Bobby Emberley is in his last year of his bachelor’s degree programme at Bible college in the US. As a “pastor’s kid” brought up in a fundamental church and Christian school, he is well acquainted with fundamentalism as an insider. When he shared this story with me a few weeks ago, I asked him to write it up for InFocus. His honesty about his struggles to be “in the clear” with God resonate with all who want to please God.
I was a good kid in high school. I sought to have personal devotions since elementary school and had a genuine desire to do right and please God. I am thankful for two wonderful, godly parents. As I progressed through high school I was generally well respected and even looked up to among my peers. I received several positions of student leadership within my Christian school and was able to use those positions to influence those around me in a positive way.
I am thankful for the training I received from my Christian education. I learned about hard work and discipline. I learned about teamwork and leadership. Most importantly I learned much about who God is. The person I am today is due in large part to the influence those years had on my life.
Despite my sound Christian background and solid upbringing, one area of weakness in my life that I see now only in retrospect was an attitude of legalism that pervaded my mindset. It was a mindset that told me that my acceptance before God was determined by my performance. I didn’t really need to be taught to have this mindset. Nobody really does. We are all in one way or another latent legalists at heart, thinking that we can somehow earn our way into God’s good graces by the things we do or don’t do. Most people would never actually say it that way, and I don’t think I would have myself. However, my attitude towards God and a continual feeling of guilt betrayed my words. One area in particularly where I struggled with legalism was in the area of confession of sin.
Legalism as applied to confession is a belief that my acceptance before God hinges upon my ability to confess or upon my feeling of remorse. I remember spending large portions of my devotion time “doing confession.” I felt like I couldn’t move on to Scripture reading or prayer unless I had confessed all my sin and done so with a proper attitude of repentance. I felt like I wasn’t right with God if I hadn’t confessed properly. I also felt like I was powerless to do ministry. If I was about to sing in church or give a testimony, I needed to make sure that I didn’t have any un-confessed sin in my life. I also couldn’t call out to God for help in witnessing unless my sin account was short, kept that way by my confession.
And I was right in this line of thinking, wasn’t I? After all the Bible says that if we “regard iniquity in our hearts the Lord will not hear us.” This must mean that I cannot come to God in prayer with sin in my heart. I must deal with it first. Also, everyone knows the classic passage on confession, I John 1:9: “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Confession of sin is a prerequisite for forgiveness, isn’t it?
This way of thinking and relating to God left me with continual turmoil in my soul. I could never seem to confess every sin and even if I did I would commit another in no time at all. To add to my guilt, I rarely felt remorse or a feeling of repentance as I thought I should.
When Law is Big and Grace is Small
By God’s grace, I began to see my error in this attitude towards confession. The first problem was that my view of sin was too small. I had subconsciously reduced sin to a list of dos and don’ts that could be remedied simply by confessing them to God. In reality my sin was much bigger than this. It permeated every part of me causing even my supposed righteous deeds to be worthless in the eyes of God. It went far beyond my actions to the very core of my being. Sin wasn’t something I simply did; it was who I was. Surely, confession had no power against sin when viewed in this light, and my guilt continually reminded me of this fact.
My second problem was that my view of Christ and his blood was also too small. The ever-present feeling of turmoil and condemnation revealed that I didn’t really believe that Christ had sufficiently dealt with my sin. I needed to add my own work, the work of confession, in order to cause Christ’s righteousness to apply to my account. In short, my problem was that I saw my own human effort as the solution to my sin rather than the blood of Christ.
The ultimate solution to these problems was a better understanding of the gospel. I needed to accept by faith that God has truly placed my sin away from him as far as the east is from the west. I needed to realize that on my worst days of sin and failure God accepts me because I am clothed in Christ’s righteousness. I needed the doctrine of justification, and I needed it in heavy doses.
Still Feeling Guilty?
However, what was I to do with the sin that still weighed on me every day? And how was I to deal with confessing that sin? For those of you who may feel the same way let me offer several brief thoughts:
1. Remember Jesus’ teaching about the letter of the law.
At one point in Jesus’ ministry he allowed his disciples to pick grain to eat on the Sabbath day. When the Pharisees questioned him about what they viewed to be a breaking of God’s law, Jesus replied by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus’ point was that the Sabbath was meant to be a blessing to man not a curse. The Pharisees had taken what God had intended to be a day of peaceful rest and turned it into something people dreaded. I think we can also rightfully say that confession was made for man not man for confession. I believe God’s intention for confession was that it be a blessing to us by bringing us back to the only true place our sin can sufficiently be dealt with. Don’t allow the blessing of confession to become something you dread.
2. Allow confession to be the servant of a broken and contrite heart.
By this I do not mean that we must wait to confess our sins until our hearts are properly contrite. I simply mean that God is far more concerned with our hearts than in our outward forms of confession. He knows that sometimes all we can do is weep because we do not weep over our sin and mourn because we are not broken like we desire to be.
While many of us know I John 1:9 by heart and can recite its instruction to confess our sin, perhaps comparatively few of us recognize how significant are the verses following. I John 2:1-2 says, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” This is the entire foundation for 1:9. This is the reason why God can forgive us and “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Without Christ bearing the wrath of God in our place, we would be under wrath. Without Christ’s continual intercession on our behalf we would stand condemned. Yet, Christ has borne God’s wrath for us and he does continually intercede for us! Confession is simply the means to bring us back to a proper recognition and appreciation of these truths.
Magnify God’s Grace
I cannot end without briefly making a plea to those who preach and teach and lead ministries. Please be careful how you deal with the topic of confession. In my experience (and perhaps this is due to my specific circles), teaching on confession is primarily man-centered rather than God-centered. I don’t believe this should be the case. Urge people to deal with their sin and keep short accounts with God, but never divorce it from the teaching of God’s grace that even makes this possible. Don’t allow a culture in which the only type of openness people know before God or others is just as oppressive as a Catholic confessional booth. In all your teaching and leadership focus on the glory and mercy of the gospel and allow the Spirit of God to apply those truths specifically to each life.
I am extremely thankful for the work of God in my life during my journey in the realm of confession. It’s a journey I’m still on. Along the way I have had to come face to face with fundamental errors not just in how I viewed confession but also in the way I viewed and believed the gospel. To quote one of my favorite songs, I had to ask myself the following questions: “Why are you striving these days? Why are you trying to earn grace?” Maybe you need to ask yourself the same questions.