Confession is more powerful than trying hard, because it includes the blood of Jesus in the process. It invites God into our mess. It invites a deeper honesty than trying allows. It acknowledges that I can’t do spiritual surgery on myself.
5 And this is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.
6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth;
7 but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
(1 John 1:5-10, NASB).
As I’ve been continuing to carefully work through the book of 1 John, I’m actually surprised by how central this section has turned out to be.
Here is how this is central. If you take any passage in 1 John that looks particularly deed-ish and non-gospelish, you’ll notice that it is always couched as an observation rather than an imperative. He’s telling you, not what to do, but observing what is already there. For example:
3 And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.
4 The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him;
5 but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him:
6 the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.
(1 John 2:3-6, NASB).
He is not saying, “keep His commandments, or it proves you don’t know Him.” This is what you initially want to think. It says, “know Him, and you will be keeping His commandments. If you doubt your knowledge of Him, notice that you keep His commandments.” If you say “I know Him” but don’t keep His commandments, it doesn’t mean you better start keeping them better. It means there is a flaw in your knowledge of Him. So what is the solution? Walk in the light, confess your sins, and He (not you) will forgive you and cleanse you. The key to obedience is honesty and transparency and a trust and belief in His kindness and care. The key to obedience is to believe that the blood of Jesus which cleanses us from all sin cleanses us from this present sin. In our current experience today, the blood of Jesus cleanses this present sin. This confession of helplessness and guilt and failure and of the sufficiency of Christ’s blood is the door to knowing Him, and this kind of knowing is the key to being given the gift of keeping His commandments.
Before we move on to my main point, let’s try this again:
28 And now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming.
29 If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him.
(1 John 2:28, 29, NASB).
Do you see how this works? What is abiding with Him? Does it mean perfect behavioral holiness forever? How could anyone promise that? Does it mean to avoid “willful” sin? All sin is willful, that distinction is meaningless. It means, to walk in the light, to trust the sufficiency of Christ’s blood, to confess, to go quickly to the throne of grace and be helped in our time of need. We practice righteousness by walking in the light and being free with our poorness of spirit and our hunger for righteousness. He is the one who cleanses, the job is too complex and too deep for us to do ourselves. It would be like performing surgery on yourself or even like cutting your own hair or pulling your own tooth. You need outside help, and you need someone who really knows what is going on. That person is God, and God working through your fellow sinners saved by grace. They can’t help you if you pretend to have no need.
I want you trust something – or not, go through and check it for yourself. Read 1 John through and think through it from the perpective of walking in the light as central. Look at how this is true: he says “observe how the transparent honest walk in Christ looks,” not, “do this.” It changes the way you read it, and it is the right way to understand it in context. It honors the flow of the text and it harmonizes correctly with the things he says in 1 John 4. If you want to understand 1 John, make 1 John 1:5-10 the center hub for every passage. It makes tremendous sense.
Now, on to my main point. Let’s suppose you have a habitual sin, and you have sincerely confessed it over and over and over. You have confessed it in prayer, you have confessed it to a friend or counselor or accountability partner, and still you struggle. God has not cleansed you at all. You have no victory. You are still fat. You are still lustful. You are still angry. You still procrastinate. You still gossip and speak hurtfully. You’re still _____. You are still going back to it. You can’t change! You remain the slave of sin. Is there no hope? Why doesn’t this work?
The standard answer is that simple confession isn’t enough. You have to try. You have to actually do it. You’re failing because you won’t own up to that fact. You have to try harder. But I dispute that. There are those of us who hunger and thirst for righteousness who will one day be satisfied but are not quite home yet. When I walk by Victoria’s Secret in the mall, I know not to stare, but in looking away, I glance. In needing to look away I fail. Lust has conceived. I am trying, but it isn’t enough. I must move past trying, to the more powerful realm of confession.
Confession is more powerful than trying, because it includes the blood of Jesus in the process. It invites God into our mess. It invites a deeper honesty than trying allows. It acknowledges that I can’t do spiritual surgery on myself.
When I confess, I can go deep. I can say, Lord, I looked. I still want to look. I confess that. More, I sense that God says, you confess amiss, because in your pride, you will want to use your success in not looking to build up your pride and promote yourself, instead of living in compassion for the weaknesses of others. First you must learn that you are loved and accepted despite your failures, and when your heart loves Me and not your moral success, then you are ready to receive that gift.
It is not that I am saying that God isn’t interested in purity and clear behavioral holiness. He is. But He is saying that these motivations are important as well, perhaps more important. In fact God is saying these other things are very important pieces of the puzzle for your genuine transformation. We tend to want the quick fix obvious easy holiness, but holiness must include your desires and secret thoughts and intimacy and worship. In fact we think we can’t move on to real spirituality until we have really taken care of these crass sins, but in fact we need real spirituality to take care of the crass sins. Stopping your porn addiction or your overeating or whatever will never sustain without those bits.
The work of God is believing in Christ (John 6:29), and if you haven’t really worked that out, everything He is doing is meant to bring you to that point. He isn’t being mean or stringent or even mystically strange, He is trying to lead you to a truer holiness which is from the heart and based on freedom and given as a gift and as healing. He wants you to hunger for grace, so when you receive the cleansing, you love others as He has loved you, and don’t point to your own flawed moral fortitude as a measure of victory which only condemns others.
Belief in Christ and confession are the true doors to genuine holiness and sustainable change, a change which comes from the heart and from liberty as a gift from God. Belief in Christ and confession invite changes which are written on our hearts and souls and minds by the very finger of God, in God’s time and order, at God’s behest. Our repentance is complex and deep because we are complex and deep creatures in very individual ways, and there is no other way except with His help. We cannot try better than His grace and power and omniscience can do.