Renewing the Covenant: Confession
Don Garlington | Wednesday, November 13, 1996
Copyright © 1996, Don Garlington
In this passage, 1 John 1:9, we will discuss confession, which is the first step in a Christian's renewing his covenant with God. Before we discuss confession, we have to reflect first on what the word covenant actually means and what it means to renew it.
Covenant Is Relationship
A covenant, essentially, is a relationship. There is a transactional basis to Christianity, and someone has said that the cross is the great transaction, effecting the great transition from wrath to grace in history. That is true, but it is also true that the center of gravity is to be found not so much in a transaction as in a relationship. And so after the theologians have spilled all their ink, and a considerable amount of blood as well, in the theological duels that go back and forth, we must state that at heart a covenant is basically a family.
When both the Old and New Testament refer to the covenant relationship, two metaphors are used--that of a husband and wife and that of a parent and child. Now, especially during the Mosaic era the legal aspect of covenant was highlighted to a degree that it is not in the other covenants, for certain reasons that we do not have time to go into at present. But a covenant is relationship. It is the way people get along in a household. Therefore, renewing the covenant means that we do not throw in the towel during difficult times and say this relationship is not worth working on, sticking out or seeing through. The covenant relationship is indeed worth sticking out and seeing through. Any marriage, as married people know, is very hard work, and there are times when you would rather just not see each other, but you do come back together because the bond has been sealed. A covenant is a family bond of commitment.
So when we speak of renewing the covenant, what we mean to say is that there are times when we haven't thrown the relationship out the window, but for all practical purposes we have broken the covenant. We have not repudiated it, and yet, at certain times along the way, it has become not meaningful to us. At certain times in our Christian life it seems that we are not close to the Lord and he is not close to us. It seems at certain times that we would rather indulge that which comes most naturally to us, namely sin, than fight the good fight and work hard to keep the relationship tight and the covenant bond together. In simple language, there are times, according to this passage in 1 John, when we have to come back to the covenant, and there is a process in which we can come back to the covenant, strengthen it, and, indeed, renew it.
The Problem of Familiarity
First John 1:9 is a familiar text to Christians: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Ironically, because it is so familiar, that familiarity creates problems for us.
We find this problem in other aspects of life. As I was traveling to California, I enjoyed an excellent view of the Rockies from thirty-five thousand feet up in the air. As magnificent as these mountains looked from the plane, I can just speculate about how majestic they would seem at ground level. Imagine living in a place like Aspen or Boulder, Colorado, with the Rockies all around you! I am sure it would be a very encouraging and pleasant place to live. But I am also sure that once you have lived there for awhile, you would begin to take the scenery for granted. Oh, you would notice it, and you would certainly know that these are not the plains you are dealing with--they are the majestic Rockies--but after some time, they would not make the same impression on you as they did at first.
Have you ever looked for a work of art--a print or a water color--for your home? Armed with a general idea of what you were after, you may have looked in many, many shops. Then one day you go into a shop and there you see precisely what you were looking for. After you have it matted and framed, you take it home and put it in a favorite place in the house. Maybe for the first few days you brought your tea or coffee and rocked in your rocking chair and just looked at that print or painting. You loved it! But then there came a time when you didn't sit and stare at it anymore. You just walk by. Oh, you are glad to have it, and if this work of art was ever stolen from you, you would certainly miss it. Yet you have begun to take it for granted because it had become familiar.
So it is with a text like 1 John 1:9. The overexposure that we have had to a text like this creates the additional problem that we don't see it in its originally intended sense. Rather, to use a series of metaphors, we begin to view it like an emergency hatch, like a rip cord of a parachute, or like a nerve calmer. We might even liken it to a day of atonement.
Have we used it in any of those ways? If we really get in trouble and our conscience starts to scream at us, do we come to a text like 1 John 1:9, pray the prayer and derive comfort from doing that? Now, we must recognize that is proper. This text was intended to give us the comfort that, if we sin, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. It is a promise to be claimed. However, our problem comes when we use this verse as a nerve calmer rather than letting it be the blood stream of our conscience. Confession is not something we reserve until we have a whole mountainful of problems and sins to deal with. That should not be the only time we come to 1 John 1:9 and claim the promise. Rather, we should confess on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Confession should be the constant and permanent frame of mind of a Christian.
I would submit that one of the greatest impediments to our holiness, to our sanctification, is a lack of confession. We have come to view confession as being a last resort measure to deal with a screaming conscience. But John never intended that to be the case, and we will see in just a moment how confession corresponds to other ideas that are to be found in the first two chapters of 1 John.
