Following PSPC’s theme on “Christ-centred Relationships, Godly Families”, one of the questions that inevitably come to mind is “How do I cultivate Christ-centred relationships among my peers?” A typical but important reply would be to pray more with community or to read the bible together. Yet on my reflection, I realised that an important aspect that has often been neglected is the confession of sin to community. Within the reformed tradition, the confession of sin plays a pivotal role in expressing our self-awareness of who we are before God and in ensuring that we are first made right by the blood of Jesus Christ (Eph 1:7). While I appreciate this emphasis of the reformed tradition as seen in our liturgy during corporate worship, a part of me wonders whether the confession of sin ought to be extended to smaller communities as well. In fact, I would perhaps go as far as to say that the intentional neglect of our confession of sin to community may hinder us from enjoying fellowship with our brothers and sisters.
A question that I find myself asking often is how we are able to so easily confess our sins to God and yet struggle to share our sins with our brothers. The German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes an interesting observation in our confession of sin that is worth quoting at length:
“Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is as sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to a holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness?” (Life Together)
There may of course be legitimate reasons for why one would choose not to confess their sin to a particular brother lest it causes him or her to stumble in faith. But the point Bonhoeffer is making stands. If God is indeed holy and just as we believe Him to be so, should it not be of a greater concern what God thinks of our sin than our Christian brothers and sisters? And yet we often seem to be more fearful in confessing our sins to people than to God.
The way forward according to Bonhoeffer would be to understand how God works within community in allowing believers to journey together beginning with the confession of sin. Unconfessed sin isolates the individual from community precisely because it remains hidden to community. The Christian who refuses to confess his sin to community will never be able to live a transparent life nor accept help that comes from community. However, in our confession of sins to fellow Christians, all pride is removed and we are able to stand together, bearing one another’s burdens and praying for each other (James 5:16).
This is not to say that the confession of sin within community is without danger. In fact, there are at least two that I can think of. The first would be for those who are listening to confessions. The individual who is listening must always remember that true forgiveness is founded in the cross of Christ and that alone. It is never his or her duty to bestow forgiveness. The role of the listener is to point the confessor back to Scripture that he or she may find divine forgiveness. Therein lies the power of community. Not to act as though one was God but rather to display the love of Christ (John 13:34-35) through pointing and assuring those who are repentant that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has died on the cross precisely for what has been confessed. The second danger would be for those who are confessing. “For the well-being of their soul they must guard against ever making their confession into a work of piety” says Bonhoeffer. The assurance of salvation or salvation for that matter is not based upon our works of confession or the intensity of our faith but rather on the grounds of the blood of Jesus. The confession of sin properly understood within the reformed tradition must never be treated as a work to attaining salvation for the confession of sins belongs to those who have already been regenerated. In other words, both confession and repentance is a work resulting from faith that is generated by the Spirit.
Where then can such confession of sin take place? Personally, I think the better place to start would be within the 3-2-1 friendship groups. With the push and encouragement of 3-2-1 friendships, members are able to find themselves within a smaller and more intimate community where they can open up and encourage one another through the friendships that have been established. The confession of sins within such a community enables us to view one another as sinners standing under the cross of Christ living life together.