As we talk about prayer, I would like to consider the prayer of confession. We know sin separates us from God; we know we sin . . . we need to know how to genuinely and effectively deal with that reality.
How does God want us to handle sin and regret? Sometimes I have felt caught between two unsatisfactory choices:
1. Just say sorry, accept grace, and forget about it (which seems to show so little regard for the feelings of God and others)
2. Feel badly and be ineffective in ministry for a certain time period afterward (which seems very close to trying to atone for my own sin).
The first choice seems so cavalier—it doesn’t take sin seriously. And we know sin was so serious that Jesus had to actually die for it. In addition, although forgiveness may be instant, it seems unlikely we can be holy without consistency.
God repeatedly calls His people to cleave to Him in love, faith, and obedience. Jesus said abide/remain in me (John 15). He said that if we obey his commandments He will reveal Himself to us (John 14:21). Surely that is a key goal of prayer.
We also want to be useful vessels set apart for holy purposes. 2 Timothy 2:20–22 explains that can only happen with holiness . . . and it links that to prayer.
We need to “call on him with a pure heart.” Even under the old covenant they knew it took clean hands and a pure heart to draw near to God (Psalm 24:3,4). On the other hand we don’t want to miss the reality and immensity of God’s grace. If we feel we need to do something to merit forgiveness, we have returned to the law which said we needed to make a sacrifice to atone for our sin.
God promises to not just forgive our sins, but to un-attach them from us so thoroughly that they are as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). He promises that we can stand before Him completely accepted, clothed in his righteousness.
So how can I reconcile these two truths: the seriousness of sin, and the completeness of Christ’s atonement . . .without sacrifice on my part?
I wonder if the key is repentance. Instead of withdrawing from God when we sin, confession brings us to Him, recognizing our failure.
Genuine repentance is God’s process for both dealing with the reality of sin and applying the grace paid for by Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. Confession is the means of grace for both forgiveness and purification—in other words, it is God’s way of removing both the stain of sin and the inner weakness that allowed it to surface.