It’s always right to confess sin, right?

When God pricks our consciences and brings us to the point where we can see our sin, hate our sin, confess our sin, and turn from our sin and turn to Christ, it is one of the surest signs of the work of the Holy Spirit.

But not all confession is created equal. Confessing faults we don’t really see, just to get people off our backs, is duplicitous. Confessing sins that aren’t really sins is the sign of a conscience gone awry. And confessing the mistakes and moral blindness of others usually amounts to tendentious manipulation. It may be from the best of intentions (or it may not), but it is a dangerous thing to loudly confess a host of sins we have not committed and for which we are not individually, or even corporately, responsible.

In 1940, C.S. Lewis penned a striking article for The Guardian entitled “Dangers of National Repentance.”  His basic point: we should be exceedingly careful when apologizing for something we disdain in someone else.  Some solidarity with your nation or your tribe (to use a word Lewis didn’t) can be a good thing, but it can also easily turn into the sin of pride where we “confess” all the stupid things our benighted forefathers weren’t smart enough to avoid and all contemporary crimes our fellow citizens and colleagues are not enlightened enough to denounce. “The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting of our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing—but, first, of denouncing—the conduct of others” (in God in the Dock, 190).

More recently, physician and essayist Theodore Dalrymple has labeled this phenomenon the “False Apology Syndrome.”  The syndrome is dangerous because it allows us to feel good without having to be good.  We get all of the moral high ground that comes with confession and none of the personal pain.  “The habit of public apology for things for which one bears no personal responsibility changes the whole concept of a virtuous person, from one who exercises the discipline of virtue to one who expresses correct sentiment.  The most virtuous person of all is he who expresses it loudest and to most people.  The end result is likely to be self-satisfaction and ruthlessness accompanied by unctuous moralizing, rather than a determination to behave well.” We get to feel grandiose for “our” guilt without the burden of having to change or the shame of having people see our actual faults. What could be more satisfying and more ingratiating than saying we are sorry for other people’s sins?

A Sorry Bunch of Christians

It would be no sign of guts for me to get my fellow conservative evangelicals to make a statement confessing the sins of American sins like divorce, abortion, or Hollywood decadence. If we want to oppose those things or even denounce them, so be it. But that’s different than saying we are sorry for them. Likewise, it would be little more than thinly veiled censoriousness for me to preach a series of sermons apologizing for wicked popes and the prosperity gospel. Even a message saying I’m sorry for the execution of Servetus would properly seem to most people like a cheap homiletical trick. There is little humility, and even less courage, in apologizing for sins we haven’t committed and sins that everyone around us already rejects.

Now, if at one time I had championed these things, or had a key role in a body with direct responsibility for the sins in question, that would be different. Corporate repentance can be appropriate, even noble at times, but that depends on what such a confession costs us. “When a man over forty tries to repent the sins of England and to love her enemies,” writes Lewis, “he is attempting something costly; for he was brought up to certain patriotic sentiments which cannot be mortified without a struggle.  But an education man who is not in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry and restless minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother’s milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasm of his less-education fellow countrymen” (190).

Many in the church face the same danger as these young Englishmen. In confessing the sins of the church—for the Crusades and witch trials of the past or for the faults we see in our fellow Christians of the present—the danger is we have everything to gain with these remonstrations and nothing to mortify. We would do well to listen to Lewis from seven decades ago: “The communal sins which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class—its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment.  Of these sins I have heard nothing among them.  Till I do, I must think their candour towards the national enemy a rather inexpensive virtue” (191).

Costly Contrition

Much of today’s apologizing is dangerously cheap, more manipulation that contrition, more of a clearing the throat than an actual pricked conscience.  It’s all too easy for me to say “I’m sorry for all manner of obvious and heinous sins.” But is it real repentance if I don’t go out and do something differently after my confession? If half of the things some people apologize for were their actual sins, they should be disqualified from any kind of Christian ministry. But before we loudly protest all our general failings, we would do well to remember that repentance entails a change of direction and not merely a public declaration that “I abhor these sins where they exist and have existed.” We shouldn’t say we’re sorry because it sounds good or makes us look good before others, but because we personally feel regret for some wrongdoing on our part and are intent on living more like Christ in the future.

Saying “sorry” for the church’s sins, if it must be done, should only be done with great heartache and a genuine sense of shame for our part in them. The office of communal repentance, says Lewis, “can be profitably discharged only by those who discharge it with reluctance.” A son rebuking his mother may be necessary and even edifying, “but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony, over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her—that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, groveling below it in the unnatural—the spectacle becomes merely disgusting. The hard sayings of our Lord are wholesome to those only who find them hard” (191).  In other words, it’s a pretty good test of the appropriateness of our repentance to consider where our confession is costly to us, or rather, aims to be costly to someone else.

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18 thoughts on “Ruthlessness Accompanied by Unctuous Moralizing”

  1. Terry L. says:

    I agree with your sentiments in this post, but I have a question. Could you address Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9?

  2. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Great question. There certainly is a time for corporate confession. I see Daniel doing here much like a pastor might do on Sunday morning praying for and with his congregation. Daniel’s prayer is a good example of “costly contrition” in recognizing that his people–not the Amorites or Edomites or Babylonians–were ultimately to blame for their predicament. We also have to remember the unique arrangement under the Mosaic Covenant. They knew because of the covenant stipulations that they were in exile because of their sins. They also knew from the same covenant that God would heal their land when they repented of those sins.

