Why Confession is Still Good for You

If you know me, you will know that nothing winds me up faster than telling people they must do things like confess to be forgiven. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, confessing your sins does not compel God to forgive you. God does not forgive us on account of our confession but in accordance with the riches of his grace (Eph 1:7).

Since I bang this drum loudly and often, some have concluded that I am opposed to confession. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I have said from the beginning, confession is good for you.

Or rather, confession can be good for you – if it’s done properly.

In the pursuit of self-righteousness, confession is a hideous thing. It is introspective navel-gazing that promotes sin- and self-consciousness. Among Catholics and Protestants alike, confession of sins is often sold as the price you must pay to receive the gift of forgiveness. To enjoy God’s grace and fellowship, we’re told to admit to all our crimes, no matter how small. To the natural mind this seems like a good deal; you talk, you walk. But it is an abomination, a prostitution of a great and priceless love.

Let’s be clear – either the love of God is unconditional or it’s not love. Unless you receive his love and forgiveness as a free gift, you won’t receive it at all.

There is no doubt that the practice of confession has been abused on all sides. But as a friend of mine likes to say, the correct response to abuse is not non-use but proper use. So what is the proper use of confession and why should we do it? Let me suggest two good reasons for confession:

1. Confession helps us to receive grace

Grace is not for everyone, only the needy. If you don’t see yourself as needy, you’ll never receive grace. This is the essence of 1 John 1:9. While I personally think John was addressing unbelievers in this passage, the lesson is for all of us: To receive God’s grace, we must first acknowledge our need for grace. Paul said, “My God shall supply all your need…” (Php 4:19). If you don’t acknowledge your need, you won’t receive his supply.

This point is often lost among those of us who proclaim grace. We preach that “you are as righteous, holy, and perfect as Jesus” – and we are right to do so. In Christ you are all those things.

But what if there is a disconnect between your identity and experience? You may say, “I know I am righteous but I don’t feel righteous. I’m battling with unrighteous thoughts.” Well you’ve got two choices. You can pretend that there’s no problem or you can come to the throne of grace to receive grace in your hour of need.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago the face of a beautiful woman entered my head and got stuck there. It just wouldn’t leave. She wasn’t my wife so I had a problem. I didn’t want to dwell on this woman’s looks so I battled valiantly against the temptation. But nothing I did would make her face leave my mind. At this point I hadn’t sinned but I was vulnerable. I was heading in a bad direction and felt powerless to stop.

So what did I do? I confessed. I prayed the best prayer a needy man can pray: “God, help!” I cast my anxieties upon him and he helped me. Within a day the stronghold was broken and her face was gone from my mind. I was completely free. That’s how grace works. God gives grace to the humble, to those who are honest and open about their needs and weaknesses.

In this case I confessed and was set free by his grace. But what if things had gotten worse and I had fallen into sin? What then? What if you have sinned? Again, confession can help but not for the reasons usually taught. Remember, confession doesn’t manipulate God into forgiving us. So what good is confession when we sin?

2. Confession breaks the power of sin

God designed humans to be intolerant of sin. We may enjoy the pleasures of sin for a time, but sin is always followed by guilt and other unpleasant reactions. Guilt is a sign that something is wrong, that something needs to be addressed, and confession is a good way to address it.

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long… my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.” (Ps 32:3-5)

I hear from people all the time who are torn up inside on account of some past sin. They may have some understanding of God’s grace and they may even accept that they are forgiven, yet they still battle with guilt. It’s like there’s this sin parasite inside them, eating them alive. Like David, their bones are wasting away and their strength is sapped.

If this is you, drag that dark thing into the light! Talk to your heavenly Father. Or find a trusted friend and talk to them about it. Sin thrives in darkness and we are called to be children of the light (1 Th 5:5). Note that David suffered because he “kept silent.” Here’s the equation:

Sin + silence = suffering

This is the maths of Adam that leads us to hide behind bushes of blame and facades of self-righteousness. Now let me show you the new math of Jesus:

Sin + confession = healing

And here’s the scripture reference:

Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. (James 5:16, MSG)

Sin is utterly destructive and we must not be passive with it. If my temptation had led to lust and sin, it would’ve brought a harvest of death in my life and marriage. It didn’t get that far but if it had I was fully prepared to talk about it to a trusted friend or my wife. Just as sunshine kills germs, the light of God’s grace breaks the power of sin and darkness.