What Is Confession?
What does it mean to confess? Perhaps a useful way to deal with it is to think in terms of a contrast. There was a certain Bible teacher years ago who said that if Christians sinned, all they needed to do was to quote 1 John 1:9, rebound from their problems and get back into the game. That was all there was to it. It was a little like putting your card into an automatic teller machine, punching the buttons, and out comes your cash. You got the desired end simply by saying the words of the text.
John never intended this text to be used that way. This man played upon the etymological meaning of the word "confess" as meaning "to say the same thing as." According to him, all we have to do is say the same thing as 1 John 1:9--just quote the text as a parrot would. But even if you want to stick with that etymological approach--and I am not suggesting that you do--if we say the same thing, are we not saying the same thing that God says about us and our sin? We are saying that sin is the transgression of God holy law. When I say the same thing as God, then I see myself as he sees me. I see my sin as being hateful to him, as dishonoring him, as grieving his Spirit, and as being harmful to others. If I say the same thing, then I am saying the same thing as the God who sees me inside and out. In effect, I am confessing my inconsistencies.
If you are a Christian parent, one worthy of your salt, you know that you find yourself frequently confessing your inconsistencies to your children. Now hopefully we are not like the man whose wife and little lad were in church once when he was not there, and the preacher was reciting a whole litany of sins, shortcomings and misdeeds. The little fellow spoke up to his mother, just loud enough for everyone in the church to hear, and said, "He's talking about Dad!" Sometimes I feel like that father. But when I confess my sins, I confess them to the Father, but I also confess them to those in whose presence I have sinned.
Is it a bad thing to admit to wrongdoing before our family members? Will that cause us to lose their respect? No, I would submit that we gain their respect by saying that we have been inconsistent, we have been wrong, we have simply sinned and blown it. In fact, when husbands and wives get into little tiffs, or maybe not so little ones, and they finally straighten it out among themselves, then they must go to their children and say, "We were wrong, and at that point in time we were not bearing the image of Christ before you. We were not behaving like the Lord Jesus Christ in his relationship to his Father."
Confession Is Talking to God
Confession is just talking to God. But why do we need to confess to God? As we continue this series, when we examine Philippians 4 I am going to pose the question, "Why do we have to make known to God our prayers and supplications, our needs and our wants, when he knows them already? Doesn't that seem like just a lot words being mouthed?" Why pray, in other words, when God knows everything already? It seems to be such an empty exercise.
We must realize that confession is an aspect of talking to God, and we must always remember that we are speaking about maintaining a covenant relationship with God. Imagine living in a household where the members of the family never talk to each other. You may say, "Well, we coexist well enough. In fact, when we start talking to each other, that is when the fireworks start." In terms of raw reality, that may very well be the case, but we would call such a family a dysfunctional one.
The meaning of confession is that when we have sinned against the head of the household, against the Lord Jesus Christ and his Father, we are saying that we are sorry for that and that we intend, by his grace, to make amends for it. Confession is a means of keeping up the covenant bond, the family relationship. No family thrives if it doesn't talk to itself. Confession is not this business of rebounding and jumping back into the game. Rather, it is saying what God says about me, about my sin, and about the effect of my sin. It is a very solemn business. So when John brings this to our attention by writing, "If we confess our sins," he intends for us to understand it in just those solemn terms, even though we are going to see in a moment that there is a bright and joyful side even to the process of confessing.
The Constituent Elements of Holiness
Why, then, is confession necessary? Before we get into it directly, I want to ask a prefacing question: What are the constituent elements of holiness? What do I mean by a constituent element? Think of the ingredients in a cake. If you leave out the eggs, what do you have? A mess, because eggs are the glue which hold a cake together. If you leave out the milk, you have more of a pellet than a cake. If you leave out the sugar, you have bread, not cake. So the constituent elements are those elements which are necessary to make a thing what it is.
What are the constituent elements of holiness? Some would say reading the Bible, attending church, avoiding certain things, and witnessing, among other things. But there is a problem. All these things--Bible reading, church attendance, avoiding certain things, and witnessing--can be present in a person's life and yet there may be no true holiness. Do you realize that? Why? Those activities are not the constituent elements of holiness, but rather, of Pharisaism. What about the times when we go through spiritual drought and none of these elements are present? What about the times in which I don't read my Bible, I don't avoid that which I ought to avoid, I don't go to church and, certainly, I don't witness? Can't I be in this state, and yet essentially be holy because I am in Christ?
