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*Frequently asked questions*
The Bible, the written word of God, is our sole authority in answering all questions pertaining to our spiritual life. However, in reading the Bible, we must keep in mind that the Bible is not written like a book of science where each statement is exact and complete in itself, nor like a book of law where the goal is to elaborate matters in sections and sub-sections so as to avoid loopholes. The Bible is written for the heart, and can be understood in its proper sense only by those who are spiritually minded (1Co.2:14), and who desire to do the will of God once it is revealed (Jn.7:17). Those who want to argue against the word of God can always find arguments, and those who do not want to obey what God says can appear to find words of God themselves to support their stand.
We can have many questions about this subject--confessing sins--, but unfortunately the answers given by different teachers are many times totally wrong or misleading. One reason for misunderstanding is that people take the words of the Bible literally without considering the spirit behind those words. In an attempt to be faithful to the inspired word, they miss the intention of God. Another common error is to treat different statements in the Bible as if they hold complete truths in themselves. It is not right to hold any one truth to the neglect of other truths without realising that spiritual truths are usually many sided and that even truths that appear to be in opposition to each other have to held together in order to get a balanced view of the truth. We shall go into examining our subject here along with an awareness of such dangers and ask the Holy Spirit who inspired the words in the first place to illuminate the truths to our minds and hearts.
1. What exactly should we understand by 'confess'?
The Biblical meaning of 'confess' is to 'say it as it is' or to acknowledge the reality. The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for 'confess' is 'yadah' meaning to throw down, which is used more number of times to mean 'give thanks'. The Greek word used in the New Testament for 'confess' is 'homologeo' meaning 'to say the same thing' or 'acknowledge'. We read of confessing with our mouth Jesus as Lord (Rom.10:9) meaning to express with our mouth what we believe as truth in our heart. We also read of confessing our sins (1Jn.1:9) which is to acknowledge that we have sinned in a certain way towards God or man. By confessing our sins we acknowledge the truth before God and that helps us to walk in the light with Him. It is important to note that since God looks at our heart, merely stating with our mouths won't do. We confess with our mouth what we are convinced or convicted of in our heart.
2. Does confessing our sins grant us forgiveness?
The mere act of confessing our sins does not get us forgiveness. Forgiveness is a free gift that God gives us because Jesus God's Son has taken the punishment for the sins of the whole world (Jn.3:16,17;1Jn.2:2). We can receive this gift through faith (Eph.2:8,9), which means recognising and acknowledging ourselves as sinners who need forgiveness and Jesus as our Saviour who has procured forgiveness for us through His death. We confess with our mouth this faith that we have in our heart, and then God grants us forgiveness for all our sins. Repentance, that is turning away from our past sins and deciding not to do them again, is also a part of this faith (without which 'faith' is dead Jas.2:17). It is our faith that calls for forgiveness and 'justification' (which is to be counted by God as being righteous) from God, and confessing this faith with our mouth makes a declaration of it, and strengthens our spiritual life, helping us to experience more of salvation (Rom.10:9,10).
3. Why does God punish us even after we confess our sins?
No, God does not punish us after we confess our sins. He has promised us that whenever we confess our sins (honestly, sincerely and in faith) He will forgive our sins and cleanse us (1Jn.1:9). 'Punishment' denotes the expression of God's anger against sin, and forgiveness denotes that this anger has been spent on Jesus when He died on the cross in our place. In other words, Jesus has taken away our punishment so that now we can be forgiven. But God may 'chastise' us when we sin. He does this out of His love for us (not anger) because He wants to help us not to sin again (Heb.12:6). Chastisement is a discipline or a training process that helps us to learn from our experience and to become more careful with sin (Heb.12:10). This may 'look' like punishment, but it comes from God's love rather than His anger. We must also remember that whenever we sin, there will be a natural consequence to us, and people around us also may face this. We may get disturbed in our mind and that may affect our behaviour with others. Our reputation may get spoilt, we may be fined or put in jail, etc. The Bible tells us that if we sin, we will suffer corruption in different ways (Gal.6:7,8).