As a church leader, James knew this. He understood that one of the ways we receive God’s grace is through our grace-giving brothers and sisters. James was not trying to shackle you with an accountability partner; he was giving you a key for living free and whole. Confession – acknowledging your need for grace – is that key.

(Incidentally, the epistle of James is a great guide for those of us learning to walk in grace. But if you don’t see grace, don’t read James – it’ll kill you!)

Quit pretending and ‘fess up

Sin has power over us whenever we try to resist it in our own strength. If you’re thinking, “I’m okay – I can handle this. I’ve got it altogether. I can’t let anyone know I’m struggling,” then beware the slippery slope! God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Want to practice humility? Then stop pretending and honestly admit your need for grace.

In my next post I will contrast healthy and unhealthy confession, but to recap: Confessing our sins does NOT compel God to forgive us. (He already did.) Neither does confession restore fellowship with an offended Father. (He promised to never leave nor forsake us.) Confession – freely acknowledging our needs and total dependency on God – is our faith-filled response to God our Helper. Confession helps us walk in the supernatural power of his grace.

Related posts:
- Son or sinner: what are you confessing?
- What keeps Christians weak and unproductive?
- 6 examples of confession in the Bible

Comments

  1. Wonderful post. There’s a reason the Psalms were written. David lays everything before the Lord: his frustrations, his fears, his sins. He expresses his neediness, proclaims the truth about God’s lovingkindness, and rejoices with thanksgiving. He is set free.

  2. Some grace preacher teaches that confession of sin will lead us more to be sin-conscious, and confession of that particular sin will only empower the sin leading us to do it again…feeling guilty again…confess it again…empower again…do it again… Just want to share what others is saying. Thanks :)

    • Rene, I believe it’s unrealistic to say “don’t talk about your sins ever.” It’s not what James said (James 5:16). We need to be open and honest about our weaknesses if we are to receive grace. My view is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about confession. In my next post I will make 12 contrasts between healthy and unhealthy confession but here’s a hint: the wrong way will leave you sin- and self-conscious; the right way will leave you guilt-free and Christ-conscious.

  3. Paul, first thing. You are a blessing. sometimes you just confirm what is in my heart. Folks in the bible study has been repeatedly ask about 1 john 1:9. As a result, I told them. if you want to confess, go on. but that does not change the truth that you are forgiven of all your sins. confession or not.

    I tend to move away from being “hard” like “you must not confess your sins!” because by doing so, it gives them a sense of a “Law” “Thou shall not confess.”

    I think, we should really focus and preach on the total and complete forgiveness of sins – ( like what you have been doing.)
    this would drive people to realize, oh my goodness. I am forgiven of all my sins, whats confession for?

    Keep up the good work Paul
    – grace and peace

    • Thanks SBG. I think confession, like repentance, is a word we need to take back from the clutches of carnal Christianity. Biblical confession is a wonderful and liberating thing. It’s actually essential to receiving grace (see Rom 10:9-13, Php 4:19, etc). Religious confession is repulsive. The opposite of Biblical confession is pretending and pride.

      • indeed Paul. we have this strong notion that confession has something to do with crime committed or sin, its seems to be built in. now mix that with repentance the another notion related to sin, then you have the perfect formula for piousness.

        good talks :)

        – grace and peace

  4. Thanks Paul. I think you have a point about not being passive with sin. I would add that in Mat 4: Jesus showed us a template of how to deal with temptation to sin, confront it with the word and don’t be passive. Your example of confessing our sins one to another in James is also a good one. A person that has no intention of repeating has wrongs and is sincere, is likely to acknowledge his faults.

    I however would like to point some concern that I am sure you did not take into account. 1st, the word confess in 1 John 1:9 is greek ” homologeō” and according to Thayer Definition it means “to say the same thing as another, i.e. to agree with, assent”, 2) to concede, 3) to profess. In its use it is almost always used to apply to man using words to agree or assent with God that Jesus is Lord, or such related professions or assertions. The word confess in James is exomologeō which is to acknowledge openly.

