When did you last take out the garbage?

The freedom of living in the light

As a young boy, I remember drawing on our family cat with felt pens. When accused by my parents, I denied it. My denial wasn’t thought–through; it was instinctive. That was the end of my short-lived artistic career. But the truth is, we don’t want to feel shame or guilt, and so we cover up. Childish immaturity is understandable; adults should know better.

Writing in the Chicago Tribune about someone accused of abusive behaviour, Syler Thomas writes: the “decision to deny is an understandable one. It’s a familiar one in my own heart, in fact. I wish I could say that every time my shortcomings were uncovered that I confessed immediately. Our proclivity is to hide when we’ve been caught.”

Human proclivity to deny one’s own culpability is, of course, one of the lessons of Genesis chapter 3. That chapter also teaches our other human strategies of blaming, minimising and hiding. Sin is a universal human problem. As King David writes, from experience as victim and perpetrator, “There is none without sin; not even one.” We all walk with a limp.

The best place to learn how to deal with sin is the church. But, as Cornelius Plantinga Jr laments in his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, “We are less likely than were our grandparents to learn the doctrine of sin in church.” This is lamentable because talking more about sin can help Christians form a biblical theology of sin and develop good practices for dealing with sin.

The cross of Jesus speaks of forgiveness. But first, it speaks about guilt.

Clearly, we cannot speak of sin without grace. But, Plantinga warns, we also cannot speak of grace without sin. To do this “is to trivialise the cross of Jesus Christ …and therefore to cheapen the grace of God that always comes to us with blood on it. What had we thought the ripping and writhing on Golgotha were all about?” For the church to speak sparingly sin’s lethal reality, says Plantinga, “is to cut the nerve of the gospel. For, the sober truth is that without full disclosure on sin, the gospel of grace becomes impertinent, unnecessary, and finally uninteresting.”

The cross of Jesus speaks of forgiveness. But first, it speaks about guilt. British theologian Lesslie Newbigin said, “Before the cross of Jesus there are no innocent parties.” You, I, each one of us, contributed to Jesus being nailed to the cross.

Church talk about sin is not to induce guilt or shame. The goal is to help people live well and become more like Jesus. Confessing sin makes people “aware of the afflictions of their own hearts”. (1 Kings 8:38) Awareness then enables engagement. As American pastor and theologian Bruce Milne explains: “Before Jesus can be followed and served, the sin in our lives has to be addressed.”

The good news about the cross is that the last word is not guilt or condemnation; it is forgiveness. But forgiveness does not give a free pass to sinful behaviour. As the Apostle Paul writes of Jesus followers, “We have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2)

Jesus said, “There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed”. Instead of covering up, Jesus told his followers to live in such a way that they are as “innocent as doves.” The word innocent here means unmixed, speaking of a purity of intentions. This means living with nothing to hide. Living so that no deception or cover-up is required, and hiding is unnecessary. Living life without fear of being found out. The apostle John described this as “living in the light”.

I confess my sin not to be forgiven but because, in Christ, I already stand forgiven.

This includes a way of life of confessing our failings to God and to trusted friends; the opposite of denying, blaming, minimising and hiding. For me, this is only possible because I know that God’s acceptance of me is not based on my performance but is based on God’s love for me shown in Jesus. As Scottish theologian J. B. Torrance has argued, the cross shows that God forgives me before I confess and repent. I confess my sin not to be forgiven but because, in Christ, I already stand forgiven. Evangelical repentance, says Torrance, “is our response to grace, not a condition of grace.” As a Christian, how would believing that change how you live? For me, the cross provides me with a safety zone, a grace space, to freely admit my flaws and failings.

In most Christian traditions, an essential part of the church service is the counter-cultural practice of confessing sin to God. This weekly repetition models and encourages Christians, in their personal lives, to regularly confess and repent of their sins. This is important because confession, repentance, and faith are how we enter Christ’s kingdom. So also, confession, repentance, and faith are how we grow in Christ’s kingdom.

Confessing sin is a sort of homecoming; it is an act of joy and confidence in Christ.

The purpose of confession is not to dwell on sin and make people feel bad, as I used to think. The purpose of confession in our church services is to be honest about who we are. Through the Great Commandment, God calls his people to love him and their neighbour with everything. Confessing sin regularly – whether it be ‘through negligence, through weakness, or through our own deliberate fault’ – is owning up to our failure to live up to this high calling while also pointing us to our true purpose.

Confessing our sins to one another is a core practice of the church throughout history. In the evangelical tradition, John Wesley’s model of people (voluntarily) confessing sins to one another in small groups deserves a mention. Personally, I have found this easier in micro-groups of three to five people. What is your own experience of this?

Recalling and confessing our sin is like taking out the garbage: once is not enough

Confessing sins to trusted friends, though uncomfortable, is both humbling and freeing. Why? Because there is nothing to hide, no fear of being found out. Living “as innocent as doves” is necessarily a work in progress. But confession, rather than denial and covering up, is the way forward to freedom. As the apostle James says, “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

One of my friends said he did not like apologising because he had never developed a taste for humble pie. And yet, confessing our sins and repenting before the Lord is not meant to flood us with guilt or fill us with shame. Confession and repentance are not meant to emotionally debilitate us because they are reminders that “there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.” (Puritan theologian Richard Sibbes). Confessing sin is a sort of homecoming; it is an act of joy and confidence in Christ, a running back to the Father.

I like the sound of the rubbish truck picking up our wheelie bin, emptying its contents, and driving off. I almost feel cleaner, knowing the rubbish has been taken away. Plantinga states, “Recalling and confessing our sin is like taking out the garbage: once is not enough.”

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