What About The Confession?
A basic rule of Biblical interpretation is that a passage must be interpreted in a manner consistent with its context. To ignore the contextual setting is to distort or malign the meaning of the text. Truths drawn out of their context become perversions. To assign a meaning to a statement not supported by the context is to corrupt the text. These fundamental considerations must be accepted to obtain a correct exegesis of any passage.
But we in the Church of Christ church certainly acknowledge these premises. Right? Wrong! We have been as guilty of abusing Scripture as anyone, while claiming unwavering fidelity to the Bible. We are noted for such devout slogans as "we speak where the Bible speaks," "we do Bible things in Bible ways," and the like. This appears that we have such reverence for the inspired text that, like Jewish scribes of old, we would wipe our pens before writing the name of God.
We are so respectful of the Biblical text that we "contend earnestly for the faith," so that we also impeccably "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Right? Wrong again! We can't even agree on what the unity of the Spirit is, much less maintain it. There is scarcely a Biblical doctrine but what there is a diversity of viewpoints among us regarding it. In fact, we have never been in total agreement on such a basic matter as to what is the plan of salvation! While we're seeking some semblance of accord on that, we seem oblivious to the fact that the term "plan of salvation'' is itself not a Scriptural one. We feel so free to invent terminology to fit our theology, while condemning others for not following the Bible perfectly.
If you were startled by the assertion that we are not united even on the so-called "plan of salvation," this really has never been so. Some insist that the "plan" involves five elements: hearing, believing, repenting, confessing and being baptized. Now, the arrangement in that order is achieved by human logic rather than inspired direction. This seems right and logical, so it must be right, despite the fact that there is no Biblical presentation of this "plan" or this "order." Another presents the "plan" as consisting of four elements: faith, repentance, confession and baptism. Then other faithful brethren offer an abbreviated "plan": faith, repentance and baptism.
"But isn't a formal confession of faith essential to salvation?" it may be asked. No, there is not an atom of evidence in the Scriptures supportive of this contention. Upon no occasion was a sinner demanded to make "the good confession,'' in a formal fashion as we affirm it must be done. "But isn't the wayward Christian required to publicly confess his sins before the church?" Again, while this is our established custom, it has absolutely no Biblical basis.
Must The Unsaved Confess Christ?
Yes and no. The unsaved person must have faith in Christ, and it is perfectly natural for him to express this conviction. But this does not support the notion that the sinner must make a formal, ritualistic confession - such as brethren often contend. Where is the passage that states this necessity? It is our custom to ask the penitent sinner: "Do you believe with all your heart that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?" Where is this traditional practice commanded in the Bible? (I was once criticized for not holding the person's hand while "taking his confession"! And, honestly, the critic felt the "confession" might not be Scriptural!)
Certainly Jesus declared, "Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32-33). This passage is used to support the notion of a formal confession in conversion, but it teaches nothing remotely resembling that.
In the passage just cited Jesus was not speaking of how a sinner must be saved. Rather He was addressing His apostles, whom he was sending on the limited commission. He warns them that they will confront adversities. He seeks to fortify them by assuring them of the Father's gracious and providential care. Under such adverse conditions, if they maintain courage to confess Christ, He will acknowledge them before the Father. But if their courage fails and they deny the Lord, He will also deny them. The context clearly shows this passage refers to the apostles, not the unsaved. It refers to the apostles' faithfulness under adversity, not to a "confession" made in one's being saved. How can we, therefore, wrest this text from its setting and assign to it a foreign meaning?
The meaning of the term "confess" is of value here. In commenting on the text above, W.E. Vine wrote: "Thus the statement...conveys the thought of confessing allegiance to Christ as one's Master and Lord." Barnes added:
"It means to acknowledge the Lord Jesus Christ, and our dependence on him for salvation, and our attachment to him, in every proper manner...The Scriptures mean, by a profession of religion, an exhibition of it in every circumstance of the life and before men. It is not merely one act that we must do it, but in every act."
Our lamented brother Lipscomb explained that confessing Christ does not refer to a single, ritualistic ceremony, but applies to the whole of the Christian life. So he wrote:
"Then it is necessary that at every step of the religious life, even after one has grown old in the service of the Lord, with the mouth confession is made unto salvation...By faith man is led forward every step in the path of righteousness, and at every step man must confess his faith in the Savior. It is necessary that confession of Christ should be made at all times or Christ will not own us."
If a formal, ceremonial confession is meant in the text, then why is not a formal, ceremonial denial meant? If to truly confess Christ one must stand before a group and recite a ritual, then to deny Christ must one publicly recite a ritual of his denial of Him? If "deny" in this text has the simple meaning of to "reject," why does not "confess" have the simple meaning of to "accept"? As a matter of fact, "confess" does mean just this, for the Greek word (homologeo) is defined as meaning "to assent, accord, agree with," or, if you please, to accept.
