Clarification on Confession
To put it simply, the one who says, “I don’t need forgiveness,” is at odds with God and doesn’t get it.
|What is the place of confession of sin in the New Testament?
1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
I realize from the comments that I get that there are a lot of people who are confused about my position on confession of sin. They think that I don’t believe in confession at all or that I don’t think it’s appropriate to deal with sin–it doesn’t matter if we sin, we’re forgiven, so we don’t have to worry about it. I want to take a few minutes to express my understanding from the Bible on this particular issue.
There is a lot of confusion, I think, on the issue of confession. So I’d like to take a few minutes and address this issue. What is confession? What does the Greek word mean and how is it used in the New Testament? What does the concept of confession have to do with confession our sins? What results from confession of our sins to God and what role does confession play in the Christian life in resolving issues between God and man relevant to their sin, the times that they’ve broken God’s law?
Let me tell you how I resolved these questions. I went back to the Bible and found every single place where the word “confession” is used and I did an inductive study on what the Bible teaches on the concept of confession. In the New Testament there are 34 different usages of this word ” homologeo ,” which means literally “to speak the same thing.”
We have a problem in our culture and it has to do with words that have scriptural, spiritual meaning. The problem is that we have contemporary usages of words and we have biblical usages of words. Sometimes the definition in a contemporary sense is not the same as the definition in the scriptural sense. For example, we say “Repent.” What does “repent” mean? We say that repent means to turn from your sin. Well, that is the common evangelical definition of the word repent. But that is not what the word repent means in the New Testament. It simply means “to have a change of mind.” “Repent” needs an object. So the text may say, “Repent of sin,” or it may say, “Repent towards God.” One commands to change your mind or have a change of life or action about sin, which would be turning from sin. The other commands change your mind about God, and particular sin is not in view.
The point I’m making is that we have to be careful about importing our popularized definition of words. We have to be careful about taking out twentieth century definitions of words and exporting that 2000 years back into the text when the words in the text don’t necessarily mean what we mean now when we use them.
So, what does “confess” mean? We think confess means that we’re sorry for our sins, that we tell our sins to God and ask Him for forgiveness. However, the word is used 34 times in the New Testament and only four of the 34 times is sin in view. Fourteen times the word confess is used to refer to Jesus or the Gospel. We confess Jesus before men or we confess the Gospel. Two times it’s used to acknowledge God. Seven times it’s used simply to state something (Jesus said, “Then I will declare to them ‘I never knew you. Depart from me you who practice lawlessness.'”) The word declare is ” homologeo .” It means “to confess, to speak the same thing.”
There are actually two different forms of the word. One is ” homologeo” and one is ” exhomologeo .” Homologeo means “to speak the same thing.” Exhomologeo has the prefix “ex-” which mean “out” and it means “to speak out the same things.” “Homologeo” is confession and the only place in the New Testament where ” homologeo ” is used related to sin is 1 John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The word exhomologeo, “to speak out the same thing,” is used three times regarding sin in the New Testament. So we only have four references of confessing sin in the New Testament. Three of them relate to speaking out the same thing, speaking out a confession, in other words a public confession of sin.
We see in Matthew 3:6 that when John was baptizing, the people were confessing their sins. They were speaking out the same things, ” exhomologeo .” In Mark 1:5 we see a parallel passage with the same event. In James 5:16 it says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another,” speak out the same thing regarding your sins, “and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” The point being, three references to confession of sin: one is private confession in 1 John 1:9; one is public confession of sins with John the Baptist recorded in Matthew 3:6 and Mark 1:5; and finally, the public confession of sins that we see in James 5:16.
Now the question that I have to ask is: do these verses support the popular notion about confession that when we sin we must confess sin to God in order to be forgiven and must we confess our sins before God in order to have prayer with God? In other words, if we’re Christians and we come to prayer, do we, to use a popular term, exhale our sins through confession to clear the board and then inhale the Holy Spirit so then we can talk to God? That is a popular teaching and a lot of people go through that. They use the acronym ACTS-adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication-for their prayer time.
My question is simply: is it a biblically enjoined practice to list your sins and reflect on your sins before you go to prayer before God?
My conviction is this. There is a place for confession of sin–the Scripture talks about it clearly in three different places–but ongoing confession does not keep Christians forgiven because forgiveness is a past event not an ongoing process. Secondly, there is no scriptural injunction that we list our sins before we pray and offer our requests to God. In fact, I think it’s counterproductive to a healthy Christian life.
