Should open confession, traditionally regarded as a Roman Catholic practice, have more of a place in the evangelical world, or is sin something private between you and God?
“I have called you to be faithful.” Gary sensed Jesus speaking these words to him as he prayed with his spiritual director. The words were an encouragement but they also had a hidden barb. Gary was struggling with the lure of internet pornography. It was an ongoing battle. For periods he would resist, sometimes he gave in. Always he lived with the hidden shame and guilt. He said nothing about this to his spiritual director.
The next time they met, Gary’s spiritual director picked up again on what Jesus had said. “Might Jesus be calling you away from some unfaithfulness?” he asked gently. Gary nodded. He talked of his thoughts wandering about women other than his wife. His friend invited Gary to confess to Jesus, out loud before him, this sin of allowing space in his head for unfaithful thoughts. Knowing how big a problem internet pornography is today, the spiritual director asked directly, “Do you look at pornography on the web?” Gary confessed. “It was uncomfortable, embarrassing,” he says now. “But there was also a sense of relief. At last I was bringing it out and dealing with it, not keeping it hidden.”
Gary prayed out loud, admitting to Jesus that he had allowed his thoughts to wander, that he had looked at internet pornography. He asked Jesus to forgive him. His spiritual director then declared to Gary that the sins he had confessed were forgiven. Jesus had forgiven him. They asked the Holy Spirit to come to Gary afresh and strengthen him for his future. “At the time I felt nothing,” says Gary. “But the hold that temptation had on me seems to have been broken. It isn’t an issue as it used to be.” Since his confession Gary hasn’t looked at pornography anywhere. The guilt has gone. “The devil can’t use it against you if you’ve acknowledged it yourself and dealt with it.”
So is confession a practice that should be more widely adopted among Christians? Certainly in some evangelical circles, where confessing individual sins privately before God is the norm, the idea of ‘open’ confession is treated with suspicion. Why should we need to publicise our sins when confessing them? Having a third party present – in particular if they play the role of intermediary between the sinner and God – is seen by most evangelicals as unnecessary or even unbiblical. But nonetheless, for Gary it was a positive and life-giving experience, which brought healing. So do we need to look again at James 5:16 – ‘confess your sins to one another’ – and ask whether we should apply it differently to the way we confess our sins?
Let’s start with some definitions.
Confess in the New Testament does not mean ‘to admit to doing something wrong’, but means ‘to speak out loud’. This is clear from ‘Whoever confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord…’ Those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord are those who speak out to other people that Jesus is indeed Lord, a radical ‘confession’ in both pagan Roman and Jewish cultures. Confessing sins in the New Testament means to speak of one’s wrongdoing out loud, not simply privately in our hearts.
Sins in the New Testament does not mean ‘a general state of fallenness and tendency to act wrongly’ but ‘specific acts which go against God’s Law’ (1 John 3:4). We are more used to the concept of ‘confessing sin,’ as admitting in a general way that we are rebels against God and in need of his forgiveness. ‘Confessing our sins’, speaking out loud of specific violations, is not something most of us have been encouraged to do. We conveniently forget that James uses the plural: sins, which we are told to speak about out loud, to each other.
‘Humble yourselves…’ write both James and Peter (James 4:10, 1 Peter 5:6). Admitting our sins in front of other people is perhaps the most straightforward, and also difficult, way of obeying this scriptural command.
CONFESSION AND REVIVAL
Confession is regarded as a Catholic practice, but there are examples all over history of how it has been used in other Christian traditions and can be linked to revival breaking out. Last year, at an evangelistic rally in Uganda, people who responded to the altar call were asked of what particular sins they were repenting. One university undergraduate, for instance, said into the microphone that she had stolen money and had been disobedient to her parents.
In this part of the world, you can trace the practice of confession all the way back to the East African Revival. This began in the 1930s, when a group of local people and missionaries in Rwanda were distressed by the lack of lifechanging power in the lives of Christians, including themselves. William Magambo, a recently retired Anglican bishop, described spiritual life as ‘lukewarm’.
The group admitted their sins to each other. Together they looked to the Bible to lead them to new holiness, and prayed fervently for the holiness of the Holy Spirit. These few began to experience a powerful move of the Holy Spirit. Their enthusiasm was frowned on by many, but their fire spread out, eventually touching the whole of English speaking East Africa. And confession was integral to the spread of revival.
“People responding to an altar call were required to repent openly of their specific sins committed,” says Magambo. “Repentance of this nature was normally hailed as the highest mark of being serious with one’s confession.” Revival Christians (‘Balokole’) committed themselves to meeting twice a week in small fellowships where they continued to speak openly of sins. New Christians sought out people from whom they had stolen, even very small items, or people who they had maligned, even only in their hearts, and confessed.