    I would submit to you homologeo is to say the same thing in agreement, while exomologeō is to acknowledged. Your article therefore works well with exomologeō and not homologeo. In fact everywhere else when the writer intends to communicate the idea of acknowledging sins in repentance the word exomologeo is used, Mat 3:6; Mar 1:5; and Jam 5:16 for example.

    Why? If we agree that homologeo is more to do with agreeing with God (as in Rom 10:6 “But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise,”, 2Co 4:13 “We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak;” and Heb 13:5 “…He said… so that we may boldly say..”

    In other words I submit to you my understanding of “the just shall live by faith” is the idea expressed in the paragraph above. He has said so that we may say, or we believe therefore we speak. What would you rather have children of God believe? I would say concerning sin:
    1. Sin shall not have dominion over me.
    2. How shall I who is dead to sin live under sin any more
    3. I thank Jesus for taking responsibility for my sins
    4. My sins he remembers no more. etc

    In essence I am saying to confess, as in homologeo, our sin in agreement with God is to say what God has said, and therefore your application of 1 John 1:9 this time around is not accurate! Lets talk.

    • My forth paragraph is incomplete. I meant to say if we agree that homologeo is used in relationship with our faith walk with God, then if I sin, I must respond to that act of sin in faith. That is I believe that I am dead to sin but alive to righteousness and I should not yield my members to sin for I am not under law but under grace. Like Apostle Paul in Romans 7 I realise, as you said, that I need Jesus and what He accomplished on the Cross. That means I confess my righteousness and thank Jesus for taking responsibility for my sins, and giving me the ability to live above sin. Its not so much of confessing the sin to God, for God says he does not remember them any more!

      • I agree with you. But note that James says we “confess our sins to each other.” We don’t do this for forgiveness. We don’t do this to become sin-conscious. We do this because we are real people with real struggles and if we pretend otherwise than we will never experience grace. James says we do it to be healed and I agree with him.

    • Hi Tony, it has been my consistent practice to define confession the same way as John (homologeo). I didn’t explain that in this post because I’ve done it in other confession posts, such as this one. As I say above, confession is a faith-filled response to God – it’s saying Yes to God and agreeing with him that Jesus is the once and for all time solution to sin.

  5. Paul, I am so glad you wrote something like this. Just yesterday I have been struggling with the two Greek words for “Forgiveness” – Charizomai and Aphiemi. In fact I was searching your website last night to see if you have anything about it. Then you write something like this !!!! They are very closely related that both words have been used in Luke 7:40-50. Charizomai means – to bestow a favor unconditionally; to show one’s self gracious, kind, benevolent; or to grant forgiveness, to pardon.” While Aphiemi is more of “to send away”. It is used to send away sins, or remit sins, or to remit a debt. Guess what is used for 1 John 1:9 ? – Aphiemi. It’s like what you said, when confessing, the power of sin is “sent away”. While Charizomai is ours thru Christ by no effort on our part, Aphiemi kinda like finds it’s “reality” when we confess. I am still not fully understanding it, but hopefully getting there. Having said all that, in 1 John 2:12 ( your sins have been forgiven on account of his name ), Aphiemi is used. I am still fuzzy about things though. Looking forward to your next posts about it.

  6. amen!
    i think one of my earliest lessons in receiving grace was when i realized just how very needy i was (desperately needy would have been a more accurate description). my profound revelation: that it was absolutely ok to admit that i was needy… that God actually wanted me to need Him – that He created me to need Him! not only did this understanding cause me to turn to Him for help in every situation, but it also allowed me to open up to others as well… allowing Him to love me through them… and allowing Him to love them through me!

    looking forward to the next post!
    :)

  7. I think I see what you are saying but it leaves me feeling slightly worried and confused. It ‘sounds’ like the verse in James 5 is saying that if we don’t confess our sins to each other, we won’t be physically healed of a physical illness. Is that so or is it talking about healing of misunderstanding or bad feelings in relationships with each other? I struggle with this verse because it sounds like we won’t receive physical healing unless we confess all our sins to others. It also sounds like physical sickness is caused by our sin. Is that true and how can it be true if we aren’t under the curse, which includes sickness? What do you mean when you say that not confessing will bring a harvest of death in your marraige, etc.? Is that what it means to sow to the flesh and reap corruption? That sounds like works to me and makes me feel worried that I’ll get sick or die if I don’t always walk in the Spirit or if I sometimes struggle in the flesh, like every time I find myself stuggling in the flesh, i open myself up to let Satan attack me with sickness. That feels like works to me! Help!

