Robert Farrar Capon on Confession of Sin by MattTebbe

In keeping with the new format of www.missioalliance.org, we are adding a second post every week on Wed-Thursdays by other/former pastors of Life on the Vine Christian Community and our church planting network. This week Matt Tebbe is up again. Read about him here.


images-1I came across this while reading up on Luke 15 (the three parables on lost things and what happens when they get found). Brilliant words on the act and reality of confession being at the heart of Christian spirituality:

What this parable (i.e. The Prodigal Father and Two Lost Sons) is saying is first of all that, as far as Jesus is concerned, repentance involves not the admission of guilt or the acknowledgement of fault but the confession of death...Confession is not a medicine leading to recovery. If we could recover – if we could say that beginning tomorrow or the week after next we would be well again – why then, all we would need to do would be apologize, not confess. We could simply say that we were sorry about the recent unpleasantness, but that, thank God and the resilience of our better instincts, it is all over now….

But we never recoverWe die. And if we live again, it is not because the old parts of our life are jiggled back into line, but because without waiting for realignment, some wholly other life takes up residence in our death. Grace does not do things tit-for-tat; it acts finally and fully from the start. 

Confession has nothing to do with getting ourselves forgiven. Confession is not a transaction, not a negotiation in order to secure forgiveness; it is the after-the-last grasp of a corpse that finally can afford to admit it’s dead and accept resurrection. Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon us all our lives; we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have…We are not forgiven, therefore, because we made ourselves forgivable or even because we had faith; we are forgiven solely because there is a Forgiver. (Robert Farrar Capon Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, 296-297)

 A few observations and thoughts:
  1. Confession is not an apology – nor a feeling bad. It is agreeing with God about who we really are. Confession is affirming that we are who God says we are. In sin we are dead. Death is the only reality in which one can receive forgiveness, resurrection, life, freedom. Any other reality in which we attempt confession (i.e. being really sorry, feeling really bad) makes confession into little more than how we manage our sin and our guilt. To confess is to accept and affirm God’s description of my reality – dead. There is no recovery from sin that doesn’t involve complete and utter death.
  2. God’s life only takes root in a soil void of other “life”. Just as fertile soil in a garden is made up of richly saturated compost (i.e. decayed organic material), so too the way we receive the grace and mercy and Life that God offers to us in Jesus is when we receive him in a death. But out of the hopeless, worthless, meritless ground of our death his grace and truth and life take root. His life becomes our life. A wholly other sort of life springs up from the decay of our life.
  3. Capon is an Episcopalian so he ties the forgiveness that is ours whether we accept it or not to our infant baptism. But I wonder if those who come from a tradition of adult baptism can still affirm the reality that we were saved 2,000 years ago. We may confess faith at 4, or 14, or 40. But that doesn’t save us. The Forgiver saves us – and he did this 2,000 years ago. Our confession of faith is based on that salvation that “surrounds us and beats upon us all our lives.” 
  4. Confession is a release, a surrender, a submission of our rights to script who we are and how we’re doing. Confession is an openness, a relinquishing, a laying down. Confession is dying to the notion that we’re not dead. Confession is an embrace of your inner corpse. So we don’t have to kill ourselves with regret and remorse and guilt and shame – we simply are guilty, we simply are full of shame. Confession is the agreement that God saves us not by the fecundity of our own remorse and self-loathing but by the forgiveness and grace that takes root in one who understands that all she must do is receive.
I’ve noticed in my life as a pastor how often we bend confession and repentance into another tool of moralism. We can control God through confession – it is subtle, yes, but deadly nonetheless. Some of us come from a “All Lent/No Easter” tradition – it’s all death all the time. No resurrection, no belovedness. You’re a worm, your flesh is damnable, you’re a wretched, hopeless cause. Confession b/c our release valve – the pacifier of our guilty conscience. But those of us in this stream of Christian life can’t accept this reality that Capon talks about because it seems to be more of the same. But the death Capon talks about is actually a death to a resurrection-less Christian life. A death to seeing our primary identity as wretch, as sinner. We must die to this in order to accept our place as God’s Beloved – and that is a death to every controlling, self-loathing, moralistic impulse we have. And those impulses die hard.
Some of us come from an “All Easter/No Lent” tradition – life, freedom, affirmation of worth, dignity, honor, blessedness – It’s abundant life all the time. Smiles, joy, victory – no death, no dark night, no despair. God says, “you’re awesome”. Confession is something others have to do – the unbeliever, the person who thinks their nothing more than a wretch – but not me. To confess sin is to somehow acknowledge that I’m doing it wrong – that what I think I’m experiencing isn’t real. What Capon talks about above for those of us in this stream seems morbid, morose, toxic. Death isn’t a gateway into life, is it? Humbling ourselves, submitting to the cross, surrendering our resume – this can be dangerous to one who calls us to die IF THAT ONE IS NOT GOOD. Dying to self is only safe if the Self who brings us back to life is good.

What do you find striking about Capon’s understanding of confession?

Where do you see confusions and misunderstandings keeping us away from forgiveness and life in Christ?

How have you grown in your experience of confession that leads to lasting repentance and a new identity?

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