And they were baptized by John in the Jordan river, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:7)
Confession can mean a lot of things, but at its core it just means to name something, and to do so openly. The Greek word translated as “confessing” in Matthew 3:7 is a conglomeration of roots that mean something like “out,” “together,” and “word.” (The meanings of Greek words, like English ones, are not always exactly equal to the sum of their parts, but the parts usually still provide some useful clues.)
A close relative of this word, which is made up of just “together” and “word,” is used more often in the New Testament. It is what Jesus uses when he says, whoever acknowledges (confesses) me before others, I will also acknowledge (confess) before my father in heaven (Matthew 10:32). It is what Paul uses when he writes, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9). Jesus wants to be named and acknowledged before others, and Paul wants people to speak and believe that Jesus is Lord.
Similarly, the people who confessed by the Jordan river were just naming their sins. They were acknowledging the wrongs they had done, in all of the ugly, awkward, painful specificity of these wrongs. I don’t know exactly how public these confessions were. I don’t know if people mumbled under their breath, ashamed, or if they shouted out so that the whole crowd could hear―or maybe some of each, depending on things like personality or perceived gravity of sin―but the confessions were put out there in some way. It was not just a silent time of personal prayer but, in some way, a shared communal experience.
When I think about these people being baptized by John in the Jordan and confessing out their sins―braving acknowledging and bluntly naming the specific ways they had failed to love God and people―I think of the courage it takes to do that. And, in contrast, I think of confessions I have heard, or heard about, that are not at all brave or blunt. Attempts at apologies that are in fact completely inadequate and unsatisfying.
I think of the various “apologies” high-profile men have offered when confronted with their actions over the course of the #metoo movement. Things like “I’m sorry if you took my comment that way,” or “I’m sorry if so-and-so didn’t think that what we did was consensual.”
I think about Matt Chandler, who is the lead pastor at an influential megachurch in Texas called The Village Church. A few months ago, Chandler addressed fellow Southern Baptist church leaders regarding his church’s gross mishandling of a woman’s accusations of child sexual abuse by a church leader, saying that The Village Church is “an imperfect church with imperfect people,” and “I’m not sure what we could have done different” (quotes are from this article).
These kinds of statements are so distant from any sort of real confession. They don’t actually name any wrongdoing. The people who speak and write them care much more about trying to clear their own public image and avoid legal repercussions than about taking ownership, understanding how they hurt someone, changing their ways, and, in the cases where it makes sense and is possible, seeking actual reconciliation and restoration of relationship.
These might seem like some very basic, obvious things; but in a world teeming with examples of just the opposite, they need to be said. Where there is no real confession, no real naming of the wrong and acknowledgment of the trauma it has caused, there is no integrity, no discipleship, no fidelity to God’s Word―none of the things Christians and churches and Christian leaders say they are all about.
The little faith community that formed around John the Baptist by the river did not require anything from people, but invited them to confess―really confess―and experience the joy and relief that comes from naming sin and facing up to it. Even, and perhaps especially, when confession might have held real and significant relational or social consequences, setting some of these people on a difficult path.
God is still near to those willing to speak these kinds of brave words. The kingdom of heaven still comes near.