Sunday, October 27, 2019

Confession and Edification

Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.”

“Let all things be done for building up.”

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: whenever one presumes to associate verses about different subjects, it is pretty much obligatory to acknowledge what they mean in their original contexts. Long time readers of the New Testament will already know my first quotation comes from James, and has to do with sick Christians who feel they are under judgment telling mature believers the previously-concealed truth, whatever that might be, in hope of being healed. They will also surely be familiar with the second quote, which has the apostle Paul observing the governing metric by which Christians may assess the value of verbal contributions during their gatherings.

Both verses are bigger than their immediate contexts. They embody principles we may quite reasonably apply in circumstances other than those specifically addressed by the NT writers.

Letting It All Out

In New Testament language, a confession is first and foremost an acknowledgement. It may be an acknowledgement of God’s greatness, as when Jesus “confessed” the Father’s wisdom, or as in a future day the whole world will confess Jesus Christ as Lord. It may be an acknowledgement of purpose, as when Judas informed the chief priests of his willingness to betray Jesus. It may be an acknowledgement of relationship, as when the glorified Christ confesses the names of his own before his Father and the angels.

Most commonly, however, confession is an acknowledgement of guilt. That is what it meant to the people John the Baptist baptized in the Jordan River, and that is what James wrote about.

What exactly these confessions entailed is not spelled out for us explicitly, though we can perhaps infer that when John said things like, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” or “Share with him who has none” to the crowds who came to see him, he was responding to the details of actual confessions he had heard from people he had just baptized.

That’s the first thing, then: confession of sin is a notable feature of normal Christian living, or at least it should be. Love may indeed cover a multitude of sins, but it does not pretend they have not occurred.

A Spiritual Construction Project

Secondly, this thing Paul calls “building up” — at least in my ESV and other modern English translations of the Bible — is also called “edification” by theologians and readers of the King James Version. The original Greek word literally means erecting a building.

Metaphorically, however, this spiritual construction project involves more than just stacking up information. Learning truth may certainly be edifying, but it should be evident that when truth learned is being put to no practical use, no real “building up” has occurred. The construction project must begin again from the ground up.

Bigger and Broader

When I say that the edification principle Paul preaches is bigger and broader than the church meeting described in 1 Corinthians 14, I mean that we find it in Romans in the context of not stumbling our brothers and sisters in Christ, and in bearing with the failings of the weak, exhortations directed primarily toward Christian social relationships rather than church gatherings.

We find it in 2 Corinthians in the context of respect for spiritual authority and learning to make correct assessments about the character of those who claim to be God’s servants, instructions we may reasonably apply to how we browse the internet and what sort of Christian books we read.

We find it in Ephesians in the context of the use of spiritual gifts both in and outside church meetings.

Like confession, edification is a notable feature of normal Christian living. When Paul says, “Let all things be done for building up,” he means exactly that. Our words should edify. What we eat and drink should edify. The order to be observed in our homes should edify. If the things we are doing do not methodically and consistently build up our fellow believers, we need to sharply reassess whatever it is we are up to.

A Little Addition

It follows, then, that even the confession of sin between believers ought to build up our brothers and sisters in Christ. If it does not, then it is not the right kind of confession.

How can a confession be wrong? Let me count the ways:

Confessing when we have already been caught out, or think we are about to be, is certainly better than doubling down with a lie, but it may be merely pragmatic rather than genuinely repentant. It is hard to see how such a confession benefits the hearer, since he cannot be sure of its reality, or the person confessing, since under other circumstances he may not have confessed at all.

Confession of sin can be way too detailed. Listening to the confessions of self-involved people can be deeply discouraging. Christians should not be so delicate in our speech that we mince words or dodge the truth; the Lord and the apostles never did that. But neither should we forget that we are to be primarily concerned with things which are honorable, pure, lovely, commendable and worthy of praise. If it is to build up others, any discussion of sin should be clear, concise and not exhibitionistic or unnecessarily provocative.

