The Spiritual Disciplines: Confession

July 15, 2014

by Peter Amsterdam

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A familiar Scottish proverb tells us that “Confession is good for the soul,” and so it is. When we are looking to deepen our connection with the Lord, to live a God-centered life, confessing our sins plays an important role.

The Spiritual Discipline of confession involves sin that is committed after salvation. When we accept Jesus as our Savior we are forgiven for our sins, and therefore are seen as judicially righteous before God, with assurance of salvation.[1] In His great love for humanity, God made a way for us to be reconciled with Him, and that way was through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus, who gave His life so that we could be born again as members of God’s family. Salvation changed our relationship with HimHe is now our Father.[2] We are eternally part of His family.

Being born again, however, doesn’t mean that we no longer sin, or that when we do, our sins have no consequences. Sin has negative effects in our lives and the lives of others, and most prominently in the damage it does to our personal relationship with God. Sin causes a breach in our relationship with our Father, and confession repairs the breach. It takes effort on our part to make things right, similar to how it takes effort to restore a relationship with another person whom we have hurt or offended.

The discipline of confession is the means of counteracting the effect our sins have on our relationship with God. If we don’t regularly repair the damage through confessing our sins, we run the risk of becoming hardened in heart and spirit and relationally growing more distant from Him. As John MacArthur wrote:

I’ve seen Christians—judicially forgiven and eternally secure—who are hardened, impenitent, and insensitive to sin. Consequently, they are also without joy because they don’t have a loving, intimate fellowship with God. They have blocked out joy and fellowship with the barricade of their unconfessed sin.[3]

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus directed us to ask the Father to forgive us our sins.[4] He wasn’t instructing us to pray repeatedly for justification, as we received that upon salvation.[5] Instead, He was showing us the means of restoring our personal fellowship with God when that fellowship has been broken or damaged due to our sins. When King David had grievously sinned, his fellowship with God was broken and his sin had distanced him. His prayer was:

Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me.[6] He asked God for restoration: Restore to me the joy of Your salvation.[7]

Confessing our sins and asking God to forgive us is the path to that restoration. When we come before Him and admit that we have sinned, when we ask forgiveness and have heartfelt repentance, the breach is repaired and the damaged relationship is restored. We are cleansed from our unrighteousness and can once again be in fellowship with righteousness, God Himself.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.[8]

Confession shouldn’t be looked upon as something negative or distasteful, because the positive result of confessing our transgressions is forgiveness. God desires to forgive us, and confession is the avenue through which we receive His mercy and compassion. His forgiveness brings freshness to our spirit as our relationship, love, and friendship with Him is renewed.

What Confession Means

The Greek word for sin is hamartia (pronounced ha mar TEE ah), which means to miss the mark, to wander from the path of uprightness and honor, to do or go wrong. As Christians, we don’t want to wander from the path of uprightness or miss the mark. Our goal is to journey through life walking close to Jesus, to avoid straying from His side. When we sin, we wander from Him, but confessing draws us back. Confession is an expression of our love and desire to have a close relationship with Jesus and stay connected to Him.

The word used in the New Testament in reference to confessing our sins is homologeo (pronouncedha ma la GAY oh),which comes from the combination of the words homos, meaning “the same,” and lego, meaning “to speak.” It means to speak the same thing, to agree. When we confess our sins, we are saying the same thing about sin as God does. We are agreeing with His condemnation of sin and acknowledging that in sinning we have acted against God personally, against His Word and His nature. We are admitting that sin is wrong and that we have acted in a way that is offensive to Him. It’s acknowledging that we call these actions the same thing God calls them: envy, jealousy, lust, hatred, deceit, greed, anger, gluttony, adultery, etc.[9]

It is recognizing that these actions are repugnant to God and that by doing them, we are hurting our relationship with Him. It is agreeing that because of the sins of humanity, including our specific sins, Jesus suffered torture and death on the cross. Confession is the acknowledgment that these things are wrong, that we have personally done them, we have offended God, we are sorry, and we need His forgiveness. It is also an expression of our understanding that when we confess our sins, God, in His love and mercy, forgives us.

Charles Spurgeon pointed out that as God’s children, we don’t come before Him to confess as a culprit or criminal comes before a judge. Instead, as His children, we come to our loving Father who desires to forgive.

