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CONFESSION (Heb. yādhâh, Gr. homologeō, and their derivatives). Both the Hebrew and Greek words are capable of the same twofold meaning as the English. To confess is openly to acknowledge the truth in anything, as in the existence and authority of God or the sins of which one has been guilty. Occasionally it also means to concede or allow (John.1.20; Acts.24.14; Heb.11.13), or to praise God by thankfully acknowledging him (Rom.14.11; Heb.13.15). In the Bible, confession of sin before God is recognized as a condition of forgiveness. Christ taught the necessity of confessing offenses committed against other people (Matt.5.24; Luke.17.4). The Bible gives no instruction about the mode of confession or the person to receive it, but no authority is found in it for the auricular confession practiced in the Roman church.

In the NT, the noun homologia can be related in the sense of “confession” to the Gospel or the Faith; the verb homologeom already has as object both faith and sin. Under the impact of Roman persecution, patristic needs created the “confessor.” While the oldest examples of the Apostles' Creed, still in interrogative form, had “confessional” usage at baptisms in the second century, the insertion of a declarative creed into the liturgy seems first to have occurred in 473 when Peter the Fuller* brought in the Creed of Nicea to confound the requirements of the Council of Chalcedon. Confession in this declarative sense includes also the orthodox Protestant formulations, of which that of Augsburg (1530) is the first example (see Augsburg Confession).

The verb exomologeom came to be adapted to signify the confession of sins to the congregation (cf. Didache 4.14: 1 Clement 51.3). By the late fourth century Chrysostom indicated the need for confession before baptism or Communion, and others specified it regularly, though the form still seems to be communal rather than private. Confession of sin, especially in the sense ad auriculam (“into the ear” of the priest), was a medieval development which also came to play a role in worship. After the passing of frequent lay communion, and under the transformed character of penance, at the Fourth Lateran Council* in 1215 confession was made minimally an annual obligation, as was receipt of the host for which it was prerequisite. As aid to the accomplishment of this requirement, the confessional stall dates from the sixteenth century. Litanies of ancient usage also serve as vehicles for communal or private confession in the several senses.

CONFESSION. Confession, Biblically, possesses a richness of meaning which goes far beyond its secular usage. To promise, admit, concede, declare, attest, or witness are all Eng. equivalents of Biblical confession, with varying shades of signification. Biblical confession, however, involves one or more of three elements: God is praised, or sin is acknowledged, or faith is declared. To understand this multi-dimensional concept scripturally one must view it from a number of perspectives.

Confession may also be viewed doxologically, as a testimony to God’s goodness and mercy, an expression of thanksgiving for His deliverance or help, a celebration of unmerited faithfulness. For instance, the word tr. as “praise” in Psalm 42:4 and the word tr. as “thanksgiving” in Psalm 100:4 are the same word which in Joshua 7:19 and Ezra 10:11 is tr. as “confession.” The relationship between confession and adoring gratitude appears likewise in 2 Chronicles 30:21, 22; Romans 15:9; and in the Gr. text of Matthew 11:25. Confession, therefore, may include a doxological component.

Confession, still further, can be viewed pneumatologically. It is the Spirit who reveals Jesus Christ and produces faith in His Person and Work. It is the Spirit who really elicits the confession of all that the Savior is and has done (1 John 4:2). The Johannine emphasis is identical with that of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:3. Both apostles attribute the acknowledgment of Jesus as Messiah and Lord to the Spirit’s inner witness.

Confession can also be viewed eschatologically, from the perspective of the future, the standpoint of eternity and its unending issues. On the one hand, the Savior promised to confess believing confessors, and, on the other hand, warned that disobedient deniers will be denied (Matt 10:32). That promise is reasserted in Revelation 3:5. Paul re-echoed that warning in 2 Timothy 2:12b, a warning which Jesus Christ personally highlighted in two great discourses (Matt 7:23; 25:12). Failure to profess Him today in the loving obedience which faith generates will compel Him in that day to render a negative verdict: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”

But confession, Biblically, is not merely intellectual assent to and verbal affirmation of doctrine. It is that, of course (2 John 7); but it is not merely that. On the contrary, NT confession involves self-commitment and must be viewed existentially. It necessitates agreement between profession and practice, assertion and action, conduct and creed (Titus 1:16). It demands far more than consistency: it necessitates identification and cross-bearing with the Christ who is confessed (John 9:22; 12:42).