4. Do we need to confess all our sins to get forgiveness?
As a matter of fact, no one can manage to confess all his sins! When we understand that broadly speaking sin is to come short of the perfection of God (Rom.3:23), we realise that we have sinned in all so many ways. We have sometimes sinned knowing that we were doing wrong, and we have sometimes sinned not even realising that we were doing wrong from God's point of view! We have done wrong things, and we have also failed to do the right thing (sins of commission and sins of omission)! We have sinned in so many ways that none of us can even be aware of all our sins or remember all of them. If forgiveness of sins was dependent on confessing all our sins individually, none of us could be forgiven. It is a practical impossibility! The thief on the cross only acknowledged that he deserved what he was getting (indirectly acknowledging himself as a sinner), and put his trust in Jesus (Lk.23:40,41). That was enough for Jesus to forgive his sins (v.43). In another instance when Cornelius was listening to Peter, the Holy Spirit fell upon him (Ac.10:44). This was, of course, an unusual sequence of events where repentance and faith (in the heart) were followed by being baptised in the Holy Spirit. Water baptism followed afterwards! But this is another instance when there was no actual listing of sins.
At the same time, when we go to God and we are conscious of the sins we have committed, it is only appropriate that we confess them to Him. This certainly helps us to 'own' and take responsibility for our sins and also to have the assurance that they have been forgiven. Even when we remember later some other sins we have committed we can confess them to God and be satisfied that they have been forgiven. This is right and fitting.
5. Is confession of sin necessary for receiving forgiveness?
Confession of sin demonstrates our acknowledgement that we have sinned. If we look at God's instructions in the Old Testament regarding the sacrifices for sins, we see that God wants us to acknowledge and confess our sins whenever we become aware that we have sinned. For example see places like Lev.4:22,23 where it says that when one realises that he has sinned by violating any one of the commandments he has to bring a sacrifice for that sin. How does this apply to us under the New Covenant?
Jesus has died for the sins of the whole world once for all (Heb.9:26;1Jn.2:2). This covers, for one thing, all the sins of people who lived before this sacrifice, such as Abraham, who receive forgiveness because of their relationship with God through faith (Rom.4:9). The sacrifices for sin ordered for the Jews through Moses were not able by themselves to forgive sins (Heb.10:4), but they were looking forward to the time when Jesus would be offered as a one time sacrifice for all people. We who live 2000 years later can have our sins forgiven because of the timeless effectiveness of that sacrifice by the sinless Lamb of God. But at the same time we must remember that just because Jesus has made a sacrifice for all sin of all time, all people do not receive forgiveness but only those who come to God through faith in Jesus. We can say that Jesus' sacrifice made forgiveness potentially available for all people for all time, but only those who repent of their sins and believe in Jesus (both are parts of true faith) will actually receive it. So confession of sin (meaning the acknowledgement of sin and our sinfulness, and in many cases the confession of specific sins to God and to people who have been affected by those sins) is a requirement for receiving forgiveness, because that is what demonstrates our faith.
Whenever we sin, we 'die' or lose our fellowship with God (Gen.2:17). When we confess that sin, the fellowship gets restored because God will forgive us (1Jn.1:9). When we sin against some person, we lose fellowship with that person too. Confession of sin can clear up the air between us, even though fellowship will become possible only when the other person is willing to forgive us. (If we have confessed our sins to someone and he refuses to forgive us, we are not to be blamed for the lack of reconciliation.)
6. What does it mean to confess our sins?
Jesus compared the process of salvation to two main steps, entering through a narrow gate, and then walking through a narrow way (Matt.7:13,14). Entering through the gate represents making a clear choice of repenting from sins and turning to God through Jesus. Walking on the way is a daily (and lifelong) experience of following in Jesus' footsteps, denying ourselves and obeying Him (Lk.9:23). We confess the specific sins we fall into as we walk along this way. There is a confession of sin at the gate, and there is another confession along the way.
