October 20, 2009

Confession: Cause for Shame or Cause for Revival?

One of the most famous spiritual revivals in history, the Welsh revival, began when a small group of believers began praying earnestly for revival and, after there were no results, decided they needed to confess all their known sins. It was after this that God’s glory fell in power. This became the main maxim throughout the entire revival, “confess all known sins.” When there have been revivals at Christian college campuses, it has not been uncommon to see students lining up to publicly confess their sins.

Scriptures says “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.” (James 5.16 KJV) Sometimes there is a tendency to consider that inner sins are not so bad but Jesus showed that they are just as bad as actually acting out physical sins. Job in the Bible was considered an upright man and called perfect by God. But he had a revelation that he needed to confess his sins and repent of them. It seems as though his besetting sings were self-righteousness and a wandering eye, though it does not directly say so in the conclusion.

Recently, God has been dealing with me regarding these same sins plus certain times when I’ve had angry outbursts. I confessed these things in our church fellowship and also taught about repentance and sanctification. I wasn't proud that my life was an object lesson, but I was relieved to speak publicly about shameful sins I held privately. It's not about being graphic or any kind of sensationalism, it's just about being open and honest. There is a fine line between being a transparent person and wearing one's heart on one's sleeve. But scripture gives us a guide.

It can be intimidating to reveal one’s inner struggles because some people will judge you for doing so. Ultimately, it’s not the opinion of men but the opinion of God that matters most in life. We’re told in scripture to judge ourselves (1 Corinthians 11.31) rather than to judge others (Romans 14.3). But there are exceptions. Jesus said "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (John 7:24) Even if we are judged wrongly by others for appearance sake, God can use this for good to humble us. Scriptures state that “Judgment must begin at the house of God.” (1 Peter 4.17) But, in reality, we are more likely to see people confessing sin on TV than in churches. Confessions on TV often seem to be for sensationalism and profit. On shows like Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer, sins are confessed with a prideful, rebellious attitude. David Letterman sarcastically confessed affairs and adultery on TV in order to avoid blackmail. When Jesus began His judgment in the house of God, some tables were turned and caged doves were set free. It could be that there are areas of compromise is our lives that God wants to deal with. Perhaps the Holy Spirit needs to be let out of a box to be free to operate in the area of public repentance. Sins that are done or known publicly, it would stand to reason, are appropriate for public confession. While it takes discernment to know how to confess sins that are not known publicly. It may be best just between you and God.

One church in New York City which emphasizes holiness and the confession of sin is the Times Square Church. Wilkerson noted in his message "Whatever Happened to Repentance?" how the Puritans preached repentance to their congregations, not just the unsaved, calling it “deep ploughing.” Charles Spurgeon stated: "I freely confess that I have a very much greater sorrow for sin today than I had when I came to the savior more than thirty years ago.” And "Sorrow for sin is a perpetual rain, a sweet, soft shower, which to a truly saved man lasts all his life long...He is always sorrowful that he has sinned...He will never stop grieving until all sin has gone." Wilkerson admonishes believers “As you repent, God's Spirit will begin to produce in you a new revelation of the glory of Christ. And he'll make it known to everyone around you!"

Another pastor in NYC, Timothy Keller, emphasized in his article, "All of Life is Repentance," that repentance is not to be "earned" but "received" according to the gospel. The first of the "Ninety Five Theses" Martin Luther posted was "Our Lord and master Jesus Christ...willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." Keller shows that our hope is in Christ's righteousness, not in our own. On this basis it is not so traumatic to admit our sins, weaknesses and lapses. In a religious mode we will repent increasingly less often. But in a conscious relationship mode, abiding in Christ, we will feel more accepted and loved and thus we will desire to live a life of repenting. Keller points out "The sin under all other sins is a lack of joy in Christ." According to the gospel we are under no condemnation for the sins we commit, which is a radical thought. (Rom 8.1) But, nevertheless, our sins wound ourselves, others, and sabotage our relationship with God. This is why we need confession and repentance.

The anointed King David, the highest authority in the kingdom of Israel, was humble enough to confess that his sins numbered more than the hairs of his head. (Ps 40.12) While it wouldn’t be possible to confess every sin of commission and omission, I believe there are certain kinds of sins which may be holding back the work of God in the Church. For example, gossip in Ukraine. One of the reasons why it’s insidious is because it keeps people from being open. People, me included, hesitate to confess and deal with sins if they feel they will be eventually condemned by gossip and slander. Another problem, in my opinion, is when people in ministry feel they need to present a perfect picture of their lives to their congregations. People in leadership may feel at ease to talk about others in private but, on the contrary, may never open up about their own struggles. This policy can lead to hypocrisy by example.