There is a wide distinction between confessing sin as a culprit, and confessing sin as a child. The Father’s bosom is the place for penitent confessions. We have been cleansed once for all, but our feet still need to be washed from the defilement of our daily walk as children of God.[10]

When we confess our sins, we are recognizing and admitting our guilt. We are stating that no matter who we have wronged, we have sinned against God, whom we are accountable to, we deeply regret doing so, and we seek His forgiveness.

Confession consists of acknowledging our specific sins and claiming them as our own. The following story expresses this point well:

A counselor was trying to help a man who had come forward during an evangelistic meeting. “I’m a Christian,” the man said, “but there’s sin in my life, and I need help.” The counselor showed him 1 John 1:9 and suggested that the man confess his sins to God. “O Father,” the man began, “if we have done anything wrong—” “Just a minute!” the counselor interrupted. “Don’t drag me into your sin! My brother, it’s not ‘if’ or ‘we’—you’d better get down to business with God!”[11]

Because our goal is to regain our close relationship with God, it is helpful to confess specific wrongdoing along with our general sins and weaknesses.

Of course, part of confession is repentance, meaning the changing of the mind, a change of view and of purpose. It’s understanding that sin isn’t just a weakness or an area of your life that you need to work on; it is you acting contrary to God and His nature, resulting in His displeasure and causing a distance in your relationship with Him, as well as negatively affecting you as a person. Repentance means turning from sin and toward God, similar to the prodigal son who returned from a far country to his father’s house. It’s being sorry for sinning and committing to change.

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.[12]

Every one of us sins frequently. We don’t want to, we usually don't mean to, but we do. And while some sins are more serious than others, all sin is spiritually damaging. Confession as a discipline is part of the process of counteracting the damage.

How Often to Confess?

There is no set rule for how often to confess your sins to the Lord, though it seems wise to do so on a regular basis. Before coming before the Lord to confess your sins, it’s good to take some time in self-examination, thinking and praying about the ways you have sinned and any specific sins you can remember. The goal isn’t to root out every detail or every possible sin, rather it’s taking time in prayer to invite the Lord to move in your heart to show you areas in which you need His forgiveness.[13]

If you invite the Holy Spirit to help you search your heart, you will likely become aware of specific sins you would want to confess. Not just sins of commission, but also of omissiontimes when you should have done something but didn’t. You may become more aware of sins of the heart (such as greed, pride, anger, etc.), which are less obvious than the more outward sins of the flesh. The purpose of confession is greater closeness to God, and taking some time to pray, meditate, and open ourselves to God in self-examination is part of the discipline.

Whom to Confess to

Scripture tells us to confess our sins to God. I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.[14] Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.[15] We confess to the Lord because ultimately He is the one we have sinned against. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apologize to those you’ve wrongedyou should, and also make restitution if it’s called for.

Besides confessing our sins to God, Scripture also speaks of confessing our sins to others.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.[16] If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.[17]

Some Christians—Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some Anglicans—act upon the instructions to confess sins to another within the sacrament of confession (also called the sacrament of penance or the sacrament of reconciliation), as they confess their sins to a priest. Generally, Protestant belief is that confession is made only to God in the privacy of personal prayer. In some Protestant services, the pastor will call for a period of silence in order to allow time for members to privately confess their sins to the Lord.

While confessing one’s sins is generally a private matter between the individual and God, as we’ve seen by the verses above, there are occasions when we are instructed to confess our sins to one another. Martin Luther said that “secret confession” to another Christian, although not required by Scripture, was “useful and even necessary.” John Calvin also commended private confession for any believer who is “troubled and afflicted with a sense of sins, so that without outside help he is unable to free himself from them.”[18]

There are times when individuals confess their sins to the Lord, but don’t feel it is enough; they don’t have peace that their confession has restored their fellowship with God. In times like these, it can be beneficial to confess the sin to a trusted brother or sister in the Lord. In such instances God has given us our brothers and sisters to stand in Christ’s stead and make God’s presence and forgiveness real to us.[19]Making a verbal confession of sin to a trusted fellow Christian, along with the effective prayers prayed by that Christian, is sometimes needed to bring the realization of forgiveness, resulting in peace of heart, mind, and spirit.