  3. Annette says:

    Ezra gives an excellent example of costly contrition, as well, and shows what the fruit of that can and should be (Ezra 9-10).

  4. Bryce W says:

    Kevin, Great post. I’m wondering how this might affect the practice of publicly confessing our sins corporately in public worship. When writing or compiling such confessions I usually aim to be general enough to catch everyone, yet specific enough to actually be a confession of real sin and not just a vague sense that were sinners. I often think of David Powlison’s quote: If you preach in generalities people will nod but they will never change. But it seems the more specific we get the greater risk we run of asking people to confess sins of which they aren’t guilty. But if we stick to generalities it seems that we’re just confessing to confess.

    Any thoughts?

  5. Hal says:

    Agreeing with Terry and Annette, Daniel’s and Ezra’s prayers were the first things that came to mind. It is God’s own people who are in a position to recognize that sin is going on in our society or church. The “sinners” certainly aren’t going to confess–especially if they’re dead and gone. If God’s people don’t confess, it won’t get done. And both Ezra and Daniel identified with the guilt of their forefathers in their confessions.

    Agreeing with Kevin, we don’t find John the Baptist (or Jesus) offering confession for the sinful condition of God’s people in their time. We do find them denouncing and opposing, calling for repentance.

    We hear a great deal of lamentation these days over the decline of the church in America. Perhaps this is the appropriate place to take a cue from Daniel and Ezra. The church suffers from the very ailments exposed in John’s letters to the seven churches. Those letters call for repentance. We should confess those sins, rather than the “sins” of political incorrectness so omnipresent today.

  6. L. Westerlund says:

    Do we not hear more about the need of repentance in the Gospels and the Epistles than about confession of sins? Perhaps, where the liturgy in many churches calls for a confession, written by one person to be spoken aloud by all, there should instead be a time of silent meditation and a call for repentance where needed, and if needed. This is most appropriate, and Biblically called for, before partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

    In a gathering of the church, there may well be present those who have clean consciences, who keep short accounts with the God whose Word informs their thoughts and is in the very fabric of their being. Is it right to insist that such saints recite words that do not come from their hearts?

    True, acknowledgement of our sinfulness is always a part of our coming before God, because we are so aware that we can come only because of the righteousness of our Savior. But this fact of our unworthiness can be done in other ways in our gatherings, especially in our singing,if we draw on the great legacy of theologically rich hymns that is the church’s heritage, and also, certainly, in pastoral prayers.

    Kevin writes well of the pitfalls of corporate confession of sin; I see another: that the liturgical confession will dull the conscience to the ongoing work of the Spirit in conviction that requires repentance and change.

  7. Betsy Childs says:

    Thank you for this.

  8. Scott C says:

    I felt like much of the response to the Martin-Zimmerman trial did this very thing, trying to use the results of the trial to induce a renewed sense of white guilt for the atrocities committed against blacks. Most people see it as disingenuous and it ends up backfiring by producing frustration and bitterness in people who have never engaged in racist activities. Not a good way to promote racial reconciliation.

  9. A says:

    This will probably display my complete ignorance, but I don’t understand. Why, or in what circumstances would people apologise for the sins of others? Even a hypothetical example? Although I realise that may not be beneficial – if not, it’s ok.

    The only thing I can think of is when I had spent weeks explaining the Gospel to a friend and another Christian then, in what must have been a moment of gross misjudgement, made a public act against that people group – obviously causing a great deal of offence and confusion to my friend, and complete distress and agony to me. All I could do was apologise to my friend for what had happened – I certainly couldn’t undo it – saying that it was wrong and not how God has asked us to act, and continue pointing them to the Bible. Is this the type of thing that you are talking about, or is it something completely different?

  10. Scott Roper says:

    A, Kevin didn’t name names, but for an example, Donald Miller does this in Blue Like Jazz. An article in Christianity Today called The Campus Confession Booth has the same material and is available online.

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2005/summer/4.62.html?start=1

    “It would feel so good to apologize, to apologize for the Crusades, for Columbus and the genocide committed in the Bahamas in the name of God, apologize for the missionaries who landed in Mexico and came up through the West slaughtering Indians in the name of Christ.”

  11. Daniel says:

    Kevin, thanks for a very well-reasoned piece. I had missed that essay by Lewis, but I think it (and your analysis) hits the nail on the head.

  12. Terry L. says:

    Kevin,
    Thank you for your response to my question. I appreciated it.

  13. Paul Janssen says:

    So back in whenever-it-was, when the General Synod of the RCA was asked to confess its sins against women – not just women in office but women in general – but the GS, finding that onerous, decided that it would not do so, it was acting unfaithfully? That seems to be the implication of the post — at least the last paragraph or so — but I doubt that many would draw that manifestly straightforward logical conclusion.

  14. @ Westerlund – Something I found helpful in Gordon Wenham’s book, “The Psalter Reclaimed” on the subject you mentioned.

    “That is why St. John says, ‘If we confess our sins.” That is why Jesus taught us to pray ‘Forgive us our debts,’ not ‘forgive me my debts.’ so just as we can pray the lament psalms even when we are not in deep trouble ourselves because we are praying them on behalf of those who are suffering, so we can use the penitential psalms in the same way. We may not have sinned as badly as David or have anything particular weighing on our conscience, but we may know that members of our family have sinned, or that there is sin in our church or in our community or in our nation. We can and should pray these prayers then, not only on our own behalf but on behalf of the wider circles of life to which we belong.” (p.51)

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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