Our secrets are usually secret for good reason. Our secrets are the worst of ourselves. Our secrets are foibles, faults, and harmful follies that have pierced the hearts of others, and far worse, the heart of God himself. Many times, our greatest secrets conceal our gravest sins.
As Christians, what do we do with our gravest sins, our greatest secrets? We tell them.
I have been telling my secrets to my friend Cale for about a year. Every couple of weeks, we sit down across from one another and expose the sins burdening our souls. It has been a holy experiment of experiencing the forgiveness of God in a new way.
I grew up in a Southern Baptist congregation, where I was involved in our youth ministry. One of the top five most frequent applications I heard was the need for an accountability partner who would hear about my struggles and encourage me to follow Christ more devoutly. My friends and I picked accountability partners over the years, but these relationships unintentionally soured. Conversations deteriorated from hopeful improvement plans to shameful reports, then to “Be better; do better” speeches to one another. It is difficult confessing sin, but it becomes almost impossible when you anticipate a tongue lashing—even worse, when you are expected to dole out a scolding as well.
Eventually inconsistency turned to avoidance. I would omit confession for months and even years. I needed an accountability partner to make sure I met with my accountability partner. Thankfully, 20th-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer helped me shift my accountability paradigm in a slight, yet significant, way.
In Life Together, Bonhoeffer discusses the spiritual discipline I had learned and called “accountability partners” in fresh language, calling it “mutual confession.”
Anchored by James 5:16, “Confess your sins one to another,” Bonhoeffer advocates for men and women in Christian community to confess their sin to a brother or sister in Christ. He writes:
Christ became our Brother in order to help us. Through him our brother has become Christ for us in the power and authority of the commission Christ has given to him. Our brother stands before us as the sign of the truth and the grace of God. He has been given to us to help us. He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s stead, and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name. He keeps the secret of our confessions as God keeps it. When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.
With mutual confession, the response to confession is emphatic forgiveness. In my experience with accountability partners, the response was always correction. The law of God was more prominent than the grace of God. Mutual confession allows for an appropriate interplay of sin and forgiveness, of law and grace, of our failure and Christ’s ultimate triumph.
Wave of Freedom
Having a fellow brother in Christ pronounce forgiveness over me feels like a wave of freedom. It feels like rest for my soul. Being the one to pronounce forgiveness over a fellow believer reminds me of spiritual transformation. God’s grace does not leave me as I am. I have been changed so that I may do the Lord’s work, proclaiming the forgiveness of sin (John 20:23). This is an opportunity for active obedience to God.
Mutual confession becomes the chiropractor for the tension of law and grace for a Christian, at least for this Christian. It properly aligns grace as the basis for obedience.
When I sit down on those early Friday mornings to confess my sins with my friend Cale, my cup is full of coffee. My heart is full of shame. Sometimes I can barely eke out my secrets. But my confession does not pour into an empty room. Two blue eyes stare back into mine. A set of ears listen to my most dreadful secrets. I have been masquerading and moonlighting as a sinner when I am in fact a saint. And I am about to reveal my secrets to my brother in Christ. And naturally, I brace myself for judgment.
Then all of the sudden, Cale reminds me, “Because of Christ’s work on the cross, because of his resurrection, you are forgiven and free from sin.” Through Christ’s death and resurrection, God says, “You are forgiven!” Cale echoes the Word of God, and I am flabbergasted by the grace of Christ every time these words roll off his tongue.
Mutual confession has been a holy experiment. Over and over, it has been an opportunity to dynamically experience the forgivingness of God. The kind of mutual confession I commend via Bonhoeffer is not a new kind of pious law bound up in unbiblical notions of penance and priestly intercession. Rather it is an old kind of blessing. So I ask you brothers and sisters, are you willing to try a holy experiment of your own? Are you ready to look a fellow Christian in the eyes and confess your gravest secrets and sins? Are you ready to hear “You are forgiven”?