When we first come to Jesus, we confess that we are sinners who really deserve death and we are so thankful that He has made a way for us to be forgiven. Then God washes away all our sins with the blood of Jesus, and 'justifies' us before Him as 'righteous' people by imputing (crediting) the righteousness of Jesus to our account. What is required at this point is not the confession of each individual sin that we have committed in our life (which is impossible) but an acknowledgement that we are sinners who need Jesus as our Saviour. In that process of humbling ourselves before God we may also actually confess many sins that come to our mind. We may also decide to make restitution (e.g., apologise to people we have wronged, return things we have stolen, etc.) which shows that our repentance is genuine (Mt.3:8). But confession of individual sins is not what prepares us for God's forgiveness, but a general acknowledgement that we are hopeless sinners apart from Jesus.
Jesus has died once for all for the sins of the whole world (1Jn.2:2), which includes all the sins that had been committed till then and also all the sins that would be committed after that! When God forgives us and counts us righteous through our faith in Jesus, He wipes away the record of our former sins and makes it white as snow (Isa.1:18). God forgives not only the specific sins that we have recognised and confessed, but also those which we are yet not aware of. But this covers only our 'former' sins (Rom.3:25;2Pet.1:9). As we go on with life, we need to confess our sins and appropriate the forgiveness that is already there for us. But when we confess all our sins to God (and to people we have sinned against), He forgives us and cleanses us (1Jn.1:9). Jesus who is now at the right hand side of the Father also intercedes for us and makes His atonement available to us (1Jn.2:1,2).
7. But you said it was not practical to be able to confess all sin!
That's right. But following the example we read from Lev.4:22,23, we need to confess our sins whenever we become aware of them. We cannot act as if there is no sin for us to confess (1Jn.1:8). By confessing specific sins we are also acknowledging that we are still sinners who need God's grace over us. God accepts that to cover even sins we have not yet become aware of. God, in a sense, 'overlooks' the times of ignorance (Act.17:30) when He sees our repentance over the sins we have become aware of. As a result we don't have to be worried about our sins which we have not become aware of or those we have forgotten. There is no clear verse to quote for this, but this is the understanding we come to when we put together what we see in all the Bible. (Remember, it is not possible for us to remember all our sins, and it is not even possible for us to recognise all our sins. God is very practical and reasonable about it.)
8. Some people teach that once we come to Jesus and receive forgiveness, all our future sins are also forgiven and that there is no need to confess our sins later which have already been forgiven!
Remember the example from Lev.4:22,23 where the people had to make a sin offering whenever they became aware of some sin? This was even though the high priest had offered a general sacrifice for all the people's sins on the Day of Atonement (Heb.9:7)! It teaches us that even though Jesus has already made the provision for the forgiveness of all our sins, when we sin and become aware of it we need to confess it to God and receive forgiveness (1Jn.1:9). In this way we appropriate what Jesus has already provided for. When we come to Jesus as sinners the first time, we receive forgiveness for all our former sins (Rom.3:25;2Pet.1:9). When we fall into sin afresh, we can claim forgiveness by acknowledging and confessing it to God in Jesus' name. Don't you see somewhat of a similarity in the idea that while Jesus has died for the sins of the whole world, only those who go to Him believing will receive it?
9. What would happen if we don't confess our present sins?
There can be different scenarios. Let us look at the examples of Saul, David, Peter and Judas. God chose Saul to be king and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Even though he began well, he started disobeying God, and even though he 'confessed' his sins when he was confronted, it is clear that he had not really repented of those sins because he went on to commit more serious sins. A time came when God took away the Holy Spirit from Saul, and an evil spirit entered him. This is an example of what can happen if we go on refusing to acknowledge our sins.
David, on the other hand, sinned more seriously than Saul, committing adultery and murder among other things. But he had the habit of acknowledging his sins and making amends wherever possible. In the case of Bathsheba David sadly took time to acknowledge his sins. But when he was finally confronted by God, he not only admitted his sin immediately but also expressed his repentance through a psalm. He came to be known as a man after God's own heart.
Peter was a close disciple of Jesus, always quick to express his love and loyalty to Jesus. But he succumbed to pressure to the point of denying Jesus three times. But he saw the look on Jesus' face and repented with tears immediately. Peter went on to become the leader of the first band of apostles in the early church.
