Reflecting back on my adolescent years when I attended a Catholic high school, we were often encouraged to pay an occasional visit to the chaplain of our school (or to the local priest nearby) to lay bare any sins that trouble our mind from the last time we visited them. These visits could be as frequent as they could be, depending on how “clean” or “dirty” you needed to feel before having a thorough conviction to go.
Confession did often feel like formatting your hard drive over and over again to clean out all the junk files that are in it, and going in to ask the chaplain for forgiveness often relieved the conscience. But to what extent does confession actually relieve us of the guilt of our sin? How many visits to the priest must I make before I could have assurance that God has really forgiven me?
Fortunately, this concept of confession is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Since Jesus is the only priest we ever need to offer our pleads for forgiveness to the Father (Heb 4:14-15), His ministry makes the priestly office of the Old Testament obsolete. We do not confess our sins to human priests but to God alone, for the apostle John says that if we directly confess them to God Himself, He is faithful and just to forgive us (1 John 1:9).
But hang on a minute. Do we not also profess the truth that all our sins are forgiven if we truly repent and place our trust in Jesus (Acts 3:19)? If this is true, then why does Jesus through the Lord’s prayer exhort us to ask our Father in heaven to ‘forgive us our debts’ (Matt 6:12)?
Why must we continue seeking forgiveness from God, if we are already forgiven?
1. Juridical forgiveness comes from our Union with Christ
From the moment we place our trust in the sufficient atoning work of Christ, we have complete forgiveness of sin (Col 2:13-14) and are free from the eternal condemnation of God (Rom 8:1).
Through this union in Christ, we are adopted into the family of God and therefore given divine privileges to call Him our Father and enjoy His presence. By the Spirit’s sealing, we will always be joined to Christ, and the Father will always look upon us with favour because we are made right with Him through this union. This in turn is only made possible by the righteousness that was imputed to us through faith in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:21-22; 4:22). Our relationship with God is definitive and nothing can snatch us away from this love that has been secured for us (Rom 8:38-39).
2. Parental forgiveness is essential for ongoing Communion with Christ
Yet, despite our right standing with Him, God our Father doesn’t always approve of the things that we do; things that are not right to do. We stumble in sin every day (James 3:2) and we grieve the Spirit when we intentionally sin against our own God-given conscience (Eph 4:30). Even though the Father loves us always and will never boot us out of His heavenly household for wrongdoing, He still shows great displeasure at our sin.
It is likeable to a disobedient son who has wronged his father, but the father continues to lovingly care for him, feed him and clothe him – just as a loving father would do. He would never decide to disown his son, despite his great displeasure over his misconduct, for his son is his pride and joy and will always love him. But this doesn’t detract from the fact that the father is still grieved from the hurt that his son has caused him.
So how can the disobedient son have communion again with his father? How can he bring pleasure to his father again? Naturally he has to openly admit his wrongdoing. He has to confess to his father that he has been disobedient and plead for forgiveness. That is the only way to restore the intimacy shared in this familial relationship.
This depicts the Christian’s experience with how he relates to God. God’s faithfulness to His children is unshakeable and unbroken, but His heart still breaks when we are unfaithful to Him. So when we come to full awareness of the sin we have committed against our loving Father, we should seek rectification by confessing our sins to Him and seeking forgiveness, so that our close personal relationship with Him can be restored (see Ps 51:11-12).
Perhaps there is much more richness to the practice of confession than what seems to lie on the surface. If our Father has given confession to us as a means of ongoing communion with Him for the restoration of our joy, then we must incorporate it into our daily spiritual routine whenever we come to God in prayer. But when we plead for forgiveness, we do so not as those who aren’t assured of their standing before God, but as those already assured and knowing that our Father in heaven is always ready to forgive His beloved children.