Confession as the beginning of dignity
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:9
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Confession is the beginning of glory (it is not the favor of the crown already; nor does it achieve praise) but it initiates dignity, and, since it is written; ‘He that shall persevere to end, he shall be saved,’ whatever has taken place before the end is a step by which the ascent is made to the summit of salvation, not the end by which the topmost point is held secure.
Cyprian of Carthage, The Unity of the Church
Cyprian lived in difficult times. He famously wrote this treatise to help navigate the waters of how to welcome back into the church those who fled the church during the persecutions in North Africa. Should those who repudiated Christ and worshiped the emperor be allowed to just waltz back into the church’s gatherings once the persecutions stopped? Should there be a trial period? Should we just say good riddance and let them be forever outside of the church?
Cyprian was open to the idea of welcoming back those who had once repudiated Christ, and at least part of his argument is listed above: confession is the beginning of glory, but those who preserve to the end, it is those who will be saved. In the heat of the situation, this seems difficult. Just imagine: some of your members were punished, tortured, became incapacitated, and even were slaughtered without mercy. In their trial, they didn’t renounce the name of Christ. They held fast. But then, you see the unblemished man walking back into church the week after the persecutions end. He renounced the name of Christ, offered sacrifice to the emperor and was spared any humiliation or torture.
The point that Cyprian is making is this: we are in a position to welcome today’s confession. It is in the interest of the gospel to welcome these apostates back into the church and help them along the ascent to the summit of salvation, to challenge them to persevere through the trials of this life. It is natural to ask, ‘Is their confession reliable and true?’ Just because someone confesses their sin and their faith in the gospel doesn’t indicate that he will endure. Perhaps this is where we might helpfully make a distinction between confession and repentance. Confession is an act of speech. At a person’s baptism, they confess their sin and their faith in the gospel. Based on this credible confession, we baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But many repudiate this confession. They were once baptized and confessed their sin, but they didn’t endure in this confession. Repentance is the action that corresponds to the confession. It is an action that involves more than just words. Repentance involves every part of our being. So when I confess my sin, I say with my words, I sinned against you, God. Repentance means I act differently and do not engage in the sinful behavior or the lifestyle that led to that sinful behavior. Instead of being lazy, I work hard. Instead of hating my brother, I love him. Instead of lusting after another woman, I pursue my wife and serve her sacrificially. Enduring repentance ends in glory, initial confession is only the beginning of it. Enduring faith that perseveres to the end is salvation bearing its full fruit.
The one additional point that Cyprian draws out that is so wonderful is this: ‘confession…initiates dignity.’ It is easy for us to dismiss someone who has sinned and sinned against us and God who then comes to the church in a brief moment of confession. But this little nugget of confession is a little nugget of hope. Confession of sin is the first act that makes a sinner sane. Now we must also say that God is at work in people, and we cannot easily discern someone’s heart. Paul suggested that a man be handed over to Satan that his spirit might be saved. In other words, even in a church’s act of judgement, there is a hope that God is at work, how much more someone who has willingly come to us in confession, however broken and messy the situation is.
So in the end: live and act with hope. Confess your sins, and pursue repentance, this is the path of life and of dignity. Pursue those who have repudiated the faith and know that God is at work in preserving his own sheep.