How Confession Does a World of Good
By Neil Earle
We’ve all heard that “confession is good for the soul” and is that ever true. In fact it purifies the soul which is even better.
It’s when we feel besieged and overwhelmed by our sins and imperfections, it is then that the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee comes to mind to bend us back to the One we have offended, to help us turn to him repentance and belief. Repentance – for what we have done AND ARE and belief. Belief that our God is Good and that he wants us to believe in his ability to forgive and receive sinners, all of which sets us on the royal road to relationship with God.
With concentrated brilliance Jesus sketched the account of two men going up to the temple to pray – a Tax Collector and a very religious man – a Pharisee. It’s found in Luke 18:9-14.
The Pharisee felt he was righteous and thanked God for his impeccable standing before heaven. The Tax Collector or Publican – part of a class of embezzlers and shysters who grew rich on the fees they could gouge from people – would not even life up his eyes to heaven.
Many religious people come to worship today and lift their hands to heaven as an expression of their devotion, sincere I’m sure in most cases. But the Tax Collector did not feel worthy to even look up! He stood afar off! He sensed the great distance between him and God. Maybe he was like so many people moved to seek God’s mercy – “they don’t do religion very well,” they say to themselves. “This church thing is not something I’m used to.”
So…“he stood afar off.” Here is one of Jesus’s simple but meaningful little phrases expressing a depth of humility that “professional churchgoers” can often get inured towards.
This anxious and worried Tax Collector – obviously moved already to see the enormity of his sins – knew he was asking God a great favor. He was probably a little surprised that he was able to take himself this far into the temple where the religious usually gathered.
Guilt Can Be Good!
Then at the climax of this exquisite little tale Jesus simply has the Tax Collector beat his breast – the ancient expression of sorrow or grief. He then utters seven words: “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
It was the Tax Collector whom God heard. There was authentic humility and self-mortification. There was a shrinking of himself and his own importance before God. The 1600s Bible teacher Matthew Henry caught the mood perfectly: “His prayer was short. Fear and shame hindered him from saying much; sighs and groans swallowed up his words; but what he said was to the purpose…(he) gives himself no other character than that of a sinner, a convicted criminal at God’s bar. He has no dependence but upon the mercy of God, that, and that only, he relies upon.”
Many of us can identify with what Matthew Henry is saying here. The Tax Collector’s frame of mind is captured in Henry’s next observation: “He comes as a beggar for alms, ready to perish for hunger…forgive my sins; be reconciled to me; take me into thy favor, revive me graciously; love me freely. “
Jesus said the Tax Collector went home justified before God, relationship restored!
Fear In Charge
Across the centuries devout men and women have left behind their testimony on the healing effect of God-centered confession. Here is the experience of John Bunyan (1626-1688), Baptist lay preacher, a poor tinker, who wrote the second-most-read book in the English-speaking world: “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” (with words somewhat compressed for modern readers):
“Once as I was walking to and fro bemoaning to myself in my sad and doleful state, afflicting myself for that I should commit so great a sin, greatly fearing I should not be pardoned, praying also in my heart and being now ready to sink with fear, suddenly – as if I had heard a voice speaking – Did you ever refuse to be justified by the blood of Christ? And, withal, when I was made to see that I had not so, then fell with power the Word of God upon me, See that you do not refuse him who speaks (Hebrews 12:25).”
Bunyan is bemoaning himself for his sins, wondering if he had “blown it” as we would say today. His inner spirit is like that of the Tax Collector – fearful of God’s judgment, “bemoaning himself for his sin” as he liked to say, confessing deep in his spirit. And the answer came:
“This made a strong seizure upon my Spirit; it brought light with it and commanded a silence in my heart of all those tumultuous thoughts that before did use me like unloosened hell-hounds to roar and bellow and make hideous noise within me.”
You can tell that this was a man in dead earnest before his God. The supernatural arrival of this blessed assurance from the Word of God got to the root of his mortification over his sins and worked its cleansing work:
“It showed me also that Jesus Christ had yet a word of Grace and mercy for me. That he had not, as I had feared, quite forsaken and cast off my soul; yea this was a kind of threatening of me if I did not, notwithstanding my sins and the heinousness of them, venture my salvation upon the Son of God.”
As he wrote in another place, this prod from God in his inmost spirit made accessible by a meditation upon Scripture, the One more important and more Powerful and merciful than even his sins: “I thought I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand, there, I say, as my Righteousness, so that wherever I was or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, He lacks my Righteousness…I also saw that it was not my good frame of heart that made my Righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my Righteousness worse, for my Righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, the same yesterday, today and forever.”
Those puritan folks were “beavers for the Bible” and it was 1 Corinthians 1:30 that Bunyan pondered which defines Jesus as our Righteousness, a powerful thought, a righteousness he imputes to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
That earlier experience of God’s word suddenly rushing in upon him, as Bunyan relates, “commanded a great calm in my soul, it persuaded me there might be hope, it showed me, as I thought, what the sin unpardonable was, and that my Soul yet had the blessed privilege to fly to Jesus Christ for mercy.”
There is hope. There is help. There is the eternal benefit God’s people have always found in honest confession. Thank God for his mercy.
Bunyan’s confessions were deeply personal but the Anglican, Episcopal and other churches have developed across the centuries a powerful lasting arrangement of Biblical thoughts and impressions that speak powerfully to people of all persuasions, one some people repeat every week and is none the worse for that. Here is the Confession probably being said somewhere in this world right now:
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Maker of all things, Judge of all men:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness
Which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
By thought, word and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent,
And are heartily sorry for these our misgivings;
The remembrance of them is grievous unto us,
The burden of them is intolerable.
Have mercy upon us,
Have mercy upon us most merciful Father,
For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
Forgive us all that is past;
And grant that we may ever hereafter
Serve and please thee in newness of life,
to the honor and glory of THY Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is most carefully and lovingly written. Bunyan was like many of the Old Testament Psalm writers who were “heartily sorry” for their misdoings and they could also say “the remembrance is grievous; the burden is intolerable.”
Just consider Psalm 130 for a starter which sets up a whole chain of other more wonderful texts. Words like these school our hearts, minds and spirits in the language and cadences of confession.
Once the Confession is made, the minister often repeats these words absolving the praying congregation by the authorly given in John 20:23,
“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy has promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
These comforting words have helped millions of Christians down through the ages. They can help you as much as they helped me. Depend on it.