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Devotional Thought: Do We Really Need Confession Anymore?

Two theological issues initially drew me to the Nazarene church. One was the article of faith on Holy Scripture, and the other was the cardinal doctrine of Holiness. As with any doctrine considered foundational for a particular group, the doctrine of Holiness is vulnerable to overstatement and abuse. In the more reformed context in which I was raised, Holiness was understated to the point at which it was held that we cannot escape the inevitability of sin in the very next moment and every moment after that. The need for repentance was so constant that it became rote and almost meaningless.

In my new Nazarene context (now some 25 years old), Holiness has had a history of being overstated to the point at which sin is no longer an issue and we no longer need to be concerned with repentance. In our Nazarene Manual, the article of faith on Sin defines actual or personal sin with the familiar words "a voluntary violation of a known law of God." This is distinguished from, and not to be confused with, "involuntary and inescapable shortcomings, infirmities, faults, mistakes, failures, or other deviations from a standard of perfect conduct that are the residual effects of the Fall" (perhaps our great Nazarene scapegoat). The next sentence of the article refers to all of these as "innocent effects." This might be taken to mean that I do not need to concern myself with such involuntary infirmities. It is tempting to think that the next time I offend or hurt someone,
perhaps I can simply excuse myself with the defense that it was the result of an inescapable mistake or innocent infirmity on my part, likely due to a state of exhaustion or old age or some physical pain influencing my better judgment.

Next Wednesday is Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – on the Jewish calendar. The instructions for the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 have helped me to avoid the temptation of excusing myself for involuntary sins. It begins back in Leviticus 4 in which a series of instructions regarding the sin offering all begin with the qualification that the sin offering serves to atone "unintentional" sins! It is striking that all the instructions for the sin offering indicate that it serves to atone for "unintentional" sins. It begs the question, "what about deliberate sins," those "voluntary violations of a known law of God." It turns out, at first glance that the deliberate sins cannot even be atoned. Parallel instructions for the sin offering which are recorded in Numbers 15, also state that the sin offering is for "unintentional sins," but this passage adds the warning that those who sin defiantly shall be cut off and must bear their sin. In other words, defiant sins cannot be atoned!

These instructions turned upside my impressions of how to treat the two types of actions described in the Nazarene manual. Biblical law indicates that it is the mistakes and infirmities, the so-called "innocent effects" which can and must be atoned, while the deliberate sins, "voluntary violations of a known law of God," cannot even be atoned!

This insight is rather distressing, as it was for the early rabbis. They noticed that in Leviticus 5-6, sins that are clearly defiant and rebellious, were atoned by means of the appropriate sacrifice. Also, on the Day of Atonement, the terms for sins which are atoned that day include the word for defiant, intentional sin. So the Rabbi's ask, "How is it possible for the High Priest's bull to atone for his deliberate sins?" The answer they discovered in the biblical text is by means of confession and repentance. The Rabbis respond, "because he has confessed his brazen and rebellious deeds, it is as if they become as unintentional ones before him," and "Great is repentance, which converts intentional sins into unintentional ones" (Milgrom 1991, 373).

It is not so far-fetched to recognize that genuine confession and repentance can convert deliberate sin into unintentional sin, thereby making it eligible for have done, and in fact, we wish we had never done it – thus, our intention is reversed – the deed is now unintentional for us. It still needs atonement because we need to reconcile the damage we have done in relationship to God and others.

So, in light of all this, my understanding of Holiness has been brought into balance with the foundational importance of genuine repentance whenever sin erupts in my life.

Dr. Thomas J. King - NBC Director Bible and Theology Core Program:
A Devotional Given at the NBC Academic Council Meeting on Sept. 13, 2018

Filed Under: Blog Published: 09/18/2018

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