Numerous confessions are recorded in the New Testament, none of which were involved in those persons becoming saved. Those who made confessions of faith in Christ were: Nathanial (John 1:49), Peter (John 6:69; Matt. 16:16), Martha (John 11:27), Christ himself made "the good confession" before Pilate (I Tim. 6:13). In none of these cases is the "confession" made by an "alien sinner" in being saved. It is appropriate, therefore, to make a confession, profession, or affirmation of faith in situations other than being saved.
"But does not the Ethiopian experience establish that a confession of faith is essential to salvation?" (Acts 8:36-37). It does not, any more than Scripture reading is essential to one's conversion. The Ethiopian was doing both, and both were his ideas. Philip did not require him to make "a confession'' (did he hold his hand?), but required him to believe in Christ. How he expressed his faith was his own idea, just as Saul of Tarsus expressed his penitence by prayer and fasting. Why haven't we demanded sinners to pray and fast for three days like Saul? Isn't his case what we call "an approved apostolic example" also?
Another relevant passage is Romans 10:9-10, where Paul stated "with the mouth confession is made unto salvation." Does this not refer to the "formal confession" process made in becoming a Christian? Does this passage teach the essentiality of a formal confession in the saving process? If it does, then many brethren are wrong who state only that faith, repentance and baptism are the conditions of pardon. The fallacy of the claim that this refers to a condition of pardon to the alien is found in the fact that the verse does not address aliens. Paul was writing to Christians - the church at Rome! If we have been correct, also, in contending that the Great Commission contains the essentials of salvation, it is remarkable that it does not contain a "confession'' (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47). Did the Lord commit a gigantic blunder here in omitting "the confession"? Moreover, in telling sinners what to do to be saved, no inspired preacher ever required them to make a "confession." By what authority do we bind such a procedure today? Surely we have made the confession a formality, and the formality itself a condition of pardon.
In commenting upon Romans 10:9-10, the venerable R.L. Whiteside wrote:
"To believe in Christ is to recognize him for what he is - to put our full trust in him; to confess him is to pledge our allegiance to him. A mere lip confession is worthless. We must acknowledge him by word and deed as our Lord - our Prophet, Priest and King, as well as our Savior. This sort of confession brings us finally to eternal life, eternal salvation."
The Confession of Christians
It is our received custom for Christians also to make a formal, public acknowledgement of sins, and request prayers of brethren in his behalf. We have propounded the proverb that "the confession should be as public as the sin." And we, who emphatically avow that all things must be done in a Scriptural manner, seem not to realize that what we have here is just another of our human traditions! There is not a syllable of Scripture that requires a Christian to go before a congregation and make a public confession of his sins! While such may be appropriate in some cases, there is a distinction between what we may consider appropriate and what is scripturally demanded. The wayward Christian indeed needs to confess his sins, but this is to be done to God (1 John 1:9).
The case of Simon the Sorcerer comes instantly to mind, and appeal is made to it as a precedent for the confession of the sinful Christian (Acts 8:18-241. It will be noted, however, that Peter did not require him to go public with his sins, and make his confession before the church. In fact, Peter did not require him to "be restored" by making a "confession" at all! The very detail Peter did not do is what we read into the text that he did do! Peter did require Simon to repent that he may be forgiven. That's all. Period. Why do we make more of this?
Finally, we come to a classic case of misapplication of the Scriptures. We support the traditional notion of a public confession for wayward Christians by quoting that we should "confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another" (James 5:13-16). In our traditional application this means that a Christian who sins is required to "respond to the invitation" (another invented phrase), walk down the aisle before the congregation when it is assembled, sign a "response card," whisper a confession of guilt to the preacher, indicate a penitent spirit, and ask for the prayers of the church. Quite a complicated procedure altogether, to look so simple! After the prayer, it is presumed the sinner is forgiven and reformed, and he goes on his way rejoicing! This is not only a recommended procedure among us, it is required of those whose sin is publicly known, or the procedure is voluntarily conformed to by those whose sins are secret.
But is this what is taught in the text from James? Nothing could be further from it! The text has its setting in a private home, not in the publicity of a congregational assembly. It does not speak of one confessing his sins to another, like a wayward Christian to a preacher. It rather is discussing a mutual confession - of brethren to one another. It involves confessions and prayers of brethren to one another, not a unilateral confession.
Brethren, we have not been the acute Bible students we at times imagine. Let us dispose of mere traditionalism, and clumsy and invalid interpretations, and return to what the Lord has actually and clearly stated in His Word. -(Demetrius may be written in care of The Examiner. His mail will be forwarded to him. - CAH)