I’m so glad that that we no longer live in the horrific age of the inquisition. In those days the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope held sway; any that dared challenge his authority and church dogma, refusing to recant, were horribly tortured in order to extract a confession and then burnt at the stake without mercy:
“Anyone who attempts to construe a personal view of God which conflicts with Church dogma must be burned without pity.” Pope Innocent III
What is confession?
Today, in modern times, the word confession is used more in the context of a criminal admitting to a crime, which interestingly enough – according to the principle in UK law called corpus delicti – isn’t on its own enough to convict.
Wikipedia defines confession as :
“A statement – made by a person or by a group of persons – acknowledging some personal fact that the person (or the group) would ostensibly prefer to keep hidden. The term presumes that the speaker is providing information that he believes the other party is not already aware of, and is frequently associated with an admission of a moral or legal wrong:”
Confession for a Catholic
For many though, the word conjures up the confession booth and the penitent confessing both mortal and venial (less serious) sins to a Roman Catholic priest in order to receive absolution. This is called the Sacrament of Penance.
By the way, Catholics believe that mortal sins, are those which if not forgiven before death, send a person to hell because they separate the person from God’s grace (go figure that one!) Sins such as: Murder, Adultery, Masturbation and deliberately missing Mass – amongst many other sins in the list!
The Bible has one category … sin!
Confession in the Old Testament.
Where do these Catholic ideas of confession come from then? Well to some extent they are modelled on Old Covenant biblical practices: Under the law, if you sinned, you came to the priest with a sacrifice and confessed your sin in order to receive forgiveness.
Leviticus 5:5 “And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess (Hebrew ‘yadah’) that he hath sinned in that thing:”
Later on in the Bible, the people confessed as a nation for their sins:
Nehemiah 9:2 “And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.”
It’s important to realise though, that ‘confess’ is not the only translation of the Hebrew word ‘yadah’, as in many contexts it means ‘to praise’ or ‘give thanks.’ In fact, this is where the name Judah comes from and is its first usage in the Bible:
Genesis 29:35 “And she conceived again, and bare a son: and she said, Now will I praise the LORD: therefore she called his name Judah; and left bearing.”
Confession for a Protestant
What about Protestant Evangelicals though, what do they believe? Well certainly they don’t believe that forgiveness of sins is administered by a priest. No, they believe that they have direct access to God and can therefore confess their sins privately whenever they wish – basing this on 1John 1:9.
Indeed, this kind of freedom and access to God, was intuitively understood by King David living thousands of years earlier under the law. Somehow he looked forward to the time when the believer could approach God directly without mediator or priest:
Psalm 32:5 “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah.”
Of course, the Catholic might reasonably ask the Protestant: “how do you know you have been forgiven though?”
This is a good question. A Catholic believes that he or she knows that they are forgiven because they have received absolution from a priest. The Protestant … not so much?
That is why I believe, that 1 John 1:9 is not some miraculous bar of soap to be applied after sinning. No, under grace the believer confesses any sin knowing the certainty of total forgiveness.
Colossians 1:14 “In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:”
Under the Law you confessed to get forgiven; under Grace you confess because you are forgiven!
By the way, the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 brilliantly illustrates these ideas, as when he eventually returns home to his Father with his practiced confession and suggested penance, the Father has already forgiven him and instead showers him with love and affection that he doesn’t deserve. That’s grace for you!
Luke 15:18 “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.”
New Covenant Confession
So then, what does New Covenant confession look like? Firstly, a conversion experience is accompanied by the confession of sin and repentance:
Acts 19:18 “And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.”
However, like the Hebrew word for confess, the word Greek word for confess ‘homologeo’ is not exclusively used in regards to sin either but simply means to agree or to say the same thing as another.
John uses the word extensively in his Epistle in regards to the believers confession or statement of faith:
1 John 4:15 “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.”
1 John 4:2 “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:”
2 John 1:7 “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.”
The Apostle Paul also used the same word in the famous salvation passage:
Romans 10:9 “That if thou shalt confess (aorist) with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession (present tense) is made unto salvation.”
Confession to one another.
Just to finish though, James also talks about confession but in the context of confessing sins to one another (not a priest).
James 5:15 “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
What this verse is saying, is that if you have sinned against someone go and put it right – as Jesus explains in Matthew 18. Maybe though, James is thinking of when Abimelech inadvertently sinned against righteous Abraham?
Genesis 20:8 “Now therefore restore the man his wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live: and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that are thine.”
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