Of course, such a confession wouldn’t be made to just any Christian, as not all of our brothers and sisters have the necessary empathy or understanding to receive a confession, neither can every Christian be counted on to keep the information in absolute confidence. Richard Foster gives some further qualifications for a person who will be receiving a confession:

Others are disqualified because they would be horrified at the revealing of certain sins. Still others, not understanding the nature and value of confession, would shrug it off with a “That’s not so bad.” Fortunately, many people do understand and would be delighted to minister in this way. These people are found by asking God to reveal them to us. They are also found by observing people to see who evidences a lively faith in God’s power to forgive and exhibits the joy of the Lord in his or her heart. The key qualifications are spiritual maturity, wisdom, compassion, good common sense, the ability to keep a confidence, and a wholesome sense of humor. Many pastors—though by no means all—can serve in this way. Often ordinary folk who hold no office or title whatever are among the best at receiving a confession.[20]

Receiving a Confession

Receiving a confession from another Christian is a sacred matter. Your brother or sister is coming to you in obedience to Scripture, trusting that you will listen with love and compassion. In order to properly receive a confession, you need to begin from a place of deep humility. All sin is abhorrent to God, and since we all sin, no one is in a position to be judgmental or to look down upon the one making confession.

The individual making their confession may be in pain and sorrowful about their sins, or they may be confessing in obedience to Scripture, or because they want to please the Lord. They deserve the utmost respect and love from you. If you can’t give them that, if you don’t feel you can keep the information confidential, if you are concerned that you may betray their trust, then you shouldn’t agree to receive it.

Foster gives the following wise counsel for those who are receiving a confession:[21]

  • When one is opening their griefs to you, discipline yourself to be quiet. Don’t try to relieve the tension by making an offhanded comment, as it’s distracting and even destructive to the sacredness of the moment.
  • Don’t try to pry out more details than necessary. If you feel they are holding something back due to fear or embarrassment, it’s best to wait silently and prayerfully.
  • Pray for them inwardly and imperceptibly, send prayers of love and forgiveness toward them. Pray that they will share the “key” that will reveal any area needing the healing touch of Christ.
  • Once they have confessed, pray for them out loud, and in the prayer, state that the forgiveness that is in Jesus is now real and effective for them. You can say this in a tone of genuine authority because If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.[22]
  • Ask God to heal their heart and mind from any wounds the sin has caused.

One of our goals as Christians is to have a deep and abiding relationship with God, through Jesus. Because sin separates us from God, we want to avoid sinning; yet as human beings, it is impossible for us to be completely free of sin. Because of this, confessing our sins and seeking the Lord’s forgiveness is key to our having the relationship with Him that we desire. Confession is God’s way for us to eliminate the effects of sin in our relationship with Him. God desires to forgive us, and He wants us to be willing to seek His forgiveness.

When we come to the Lord to confess our sins, we may come in sadness, sorrow, and contrition, but we leave with great joy.—Joy that we are forgiven, that our relationship is restored, and that we can be in His presence unhindered by the burden of our sins. Confession leads to celebration. Our sins are forgiven, our lives are changed. Simply put, “confession is good for the soul.”


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] For more on the concept of Justification, see: The Heart of It All: Salvation, Results—Justification, Adoption, and Regeneration.

[2] When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God (Galatians 4:4–7).

[3] John MacArthur Jr., Alone with God (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1995), 104–106.

[4] Luke 11:4.

[5] Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

[6] Psalm 51:11.

[7] Psalm 51:12.

[8] 1 John 1:9.

[9] David Walls and Max Anders, Holman New Testament Commentary: I & II Peter, I, II & III John, Jude (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 166.

[10] C. H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening: Daily Readings (Complete and unabridged; New modern edition), (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006).

[11] W. W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 481–485.

[12] Isaiah 55:7.

[13] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (New York: HarperOne, 1998), 151.

[14] Psalm 32:5.

[15] Proverbs 28:13.

[16] James 5:16 NAS.

[17] John 20:23.

[18] W. A. Elwell and B. J. Beitzel in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).

[19] Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 147.

[20] Ibid., 153.

[21] Ibid., 155–56.

[22] John 20:23.