I’ll tell you why, from the text, step by step. Keep in mind that in order to answer the question biblically we must answer it from the Bible. So we go back to the New Testament references to confessing sin and simply look at those passages and we draw our conclusions from those passages.
1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
This verse is the most obvious one and therefore the best place to start.
Now I admit that if we take this verse in isolation, we could conclude that when Christians confess sin, that is, when they list their offenses against God, itemizing the ways they’ve disobeyed Him, then they are cleansed and forgiven before Him. That seems to be the most straightforward reading of the text. Most Christians accept this, even teaching it is necessary (or at least desirable) to confess regularly to God before they pray in order to open the channels, so to speak, between them and the Lord.
If that is the accurate view–and that is the view of those who object to my position on this–then this view creates two conflicts for me. First. if this verse teaches that we are supposed to confess our sins on an ongoing basis as Christians, then it also teaches that it is necessary to confess in order to be forgiven. If we don’t confess, then we aren’t forgiven. Those are the words of the text.
Most hold that Christians are supposed to confess their sins before they come into God’s presence in prayer, but then they’ll admit that Christians are already forgiven even if they don’t confess. However, the verse as it stands doesn’t allow that flexibility. If we’re obliged to confess, as this verse commands, then confession is necessarily linked to forgiveness. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t split it in half and say the first part applies but the second part doesn’t. Those who view the text this way are caught in a “textual two-step,” talking out of both sides of their mouths. The second concern I have is similar. What’s the point of 1 John 2:1? This verse immediately follows 1 John 1:9; if you remove the chapter break it reads continuously. It says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”
It seems to imply that for Christians–and I think Christians are clearly in view here because he used the endearment “little children”–the secure antidote for sin is the advocacy of Jesus acting as a defense counselor for us.
I now have to ask this question: Is Jesus’ advocacy dependent upon our day-to-day confession of sin, or is it independent of it? If it’s dependent on our confession of sin, we have a problem. Sin is only forgiven as we confess; Jesus is our advocate only as we list our transgressions and take them before Him. But the New Testament teaches that He has already forgiven us all our transgressions (Col 2:13), that God will never remember our sins or lawless deeds again (Hebrews 10:17).
These two issues caused me to take a closer look at the passage as a whole. It’s fine to take the verse at face value if it doesn’t conflict with other verses. But once we see a conflict with other verses then we have to step back and ask if maybe what seems obvious at first glance might not be mistaken after deeper scrutiny.
This is an example of interpreting the unclear in light of the clear. We have clear teaching in a number of places in the New Testament that our forgiveness is a one time event, that it’s done when we confess that Jesus is our Lord, when Jesus comes into our life we enter into eternal life, that our sins and transgressions God remembers no more, then how is that we can interpret 1 John 1:9 that we must confess in order to be forgiven if, in fact, we are forgiven already?
I took a closer look at the passage in context and when I did, I began to see the first chapter of 1 John in a different light. I noticed that in the first four verses, John is making an appeal for people to have fellowship with him and with God through Jesus Christ. Keep in mind that fellowship in this passage means regeneration, salvation. It does not mean the kind of thing that we mean when we say we’re in fellowship with God and we’re out of fellowship with God. According to John, a person in fellowship with God has the blood of Christ cleansing him from all of his sins. The word fellowship when applied between God and man in the New Testament is synonymous with salvation. John invites us to saving fellowship with Jesus Christ and he says that his appeal is valid, he points out, because he was an eyewitness to Jesus’ earthly ministry and teaching. In other words, he knows that what he’s saying is true.
Basically, John is beginning his letter with a simple defense for the faith: “I’ve been with Jesus. I’ve seen Him. I’ve put my faith in Him and know Him. You can do that too.” This first section is strongly evangelistic, it is addressing the non-Christian contingent of his readers: “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus the Messiah.” Now that’s an evangelistic thrust.
But why be evangelistic to Christians? Isn’t he speaking to believers here? Well, the answer is yes and no. He is writing to Christians but like any good preacher he knows that his audience is mixed. Every preacher on Sunday has a mixed audience. He addresses some of his comments to Christians and he addresses some of his comments to non-Christians and basically says, “If the shoe fits wear it.” John, I think, is doing that here. I can say that because his first statements seem to make a very straight forward evangelistic appeal.
