The Epidemic of Ritual Confession of Sin

Psa 130 3f

In ritual confession, the offender may demonstrate deep emotion, but it is often dictated by fear of the consequence of sin, rather than sorrow for the gravity of the offence. So different is the contrast of the Apostle Paul between two sorts of emotions. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” (2 Cor. 7:10-11 NKJ). The sorrow of genuine repentance is really a cluster of dispositions all conspiring to oppose sin and to renounce it for its evil and gravity, not merely its dreadful consequence.

 

 Sorry na! (‘I am sorry already!’). To which the expected reply is Ok lang! (‘It is fine!’). This is the common exchange that transpires among Filipinos, between the one at fault and the one wronged. An easy apology with commensurate ease of exoneration. If the fault were due to natural limitation – mistaken information; late appointment due to traffic; etc. – the clemency that follows is just about regular.

But it is a far different issue when we are dealing with moral faults – what we, Christians, still call sins. A sorry na and Ok lang exchange, when it comes to sins, is exposing a very serious epidemic in the impoverished spirituality that is the mark of this generation of Christians. This is the epidemic of ritual confession.

A ritual, in the concise definition of Merriam-Webster is “the prescribed order and words of a religious ceremony.” Further, a more extended meaning denotes, “any practice done or regularly repeated in a set precise manner so as to satisfy one’s sense of fitness and often felt to have a symbolic or quasi-symbolic significance.” One can easily see how this fits the practice that is performed of confession of sin among Christians. This is observable in two orientations of confessing sin.

Ritual Confession of Sin to God

A precious verse of the New Testament has become the basis of so much ritual confession by Christians. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn. 1:9 NKJ). The call to confess is sufficient for many sinning Christians just to invoke the cliché of confession, and then claim that forgiveness is theirs as a gift in glossy wrapping.

This is isolating 1John 1:9 from the richness of John’s appeal to his readers to be in a serious fight against sin. Every believer who will invoke the promise of forgiveness to the confessing sinner in 1John 1:9 must have come to grips with John’s description of a serious believer in 3:8, 9 “He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose, the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” (1 Jn. 3:8-9 NKJ). It is not teaching that believers no longer sin. It is saying that believers do not continue sinning without the break of repentance and renewal.

Unfortunately, many professed believers may be continuing sinning, and the only break they have is a ritual confession that is without genuine repentance that is followed by practical renewal. The Puritan John Owen has a most helpful treatise on this subject that expounds Psalm 130, focusing on those words, “If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared.” (Ps. 130:3-4 NKJ). He warns against the general assurance of forgiveness without having the contrition that is the prerequisite of it, and the fear of the Lord which is the fruit of it. He warns,

This notional apprehension of the pardon of sin begets no serious, thorough hatred and detestation of sin, nor is prevalent to a relinquishment of it; nay, it rather insinuates into the soul encouragements unto a continuance in it. It is the nature of it to lessen and extenuate sin, and to support the soul against its convictions… The doctrine of forgiveness is this grace of God, which may be thus abused. From hence do men who have only a general notion of it habitually draw secret encouragements to sin and folly.[1]

God is willing to forgive. But He can distinguish between contrite confession appealing only to the merits of Christ, and ritual confession that is satisfied with the motion and manner. We must confess our sin in the spirit of David’s own confession: “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart – These, O God, You will not despise.” (Ps. 51:16-17 NKJ). David knew the distinction between ritual confession of ceremonial burnt offering, and the acceptable confession of a broken and contrite heart.

Know that distinction yourself. The next time you confess your sin to God, examine if it is a broken one – or an empty ritual.

 

Ritual Confession of Sin to Neighbor

The greatest commandment of ‘Love God,’ is followed by ‘Love your neighbor’ as the second of the greatest commandments. This should apply to confession of sin when it comes to people Christians sin against. Sin must be confessed with brokenness to God. So with the neighbor, especially brethren in the faith. The greater the offence the deeper the contrition.

But if ritual confession is something that is epidemic among professing Christians in their approach to God, it is all the more so in confessing to brethren. After all, it is easier to resort to subterfuge and pretense with someone without divine omniscience. That is why it takes an uncompromising inner honesty for the person confessing. He must confess without minimizing, without forgetfulness, and without pretext.

We see shallow confession of sin in biblical characters such as Pharaoh (Exo 9:27); Saul (1Sam 26:21); and of course, Judas (Matt 27:4). They invoked the proper vocabulary – a reference to personal sin; they even demonstrated sorrow and shame – but they were still ritual confession.

In ritual confession, the offender may demonstrate deep emotion, but it is often dictated by fear of the consequence of sin, rather than sorrow for the gravity of the offence. So different is the contrast of the Apostle Paul between two sorts of emotions. “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” (2 Cor. 7:10-11 NKJ). The sorrow of genuine repentance is really a cluster of dispositions all conspiring to oppose sin and to renounce it for its evil and gravity, not merely its dreadful consequence.

The stain that will not wash away[2]

There is a particular offence that is often covered over with ritual confession, but its effect is deep and lasting. This is the sin of sexual abuse. The figure pertains to one guilty of sexual misconduct and is drawn from Proverbs 6:33 “Wounds and dishonor he will get, And his reproach will not be wiped away.” (Prov. 6:33 NKJ). One who has committed this sin is often able to hide because the victim chooses to hide – in shame.

It does not help that some, with a sincere desire to help, end up charging the blame on the victim. We have often heard suggested: She is dressed so sexy, she must be asking to be raped! She is so at ease in the company of men, this is flirtation! Every woman fantasizes sexual assault. These are all myths – and among believers, a painful deception.

Thus, victims often have to grapple with self-blame. Why did I allow myself in that situation? It was supposed to be only innocent fellowship! Did I give any suggestion? But the blame is only on the abuser. He must have used an invitation to fellowship – coffee; chit-chat; movie; music; and so many more. But even before the invitation are the calculated moves that would ensure, the woman is in the snare of unavoidable intimacies and touches. And when it is done, it is made to appear that what happened is normal fellowship between Christian man and woman. The woman, often of very young age to understand fully, is left confused. She knows something went wrong but it all seems alright according to the man.

It is time that it is called for what it is – sex abuse of the cruel kind. And for professing Christians, thoroughly hypocritical. One day, the woman grows up and discovers what all the while she has been made to go through, and accountability time comes.

When confession is to be expressed, ritual confession is at its cruelest in this kind of offence. More than the consequence, it is the sense of gravity of the offence that matters. More than the fear of the abuser, it is the hurt on the victims that must be reckoned with. The healing of the victims matters more, without eliminating the restoration of the offender.

Going back to the stain that does not wash away, the text clearly attributes the stain to the one guilty of misconduct, not to the victim. He will carry the stigma.

By the grace of God, the victim can move on because God’s grace fixes what has been broken. By the same grace of God, the offender can also move on, but only after he has gone through the sorrow of true confession, of brokenness and repentance.

Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound (Rom 5:20). Grace will abound so much more when we reject the shallow peace of ritual confession.

[1] John Owen, Works: Temptation and Sin VI: 397

[2] This is a variation of the title of the book by John Armstrong, The Stain that Stays: The Church’s Response to Sexual Misconduct of its Leaders

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