Finally, confession can also be viewed therapeutically. Healing is a fruit of verbalizing our sins to fellow-believers (James 5:16). No specific instructions are given; care and caution are, accordingly, imperative. Protestants, for example, find no Biblical warrant for the Roman Catholic sacrament of penance, that complicated system which requires a would-be communicant to divulge his transgressions in detail to a priest. Protestants ought to bear in mind that John Calvin had this to say in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion: “Let every believer remember that, if he be privately troubled and afflicted with a sense of sins, so that without outside help he is unable to free himself from them, it is a part of his duty not to neglect what the Lord has offered him by way of remedy. Namely, that, for his relief, he should use private confession to his own pastor; and for his solace, he should beg the private help of him whose duty it is, both publicly and privately to comfort the people of God by gospel teaching” (Bk. III, ch. IV, Sections 12, 13). In the light of what the Holy Spirit has written through James, Protestants ought not be surprised at Paul Tournier’s testimony: “What astonishes me...is the prodigious effect a real confession can have. Very often it is not only the decisive religious experience of freedom from guilt, but...the sudden cure of the physical or psychological illness. Sometimes in less than an hour there occurs in a patient I am seeing for the first time and to whom I have spoken but a few words, a release from psychological tension which I should have been proud to obtain after months of therapy” (Guilt and Grace, New York [1962], p. 203). It may be that, when confession is audibly made to God with a fellow-believer as witness, there occurs a retreat from sinful isolation and, in Bonhoeffer’s phrase, “a break-through to community.” It occurs because God has sovereignly so ordained. See also Repentance.


G. W. Bowman III, The Dynamics of Confession (1969); E. Jabay, The God-Players (1969).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

When man is said to confess or make confession, the contents of the confession are variously distinguished. All, however, may be grouped under two heads, confession of faith and confession of sin. Confessions of faith are public acknowledgments of fidelity to God, and to the truth through which God is revealed, as 1Ki 8:33. They are declarations of unqualified confidence in Christ, and of surrender to His service; Mt 10:32: "Every one .... who shall confess me before men." In Php 2:11, however, confession includes, alongside of willing, also unwilling, acknowledgment of the sovereignty of Jesus. The word confession stands also for everything contained in the Christian religion--"the faith" used in the objective and widest sense, in Heb 3:1; 4:14. In both these passages, the allusion is to the New Testament. The "High Priest of our confession" (Heb 3:1) is the High Priest, of whom we learn and with whom we deal in that new revelation, which in that epistle is contrasted with the old.

Confessions of sins are also of various classes:

(1) To God alone. Wherever there is true repentance for sin, the penitent freely confesses his guilt to Him, against whom he has sinned. This is described in Ps 32:3-6; compare 1Jo 1:9; Pr 28:13. Such confession may be made either silently, or, as in Da 9:19, orally; it may be general, as in Ps 51, or particular, as when some special sin is recognized; it may even extend to what has not been discovered, but which is believed to exist because of recognized inner depravity (Ps 19:12), and thus include the state as well as the acts of sin (Ro 7:18).

(2) To one’s neighbor, when he has been wronged (Lu 17:4): "If he sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him." It is to this form of c. that James refers (5:16): "Confess .... your sins one to another"; compare Mt 5:23 f.

(3) To a spiritual adviser or minister of the word, such as the c. of David to Nathan (2Sa 12:13), of the multitudes to John in the wilderness (Mt 3:6), of the Ephesians to Paul (Ac 19:18). This c. is a general acknowledgment of sinfulness, and enters into an enumeration of details only when the conscience is particularly burdened.

(4) To the entire church, where some crime has created public scandal. As "secret sins are to be rebuked secretly, and public sins publicly," in the apostolic age, where there was genuine penitence for a notorious offense, the acknowledgment was as public as the deed itself. An illustration of this is found in the well-known case at Corinth (compare 1Co 5:3 ff with 2Co 2:6 f).

For auricular confession in the sense of the medieval and Roman church, there is no authority in Holy Scripture. It is traceable to the practice of examining those who were about to make a public confession of some notorious offense, and of giving advice concerning how far the circumstances of the sin were to be announced; an expedient that was found advisable, since as much injury could be wrought by injudicious publishing of details in the confession as by the sin itself. The practice once introduced for particular cases was in time extended to all cases; and the private confession of sin was demanded by the church as a condition of the absolution, and made an element of penitence, which was analyzed into contrition, confession and satisfaction. See the Examen Concilii Tridentini (lst edition, 1565) of Dr. Martin Chemnitz, superintendent of Brunswick, for a thorough exegetical and historical discussion of this entire subject. On the historical side, see also Henry Charles Lea, History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church (3 volumes, Philadelphia, 1896).