A Sermon by Rev. Philip B. Schnarr Preached in Phoenix, Arizona. – August 17,1997
“Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins (Matt 3:5,6).”
In the Word, as it is written in the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we find the story of John the Baptist, or, as some translations say, John the Baptizer. John was a lone voice in a wilderness, in the wasteland of a devastated church. And he was called to prepare the way for the Messiah by crying out for the people of Palestine to repent. And many came. They came flocking to John’s baptism in the Jordan river from all over Judea, from Jerusalem and all the regions round about. And as they were being baptized by him in the Jordan, the Word says that they confessed their sins.
Our sermon this morning is on the subject of confessing sins. And we will consider some basic questions such as:
How are we to understand confession and where does it fit in with the process of repentance?
How important is it for us to openly declare the particulars of how we have sinned against the Lord?
What benefit is it for those of the New Church to practice various forms of confession?
Confession by itself has very little use unless we first see that it fits into a much bigger process. We cannot grasp its full place and power without seeing that it is essentially one of three main steps of repentance.
Now most Christians are familiar with the Lord’s teaching that repentance is an essential part of dealing with our evils. The Word teaches this plainly in many places. In Ezekiel (14:6) we read:
Thus says the Lord God ‘Repent, turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations.
In Matthew (4:17) we read that Jesus as well as John preached:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
And in Luke (I 3:5):
Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.
So it should come as no surprise that many people accept the need for some form of repentance. But “to turn away from evil” – which is the meaning of the word “repent” – means different things to different people.
Some believe that repentance simply means “penance” or “contrition” which is feeling sorry and penitent for our evils. When I asked some older children what they thought repentance was, that is exactly what they said. It is “sort of feeling sorry for your sins.”
Others believe that repentance means more than saying and feeling that we are sorry for our sins. They take it a step further and say we must show that we are sorry. This calls for making amends to those we have wronged wherever possible. Suppose we have cheated on our taxes, we would admit our guilt and make restitution. If we hurt our spouse with angry words we might apologize and then perhaps offer a gift to show that we are truly sorry. If we mistreat our children, perhaps we give them a treat to try to make up or “heal the wound.”
In some faiths, repentance also requires an act of self- mortification. In the time of the Israelites the sorrowful Israelite would clothe himself in sackcloth, place ashes on his head and then sit in the ashes (Matthew 11:21).
In the Writings for the New Church there is a more complete idea of repentance. While it does require we make ourselves guilty for our sins, there is much more to it than any external act of contrition or sorrow. And it’s more than making amends too.
Repentance, we are taught in the Writings is “the first of the Church” (TCR 510:2). In general it has three main steps. First comes self-examination, which involves recognizing our sins as transgressions against the Lord, and acknowledging to ourselves that they are a problem. The second is to confess our sins before the Lord and pray for His power and help to remove them. And lastly, step 3, comes the living of a new life – the ongoing effort to change our patterns of thinking and living (TCR 528-531). These three must all be present for actual repentance to take place. But for now let us look more closely at the second of these three steps, confession.
The first and foremost thing to remember about confession is that it is absolutely necessary for our salvation. The Writings for the New Church state unequivocally, “The person who wants to be saved must confess his sins, and do repentance” (AC 8387). Unless we are ready to admit our weaknesses and admit our guilt, that we have sinned against God and our fellow man, then we cannot receive the life of heaven that the Lord seeks to give to us.
Salvation is a state of being conjoined with the Lord in true love for Him and for our neighbor. How can this come to be unless we are willing to openly confess that we have worldly and selfish desires that are getting in the way.
Yes, confession is an important – no a vital – step forward in our spiritual life and it is a remarkable turning point for many people. It often means breaking through the silent fears that keep us from being honest with ourselves and others. Just listen to what the Psalmist said as he turned from his silence to confess his sin:
“When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groaning all the day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah
I acknowledge my sin to You.
And my iniquity I have not hidden.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
And you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah.
For this cause everyone who is godly shall pray to you….
And now listen, listen to what follows after the Psalmist’s confession and prayer…
You shall surround me with songs of deliverance (Psalm 32).