In verse 5 John announces the message he has received from Jesus (v3). John tells us about the character of God, that God is without sin. Those who know Him must not habitually live in sin either. He promises, however, in verse 7 that if we do walk with Him “in the light” then we will be cleansed of all sin through the blood of Christ. 
There is a catch, however. In order to be cleansed of your sin through Christ Jesus, you must first admit your need before you can be helped. To say that you have no sin is untruthful and self-deceptive (v8). The alternative to saying you have no sin is to confess your sins, resulting in cleansing (v9). That’s where I think verse 9 fits in.
I think that in verses 5-9 John continues his evangelistic appeal. He’s already invited people to have fellowship with God and walk in the light so their sins might be cleansed (i.e., salvation), and explains that walking in the light entails not living in sin.
The first step in that process is acknowledging our sin ( homologeo : to confess, agree, lit. “to speak the same thing”). If we come into relationship with God we will be cleansed, but that requires that we acknowledge our need for cleansing. If we don’t acknowledge that we need cleansing, that we have sinned, then the truth is not in us. But if we do agree that we have sinned (and here is where verse 9 comes in), then God will forgive us and cleanse us from all our unrighteousness.
This chapter is not speaking, in my view, of a Christian’s ongoing relationship with God but of a person who is being asked to enter into a relationship with God based first of all on John’s eyewitness testimony of Jesus, secondly on the reality that God is without sin, thirdly on the reality that we all have sinned, and fourth, on the final promise that if we acknowledge our sinfulness and confess our sin, we can enter into that relationship, that fellowship with God based on the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
To put it simply, friends, as I look through chapter 1, I realize verse 9 creates a problem if I understand that it applies to Christians as it stands because it violates other Scriptures. So I look closely at the chapter and I see a very strong evangelistic thrust in John’s first chapter and I draw the conclusion from the words that John uses that he is not addressing Christians in particular here. He is addressing people who need Jesus. He’s saying that Jesus will forgive your sins and you can have fellowship with Him, but you must acknowledge that you are a sinner. If you don’t, the truth is not in you and you call God a liar. And now my paraphrase of verse 9: If you confess or say the same thing with God, that you are a sinner, then He will forgive your sins and cleanse you of all unrighteousness.
Then he goes on in chapter 2 with what the Christian antidote to sin is, that is Jesus Christ. In chapter 2, John specifically addresses Christians (“My little children”). He writes what follows in order that Christians not fall into sin, but then assures them that if they do sin they have forgiveness, not as a result of ongoing sin-listing and continued requests for forgiveness, but simply by the fact that they have an advocate with the Father in Jesus. Jesus is the full satisfaction (propitiation) for all their sins, and He is an advocate that is so adequate He is capable of making complete defense for sins for every single person in the world (v2).
Another way of putting it is that Christians are ones who are acknowledging sinfulness before God. We are the kind of people who say, “Yes, we are sinners and we need Him.” And because of their admission they are experiencing cleansing. Non-Christians are those that don’t acknowledge their need and therefore aren’t cleansed.
However, admitting our sinfulness doesn’t imply that we are verbalizing a tally of our current transgressions. This passage deals with the issue of cleansing and what is necessary for cleansing. John is simply saying, in my view, that some say they have no sin and make God a liar, whereas the Christian continually acknowledges his sinfulness, is continually aware of his need for God’s forgiveness and, as such, is a person God has forgiven and is continually cleansing.
To put it simply, the one who says, “I don’t need forgiveness,” is at odds with God and doesn’t get it. Alternatively, the Christian is forgiven because he says, “I continually need forgiveness because I’m continually sinning, but I have confidence of continual cleansing because I continually have an advocate in Jesus.”
Now that’s 1 John 1:9. There is no hint there that confession helps improve out existential relationship with God, our daily “walk” with Him. It doesn’t even talk about that. I think that explanation is offered as sort of “textual two-step” to get around the clear wording of the passage that implies that if you don’t confess then you’re not forgiven. Christians can’t have it both ways. I think that this is a better way of looking at it.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
James 5:16 has to do with speaking out our sins. This is an important passage in the area of confessed sin. It relates to a public confession of sin ( exhomologeo , to speak out the same things), as do Mark 1:5 and Matthew 3:6 (incidentally, I want to re-emphasize that these four verses are the only New Testament references to confessing sin ).
