What is confession of sin? The Bible mentions not only confession of sin, but confession of faith. However, the two are different. Confession of faith is openly professing your belief in Jesus while confession of sin is openly professing ways you fell short.
However, confession of sin is not just telling others your downfalls. Confession is coming into agreement with God on the matter. When we confess a sin to God and others and ask Him to forgive us, we are acknowledging that we have walked outside of His plan and are asking Him to cleanse us of sin. In addition, we are voicing our desire to align ourselves once again with His way.
According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, the following types of confession are mentioned in the Bible: personal confession of sin to God, confession to others for wrongdoing, confession to a spiritual advisor or minister of the Word, or confession to the entire church for more public sins.
Although I encourage you to do your own research on the subject, I have collected a few guidelines for confession based on my own journey and on that which I have read on the subject:
1. We are to confess our sins to God on a daily basis.
In 1 John 1:9, it tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” We should incorporate in our daily quiet time with God a space for confessing our transgressions to Him, confident that He forgives us when we ask.
We are justified when we become a believer in Jesus, but our relationship with Him is affected when we don’t confess our sin. Therefore, it’s necessary to confess regularly, so that we can enjoy a continually cleansed heart and unhindered relationship with Him.
2. Confessing sins to others helps us heal.
Perhaps you understand the need to confess to God but may have the following questions in regards to the James 5:16 mandate that says that we not only confess our sins to God, but confess our sins to others: If I get forgiven when I confess to God, why do I need to confess to others? Will I not be forgiven if I don’t confess to God and others?
I believe that we can find answers to those questions when we look at the verses surrounding James 16 (14-17):
Is anyone among you sick [suffering physically or emotionally because of a moral transgression]? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
In regards to this passage, according to the NIV Application Study Bible, “Calling elders to pray is not to diminish the importance of personal prayer by each Christian. It is to affirm the value of agreement by the church, for Jesus promises agreement among Christians would unleash power for answered prayer.”
In addition, the NIV commentary continues by clarifying that God answers prayer and absolves us of sin, not others. However, confessing our sins to others and asking them to pray for us is asking intercession from them, not absolution. Basically, asking others to pray for us is about acknowledging we are in need, having a penitent heart, and unleashing God’s power in our situation so that we can be healed (whether we are suffering emotionally from heavy chains of shame and guilt or physically from illness that has been caused by our sin).
Sometimes, we may be healed right on the spot when others pray for us (if we are suffering from a physical illness) or the emotional burden from our sin will lift. However, other times, we may gain clarity after leaving the prayer session about certain actions we need to engage in to find healing. For instance, in the case of healing from same-sex relationships, after our prayer time, we may know we need to walk away from certain influences leading us in the wrong way or even apologize to those we have been involved with in wrong ways. (Check out these posts on finding release from the baggage caused by my sexual sin and breaking free from soul ties.)
Whatever the case, asking for others to pray for us isn’t to earn forgiveness or jump through a series of hoops. As I will discuss in my next point, confession of every sinful thought and deed to others isn’t necessary. However, James urges us to call upon others and join in union with other believers for their prayers and support when we are seeking healing, as there is power in the prayers of others on our behalf.
3. We need to use wisdom in the process.
Sometimes, in our desire to be open with others and find healing, as it describes in James 5:16, we might overshare with others. We might think that we need to jump on Facebook or get in front of the congregation and confess our every sinful thought or action to others. However, unfiltered sharing in all circumstances is not what the passage is advocating.
We need to proceed with wisdom because we may hurt ourselves or others by oversharing. I read once about a pastor who confessed about his lust for certain members of the congregation in an effort to be transparent (totally not necessary or advisable!). In addition, I have read about other congregations that require public confession of all sins to the entire congregation (again, not necessary or advisable!). We might tempt others to sin by using too many details. Or, we may hurt a friend or fellow believer by confessing a wrong thought we had about them that wasn’t necessary to share.
We need the wisdom of the Holy Spirit about how to proceed. However, confession in a more public way (to our church or community) is reserved for those times when our sin has affected others in a public way. We need to start with private confession to God and a fellow believer or spiritual leader, and then determine if another step is necessary.
4. Sometimes we get hurt when we confess.
Many of us are reluctant to be open with others about our sins because we are afraid that others will judge us or look down on us. While we should be wise about the person we choose to share with, we can’t always know what their reaction will be to our sharing. Sometimes people will have a reaction that makes us feel bad or they will give us advice about what to do in our situation that isn’t right for us. In addition, some will try to stop us from being transparent about our past sins.
Though confession of sin to others is a Bible mandate, we also need to remember that people are imperfect and will sometimes have the wrong reaction to us even when we share as we should. No matter their reaction, we still get free when we do as the Bible commands. And we should stay connected to God in our process so we can filter their comments to us through our prayer time. Though others may not react the way we want or think they should — we still get free when we do what the Bible says!
5. Sometimes confession hurts before it heals.
Along those same lines, while we might feel an immediate release when we share with someone else about our same-sex experiences or another sin struggle we are having, we might also experience other emotions in the process. If we’re a private person, we may experience fear, doubt, and shame when contacting and speaking with a pastor or prayer partner. We might have thoughts that confessing to others isn’t going to work or there’s no point because we’ll never get free. Friends immersed in the same-sex lifestyle or supportive of our sexual sin may not understand why we are making a conscious effort to turn from our sin and may try to persuade us not to turn from our sexual sin.
Even Christian friends that agree we need to make a change in our behavior won’t always think we need to take steps to gain healing. Healing doesn’t always feel good in the moment and can be very confusing when we’re walking through it, but if we will stay committed to the process and pay attention to God’s nudges as we walk toward freedom, we will experience healing. (Read more here about why it hurts to heal.)
*Updated September 15, 2018.