    • I don’t read James that way and I think it would be an awful mistake to ask a sick person to go digging around in the past for unconfessed sins. If you are sick, let me tell about Jesus and his finished work.

      Proverbs 28:13 says “He who conceals his sins does not prosper.” Sin is destructive. It makes no difference whether you are saved or unsaved, if you drink and drive, you’ll run the risk of a serious accident. If you commit adultery, you’ll kill your marriage. If you gossip, you’ll ruin friendships. We need to be aware of the dangers of sin and stop pretending that sin is nothing. Sin unchecked will bring death in various forms. Confessing sins in a healthy, Christ-conscious fashion breaks the power of sin. Therefore, confessing sins is healthy.

  8. Paul, brilliantly said my brother…This was much-needed for those who don’t understand what you have been trying to teach about confession. Excellent!

  9. This explains so much of what I have battled with for three decades. I still need to absorb it to grasp the full implications. Love & thanks, Horace

  10. Dennis DeMagistris says:

    Looks like even the very best Radical Grace (Jesus Christ) Teachers can forget that the bible really teaches that sin is really unbelief in the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fact as believers, that we as His children are IN Him. The Apostle Paul quoted Psalm 32 in his letter to the Romans in chapter 4, (New Covenant Now). I think David thought he was in pretty good shape with God under the (Old Covenant) until he failed enough. Now myself, I have gotten years, and years of struggling with the deeds of the flesh as a Christian, believe me, I do. I am very aware of the feeling of the draw and pull of Adams nature. But, even when Adams tries to do his thing, I remember that I am already at Gods Throne of Grace, and seated with Him also in The Christ (Life). It’s amazing as much as we know about the Grace of God, that our fleshly understanding about dealing with the deeds of the falling Adam still creep into our minds to try to fix what God has already dealt with (CROSS, CROSS, CROSS) IT IS FINISHED!! :) It’s that simple. It’s that powerful.

  11. Very well said Paul, and it makes sense in light of the whole context of the Bible and the “big picture” of the Gospel. Thanks for sharing this.

  12. I recently subscribed to your blog because I have had a lifelong struggle with works. I find myself too scared to read the Bible because it confuses me that we can be saved by grace but still have to do so much to continue to live right with God. I have had a vague notion that I need to somehow learn to filter the Word through the concept of grace, but I haven’t known how. Your posts show me how! Thanks so much.

    One thing is troubling me, though, and it concerns what you say about the I John passage. It clearly states we need to confess in order to be forgiven. You explain that this is written to unbelievers who have not yet accepted Christ so they yet have to confess they are sinners and receive Him. But the commentaries I have read always identify the audience as believers who have false teachers (Gnostics) among them. When John describes walking in darkness and claiming to have no sin, he is actually describing what it looks like to not have Christ (as the false teachers do not) to serve as a contrast with the kinds of lives they are to lead (i.e., don’t walk in darkness; rather, walk in light. Don’t claim to have no sin; rather, confess). He wants to make sure their understanding of the Christian walk is sound so they don’t become corrupted by the gnostic influences.

    But even if you don’t agree with what the scholars say, for the sake of argument, let’s say the audience is Christians. How can I reconcile this teaching about confession for forgiveness with the over-arching theme of the New Testament that we are saved by grace alone, not works? I am not trying to trap you, but I want so much to embrace the freedom of being completely forgiven, apart from my works; yet not at the expense of ignoring historical fact.

    Thanks!

    • Hi Laura, thanks for your message. To my mind the issue of whether John was addressing believers or unbelievers is secondary. The key thing is the true meaning of the word confession. It does not mean “review your sins.” It literally means to agree with God. An unbeliever, by definition, is someone who doesn’t; a believer is someone who does. If I came to your church and said “Agree with God that you are a sinner in need of a Savior,” some of you would respond, “Tick! Already done that” and others would respond, “I need to do that.” I have written more about 1 John 1:9 here and I have a summary post on confession here.

