The following is a guest post by Casey McCall, Student Ministry Director at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, KY.
In church life confession of sin and repentance should be a regular occurrence, because—let’s face it—none of us have arrived yet. We are all still sinners seeking to live everyday for Christ but often failing. Most of these instances will happen in private conversations with our closest friends and members of our small group—people who are charged with holding us accountable. And most of the time, the offender will initiate the conversation without having to be pursued. However, sometimes, as brothers and sisters who are responsible for one another, we are called to lovingly confront others so that God might use us to lead them to confession and repentance.
Confrontation is never easy, and I do not offer here any simple advice about how to do it. However, in light of some recent instances in my own context, I have been thinking through some of the common pitfalls when it comes to confession and repentance. I have been giving a lot of advice on this topic lately, and I thought it would helpful to share some of the insights from the discussions I’ve had.
When we sin we must confess our sin to God. However, the Bible also calls us to confess our sins to one another (Jam. 5:16). Dietrich Bonhoeffer sheds light on the reasoning behind such a command: “Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person” (Life Together, 112).
Confession is needed, according to Bonhoeffer, so that repentance can take place. Confession brings the sin out of hiding and into the light and allows the sinner to see it for what it truly is. As long as we are allowed to hide our sin, sin’s power over us will only increase, with detrimental effects. Not only is the sinner harmed by lack of confession, but also the entire fellowship of the body is affected. Confession is essential for a healthy church.
However, confession does not come easy to us. We are protective of our sin, often guarding it preciously like Gallum from The Lord of the Rings. When we finally do reach the point of breaking, we are often ashamed. We don’t want people to know how bad we really are. This shame often causes confession to be artificial. When confronted we may confess just enough to relieve the pressure, providing a smokescreen so that we don’t have to allow our true colors to show.
The only kind of confession that can effectively lead to repentance before God is true confession. We must seek the whole truth without any smokescreens. Only when sin has been fully brought out into the light can it be killed. Only when we see and acknowledge the totality of our sin as evil in the sight of God can we be reconciled to God and to one another.
Repentance can only happen once true confession has occurred. If we are still in protective mode, we are not ready to repent. Therefore, confession serves as the prerequisite for repentance. However, once true confession is made, repentance leads us back to full reconciliation.
Wayne Grudem defines repentance in this way: “A heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ” (Systematic Theology, 1253). Grudem’s definition is helpful, but I don’t believe he goes far enough. When the prodigal son in Luke 15:17-19 contemplated to himself that he would return to his father and beg for forgiveness, was he at that point repentant? I would argue that he was not. However, in v. 20, “he arose and came to his father.” Following through on his commitment to return made his repentance genuine. Contemplating returning, or as Grudem puts it, “a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ,” stops short of genuine repentance. Only when the sinner has actually turned from his or her sin and returned to Christ has true repentance happened.
Remorse is not repentance. Whenever we are counseling others toward repentance, we must be careful to articulate this point. Paul makes a distinction between godly grief and worldly grief. Godly grief is the result of offending a holy God, and it leads to salvation. Worldly grief is the result of self-love, and it leads to death (2 Cor. 7:10). We can feel bad for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we fear the consequences of our sin. Perhaps we are afraid of being found out. If these are the only reasons we feel remorse, we are experiencing worldly grief and repentance is not possible. However, if we are grieved because we have offended our loving Father, then we can move toward him with full assurance that he will take us back with love and celebration (Luke 15:20-24).
As we seek to lead others (and ourselves!) toward true repentance, we must not stop at remorse. We must get under the surface of things by finding out, to the best of our ability, the underlying reason for the remorse being experienced. After that, we must lead our brother or sister toward concrete action to change. True repentance will always manifest itself in a changed lifestyle. If the sinner is unwilling to change, he or she is unwilling to repent.