Judas was one of the chosen twelve disciples of Jesus, working with Him in preaching the gospel, healing the sick and casting out demons along with the other disciples. But there was something wrong with him because he used to steal from the money bag (Jn.12:6), and he was not setting that right. He was possibly offended with Jesus when his opinion was rejected, and this provided him with an immediate provocation to betray Jesus into the hands of the Jewish leaders. But even though he later felt remorse, he never repented or acknowledged his sins.
God is patient and understanding, longing to be gracious towards us (Isa.30:18). But He will not let defiant sinners to get away with it (Ex.34:7).
10. When should we confess our sins to other people?
A general principle to remember is that sins should be confessed within the domain in which it was committed. All sin is against God, and so we need to confess all our sins to Him. Some of our sins are also against specific people. Then we need to confess those sins to those people. I would like to qualify this statement a bit. We don't have to confess to others our sins of attitude or thought against them because they are not even aware of them! For example, when a man has lusted after a woman in his heart he has actually committed adultery against her in his mind. But she is totally unaware of that. Wouldn't it be really foolish to go and confess it to her? But in case we have harmed or hurt others through our sin or sinful behaviour, and they are aware of it, our repentance will not be real if we don't acknowledge those sins to them. Sometimes it is also possible that merely admitting our sins will not be sufficient, because we may need to set things right--for example we have to return things we have stolen, if we have spread scandal about someone we need to set the record right, etc. We have to act wisely to avoid confessing sins to people in a way that would make it more difficult for them.
Many times other people may have complaints against us which are not really valid, i.e., we have not given them any real cause for them to think like that; it is because of their own imagination. Then we don't have to pamper them by apologising to them for things we haven't done! Mt.5:23,24 actually refers only to those complaints others have against us for which we have given them cause!
11. What if confessing our sins to other people is going to create a lot of problems?
One thing we need to realise is that sin always has consequences, even when God is willing to forgive us and not hold it against us any more. Let us look at this question in two phases.
a) We have sinned against someone and they know about it. In this case, it is possible that our relationship with them has suffered as a result, and confessing our sins to them can work towards restoring the relationship. It is not guaranteed that they will forgive us or are willing to accept us back. But at least this can clear our conscience. The fact that we are willing to humble ourselves and accept our blame may work towards healing the relationship in the long run.
b) We have sinned against someone, and they do not know about it. I am not saying here about sins (such as wrong attitudes or thoughts) which have not actually hurt others because they are not even aware of them. But think of a case where a husband/wife has been unfaithful to their spouse, and the spouse does not know it. Or another case where someone has stolen something from another and the victim does not know who stole it. The sinning person may think that confessing that sin is going to create a lot of problems for him/her. That is true. But that is the consequence of sin. If we do not set things right with others, even though we have confessed our sins to God we may suffer from a constantly accusing conscience, a fear of being found out, a certain distance in the relationship, etc. Is it not better to take the bitter pill once for all and get a clear conscience rather than hiding our sins and suffering for the rest of our life? OK, there will be some consequences, but when those settle down like dust and get swept away with time, wouldn't we be happy in the end?
Having said that, let us also look at some special considerations. Sometimes we also need to consider the maturity or otherwise of the people we need to confess sins to. When we confess to God, we know His heart is large enough to forgive us and treat us afterwards without recalling those sins (Heb.8:12). But people may not be able to handle the situation in the same way. So we will also have to consider the possibility that our confessing our sins to them may do more long term harm to our relationship than good. We have to consider if, after the intitial shock which is inevitable, they will be able to forgive us and move forward with us. God is not a legalistic person to demand following a law of confession without considering every other factor involved. Sometimes it may be wiser not to confess our sins to others. But in such a case we must be absolutely clear that we have truly repented from our sins and God has forgiven us. I am not giving a loophole here for someone to take advantage of. Do remember that we have to deal with God who knows our thoughts, imaginations and motives, and there is no fooling Him.
12. Some people insist that we need to confess all our sins to the church and some others say to at least some other human being in order to come into the light.
