At the church where I recently served, we structured our Lord’s Day Gatherings around what I consider to be a good biblical pattern for corporate worship (Call, Confession, Consecration, Communion, and Commission). Within that pattern we see the corporate and private confession of sin as an essential element of our coming together as the Church in the presence of our Triune God.
One of the many areas of confusion among Christians these days concerning confession is how our understanding of justification by faith alone corresponds with the biblical practice of regular, frequent confession of sin. In other words, if God judged once and for all the past, present and future sins of His people as He poured out His wrath upon His Son on the cross, then why do we confess and ask forgiveness for sins already forgiven? Or, for many people, why do we find it so hard to go quickly and confidently before God in confession of known sin in our lives?
Let me try to explain it like this. When we first hear and respond to the effectual call of God in our lives, we come before Him as our Judge. We stand before the Judge of the universe and confess our shameful and infinite guilt against the Righteous God. Our eyes have been opened to our sinfulness. But our eyes have also been opened to the sinless righteousness of Jesus Christ. Because we now see our sin and see His beauty, we turn away from ourselves and look to Christ for salvation.
In that moment, we are justified by faith. That is, the Holy Judge looks at us and sees the righteousness of Christ. We no longer stand before Him guilty of infinite wrath. Our guilt was punished upon the shoulders of Jesus. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Thus, our justification saves us from death to life; from being at war with God to dwelling in peace with God.
However, justification does not result in us simply walking out of the courtroom guilt free. Amazingly, justification allows the Judge to become our Father. God’s purpose in redemption is not to save us from eternal damnation. God’s purpose is to raise up sons and daughters in the image of His Son, Jesus. We are not simply made free, we are made family! We are justified (forgiven) that we might be adopted.
Stay with me here. This is where a very important distinction must be made concerning forgiveness and confession of sin. When God adopts us into His family, He does so on the basis that every sin that will ever flow from our hearts, minds, hands and lips has been forgiven 100% based upon the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Stop reading and let that sink in for a minute. You will never again stand in the eternal courtroom guilty of sin before the Holy Judge. You will never have to ask Him for forgiveness and mercy instead of wrath. Why? Because the Judge is now your Father; because you are no longer a defendant but a son, a daughter. Do you see the difference?
And yet, as justified, adopted children of God we still struggle with sin and are in need of confession and forgiveness constantly. When God calls us by faith to himself we are born again into a new family. This means that we are like infants. Yes, we have a new name and a new heart, but we are still babies. Again, let us remember God’s purpose and goal in salvation. He justifies us that He may adopt us. He adopts us that He may, as a good Father, grow us up into Christ Jesus, our elder brother. Thus, begins the lifelong process of sanctification. Every day God is working everything together to grow us up a little more. To do that, He must instruct us, correct us, discipline us, provide for us, protect us, refine us, stretch us, encourage us, love us, etc.
When we sin we are reminded of just how much growing up we still need to do. We are reminded of just how undeserving we are to be in this family. And we are especially reminded of what a wonderful Father, Brother and Helper we have in the Triune God. We will still stand guilty before God more often than we would like to admit. We will still come before Him confessing once again that we have sinned. Only, now we come as a child before his father not as a defendant before the judge. Confession helps us to recognize who we are not (we do not belong in the pig pen eating the scraps of worldliness) and who we are in Christ (coming back home as sons and daughters who have an eternal inheritance awaiting them).