Growing up in the church, confession meant little more to me than the C in ACTS and the name of the prayer in the middle of the service. I knew I had to confess my sins because I was a sinner, but I didn’t really get it. Why confess? I thought. Doesn’t God know all of my sins anyway?
But this narrow view doesn’t consider the multi-faceted role of confession in the Christian life. Scripture calls us to confess our sins, not only to God but also to one another (1 John 1:9; James 5:16). We confess our sins not in order to make God aware of them, but in order to approach Him humbly and live well in community.
Confession is not a formula or a ritual that we need to get into heaven. Instead, it is a rich part of the Christian life which orients us rightly toward God and shapes our relationships with others.
First, confession orients us rightly toward God. When we confess our sins to God, we recognize not only our sin but His holiness. Scripture is clear that our God is holy (Leviticus 19:1-2, 1 Samuel 2:2, Psalm 77:13, Psalm 99, Isaiah 43:15), and He shows himself holy in righteousness (Isaiah 5:16). When we come before Him, humbly confessing our sins, it is in some ways an exercise in contrast. In acknowledging our sin, we recognize His holiness.
Confessing our sins also brings the magnitude of gospel grace into sharp relief. If we don’t acknowledge our sin, the news that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1) is rather bland. If we know the extent of our sin, though, the news of our justification by faith becomes so much sweeter. Not only does confession remind us of our justification through Christ’s sacrifice once for all, but it also reminds us of God’s continual work of sanctification in us. God promises that, if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
Lastly, confessing our sins is an acknowledgment of reliance on God. In Scripture, the word “confess” is used not only to describe admittance of guilt and repentance, but also to describe a declaration of Christ’s Lordship (Romans 10:9-10, 2 Corinthians 9:13, 1 John 4:15). When we confess our sin before God, we also confess our willingness to submit our lives fully to Him, including our sinful desires.
Confession orients us rightly towards God, but it is also a crucial part of our walk with others. Scripture calls us to confess our sins, not only to God, but also to our brothers and sisters in the church. By doing so, we openly acknowledge our need for Christ, create accountability, and have the opportunity to pray for one another (James 5:16).
I’ll be the first one to admit that corporate confession isn’t easy. I struggle with pride: I am convinced that I have it all together, that I don’t really need God. At the same time, I wrestle with the fear of man: I am terrified that others will see right through me and notice all of my imperfections. So, I hold my sin close to my chest, too afraid to let anyone else see that I don’t really have it all together.
Sin is isolating, making it oh-so-easy to believe this lie: You’re doing this alone. No one understands what you’re going through, and if they did, they would never look at you the same way again. When we confess our sins to one another, we break the isolating power of sin, often finding that the same guilt we’ve been too afraid to bring to the light is the very same guilt that our brothers and sisters have been harboring.
Corporate confession also creates accountability. Suddenly, someone else knows about your sin — and not only do they know, but they have the ability to ask you about it in two weeks or two months or two years. Confessing our sins opens the door for fellow believers to make sure that we are continuing to seek God rather than live in sin.
I know this from experience. This summer, I mentioned to a sister in Christ that I was reading a book about purity as I wrestled with what the concept means in practice. The book had started to hit me hard, though, and I didn’t want to deal with it, so I put it back on my bookshelf — until a few weeks later, when she gently asked me, “So, did you finish that book yet?” I had to say “no,” but, held accountable, I finished the whole book that same night. I am not exaggerating when I say God used it to bring me to my knees in repentance. I confessed my sins to my sister, she kept me accountable, and as a result, I returned to God with a truly repentant heart.
The church is not for perfect people. It’s for the redeemed who, this side of heaven, are struggling with sin. Confessing our sins to God orients us rightly towards Him by reminding us who He is, what He has done for us, and where we stand in relation to Him. Confessing our sins to one another breaks the isolating chains of sin, allows us to see that we are not alone, and creates accountability.
So let’s make confession a part of our walk with God – not for the purpose of checking a box, but as an acknowledgment of the King whose throne we approach and of our unworthiness to be in His presence if not for the redeeming blood of His Son. Let’s make confession a part of our walk with others. Let’s be real with them about our own struggles and pray with and for them about theirs. And most of all, let’s take comfort in the promise that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus — because His grace is greater than our sin.