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Confession and Repentance

 I can't remember when I have seen a Sabbath School lesson on confession and repentance! And that forces me to recognize further that many Adventists (along with Christians generally) believe that, experientially, these two terms are synonymous!

This has happened for several reasons: 1) Belief that we are born sinners (forgetting that sin is a choice); 2) Belief that overcoming sin is thus impossible; 3) Belief that confession is obviously a social necessity but that our Lord's death on the Cross erased our guilt which we are “confessing.”

However, Bible writers were clear about the difference between confession and repentance: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” Proverbs 28:13.  Notice the “ellipse of  truth: “Confess and forsake.” (Truth always has two foci, a circle has only one.)  Lots of examples:  “God is transcendent and immanent,” “Law and Gospel,” etc.) In other words, we can't have one without the other if we want truth (and not near-truth!).

Isaiah balanced it well: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil.” Isaiah 1:16, NKJV.

So did Paul:“But now I am happy—not because I made you sad, but because your sadness made you change your ways. That sadness was used by God, and so we caused you no harm. For the sadness that is used by God brings a change of heart that leads to salvation—and there is no regret in that! But sadness that is merely human causes death.” 2 Cor. 7, 9-10, GNB).

Can't leave out John: “But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing.” I John 1:9, (GNB).

So what is the difference between confession and repentance? Suppose (each of us has many examples) that a child is quietly snatching cookies from the cookie jar and is “caught!”  And he/she, with tears, confesses and asks for forgiveness. Great, so far! But for some “strange” reason, he/she quietly lifts the cover and quietly pulls out another cookie.  Eventually, mother sees the crumbs and kindly wonders with son/daughter why those crumbs lead to the child's bedroom! But the child “confesses” again, and this time with greater tears: he/she is “very sorry!” And the parent is satisfied—case closed!  Or, is it? This cookie ritual may go on for the rest of that child's life, through school, marriage, etc. “I'm sorry”--the great, modern “cookie-jar” anesthetic: it seems to work until reality caves in. Lost jobs, tarnished friendships, broken marriages and what's worse, those sad, tear-filled words of Jesus: “I never knew you, depart from Me.” Matthew 7:23, NKJV.

We have all seen this scenario play out on the national stage in recent weeks: intelligent, articulate, highly paid government administrators are caught on their slippery slope; from cool unawareness of a problem until they are trapped by their own words. To the embarrassment of their fellow Americans! Even though they are cornered into some level of “confession”, it is painful to see their reluctance, step by step down that slippery slope.  And for those who are quietly removed from the office, that should have embarrassed them enough for full confession and repentance--a neat, quieter job is found for them.  The cookie-jar syndrome!

What makes some confessions so self-defeating?

1) Some do not see their “mistake” as something they must take to God; in other words, they should be “heartfelt” and freely expressed.

2) The confession should not have to be urged from the “sinner.”

3) Confessions should not be made in a flippant manner, as if they are a trivial event.

4) Confessions should be specific, acknowledging “that particular cookie-jar!”  In other words, those often heard prayers, “Forgive us, Lord, for our sins” are useless, or worse!

5. Private sins, mistakes, embarrassments should be privately confessed to the ones concerned—not made public; only public sins, etc., need and should be made in public.

6. In other words, sincere confessions will be definite, without excuses.

Now the other half of the ellipse of truth: repentance!The Greek word, “metanoia,” is easily translated, “a change of mind.” As a theological term, “repentance” is the act of forsaking sin, entering into fellowship with God, accepting His wonderful gift of salvation that is wrapped up in his pardon and power to overcome sin. Genuine repentance is our response to the Holy Spirit (“the goodness of God leads you to repentance,” Romans 2:4), working with us “both to will and to do His good pleasure,” Philippians 2:13.

We can imagine how all this worked in the early moments of the Christian church.  When the multitude of “devout Jews” heard Peter's Pentecostal sermon (Acts 2), their response was electric: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?' Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.'  And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, 'Be saved from this perverse generation.' Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” (Acts 2: 37-42, NKJV.

A wonderful example of how conviction merges into repentance and then into conversion!

Thus, it becomes a simple blueprint or map of how each of us today makes this same journey--not just once, long years ago, but a transaction that thoughtful Christians do daily. Why? As long as we are maturing, we are constantly asking the Holy Spirit to help us overcome “every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us” as we “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Hebrews 12:1, NKJV. All of us, when we take time to be honest, know those times in our lives when it seemed that our moral perceptions were deadened, when we remained partially blinded to our “sins,” our “failures,” in our human relationships, as well as in our faithfulness to our Lord to whom we had sworn fidelity when we were baptized. Those were the times when we made excuses for this or that. Or we explained that if it were not for certain circumstances, we would not have done this or that—pure self-justification!

The facts of life can be covered over with man-made theology.  These distortions of biblical texts cannot undo the relentless accumulations of boutons that make every act a deeper habit in our neural patterns. Each deepening groove of our habits of rejecting that wooing voice of the Holy Spirit (conscience) makes us less capable of “hearing” that Voice.  In other words, men and women neutralize the “gospel” of hope, forgiveness, and fresh hope for a better future. We could become living examples of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he sent His unique, one-of-a-kind Son, that whoever makes a habit of trusting Him should not commit spiritual suicide but have everlasting life.” John 3:16, (personal translation).

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