But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honorable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modeling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints…. He that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul. – Athanasius
We can cherish romantic ideas about communion with God, and set ourselves up for the moth-Christian experience. For there is no such thing as undisturbed communion with God this side of Heaven. Francis de Sales understood this well:
As daylight waxes, we, gazing into a mirror, see more plainly the soils and stains upon our face; and even so as the interior light of the Holy Spirit enlightens our conscience, we see more distinctly the sins, inclinations and imperfections which hinder our progress towards real devotion. And the selfsame light which shows us these blots and stains, kindles in us the desire to be cleansed and purged therefrom.1
In confession, we are agreeing with God that we have acted or thought or spoken in a way that disturbs communion with God. We continually fall short of the glory of God, and it is Christ’s blood that continually cleanses us, but confession is ours to make to maintain and restore the communion of adoration.
Confession is calling sin what it is. In confession, we are doing more than admitting we have sinned. Plenty of people in the Bible did merely that – Judas, Pharoah, Saul, and Balaam – but they were not confessing in the biblical sense. Confession is to agree with God that sin is sinful, that it is not worthwhile. We are agreeing that our values were perverted, that we loved what God hates and hated what God loves. We come back to agreeing that sin is not true, good, or beautiful, and God’s ways are. We justify God, as David put it in Psalm 51. God is right, and we are wrong. We blame ourselves, and agree that we were totally unjust in choosing what we did.
What God wants here is not some kind of work from us which will appease him. Our tears or sorrow cannot atone for sin. The atonement has been made, and God has already been propitiated towards us, his justice satisfied, the penalty paid, and our sins forgiven in Christ. A New Testament believer confesses because, according to 1 John 1:6-10, this is how we walk in the light. We live openly with God in mutual communion. We step up to more maturity, and claim ownership for our sins. We call sin sin, we agree with God, we identify something in our lives as offensive to God, as unfitting for one in whom God dwells and bring it to God as sin.
When we choose not to confess, we prevent ourselves from deepening our communion with God. Our growth slows, and according to Ephesians 4:30, we grieve the Holy Spirit. Like any relationship, we feel the discomfort of an unresolved offence. Worse, we lose boldness to come to God, so the communion tends to dry up. If we keep doing this, our consciences begin to harden, and even become insensitive to the Holy Spirit. If we persist in this state, Hebrews 12 tells us that God will discipline us. He will bring to bear upon us various things that will drive us back to confession.
1 John 1:9 gives us a promise:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Likewise, Proverbs 28:13:
He who covers his sins will not prosper, But whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.
Confess Before You Sin
When confession and repentance are understood this way, we can see that a believer can confess and turn away from something sinful before he embraces it. Repentance is often thought of as a remedy and response to committed sin, and indeed it is that. However, as a continual action to maintain communion, a Christian can judge something to be sinful, confess it to be so, and turn his being away from it towards God at the point of temptation. With the posture of humility and repentance assisting, confession need not only be the reaction after a fall, but a preventative before such a fall.
Kevin Bauder lists the stages of temptation as inclination, consideration, permission, participation, habituation, identification, and legitimation.2 Inclination does not involve sin, but after a person gives his soul the opportunity to consider and embrace it, he has begun to sin. From there, he allows the sin mentally, giving himself moral permission to see as good what God declares evil. Before long, the open act of participating in the sin will occur. If the sin is repeated, the will becomes used to it, forming an enslaving habit. This, in turn, comes to define a person’s character and identity, until the sinner cannot imagine life without it. Beyond that, a person may come to no longer regard the sin as sinful, fully legitimising it.
Seen in this way, sin is not merely a line we cross over, it is a path we take. We can reject travelling on the path altogether, or if we begin on it, we can turn back on any stage of the path. Whichever way it happens, the action of confession is what will keep us communing.