A Prayer of Confession, a Plea for Forgiveness

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for January 21, 2018, based on Daniel 9:1-19.

The study guide helpfully prompts us toward reflection on personal confession of individual sin. But there is another angle on this prayer of Daniel that has often struck me: this prayer is a personal confession of collective sin.

Daniel, according to all the stories in the book which bears his name, was a righteous man. It was not his fault his people were in exile. Yet he prays as if the guilt of his forebears is his own. He includes himself among previous, sinful generations, in order to make a clean break with the sins of the past and allow God to move him and his people toward a better future.

Is it appropriate for children to bear the guilt of their parents, or even their grandparents? Most of us would cringe at the idea. The Bible itself gives mixed messages on this (Exod 34:7; Ezek 18:20). Yet there are some helpful lessons for us that derive from the Bible’s personal confessions of collective sin.

One lesson is that sin is not merely an individual, private matter. Collective, even systemic, sin runs just as deep among us. If we think of “sin” as all the ways in which we harm one another and the rest of creation through our attitudes, words, and actions, then it’s not hard to see how sin has both individual and collective dimensions. Churches can develop settled attitudes that run counter to God’s life-bringing ways. Societies can nurture values that encourage abuse of power or the use of violence. Nations can enshrine injustice in the very laws that are supposed to ensure justice.

A second lesson is that sometimes what’s needed to break from the collective sins of the past is collective soul-searching and confession. This has nothing to do with whether or not we ourselves are personally guilty for the wrongdoing. Rather, it has everything to with naming the wrongs of our forebears, recognizing our inclination to continue in those wrongs if nothing is done, and committing ourselves to doing better, rectifying those wrongs if we are able, avoiding those wrongs as much as we can. This is why initiatives such as the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada are so important.

There’s a third lesson for us. Daniel’s prayer confesses, “We have not listened to your servants the prophets” (9:6). In every generation God sends prophets to speak truth, to call God’s people to faithfulness, to warn of the consequences of unfaithfulness, to promise the blessings of faithfulness—and yet, all too often, we crucify these prophets instead of heeding them (see Matt 23:29-39). Who are the prophets of our generation, calling us to renewed faithfulness to the way of Jesus? Are we willing to listen, to repent, and to obey?

“Confess and believe, and you will be saved!”

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. (Romans 10:9-10)

This is one of those classic evangelistic texts, the kind that get painted on signs and propped up on billboards, like John 3:16. It’s a gospel text, a mission text, a conversion text: it gets right down to the core of what we should believe, and it promises salvation for those who do.

Here’s how I used to understand these verses. I used to think they are telling us what we need to do to be saved from God’s eternal punishment for our sin. We need to confess with our mouth and believe with our whole heart: we need to confess our own personal sin and confess Jesus as our own personal Saviour, and we need to believe in our hearts that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.

The problem is, that’s not what these verses actually say.

Check it out again: “if you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

No mention of sin.

No mention of Jesus as personal Saviour.

No mention of the cross at all, let alone of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins.

Paul does talk elsewhere about some of these things. Sin and the cross are even pretty important to Paul. But why doesn’t Paul specifically mention them here, in this “classic evangelistic text”? How exactly can this particular “confession” and “belief” bring about “salvation”?

“You will be saved…”

Well, to make sense of this the first thing we have to get right is what Paul means by “salvation.” And to get that right, we need to go back to Paul’s Scriptures, our Old Testament. And a good place to start there is with the biblical writings Paul most quotes here in Romans 10: Deuteronomy and Isaiah.

Take Deuteronomy 30. Moses is speaking to the ancient Israelites before they enter into the Promised Land. Through Moses God promises to bring the Israelites blessings and life if they keep the commandments of the covenant. But God also warns them of curses and death if they disobey—in particular, being conquered by foreign armies and being sent into exile among the nations.

And then Moses makes this prediction: Israel will in fact fail to keep the covenant (which they did), they will be exiled (which they were), but if they return to the Lord they will be “saved”—they will be rescued from their exile and restored to their land to thrive once again.

