Try Confession Without Repentance

Three years ago (this month) I repented to God for something dinky. I hadn’t stolen candy from a baby, oppressed a widow, or coveted a neighbor’s cow. I had simply failed to control my eating.

During the previous six months I had lost ten pounds. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, No u turnI found them again in cookies, pies, and chocolates (and only once in the hand of an infant).

So I prayed, “God, I’m sorry about my poor self-control; I’ll stop eating between meals, and I’ll stop buying those tempting snacks.” I sensed God sigh, “Stop!”

I thought, Okay, I get it. That’s not the only area I lack self-control, so I prayed, “God, so-and-so is irritating the heck out of me, and my thoughts are like untamed beasts. I will begin being patient and start to domesticate my mind.” And God said, “Stop!”

A flood of other uncontrolled areas came to mind, and I willed myself to do better. I felt God shout, “STOP!” This time I stopped, and this time I shut up.


What was so bad?

What was wrong with my repentance? I had acknowledged a measure of weakness and resolved to act better in the future. Isn’t that textbook confession and repentance? Isn’t that how we teach turning from our sins? Yes. And no.

I felt God ask me to pause in my moment of confession—before my repentance, before my change. I had briefly mentioned some weaknesses but then quickly moved on to my solutions. And God asked me to pause in my weakness and shame.

Because my repentance (commitment to change) was simply self-serving. Sure, I snuck in a humble confession, but then I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and told God how I would do better. I presented myself to God on the basis of my future behavior.

And I felt better about myself. I had plans. I had resolve. And it was a New Year. I was going to make something of myself. God would do well to forgive me. He’d be proud he backed me. If this was a horse race, I was a good bet. (If I lost those ten pounds again.)

I was covering my shame with plans for self-improvement. And God asked me to pause in the moment of confession; just to stop right there. Uncovered.

The never-ending audition

My self-serving repentance was little more than trying to get God to like me. And my pathetic promises for better behavior began to sound stale. Even to me.

It was like the longest job interview ever; a never-ending audition for the coveted role; seventeen years of dating with no engagement ring in sight. I was performing on stage before God, and I was stumbling over my lines.

Just stop right there

Pausing in confession—resting before resolving—does something everyone hates. It abandons all pretense to power. It means standing unclothed in front of the God of the universe, and just standing there naked. No willpower. No resolutions. No great ideas. No fig leaves. Just an inner abandonment of all our posturing.

We really hate this. Something inside us clamors for an air of worthiness, a sense of merit, a value we can contribute; convincing God that we’re a good bet, a sure thing.

We like the old adage, “It is better to give than receive.” It usually is. Except here, in this moment, when we come before God. We need to come empty, neither auditioning for a role nor interviewing for a job.

Let’s abandon our virtues

John Gerstner was a 20th Century Christian thinker and a family friend. He wrote:

The way to God is wide open. There is nothing standing between the sinner and God. There is nothing to hinder. Nothing can hold us back, except our “good works.” Nothing can keep us from Christ but the delusion that we do not need Him alone—that we have any good works of our own that can satisfy God.

All we need is need.

But, alas, we cannot part with our “virtues.” Even though they are imaginary; they are real to us. So it is grace that becomes unreal. The real grace of God we spurn in order to hold on to the illusory virtues of our own (Theology for Everyone, slightly edited).

Our imaginary virtues are the fig leaves we use to cover our shame. They become more real to us than the grace of God. But they are illusions. In some way, counter to all moralistic teaching, we need to abandon our virtues and stand naked before God.

The power of the pause

I’ve been learning to pause in my confession; to stop after admitting my failure; to rest before repenting. Like these Psalms,

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness. According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)

When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away by my groaning all day long. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:3 and 5)

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope. (Psalm 130:3-5)

The audition is over. Let’s remove the makeup and costumes; let’s quit acting the hero; and let’s come before God as we are. We can promise virtue to win his favor, or we can be virtuous because we already have it.

True repentance begins when we let go of self in naked confession, when we admit that even in our confession and repentance we need God.


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What do YOU think?

20 thoughts on “Try Confession Without Repentance

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking. I think that I have been guilty of a little legalism. Yesterday, I would have said that a confession without my decision to change was uneffective. I plan to start pausing after confession and ask for help with making any changes. Bless you.

    • Hi Bob,

      Thanks for joining in the discussion.

      I have to tell you, the last three years of “pausing in the confession” have been GREAT! (Although, at times, challenging.)

      I’m growing in intimacy with God, as I come empty not full (full of myself!).


  2. Another great encouragement toward Grace, Sam. We need to remember the story of Job and finally come to a place where we abandon our ‘goodness.’ Liberating, indeed. BTW, I like to think of repentance as a turning from inside to out; it’s an utter abandonment of the self within us and a clinging to Christ.

    • Hi C. David,

      Yes! The story of Job is a great reminder.

