Of the many “church” words that often make us cringe, we find ranked highly them the word “confess.”
Chances are, when you hear it, you have an impulse to stick your fingers in your ears and sing the National Anthem. But it’s an important word. In fact, it’s a GREAT word — provided it is understood correctly and lived out appropriately.
So just what DOES the Bible mean by the word, “confess?” And why is it important and even necessary for us to have learned how to confess in a Biblical sense?
As far as how the word itself goes (as used in the Bible), the word “confess” is a Germanic/English rendering of two Latin roots… “con-” (meaning “with”) and “-fess” (meaning to “say”); the Greek word from which this comes is “homologeo” which literally means “same word” and should usually be interpreted as to “acknowledge” or “agree with”.
While it’s entirely possible that you don’t really care about the ins and outs of translations, etc., you very likely DO care about the bottom line. The word translated in the Bible as “confess” involves an utterance of the mouth and outward acknowledgement of truth. It means, in a spiritual sense, to speak out. But what is it that one is speaking out?
Well, for starters, saying “I’m sorry” is NOT confession, nor is asking for forgiveness. These things might be attached to confession, but they are not confession in of themselves. For me to confess, I must openly AGREE WITH GOD about Who God is, and about my sinful nature. It means to declare that God is really God, and is the rightful Lord of both the world and of my life. “…If you CONFESS with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one CONFESSES and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10 ESV).
Moreover, confession candidly admits the wrongs that I have done, the hurts that I have contrived, and the sin that I have committed. I do not rationalize these things, nor do I excuse them. I simply own up to what I’ve done and what I’ve said, taking responsibility for them. 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 faults and 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 and done.
But 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 and obviously, 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: 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 to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV).
Real confession cannot happen only inside your mind or heart but must ultimately somehow be articulated by the mouth … 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 Jesus’ feet and confessed, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) and then confessed to Jesus that He was indeed, “the Christ of God” (Luke 9:20). Or Zaccheaus who said to Him, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8 ESV). Or the sinful woman of Luke 7 who stood behind Jesus at a Pharisee’s home and was so choked up by His accepting her in spite of her past that she could only weep and then wipe His feet with her tears in heart-wrenching humility. Or even the Samaritan woman of John 4 who also ultimately AGREED with the Lord when she appealed to her fellow villagers to, “Come, see a Man Who told me EVERTHING I EVER DID.”
Even the thief on the cross beside Jesus “confessed” when he recognized the Lord of lords and King of kings for Who He is, even as Jesus hung dying on the cross of Calvary. “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Him, saying ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we justly, for WE ARE RECEIVING THE DUE REWARD OF OUR DEEDS; but THIS MAN HAS DONE NOTHING WRONG.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom’” (Luke 23:39-42 ESV- emphasis mine).
Again, confession of sin is NOT the same things as saying “I’m sorry” and, of course, any efforts on our part to justify or excuse our sin would be extremely offensive to Him. 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.
But, 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. And let us also seize the joy and victory He intends for those “who shall confess Jesus before Men, for Jesus will also confess us before the Father Who is in heaven” (from Matthew 10:32).
Pastor Thom Mollohan leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.