Do you see the dangers of defining holiness in terms of a check list? Well, John studiously avoids such a checklist, at least in this part of the letter. It is true later on that he is going to descend to certain particulars, but before he does, he speaks in very broad principles. Why? He wants us to understand that the checklist, so to speak, has to be seen within the context, within the circle, of the covenant, which is a relationship--the I/Thou, father/child, husband/wife relationship.
The constituent elements of holiness, then, are such things as John brings before us--fellowship, joy, and walking in the light. Holiness contributes to all three of those, and they, in turn, contribute to confession.
What is fellowship? First, it is a term that surely John finds to be important in this setting as he begins to write his letter. In 1 John 1:3 he writes, "We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." Now, fellowship is one of those terms that we probably think we know the meaning of. Frequently we use it in the sense of saying, "After the evening service we are going to have a time of fellowship," meaning we are going to have some coffee and cake, or whatever, and talk among ourselves. That is said to be fellowship, and, I grant you, in terms of a certain loose meaning, we can accept that definition. It is good to have a time talk to one another, get to know one another, and be in one another's presence. It is something that we don't have time to do the other days of the week. But that is not really the most profound thing that we can say about fellowship. Fellowship, at its heart, is community, and you cannot maintain a community unless you are on right terms with your neighbors. We know that is true in a geographic neighborhood. How much more so is it true in what is genuinely a community, the church of Jesus Christ!
In our world today we see many ethnic communities. There are certain things that bind these people together--certain presuppositions, certain customs, certain manners, and certain language--so that they are like themselves and are quite distinct from others. In the same way, the church is also a community, as is the most basic level of community, the family itself. To maintain a community, especially a small community like the family, or a larger community like the church, there must be the practice of confession of wrongdoing. Any other way of operating is impossible.
Let me illustrate this. Suppose you get up full of energy early one morning and say, "I am going to mow my yard this morning at 5:30." Well, your neighbor may not consider 5:30 in the morning to be the most opportune time for you to be mowing your yard. In fact, in Proverbs 27:14 we read that if you rise up early in the morning and loudly bless your neighbor, he is going to count it as a curse, not as a blessing. And so, once your neighbor has made his displeasure known, you have to go to him and say, "Well, I am sorry about that. I just wasn't thinking. I wasn't being sensitive to other people, particularly you."
Or suppose you are a man who comes home to his wife after a long day at work. Your wife has everything ready for dinner, but when you sit down, you look around and begin to ask, "Where did you buy that meat? This bread is stale. There aren't any ice cubes for my Pepsi." And you go on and on that way and criticize everything, including the dessert. Later, your wife may be out in the kitchen washing up. You go out there and decide you want to snuggle up for a little while. You may wonder why it is that the Arctic cold has suddenly come down and deposited itself in your kitchen! And so you have to confess, don't you? I am trying to make light of it, but you have to confess to your wife and say, "I'm sorry. I was a real jerk. You know, I was tired and had a bad day and all the rest of it, but I had no right to take it out on you." And so you confess make up, and the fellowship, the community--even though it is a tiny community--is restored.
Remember, the relationship between husband and wife is the great model that God has used for the church--the great model used for the relationship of the church with himself. And so we see how necessary confession is in order to renew fellowship.
The next element is joy. In 1 John 1:4 John says, "We write this to make our joy [or your joy, depending upon which manuscript you follow] complete." The first thing to say about joy is that it must not be redefined into something else. In the Reformed tradition, we take the word of God, theology, and the Christian life seriously. The Christian life is not just bouncing on your way with a great smile on your face and a spring in your step as though nothing ever goes wrong. Why? Things do go wrong, and it is in those times of testing and severe trial that one learns what perseverance is about--that it is not simply saying the words but actually persevering.
We take all that seriously, but at the same time, joy is not to be redefined as perseverance. It is not pulling ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, just gritting our teeth, and getting on with it. What does joy mean? It is the joy of the resurrection of Christ. Go back to the gospel narratives and read about how the risen Christ made it very clear that he was no longer in the grave. What did the disciples say to one another? "He is risen!" In other words, "He has conquered sin and death! He is the one who has the keys of hell in his hands. He has unlocked the prison house and set the prisoners free!" They were jumping up and down with joy. It is nothing less than that, and it is maintained and renewed by our confession.
