The verse that most often comes to mind when we
think of confession is 1 John 1:9, which begins, “If we confess our sins.
. . .” Christians regard repentance, forgiveness, and restoration as important,
but few Christians today understand what practicing confession means. Let’s
clarify what confession is and what it looks like when practiced in a biblical
The word confess, in both Hebrew and Greek, has, as in English, a
twofold meaning: confession of faith and confession of sin.
Confession of faith means to declare publicly a personal relationship with and
allegiance to God. Confession is an act of open, joyful commitment made to God
in the presence of the world, by which a congregation or individual binds
themselves in loyalty to God or Jesus Christ. From this understanding, the
church historically has identified with a particular confession of faith,
which declares a system of belief unique to a specific group of believers. The
Westminster Confession of Faith is one example of this kind of confession.
Confession of sin means to acknowledge sin and guilt in light of God’s
revelation, and such a confession is an outward sign of repentance and faith.
Confession of sin is a reaffirmation of faith, following the violation of faith
by one’s sins. This aspect of confession was part of Old Testament worship,
which emphasized the admission of sin, offering for sin, and removal of sin. Old
Testament sacrifices made for sin underscored this idea—confession of sin made
it possible for the individual to properly worship his God.
Confession of sin for repentance is an aspect of Christian living that often is
misunderstood and, thus, carelessly practiced. Without biblical confession,
unbiblical repentance follows. People speak of making an apology, saying, “I’m
sorry,” or other similar expressions. Our psychology-focused world has taught us
we can, and indeed must, forgive ourselves, but forgiveness is never connected
To know the removal of guilt and the restoration of fellowship with God and
others, real confession, followed by repentance is mandatory. When we repent, we
tend to practice as little confession as possible, revealing how small our faith
is. We tend to run, hide, blame-shift, and cover-up as Adam and Eve did when
they sinned. When we are willing only to admit what we said, thought, or did
that offended God or others, we merely are confessing the outworking of what is
a much more serious sin. We need to recognize that our sins are a revelation of
something we love more than God. The practices of our thoughts, affections, and
actions expose a false faith and an idolatrous worship. Thus, confession needs
to say what God says about our idolatrous worship, which is not easy because our
hearts are blind (Jeremiah 17:9). Sincere confession requires the revelation of
God and the enlightening of the Holy Spirit, understanding how God sees our sin
and how it can be forgiven—no wonder John warns his readers in 1 John 5:21 to
“keep yourself from idols!”