The question really has to do with what James means by “healed” here? There are four possibilities: physical healing, emotional healing, healing of relationship or, in the case of one just coming to Christ, spiritual healing, that is, forgiveness of sin (mentioned in the previous verse). Any of those things could be in view, theoretically.
There are places in the Scripture where it appears that sin actually produces illness (e.g., 1 Cor 11:30). Confession in this case would lead to health. Problems in relationships are healed when one party confesses to the person that he has wronged. There is also a powerful emotional impact when we take a private sin and make it public, even if only one other person learns about it. It seems to relieve a tremendous emotional burden from our hearts and gives us an increased ability to repent. It seems to take the teeth out of the temptation.
Another passage that’s really important is Hebrews 10. This passage doesn’t deal directly with confession, but it does say something very important about the New Covenant and the issue of drawing near to God in prayer.
The writer of this book points out that one of the functions of the Law was to constantly remind us of our sins. You should read Hebrews 10, it’s a wonderful, wonderful chapter. He notes that this reminder was prima facie evidence–evidence on the face of it–that forgiveness and cleansing were not complete. In other words, continual sacrifices reminded us that forgiveness and cleansing weren’t complete. Then he says, “Otherwise, would [sacrifices] not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins?” (v2)
Earlier in chapter 9:13ff, the writer argues that the blood of goats and bulls cleansed the flesh, but the blood of Christ cleanses the conscience . That same word again. That’s important.
The conclusion I draw is that because the sacrifice of Christ was complete, we no longer need a reminder of sins, instead, our consciences can be clean before God. That seems to be God’s conclusion, too. Later in the chapter it says, “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more ” (v17), and “Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience ” (v22).
If those things are true, why is it desirable to remind ourselves of our sins and burden our consciences with our error when God has gone to a great deal of trouble to do exactly the opposite? Why do we keep making ourselves feel miserable by reminding ourselves how awful we are? That was a function of the Law that is now done away with. God says in Hebrews 10 that we are cleansed even of an evil conscience, so we don’t need that continual reminder of sins. In fact, God Himself has judicially forgotten all of our sins.
Putting it all together
Let’s put this all together, now. How does all of this “theology” work itself out in practice?
First, God wants us to come into relationship with Him, and this is the application for those of you who don’t consider yourselves Christians, or maybe you’re on the cusp and you’re thinking about Christianity. Let me tell you what the Bible says about your condition. God wants us to come into relationship with Him and to live a life that is characterized by godliness. Those that are in fellowship with Him, that is, those who are rescued from their sin and forgiven are continually cleansed by the blood of Christ. It’s an ongoing process. 1 John 1:7 makes that clear.
In order to join with God we must not deny that we have sinned. We can’t just keep going around saying we don’t have anything to be sorry for. “I’ve never done anything wrong.” “I’m basically a good person.” Friend, if you’re in that position the Apostle John says that you are calling God a liar because God says you have sinned. And it’s pretty hard to be reconciled with God by calling Him a liar. So the first thing you must not do is deny your need of forgiveness.
Instead you must confess your sin, you must acknowledge that you are a sinner, that you’ve broken God’s Law. The acknowledgment can be a general one or you can talk about specifics. That’s fine too. You can get down on your face and say, “God, I have done this and this,” and spend as much time as you need there to get that all out. That confession may be private (1 John 1:9) or public (Mk 1:5, James 5:16). You can make a public confession of your sins.
As Christians we are people who characteristically walk in holiness. You seek to live righteously. That’s what John says in 1 John 1:6. Even so we are continually acknowledging that we are sinners in need of God’s continual cleansing (1 John 1:9). If anyone comes to me at any particular time, I can’t look down my self-righteous nose at them and say I’ve got it together and they don’t because I am a person who continually sins everyday. I’m getting better. I’m not sinning as much as I used to and that’s to God’s credit as He has changed my life. But the fact is, I still need forgiveness. Christians are people who acknowledge that. They are people who sin as well. So we’re in the same boat as anybody else.
