The Confession of Jesus

Merge” by Jeff Wallace is licensed under CC BY 2.0

While in prayer recently, my thoughts were redirected away from personal concerns and requests that have been consuming my attention and toward a completely unexpected topic. It was one that had not been on my mind at all. I was prompted to contemplate the meaning of confession.

More specifically, something inside urged me to consider the confession of Jesus.

My next thought was, huh?

A strange line of questioning immediately followed.

Aren’t Christians supposed to follow the example of Christ? (Well, yes, but…) Why then must they confess? (Um…?)

Just as soon as the riddle had appeared, a bizarre answer followed, in the form of a rhetorical question, a cliche from a previous lifetime — “What would Jesus do?”

I struggle now to explain the sensation, but it was as if this question imparted the answer, and I understood it before I could even make sense of it.

There are two confessions.

Our culture is very familiar with the first kind, the confession of guilt.

Our dramas are filled with stories of reprobates who confess to a crime, or of the innocent simpleton whose false confession is extracted by a corrupt investigator. We also think of the child who eventually confesses to destroying the lamp after first trying to blame his dog.

The Catholic Church’s confessional has cemented itself in the popular mind, but other Christians practice confession of sins also.

The second type has also become a large part of our culture, thanks in part to the rise of social media, although we rarely think of it as confession. This is the confession of belief; it is a statement we make about who we are and what we think.

Confessions of belief populate our status updates, memes and hashtags. The hit song “Best of You” by Foo Fighters leans on the concept of confession as a statement of belief and was the best (the best, the best, the best) thing to come out of the John Kerry for President campaign.

The second kind of confession is very important to the Christian, as well. In the churches I have been part of, a Christian’s confession of faith is the crucial precondition to being baptized and saved from sin, even if that confession consists of a single-word response to a question, “yes.”

“Confessions” by Augustine of Hippo is the fascinating autobiography of a Catholic bishop that provides confessions of both kinds, confessions of guilt and confessions of belief (along with many other philosophical concepts).

But it was exclusively the first type of confession presently invading my prayer. What confession of guilt can there be, though, if Jesus was without sin? And how can Christians be Christ-like in making confessions of guilt, as we are commanded to do?

To reach the answer, we must start by considering two pivotal moments of Jesus’s life in which that confession could have arrived.

First, his baptism.

Before Jesus met him in the Jordan, people were coming to John the Baptist and confessing their sins. But Jesus had no sins to confess, and John in his confusion suggested their roles ought to be reversed, that Jesus should baptize him.

Jesus made no confession of guilt, nor did he make a confession of faith at that time. Instead, a voice from heaven testified about him.

Second, his trial.

When Jesus was brought before Pilate, the priests and elders, he was asked to make both confessions simultaneously.

Jesus was being charged with a “crime” of blasphemy, or of insurrection, for considering himself King of the Jews (an article of faith).

Famously, Jesus again declined to make either confession, but neither did he deny the charges, allowing his accusers’ testimony to stand.

Why then this idea of a confession from Jesus? And how are we like him when we confess?

The answer requires an inquiry into what confession is, what it does and what its benefits are.

When someone makes a confession of guilt, that person is not just making a statement (unlike the second type of confession). They are performing an action. They are giving testimony to four things:

  1. A wrongful act has been committed.
  2. The person confessing is taking responsibility for that act.
  3. The person confessing is recognizing an authority.
  4. The person confessing surrenders to the justice and mercy of that authority.

The confession does not cancel out or reverse a wrongful act. It does not remove its consequences. But it does bring clarity to the situation and allows justice to be done. It results in a feeling of relief and closure for the victims, the community and even the criminal. And the burden of a guilty conscience is lifted.

Knowing this, what better example of confession do we have than the life and purpose of Jesus? He sees us in our sin and faces it directly, takes it upon himself and surrenders to the awesome mercy of the Father. He provides both justice and grace, and he lifts the weight of a guilty conscience from us.

What would Jesus do? That’s what he did.

The book of James encourages believers to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” so that our sins will be forgiven and we may be healed. When we confess, we are following the example of Christ.

This leads us to my final question, which doubles as a confession: Why do I not follow the example of Christ?

Mick Wright lives in the Memphis area with his wife, Alison. They both work for non-profit organizations that serve children.