Songs of deliverance, yes the sweet melody of freedom will come to us too when we break the silence and admit our wrongdoing before the Lord. Evil thrives in silence. Many of the worst abuses happen in our society because people fear to break the grip of silence.
In this same silence we resist the acknowledgement that we must humble ourselves before the Lord not for His sake but for our own sake! We may even feel a twinge of anger that we are asked to be submissive to Divine authority. Our lower self resents the implication that there is a power greater than us.
But confession and daily prayer to the Lord for His help will bring a gradual change. If we make a habit of them, these two open us up to reveal how the hells are doing their work inside of us. And by exposing the hells, they lose some (not all but some) of their power.
We have all experienced this ourselves at one time or another. Whether we are dealing with external dependencies like smoking, caffeine, alcohol or with compulsive and harmful behaviors, the grip these things have over the mind is simply amazing. And when the time comes that we are ready to give up a dependency, whatever it is, when it has become really unmanageable and harmful to us, -a sincere confession to the Lord and perhaps to people we trust, can be part of the miracle of recovery. It can lift the burden and lead to a sense of freedom, freedom to change and to be changed.
Remember that John baptized in the Jordan River. The Jordan marks an entry point to the land of Canaan. The children of Israel, after 40 years of struggle, when they crossed the Jordan, had put the past behind them. They were finally free of the plagues of Egypt and the perils of the wilderness. In the same way, people came to John at the Jordan River to be washed, to be cleansed from their trespasses, and to begin a better life. And during their baptism they confessed their sins. They opened their hearts up to the Lord so that He could find a dwelling place with them.
But let us remember that the Jordan river was the boundary, a gateway to Canaan. And so it is with the washing of our spirits that comes from confession. It is also only a starting place. Confession is an entrance to spiritual life, but it should not be confused with heavenly life itself. Yes it can be a momentous turning point and entryway to the life of peace which in the Word is described as a promised land flowing with milk and honey. But we must resist the temptation to think that a mere oral confession of our guilt will purify us.
The truth is that purification only comes with patience and a ready willingness to acknowledge an evil whenever it surfaces. If we are patient we will be purified by the Lord indeed. But our evil affections are only gradually uprooted and replaced by good ones (cf AC 10236.2).
This devotion to ongoing effort is what makes our confessions to be living, to be from the heart, not just the lips. We know from much experience that changing our habits and our self-destructive patterns does not happen overnight.
We must also guard diligently lest we confess our sins to benefit our own reputation, or sense of self-satisfaction. This will only make real confession harder. We read, “mere lip- confession of being a sinner is not repentance, or the recounting of various particulars in regard to it” (TCR 529).
But how then should we confess? Is it something between us and the Lord alone? Or should we confess openly before others? Should we go to a priest? Should we confess to our spouses?
These are not easy questions and the Writings give us only a few specific guidelines about external forms of confession. It is obvious however, that our priority must be to the Lord. We read in the Arcana Coelestia “to confess our sins is to declare them before the Lord and admit that all good is from the Lord and all evil is from (him)self'(AC 3880.7).
It is true that the Lord knows all of our evils already. So we need not go to great lengths enumerating them. Still when we confess them sincerely, it puts us in a true relationship with Him as our God. He alone has the power to save us.
As to the methods of confession, it would seem that the Lord leaves that largely to a matter of conscience. The principles that must guide our conscience, however, are very clear. Confession of the lips and not at the same time of the heart is not a living confession and does more harm than good. From the Writings we read:
Interior confession is of the heart and comes forth in humiliation, and at the same time in the affection of good: but exterior confession is of the lips, and may possibly come forth in a feigned humiliation and a feigned affection of good, which is none at all.. (AC 2329).
To confess our sins from the heart before the Lord, a trusted person, perhaps our spouse, has been for many people a life changing experience. In The True Christian Religion we learn that we can gain relief from our sins by telling them to a priest. It can serve to lighten our burden and establish the habit of self-examination.(TCR 539e). Often a skilled counsellor can help us discover and express negative thoughts and feelings that come from hell but need to be observed and acknowledged for us to deal with them. And although nothing sets us free from our sins but resisting evils and living a life of faith (AC 8387- 8394), the Writings tell us that if we should feel freed from our sins after confessing them, this is not a bad thing. It can lead to good providing we refrain from that evil in the future (AC 3993. 10).
