I can recall the events that occurred in music class as if they were yesterday, which is pretty remarkable considering how long ago they occurred. I was in third grade, and not feeling very well. Paying attention was difficult because of the nauseous feeling that had been coming on steadily. Then immediately after our teacher said, “Turn to page . . . (whatever it was)”, that was it. I vomited, right there, all over the floor in music class. I ran to the restroom immediately afterwards, but that was all there was. So I went back to the classroom. Our teacher had left to fetch the janitor, and all of my classmates were huddled over in the far corner of the room. No one wanted to come near me then (can you blame them?), despite my confessing to them that “I feel much better now,” as we waited for the janitor to come and tidy up the place. Of course, the school called my mother and I was sent home for the rest of the day.
That episode from my childhood came to mind while reading tomorrow’s assignment in the Institutes (3.4.12), along with one Puritan’s assertion that “repentance is the vomit of the soul” (was it Thomas Brooks or Thomas Watson who said that?).
Vomiting is not something a person really likes to do in public. I have never invited an audience to join me in the bathroom whenever I have a stomach virus, for instance, and I would have preferred much less company that day in music class, of all places! So likening repentance to “the vomit of the soul” helps convey a sense of how humiliating and humbling it is, especially when it comes to confession, which is just one crucial aspect of repentance.
Whenever the Spirit is at work convicting of sin and working true repentance, there is this inevitable desire to confess that sin at least to God, and sometimes to men. This is what Calvin sets before us in 3.4.12:
Let every believer, therefore, remember, that if in private he is so agonized and afflicted by a sense of his sins that he cannot obtain relief without the aid of others, it is his duty not to neglect the remedy which God provides for him—viz. to have recourse for relief to a private confession to his own pastor, and for consolation privately implore the assistance of him whose business it is, both in public and private, to solace the people of God with Gospel doctrine. But we are always to use moderation, lest in a matter as to which God prescribes no certain rule, our consciences be burdened with a certain yoke. Hence it follows first, that confession of this nature ought to be free so as not to be exacted of all, but only recommended to those who feel that they have need of it; and, secondly, even those who use it according to their necessity must neither be compelled by any precept, nor artfully induced to enumerate all their sins, but only in so far as they shall deem it for their interest, that they may obtain the full benefit of consolation. Faithful pastors, as they would both eschew tyranny in their ministry, and superstition in the people, must not only leave this liberty to churches, but defend and strenuously vindicate it.
I recall another day as an adult, when I made an appointment to go see my pastor to confess something to him I had never told another living soul. After having unburdened myself to him, unlike my classmates, he didn’t run to the opposite corner of the room. But rather, I experienced what Jacob described in Genesis 33:10. Upon meeting his brother Esau after years of estrangement and expecting nothing but wrath and fury, Jacob beheld the face of God in his brother’s mercy: “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me.” (ESV)
I love the words to the hymn, Approach My Soul, the Mercy Seat, wherein John Newton tells us how we may face our fierce accuser, Satan:
Bowed down beneath a load of sin, by Satan sorely pressed, by war without and fears within, I come to thee for rest.
Be thou my shield and hiding place, that, sheltered near thy side, I may my fierce accuser face, and tell him thou hast died.
O wondrous love! To bleed and die, to bear the cross and shame, that guilty sinners, such as I, might plead thy gracious name!
Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes: