Thursday, May 11, 2017

Christian Confession: An Elaborate Fabrication?

Is it really necessary for Christians to confess our sins in order to be forgiven them?

Peter Ditzel says no, that being forgiven for the sins we commit from time to time as believers does not depend on regular confession. That, he says, would be working for our forgiveness.

He is also not a fan of John MacArthur’s take on 1 John 1, which draws a distinction between judicial and parental forgiveness that Ditzel thinks is an “elaborate fabrication”. He sees the ongoing search for MacArthur’s “parental forgiveness” as a Protestant form of penance.

The judicial/parental distinction probably did not originate with MacArthur. I’ve been hearing it my whole life. It is a very common explanation of what the apostle John has to say about forgiveness.

But is it correct?

This Is the Message

Well, let’s go right back to the original text. Here’s the pivotal verse on the subject (in bold) in its context:
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
When the word “forgive” crops up in v9, we can take it one of two ways: (1) as a secondary sort of forgiveness within an existing and permanent relationship (whatever name we might choose to give that if we dislike the term “parental forgiveness”), or (2) as a reference back to a single moment of all-encompassing forgiveness accomplished at the cross.

Now, Ditzel rejects any understanding of forgiveness in this passage that “sets up two different standards: a standard by which God’s righteousness as Judge can be violated and appeased, and a standard by which God’s righteousness as parent can be violated and appeased.” That would definitely rule out (1).

Thus he would have to read v9 something like this:
“When we agree with God about our sins, we testify to his faithfulness and justice in having already once-for-all forgiven us our sins and cleansed us from all unrighteousness.”
Hmm. Let me think on that one a bit.

Three Things Worth Thinking About

While I’m doing that, let’s look at several points Ditzel raises in his critique of MacArthur.

First, Ditzel initially appears to have put his finger on a major problem for those convinced that enjoying so-called “parental forgiveness” depends on confession: we can’t do it. Not in all the specifics of our sins, and certainly not comprehensively.

What about the sins we have forgotten? What about the sins we never knew we committed? What about people who die or lapse into a comatose state without having confessed? As with so many aspects of the Christian life, any part of forgiveness — even “parental forgiveness” — that depends on you and me presents a source of serious spiritual danger, nudging us toward a relational model that is works-based rather than faith-based. Ditzel doesn’t like this, and he’s right not to.

The problem largely disappears when we read 1 John 3 and discover that “God is greater than our heart”. It is a general good conscience before God that is necessary for fellowship, not exhaustive mechanical rule-compliance.

Second, Ditzel does have a point, I think, when he asks, “Where in the Bible is the idea of a ‘parental forgiveness’ that does not forgive at the same time and in the same way as ‘judicial forgiveness’?” He’s correct about that — at least insofar as it isn’t where John MacArthur says it is. Hebrews 12, which is MacArthur’s source for the “parental forgiveness” concept, says nothing at all about either confession or forgiveness in the context of God’s chastening of his children. So we might legitimately wish to take issue with MacArthur’s choice of words.

Third, Ditzel goes on to explain that what we often call “confession” — a labor-intensive and detailed recitation of our sins in all their exquisite perfidy — is not quite what we find in scripture:
“The word ‘confess’ in 1 John 1:9 comes from the Greek word homologeō. It literally translates as, ‘to say the same thing as someone else.’ It means ‘to agree,’ ‘to concede,’ ‘to not deny,’ ‘to admit (what one is accused of).’ For example, it is the word translated ‘confess’ in Romans 10:9: ‘That if you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord means that you agree with the proposition, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ ”
This is correct, though I fail to see how it solves the “works” problem Ditzel has raised. It merely substitutes the work of agreeing we have sinned and are sinners for the work of rehearsing the details of our sins before God. That’s almost as laborious and just as dependent on human effort.

That said, Ditzel has made some good points along the way.

Hmm … Something’s Missing Here

But here’s where I have trouble with it. If you search Ditzel’s post for the word “fellowship”, you don’t find it at all. Not once. This is a major omission, since the word fellowship occurs four times in the chapter and is one of its main themes.

The word “fellowship” here is koinōnia, meaning association, community, communion or joint participation. It suggests the sort of union that exists between those who have a common cause; and with it, the ability to delight in the presence of another because you truly agree together and are engaged in pursuing the same goals.

Now, anyone who has been saved for more than a few weeks has already figured out that we only enjoy the fellowship we have with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ when we are not habitually sinning.

Errors and Habitual Sin

Of course, a mere slip of the sort we all have every day does not destroy fellowship — a moment of guilt because I failed to seize an opportunity to witness, an unfortunate misuse of my tongue that injured my wife, a display of temper, a TV show I really shouldn’t have watched or a Thanksgiving dinner that bordered on gluttonous — such things are blips. I agree with Peter Ditzel that they cease to disrupt our fellowship with God and others the moment it hits us that this is not how we want to live. In this we are in agreement with God, enjoying fellowship. No extended, dramatic rehearsal of the events of the day is required.

On the other hand, sin in my life that is planned, contemplated, excused and habitual absolutely WILL disrupt fellowship. If I am sneaking around on my wife with another woman, I not only lose my fellowship with my wife, I lose it with my extended family and my children, and I lose it with my fellow believers. Why? Because I am engaged in pursuing an agenda that is at cross-purposes with my faith. I don’t really enjoy being with any of them anymore, not least because every single engagement with a person possessing even an iota of spiritual perception increases my chances of getting caught. Above all, OF COURSE I no longer have fellowship with God because I am no longer walking with him. I’m going in an entirely different direction.

It is this maintenance of genuine heartfelt, honest commonality, first with God and secondly with one another, that John is really concerned about. If we miss this, we have missed the most significant point John is making. The forgiveness question here is really secondary, very much a means to an end.

Two Different Standards

Ditzel’s apparent lack of interest in the absolutely fundamental fellowship issue makes me wonder if he’s on the right track. I have great difficulty with this bit:
“[John MacArthur and others] are … setting up two different standards: a standard by which God’s righteousness as Judge can be violated and appeased, and a standard by which God’s righteousness as parent can be violated and appeased.”
Here I think Ditzel has missed something vital that MacArthur has grasped, and that is this: the righteousness question was eternally settled at the cross. To speak of God’s “righteousness as a parent” is to mix scriptural metaphors. In Christ, I was already as righteous as I will ever be the very instant I was born again. It is my ongoing fellowship with God that Satan would most like to disrupt.

Judgment and Disrupted Koinōnia

Broken fellowship is what John wants his readers to avoid. As he says at the beginning of chapter 2, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” That’s the goal: uninterrupted harmonious fellowship “with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

If you doubt this, just watch where God’s direct judgment breaks out or is threatened against churchgoers in the New Testament. You will observe it is frequently where there is broken communion or false fellowship. Around the Lord’s table in Corinth. At the apostles’ feet in the church in Jerusalem, where Ananias and Sapphira had made mockery of koinōnia. Against Jezebel” in Thyatira, who had brought the “deep things of Satan” into the fellowship of the saints.

As for Mr. MacArthur, I don’t think the concepts of judicial forgiveness and parental forgiveness are all that far off the mark. But it is perhaps more in keeping with John’s emphasis in the passage to simply note that the righteousness question is no longer an issue for the believer.

The maintenance of fellowship, however, is an issue that is very much alive.

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