or rededicates depending upon the tradition).

    I think these kinds of stories do two unfortunate things: exalt the radical conversion/confession narrative as normative and also (and perhaps more detrimental) minimize the stories of those who grow up in Christian households who have no recollection of ever not being a Christian; for the child baptized and pronounced part of the Christian community shortly after birth, for whom confession, repentance and becoming a Christian are all part of a life-long process. This is the experience I hope for my children.

    • Wayne, I totally agree. That is much of where my original post came from. I was raised in a Christian family, went through teenage rebellion but never forsaked faith, and then eventually found myself back on a better path. I never knew a time when I wasn’t Christian. The idea that somehow my confession saved me really corrupted my idea of God. It’s all grace 🙂

      • Did you by chance go through a period of trying to discern when exactly it was you were saved, or pinpointing to that time when you found yourself stumbling back to a better path as the definitive moment only to later reevaluate and see that God was there the whole time? That’s what I went through anyway. And your comment about your idea of grace being corrupted by the notion of it being contingent upon confession reminds me of that time in my life. On another note, I kept thinking of Peter’s post a few weeks back while reading yours. I think the notion that forgiveness is contingent on confession dovetails (unfortunately) quite well with a model of atonement that is all about Christ as the substitutionary sacrifice for my sins. But Christ as the victor over the reign of Sin and Death and the powers that cause us to sin seems more compatible with an understanding of confession/forgiveness that is more like awakening: awakening to how God already sees us, how much God loves us (while we were yet sinners). Confession just naturally flows out of such an awakening.

      • Wayne, I did. And, I’ve had friends go through times like that too. And, you are absolutely right. God was there the whole time!

  7. Pingback: Speaking of Sin | That Reformed Blog

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