The biblical concepts expressed by the words "confess" and "confession" have in common the idea of an acknowledgment of something. This is the root idea of the two verbs that lie behind the great majority of occurrences of the words "confess" and "confession" in the English Bible: Hebrew yadaa [h'd"y] (in the hiphil root) and Greek homologeo [oJmologevw]. English versions such as the NIV therefore sometimes translate these verbs as "acknowledge." From this common root emerge two distinct theological senses: the acknowledging or confessing of faith (in God, Christ, or a particular doctrine), and the acknowledging or confessing of sins before God.
Confession of Faith. Those who are in relationship with God have the joy and responsibility of publicly acknowledging that relationship and the beliefs that are part of it. Solomon alludes to such public profession of commitment to God in his prayer at the dedication of the temple: "When your people Israel have been defeated by an enemy because they have sinned against you, and when they turn back to you and confess your name, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel" ( 1 Kings 8:33-34 ; cf. v. 35 2 Chronicles 6:24 2 Chronicles 6:26 ). But the reference to Israel's sins suggests that confessing God's name here involves also the acknowledgment of sin before him. The two biblical ideas of confession are here, therefore, united.
It is in the New Testament that confession in the sense of acknowledging allegiance to the faith becomes prominent. Confessing God's name ( Heb 13:15 ) or the "name of the Lord" ( 2 Tim 2:19 ) is the mark of a believer. And, since God has revealed himself and his truth decisively in Jesus Christ, confessing Christ becomes the hallmark of genuine Christianity. Jesus taught that "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven" ( Matt 10:32 ; Luke 12:8 ; cf. Rev 3:5 ). Reflected here is the secular Greek use of the word to denote solemn and binding public testimony in a court of law. Confession of Christ, then, is no private matter, but a public declaration of allegiance. Such claims can, however, be spurious, and are revealed by a lifestyle incompatible with a genuine relationship to Christ ( Titus 1:16 ).
Confessing Christ, then, requires both a matching Christian lifestyle and a matching Christian theology. In what is perhaps the most characteristic New Testament use of the language, the writers stress that Christian confession includes adherence to certain truths about Christ. This doctrinal sense of the word can be seen generally in Luke's reminder that the Pharisees acknowledge the teachings about the resurrection and the spiritual realm ( Ac 23:8 ). Central to New Testament doctrine, of course, is the truth about Jesus Christ, and this is the point continually stressed by the New Testament writers. Perhaps the earliest and most basic of Christian confessions was the simple assertion that "Jesus is Lord" ( Rom 10:9-10 ). Paul here makes "confessing with the mouth" parallel to "believing in the heart" as a means of salvation. He does not mean by this that public confession is a means of salvation in the way that faith is, for his choice of wording is dictated by the allusion to the heart and the mouth in his earlier quotation of Deuteronomy 30:14 (v. 8). But the text does highlight the fact that genuine faith has its natural result in a public confession of adherence to Christ.
A variation of the formula "Jesus is Lord" that is probably just as early is the confession "Jesus is the Christ, or the Messiah." John tells us that the Pharisees refused to confess that Jesus was the Messiah ( 12:42 ), and forced out of the synagogue all Jews who did make such a confession ( 9:22 ). Here also we see the way in which public confession of Christ could lead to persecution. It is perhaps because Timothy faces such persecution that Paul urges him to imitate his Lord's example before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate by making "your good confession in the presence of many witnesses" ( 1 Tim 6:12 ; cf. v. 13 ).
As the church was exposed to more and more alien influences, Christian doctrinal confessions had to become more specific and detailed. Contesting heretics who denied the reality of Jesus' humanity, John insists that only those who confess that Jesus had come in the flesh could claim to know God ( 1 John 2:23 ; 1 John 4:2-3 1 John 4:15 ; 2 John 7 ). Similarly, the author to the Hebrews exhorts his wayward readers to "hold fast our confession" ( 4:14 , RSV; 10:23 ), a confession that is focused on the identity of Christ (see 3:1 ). This New Testament use of the language of confession led to the later church's use of the word "confession" to denote a summary of what Christians believe (e.g., "The Augsburg Confession, " "The Westminster Confession of Faith"). From the beginning, the church found it necessary to define what it meant to be a Christian by formulating statements of Christian belief that could be recited publicly. First Timothy 3:16, introduced by the words "Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion" (RSV), may be just such an early confession; and scholars have suggested that other such early confessions or creeds may be found in texts such as Romans 1:3-4, Colossians 1:15-20, and Philippians 2:6-11.