This, then, is “salvation” according to Deuteronomy. Salvation is about God delivering God’s people from the powers of the world that have oppressed them, restoring them after they have experienced the consequences of their collective sin, bringing them back to where they can again experience life and liberty.

van Gogh - BibleThen take Isaiah 52. Isaiah speaks of God’s “messenger” who announces God’s “salvation”: “How beautiful are the feet of those who announce peace, who bring good news, who announce salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”

This, like Moses’ promise of God’s future salvation, is a message of salvation to the exiled people of Israel a few hundred years before Christ, scattered as slaves and refugees throughout the world. And the message of salvation is this: God is returning to his throne to reign over all, and God’s reign will bring peace and justice once again for God’s people.

Now back to Romans 10. This is what Paul is talking about when he talks about “salvation”: he’s referring to Israel’s promised salvation, drawing on these and other Old Testament passages.

But Paul says something new, something completely unexpected. He says this promised salvation is not just for Israel, but it’s also for the nations, for the Gentiles—for everyone. As he puts it: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This, then, is the salvation that Paul promises to those who confess and believe: God’s reign of justice and peace has arrived through Jesus, bringing deliverance from oppressive powers and restoration to flourishing life.

“…if you confess and believe.”

But what does it mean then to “confess that Jesus is Lord”? What does it mean to “believe that God raised him from the dead”? And how does this confession and belief bring about that salvation? To get at these questions we need to put ourselves in the sandals of those first Christians in Rome.

For us, it seems pretty simple to say, “Jesus is Lord.” But for those first Christians in Rome, confessing that “Jesus is Lord” was not mere words.

No, in Paul’s day, to confess that “Jesus is Lord” was a bold declaration of allegiance.

As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 8, there were many “lords” and “gods” in the ancient world, many “powers that be” that called for allegiance. And at the very top of the heap, king of the castle, was the Roman Emperor, Caesar. For good Romans—and anyone who cared about their lives—this was one of the most self-evident truths around: Caesar is Lord, master over any and all other powers that be. For them, this was the most fundamental confession: “Caesar is Lord.”

So to confess that “Jesus is Lord” was potentially a dangerous act, a revolutionary act, a radical commitment. It wasn’t something that slipped easily off the lips. This explains why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 12, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”—you would need the Spirit’s boldness to confess such a thing!

Jesus is Lord.

He is Lord over any and all other lords and gods, any other powers that be in the world: whether Caesar or the President or Prime Minister Trudeau, whether nation states or church structures or social norms, whether Supreme Courts or vigilante militias, whether ISIS or the UN, whether constitutions or confessions of faith, whether the boss at work or the bully in the playground.

Any power at work in the world you can think of, Jesus is Lord over it.

Jesus is Lord over all—and so Jesus commands our ultimate allegiance.

But Jesus is not like any other powers that be, whether back then or today. And that’s where the next part comes in: “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.”

Our Lord that we confess, the One to whom we hold fast with total allegiance, is a man who was executed by the powers that be, but was vindicated by God by raising him from the dead.

Love DisciplesThat’s the point of the resurrection. The powers of this world have assessed Jesus and vilified him; but God has assessed Jesus and vindicated him. The resurrection is God’s loud shout of “Amen!” to everything about Jesus: his teachings, his way of life, his self-giving suffering, his selfless death.

So we confess that “Jesus is Lord,” Jesus is Master over all, including us. But we follow a Lord who gave himself for us. We obey a Master who taught us to love one another, and who showed us what that love looks like. And we follow this Lord and Master because he is the one whom God has given his “Yes” to, he is the one whom God has stamped with his full approval, confirming that Jesus’ way is the only way to true blessing and real life.

It’s easy to say the words, “Jesus is Lord.” But it’s hard to truly “confess that Jesus is Lord,” that the way of Jesus is the only way to true life, and so we need to commit ourselves fully to Jesus’ way of self-giving love.

But that’s what it means to “confess that Jesus is Lord.”

It’s easy to agree with the words, “God raised Jesus from the dead.” But it’s hard to truly “believe that God raised Jesus from the dead,” that God has given his resounding “Yes!” to a man who spent his time with misfits and sinners, to a man who embraced the sick and the poor and the outcasts and the enemy others, to a man who would rather die than kill, to a man who willingly gave up his life for others—even if it meant being pronounced a blasphemer and condemned as a criminal and executed by the state.

But that’s what it means to “believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.”

And this, Paul insists, is the only way to true salvation. This is the only way for all of us together to experience true justice and peace, to experience the flourishing life God desires for all humanity: following our resurrected Lord in his cross-shaped footsteps.

