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 demonstrate sorrow and shame – but they are 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

Freedom of the Press

Press Freedom quote

It is the press that has the mandate of not only informing the people of events in society, but also to check official announcements and policies.  This it does by having competent people who check the facts and report on views other than that of government.  In the course of doing this, as human beings they make mistakes.  News can be faked by irresponsible journalists.  There are laws that the press may not violate in the name of freedom of expression.  Defamation law covers false statements made in writing that destroy the reputation of the innocent.

 But this is not a reason to muzzle the press.

 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed a ban of coverage on Rappler News, a news social media sharply critical of the President.  More than ten cases were filed against Maria Ressa, Rappler’s chief editor and her staff – cases that many perceive are at the instigation of the president.  The President threatened to suspend the writ of habeas corpus to arrest his media critics.  The ban on Rappler has been in effect for fourteen months when its correspondents filed a petition to the Supreme Court seeking to end the ban.  The petition argues that the coverage ban violates constitutional guarantees of a free press, free speech, equal protection and due process.  This is now a significant press freedom test case.  Should Christians care?

Christians should very much care.  Intimately linked with freedom of the press is freedom of religion.  Because Christians care very much about the latter, they should care as much for freedom of the press.  The battle for freedom of religion was a long and bloody history.  The American Pilgrim Fathers crossed the Atlantic to escape persecution in England.  They founded New England in America.  America became the birthplace of the concept of separation of church and state.  It was the Baptists who had led in the advocacy, and had suffered most in the cause, of freedom of religion.  18th century Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller summarizes the Baptist position thus,

In former times liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment in matters of religion were denied both by ecclesiastics and politicians.  Of late they have been very generally admitted, and much has been said and written in their defense… The right of private judgment in matters of religion appears to be the right which every individual has to think and to avow his thoughts on those subjects, without being liable to any civil inconvenience on that account.[1]

Freedom of religion can only be sustained where there is freedom to express oneself.  This is where freedom of the press matters most.  It is the press that has the mandate of not only informing the people of events in society, but also to check official announcements and policies.  This it does by having competent people who check the facts and report on views other than those of government.  In the course of doing this, as human beings they make mistakes.  News can be faked by irresponsible journalists.  There are laws that the press may not violate in the name of freedom of expression.  Defamation law covers false statements made in writing that destroy the reputation of the innocent.

But this is not a reason to muzzle the press.  There is a 1964 landmark legal case in the US Supreme Court known as New York Times vs. Sullivan.  The New York Times published a report that ultimately was proved false.  L.B. Sullivan, the city official who was the aggrieved party, sued the newspaper and a local jury awarded him a big sum.  It was raised to the Supreme Court which reversed the local court.  It established that even false statements by the press should not be liable to prosecution, if the statement is made in good faith, and not out of malice.  Establishing malice made it almost unprosecutable.  But this right to make a false statement in good faith must be protected if the basic right of public discourse is to have the “breathing space” it needs to survive.[2]

This is similar to freedom of religion in that even those who teach false doctrines should have protected freedom to do so.  Even as Christians detest what is taught, we counter it with the truth of the Scriptures.  But to prosecute religious teachers because their teachings are deemed as damning will only come back later to the teachers of the truth.  False teachers will have their judgment from God.  But let society have freedom for all religious discourses.  That way, truth will have its converts.

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:1-4)

Using the enormous power of the presidency to harass his critics in the press is demeaning of the President and of his office.  He does not have the principled stance of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, who said: Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.

These are trying times to endure a presidency that has lost decency.

[1] The Works of Andrew Fuller (First published in 1841; Banner of Truth edition, 2007): 829

[2] Michael Trachtman, The Supremes’ Greatest Hits: The 37 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life: 162-165

Social Justice – Common Grace or Saving Grace?

Rom 3 26

This is the good news that is to be proclaimed by the Church, as the agent of the kingdom of Christ.  It is imperative that the Church should not lose sight of this mission as one of saving grace.  It must not be confused with common grace.  The task of proclamation for salvation cannot coalesce with militancy for a just society.  Preaching is not protest.  Justification is not social justice.

 

A heated debate is currently raging among evangelical brethren in America.  The subject is the place of social justice as a theme of gospel proclamation, and as a mandate of church mission.

Concerned evangelical leaders have publicized their position in “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.”  Its key negation states, “We deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.  Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head.”[1]

Predictably, those on the opposite side have criticized this position.  One critic says of this statement, “At worst, it represents a toxic agenda to discredit and undermine godly men and women crying out for biblical social justice, national and ecclesiastical repentance, and meaningful reconciliation.”[2]

Each side of the debate has legitimate concerns, seeking fair assessment and response by the other.  Both sides must resist polarizing their position, while demonizing the other.  It is my humble submission that the subject can be addressed by appeal to an old pair of perspectives of grace – as common grace and as saving grace.

 

God’s gracious dealing with mankind can be categorized as common grace or saving grace.

While God’s grace is a clear concept of the Bible, differentiating it as ‘common’ grace and ‘special/saving’ grace is a theological construct.  It is not biblical vocabulary as such.  But the legitimacy of such categorization arises from the need to see God’s favor even on unbelievers who do not have the blessing of salvation.  Thus, such favors are described as common grace, because even if they are not saving, they are still undeserved by sinful man.  Whereas, salvation blessings on believers, and the Church, are called saving grace.

Theology traditionally includes under common grace such blessings as morality, civilization, human vocation, and prosperity.  In his address to the farmers of Lystra, Paul affirms that “(God) did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).  It is impressive that even amidst their pagan idolatry, Paul is not restrained from recognizing the hand of God in the blessing of their vocation.  Common grace also includes good works of unbelievers.  Cornelius, even as an unbeliever, was commended for his ‘prayers and alms as… memorial to God’ (Acts 10:4), and yet he still needed to know the way of salvation.

