Recently I was reading through the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and was struck by something related to John the Baptist’s ministry. The description goes like this:
This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.
Mark 1:4–5, NLT
It’s remarkable to me that people were publicly confessing their sins – and they wouldn’t be baptized until they did so. I’ve been in protestant churches of different denominations for several decades but I haven’t heard much teaching or stress put on publically confessing our sin – both before baptism and after. It makes me wonder, why did we change the practice and what are we losing as a community of Christ-followers as a result?
As seen in the passage, the baptism symbolized a turning away from a sinful lifestyle and turning to God and His prescribed ways. It represented a cleansing of the soul of moral debts before God. But it required two things: confession of sin + community. The nation of Israel was just that, a community. And God’s promises of blessing and/or curses applied to the entire community. Almighty God, the maker of heaven and earth, is the maker of community, and His laws throughout scripture are for two purposes: strengthening our relationship with Him and each other. He desires to see relationship flourish with Him and with one another. We see this represented strongly in the following two passages:
“Jesus replied, “ ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”” (Matthew 22:37–40, NLT)
“If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:20, NLT)
Private vs. Communal Faith
And so here’s why the first passage struck me – in our Western Christianity we tend to view our faith with God as a personal relationship first, foremost, and perhaps in totality. We seldom think of our faith as integral with fellow believers. Faith is often a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in our society. And I can follow Jesus my way and you follow Him your way. But that is not a proper, biblical view of following Jesus. Faith is both personal and corporate, and there are implications for both aspects that come to bear on our faith.
The main one I wish to discuss here is that of confession of sin. Due to the undeniable shame that sin causes in our life, it’s only natural that when we finally do come clean before God we would prefer to confess our sin only to Him – whisper it under our breath or even just confess in our thoughts. He knows our thoughts after-all, right? So why bother anyone else with our personal struggles? It’ll only make us look bad and may create a degree of awkwardness between myself and the rest of my shared-faith community, right? But that’s not how it works. It’s not how God designed coming clean. If you want freedom from shame you’ve got to be exposed to the light, publicly. And if you want forgiveness of sins and to be cleansed in baptism, you’ve got to confess publicly in the presence of believers.
Now, just to make sure I’m not over-reading this one passage, let’s look at a few others for comparison…
From the Old Testament:
“They must confess their sin and make full restitution for what they have done, adding an additional 20 percent and returning it to the person who was wronged.” (Numbers 5:7, NLT)
“Those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners as they confessed their own sins and the sins of their ancestors. They remained standing in place for three hours while the Book of the Law of the Lord their God was read aloud to them. Then for three more hours they confessed their sins and worshiped the Lord their God.” (Nehemiah 9:2–3, NLT)
From the New Testament:
“Many of those who had earlier made professions of faith now came and admitted publicly their evil deeds;” (Acts 19:18, CJB)
“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16, NLT)
So there we have it, a fairly strong (yet concise) scriptural precedent for publicly confessing sin in order to be reconciled to others and to receive forgiveness from God. I will say, I don’t think this means that when we sin we must make a drastic announcement to the entire faith community in a given region, or to our entire church gathering. Those cases are rare and depend on how much influence we have there. If an elder, deacon, pastor or staff member has been committing a weighty sin that affects others, then he/she should probably consider making a public confession to come clean before that entire community. But that decision could be made with the wisdom of the elders and staff. But for the vast majority of cases when we need to confess sin, we should at a minimum be confessing to a prayer (accountability) partner or pastor, or to a small gathering of believers with whom you regularly spend time with. In this area of public confession, God is not after dramatic displays of repentance or spirituality (see Matthew 6:5-6), but simply that we are confessing both to Him and to fellow men or women. Really, this is not the art of public confession, but the discipline of public confession.
In my mind there are at least a few benefits to confessing publicly:
- Our own shame is exposed, helping us return to a sense of ‘rock bottom’ humility rather than thinking of ourselves “more highly than we ought” (Romans 12:3);
- The community to whom we confess is often convicted of its sin and inspired to come clean as well; and
- The community can support us in our weakness as well as show us grace.
What do you think? Is public confession practiced in your faith community? Do you have a prayer partner or small gathering to grow in faith together? What other benefits of public confession come to mind? Let me know in the comments below.