One thing is sure. Confession is good for the soul. True, living confession of the heart lightens our burdens. It helps us to see that all good is from the Lord and not ourselves. It changes the direction of our thinking so that when we make mistakes, when we fall down, and when our minds wander into angry, resentful and unkind thoughts we will be quick to be lifted up by the Lord.
Those who fail to acknowledge their sins through regular confession and self-examination find repentance in this world and the next to be a distasteful and difficult exercise (TCR 561-2).
Confessing our sins, like admitting our mistakes, is hard for many of us. But once begun, the task gets easier. What has seemed to be a burden can become a refreshing way of putting the past behind us and beginning a new life. Let us be fearless as we go before the Lord in humility, asking Him to have mercy upon us, to blot out our transgressions, to wash us and make us clean, to create in us a clean heart and to give us the joy of His salvation (cf Ps 5 1). Amen,
Lessons: Psalm 51:1-13; Matthew 3:1-11; TCR 539; Lord 17.
1 To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.
5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
9 Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
1 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,
2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
3 For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
4 And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.
5 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan,
6 And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
9 And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
10 And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:
True Christian Religion
539. There are two duties incumbent on man, to be done after examination, namely, supplication and confession. The supplication should be that the Lord may be merciful, that He may give power to resist the evils that have been repented of and that He will provide inclination and affection for doing good,
Since apart from the Lord man can do nothing (John 15:5).
The confession will be that be sees, recognizes, and acknowledges his evils, and finds himself to be a miserable sinner. There is no need for man to enumerate his sins before the Lord, nor to supplicate forgiveness of them. He need not enumerate them, because he has searched them out and seen them in himself, and consequently they are present to the Lord because they are present to himself. Moreover, the Lord led him to search them out, disclosed them, and inspired grief for them, and together with this an effort to refrain from them and begin a new life. Supplication need not be made to the Lord for forgiveness of sins, for the following reasons: First, because sins are not abolished, but removed; and they are removed so far as man continues to refrain from them and enters upon a new life; for there are innumerable lusts inherent, coiled up as it were, in every evil, and they cannot be put away instantly, but only gradually, as man permits himself to be reformed and regenerated. The second reason is, that as the Lord is mercy itself, He forgives all men their sins, nor does He impute a single sin to any one, for He says, “They know not what they do.” Nevertheless, the sins are not thereby taken away; for to Peter asking how often he should forgive his brother’s trespasses, whether he should do so seven times, the Lord said:-
I say not unto thee, until seven times, but until seventy times seven (Matt. 18:21-22). What, then, will not the Lord do? Still it does no harm for one burdened in conscience to enumerate his sins before a minister of the church, in order to lighten his burden and obtain absolution; because he is thereby initiated into a habit of examining himself, and reflecting upon each day’s evils. But this kind of confession is natural, while that described above is spiritual.
17. Something shall now be said of what is meant by taking away sins. To take away sins means the same as to redeem man, and to save him; for the Lord came into the world to render salvation possible to man. Without His advent no mortal could have been reformed and regenerated, and so saved. But this became possible after the Lord had deprived the devil (that is, hell) of all his power; and had glorified His Human, that is, had united it to the Divine of His Father. If these things had not been done, no man would have been capable of permanently receiving any Divine truth, still less any Divine good; for the devil, whose power was previously the stronger, would have plucked it out of his heart.  From what has been said it is evident that the Lord did not take away sins by the passion of the cross; but that He takes them away, that is, removes them, in those who believe in Him by living according to His commandments; as He also teaches in Matthew:–
Think not that I am come to loosen the law and the prophets. Whosoever shall loosen the least of these commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of the heavens; but whosoever shall do and teach them shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens (5:17, 19).  Who cannot see from reason alone, provided he is in some enlightenment, that sins cannot be taken away from a man except by actual repentance, which consists in his seeing his sins, imploring the Lord’s help, and desisting from them? To see, believe, and teach otherwise, is not from the Word, nor from sound reason, but from cupidity and a depraved will, which are proper to man, and from this comes the debasement of his intelligence.