My views on confession as a practice of the Christian life have been shaped–and justifiably so–by Augustine’s masterful and penetrating performance of them.

For Augustine, confession is much more than articulating our sins to God and to others.  In his hands, confession is a lived dynamic of praise and penitence, a movement of the soul to open itself to the powerful presence of the Triune God.

As such, it is a practice that is hardly individualistic (though oft accused of being such), but rather involves and implicates the whole created order which finds its center in the lived body of Jesus Christ and in the redemption of sinners.  Hence Augustine’s unremitting focus on the creation story within what otherwise might look like a spiritual biography.

The double nature of Augustinian confession–prayer and penitence–moves it as a practice away from its contemporary heirs which tend to reduce it to a means of ridding the soul of its growths and tumors.  In such hands, confessions becomes a defensive action against sin, rather than an expression of the center of man’s being.

And it is that.  But when it is only that, confessing is takes the tone of a drab and suffocating moralism.

But Karl Barth will–not surprisingly, to those who have read him–have none of that.  Like Augustine, his understanding of confession is broader than the acknowledgment of sin, even if it comes out of a very different framework.  He writes:

“[The man who confesses] aims at no results nor expects none.  But he confesses because God is God and governs and does all things well, and because he knows this and therefore cannot keep silence.  Confession is a serious act; but in its freedom from purpose it has more of the nature of a game or song than of work or warfare. For this reason confession will always cause head-shaking among serious people who do not know the particular seriousness of confession.  Why?  they will ask themselves and us, and the more seriously we confess, the less will they find an answer, for as confessors we are not concerned with any end but only with the honour of God.

For Barth, the only end of confession that prevents it from eroding is God, and the bestowing of honor upon him.  Because of that, he is able to sound a decidedly Augustinian note:

In [confession] there is no question of avowing or “expressing” something or other which belongs or supposedly belongs to man, but of replying to something alien that has been perceived, of giving back, or more precisely receipting something that has come to man from without.

To correct an earlier line, inasmuch as confession is a practice of the Christian life, it must be man’s response to the address of God, the insuppressible voicing of the glory that we are shown.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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  1. Both as a former evangelical and as a current Roman Catholic, I cannot see how confession could possibly be construed as being “free from purpose”.

    I study some medieval nominalist theologians whom Barth could shake hands with on at least the issue of divine freedom. Applied to confession, this means that according to divine power confession isn’t needed, and this for two reasons. First, because the conversion of the sinner isn’t needed for God to go on being God; but second, because God could still forgive without confession (even if God couldn’t make someone blessed without confession). In this sense confession is free from purpose: the end achieved through confession could have been achieved through some other means.

    But an activity could have a natural end even if it’s not the only means for achieving that end. In this sense confession is not free from purpose, and also in this sense Barth is clearly in the grips of ideology when he says that the only end we are concerned with (or should be) in confession is the honor of God. The penitent sinner wants to be free from sin and wants to go to heaven, and these are good desires to have, even if they are incomplete. In the act of contrition said at Roman confessions, we say, “I repent of of all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend thee, who art all good and worthy of all my love.” In confession we are all humanists as well as God-honorers (or should be), partly because God himself is a humanist, and we honor him by becoming saints.

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