Don’t Just Confess Your Sin, Repent from It
by Travis Rymer, Elder and Associate Pastor
Over the years, I’ve witnessed something both encouraging and disconcerting at the same time. I’m encouraged by growing honesty and transparency – highly regarded virtues in our day. I’m discouraged, by what’s missing – a vigilance to see change. It’s a subtle sleight of hand that may only be visible in the deep places of our hearts. It’s subtle, but it matters a lot. I’m talking about confession without repentance.
Confession is Not Repentance
These days it’s actually becoming easier to confess sins. It is hard to know if we just have a lower standard of what counts for sin or we are less judgmental than previous generations. Maybe our therapeutic age has led us to expect failure and not expect change. Whatever the case, I don’t find that most people struggle to share where their failings lay. It’s getting easier to admit failures, but harder to expect change.
The idea that repentance would call us away from sin is still a struggle. More than a few times I’ve sat opposite someone who seemed surprised by the follow-up question to sharing a moral failing, “What are you going to do about it?” It seems like an obvious question, but sometimes, it sounds like such an impossible idea that the thought never occurred to make changes. It’s as if confession is the end of the matter.
Someone might say their Netflix subscription has lead to several instances of lust as the show you’re watching is unexpectedly overrun with nude scenes. Perhaps you share that over-drinking at home has lead to drunkenness and is becoming a habit. Other common scenarios are a struggle with pornography, regular outbursts of anger, or inability to get control of spending. But rarely when these conversations are taking place is the confession accompanied by a cancelation of the streaming subscription, a commitment to getting on a budget, a period of absence from alcohol, or a commitment to using a filtering service.
There might be a variety of reasons for this: spiritual laziness, a lack of hope, a secret desire to be rid of guilt but not rid of sin, or other such things. Yet, part of the problem seems to be a misunderstanding of the difference between confession and repentance. Although they are sometimes used as synonyms, they are more properly, two sides of the same coin.
Confession vs. Repentance
To confess is essentially to agree out-loud – literally, “to say with” or “to say the same” (homologeo). It is to agree with God that what He has said on a matter is in fact true. Take 1 John 1:8-10 for example. In verse 8 we are liars if we say we have no sin. Why? Because in verse 10, this makes God to be a liar since He has said we have sin. So, verse 9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all righteousness.” In confessing, we agree with God. That’s confession.
Repentance is to change your mind, to be converted, or to turn away from something. It is a turning from sin in order to turn to holiness. When John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance he warned the religious leaders, “Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ (Mt. 3:8-9).” Notice that repentance is accompanied by “consistent fruit.”
Jesus said repentance is necessary to escape hell (Luke 13:2). Hebrews 6:1 indicates that it is foundational to our Christian lives to turn away from dead works. Paul rejoiced at the way the Gospel came to the Thessalonians producing in them a “turn[ing] to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven…” (1 Thess. 1:9-10). The Gospel changed their minds to agree with God producing a turning to a different way. That’s repentance.
Be careful that your confession not become another way of avoiding repentance. Sometimes, I fear that when we confess, we use the confession to avoid repentance. Rather than turning from sin, we are seeking absolution from our guilt. We seem to ignore Jesus’ radical call gouge out the eye that causes us to stumble (Mt. 5:29; 18:9). How can that be possible? Let me give you an example.
You know that gluttony is a sin. You know you are to consider your body the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). You know that the ungodly are in part characterized as “lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). You also know its generally bad for your health which effects everything else. So you join an accountability group for overeating.
There, you confess your struggles. The group has the shared goal of “stop overeating and self-indulgence for the glory of Jesus and our good.” The group meets every other week where each member shares the stories – victories and failures – of the past week or so with encouragement from a brotherhood of non-judgmental empathy. In the meantime, when one another is tempted the idea is floated to text one another for prayer.
Only, the text thread is rarely about resisting, but instead a regular place to confess failures. “Pray for me, I had a bad week.” “Friends, it’s been stressful at work, and I gave in to temptation.” Such honest confession is good, but what’s missing?
What’s missing is repentance. Repentance turns away from sin. Repentance seeks to avoid it. Confession answers, “What have you done?” Repentance asks, “What will you do?” Confession says, “I’ve wasted God’s money and gone into debt.” Repentance cuts up credit cards, carries enough cash for the day’s needs, and makes no provision for the flesh.
Accountability after sin has occurred in the form of confession is good. Accountability at the time of temptation is better. Provision to avoid temptation is better still. Repentance seeks to have all this and more as the intention is gaining freedom from sin itself, not just the guilt associated with it. Something to ask yourself in a given situation is whether or not I actually want to put the sin away. We agree it is sin, but do we also agree that I should turn from it?
One More Thing
As expected, the heart motive matters. A key to cultivating genuine repentance from the heart is to see beyond law to the Gospel. It is enough to confess to know that God has clearly spoken on an issue and agree that it is sin. But it’s seeing what that sin specifically has done to Christ, what happened to Him because of this sin, that can lead to repentance.
It’s one thing to say that I have wasted God’s money. It’s another to see that Jesus became poor so that I might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). Whereas I have become poor to make myself rich with plastic gadgets and new experiences. My actions are opposite the Gospel. My actions, are why Jesus died. When I see that what I confess is worthy of repentance because it is a functional rejection of Jesus’ cross, I am ready to turn from it. I am motivated to stewardship not so that I can be frugal in some Christian version of greed, but so that I might be able to be generous and be free from the love of money (cf. Eph. 4:28).
Through the Gospel applied to our sin, let us confess our sins and turn from them.