Unintended Consequences

At the opposite extreme, confession of sin can turn into mere ritual, and frivolous ritual at that. Repentance does not need to involve beating ourselves into the ground for our wrong choices, but we do need to feel some real sense of the gravity of our sin in order to truly reject it. In environments where public confession has become routine, everybody ends up looking for something to confess whether they are feeling a deep sense of guilt or almost nothing at all. There is surely a need for each of us to regularly examine our lives before the Lord, but publicly airing our conclusions is less profitable than is often imagined.

Even a private confession session can devolve into humble-bragging. Verbal self-flagellation whose real purpose is to draw attention is not genuine confession. Self-criticism intended to inspire our audience to assure us that we are “really not so bad after all” is not biblical confession. Real confession recognizes on some level that each sin is something for which Christ died and something that puts distance between God and man. Any confession that involves wry laughter or comments like “You know how it is” or “That’s just the way I am” is drifting too close to humble-bragging to profit either confessor or confessee. Expect a repeat performance of the same.

Unthoughtful public confession can end up inadvertently glorifying the sin. As a young man, I listened to testimonies that made me actually yearn to go through the same struggles the speaker was describing. I could only dream of having to make the tough choices about sexual temptation he did. I kid you not. Now, the speaker almost surely didn’t intend to make the sowing of his wild oats into an advertisement for getting serious about Christ later rather than sooner, but that was absolutely its effect on a young teen from a Christian home with no life experience worth mentioning. That’s not exactly edifying, is it.

Should I Be Hearing This?

Finally, confession of sin can be unedifying when it is made to the wrong person. When James says, “Confess your sins to one another,” there is no indication he means that we are to confess all our sins to every Christian willy-nilly with no discernment involved. Any apparently broad general statement must be interpreted in the light of other passages on the subject. In Matthew, the Lord Jesus taught how to deal with personal issues by describing a targeted approach to an offending brother that does not seek to broadcast his sin any more widely than is absolutely necessary. If your brother has already acknowledged his error, there is no need for two or three witnesses, and certainly no pressing requirement to “tell it to the church”. The point of confession is to put sin behind us and move on, not to create a lasting memorial to it.

There are other ways to involve the wrong person in a confession, of course. For example, confessing your excessive love of alcohol to an alcoholic may be more destructive than liberating.

Then there are times we end up confessing our sins to someone not because we have wronged them personally, but because we need advice about how best to deal with the fallout from them. You might think a mature Christian would be the obvious choice to open up to, but far too often we are more comfortable confiding in the sort of friend we know might easily have done the same thing we just did. It should go without saying that to the extent one’s chosen sounding board lacks life experience, knowledge of scripture, love and/or self-control, not much edification is likely to result for either party.


  1. Interestingly this piece and the facts and opinions expressed in it actually confirms my conviction that it is best to leave something like confession up to the professional (the priest in the Catholic tradition) and not to the next guy who may be totally unqualfied to understand the issues and responsibility involved. As it is, the Catholic Church has a two pronged approach to confession in that at the start of every mass the people attending the assembly loudly confess in public directly to God that they are serious sinners. They are expected at that time to add the specifics internally and not publicly. In addition, the church is encouraging the believer, at their convenience and discretion, to periodically also attend private confession with a priest who would then decide if forgiveness can be granted and which would then entail prayers of penance suggested by the priest somewhat in proportion to the seriousness of any offenses. Note that this process safeguards against unwarranted and unjust forgiveness (as for murder, e.g.) where the priest would withhold forgiveness until the person has taken full responsibility by notifying the authorities. This process eliminates amateurish, frivolous and invalid claims to forgiveness.

    1. Hmm. Just MIGHT have seen that one coming ...

    2. It seems to me that Protestant (Evangelical or other) denominations could also benefit from an approach where a professional, mature adult (counselor, minister, ect.) would shoulder the burden of hearing confessions and providing helpful advice and direction as needed. There is probably no reason why that could not universally be implemented thereby putting confession on a sound basis instead of having a haphazard approach.