The European Missionaries who went to Africa did not bring with them the practice of open confession. Nor did it come from the Roman Catholic Church, with whom the East African revivalists had no fellowship. Open confession was also not part of East African traditional culture. Open confession began again with that small group of Christians in Rwanda. The Holy Spirit confirmed it by pouring out his power in a fresh way. Wherever the East African Revival spread, the practice of open confession also spread.
“The effects of the East African Revival have been more lasting than almost any other revival in history,” writes Magambo, “so that today there is hardly a single Protestant leader in East Africa who has not been touched by it in some way.”
There are other stories which link the practice of open confession to revival. The Awakening by Friedrich Zuendel, is a book describing a revival in the Black Forest, Germany, beginning in 1841. Lutheran pastor Blumhardt was drawn into an intense struggle to deliver a young woman from seizures which her doctor thought had a supernatural origin. Open confession was a valuable tool in the deliverance of this girl and her family, and the practice then spread to other members of the congregation and community. Men would visit Blumhardt at any time, day or night, impelled to confess particular sins. The Holy Spirit swept through the community in a revival whose effects are still seen today.
CLOSER TO HOME
So where do most British evangelicals stand? For some, there is a theological problem with confession. Open confession could be regarded as a ‘work’, an unnecessary burden for those who live by faith. In reaction against Roman Catholics who have made confession to a priest a requirement for forgiveness, Protestants have taught that forgiveness was paid for by Christ on the cross and we need only to accept it by faith. Naming sins out loud is unnecessary and devalues the completeness of Christ’s sacrifice for us. The East African Protestants, however, while valuing highly the full, perfect and suffi cient sacrifice of Jesus, say that open confession is the means by which we bring into our lives the benefits of the sacrifice, the way in which we express our faith in what Jesus has done for us. Open confession is not an alternative to faith but a practical outworking of faith.
Protestants have also reacted strongly against a Roman Catholic priest telling someone “I forgive you.” Surely it is Jesus who forgives, not another sinful human? But Jesus spoke of his disciples themselves forgiving sins (John 20:23). Was that only for the first disciples? Evangelicals, still, prefer to say, “Your sins are forgiven. Jesus has forgiven you!” For them, making this pronouncement boldly is important and effective, and can also be made by any Christian hearing a confession from someone else.
Other Christian teachers see open confession as a useful tool in counselling and deliverance but not as part of ordinary Christian life. Greg Haslam, senior pastor of Westminster Chapel, writes, “It is crucial for people’s liberty and freedom that they openly acknowledge in detail the wrongs that have crippled them and, of course, opened up their vulnerability to demonic attack. Such sins usually need to be spoken out or written out in detail. They then need to be confessed to God and his forgiveness sought along with thorough repentance and renunciation of sinful patterns of behaviour.” If this is so important in deliverance, there is an argument to suggest you could apply it to fighting the devil in more ordinary ways, such as resisting temptation and holding to godly disciplines.
Other evangelicals would point to Matthew 6 in which, Jesus tells us to confess our sins, secretly, behind a closed door, to our father alone. Confessing sins openly to or before other people is here not necessary. They also argue that James writes in the context of prayer for the sick and it is not appropriate to widen his command to all Christians at all times.
The classic Anglican view of open confession is ‘All may. Some should. None must.’ All Christians may choose to speak openly of particular sins, following James’ command. Many find, through this particular humbling of themselves, a greater ability to live a holy life with the Holy Spirit. Some people should take this opportunity, either because of sickness or a need for deliverance, including from a stubborn habit, or because they find it hard to feel forgiven when they pray privately. None must. There is no obligation laid on Christians, only an opportunity laid before us.
Gary was in an ongoing relationship with a senior Christian to whom he gave permission to speak challenging words into his life. Over months, trust had built up so that when the probing question came, Gary was able to be honest. He also knew that he would be asked later how things were going following his confession. Gary considers that this ongoing relationship of accountability was important in his confession and new freedom. Such relationships are particularly important for those who have a ‘charismatic’ ministry, and can find it hard, by themselves, to distinguish their own impulses from the working of the Holy Spirit.
You may feel that what you are doing is closer to Roman Catholic than Protestant practice. Nowadays Roman Catholics are encouraged to confess outside of a wooden box, for eye contact is both humbling and comforting. It is good to see the benefits of each other’s traditions. Open confession is indeed a great ancient Christian practice which can open the way for the Holy Spirit to flow more in individuals, in churches and whole communities. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).