I recently had a conversation with some men regarding the need to confess sins to God who already knows all things and about the value of confessing sins to one another. The opinions of the men, who were all Christians, varied from no it isn’t necessary or valuable to yes you have to confess your sins to be forgiven. This prompted me to scan the scriptures to see what they say about confessing sins to God and to one another.
I was brought up Catholic but have been practicing my faith in non-denominational bible churches for the last 25 years.
I remember vividly the first time I went to confession before a Catholic priest. I was a young boy, probably eight or nine years old. After weeks of lectures preparing us for our first confession and first communion, my classmates and I were lined up single file as we waited to enter a dark confessional room just slightly larger than a coffin.
I was terrified that I was going to forget one or more of my sins which I was convinced would disqualify my penance and leave me just as guilty as I was when I went in to the confessional. A part of me also worried that I would fall victim to a good tongue lashing from the priest in addition to a lengthy penance that would have me reciting the Hail Mary prayer so many times I would be stuck in church for the rest of the afternoon.
I was a Catholic alter boy for years before this terrifying experience, so I knew the priests who were assigned to hear our first confession. My only solace was the possibility that when it was my turn to be led to the gallows, Father Cyprian would be the one available to hear my confession.
Father Cyprian was only a little younger than Moses. He could barely walk. His eyes had a glassy fixed stare with large pupils similar to the Buddhist Master in any of a number of Kung Fu movies. Best of all, his hearing was impaired almost to the point of being deaf.
I figured if I was assigned to Father Cyprian, I could confess almost anything because he wouldn’t hear me anyway. And, once I received and performed my penance, according to the misguided teachings of the Catholic at that time, I would be absolved.
My backup plan, in case I was assigned to the other priest, was to confess a few little sins and bundle the big ones at the end of my confession by saying “and all the sins I may not remember.” I figured the priests had a default penance for anyone using this method of confession that was large enough to cover most everyday sins but not as large as the penance used to cover the big ones like robbery, adultery, and murder. Those sins could only be absolved with cash.
When I became a true follower of Jesus Christ and studied biblical teachings, I learned confession is for the confessor not for God’s awareness. If God is Omniscient, meaning He knows all things past, present and future, He knows my past, present, and future sins. King David said he recognized that God knew all of his sins and because of his sin nature, sin would always be in his life to some degree (Psalm 51).
As I learned more about the Bible, I also learned we do not need to confess our sins to an earthly intercessor. And, if Jesus’ sacrifice was enough to pay for our sins, penance is not only unnecessary, it is prideful to think we can add anything to the payment he already made for our sins.
So, if God knows our sins and Christ Jesus’ sacrifice cleanses us of all our sins, why should we confess our sins?
In the Old Testament, David said when he didn’t confess his sins, his “bones wasted away” and God’s hand was heavy on him. As a result, his “strength was sapped as in the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4). When David acknowledged his sin to God, he experienced God’s forgiveness (Psalm 32:5). David wasn’t saying that forgiveness was the result of his act of confession or any other act on the part of the sinner. It is clear from the first verse of Psalm 51 that David understood forgiveness is an unmerited act of mercy on us because of God’s unfailing love for us. David was saying that when he did not confess his sins, he continued to be burdened by them.
In the book of Proverbs, Solomon said, “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy (Proverbs 28:13).” What does concealing sins have to do with prospering? One businessman I know said it well when he said, “I make certain I tell the truth because it would be too much trouble to keep covering up a lie.” His concern was that one secret lie would compound because he would eventually have to tell another lie to cover up the first. And, if his lie were ever discovered, he could lose current and prospective customers. His aspiration of integrity was self-centered, to cover himself not to glorify God. But it is an example of how concealing sin (a lie) in business or any part of life could hinder a person’s prosperity.
In the New Testament, when Jesus gave us the Lord’s prayer, he gave us a model for prayer that includes admitting we are sinners and asking God to forgive our sins (Matthew 5:5-14). The apostle John also said to confess our sins to God (1 John 1:9).
Both the Old Testament and New Testament writers knew that our sins need to be forgiven to reconcile us to God. The only act capable of rendering us worthy to be reconciled to God was Jesus’ substitutional death and resurrection for us.
When a Christian says they are saved, they are referring to a once and for all eternity event called justification. Justification is given to a person when they admit they are a sinner in need of a savior and they accept that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins.
If a sinner dies anytime after they accept Jesus as their Savior, they are justified and qualified to enter the kingdom of heaven. From the time they are justified, however, they begin the process of sanctification. Sanctification is the lifelong process of becoming like Christ. Confession, which includes examining your life and admitting your sins, is one of the means of sanctification.
What about confessing your sins to others?
Isaiah 43:25 says God is the only one who can forgive sins. In 1 Timothy 2:5, Paul says, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Our relationship with God the Father through God the Son gives us access to confess our sins to The Father. Scripture does not say it is necessary to confess our sins to others. In particular, New Testament scripture does not mandate or even suggest confessing sins to someone ordained as a priest. In fact, 1 Peter 2:5-9 describes all believers as being part of the holy priesthood. None are above the other.
Even though it is not necessary to confess our sins to others, scripture does say that it is valuable to confess our sins to one another. Jesus’ brother James told us to confess our sins to one another when he said, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much (James 5:16).” The author of Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful of the wounds of a friend.“ This means it is good to have a friend who you can share your sins with and who will speak the truth in love to you and tell you when you are falling in sin.
Keeping your sins secret gives them strength over you. Secrecy results in a person remaining isolated and captive in their sin. Confessing sins to a trusted confidant shines a light on our rebellion, frees us from the captivity of secrecy, and restores us to a close relationship with God.
What is sin?
Sin is sometimes the act of doing things God told us not to do. Other times it is not doing things God wants us to do. Paul stated his challenge with sin when he admitted to being all too human and a slave to sin. Paul said he didn’t do what he knew he should do and he did what he knew he should not do (Romans 7:14-16).
In Romans 7, Paul continued to say the law God handed down is what shined a light on sin in his life. And, while it was frustrating to be aware of his sin and not able to control it, he acknowledged that it was good to have the law illuminating his sin (Romans 7:14-25).
Sometimes sin is blatant and recognizable as soon as it occurs. But, it often creeps slowly into your life in such a way that it can go unrecognized for a long time. I used to try to hide from my sin. That was a self-destructive pattern. Jesus already paid the price for every one of my sins to be forgiven. Hiding from them just prolonged my own agony and regret. Now, when I recognize my sin, I usually immediately confess it and thank Jesus for his sacrifice for my sins.
Because I know some sins creep into my life unrecognized, I periodically take inventory of my sins using an exercise I developed from the Ten Commandments. It gives me insight into to the depth of my sin and shows me when I am straying off the path that God created for me to walk.
I am always filled with joy when I go through this simple act as it reminds me of the length, depth, and breadth of God’s love for me. If you don’t know how to take inventory of your sins so you can lay them at the feet of Jesus, experience reconciliation with God and restore the joy of your salvation, here is a link to the exercise I created called, An Act of Confession.