We humble ourselves by confessing our sins to God. This is right and proper. But this is not the same as humiliating ourselves by making public shameful things in our past which we should be ashamed of. God Himself is one who wishes to cover our shame (Gen.3:21), and who promises never to bring up our sins once they are forgiven (Heb.8:12). We glorify only Satan by bringing up our muck and ending up, in many cases, in boasting over how gross our sins were and losing our shame over them.
It is a total misunderstanding of God's word to require public confession of sin. Some churches teach that people should confess all their sins to their priests who alone have the authority to declare forgiveness. First of all there are no more 'priests' as a special class because all believers are now kings and priests before the Lord (1Pet.2:9). Also, there are now no human or angelic mediators between people and God because all can have individual access to God by faith in Jesus (Heb.8:11), and Jesus Himself is the only mediator (1Tim.2:5). It is a heresy to pray to Mary or other 'saints' to get to God.
Another wrong teaching is that we need to confess all our sins to at least one other human being in order to 'come into the light'. Certainly sin is a work of darkness, and to hide sin is to walk in darkness (Jn.3:20). Also if we hold sin in our heart (such as hatred) towards someone else we are not walking in the light with God or with this person, and there is really no fellowship with God or that person (1Jn.1:6). So if we have sinned against someone we need to confess that and set it right, and if we are holding a sinful attitude towards another we need to change in our heart before we can enjoy fellowship with him. But it is not right to say that unless we are willing to confess all our sins to another person we are trying to hide our sins and are unwilling to come into the light. God is light, and to come into the light essentially means to come out of hiding before God and live in transparency before Him (Jn.3:21). We must also remember that transparency before people has to be guided by wisdom, because not everyone can 'handle' everything with compassion or wisdom like God can.
Some churches wrongly teach confession of all past sin to the whole church openly, or to individual 'disciplers', usually quoting Jas.5:16. But this is a misquotation, because this is not a general instruction for all people under all circumstances, but a specific instruction to those who are sick. In this context, we may remember that some sickness may be either be the consequence of some sin which then needs to be confessed (1Cor.11:28-30), or a discipline from the Lord (Heb.12:6), in which case also it may be good to confess and forsake that sin. Such confessions could be directly to the Lord, or in serious cases where one has to call for the elders to pray for him it may be appropriate to confess such sins to them too (provided these elders are known to be able to keep confidentiality!). But this is not a command or an instruction for general confession of sin to one another.
Some think that for husbands and wives to become truly one with each other, it is necessary to confess all their past sins to each other in an attempt to be transparent. Our past sins are things we are ashamed of, and we don't get good results by spreading shame. We must remember we are dealing with imperfect spouses (we ourselves are imperfect), and we are expecting them to deal with our sinful past in a perfectly generous and understanding way! What commonly happens is that unnecessary quarrels rise up, and spouses lose respect for and trust in each other. Spouses may use these past stories to strengthen their arguments and to attack each other. The only one we can be perfectly frank with is God Himself who has a perfectly large heart to deal with us in the right way. He forgives us and promises never to bring up our past sins against us (Heb.8:12). Please note that at the same time we are not advocating dishonesty or hypocrisy. We must be honest enough to acknowledge our sins to ourselves and to God, and also willing to acknowledge them to others if the subject is brought up.
Accountability partners may be helpful for some people to get help to fight with sins in their life. But such partners have to be accountable to keep confidentiality, and not to misuse information to control or manipulate the others. Also we must not think that confession to such partners is a compulsory requirement from God. Merely confessing our sins to such partners without truly repenting in our hearts is again useless.
It is God to whom we are ultimately accountable (Rom.14:12), and it is before Him that we need to walk (Gen.17:1). It is before Him that we need to humble ourselves (Jas.4:10). If we have also sinned against people we need to humble ourselves before them too. But we are walking in the light if we are honest and upright concerning our sins before God. It is hypocrisy to hide and act as if we have no sin, but it is not hypocrisy if we are struggling to overcome sin and are honest with God. God's heart is large enough to know about all our sins and still love us. But it is foolish to expect that people will automatically be mature enough to handle it with an understanding heart or to keep it confidential. Many problems have arisen because this wrong type of confession, because of loss of confidentiality, damaged reputation, loss of respect, broken relationships, etc.
