Question: "What is confession of sin? What does it mean to confess sin?"
Answer: Confession of sin is the admission of what we did and the agreement with God that our actions or words were wrong. In a court of law, a person who confesses to a crime is agreeing that he or she did in fact violate a societal standard. When we confess our sins, we are admitting that we violated God’s law. We admit that we chose to do, say, or think something opposed to God’s will, and we stand guilty before Him.
Related to confession is repentance. Whereas confession involves admitting what we did was wrong, repentance involves a desire to change course. We not only acknowledge our sin but take steps to overcome and forsake it. Confession without repentance is only words. Most people will confess to a sin when caught red-handed, but they may have no intention of changing. Their show of remorse is due to the consequences of their actions, not the sin of the actions. John the Baptist preached repentance in preparing the way for the Messiah: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). In other words, John counselled his hearers to not merely confess their sins but demonstrate by their actions that they had truly repented of them.
The Bible presents two avenues for the confession of sins. First, we are to confess our sins to God. First John 1:9 says that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Second, we are to confess our sins to other believers. James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” When we have wronged someone, it is appropriate to confess our wrongdoing to that person and seek forgiveness.
Several factors can hinder or prevent our confession of sins. One is pride. We don’t like to admit we were wrong. Pride rushes in to justify, explain, or blame-shift instead of confessing and being forgiven (Proverbs 16:18). God resists a prideful person (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). Confession of sin does little good when it is coerced or insincere because it is not true agreement with God but a temporary effort to appease a guilty conscience or pacify someone else.
Another factor that hinders the confession of sin is ignorance. In our modern age, people are growing more biblically illiterate, and hearts are growing cold toward the things of God. The neglect of Scripture means that many, including professing Christians, are woefully ignorant of God’s moral standards. Some indulge their sinful desires with little remorse, preferring to remain in the dark rather than have to confess and forsake their sin. Their attitude is “ignorance is bliss,” and they may even resist learning more about God’s Word for fear it will make them feel guilty about their lifestyles. God holds us accountable for all He has entrusted to us, so ignorance is no excuse for not confessing our sin to God and being forgiven.
When we confess our sins to someone we have wronged, that confession should be accompanied by an appeal for forgiveness. While we cannot force someone to forgive us, we should always make that option available to them so that they can live free of bitterness toward us. The Bible is filled with commands to forgive each other (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; Matthew 6:14). Jesus even gave us a step-by-step tutorial in confession and restoration within the church (Matthew 18:15–17). There are other times when our sin was not against a specific person, but we can confess it anyway to Christian brothers and sisters as a way of becoming accountable for change (James 5:16).
An old adage says, “Confession is good for the soul.” This is true. God wants us to live with a clear conscience and a pure heart (Matthew 5:8; Psalm 24:4). This is only possible when we regularly confess and forsake our sins, keeping the model of Jesus ever before us (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1). He never had to confess His sins because He never committed any (Hebrews 4:15). But no one else can truthfully say that, so we need to learn how to confess our sins regularly both to God and to other people so that we can live free of guilt and shame (Colossians 2:14).