I also have the same confidence that when we sin as Christians, God is faithful to bring that sin to our awareness through conviction in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (John 16:8). The Holy Spirit convicts of sin and righteousness and judgment. Also the conviction comes through the Word (Hebrews 4:12). “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.” Or through other Christians as in Gal 6:1. God will bring sin to our awareness by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, by other Christians, and through the Word. And when He does, we agree with God that this is sin and also agree with Him that He has cleansed us from it through the blood of Jesus.
When the Holy Spirit makes us aware of failure then we deal with it. “God, I realize that I shouldn’t have said what I said or did what I did.” We immediately take steps to turn from that sin. That’s why I hold that repentance, not sin listing, is the appropriate biblical response to sin. God makes us aware of it, we agree with God–call it your confession if you want–we acknowledge with God that He has forgiven us of our wrong doing and we take immediate steps to turn from that. That’s the Christian antidote for the practice of sin.
The conviction of sin may be accompanied by feelings of remorse over what we’ve done. This remorse is a work of the Holy Spirit. The flesh can’t produce it. Sometimes we feel very sorry. But other times we may feel almost nothing. However, we turn from sin not because we feel it’s wrong, but because it is wrong, not because we feel guilty, but because we are guilty. There is no need, I believe, to take our “guilt temperature” before we act in obedience, repenting from something we know is wrong. If God says it’s wrong, even if we feel good about it, it’s still right to turn from it. Some would suggest that you’re not truly confessing and repenting unless you feel absolutely miserable. The Scripture doesn’t indicate that’s a requirement. It just says we should repent. That’s an act of our will, not of our emotion.
As we come to God in prayer, we don’t focus introspectively to increase our conscious awareness of our sins as the Law used to do. Part of the work of the cross is actually to remove our conscious awareness of sin and replace it with confidence of acceptance. That’s the point of the Hebrews 10 passage. We focus, rather, on God’s forgiveness, coming before the throne with the full confidence and assurance of faith knowing that God has faithfully cleansed us even of an evil conscience. That’s what Hebrews 10:19-22 says. We have full assurance of faith and we can come before Him because we know that He has cleansed us.
In all circumstances we know and are assured of God’s continued faithful forgiveness of us in any circumstance because Jesus is always there as our defense council (1 John 2:1-2).
In this viewpoint there is no hint of license to sin here because the reality is that those who are walking with God in new birth are characteristically growing in holiness and are not seeking to walk in darkness and in sin. They have died to sin and have been raised up in a new life, as Paul says in Rom 6:1-11.
The practice of listing and reviewing our sins before we have conversation with God is not, as far as I can determine, a New Testament teaching nor is it promoted in the text as a Christian discipline. In fact, I would argue that Hebrews 10 seems to indicate this was a negative function of the Law that can actually work against our sense of closeness with God and our boldness in coming before the throne.
I also don’t see any indication of a scouring self examination to find all the places that we’ve fallen short of God’s expectations. As far as I can tell, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to examine us. When we go before the Lord and He makes us aware of something then we deal with it, we don’t ignore it. But we don’t have to go looking for things to feel bad about in God’s presence.
That’s my view. If you disagree with this, you’re certainly at liberty to do so. But please, scour the text yourself and find out in what ways my analysis is not biblical. I realize that what I’ve said is not in step with the belief of the current rank and file evangelical on this issue. But my request is that you examine my analysis biblically and examine the evangelical frame of mind biblically because I don’t think that frame of mind holds up under rigorous examination.
 Note that the terms “in fellowship” with God and “walking in the light” have a different definition in modern evangelicalism than John is using here. We use the term to mean living a spiritual life, not a fleshly one, being experientially tight with God as opposed to backsliding. That is not what John has in mind. In this passage, having fellowship with God and walking in the light are both synonymous with salvation. All people who are born again are in fellowship with God, regardless of the current existential state of their growth. Technically, a Christian is never “in the flesh” either. All people who have the Spirit of God living in them are not in the flesh but in the Spirit by definition (see Romans 8:9).
There are two Greek words for confession, homologeo and exhomologeo. Both mean “to speak the same thing.”
Confess/Confession; homologeo – to speak the same thing
Usage: Confessing sin
Usage: Referring to Jesus or the gospel
Usage: Acknowledging to God
Usage: To state something
Usage: To give thanks
Confess/Confession; exhomologeo – to speak out the same things
Usage: Confessing sin
Usage: Referring to Jesus
Usage: Acknowledging to God
Usage: To agree to do something
Usage: To speak out
Usage: Praising God