Confession is Not Repentance

Thought of the day:

Confession is not a substitute for repentance. And repentance is not a substitute for confession.

They should go together, but they are not the same thing.

What is repentance? As a vicar in Bible study recently put it to me, repentance is like when you are driving down the highway and then realize that you’re going the wrong way. You then repent, which is to say, you acknowledge your error and you turn around. To repent is to turn back (the Hebrew sense of the word) or to have a change in heart (the Greek sense of the word).

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:6-7)

Note that repentance is not merely turning away from the bad. It is not merely being contrite or moping for having done something wrong. To repent is to turn toward the good. The man who is sorry that he is driving the wrong way down the highway doesn’t gain anything from being sorry if he doesn’t also turn around and drive the right way. And there is joy in that turning around, even if it can be painful – like the joy of setting a dislocated joint and restoring it to its proper state.

Confession on the other hand is something distinct, though it should not be separate. Confession and Absolution is, well, first to confess your sins to another person, and then to receive forgiveness for those sins.

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

Or put another way, confession has two parts: First is that we speak truth in our heart and with our lips (confess), and the second is that we are reconciled with the person we wronged (absolution).

What does this distinction look like in practice? Let’s say for example that you are in the habit of multitasking when your mother is talking to you, and you don’t really pay attention. Your mother probably knows when you don’t listen to what she says. Each time you do this, it builds up hurt in your mother’s heart toward you. In any case, this is disrespect for your mother and a sin against God. One day you realize your sin. You are grieved, and you repent, which is to say, you have a change in heart so that you strive to actually listen to and respect your mother in the future. Great! But this repentance does not in itself reconcile you with your mother. If she asks and you pretend that you had never ignored her, hoping to get off the hook for the past and just do better in the future, then you probably only build up more hurt by lying.

Future good works do not erase past debts. They only do what you were supposed to do in the first place.

The only way to reconcile with your mother is to confess your sin – to speak truth in your heart and be united with her in the truth – and be forgiven. Love covers a multitude of sins and seeks the good of the other person, and your mother will absolutely forgive you when you repent and confess.

If you confessed your sin but did not repent, that is, when you confessed you had every intention of continuing to ignore your mother, then you are not sorry for that sin. Your confession is an act, or else you are simply confessing, “Yes, I ignored you, and I’d do it again!” That will definitely only create more hurt.

So repentance and confession must go together.

It is the same any time that we sin against God.

And as often as we sin and repent and confess and sin and repent and confess again, God forgives us in Christ.

“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17)