What does that word bring to mind when you read it? What does it mean in the Christian life? How does one actually confess? These days, it seems like each week brings new headlines with apologies from pedestaled persons owning up to moral failings. And within the church, we’ve gravitated toward defining our relationships with terms like “authentic,” “vulnerable,” and “transparent,” such that we can mutually share our brokenness without judgment. While that emphasis is not a wrong one, we would do well to keep from confusing it with true confession.
Perhaps the most well known verse concerning confession is found in John’s first epistle—“If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Cavalier interpreters have used this verse to justify a life independent of the Lord’s design. When caught, simply cover up wrongdoings with an admission of guilt, and God will be faithful and just to forgive and cleanse. It’s the Christian get-out-of-jail-free card. After all, that’s what the Bible says, right? Not exactly.
John begins his brief letter with gratitude for the good news of Jesus Christ, around which the Church has fellowship, meaning “something in common.” Beginning in verse five, he transitions to instructing believers in how they ought to live with one another. Since perfection is not achievable on this side of glory (v. 8), it’s important that our lives are marked by confession (v. 9).
The Greek word John uses here is homologeo, which literally means, “to concede that something is true.” Throughout human history, we have mastered the art of diluting sin’s potency. If you don’t believe me, just turn on the television or log in to Twitter. You’re bound to find debates over topics like greed, casual sex and racism conveniently labeled with phrases like “conservative values,” “bodily independence” and “free speech.” It’s a master class in euphemizing that which separates us from our Father.
And on those rare occasions when someone is caught red handed, our culture has become expert at the admission of wrongdoing with no apparent life change. None of this is homologeo. To fully enter into the experience described in 1 John 1:9, we must concede that what God says about sin is true. To put it another way, we must learn to say the same thing God says about sin. Just as the Church needs the gospel of Jesus Christ for fellowship (1:1–4), so the believer needs God’s truth for forgiveness and cleansing (1:5–10).
Clearly, that requires more than a simple admission of guilt. God is not interested in a verbal declaration that our actions are off kilter. Sin is a cosmic offense against the Lord, and we must treat it as such. We experience forgiveness and cleansing when we come to see our sin on God’s terms.
1 John 1:9 is not a biblical loophole. Rather, confession is the act of agreeing with God about our condition and seeking healing on His terms, not our own. The cross makes it clear that God is serious about sin, but it also reveals that He is faithful to forgive. His faithfulness is not a cheap word, but a promise sealed by the blood of His Son. Our confession should be motivated by the seriousness of the cross and the wonder of the grace made available through the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ assure us that the Lord is faithful and just to forgive and to cleanse.