A new year, a fresh start: The spiritual discipline of confession

The Bible assures us that “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  With the start of a new year, we have a chance to have a fresh start in Christ as well.

One of the things that attracted me to the Christian faith so long ago was its affinity for second chances.  I, like so many other people in the faith, came to Christ because I knew I was a sinner and feared the consequences of that sin.  I took God at His word: I entrusted him with my life, confessed my sin, and turned toward Him.

But our faith is not just about second chances; it’s about third, fourth, and fifth chances too.  Seven times seven Jesus once said. It’s about continual sanctification in Christ.  Even when we confess our sins, we are still inherently sinful.  That’s what it means to be human and not divine: that we will always be the sum of the best and the worst of who we are as individuals.

Christianity makes room for this dichotomy of fallen and redeemed natures.  We are human, and only the atoning death and resurrection of God’s son can redeem us.  Christ clothes us with His righteousness, and its only by that act of grace that we are saved.  When we come before God’s court of law, God sees Christ on us rather than our fallible selves.

We often forget the power of confession in our lives because we tend to take this salvation–and the grace of God–for granted.  What better time of year to rediscover the spiritual discipline of confession, however, than at the year’s beginning?

Forgetting this power is not new, at least in the Protestant church.  Years ago, when my parents explained why they switched from the Catholic church to the Protestant one, they explained that there was no need for a priest to mediate between God and man.

The Catholics, my parents explained, had to go to confession and have mass every weekend while Protestants celebrated the empty cross and Christ’s act of redemption once and for all.

Now that I am older, I have learned that the Catholic understanding of confession is not as simple as my parents made it seem.  Confession and mass alike can have a powerful, transformational effect on someone’s life.  We Protestants can go to the opposite extreme and fail to practice confession whatsoever.

I realized this when I visited a friend’s Episcopal church last year (and, later on, my late grandmother’s Catholic church).  The Book of Common Prayer, the main resource for worship at Episcopal churches, even has a litany of confession.

One prayer, designed specifically for Ash Wednesday, has the congregation confess to God and each other “what we have done” and “what we have left undone” (p. 267).  No stone is left unturned.

This act of confession is so very meaningful.  It allows us to acknowledge the sin that so easily ensnares us and, in the midst of worship, come to terms with how far we stand from God.

That sense of awe and wonder towards God is something I think we Protestants can gain from practicing confession.  It can be a catalyst for growth and a balm for the spiritual ruts all of us find ourselves in every once and a while.

The book of James says, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (5:16).  It’s a beautiful reminder of the way community can help sustain us in our darkest moments.

This new year, we have the opportunity to come to God anew and confess to Him those regrets that we carry with us.  The adage, “Let go and let God,” is appropriate here, as well as encouragement from Psalm 103: “As far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us” (v. 12).

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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