At the Catholic high school I attended we were often encouraged to pay an occasional visit to the chaplain (or the local priest) to lay bare any sins that troubled our minds. The frequency of these visits depended on how ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ you needed to feel before being convicted to go, and they felt somewhat like formatting a hard drive to clean out the junk, over and over again.
Asking the chaplain for forgiveness relieved my conscience, but to what extent did those confessions actually relieve me of the guilt of my sin? How many visits to the priest must I make before I 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 need to offer our cries 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 because if we directly confess them to him “he is faithful and just to forgive us” (1 John 1:9).
But hang on! Don’t we also profess 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 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?
From the moment we place our trust in the sufficient atoning work of Christ, we have complete forgiveness of sin and are free from the eternal condemnation of God (Col 2:13-14; Rom 8:1).
Through this union in Christ we are adopted into the family of God and are 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).
Yet, despite our right standing with him, God our Father doesn’t always approve of the things we do—things that are not right to do. We stumble in sin daily, and we grieve the Spirit when we intentionally sin against our own God-given conscience (Jas 3:2; Eph 4:30). Even though the Father loves us always and won’t boot us out of his heavenly household for wrongdoing, he still shows great displeasure at our sin.
It is similiar to a disobedient son who has wronged his father. The father continues to lovingly care for him, to feed and clothe him, despite his great displeasure over his misconduct; his son is his pride and joy and he will always love him. But the father is still grieved by the hurt his son has caused him.
So how can this 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 ask for forgiveness. That is the only way to restore the intimacy in this familial relationship.
This depicts a Christian’s experience of how they relate to God. God’s faithfulness to his children is unshakeable and unbroken, but he is still pained when we are unfaithful to him. This is why, when we become aware of the sin we have committed against our loving Father, we should confess it to him and seek forgiveness so that our close personal relationship with him can be restored (see Ps 51:11-12).
Perhaps all those high-school confessions I was encouraged to make—albeit to the wrong person—have given me the foundation for an excellent habit. 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 knowing that our Father in heaven is always ready to forgive his beloved children.