Is Confession of Sins Required by God?
Personal confession of sins into the ear of a priest or a minister continues to be part of the religious ritual and worship in many churches. Yet, in today’s permissive and tolerant society, is confession relevant or even necessary?
FEELINGS on this matter are mixed. For example, the National Post of Canada reports on one person who admits that while it is difficult to tell someone else what you did wrong, “there is something extremely freeing about having someone acknowledge it, praying with you and saying this is what you need to do.” Conversely, the book Bless Me, Father, for I Have Sinned quotes a man who said: “Confession is one of the most crippling facets of the Church. It perpetuates neurotic patterns.” What does the Bible have to say on this subject?
What the Bible Says
In the Law that God gave to the nation of Israel, we find specific instructions on what needed to be done when an individual sinned. For example, when a person sinned against a fellow man or broke one of God’s laws, he would have to confess to an appointed priest of the tribe of Levi, who would then make atonement in his behalf by offering a sacrifice to God for forgiveness of sin.—Leviticus 5:1-6.
Centuries later, when the prophet Nathan reproved King David for his sins, how did David respond? He immediately admitted: “I have sinned against Jehovah.” (2 Samuel 12:13) He also prayed, pleading with God to show him favor. The result? David later wrote: “My sin I finally confessed to you, and my error I did not cover. I said: ‘I shall make confession over my transgressions to Jehovah.’ And you yourself pardoned the error of my sins.”—Psalm 32:5; 51:1-4.
Confession of sins remained a requirement by God in the Christian congregation in the first century of our Common Era. James, the half brother of Jesus and one of the principal men of the congregation in Jerusalem, urged fellow Christians: “Openly confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may get healed.” (James 5:16) What, then, are Christians required to confess, and to whom?
What Should Be Confessed?
Every day, we imperfect humans are prone to act thoughtlessly or to misuse our tongue and thus sin against one another. (Romans 3:23) Does this mean that we must confess every such transgression to a certain appointed human authority or agent?
While every sin is an offense in God’s sight, he mercifully takes into consideration our failings because of inherited human imperfection. Indeed, the psalmist acknowledged: “If errors were what you watch, O Jah, O Jehovah, who could stand? For there is the true forgiveness with you, in order that you may be feared.” (Psalm 130:3, 4) So, what should we do when we err and sin against others, perhaps unintentionally? Recall that the model prayer that Jesus taught his followers to pray includes this request: “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone that is in debt to us.” (Luke 11:4) Yes, God will grant us forgiveness if we come to him and ask for it in Jesus’ name.—John 14:13, 14.
Note that Jesus included the condition that we also forgive those “in debt to us.” The apostle Paul reminded his fellow believers: “Become kind to one another, tenderly compassionate, freely forgiving one another just as God also by Christ freely forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32) When we forgive others their faults, we will have good reason to expect God to forgive us ours.
What, though, about such grievous sins as stealing, intentional lying, sexual immorality, drunkenness, and so on? Anyone committing such sins is breaking God’s laws and is thus sinning against God. What should be done?
To Whom Should Sins Be Confessed?
God does not authorize men to forgive sins against him; only he can do so. The Bible tells us clearly: “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and righteous so as to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) However, to whom should such sins be confessed?
Since forgiveness can come only from God, confession must be made to him. That is what David did, as we have noted. On what basis, though, would forgiveness be granted? The Bible tells us: “Repent, therefore, and turn around so as to get your sins blotted out, that seasons of refreshing may come from the person of Jehovah.” (Acts 3:19) Yes, forgiveness is contingent not only on one’s recognizing and confessing the sin but also on one’s being willing to desist from the wrong course. This additional step is often difficult. But there is help.
Recall the words of the disciple James that we referred to earlier: “Openly confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may get healed.” To those words, James added: “A righteous man’s supplication, when it is at work, has much force.” (James 5:16) The ‘righteous man’ can be one of “the older men of the congregation,” whom James mentioned in verse 14. In the Christian congregation, there are spiritually “older men,” or elders, appointed to assist those who want to gain God’s forgiveness. No, such “older men” cannot absolve anyone of sins, for no man is authorized to forgive a fellow human for a wrong against God.* However, they are spiritually qualified to reprove and readjust a person guilty of a serious sin, helping him to recognize the gravity of his sin and the need to repent.—Galatians 6:1.
Why Confess One’s Sins?
Whether the sin is grievous or not, the person who committed it has damaged his relationship with his fellow man and with God. Consequently, he may feel troubled or ill at ease. This is the work of the faculty of conscience, with which our Creator has endowed us. (Romans 2:14, 15) What can be done?
Turning once again to the book of James, we find these encouraging words: “Is there anyone [spiritually] sick among you? Let him call the older men of the congregation to him, and let them pray over him, greasing him with oil in the name of Jehovah. And the prayer of faith will make the indisposed one well, and Jehovah will raise him up. Also, if he has committed sins, it will be forgiven him.”—James 5:14, 15.
Here again, the older men, or elders, are called upon to respond to the needs of the flock. How? Not by merely hearing a confession. Rather, since spiritual sickness is involved, something needs to be done in order to “make the indisposed one well.” There are two things James mentioned that can be done.
First, there is the ‘greasing with oil.’ This refers to the healing power of God’s Word. The apostle Paul explained that “the word of God is alive and exerts power . . . and is able to discern thoughts and intentions of the heart,” reaching deep into one’s mind and heart. (Hebrews 4:12) By skillful use of the Bible, the older men can help the spiritually sick one to see the cause of the problem and take appropriate steps to correct matters before God.
Then, there is “the prayer of faith.” Although the prayers of the older men will not alter God’s application of justice, these prayers do count with God, who is eager to pardon sin on the basis of Christ’s ransom sacrifice. (1 John 2:2) God is ready to help any sinner who is genuinely repentant and who produces “works that befit repentance.”—Acts 26:20.
The foremost reason to confess a sin—committed either against a fellow human or against God—is to gain an approved standing with God. Jesus Christ indicated that we must first resolve any difficulty with our fellow men and make peace with them before we can worship God with a good conscience. (Matthew 5:23, 24) Proverbs 28:13 says: “He that is covering over his transgressions will not succeed, but he that is confessing and leaving them will be shown mercy.” When we humble ourselves in the eyes of Jehovah God and ask for forgiveness, we will win his favor and be exalted in due course.—1 Peter 5:6.
[Blurb on page 23]
God will overlook our shortcomings and grant us forgiveness if we come to him and ask for it in Jesus’ name
[Picture on page 24]
The foremost reason to confess a sin is to gain an approved standing with God