The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for ‘confess’ is yadah meaning to bemoan or make confession. The Greek word used in the New Testament for ‘confess’ is homologeo meaning ‘to say the same thing.’ We can confess truths with our mouth what we believe in our heart (Rom.10:9). We also confess our sins which is to acknowledge that we have sinned towards God or man (1Jn.1:9). Since God looks at our heart, merely stating something, with our mouths without being convinced or convicted of it in our heart, won’t do.
Confession And Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a free gift that God gives us because His Son has taken the punishment for the sins of the whole world (Jn.3:16,17;1Jn.2:2). We can receive this gift through faith (Eph.2:8,9), which means acknowledging ourselves as sinners who need forgiveness and Jesus as our Saviour who has procured forgiveness for us through His death. It is our faith that brings forgiveness and ‘justification’ (which is to be counted by God as being righteous), and confessing this faith with our mouth makes a declaration of it, and strengthens our spiritual life, helping us to experience more of salvation (Rom.10:9,10).
As a matter of fact, no one can manage to confess all his sins! When we understand that ‘sin’ is to come short of the perfection of God (Rom.3:23), we realise that we have sinned in so many ways. We have sometimes sinned knowing that we were doing wrong, and we have sometimes sinned not even realising that we were doing wrong from God’s point of view! We have done wrong things, and we have also failed to do the right things (sins of commission and omission)! None of us can even be aware of all our sins or remember all of them. If forgiveness of sins was dependent on confessing all our sins individually, none of us could be forgiven. It is a practical impossibility!
Confession of sin is an acknowledgment that we have sinned. If we look at the Old Testament instructions regarding sacrifices for sins, we see that God wants us to acknowledge and confess our sins whenever we become aware that we have sinned (Lev.4:22,23). How does this apply to us under the new covenant?
The sacrifice that Jesus has made covers all the sins of people who lived before this sacrifice, such as Abraham, who receive forgiveness because of their relationship with God through faith (Rom.4:9). The sacrifices for sin ordered through Moses were not capable by themselves to forgive sins, but they were looking forward to the time when Jesus would be offered as a one-time sacrifice for all people. We who live centuries later can have our sins forgiven because of the timeless effectiveness of that sacrifice. But at the same time, just because Jesus has made a sacrifice for all sins of all time, all people do not receive forgiveness, but only those who come to God through faith in Jesus. We can say that Jesus’ sacrifice made forgiveness potentially available for all people for all time, but only those who repent of their sins and believe in Jesus (both are parts of true faith) will actually receive it. So confession of sin is a requirement for receiving forgiveness, because that is what demonstrates our faith.
Process Of Confession
Jesus compared the process of salvation to two main steps, entering through a narrow gate, and then walking through a narrow way (Matt.7:13,14). Entering through the gate represents making a clear choice of repenting from sins and turning to God through Jesus. Walking on the way is a daily (and life-long) experience of following Jesus, denying ourselves and obeying Him (Lk.9:23). We then confess the specific sins we fall into as we walk along this way.
When we first come to Jesus, we confess that we are sinners who really deserve death and we are so thankful that He has made a way for us to be forgiven. Then God washes away all our sins with the blood of Jesus, and ‘justifies’ us before Him as ‘righteous’ people by crediting the righteousness of Jesus to our account. What is required at this point is not the confession of each individual sin that we have committed in our life (which is impossible), but an acknowledgment that we are sinners who need Jesus as our Saviour. We may also actually confess many sins that come to our mind. We also decide to make restitution, e.g., apologise to people we have wronged, return things we have stolen, etc., which shows that our repentance is genuine (Matt.3:8).
Jesus has died once for all for the sins of the whole world (1Jn.2:2), which includes all the sins that had been committed till then and also all the sins that would be committed after that! When God forgives us and counts us righteous through our faith in Jesus, He wipes away the record of our former sins and makes it white as snow (Isa.1:18). God forgives not only the specific sins that we have confessed, but also those which we are not aware of. This covers all our ‘former’ sins (Rom.3:25;2Pet.1:9). But as we go on with life, we need to confess our sins and appropriate the forgiveness that is already there for us. When we confess all our sins to God (and to people we have sinned against), He forgives us and cleanses us (1Jn.1:9). This also restores the fellowship that got broken because of sin.