      BTW, don’t be scared to read the Bible. The Bible should not be seen as a list of do’s and don’t’s – it’s a revelation of Jesus. Read the Bible to see Jesus. Since coming to an understanding of grace, reading the Bible has become the most exciting thing for me.

      • Paul, I think that your answer is a very good explanation for her concern. I completely agree that whether the audience is believers or unbelievers, it doesn’t change the message when you understand the meaning of the wording. People have to understand that a lot can be lost in translation, and that context has vital importance in understanding the meaning of what John was saying. For example, I can say, “I love you.” However, there is the romantic love, familial love, and brotherly love. The only way to determine my meaning is to look at context, audience, and underlying meaning. Confession being “agree with God” is what makes the whole passage make sense in light of the whole context of the Bible and the message of the Gospel. “Reviewing your sins” does not make sense and contrasts with what is taught elsewhere.

      • Hi Paul, thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I am trying to re-label the scary religious concepts, like ‘confession,’ in my mind. Your writings help me with this. It will take a long time, I think, to reprogram my mind after over 40 years of associating God and the Bible with fear and compulsion.

        I hope that, in time, I will come to enjoy reading the Bible. Whenever I come to the threshold of enjoying my time in the Word, something I read brings me back to the feelings of guilt. For example, I was reading about the discipline that God doles out to those He loves, and I started thinking about what a difficult child I am to deal with. Sure enough I struggled all day to do the right thing. It is hard to imagine wanting to draw near to God when my daily walk will always result in some disciplinary action (because I fall short of the perfect standard daily)–if not from a God of punishment, then from a God of love. Scripture makes it clear that discipline is for the children of God. Do you have any posts on seeing His discipline through the filter of grace?

        Thanks again for your impassioned writings!

      • hi Laura,
        wow. i can only imagine the evangelist you have met in that generation. as a little boy, have seen swagart, armstrong, graham, cerullo and some other guys in the black and white t.v. we have. i too are still on the process of repentance (renewing and changing of mind). the most hard part is letting go of those years and years of learned stuff about sin and righteousness, I ask like “really? just believe? no obedience or good works? I am righteous? just like that? well, yes it is.!

        regarding confession: JAMES 5:16 (NIV) …The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective

        i have argument over “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”. sinners are not righteous. nor a righteous sinner. then how are their prayers powerful and effective? my point is, Jesus is the righteous Man. He is that righteous one. this is interesting as I have a post just today, regarding this stuff.. – grace and peace

  13. Thank you, savedbygrace. I appreciate your supportive and encouraging comments. It gives me hope to hear ppl say they are still in the process of renewing their minds graceward. Sometimes I think I will never ‘get it'; but you’re right; I guess it would take time to undo all the works-oriented teaching. Grace just seems too good to be true. Grace and peace to you.

  14. had not read this one but needed a reminder,its that old [need to be reminded of grace everyday] M. LUTHER

  15. Henry Alferink says:

    Dear Paul (or anyone that can answer me),
    You say in this article that you had at one stage a problem with a certain face popping up in your mind. And you talked about confessing this sin. My question is, how did you know this was sin? We are not under law but under grace, but is the law still our guide to know what sin is…? [Of course I know this is sin, but I just want to know how I am to use the law in my own life]
    Thanks, Henry A from NZ

    • I didn’t confess my sin, for temptation is not a sin. I confessed my need for help. God gives grace to the humble not those who think they don’t need it.

  16. Hi Paul,

    What do you think about accountability and accountability partners? I used to think this was an important part of church life, but my experience has (mostly) been that when I confess sins to a brother, I end up feeling more guilty or a burden (of some action to prevent future sin) is placed on me. We need to live transparently, but often in the church we pay a price for our honesty. Also, I think there is a flaw in the accountability logic…that our fear of the shame of having to confess sin to a brother is a better motivation than a desire to please God.

  17. I always come away with so much more knowledge and understanding of God’s Truth and love for us (me) when i read your articles. Thank you for such blessings. Keeping my focus on Jesus and His finished work!

  18. Thanks for your post Paul .But if I live unconscious to temptation thinking I am no longer live under the law making me sin conscious but under the Grace.And having the impression that being conscious of temptation is condemnation because the scripture says there is therefore no condemnation in Christ Jesus.how can I live without guilt if I fail to bring the darkness until light?

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