“If we confess our sins . . .” (1 John 1:9). In this passage, the Apostle John teaches his readers to turn to God in confession instead of denying their offenses. I have no doubt that all of us are convinced that we should confess to God the sins we commit after we have become Christians, but I’m not sure everyone is clear as to how to do it.
Confess literally means “to say the same thing,” that is, to agree with what someone else is saying. Therefore, the meaning of confess is to “admit” or “agree.” The context surrounding what John says makes it clear that to confess our sins means to agree with God’s diagnosis of us—that we are sinners and that we have committed sins—and that we should verbalize this agreement with sadness and sorrow.
This truth not only has general implications but also very practical and daily ones. When the Holy Spirit comes to speak to our conscience, pointing out our sins against the law of God, the correct reaction is to agree immediately with Him, declaring without reservations our guilt and putting ourselves in the hands of the One who is faithful and just to forgive us. This was the attitude that King David finally took, after an agonizing period in which he tried to smother the divine voice speaking to his conscience (Ps. 32).
Roman Catholic doctrine teaches the need for confession to a priest for absolution, but the teaching of John is clear: we should confess our sins to God, because only He can forgive us and remove our guilt. Other passages of Scripture teach us that, on certain occasions, it is necessary to confess our guilt to those who have been harmed by our sins so that the fellowship that was interrupted by our error may be restored (Luke 15:21).
Confession should be as extensive as the damage done by the sin. If our sin only affected our relationship with God, no one other than God needs to know about it unless we want to share with someone voluntarily so he can pray for us (James 5:16). If it involved other people, they need to know of our repentance and hear our confession. And if it happened in public, a public retraction is in order. Psalm 51 is David’s public confession that he had committed adultery with Bathsheba, which had come to public knowledge.
Scripture also teaches us that sins often entail different consequences, even when the sinner admits and confesses his guilt. Therefore, David, though repentant, saw his son taken away as a disciplinary act of God, since his sin of adultery had dirtied the name of the Lord (2 Sam. 12:13–14). When a sin committed by a believer has implications beyond himself, certain measures must be taken to remedy these evils, even if the believer in question has admitted his guilt and confessed.
A genuinely repentant believer will willingly accept the discipline and reparation that his fault requires. Above all, he may rejoice that God promises to forgive him of his fault and restore him to fellowship with Him.