Our joy is supposed to have an Artesian quality about it. Remember Christ says in John 4:4 that this well of water is to spring up to eternal life? It is running water, not stagnant pond water. It is something which is flowing, bubbling, and overflowing its banks. And unless we have joy in its proper, unredefined sense, we do not have true holiness. That may sound like a rather bold thing to say, but I do not think we have true holiness apart from joy. Sometimes we hear it stated, or overstated, at least in my view, that Christ didn't die to make us happy but he died to make us holy. When you are combating a certain view of the Christian life that says it is simply a bowl full of cherries without any struggles, that is an appropriate thing to say. But it is not the whole truth, because, in fact, Jesus did die to make us happy.
When the disciples realized that Christ was risen from the dead, their joy could not be contained. And so it is that Christ died to make us both holy and happy at the same time. To the degree that our joy partakes of this Artesian quality, to that degree we are growing, becoming sanctified, and renewing the covenant.
Walking in the Light
The third element is walking in the light. In 1 John 1:6,7 we read, "If we claim to have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not do the truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sins."
Here John uses the language of the covenant in the Old Testament. An Israelite would bring a sacrifice to the place of worship, and as soon as the sacrifice was accepted, the priest would pronounce forgiveness of sins. It is as though the sin had never been committed. And so all of that is brought into the framework of the new covenant, but now it is not a matter of repeating the sacrifice day after day and year in and year out. Rather, based upon the once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, John can say that it is as though we had never sinned because our sin is cleansed, removed, and purified. All of that, John says, contributes to our walking in the light. When we confess our sins we walk in the light.
What Is Light?
In the Bible light and darkness are not just general symbols for good and evil. Sometimes we take them that way, but specifically the darkness is the darkness of chaos, referring back to Genesis one. After the initial creative fiat, the writer of Genesis says that the earth was without form and inhabitants, and there was darkness over the face of the earth--a penetrating, engulfing kind of darkness. It is a wild, chaotic scheme as described. Have you heard of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald ? In 1975 this 730-foot long liner was on Lake Superior in an unprecedented kind of gale. Suddenly the great ship just snapped in two and sank from the force of the storm. The writer of Genesis describes the earth as being just like that--in a storm on Lake Superior, in a time of absolute pitch blackness and gale force wind.
Later on in the Bible darkness becomes a chaos symbol for the moral, spiritual life. But when God wants to take the chaos and bring it into an ordered cosmos, what does he do? First he says, "Let there be light" and that means, not just a shaft of light, but some manifestation of his own shekinah, his own glory, that the floodlight immerses the planet earth in itself so that the darkness is dispelled.
With all that in mind, you can understand what John means when he speaks about walking in the light. He means to say that we are those who honor the principles of the new creation, because Christ has brought about the new creation. Have you ever wondered why the resurrection of Christ took place in the wee hours of the morning? What was Jesus doing? Jesus rose at just that point in the day because his resurrection dispels the chaos of the old creation. It is symbolized by the coming of the light onto this planet to the land of Palestine so that, quite literally, it becomes light when he brings the light of the new creation.
Walk in the Light
To walk does not mean simply to do our devotions. When it says that Enoch walked with God, it means that he honored the God of the covenant. Later Jewish writers constructed a whole category of behavior and belief, calling it halachah , from the Hebrew verb halach , which means to walk. Thus, when Enoch walked with God, it means that he honored him as the God of creation and the God of the covenant. That is what we are doing as Christians, and that is what confession enables us to do when that fellowship has been broken. Confession enables us to resume that walk in the brilliant, blazing light of the new creation.
Suppose I went outside a building and stepped right into a puddle of mud. Maybe I am aware that I stepped in the mud, but I do not see the extent of the damage until I get under a light. Suppose I am wearing the only pair of trousers I have, and I need to wear them the next day. When I see them in full daylight, and see that there is really mud going all the way up both sides, what am I going to do? Am I going to get a couple of Hefty bags and tie them over my trousers, so people won't see the mud? Isn't that the cover-up game?
Adam's fundamental problem was that he covered his sin, and we must also remember how David covered his sin in Psalm 32. In Proverbs 28:13 we read, "He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy." But the cover-up game always gets us in trouble. Therefore, we do not hide our sin, as though we could hide it from the all-seeing eyes of God; rather, we confess it. We say, "This is what I have become because of my lack of self-control and because of my lack of honoring the law of God, my lack of honoring God as my Father and Christ as my elder Brother. I have brought this mess--this horrible muddy mess of sin--upon myself." And John tells us that if we confess our sins and say the same thing God says about it, our confession puts us back into the way of the light.
