by Israel Steinmetz
We’ve all heard the saying: Confession is good for the soul. One of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned as a Christian is how true this saying is. Confession is a source of great healing and freedom. All Christians, whether they have official titles or not, have been re-created by Jesus to lead in their daily lives. For the Christian committed to leading with integrity, confession is an absolute necessity.
But for many, confession is an abstract idea that isn’t part of their daily lives. Many associate confession exclusively with a person confessing to a priest or telling their sexual secrets to an “accountability group”. But confession is far more than this. Confession means telling the truth about our sin. Deception brings forth death. Truth-telling is powerful. Truth-telling brings life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together taught me so much about confession and I want to share some of those things with you. If we embrace confession, it will make all the difference in our leadership. Bonhoeffer writes,
He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship…So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy…But it is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you.”
Bonhoeffer’s words are both haunting and hopeful. Haunting because they portend the great danger of isolation; hopeful because they promise breakthrough if we embrace a life of confession. Bonhoeffer reminds us that by living in confession, we break through to true fellowship because we break through to community, to the cross, to new life, and to certainty.
1. Breakthrough to Community
No matter what Christian community we otherwise enjoy, if we’re isolated in our sin, we remain alone. But, “In confession, the breakthrough to community takes place.” We shouldn’t settle for a superficial fellowship that allows us to be only saints, never sinners. Admit not only that you are a sinner, but what sins you commit. In transparency, we find true communion with each other as we truly are.
2. Breakthrough to the Cross
At the cross Jesus died publicly to sin, and in confession we participate in the public killing of the flesh; thus “In confession occurs the breakthrough to the cross.“ It’s through public death to sin—which occurs in confession to one another—that we truly conquer the flesh. Just as Jesus died publicly, so our flesh must die in the presence of others.
3. Breakthrough to New Life
The open rejection of sin through public confession affects a true break with the past; thus “In confession the break-through to new life occurs.” As long as sin is kept private or confessed to God alone, we may remain linked with our past, the victim of memories and longings we dare not admit. But as we name these for what they are, and turn our backs on them, we break free from our sinful past.
4. Breakthrough to Certainty
In confessing to others, we break the cycle of continual unrepentant confession to God alone. Thus, “In confession, a man breaks through to certainty”—certainty that our sins are forgiven and that we are not deceiving ourselves. How many of us find ourselves caught in a perpetual cycle of: sinning, confessing to God, and then turning back to sin? The way out is to confess to our human brethren, receiving the concrete assurance of their, and God’s, love and forgiveness (Proverbs 28:13, John 20:22-23).
Confession & Community
Henri Nouwen says, “Forgiveness and celebration are what make community.” In community we commit to forgiveness as we realize that God alone is capable of perfect love. And in community we commit to celebration as we realize that any act of human love is a result of God’s amazing grace. “Confession and forgiveness are the concrete forms in which sinful people love one another.” Let’s not settle for superficial fellowship; rather, let’s form communities of confession, forgiveness and celebration.
When we are isolated we are most vulnerable to temptation, but in the context of confessing relationships we are most resilient. Painful though it be, there is joy in confession. Each time we confess it becomes easier to be honest about our sin and, in turn, more difficult to return to it. Confession and community don’t happen by accident. We must proactively invite others to inquire about our sin, widening our circle of accountability.
At the same time, we should be careful to confess in ways that are discrete, safe, and focused on repentance. Careless confession to immature and untrustworthy people is as bad as no confession. But the rewards of finding true fellowship with maturing and trustworthy siblings in Christ are great. Glorious peace is found in fellowship in which nothing is hidden. Rest and safety follows in the assurance of true communion.
The Christian life is a group adventure, not an individual quest. Christian leaders die in the dark isolation of sin every day. The cure is confession within community. Escape from guilt and growth in grace happen through communion with Christ and the church. In community we confess our faults and failures to God (1 John 1:9—10) and to one another (James 5:16) in pursuit of forgiveness and healing from sin and its terrible effects. James tells us “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (James 5:16a). By God’s grace we find healing and true communion with God and each other through confession.