Confession of Sins. If confession of faith is more prominent in the New Testament, confession of sins is found more often in the Old Testmaent. The word that is most often used in such contexts is the Hebrew verb yada [h'd"y], which can mean either to praise or give thanks to God or to confess sins before God. Indeed, in some verses ( Jos 7:19 ), it is not clear which is meant. Confession of sin in the Old Testament often comes in the context of the offering of sacrifices. Leviticus 5:5 makes confession of sin the intermediate step between awareness that a sin has been committed (vv. 3-4) and the offering of an atoning sacrifice (v. 6). Here we see the idea of confession as a conscious and public acknowledgement that God's holy law has been transgressed (see also Lev 26:40 ; Num 5:7 ). The Old Testament also stresses the way in which representative figures among the people of Israel can publicly confess sins on behalf of the people as a whole (the high priest on the Day of Atonement [ 16:21 ; Ezra 10:1 ] [Nehemiah 1:6 ; 9:2-3 ] [Daniel Daniel 9:4 Daniel 9:20 ]). This acknowledging before God of the sins of the nation as a whole (an acknowledgment in which individual Israelites were to take part) was a necessary prerequisite for God's mercy and restoring grace in the midst of judgment. The confession needed, of course, to be sincere. Jeremiah's call on the people to acknowledge their guilt ( 3:13 ) leads only to an insincere confession (14:20) that the Lord does not heed. One way in which the sincerity of confession can be tested is by accompanying Acts of repentance. In Ezra's day, for example, confession of sin in taking foreign wives was to be followed by a putting away of those wives ( Ezra 10 ). But the Old Testament also recognizes the importance of individual confession of sins and in contexts not obviously tied to the sacrificial system. David reflects, "I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord' and you forgave the guilt of my sin" ( Psalm 32:5 ). David experienced the principle stated in Proverbs 28:13: "He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy."
Confession of sins in the New Testament (usually expressed with the compound word exomologeo) is mentioned in only five passages. This is not, however, to minimize its importance, as confession is certainly included in the widespread call to "repent" from one's sins. Thus, John the Baptist's call for repentance is met by the people's confession of their sins ( Matt 3:6 ; Mark 1:5 ). Perhaps the most familiar text on confession is 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." Making forgiveness conditional on confession raises theological problems for some. For does not Christ's sacrifice wipe out for the believer the guilt of all sins past, present, and future? Perhaps it is best to distinguish between the judicial basis for the forgiveness of sins the once-for-all work of Christ and the continuing appropriation of the benefits of that sacrifice through repeated repentance and confession of sins. Secured for us eternally in our justification by faith, forgiveness is always provided, but we are to ask for it ( Matthew 6:12 Matthew 6:14 ), as we confess our sins.
The setting of the confession of sins in the Old Testament is frequently public. This raises the question about whether confession should be private or public. James suggests the importance of public confession: "Confess your sins to each other" ( James 5:16 ; cf. also Acts 19:18 ). This exhortation was a key scriptural basis for the early "methodist" lay gatherings, in which public confession of sin played a large role. Even in public confessions, of course, it is the Lord who is the primary "audience, " for all sin is ultimately sin against him, and all confession must be directed ultimately to him. Moreover, public confession of sin does not seem to be a standard feature of New Testament church life. While its biblical basis is not completely clear, therefore, there is wisdom in the principle that sin should be confessed to those whom it has directly harmed. When the whole church has been affected, the whole church should hear the confession. When one other person has been harmed, we should confess to that person. But when the sin is a "private" one, we may well keep the confession between ourselves and God. Certainly there is no New Testament warrant for the later Roman Catholic insistence on auricular confession to a priest. Although "elders" are mentioned in jas 5:14, the exhortation to confess sins to "one another" in verse 16 clearly has in view the entire Christian community.
Douglas J. Moo
Bibliography. O. Cullmann, The Earliest Christian Confessions; J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds; O. Michel, TDNT, 5:199-220; V. H. Neufeld, The Earliest Christian Confessions; J. R. W. Stott, Confess Your Sins: The Way of Reconciliation.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Confess, Confession'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".