      I like your description of repentance. And (of course) I do not mean we should not repent.

      But maybe we should begin by repenting of our repentance.


  3. Wow. I find myself sitting here trying to wrap my brain around what I just read. I do the exact same thing – apologize to God and then immediately (and unconsciously) start plotting how I can get Him to like me again. Bob’s suggestion above is great – learn to pause after confession before the plotting begins!

    Thanks, Sam.

    • Well, I’m happy, because misery loves company!

      I think growing in grace is a lifetime of lessons. It’s weird, we keep thinking we’ve learned this one only to learn we’re barely scratching the surface.

      Thanks for joining the discussion.


  4. As usual, you get the wheels turning in my head. What this is indicating to me is perhaps repentance is getting in the way of confession. It’s like the confession part is really not done yet. It is indeed tempting to cut off the painful, deep drilling aspect of confession with the positive, corrective, and therefore satisfying aspects of yet another resolution to change. How many of us would meet a surgeon, describe all that we need fixed, then promptly dismiss him and thank him for his service? Confession is opening ourselves up. And we need to let the surgeon (God) do the examination and come up with a plan of action (the repentance). It seems our plan for repentance is only as good as our willpower to execute it; it seems God’s plan for repentance would be as good as his faithfulness. Thanks for the brain massage, Sam!

    • Hey Lou,

      If I can get those wheels turning, half my job is done!

      Great metaphor with the surgeon. Yes indeed, I think we are letting our “repentance” get in the way of our confession. I think we’re confusing them.



  5. A question came to mind as I read this, Sam. Is confession the path/journey to God? And repentance is not?

    In the parable Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the one who goes home justified before God is the Tax Collector, because he knows, and says, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ He doesn’t say, “O God, be merciful to me, for I have repented of my sin.”

    • Hey David,

      Great question. I think humility is the path to God. Frankly, the two great “sins” of the world are rejection of God’s ways, and self-righteousness.

      And neither are humble. They both crown themselves as king.

      Confession by it’s very nature–if done genuinely–means humility. (Unless it’s one of those fake confessions … like, “IF I offended anyone, I’m really sorry …. What a weasel confession).

      I think true heart change (and repentance at least means change) comes from humility not from simple willpower.

      Just like your parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

      And, truth be told, which kind of person would you rather be around?


  6. Sam, this is great. I’ve been wondering for a long time how to really repent of the ‘big sin’ in my life and what ‘repentance’ really even means.. I’m aware that I ENJOY my sin. I don’t want to give it up. But I need to.. And I know I’m wasting my time if I resolve to change, as I can’t change myself and I can’t sustain the effort. So I tend to confess where I’m at, and invite God in.. But I really wondered about the value of that, when I know I don’t really want to change. Your words have helped me see that it is valuable and that I need to spend more time lingering in that place.

    • Hi Josiah,

      When done aright, true confession is tough. If it doesn’t hurt, in some way we aren’t doing it right.

      Because true confession to God means the painful unveiling of our deepest secrets, the ones we are most ashamed of.

      So our confession will hurt. We can’t confess with self-justifying “I’ll do better” nor with self-justifying “It’s not my fault.”

      But as we let go of all self-justifying–admitting even our pleasure in the sin is shameful–God moves to change our hearts and to plant new, pure, good, noble desires in our hearts. We actually begin to love his ways.

      It’s a mystery, it’s a miracle; but God comes to live in this broken down home. And turn it into a castle.


  7. Love this, Sam. So important to let go of trying to clean ourselves up and simply be naked and needy before the Father. By the way, I am sorry I missed you on the Campfire Conversation a couple of weeks ago with Gary. I hope you are feeling better.

    • Hi Bill,

      Yes, much better thanks.

      We need to remember that our acceptance to the father’s face is through his grace not our efforts to clean ourselves: “According to your loving mercy, blot out my transgression.”

      But that doesn’t mean we should neglect morality. The world needs to be freed from oppression and self-centeredness. It just means we don’t rely on our moral efforts. We rely on his grace.


  8. Yes and no. Your article started out great. We so often try to make ourselves look good to God by promising to do better. We do need to stop and make a real confession. But your last line: “True repentance is letting go of self in naked confession. God does the rest.” is where I take issue.
    Repentance is a turning of our minds and desires away from ourselves and submitting them to God. True repentance is followed by obedience, otherwise we haven’t truly submitted. When we promise God to do better we are telling Him our plans, this is false repentance. True repentance means letting Him tell us what to do and obeying no matter what the cost.
    If when you say “God does the rest”, you mean He guides you, cleanses you, restores you, instructs you, etc. then I agree. BUT if you mean that God immediately takes away all consequences and personal responsibility to obey then I completely disagree, and so does the Word of God.

    • Steve,

      Good catch. I’ve changed my closing line (so readers of your comment might be confused).

      I agree that repentance is different than just confession, and my article was about confession. I mixed them up in my original closing line.