The concept of common grace acknowledges that there is blessedness and goodness in the human community that does not constitute their salvation; but they are still God’s favors that remain undeserved by man – and hence, grace.  John Calvin acknowledges that God honors even the morality of unbelievers:

Hence this distinction between honorable and base actions God has not only engraved on the minds of each, but also often confirms in the administration of his providence. For we see how he visits those who cultivate virtue with many temporal blessings. Not that that external image of virtue in the least degree merits his favor, but he is pleased thus to show how much he delights in true righteousness, since he does not leave even the outward semblance of it to go unrewarded. Hence it follows, as we lately observed, that those virtues, or rather images of virtues, of whatever kind, are divine gifts, since there is nothing in any degree praiseworthy which proceeds not from him.[3]

The significance of this distinction can have a telling effect on the way we weigh God’s various dealings with people.  Michael Horton warns against this confusion,

When we confuse these two categories, it is easy to see success in business as a sign of divine favor and floods in a particular region as the sign of divine reprobation… The ungodly mistake God’s common grace for saving grace by presuming that because things are not so bad right now, they are not under God’s displeasure, while believers wonder, ‘Why do the wicked prosper?’ (Psalm 73).  Unless we understand the difference between common grace and saving grace, unbelievers will be led to presumption and believers will be led to doubt.[4]

This is where we need to rightly place social justice and the gospel in the category of grace each belongs.

 

Social Justice is in the realm of Common Grace

The equality of all mankind is a principle based on God’s creation.  All are equal, regardless of ethnicity and social class, because we are all human beings by virtue of God’s creation.  “The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the Maker of them all” (Prov. 22:2).  Upon the equality of all stands the imperative of justice that must treat all equally.  There should be no innate advantage of one race/class over another.  Where racial advantage is obtained, it is unjust because it vitiates the equal creaturehood of every man and woman.

This equality is to characterize society as human society – not Christian society.  Equal treatment is to be extended to all as human beings, not as a believer or unbeliever.  In other words, one does not need to be a gospel believer to receive equal treatment as a human being.  It is his as one created in the image of God – as much as every other man and woman.

It is for this purpose that human government was put in place to have oversight of justice in human society.  “The king establishes the land by justice” (Pro 29:4).  Such a ruler need not be a believer in order to rule with justice.  Nero was the cruel emperor of the Roman Empire when Paul wrote of such rulers, “he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).  Peter makes it imperative for Christians, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

It proves a point material to this debate – that social justice can be obtained, not by necessity of the gospel, but the right application of the truth of creation of all mankind.  Even unbelievers can be instrumental to the promotion of justice and the reformation of society so that equality of all is the order that prevails.  It does not take a Christian president to reform society to become more just, and its people socially moral.  The Christian mission does not depend upon human government to pursue its goal.  Social justice is common grace and not of the essence of the gospel.

 

Church Gospel Mission is in the cause of Saving Grace

 Because individual Christians live in the two realms of common grace and saving grace, they have the responsibility of actively supporting causes and policies that promote social justice.  But the kingdom that Christ brought about by His death and resurrection is about saving grace – salvation of sinners by the grace of God through gospel faith.  This is the kingdom in which Jesus began to sit upon His throne from the time of His resurrection (Acts 2:30-33).  This kingly reign is yet of a priestly nature for the purpose of mediation and intercession (Heb 8:1ff).  This is not to be mistaken for any human government which has the mandate of justice in society.

The justice that concerned most the saving work of Christ is the justice of God that demands the vindication of His broken law.  That vindication demands the punishment of sinners.  This creates that great mystery expressed of old, “How can a man be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2).  What the redemptive work of Christ has done is to solve that mystery through His death.  It was a substitutionary death that satisfies the justice of God.  The result is that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).

This is the good news that is to be proclaimed by the Church, as the agent of the kingdom of Christ.  It is imperative that the Church should not lose sight of this mission as one of saving grace.  It must not be confused with common grace.  The task of proclamation for salvation cannot coalesce with militancy for a just society.  Preaching is not protest.  Justification is not social justice.

We commend the usefulness of social action; but the Church has weightier matters in its hand.  Kenneth Myers warns,

Although one might respect the intentions of people who promote them, the use of boycotts in the name of Christ is always liable to distract attention from the authoritative proclamation of truth and repudiation of error that is the first duty of the church of Jesus Christ.  It suggests that Christians are to be identified essentially as part of a political movement, rather than as a spiritual body… If public protest gives the impression that Christians are principally concerned about power in the political order, it will become that much more difficult to take thoughts captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ.[5]

The cry for justice by the oppressed is real.  Christians must be decisive voices to arouse the collective conscience of society.  But the Church is to be another voice, or better, Another’s voice – that of Christ through the preaching of the gospel.  Through living the truth of the gospel, the Church is to be a demonstration of that new humanity that learned to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – a precursor of the time when “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Isa 2:4).  It envisions the kind of earth it will someday become when “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord” (Rev 11:15).

But while that is not yet, the Church must be on the mission of saving grace.

 

[1] “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel” VIII. The Church; https://statementonsocialjustice.com/

[2] “Why I cannot and will not sign the ‘Social Justice and the Gospel Statement’” RyanBurtonKing.blogspot.com

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: III. 14. 2

[4] Michael Horton, Where in the World is the Church? (Moody): 189

[5] Kenneth Myers, “Proclamation Instead of Protest” from Michael Horton (ed.), Power Religion: 46f