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Definition

“Confession of sin” denotes the acknowledgement of sin to the Lord, whether at the beginning of the Christian life or as an ongoing practice throughout the Christian life.

Summary

Confession of sin is a normal and necessary part of the Christian life. There is biblical data teaching that confession of sin marks the beginning of the Christian life, but there is other biblical data which teaches us that confession of sin is an ongoing and required component of the Christian life. While there is actually more New Testament teaching on confessing Christ, and various truths about Christ, it is quite proper to see the confession of sin and the confession of Christ as organically connected.

Introduction

Confession of sin is central to the Christian life. We are here treating the Christian’s confession of sin, so we will focus mainly on the New Testament. But we will note some key Old Testament words and background.

There are three key words in the New Testament: homologeō (a verb: to promise, confess, declare, praise), exomologeō (a verb: to promise, confess, praise), and homologia (a noun: confession).

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) the Greek word homologeō translates several Hebrew words: yada (praise), nadar (to make a vow), and saba (swear). The Greek word homologia translates the Hebrew words nedabah (freewill offering), neder (vow), and todah (praise, honor). Exomologeō translates the Hebrew word yada (praise, confess) some 120 times. Exomologeō is used along with psallō to mean “to sing praises,” as well as with aineō, “to thank.”

Perhaps for our purposes it is helpful to note that the Hebrew word yada occurs a number of times in the Old Testament in the sense of “to praise” or “to give glory” or “confess an offence,” or in the sense of acknowledging the Lord (see Josh. 7:19; 1Kgs. 8:33-36, 2Chron. 6:24-27). It is this sense which correlates with what we will see in the New Testament, in terms of the Christian’s confession of sin.

Homolgeō is a compound word whose etymology connotes “to say the same.” This helps explain how the term can be used in the senses of (1) confessing one’s sin (one confesses to God that one is sinful), (2) confessing that God is just in his judgment, and (3) praising God (i.e., “confessing” that God is God). In all three senses, one is in agreeing with the Lord and the Lord’s perspective on reality.

Confession and the Christian

Let’s begin with a brief look at some related New Testament passages.

  • Mark 1:5 “And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
  • Matthew 3:6: “… and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
  • James 5:16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
  • 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
  • Acts 19:18: Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.”

At the outset of the Christian life we “confess” or acknowledge Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9). This initial submission to Christ necessarily entails confession of sin against him (Matt. 3:6; Mark 1:5; cf. Acts 3:19; 5:31). This is our initial conversion. The Holy Spirit is of course at work in all this (1Cor. 12:3), making us anew (2Cor.5:17), transforming us from the inside out (Rom. 6:1-2), and setting us on a new course. Still, God calls us – as believers – to “be transformed” (Rom. 12:1-2). Thus, although there has been a great change, we have not yet reached perfection (Phil. 3:12-14). And for any failures along the way we must make honest confession to God.

1 John 1:9 is especially important in this regard. In context, we learn that God is light, and in him there is no darkness (v. 5). We cannot say that we have fellowship with God while we walk in darkness (v. 6). Only as we “walk in the light” (living a life which is pleasing to God) can we demonstrate that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (v.7). Yet we cannot deny that we do sin (v. 8). But God has made full provision for us in Christ: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9). The Christian life is marked by the pursuit of righteousness, and yet for our failings there is still forgiveness – a forgiveness grounded in the Christ’s redemptive work.

The outstanding Old Testament example of what confession of sin looks like is Psalm 51. Here David confesses his sin to God: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (v. 3). The Hebrew word for “know” used here is yada, which is translated by both homologeō and exomologeō in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), all often translated “confess.” In this confession of sin David pleads to God for mercy, linking his plea to God’s steadfast love and mercy (v. 1), and asks God to give cleansing and forgiveness (v. 2).

Corresponding Cautions

We learn from all this that sin is a serious matter, and we must be honest before God our Father in acknowledging our sin and looking to him for forgiveness through Christ. We cannot ignore sin. Yet we might make caution of a corresponding error. In light of this promise of forgiveness of confessed sin we should be careful not to keep dragging up old sins that have already been confessed and forgiven. To do so would be—even unwittingly—to bring into question God’s faithfulness and justice. It would—perversely, and perhaps counterintuitively—give too much attention to sin which has already been forgiven. We must confess our sins frankly, but we must also trust and thank God for the forgiveness he has promised.

We should also recognize the error of “auricular” confession, confession of sin to a priest. Roman Catholics and many Anglicans find support for this practice in James 5:16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Without doubt the apostle here affirms some place for mutual confession of sin. But it is a significant step from this to the Roman Catholic practice. Moreover, we acknowledge no human “priest” but Christ, our sole mediator (1Tim. 2:5).

Further Reading

Systematic Theologies: Older Works

It is always helpful to have at least one or two helpful systematic theologies on hand to peruse and study. Starting with some older works, readers might look at:

  • Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Four, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, translated by John Vriend and edited by John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 161-62; 192; 225; 143; 148, 166-69; 409; 422.
  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles, Volumes XX and XXI, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), III.IV.1-19; IV.XII.15.
  • Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume Three, translated by George Musgrave Giger, and edited by James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P and R Publishing Company, 1997), 551-54. Here Turretin criticizes the notion of auricular (=heard) confession and the notion of the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance.

Systematic Theologies: More Recent Works:

  • Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 385.

Books

  • Robert Yarbrough, 1, 2, and 3 John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 2008).

Articles

  • D. Fürst, “Confess,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Carlisle, UK:  The Paternoster Press, 1986), 344-48.

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