The Cleansing of Confession


HE PASTOR’S HEART is failing, and immediate surgery is required. Quickly he is ushered into the operating room in a life-or-death crisis.

With all equipment in place and the anesthesiologist ready to put him to sleep, the heart surgeon approaches the patient with these words: “Reverend, before I perform this surgery, there is a confession I must make.”

With a weak smile of grace, the minister nods. The surgeon continues, “I have to tell someone that I cheated on my final exam in medical school.”

Not the best timing for a confession.

Confessions can be sticky. When to confess and to whom has always been an issue for Christians.

Should I confess to someone even though they never knew about the deed? . . . Is confession mostly for my benefit, to get rid of my guilt — or even worse, to transfer my guilt to someone else?

• A young man stands before the congregation and reveals a sin he committed while stationed in Europe. His misdeed involved no one in the church but himself, yet he pours out his soul, begging the church for forgiveness.

• A high-profile minister weeps on national television, confessing his immoral deed.

• In the closing Sunday service of a college convocation, students begin to confess various faults — from cheating on Bible assignments to having a critical spirit. The service lasts well until the early hours of Monday morning.

What prompts a person to confess a fault, and what does the Bible have to say about it?

James 5:16 gives a formula for confession: “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (NKJV).

Proverbs 28:13 instructs, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (NKJV).

First John 1:9 promises, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (NKJV).

A confession is the admission of a fault, a misdeed, or a crime − all fall into the category of sin. Confession is a release of that cancer of the soul called guilt.

Consider Jacob’s 10 oldest sons standing before the second-most-powerful man in Egypt. They do not recognize this potentate as their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery many years before. When Joseph presses them for honest answers, the amusing manner in which they deal with their guilt reveals the self-inflicted torture they had experienced over the years (Gen. 42:8-22). Even after the death of Jacob, they continue to spin the circumstances in fear of Joseph’s possible retribution (50:15-18).

Thomas Dewar said, “An honest confession is good for the soul but bad for the reputation.” The fear of a reputation being scarred is one of the hindrances to true confession. Even more so, the fear of the consequences can also be a problem for the confessor.

The late Chuck Colson found himself in such a situation over his involvement in the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration. He had been assured of an acquittal for the Watergate break-in; he was innocent of all charges. However, something deep in his soul, like a burning ulcer, brought him to a place of confession for another crime about which the prosecutors had no knowledge. Knowing he would spend time in jail if he confessed to the unknown crime, this new convert to Christ came clean.

If we choose to hold onto our guilt, we can find ourselves in David’s place, as seen in Psalm 38: There is no soundness in our flesh — no health in our bones. Our wounds are foul and festering because of our foolishness. We groan because of the turmoil in our heart.

Carrying guilt can also create a judgmental attitude as a smoke screen. If I can point the finger at someone else and expose their errors, perhaps I can dodge my own responsibility.

The benefits of confession are greater. There is a release of the guilt; no more hiding. Cleansing comes.

A friend of mine was a closet alcoholic for over 35 years. He served as a youth counselor, Church Council member, and Sunday school teacher. To all appearances, he was a model Christian.

Finally, with the guilt overwhelming him, he resigned his adult Sunday school class without explanation, thinking that would help him deal with his inner integrity. It did not.

Then one Sunday morning, sitting in the same class for which he had been a teacher, during a time of prayer requests, he stood up and proclaimed, “I need prayer.” With tears streaming down his face, he declared, “I am an alcoholic.”

As my friend related this experience to me, he said it was the most difficult thing he had ever done. To his amazement, the group gathered around him, many of them weeping, and Sunday school turned into a prayer service. He told me, “It was like a tub of sweet oil moved over my soul.”

Today, my friend is a retired minister. After continuing his education and receiving a pastoral appointment, he successfully planted a new church, pastored a second church, and began a recovery group in his community. Two factors brought about these blessings: first was his willingness to confess; second was the mercy and grace of the class members. He felt the need to confess to them because of the deception he had perpetuated as their teacher.

The young man mentioned at the beginning of this article needed to confess, but not to the whole church, for they had no knowledge of what he had done in Europe. It would have been more appropriate to confess his fault only to his pastor. He would have experienced the same release, but the church would not have lost confidence in him.

The high-profile minister who confessed to the nation had in the past been very stern in his messages. He had openly pronounced hard charges against fellow ministers, proclaiming himself holy and even indispensable. His failure had offended the body of Christ; therefore his offense mandated a public confession.

The all-night service following the college convocation began with sincere confessions of transgressions that affected the campus as a whole. As the evening progressed, however, the atmosphere led to confessions of personal offense and self-cleansing admissions (including my own) that could have been revealed only to the individuals who had been offended.

All confession must be made first to God. People can be hurt, but it is God the Father who is most deeply offended. In Jesus’ parable, the Prodigal Son made a clear-cut confession to his father: “I have sinned against heaven and before you” (Luke 15:18 NKJV).

Two words of caution: First, beware that the confession to your brothers and sisters in Christ is not a transference of attitude in which you cast some guilt on them. Second, the word if should never be used in a confession. You may not have intended the offense, but offended just the same. An if implies doubt; instead, just come clean.

It should never be a problem to receive a sincere confession. God chooses to forgive confessed sin, and we must follow suit. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32 NKJV).

Finally, no confession should be made without asking the one who has been hurt to pray for you. Job 42:10 says, “The Lord restored Job’s losses when he prayed for his friends” (NKJV).

Confession is good for the soul and cleansing for the character.

Charles Hollifield is care pastor at Enon Church of God in Chester, Virginia.