By Levi Bakerink, Academic Sales Representative
The concept of “confession” usually carries negative connotations. We confess feelings of guilt and shame to one another. If a defendant pleads guilty, it’s a confession of their crime. Within religious contexts, confession might bring images of cathedrals, booths, and acts of penance. Even the Foo Fighters’ confession in “Best of You” was a lament about unfortunate circumstances.
While confession certainly can and should include negative aspects, like admission of sin and guilt (1 John 1:8–10), it is much broader than that. In fact, confession, according to Herman Bavinck, “is a glorious word for a still more excellent and glorious thing” (30). Confession is glorious, not in and of itself, but because it points to someone who is. True confession, then, should not been seen as a reluctant task but a joyous proclamation. This declaration, that Jesus Christ is Lord, is the glorious confession about which Bavinck dedicates The Sacrifice of Praise. In his characteristic pastoral tone, Bavinck explores all the different applications of this confession in the believer’s life, but begins with the essence and foundation of this confession, upon which all believers’ hope rests.
The Essence of Confession
One can read all about the historical discussions and disputes that occasioned Bavinck to write The Sacrifice of Praise in the book’s introduction, but the great import of the book is to provide a clear and biblical understanding of confession for modern readers. This “glorious” confession is “nothing different from or less than someone’s public witness in word and deed of personal faith in Jesus as the Christ” (30). In this definition, Bavinck is communicating two important aspects of true confession. First, true confession is intimate—it comes from the heart. The Christian faith is a personal faith in a personal God who cares about each of us individually. Thus true confession always comes from a heart that is truly changed by God’s grace. Second, true confession is public. Faith does not live in isolation; it is a public declaration. Confession must be worked out in the community, in both word and deed or, as Bavinck would argue, it is not true confession. If the heart is truly changed, the result is the outworking of true confession. A good tree must bear good fruit.
This outworking is not simply evangelism; Bavinck argues it includes a holistic life change. Where once she was living for herself, now the Christian lives every area of her life in obedience to God for the glory of his name. This is the Christian’s calling in life; it’s the sacrifice we are all called to make, of which Bavinck derives the title of his book. In every area of our lives, in word and in deed, Christians are called to offer up sacrifices of praise which are the “fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). This is the essence of our confession.
Having established a biblical and concise definition of confession, Bavinck goes on to unpack the breadth of implications confession has for both the believer and unbeliever alike. Among many things, confession calls the sinner to repentance and obedience, instructs the church to raise children faithfully, strengthens the Christian in times of trial, and in everything bids all to deny themselves and carry their cross. But of all the important things confession does, two stood out to me during my reading.
Confession Reminds Us Who We Are
The great reformer Martin Luther described the Christian as one who is at the same time justified and a sinner. The Christian is a sinner, both born into sin and daily adding to it. But at the same time, he is justified, having been born again by the Spirit of God and washed clean of his sin by the atoning death of Christ. He is now justified before God, being united to Christ through faith. Yet, though new life is his, the Christian still wages war with sin until Christ’s return.
Confession helps keep both of these realities in perspective. Too easily we can forget one or the other and start believing, on the one hand, that our sin isn’t so bad, or on the other, that our sin is so great God is unable or unwilling to forgive. Both are horribly untrue, and we are constantly battling to stay on track without falling into either ditch. Confession keeps us on the path. It reminds us that we are simultaneously both the worst of sinners and justified by grace through faith (1 Tim 1:15).
When we daily confess Jesus as Lord, we are confessing the greatness of our sin and misery and our desperate need of a savior. As Bavinck writes, “If the saint knew the man in his inward existence and looked into the innermost depth of his heart, he would flee from him in an hour” (69). We confess only what Scripture teaches us to be true of ourselves, that our hearts are “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9). There is not a single area of our lives left unaffected by sin. Confession gives us the right perspective to see how ugly our sin really is.
The weight of this burden can and would crush us in despair, but our confession also reminds us of the greatness of our salvation. Bavinck continues his thought, “Therefore, the love of Christ—who knew what was in man and yet sought him and gave himself unto death on his behalf—is comparably great” (69). We are great sinners saved by an even greater God. Both are true, but both can be easily forgotten. By confessing this truth to ourselves, we are reminded of who we are in Christ.
Our confession would be pointless, however, if it wasn’t grounded in something greater than ourselves. If we had to rely on our own ability or our own righteousness to fix the mess of our lives, we certainly would be hopeless. But thankfully that work is not left to us, and God does not leave us to despair in our sin.
Confession Reminds Us Who God Is
The great mystery of the gospel is that God pursues us. When Adam and Eve, our first parents and creatures from the dirt, disobeyed the eternal, almighty God, instead of visiting the judgment of death immediately upon them, he once again sought them in the garden. It’s here, in the midst of this unimaginable act of rebellion, when God makes the first gospel proclamation, that the serpent would be crushed by the woman’s offspring (Gen 3:15). Instead of judgment, God promises grace, and it’s this promise that “stands at the head of the covenant that was established with Abraham. It shines above the law given to Israel and forms the main contents of the administration of the covenant of grace in the days of the Old Testament” (10). In other words, in all the stories in the Bible, God is threading a single, unified, grand redemptive story throughout, built on his promise to deliver his people from their sins and restore them to right relationship with him, culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus the Christ.
This foundation is the reason we can have confidence in our confession. The promise of God to save his people is the only sure foundation upon which we can find rest. Words are cheap. Especially our words. We’ve all experienced the pain of people falling through on their promises. But God is not like us. His words are not our words. A promise made between people can easily be broken, but the Word of God never fails.
To put it most simply, Bavinck writes, “What gift is greater than that of God himself?” (11). It’s this gift, this promise, this covenant, upon which we build our confession. It is not built upon anything in ourselves, anything we can achieve, any merit we can earn, or any goodness we can muster. “All our ability is from him. All genuine confessing comes from the faith of the heart, which is a gift of God, a fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit” (71). The foundation is God alone. It’s his goodness, his power, his righteousness, and his covenant promise that was made to his people.
Like “Come Thou Fount” sings, we are all prone to wander. We are all too quick to forget God’s promises to us, and when we do we easily despair because we are trying to carry a burden far too heavy for us. By confessing Jesus Christ as Lord, we daily remind ourselves of the greatness of God and his mercy to us that is both incredibly undeserved but unmistakably given.
All Will Confess
The Foo Fighters are not the only ones with another confession to make. Through what we say and what we leave unsaid—by are actions as well as our inaction—we confess what we believe. Some put their hope in the idols of wealth and career. Others seek happiness in the fleeting pleasures of the world. But for those of us who put our hope in Christ, what an unspeakable privilege and incredible joy that we can confess now freely what all, with every knee bowed, will one day confess in unison: “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Levi Bakerink is the Academic Sales Rep for Hendrickson Publishers. He has his M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently serves in a local church plant north of Boston. In addition to church planting, he is passionate about LA Rams football, good margaritas, and the Star Wars prequels. He proudly roots against Boston sports.
For more information about The Sacrifice of Praise, visit our website.
One thought on “Living All of Life to the Glory of God: Herman Bavinck’s Theology of Confession”
The Word of God was not only written to teach human beings and make them obey but also to fill them. Oftentimes, when people are feeling down and empty, the Word of God might exactly be the only thing that they need to refill their souls.