We’ve all heard the saying that “confession is good for the soul,” but just what does the Bible mean when it says to confess? Why is it important for us to learn how to confess in a Biblical sense? To understand this better, let’s first look a little closer at the word: confess.
It’s used in the Bible as a rendering of two Latin roots. The prefix con means “with”, and the latter root fess means “to say”. The Greek word from which the word “confess” is derived is homologeo which literally means “same word”, and is commonly translated as “to acknowledge” or “agree with”.
For those of you who’d rather just have the bottom line, the word involves an utterance of the mouth and outward acknowledgement of truth. It means, in a spiritual sense, to speak out. But what does it mean to speak out?
For starters, saying, “I’m sorry,” is not confession. Neither is asking for forgiveness a form of confession. These things might be related to confession, but they do not completely define confession by themselves.
When we confess, we must openly agree with God that He is Who He is and that we are sinful by nature. To confess means to declare that God is really God and that He is the rightful Lord of both the world and of our lives. As Romans 10:9, 10 says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
Confession candidly admits the wrongs that we have done, the hurts that we have contrived, and the sin that we have committed. In confession, we do not rationalize these things, nor do we excuse them. We simply own up to what we’ve done and what we’ve said. Although this doesn’t necessarily mean airing all the details of our dirty laundry, it does mean that we no longer deny the corruption within our fallen hearts, that we “fess up” to God in prayer, and even learn the art of admitting our failures to those we’ve hurt or to whom we are accountable.
And as bad a rap as confession gets, we would be making a terrible mistake to dismiss it as archaic or irrelevant, and hence miss out on its blessing. In a purely pragmatic sense, confession allows me to address destructive habits and attitudes that may characterize my own life and sets the stage for both change and release from cycles of failure and injustice towards others. Furthermore, confession opens the door to the restoring of relationships that have suffered because of the wrong I may have said or done.
Most importantly, confession is a manifestation of my openness to God’s grace when I admit that I have broken His divine commandments and violated His trust – whether outwardly or secretly in the hidden places of my heart and mind. Through confession, I make no excuses for my sin and instead throw myself on the mercy of the highest court of all and before the Judge who eternally rules. In confessing my sin to Him, I allow His forgiveness to wash me and make me new. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:9).
Real confession cannot take place only inside our minds or hearts, but must ultimately be articulated verbally – largely because speaking the truth realigns the direction of one’s heart and will with that of the Father’s. But even so, there isn’t any sort of script to this. Each example of confession in the Scriptures has its own flavor and is unique to each individual that Jesus called to Himself.
Consider Peter who fell at the knees of Jesus and confessed, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) and then later confessed to Jesus that He was indeed, “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:20).
Another example is Zacchaeus who said to Jesus, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount,” (Luke 19:8). Or consider the sinful woman of Luke 7 who stood behind Jesus at a Pharisee’s home and was so choked up by His acceptance of her, in spite of her past, that she could only weep while wiping His feet with her tears in heart-wrenching humility. Compare her confession to the Samaritan woman of John 4 who also ultimately agreed with the Lord when she appealed to her fellow villagers to, “Come, and see a man who told me everything I ever did.”
Even the thief who hung beside Jesus on the cross confessed when he recognized the Lord of lords and King of kings for who He is:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:39-42, italics mine).
Again, confession of sin is not the same thing as saying “I’m sorry”. Any effort on our part to justify or excuse our sin is extremely offensive to God. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that our word for apology comes from apologia which means “defense” and refers to a plea in which one attempts to clear oneself of guilt. Be that as it may, the Biblical principle is this: inasmuch as we defend or rationalize sin seeking to justify ourselves, we will fail and fall short of God’s glory.
In contrast, when we confess, we agree with God that He is holy and just, and that we are, in fact, poor in spirit. When we can bring ourselves to do this, we can then expect Him to deliver on His promise to give us the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). So let us each then learn to pray honestly to the one who knows our hearts anyway. Let us also seize the joy and victory He intends for those who confess Jesus before men for Jesus will also confess us before the Father Who is in heaven (Matthew 10:32).
Thom Mollohan and his family have ministered in southern Ohio the past 16 years. He is the pastor of Pathway Community Church and the author of The Fairy Tale Parables. He may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.