The Big “If”

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 NASB

Confess – What does it mean to confess our sins? Does it require verbal affirmation of specific acts? Does it mean a change of heart? Does it work if we just say something silently? And what are the expected results, or are there any?

At one time or another, most of us have confessed. We told someone what we did. We went to the altar. We cried out to God in a lonely place. We might have wept or felt disappointed with ourselves. We had some experience of expiation, and hopefully, of resolution. We waited to feel the relief of guilt removed. But pretty soon we were back, feeling once more the great gap between our desires to do what is right and our self-motivated behaviors. The process started over. We were back a Square One.

Is this really confession?

The Greek term is homologia. As you can see, it is literally “the same word.” The idea is to consent to the truth of something, to affirm it. But verbal agreement isn’t the end of the story. “The noun homología is important in Socratic dialogue as indicating consent to what is found to be valid followed by the appropriate resolve and action; theoretical assent is not enough. In the Stoics there is a shift from the thought of actual conduct to the idea of an integrated state of life.”[1] In the Hebrew way of life, “The persons afflicted confess their faults, invoke divine mercy, promise a song and offering, and then fulfill the vow.”[2] Notice that there is a subsequent confirming action, a kind of public declaration that allows accountability by others. Despite the literal definition, “homología may still denote the confession of sin; public confession is presupposed.”[3]

Confession is typically audible and social. Why? Why isn’t it sufficient to recite our sins in private, to avoid the embarrassment and humiliation that accompanies social revelation? Perhaps there are two reasons. The first is that the Hebrew way of life is primarily social. It is “group-think,” involvement in a society, a family, intimately connected to each other. We cannot act transparently with each other if we don’t really know each other. And that means we must trust each other with the potentially damaging information of a confession.

Secondly, social confession encourages accountability. Private confession doesn’t provide the oversight of another. When someone else knows my real story, then I have a shield against repetition. Someone else is watching over me. I might not like it (because I am such a “private” person), but it seems that confession only succeeds when there is another person to assist in the transformation. Once again, God’s instructions tie me to other people.

Two warnings finish the thought. “Knowledge does not necessarily include confession (Mt. 10:19; Jn. 12:42), and present confession does not rule out future denial (Peter).”[4] Because real, social, accountable confession included admission and change, confession always implies acceptance, commitment, and obedience. “Confession does not release from obedience but demands it.”[5] In other words, asking forgiveness is no good unless your life changes as a result.

Confession is the big “if.” God will do His part if we do ours. And as we have discovered, it’s a lot more than just saying, “I’m sorry.”

Topical Index: confession, homologia, 1 John 1:9

[1] Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., & Bromiley, G. W. (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (687). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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