13. What happens if a believer dies with unconfessed sin?
As we have said earlier, when we come to God through Jesus we are accepted not on the basis of confession of every single sin, but faith. This faith includes acknowledgement and turning away from our sins and acceptance of Jesus' death as the atonement for our sins. We do confess at this time the sins that come up to our mind as a part of our humbling of ourselves before God, but this is not strictly required. The thief on the cross who acknowledged his sinfulness and how he deserved to die for his sins was promised a place in Paradise along with Jesus, without having confessed a single one of his sins (Lk.23:40-43). All his former sins were forgiven when he acknowledged his sins in general. After we receive the first time forgiveness which covers all our past sins, we confess the later sins we become aware of and receive forgiveness for them (1Jn.1:9). God overlooks the sins we are unaware of (Acts.17:30). Under the old covenant, the high priest used to make a general sacrifice once a year for all sins which the people had committed in ignorance (Heb.9:7). When Jesus has made the supreme sacrifice once for all, covering all sins of all time, He accepts our general acknowledgement of sin and forgives us all sins that we are aware of and unaware of. This is reasonable, because if God were to demand that only if all sin (including the ones we are really unaware of) have been confessed we would be let into heaven (which some teachers say), then nobody would be able to enter heaven!
At the same time forgiveness is not something we can take for granted nor is sin to be taken lightly. If we become aware of some sin and we refuse to confess it, we are actually departing from an attitude of repentance and acknowledgment of sin. God will be patient with us, and give us time to repent (Rev.2:21). But He may finally cut us off from our inheritance (See FAQ on Security of a believer). See the discussion above on Saul, David, Peter and Judas to understand how God works with people in this context.
14. Do we have to confess the sins of our ancestors?
We cannot get God to forgive the sins of our ancestors by confessing them. Each of us is directly accountable to God, and if any of us wants God to forgive him, he has to confess his sins personally to God. We can intercede for others while they are still alive, so that God should work in their hearts and they would repent of their sins, but even that possibility ceases when they die because after that there is no more opportunity to repent, but only to wait for the judgment (Heb.9:27).
Those who falsely teach on generational/ancestral curses (please see my article on Curses on Christians?) point out how Daniel, Ezra and the Levites under Nehemiah confessed the sins of their nation when they were praying for the nation. First of all these are only historical records of what people did, and not instructions for us to follow. For example, just because the early church members sold off their property and gave the money to the apostles we don't do that, do we? And also, these people were essentially humbling themselves before God and acknowledging their sins and the sinfulness of their nations (which is a good thing), and not asking God to absolve their fathers for their sins!
We do note that the nation of Israel suffered from famine because King Saul had killed the Gibeonites in violation of the covenant Joshua had made with them earlier (2Sam.21). This was the discipline of the Lord for a national sin. When King David understood from the Lord the reason for the famine, he tried to set it right by asking the Gibeonites what they wanted in restitution. They demanded that seven of Saul's (grand) children should be put to death, which David did. Now there was a law for Israel that children should not be put to death for their father's sin (Deut.24:16). We are not sure if David was aware of this law, or if he decided to act on the demand on the Gibeonites on the basis of legal justice. Perhaps he and the people could have simply humbled themselves before God, acknowledge that a covenant had indeed been broken, asked for mercy and made some other form of restitution to the Gibeonites.
When it comes to us and our ancestors, we know clearly that we are not guilty for their sins and so we don't have to confess them in order to receive forgiveness. However if the consequences of their sins are affecting us we can humble ourselves before God, acknowledge they have sinned, disassociate ourselves from those sins and ask for God's mercy on us. This is probably what Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah did. We must distinguish between being punished for the sins of the ancestors (which cannot happen, according to Ezek.18), and suffering the consequences of their sins (which happens). Ex.20:5 says, "You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me" (NASB). 'Visiting the iniquity' is very difficult to understand, and possibly it refers to the consequences of sins being faced by subsequent generations. The NIV apparently has taken a liberty by translating it as, "You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me," contrary to Ez.18. When we see that we are now suffering because of what our ancestors have done we can request God to be merciful to us.
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