We are called to confess our sins (1 John 1:9; James 5:16). But what does that really mean?
It might seem like a simple question, but there are some misconceptions. To help clear up the concept, we are putting together a series of articles on what confession is, why we should confess, how to confess, and how to respond to confession.
What Confession Is
By definition, to confess something means that you admit it is true about yourself and you make it known.
You can confess something good, such as a confession of faith (Romans 10:9-10) or confessing your love to someone. Usually, though, the word “confession” is used when you are admitting to something you have done that is wrong. For example, someone who is guilty of a crime can “confess” to the police, or to a judge and jury.
Maybe you haven’t committed a crime that the police need to know about, but all of us have sinned (Romans 3:23). Sins are essentially crimes against God (Psalm 51:1-4); we sin when we break God’s moral laws (1 John 3:4). Even if what you have done doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, it can still be a sin; to use the Watermark Kids definition, “sin is anything we think, say, or do that does not please God.” Since we have all sinned in some way, we all have something to confess, and we all need God’s grace and forgiveness (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Thankfully, confessing sins isn’t like confessing to your local law enforcement. If you confess to law enforcement, their job is to enforce the law and apply whatever punishment the statute calls for. But God is not going to punish you because you confess your sins. (And, since God already knows everything you have done, refusing to confess doesn’t mean that you can get away with it.) Instead, the good news is that our punishment for sins (Romans 6:23) has already been paid; God’s own Son, Jesus, suffered the penalty on the cross in our place (Romans 5:8).
Confession, therefore, simply means acknowledging that you have sinned and agreeing with God that what you did was wrong.
What Confession Is Not
When talking about confession, it can also be helpful to clarify what we are not talking about, and the limits of what confession is or does. For example:
- Confession is not required for forgiveness. Although you should confess your sins to God, you are not required to confess every sin individually in order to have salvation. If that were the case, then salvation would be dependent on something you did—confession—instead of being a free gift (Romans 5:15-17; Ephesians 2:8-9). It would also mean that you could potentially lose salvation if you accidentally sinned and then died before you could confess. But that is not the case; once you have trusted in Christ, you have eternal life and have already “passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Similarly, if you do wrong to another person, it is possible for them to choose to forgive you even before you confess and apologize. (See also “What Is Forgiveness?”)
- Confession does not have to be given to a priest. The Catholic practice of confessing your sins to a priest is one of the common definitions of “confession.” But, to be clear, that is not what we are specifically talking about here. The Bible says that we are to confess our sins to each other (James 5:16), but nowhere does it say that confession has to be to a priest. In addition, Scripture refers to all believers as a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) and a kingdom of priests (Revelation 1:6), which fits with the “confess your sins to one another” in James 5:16. For more detail on the subject, you can check out this GotQuestions.org resource.
- Confession is not penance. “Penance,” when defined as some sort of self-punishment or works you do to atone for your sins, is also not required for biblical confession or forgiveness. Jesus paid for our sins on the cross (1 John 2:2) so that we don’t have to pay for them ourselves. And any small acts of penance we perform could never pay the debt we owe; if they did, we wouldn’t need Jesus. Again, GotQuestions.org has a good resource on the topic.
- Confession is not repentance. “Repentance” means turning away from sin or turning toward God. It can also be defined as simply feeling regret about what you’ve done, but regret isn’t helpful unless it causes you to change your ways and stop doing those things (Matthew 3:8; 2 Corinthians 7:10). You should repent, and confession can be a part of repentance. However, they are not the same thing. If you find yourself regularly having to confess to a repeated sin, without making any effort to turn away from that sin, then you are confessing without repentance.
Confession is a good thing that God intends for your own benefit. Confessing to God means being honest about your situation and admitting your need for a Savior. Confessing to each other is a way to seek help and experience healing.
You can learn more about why you should confess here.