Do you see that there is a kind of cyclical relationship that takes place in this process? Confession enables renewed fellowship, restores our joy, and enables us to walk in the light. But to the degree that we have fellowship, joy and light, we are driven back to confession because we are always aware of the pockets of sin in us, the non-negotiation areas that we have entertained hitherto. And so there must be this cycle of confession, fellowship, joy, and walking in the light. We must practice this daily and not reserve a text like this only for when we get into real trouble. As someone has said, we must keep short accounts with God .
Confession and the Normal Christian Life
The normal Christian life is a life of confession. In fact, holiness hinges on maintaining this as the normal Christian life. Have you ever heard views expressed that say that a Christian can get about five or six feet above all the barrage that is down here and live on an essentially higher plane? I do believe in progressive sanctification, but we have to be careful how we understand that. In my view, it is not a gradually sloping line going up and up until finally you are in old age and ready for glory because you have virtually put everything behind you. No, I believe that it is like one of the graphs that chart the economic progress of the country. It may go up and down, but it is a moving line, a line that is going forward. Sometimes we may find ourselves at the top, and sometimes we fall, but we are always pressing forward. That is the process of walking in the light.
In the second place, I want to say that we must not get the cart before the horse, or, to put it another way, did you realize that Christ is our lover? We must take seriously the metaphor of the bridegroom and the bride. Suppose a young couple decides they want to have children. They try and try, but nothing happens. They may go to the doctor to be get checked out and find there is nothing physically wrong. In many cases, what it turns out to be is that, in a sense, they are trying too hard because they are uptight about it all, and not relaxing with one another as one's lover. When couples do relax, frequently you see the problem of infertility is solved.
In the same way sometimes we may want our sanctification so badly that we get uptight and nervous about it. But my point is to say that we ought to relax in the presence of Christ, who is our lover, and relate to him as the lover of our soul. And sanctification, then, will proceed from that relationship--the relationship of loving Christ and lying upon his bosom, and he treating us as his bride, as his beloved. Beware of Satanic Attack
Did you know there is such a thing as a Satanic attack? It means attack by Satan directed toward our confession, toward our fellowship and joy and walking in the light. Satan effectively says, "Don't dare believe that fellowship can be restored this way. This life of confession is too easy." Satan prefers that we go through what I might call evangelical penance--that if we sin, we feel we have to grovel for a couple of days, preferably three or four, and then finally pull ourselves out of the mud pits, begin to pray, and get a grip on ourselves. Now, I am not suggesting that we don't take sin seriously. But evangelical penance is not biblical, because, in a sense, it is that easy. God invites us to come to him and renew the covenant.
Suppose a husband and wife get so mad with each other that they don't want to talk for a number of days. That is the worst thing they can do. What we need to do is swallow our pride, and go talk to the other person. If we think that we were in the wrong, we must say that. If we think that we have been wronged, then we talk about it frankly and work it out. In a sense it is that easy. That, I think, is the essence of the gospel. In fact, there are those who object to the gospel method of salvation because they say it is too easy. They say one has to earn something or do something. But it is that easy.
Have You Confessed Your Sins?
Have you ever confessed any kind of confession? Have you ever felt the necessity of talking to the God who made you and said that I have done thus and so? Have you ever felt your sin is so grievous and mountainous that you didn't know what to do with it? Does it seem to you that it surely can't be that easy? If so, then you must ask, which is greater, weightier, and has the more pull before God the Father--my sin or is it the blood of Christ that cleanses me from all unrighteousness? And if you study the Scripture, you will find that the answer is the blood of Christ.
If you have never confessed, then I urge you to confess. Confess before the God who knows your thoughts before you formulate them. You need to become a Christian, and it is just that easy. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous. Both of those terms, faithful and righteous, relate to the covenant--God's determination that he is going to see his end of the covenant through no matter what. And because of that righteous faithfulness, or that faithful righteousness, he cleanses us from all sins. I guarantee that the blood of his Son goes on cleansing us from all unrighteousness.
What a great gospel we have! It is easy for us and yet so profound, as it cost God everything that he had. It is a wonderful gospel. A story is told of Spurgeon and his secretary, Carroll. Spurgeon had just read a letter written by a converted prostitute. He threw it over to his secretary and said, "Ah, Carroll, isn't that what we live for? Isn't that the reason why we exist, to see that?" And so let us rejoice and find great hope in these words: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
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Copyright © 1996, Don Garlington
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