Another kind of sin that I believe needs to be dealt with in Ukraine is ethnic hatred. People take it for granted and sometimes joke about the bitterness between Ukrainians and Russians. But I wonder what God's feelings are on the matter. Some have likened it to the relationship between Joseph and his brothers in scripture. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and only after many years was there reconciliation and forgiveness. Ukraine was also used and abused by Russia during the Soviet Union. Under leaders such as Stalin, the promotion of Ukrainian language and culture was forbidden and a reason for punishment. I believe Ukrainian and Russian Christians need to ask for God’s forgiveness and for each others forgiveness. My wife, who is Ukrainian, said this is practically unthinkable but it may start with one simple act, by simply admitting this bitterness is a sin and confessing it publicly.

How can a Believer Repent?

Confession is the first step, bringing God’s forgiveness and healing process. After this, God can give grace for true repentance and a determination to change for good. Repentance isn’t just for the unsaved heathen. Job struggled with a wandering eye and with self-righteousness. After he repented in dust and ashes, his relationship with God was restored and his fortunes were restored two-fold. Isaiah was a practicing prophet when he confessed "I am a man of unclean lips." (Is 6.5) His problem was either gossip, slander or swearing. The main idea is that he confessed his sins and God healed him and empowered him more so.

Peter repented after he denied Christ. After he was restored and filled with the Holy Spirit, he preached a sermon whereby 3,000 repented and were saved. Jesus told 5 of the 7 churches in ancient Turkey to repent. Ephesus was told “Repent and do the things you did at first.” (Rev 2.5 NIV) If there wouldn’t be repentance, Jesus said the flame, the symbol of spiritual life, would be removed from the place and people. Laodicea was told to repent zealously. This message was not just for the historical churches but 7 times in the first two chapters it says "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches." And so this applies to us today. The main motive of repentance is to return to our first love, Jesus Christ and remove any kinds of hindrances in our relationship with Him.

The overall work of holiness in the believer’s life is called sanctification and, while we are partners in the process, it is mainly a work of God’s grace of which He is in control. (Phil 1.6) The believer’s greatest advantage against sin is the indwelling Holy Spirit. Galatians 5.16 says “Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.” If we rely only on our willpower in resisting sin, we will fail. Through the Spirit, plus other tools, there will be success. (Rom 8.2) We are filled and empowered by God and the Holy Spirit as we worship, pray and fill our hearts and minds with God’s living word. (Col 3.16, Josh 1.8) Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does one's spiritual life. If we are filled with God’s Spirit and Word there is less likelihood for compromises to creep in.

While the Spirit led life is most important, there is a place for exercising our wills with diligence. Paul wrote “I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward God, and toward men.” (Acts 24.16) This exercise includes a kind of spiritual gardening: Rooting out vices and planting virtues. For one who gossips, this would mean taming the tongue. In Job’s case, it had to do with training his eyes, He “made a covenant with his eyes…….” (Job 31.1). Likewise, we're admonished to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." (2 Corinthians 10.5).

In 1 Peter 1.22 there is a progression which begins with obedience, and then there is purity, love and finally a sense of unity among believers. It says the love is “unfeigned,” without hypocrisy, which can only come after sins have been confessed. The resulting agape love is a sign of true revival. There is a trend in “seeker friendly” churches to avoid the word “sin” on Sunday mornings. There may be huge congregations but in some of these churches many have never even heard the gospel and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is unlikely. While sin itself is shameful and to be despised, even what we may consider “small sins,” the act of confessing sin should be encouraged. My wife was glad I confessed the sins I mentioned and, though it was somewhat painful, we have become closer as a result.

For me personally, I’ve felt the last month or so has been one long spiritual battle as I’ve considered these issues and written about them. Though painful, and though some may look down on me for what I’ve confessed and written about, I feel it has brought me closer to God and I believe there may be some lasting spiritual fruit from all this. The Lord has already given me some fresh songs that have been very encouraging to me. In a sense, I've already had kind of a mini-revival but I still feel a restless churning inside and I don't know when it will stop. The verse Chronicles 7.14 has to do with revival. I've often wondered why it said people should "humble themselves, and pray." But during this time of my life, I've realized that public confession is a type of prayer that does in fact require humility and is not easy:

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7.14) In this light, confessing sin is a not a cause for public shame but a cause for healing and revival, both on a personal and national level.

What about you and your church? Is there an atmosphere where you can confess sins “one to another” publicly or in a small group setting? Would you be willing to do this?

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