Robert's Sermons

If My People

Part 22: Confession and Repentance


2 Chronicles 7:14  “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my faceand turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

As we continue looking at the problem of sin, I want to talk to you about confession and repentance. These are two theological terms which have been the subject of thousands of sermons and books and yet are still misunderstood by so many. The best possible way I can do this is to tell you a story.  I guess that’s why Jesus told stories all the time. Let me do the same. This is not my story, in fact Jesus told it first. This is just my revised version. Let me share it with you as a backdrop to our study of confession and repentance. As you read/hear this story, I want you to picture the scenes and the characters in your mind.  Connect with them in your heart, and the Spirit of God will teach you more in this one story than I could in fifty sermons. Ok, here we go …

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A tired, hungry, lonely young man stands with an empty bucket in his hands. He watches the pigs eat the slop and quietly licks his fingers. He thinks back to his early days, kicks the dust, and wonders how he ever ended up in this place. He looks around, but he’s alone. It’s just him and the swine, and now that he has dumped the food for them, they pay him no attention either. As he stands there the irony breaks through in one clear moment of despair: even the pigs are better off than him.

Raised on his father’s farm, raised as a good Jewish boy, the suggestion that one day he would be feeding pigs – no, it’s worse than that: the suggestion that one day he would be envious of what the pigs were eating (!) – well, that would have seemed impossible back then. That was many, many miles ago. That was before he set out on his own; confident that he knew best – eager to experience all of life. Breaking free! That’s how he had thought about it. And indeed, for a while the freedom felt like a wild wind rushing through his hair: it was glorious and exciting and full – while it lasted.

But when the money ran out, so did his new-found friends and the wind in his hair became a piercing chill in his soul. The famine in the land now is like a metaphor of his life. Standing there in the feedlot, his heart feels emptier than his stomach. The growling in his spirit cries out to be fed; he is having hunger pains of the soul. But there’s no one around – no one who cares. Love is as distant as the angry echo of an old bitter argument.

He squints his eyes and turns to look back into the west. Deep in his spirit he feels a stirring, just for a moment, like something (or someone) is calling him. Though it seems a lifetime away, he has a fleeting memory of a time when hugs were as common as laughter. The feeling is gone as quickly as it comes, as the reality of life crashes in again and he licks the slop off his fingers once more in an attempt to ease the pain in his stomach.

Across the miles and far away, a father wipes the corner of his eye as he looks again down a long, empty road. It has become a habit now that he can’t seem to break. Every time he walks from the house to the field, he looks down the road and wonders, and hopes, and longs for the day when his love will once again be received and enjoyed by his precious child.

Sometimes the wind creates a dust cloud on the road and just for a moment his heart leaps and he starts to run towards it, but then it blows away and disappears. There’s a place in his heart that grieves far more than any anger or disappointment he once felt. For him, love conquered hurt long ago and he longs for a way to send a ‘welcome back’ message out around the world so that his lost child may hear it and return to him. Every night the father looks at an empty chair at the table and thinks of a lost treasure – his own child.

They are far apart, these two, and yet just a heartbeat away. Grace is about to break out and spill its joyful tears on the embrace of reconciliation. The moment is building when love will overcome every obstacle and all distance will be removed. Grace happens when the emptiness of sin, rebellion and self-inflicted consequences are met by the welcome of love, mercy and forgiveness. Grace is a hospitality of the heart that overcomes the estrangement of broken relationships.

No matter how far away the child has wandered; no matter how distant and estranged he feels; no matter how hopeless things may seem –  the genetic bond cannot be broken – the linking of hearts between father and child – and the memory of home will aways be there.  No matter how hurt the father’s heart has been; no matter how much he has had to endure; no matter how long he has suffered – it cannot break the memory of his child nor quench his desire to hold him again and lavish grace and love and forgiveness upon him.

In the midst of famine there remains the memory of home. In the place of feast, there is a welcome for the wayward child. We live our lives between famine and feast – sometimes feeling so estranged that we wonder how God could possibly care; other times overwhelmed by the news that, even so, God holds open for us a place of welcome called ‘home.’ The prodigal suffers in this famine and has nothing to eat. In fact, he begins to envy the food that the pigs get, and yet in the midst of the famine he remembers a dinner table. It is a table where even the hired help never go hungry.

And then it comes again – that conviction; that sense; that inner calling; that stirring in his spirit; somehow, in the midst of his rebellion and sin, he feels drawn to his home; not as a son anymore; Heaven forbid – he is no longer worthy to be called a son – He ponders the idea of going home as a lowly servant! Anything to stay alive. There is nowhere else to go, and so, he decides to go back and plead with his father to make him one of his servants.

