Confession Is Not Repentance
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
I’ve heard this verse since I was a wee tot. I memorized it in Sunday School, was prodded with it in several awkward teenage small groups, and have used it as a banner over many men’s accountability groups and Bible studies.
Under the counsel of this verse, I have had many, “Hi, my name is Ryan and I’m a ____________” moments. But recently, as I’ve been evaluating and thinking back on my journey with Christ, I have begun to wonder if this verse alone is incomplete.
Maybe you have felt the same tension.
A group of men sit in a circle as the leader gets to the real heart of virtually every men’s meeting: “Okay, guys, how many of you have lusted or looked at porn this week?” The eyes go down and the hands go up. Mission accomplished. See you next week.
The over-creamed coffee and scones sit between two godly people with their Bibles open, arms folded, and inward leaning posture conveying utmost interest and engagement. Their hearts are opened, and all of their demons are pulled out of the bag and put on display. They have vocalized their “struggles.” Mission accomplished. See you next week.
While I’ve found in my own life I’m often okay with exposing my demons, I also seem to be okay with putting them back safely in the bag. As a Christian living in community, it is (sometimes) easy for me to confess sin and point to my own shortcomings and depravity. In some ways, it even gives me pride.
Look at me. Look at the good Christian who is aware of his sin.
His hands are raised, his demons are on the table, and his heart is open.
What a man of God…
But is that the full response to sin in the life of a Christian? Is it the sum total of Christian accountability? Is confession all that God requires?
Often my confession of sin is an easy way to pacify community while Christ is calling for much more.
I don’t mean to downplay confession. It is good. It is right. It is necessary in the life of the believer as they submit to God. At the heart of our sin stands the vile idol of self and pride. In order to expose that idol for what it is, it must be displayed in truth. It must be exposed. It must be confessed.
But we must not see confession as an end in itself. Confession is a means. It is an initial step of repentance. Don’t compromise the journey of repentance by stopping at the first step of confession.
Confession can expose a contrite spirit and humble heart. But it can also be a Band-Aid of an acknowledged symptom when truly surgery is needed on the heart.
What James wants us to do when he tells us to confess our sins to one another is to provide a transparency with God, ourselves, and the church. But James also wants to remind us that confession is not the end result. He says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-and shudder!” (James 2:19). I think James would agree – you think your pride, greed, lust, idolatry is sin? Good. The demons know it is sin and rejoice. The question isn’t how you identify it, but what you do with it once it is identified.
I think this is why Jesus’ call continually throughout the Gospels is not just to confess sin, but to turn from it. Repent of it. Nail it to a cross. Walk the other way. Leave it behind and don’t look back. There is a greater joy before you.
His reprimand for the churches in Revelation is not that they haven’t identified strongholds, struggles, and sin in their lives, but that they have not turned from them. They are not marked by a holiness that God desires and requires.
If you want to spur one another on towards Christlikeness as empowered by the Spirit, by all means confess to one another. Confess to God. But let our community and accountability be defined not by what we point at together, but what we wrestle with together – where we lock arms and step into the blazing fire of sanctification.
Identify the enemy, but put on your helmet and grab your sword.
Confess – yes. But also repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.