Learning to Confess With St. Augustine

Confession may very well be the lost art of the modern church. In our individualistic society, churched people may not feel the need to “air out their dirty laundry” with others. Why take the risk of being judged, criticized, and exposed as a sinner in front of everyone? This may be because our view of confession, its reason, and its importance have been either twisted or forgotten. However, it should be noted that a church’s doctrine of confession has great influence on its doxology and ultimately its view of God. Augustine of Hippo’s retelling of his life and conversion in the book Confessions is one way he stressed the significance of confession of sin, faith, and praise within the church and in the lives of individual believers.

Most would read Augustine’s Confessions and think that such a life should not have been put on paper for public consumption. A licentious man, Augustine lived to satisfy his flesh until God revealed himself through his word and Augustine’s life was radically changed. As Christians, we tend to push our sin under the rug and urge others to do the same and never bring them out again. It has been said that telling too much of a person’s rebellious actions can glorify the sinner and not the Savior. However, Augustine argues that confession of sin brings glory to God, for he is magnified when we are humbled. David Wright says, “[Augustine] confesses much sin and error—but only to magnify the ever-resourceful grace of God.”

Augustine explores the different forms of confession in his book. Confession does not just refer to disclosing one’s sins, but it is a declaration of faith and a discourse of praise. On this subject Augustine wrote, “First accuse thyself, and having accused thyself, praise God” (Ps. 147;Exposition on the Psalms). Therefore confession means recognizing sin, announcing who is Savior, and giving all the honor to Christ. Augustine’s confessions were endless and, for him, such extensive acknowledgment of guilt was a necessary step toward his theology of praise. This implies that confession does not stop at conversion but is a daily habit—both private and public—that compels a sinner to praise the Savior. Augustine wrote, “my confession is made both silently in your sight, my God and aloud as well, because even though my tongue utters no sound, my heart cries out to you” (Confessions, 208). Fundamentally, confession is admitting depravity and not crediting salvation to oneself. Without constant confession of sin, humans tend to believe they are more righteous than they really are. Confession forces us to admit our dependence on Christ.

Augustine’s Confessions begins with quotations from two psalms that praise the Lord (Ps. 145:3; 147:5). This is the heartbeat of the rest of the book. Confession leads to a declaration of faith, and faith should result in praise. Confession and praise should go hand in hand, and Augustine’s book is a vivid example of this. You will find no ulterior motive in Confessions, no plot for gain or fame—merely a sinner recognizing his reliance on the God he wishes to honor fully.

Confession should always be grounded in the grace of Christ. If we avert our eyes from the cross, we will use confession as a means of self-righteousness. We will forget it is only through grace that we even have a conscience and renewed mind. We will not consider that the forgiveness that comes from confession is through Christ, and we will overlook how much we need Christ to be our righteousness alone! Confession helps the fallen human understand his sinful state before God and that it is grace and only grace that we are declared righteous before God. Confession should never generate guilt, but should cause us to constantly look to the freedom we have in Christ. We have the freedom to confess our sins knowing that they are already covered by the blood of Christ. Confession should lead to reconciliation, first with God and then with others.

Augustine mused on the merits of confessing to others and finally resolved that “[w]hen others read of those past sins of mine, or hear about them, their hearts are stirred so that they no longer lie listless in despair … they are glad, not because those sins are evil, but because evil is now evil no more” (Confessions, 209). This should also be our desire in confessing sins to others.

Within the church, confession shows the congregation’s identity to the world and where we find our rest. Augustine said, “This is the goal of my confessions, not to make known the sort of person that I was, but the sort of person I am” (Confessions, 210). When the world sees a truly confessing church, they will wonder at the strength beyond human capacities that provides such life transformation. When we say “I was that but God made me this,” the glory goes to God and not to human achievement, while a non-confessing church may come across as hypocritical for not declaring why the lives of its congregants are set apart. The unbelieving world knows human weakness—and it knows that changing patterns of life is difficult and often impossible and seldom accompanied by peace and joy. What the world does not know is Christ the Savior who can provide lasting change, joy, and peace, in spite of our human frailty.  In essence, it is hard to communicate God’s greatness apart from confession.

Though confession is beneficial to the uplifting of the church and the sanctification of the soul, there are a few cautions that must be communicated, first to the confessor and then to the congregation. Confession should only lead to Christ-magnification and completely avert attention to the self. If a person confesses his or her sins to the church in order to appear humble or great, they have missed the point. They ought to confess their sin of pride privately to God before confessing among the congregation. Confession should be a reflection of a contrite spirit; therefore pride has no place in it.

Next, confession must be met with love; otherwise it merely generates judgmental people. A church must understand that the purpose of confession is not to honor a person but to proclaim the character of God. Each confession in the church should be met with nothing other than praise to God for his generous mercy, and the focus should always shift from the sin to grace, from sinner to Savior. On this Augustine said, “No small good is gained, O Lord my God, if many offer you thanks for me and many pray to you for me” (Confessions, 209).

Confession is a beautiful act that shows our dependence upon God’s grace. Drawing on Augustine’s teaching, Carl Vaught even suggests that the absence of confession could distance humans from God in their daily living. The church needs to rediscover the doctrine of confession and recognize its merits. As Augustine observed, God has made our hearts restless until they rest in him (Confessions, 21). Confession helps us lay aside that which is making us restive and be at peace with our Lord and with others. The beautiful doctrine of confession should lead to a sweet understanding of God’s grace. Any church would do well to adopt this perspective and incorporate confession into the lives of its congregants. -M.

Originally Published in 2013

SOURCES

Augustine. Confessions. Trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin. London: Penguin, 1961.
Augustine. Exposition on the Psalms. CCEL, 13 Jul. 2005. Web. 17 Apr. 2013.
Vaught, Carl G. Access to God in Augustine’s Confessions: Books X-XIII. Albany: State University of New York, 2005.
Wright, David F. “Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Christian History, 1 July 2000. Web. 17 Apr. 2013.

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Learning to Confess With St. Augustine

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