There begins his long, tiring journey home, all the way thinking of the many reasons why his Father would probably not even let him on his land, much less in his home! But now and then, as he stops to rest his malnourished body, something (or someone) feeds his soul as the longing for home grows. As the scenery becomes familiar again, the son realises that he is very close to his father’s home.  Very soon he will no longer wonder about his father’s response – he will know for sure. His heart beats faster – he’s not sure if it’s fear or hope – or a little of both.

The father looks for the 1000th time down the road – weary of disappointment and weary of love ungiven. But this time the cloud of dust is filled with promise – the wind does not blow this one away – it moves with a familiar pace; it holds a hopeful step. The father’s joy sends him running full speed down the road calling behind him:  “My child is back! The one I thought dead is alive. Set the table! Prepare a feast! We must celebrate! For my son was lost and now he is found; he was dead but now he is alive.”

The son lifts his weary head from the dusty road and sees someone running and shouting. His heart leaps into his throat as he anticipates the worst. Can his father’s anger still be so strong after all this time? Will he now face the consequences of his rebellion as the well-deserved wrath of his father is poured out upon him.  Should he turn back?  Was this a stupid idea?  Why would his father even think of letting him work on the farm after what he did to him?

In the midst of this mental anguish and turmoil he looks again at this rare site of his father running towards him.  He had never seen him run before. In fact, he had never seen any Jewish elder run – it just wasn’t right. Then he noticed his face; his father was not angry – he was overwhelmed with joy. Tears ran down his cheeks as he ran towards his son with arms outstretched, and to the utter amazement of the son, before he could even open his mouth, he felt the embrace of grace as it overwhelmed the shame of sin.

The love of his father enveloped the son in an instant.  In utter amazement and bewilderment, He knew that those brief longings he had experienced in the foreign land; those little convictions; those little oases in the desert; were in fact the love of his father inside him. A love which had been there all his life; a love so strong that it could not be totally extinguished by his rebellion and sin.

In this holy moment, in this sombre, yet exhilarating moment, godly sorrow overwhelmed the son.  A sorrow which tore his heart in two. Not a worldly sorrow which is sorry for getting caught out, but a deep Godly sorrow for the pain and hurt he had inflicted on one who loved him so much.

Confession came easy in the environment of grace and love and the son then spoke of his sin. He was forgiven before he confessed – his father’s grace and love was overwhelming – but grace and truth came together, and sin was called sin and admitted, and the first fruit of that amazing was repentance. From that day forward, the son was a changed man. His view of himself, His father and life had changed forever because he responded to the call to come home. The grace of his father was not without effect.

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I would encourage you to ponder that story in your mind. It is the story of your life. It is not just a story of conversion – not just a story about coming to God once when we accepted His free gift of salvation.  It’s a story which reminds us of our relationship with the Father – every day – and I believe it’s a story which tells us a lot about sin, confession and repentance.

So, what is confession? Confession means ‘to say the same thing about’ something. To ‘agree.’ To speak the truth about something. To confess our sins literally means that we agree with God and call sin what it is.  It means we speak the truth about sin in our own lives. We don’t hide behind other terms. When we are gossiping, we don’t say we are sharing our concerns so we may pray for the person!  When we lie, we call it a lie and we don’t try and explain it away.

The Bible says that we should confess our sins to one another that we may be healed.  What does that mean?  It means we get stuff which is in the dark and bring it into the light. Satan loves it when we try to hide our sins. He works in secret, in the shadows, in the hidden, dark places. When we bring something into the open – into the light – it loses so much of its power over us.

The old saying: Confession is good for the soul is true if it’s done in the right way with a sincere motive.  But genuine confession is the fruit of something else. In our story of the prodigal son, there was something which triggered or made that confession easy. Clearly it was the love and grace of the Father.

The love, grace, mercy and forgiveness of the Father brought the son to a place where confession was easy – it was essential – it was inevitable.  When faced with the blazing glory of  love, forgiveness and grace, you cannot continue to hide your sin. It is in that environment of grace that confession is released. That leads us to the most quoted verse in the New Testament about confession and sin … and, I believe, the one of the most misunderstood.

1 John 1:9  “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Because of the limitations of our English translations, we find that the inference in this verse and a few others in the New Testament, lead some of us to conclude that the forgiveness of God is conditional upon our confession.  That if we do not confess our sins, He will not forgive them. There are a couple of other verses which seem to indicate that our forgiveness from God is conditional upon our forgiveness of others or some other action on our part.

