Published in BT, 2008
Baptists don’t do confession, because we don’t do sin. Yes we can all quote John, and prove that we know that any who claim to be without sin deceive themselves. But our haste to fire off such quotations only shows how deep our self-deception has sunken its roots.
And we all know that confession is sinful anyway. It’s what nominal Catholics do to wipe the slate clean before rushing back into the world to dirty it all up again. A liturgical waste of time, a futile attempt to clear the conscience of those who have never established a proper relationship with a forgiving God. Why bother with confession?
But, hold on a minute. Many of us do expect to say sorry for our sins. Many of our church services include a time of apparent ‘confession’. The confession of sin is central to our evangelistic courses. Baptists do believe in sin, and we do take confession seriously.
I beg to differ.
For the vast majority, confession of sin, regardless of how and where it happens, tends to take place in the comfortable privacy of my soul. It’s just between me and God. Even in church, the minister may invite us to be quiet, and reflect upon our own personal sins before seeking forgiveness. But even here, we are left to our own perception of our own sin, and choose what is necessary for our own confession. In other words, even our confession of sin is deeply sinful:
Perhaps Augustine gave the best brief definition of sin as ‘man turned in on himself’. Either publicly or privately, corporately or individually, our confession of sin leaves us turned in on ourselves. A vast and open chasm stretches out between this practice, and what the writer to the Hebrews had in mind when exhorting us to ‘confess our sins to one another’.
C.S. Lewis hit this nail on the head in the Screwtape Letters, where the senior demon advises the junior demon to bring his Christian victim “to the point where he can practice self-examination for an hour, without noticing any of those things about himself which are immediately obvious to anyone who has ever lived in the same house as him, or worked in the same office.’ Our capacity for self-deceit knows no bounds.
Various modern liturgies attempt to address this problem, but Sunday worship alone will never manage this. The closest we come in our communal practice is celebrating the peace with one another before receiving communion. But this is a rare practice in Baptist churches.
Actually finding another real life person to whom we might confess our sins, is a frightening business. It is much easier to keep it between me and God, thereby shielding myself from the painful reality of my sin. Baptists seem to take neither confession nor sin seriously enough to do something about it in real life.
But when we do find those with whom we can make our confessions and take the plunge, we encounter the reality of our sin in a painfully disturbing, but ultimately liberating way. We encounter the forgiveness of God more fully, and discover the meaning of community more clearly. We discover who we really are, and encounter much more of who God really is.
Until we do this, we are not living the Christian life.