Practical Aspects Of Confession
We need to confess our sins whenever we become aware of them. We cannot act as if there is no sin for us to confess (1Jn.1:8). By confessing specific sins, we are also acknowledging that we are still sinners who need God’s grace over us. God accepts that to cover even sins we have not yet become aware of. God, in a sense, ‘overlooks’ the times of ignorance (Acts17:30) when He sees our repentance over the sins we have become aware of. As a result, we don’t have to be worried about our sins which we have not become aware of, or those we have forgotten. There is no clear verse to quote for this, but this is the understanding we get when we put together truths from the different parts of the Bible.
Some people teach that once we come to Jesus and receive forgiveness, all our future sins are also forgiven and that there is no need to confess our sins later which have already been forgiven! Remember, how the people had to make a sin offering whenever they became aware of some sin? This was even though the high priest had offered a general sacrifice for all the people’s sins on the Day of Atonement (Heb.9:7)! Even though Jesus has already made the provision for the forgiveness of all our sins, when we sin and become aware of it, we need to confess it to God and receive forgiveness. In this way we appropriate what Jesus has already provided for. When we come to Jesus as sinners the first time, we receive forgiveness for all our former sins (Rom.3:25;2Pet.1:9). When we fall into sin afresh, we can claim forgiveness by acknowledging and confessing it to God in Jesus’ name.
What would happen if we don’t confess our present sins? There can be different scenarios. Let us look at the examples of Saul, David, Peter and Judas. God chose Saul to be king and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Even though he began well, he started disobeying God, and even though he ‘confessed’ his sins when he was confronted, it is clear that he had not really repented of those sins because he went on to commit more serious sin. A time came when God took away the Holy Spirit from Saul, and an evil spirit entered him. This is an example of what can happen if we go on refusing to acknowledge our sins.
David, on the other hand, sinned more seriously than Saul, committing adultery and murder, among other things. But he had the habit of acknowledging his sins and making amends wherever possible. In the case of Bathsheba, David sadly took time to acknowledge his sins. But when he was finally confronted by God, he not only admitted his sin immediately, but also expressed his repentance through a psalm. He came to be known as a man after God’s own heart.
Peter was a close disciple of Jesus, always quick to express his love and loyalty to Jesus. But he succumbed to pressure to the point of denying Jesus three times. But he saw the look on Jesus’ face and repented with tears immediately. Peter went on to become the leader of the first band of apostles in the Early Church.
Judas was one of the chosen twelve disciples of Jesus, working with Him in preaching the Gospel, healing the sick and casting out demons along with the other disciples. But there was something wrong with him because he used to steal from the money bag and he was not setting that right. He was possibly offended with Jesus when his opinion was rejected, and this provoked him to betray Jesus. Even though he later felt remorse, he never acknowledged his sins, but hanged himself.
God is patient and understanding, longing to be gracious towards us (Isa.30:18). But He will not let defiant sinners to get away with it (Exo.34:7).
Confessing Sins To Others
A general principle to remember is that sins should be confessed within the circle in which it was committed. All sin is against God, and we confess all our sins to Him. But when we sin against specific people, we need to confess to those people. (We don’t have to confess to others our sins of attitude or thought against them because they are not even aware of them! E.g., when a man lusts after a woman in his heart, he has committed adultery in his mind. Wouldn’t it be really foolish to go and confess it to her?) When we have harmed or hurt others through our sins, our repentance will not be real, if we do not admit those sins to them or set things right. It is not that we need to appease people who have false complaints against us. Many times, other people may have complaints against us because of their own imagination. Matthew 5:23,24 only refers to those complaints for which we have given cause!
Some people insist that we need to confess all our sins to the church and some others, say to at least some other human being in order to come into the light. We humble ourselves by confessing our sins to God. But we do not have to humiliate ourselves by making public, things in our past which we should be ashamed of. God Himself is one who wishes to cover our shame (Gen.3:21), and who promises never to bring up our sins once they are forgiven (Heb.8:12). We glorify only Satan by bringing up our muck and ending up, in many cases, in boasting over how gross our sins were.
Some churches teach that people should confess all their sins to their priests who alone have the authority to declare forgiveness. First of all, there are no ‘priests’ as a special class anymore, because all believers are kings and priests before the Lord (1Pet.2:9). Also, it is idolatry to pray to Mary or other ‘saints’ to get to God because all can have individual access to God by faith in Jesus (Heb.8:11;1Tim.2:5).