How do we interpret these verses against the many others I read in the last few sermons which clearly state that forgiveness of sins comes as part of the package of salvation and is not conditional upon anything we do … other than believe and receive?  That’s a good question.  That is why I stressed a few sermons ago that we need to learn to interpret the Bible properly and look through the right ‘windows’ when reading some texts.

Getting back to 1 John 1:9, I believe an equally valid translation of the Greek, which is totally consistent with the fuller revelation of the whole New Testament, would read something like this:

“God is faithful and just and has forgiven us our sins, so if we confess our sin, we will experience the fruit of that forgiveness and cleansing from all unrighteousness.”

In other words, the reality of our forgiveness is unconditional. God has done it. Jesus paid the price and forgiveness is ours. Sin no longer separates us from the love of God. However, the experience and fruit of that forgiveness in this life is still impacted by our actions. That is the only way we can interpret this and other verses in the New Testament which imply that if we don’t do certain things, this forgiveness is not ours. In terms of our experience and what appears to be real – that is true. In terms of what God has already done and secured for us – that is a different story.

Just think about our story again of the prodigal returning home to his father. Was the grace, love and forgiveness of the father triggered in any way by the confession of the son?  No!  Dear old dad was running and shouting and crying before the son said a word! He had embraced and accepted and kissed the son BEFORE any confession came.  So, was the son’s confession necessary?  Yes!  Absolutely.  It was necessary for him.

The son would not have been able to enjoy the fullness of his father’s love and grace unless he spoke the truth and brought his sin into the light and in an environment of love and kindness and grace … that confession was so much easier. That’s why the Bible says in Romans 2:4 that it’s God’s KINDNESS that leads us to repentance … and repentance is always preceded by confession.

Confession is so important, and so neglected, I’m sorry to say. As the New Covenant and God’s grace takes hold of us and we bask in the love and forgiveness of God and glory in His amazing grace … there are many who believe that there is a huge danger, that we will forget about sin and confession.  I don’t happen to be one of those people.

I believe in the power of God’s grace. I believe in the power of His love. I know from personal experience and from the experience of thousands of people over the years in whom I have observed this. When we truly connect with the love and grace of God, confession of sin will automatically flow.  If it doesn’t, then we have not encountered God’s grace.  When we truly encounter the unbridled grace of God, unconfessed sin cannot remain hidden, it is guaranteed. Genuine grace is always accompanied by truth.

John 1:14 says that Jesus was full of grace and truth and a few verses later it says that the law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  What does that mean?  Well, if you’ve been around my teaching any length of time, you should know what it means that grace comes through Jesus Christ. But what about truth?  These two are to be kept in balance … like flip sides to the same coin – they are inseparable.

Grace, forgiveness, love, mercy and the free gift of eternal life … all came to us in Jesus … hallelujah!  But so did truth. The full implications of that require another sermon or two, but for our purposes today, we need to understand that truth means we continue to identify sin as sin, and we bring it into the light immediately. Forgiven or not, sin is still sin and unless we confess it and bring it out of the shadows and allow the love and grace of God to have its effect in this life as it has already had its effect in the life to come … then we will not be manifesting the fullness of Christ.

If our calling is to be Christlike, or more specifically, if we are called to submit to the life of Christ within us so that it’s no longer we who live but Christ who lives within us, then we too, will be full of grace and truth. We need to allow the grace of God to overwhelm us as we join the prodigal in confessing our sin – quickly, sincerely and as often as we need to – so that the cleansing, restoring effect of God’s forgiveness in Christ, becomes our experience.

Now, what about repentance? The way that term is used by many today, one might ask what the difference is between confession and repentance.  I have heard many people stand before a group of believers and state that they ‘repent of’ this sin or that sin. Many people confess their sins and call it repentance. Confession can happen in an instant … with a sentence or two spoken and it’s over. Whereas repentance is the fruit which is meant to follow confession.

Many definitions of repentance have been suggested over the years and they all say something similar.  To repent is to change your mind with the intent to change your actions. Therefore, repentance is a process and it follows confession. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and our need for change.  That conviction results in our confession– we agree with the Spirit of God and admit that we are off the mark. Repentance (a change of mind, heart, attitude and actions) is then supposed to follow that confession.  Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

It is entirely possible for us to stop at that point in the process for that is the easy part. As hard as it might seem at times to get to the point of confessing a sin, the really tough stuff is repentance: where we have to change our thinking and change our direction so that this sin is not a problem in the future. God is there to help us and empower us to change, but the choice is still ours and until we make that choice, God cannot lead us to repentance.

