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Monday, May 23, 2011

Confession

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. - 1 Jn 1:8-9

The word confess simply means to acknowledge or to declare. Within the context of Christian faith it has been adopted to cover a number of different concepts. The one I want us to look at in this chapter, within the subject of prayer, is admission of guilt.

The Lord's Prayer
The traditional version of the Lord's prayer includes the phrase, "forgive us our trespasses," so we can see that seeking forgiveness from God is a vital part of prayer. But this word trespasses is not one that is in common usage today so it benefits from some explanation. Modern versions of this prayer use debts or sins, two words which have quite different connotations. Interestingly, the two passages in the gospels which contain the Lord's prayer, have different Greek words underlying the English too.
Here we are going to take a slight diversion into New Testament Greek so we can understand a little more about confession and forgiveness.
In Luke 11:4 the Greek word used is hamartias which is the usual word for sin which implies making an error or missing the mark, in other words, falling short of perfection. We would like to define sin as being when we deliberately do something wrong. That would let us off a lot of hooks. We could think of ourselves as good if we only made minor mistakes which didn't really hurt anyone. But the Bible won't allow for this kind of self-delusion - for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).
James tells us that whoever breaks just one small point of the law is guilty of breaking all of it (Jms 2:10). Unlike current legal systems which have different documents defining what is and isn't legal in different aspects life, the Israelites were given one single master document to cover their whole legal system. We have different Acts for road traffic offences, burglary, murder, education and so on. The Israelites had Deuteronomy. We think of breaking only certain laws and not others as making us somehow less guilty. God's standard is different. While there are different punishments for different types of crime, all lawbreakers are equally guilty. I don't want to get stuck in too much theology here - a whole book could be devoted to the subject. Suffice it to say that it is not simply individual sins that need to be confessed but our sinful nature, our inability to keep the entirety of God's law.
In Matthew 6:12 the Greek word translated debts is opselemata from a root meaning a debt or obligation. In our materialistic world we are all too familiar with the concept of financial debt and being obliged to repay what we owe. The only way out of debt is to pay it off or to legally declare oneself bankrupt. When we ask God to forgive our debts we are declaring our moral bankruptcy before Him and acknowledging there is nothing we can do to make ourselves righteous. All we can do is ask that God no longer counts our debt against us. We are asking for a legally binding accounting contract which will no longer demand what we owe.
Now all of this is important because it points us back to the heart of the gospel which is that God is just and cannot accept us in our sin. God will not simply write off the debt as some people believe. The price has to be paid by someone and that someone is the Lord Jesus Christ who paid it on the cross at Calvary. However, you have to accept that payment for yourself. It's not automatic. People today are being told to invite Jesus into their heart. This is not in the Bible. On the contrary, we are told to "repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out" (Acts 3:19). That word repent literally means to turn around through 180 degrees and go the other way. In the Christian context it means to turn away from living your life your way and do the complete opposite, living God's way. That means submitting our own ideas to God's word - if I disagree with the Book, I'm the one who needs to change.

Confession Is Not Enough
It is not enough to confess what we have done wrong, or even to confess that we have an inherently sinful nature. Confession on it's own is simply a statement of fact. It amazes me how many people with short tempers are actually proud of the fact. They confess it freely with no sense that they need to repent and behave differently. All that confession does is warn people there might be trouble. God wants us to be remorseful and repentant. He is looking for a change of heart and for us to produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt 3:8).
In times of revival, when the church begins to grow at unprecedented rates and large numbers of people are being converted (changed), there is always a great deal of genuine repentance usually with tears of remorse. There may be signs and wonders too but these are secondary and repentance and confession are the true marks of revival, just as they are the true marks of Christian conversion.
Not only are these the marks of conversion, they will continue to be an ongoing part of a Christian's prayer life. The Christian's desire is to be pure-hearted before God. This is exemplified by David's words.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. - Ps 139:23-24

Repentance
Repentance becomes an inherent part of a Christian lifestyle, not out of duty, but out of love for the Saviour who sacrificed Himself.
The flip side of the confession and repentance coin is forgiveness. There seems to be something built in to the human psyche which recognises that if we do something wrong we deserve punishment and that we have to pay in some way. The passage at the beginning of this section reminds us that God's currency includes faithfulness and justice. Justice is appeased by the death of Christ and God's faithfulness will not allow Him to do anything other than to adhere to that justice. So we can be confidence that when we come and confess with a repentant attitude we will be forgiven. We should never allow ourselves to think that we also need to be punished. There is one sacrifice for atonement. There is no need for penance or metaphorical sackcloth and ashes, being gloomy and depressed. Forgiveness needs to be accepted fully so that we are available to God for what He wants to do in and through us.
That is not to say that restitution should not be made if we have offended against a person. There are detailed laws in the Old Testament about restitution and Jesus taught that the moment we realise our brother has something against us we should go and sort it out (Matt 5:23-26). If what you have done has cost someone else, you need to put it right.
Nor is it a case that being forgiven by God means that you get away with the consequences. There may be major implications to be faced up to. God is not going to remove the points from your driving license after you've been found guilty of dangerous driving, neither is He going to miraculously heal the disease which resulted from an unholy sexual relationship. But if you do repent and cast yourself on Him, He will get you through the resulting problems and you will learn valuable lessons, not simply about getting yourself in a mess, but also about the love and faithfulness of God.

Prayer College Assignment
Take some time to be still before God and ask Him to examine your heart as David did.