Another wrong teaching is that we need to confess all our sins to at least one other human being in order to ‘come into the light.’ Certainly sin is a work of darkness, and to hide sin is to avoid coming into the light (Jn.3:20). So if we have sinned against someone, we need to confess that and set it right, and if we have a sinful attitude towards another, we need to change our heart before we can enjoy fellowship with him. But it is wrong to say that unless we confess all our sins to someone else, we are unwilling to come into the light. God is light, and to come into the light essentially means to come out of hiding from God and live in transparency before Him (Jn. 3:21). Transparency before people has to be guided by wisdom, because not everyone can ‘handle’ everything with compassion or wisdom like God.
Some churches wrongly teach confession of all past sins to the whole church or to individual ‘disciplers,’ usually quoting James 5:16. But this is not a general instruction for all people under all circumstances, but a specific instruction to those who are sick. We must realise that some sickness may be the punishment for some sin (1Cor.11:28-30), or discipline from the Lord (Heb.12:6), in which case we need to confess and forsake that sin. Such confessions could be directly to the Lord, or in serious cases where one has to call for the elders to pray for him, it may be appropriate to confess such sins to them too (provided these elders are known to be able to keep confidentiality!).
Some think that it is necessary for husbands and wives to confess all their past sins to each other in order to become transparent and truly one with each other. We must remember we are dealing with imperfect spouses (including us), and we are expecting people to deal with the sinful past in a perfectly generous and understanding way. What commonly happens is that unnecessary quarrels rise up, and spouses lose respect for and trust in each other. The only one we can be perfectly frank with is God Himself, who has a perfectly large heart to deal with us in the right way. He forgives us and promises never to bring up our past sins against us (Heb.8:12). However, we are not advocating dishonesty or hypocrisy. We must be honest enough to acknowledge our sins to ourselves and to God, and also be willing to acknowledge them to others, if they are brought up.
Accountability partners may be helpful for some to get help to fight with some sins in their life. But such partners have to be able to keep confidentiality, and not to use information to control or manipulate the others. Also confession to such partners is not a compulsory requirement from God.
It is God to whom we are ultimately accountable (Rom.14:12), and it is before Him that we need to walk (Gen.17:1) and humble ourselves (Jas.4:10). We also have to humble ourselves before people we have sinned against. But we are walking in the light, if we are honest and upright concerning our sins before God. It is hypocrisy to act as if we have no sin, but it is not hypocrisy, if we are struggling to overcome sin and are honest with God while hiding it from others. God’s heart is large enough to know all our sins and still love us. But it is foolish to expect that people will automatically be mature enough to handle things in the same way.
Confess Ancestral Sins?
We cannot get God to forgive the sins of our ancestors by confessing them. After people die, there is no more opportunity to repent, but only to wait for the judgement (Heb.9:27). Daniel, Ezra and the Levites under Nehemiah confessed the sins of their nations when they were praying for the nation. They were only humbling themselves before God and acknowledging their sins and the sinfulness of their nations, and not asking God to absolve their fathers for their sins!
The nation of Israel suffered from famine because King Saul had killed the Gibeonites in violation of the covenant Joshua had made with them earlier (2Sam.21). This was the discipline of the Lord for a national sin. When King David understood the reason for the famine, he tried to set it right by doing what the Gibeonites wanted in restitution and had seven of Saul’s (grand) children killed. Perhaps he and the people could have simply humbled themselves before God, acknowledge the nation’s sin, asked for mercy and made some other form of restitution to the Gibeonites.
We are not guilty for our ancestors’ sins and so we don’t have to confess them in order to receive forgiveness. However, if the consequences of their sins are affecting us, we can humble ourselves before God, acknowledge they have sinned, disassociate ourselves from those sins and ask for God’s mercy on us.
When we come to God through Jesus, we are accepted not on the basis of confession of every single sin, but faith. The thief on the cross who acknowledged his sinfulness and how he deserved to die for his sins was promised a place in Paradise along with Jesus, without having confessed a single one of his sins (Lk.23:40-43). After we receive forgiveness for all our past sins, we confess the later sins we become aware of and receive forgiveness for them (1Jn.1:9). God overlooks the sins we are unaware of (Acts 17:30). When Jesus has made the supreme sacrifice once for all, covering all sins of all time, He accepts our general acknowledgment of sin and forgives us all sins that we are aware of and unaware of. This is reasonable, because if God were to demand that only if all sin has been confessed we would be let into heaven, then nobody would be able to enter!
At the same time, forgiveness is not something we can take for granted, nor is sin to be taken lightly. If we become aware of some sin and we refuse to confess it, we are actually departing from an attitude of repentance and acknowledgment of sin. God will be patient with us, and give us time to repent (Rev.2:21). But He may finally cut us off from our inheritance.