This post is adapted from my sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on February 14, 2016. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

You Are Forgiven

This post in an adapted excerpt from my sermon in the series “Four Things,” preached at Morden Mennonite on January 17, 2016. See others in the series: “Loved,” “Needed,” “Not Alone.” Here is the audio of the full sermon:

Here’s a word we know all too well: guilt.

You know the feeling. You’ve done something, said something, something wrong, something that crossed the line. And you know it.

You might not be ready to admit it right after it happens. In the heat of the moment we are often too caught up, too riled up, to see the wrong we have just done. But later, after we’ve gone through all the self-justification, all the self-talk of “they deserved it” or “what else was I supposed to do?”—after we’ve spent our allotment of pride, we admit it to ourselves: we were wrong.

Then there’s guilt’s close cousin: shame.

You know that feeling too. You’ve done something, said something, something socially wrong—and so you pay the social consequences. You’re embarrassed, maybe even humiliated. You lower your eyes and turn away. Maybe you slink off into a corner, trying to avoid the looks of all those people. You’ve lost face, and you can’t show your face.

Guilt and shame. They are normal human experiences, normal human emotions, that we all experience at one time or another. They can even serve a good purpose: they help to shape our morality, our ethics, so that we become better people, treating each other in better ways.

But what if your life is defined by guilt and shame? What if you live in a world constructed out of rules and penalties? What if you spend a good bit of your time and energy trying to avoid being guilty and evade being ashamed?

What if your past is spotted with unresolved guilt and unmended shame? Or—heaven forbid—what if your experience is one moment of guilt after another, one shameful encounter after another, overfilled with false guilt and undeserved shame?

If any of this describes where you are at, then this is what you need to hear: you are forgiven.

You are forgiven. God stands ready to forgive you, always, at any time. And that forgiveness can be the doorway to forgiveness and restoration with others. You are forgiven.

“Whoa, wait a minute! Doesn’t forgiveness need confession and repentance? How can you simply say, ‘You are forgiven’?”

Good question. And to answer it, let’s listen carefully to what the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians:

The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died… God reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

Did you catch that? God has taken the initiative, God has taken the risky step of love, to reconcile the entire world to himself, and Jesus has died to seal that reconciliation. And so God no longer counts our trespasses against us. In love there is no record of wrongs.

It’s a bit mind-boggling, to be honest. But here’s how I understand this: in Christ God has done everything needed for our forgiveness. And so God stands ready to forgive us, arms open, hands empty, eyes scanning the horizon like a father waiting for a prodigal child. God stands ready to forgive us, always, at any time.

It is true that to receive that forgiveness we need to admit that we need it. But this is not some kind of hyper-spiritual Christianese God-talk. It’s just the reality of the way forgiveness works, with anybody: if we don’t think we’ve done anything wrong, we won’t think we need to be forgiven.

So if you’ve never done anything wrong in your life, if you’ve never felt guilty or been ashamed for something you’ve said or done, then this post isn’t for you. The healthy don’t need a doctor, only the sick.

But the reality is that we’ve all said or done things to hurt other people, we’ve all harmed others in our lives, intentionally or not. We all know what it’s like to feel guilt. We all know that feeling of shame.

And so when we are at that place where we feel that guilt or shame, whether real or imagined, that’s exactly the place where God stands ready to forgive us, always, at any time.

Rembrandt ProdigalIt’s the reason Jesus could simply say to the paralytic, right out of the blue: “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” The religious leaders of his day didn’t like it, Jesus forgiving sins just like that: no sinners’ prayer, no sacrifice of blood. Jesus saw his heart, and forgave him his sins.

It’s the beautiful, transcendent truth of 1 John’s first chapter: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” If we know in our hearts before God that we have done harm to others, the faithful God forgives us.

If you need forgiveness, you are forgiven. It’s as simple as that.

If you are awash with guilt, stuck in the mud and mire of guilt, and you know it: you are forgiven.

If you wrestle with feelings of shame for who you are, what you’ve said, what you have done: you are forgiven.

When you say those hurtful words, when you do that harmful deed, when you don’t say or do that good thing you should have, and you know it: you are forgiven.

You are forgiven.

God stands ready to forgive you, always, at any time. And that forgiveness can be the doorway to forgiveness and restoration with others.

You are forgiven.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.