The Apostle Paul preached grace more than anyone I know, and yet the balance of grace and truth was clear in his teaching and his life.  He continued to battle with sin in his own life and he dealt with it ruthlessly – not because his salvation depended upon it – he knew he was saved regardless of his ongoing confession or repentance.  No, Paul dealt ruthlessly with sin because he knew that it was the open door to the enemy of God, Satan, to frustrate his life and ministry and rob him of the effectiveness he so earnestly desired as he fulfilled his calling. He wanted to walk in a manner that was worthy of the calling he had in Christ.

He knew that God’s grace and forgiveness was total and complete; he knew his spiritual bank account was full because of what Jesus secured for him by His life, death and resurrection.  But Paul also knew that confession and repentance were his responsibility if he was going to cash any cheques on that account and see the fruit of that forgiveness. If grace was to have its effect, then he had to make sure confession and repentance were a very real part of his life.

But even repentance is a gift from God. Yes, we have a responsibility in that we need to make the choice to change, but even that is a gift, empowered by God.

In Acts 5:31  “God exalted (Christ) to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins …”

2 Timothy 2:25 and Acts 11:18 talk about God “granting us repentance” and leading us to the truth. Repentance cannot happen without confession.  Until we agree with the Holy Spirit and call sin what it is, then true repentance cannot occur. But confession will not occur without the conviction of the Holy Spirit and I believe that the primary way the Spirit of God brings genuine conviction which leads us to confession and repentance is by overwhelming us with the love of God – never by accusing us.

There are many Christians in the world right now who are crushed under the weight of accusation from the enemy of God, and they mistakenly think that is the conviction of the Spirit. In John 5:45 Jesus clearly told the Pharisees, “… do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set.”  The law accuses; Satan accuses us by trying to apply the law against us again. God convicts us by overwhelming us with His love and grace.

I appreciate that what I have said in this sermon is not popular in many parts of the Church and even some of you might struggle with it. But I believe in God’s amazing grace and the transforming power of His love and I will go to my grave proclaiming His grace in harmony with truth.

This is what I preached before I saw the fruit of it – but now I have seen the power of that grace.  When I started preaching about God’s love and grace in a consistent, ‘unplugged’ manner many years ago I had a barrage of criticism as people accused me of being soft on sin and said that I needed to ‘balance’ grace with a bit of law.  I find that to be a fascinating concept – mixing grace and law.

That’s like trying to find a dry spot on the bottom of a swimming pool – it just can’t happen.  When I started preaching God’s grace in a concentrated way many years ago, I believed that God’s grace would have its effect and not only lift the guilt and shame and pharisaic expectation off people’s shoulders, but it would lead people to repentance faster than any preaching of law or judgement. And I was right. Within a couple of months of focussing on the grace of God, people started making appointments with me and to my amazement, they started confessing all this stuff which they had locked away and hidden for years.

This was truly amazing! Some of these people were leaders in the Church at the time. Some of them had carried stuff for a decade or more and never found an environment of grace, acceptance and love in which they could confess it. God finally healed wounds and released people from the torment of unconfessed sin … when they realised that He was not going to judge them … and nor was I.  When they understood that forgiveness was already theirs, long before they confessed that sin, in fact, long before they even committed that sin; when that truth came to light in their minds and hearts, they couldn’t wait to get that stuff out and see the transforming power of God’s grace at work. This is the truth of the gospel.  This is the good news.  This is our God at work in our midst.

Can you see your Father running? Can you hear him shouting and rejoicing as you ‘come home’? Let Him embrace you and kiss you and love you back to life. Let His forgiveness and grace and mercy and unconditional love have its effect in you as you confess your sins to Him and to others. Let His gift of repentance be birthed in you as you see His transforming power at work in your life.

Sin is a huge problem in the Church still today. We deny it, we ignore it, we refuse to call it what it is, and I believe the primary reason that’s the case is because we are yet to understand the harmony of grace and truth and so we continue to see two extremes at work every day.  There are Christians all over world who are allowing the accusations of the enemy to beat them up and dump shame and guilt and despair upon them which paralyses them and robs them of the power of God … they know some truth … but they know very little grace.

Then there are those who are on the opposite end of the spectrum who refuse to examine their attitudes and actions and allow the Spirit of God to convict them of their sin.  They know some grace … but they know very little truth. The law came through Moses, but GRACE AND TRUTH came though Jesus.

Come Holy Spirit … be our Guide … be our Teacher … show us the way.  May we submit to the life of Jesus more in us each day as grace and truth emerge in everything we think, everything we say, everything we do and everything we pray. Amen