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.”  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.”  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?
 Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually), p. 20
 John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.ii.33