What Does It Mean to Confess Your Sins?
By Dr. Paul M. Elliott (From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase)
Part two of a series.
It means to say the same thing God says about your sins – not what Rome says.
Can’t We Just Get Along?
Many Evangelicals wonder if the issue we are addressing in this series is really vital. Can’t Evangelicals and Catholics just get along? Can’t each of us confess our sins in our own way? I asked a friend who is a former Roman Catholic priest, who later came to true saving faith in Christ and is now a Protestant minister of the Gospel, to review the introductory article we published yesterday, and to provide background for this series. Here is part of what he wrote in reply:
Confession was – and remains – the big divide between Christianity and its false imitator. Everything else (the mass, prayer to saints, etc.) flows from this one issue. Martin Luther went to Rome in the hopes of having his guilty conscience dealt with. But the practices there only made things worse for him. He continued to wear out confessors until Romans 1:17 [“The just shall live by faith”] was fixed in his mind and heart through the Holy Spirit. That’s why he was so opposed to Tetzel’s antics and Rome’s use of him. [Johann Tetzel was a Dominican priest commissioned by Popes Pius III, Julius II, and Leo X to sell indulgences – documents falsely proclaiming forgiveness of sins – to raise money for the construction of what is still the largest and most ornate church building in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.]
The difference between Rome and the Bible on the doctrine of the confession of sin is, indeed, a life-and-death issue. We cannot minimize it. What does it mean to confess your sins? Let’s examine what the Roman Catholic church says, and compare its position with that of Scripture.
Rome: Confession Is An Opportunity for the Church to Exercise Power
The Catholic Encyclopedia, which bears the official approval of the Vatican, states this under the heading of “Confession” –
Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest’s absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy [make payment] for the same. It is called a “sacrament” not simply a function or ceremony, because it is an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace to the soul. As an outward sign it comprises the actions of the penitent in presenting himself to the priest and accusing himself of his sins, and the actions of the priest in pronouncing absolution and imposing satisfaction [i.e., determining what the person must do in order to be forgiven].
This whole procedure is usually called, from one of its parts, “confession”, and it is said to take place in the “tribunal of penance” [i.e., the confessional booth], because it is a judicial process in which the penitent is at once the accuser, the person accused, and the witness, while the priest pronounces judgment and sentence [i.e., telling the person what he must do – make a monetary donation, say so many “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers”, perform specific good works, etc. – in order to be forgiven]. The grace conferred is deliverance from the guilt of sin and, in the case of mortal sin, from its eternal punishment; hence also reconciliation with God, justification. Finally, the confession is made not in the secrecy of the penitent’s heart nor to a layman as friend and advocate, nor to a representative of human authority, but to a duly ordained priest with requisite jurisdiction and with the “power of the keys”, i.e., the power to forgive sins which Christ granted to His Church….
“For those who after baptism have fallen into sin, the Sacrament of Penance is as necessary unto salvation as is baptism itself for those who have not yet been regenerated” (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, c. 2). Penance, therefore, is not an institution the use of which was left to the option of each sinner so that he might, if he preferred, hold aloof from the Church and secure forgiveness by some other means, e.g., by acknowledging his sin in the privacy of his own mind.
The Bible: Confession Is the Believer’s Privilege Because of God’s Free Grace
Compare Rome’s assertions of the power to exact further payment for sin from the individual, with the clear statement of First John chapters one and two:
This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. (1 John 1:5-2:2)
Note several things in this key passage, and related ones, concerning the doctrine of confession of sins:
• The word “confess” is the Greek homologeo, which means “to say the same thing as someone else” or “to agree with someone else.” Confession of sins is the believer’s agreement with what God says about his sin: It is the violation of His holy law (1 John 3:4, Romans 4:15). It is an offense against the Lawgiver Himself (Exodus 32:33, Deuteronomy 32:51, Psalm 51:4). It separates man from God (Isaiah 59:2). Fellowship with the holy God demands holiness on the part of those who would approach Him. God says repeatedly, “Be holy, for I am holy” (e.g., Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7; Matthew 5:48; 1 Peter 1:15-16). God’s holiness is absolutely inviolable; He cannot for one moment condone sin or have any relationship with it (Psalm 11:4-6, Habakkuk 1:13).
• Our confession is directly to God through Christ, and not through a sinful human mediator. He is the One who is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
• There is absolutely nothing of penance – the so-called sacrament of exacting a further payment – in the Biblical doctrine of confession of sins. It is “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son” that “cleanses us from all sin.” It is only payment for sin that is acceptable in the sight of God (Hebrews 9:22).
• There is nothing in the Biblical doctrine of confession that speaks of a “judicial process” as Rome puts it. The judicial process for sins took place once for all at the cross (Hebrews 10:10). Christ has offered His blood upon the heavenly mercy seat, once for all (Hebrews 6:20, 9:12). He Himself is “the propitiation for our sins” – the One who has fully averted the wrath of God on our behalf.
• Contrary to Roman doctrine, the confession of sins to God is a private matter between sinner and Savior, because He is the One offended in all our offenses (Psalm 51).
• Contrary to Roman doctrine, penance does not justify sinners before God. Justification is by faith in Christ alone, and not by works (Romans 3:20-28). The believer’s ongoing confession of his sins does not help to gain or maintain salvation, but rather restores fellowship with God.
The Bible’s Freedom vs. Rome’s Bondage
The essence of Biblical confession is for the believer to say the same thing that God says about sin: It is abhorrent to His holy nature, and was paid for in full by the death of His Son. The essence of Roman Catholic confession is for the individual to say the same thing that the Vatican says about sin: It is an opportunity for the church-state to exercise power by exacting further payment. The immense wealth of the Roman Catholic church-state derives largely from this illegitimate power that it exercises over souls in bondage.
Authentic Biblical Christianity declares that true believers in Christ are free from any such bondage:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?
Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)