Most believers are quite familiar with this verse, but what does it really mean to confess our sins? What is confession? What should we confess? What if we don’t confess? From this verse, we can observe the following truths about confession:
- Confession is not an apology. An apology can be offered without an admission of guilt. To say, “I’m sorry” merely expresses some measure (usually very small) of sorrow over the offended person’s situation without acknowledging personal culpability or remorse. We should be sorrowful when we inflict harm on others by our sin, but confession is far more than saying, “I’m sorry.” It is to be grieved and sorrowful that his ungodly actions have harmed others — especially God (Mt. 5:3-6).
- Confession is more than asking for forgiveness. True confession will include a solicitation of forgiveness, but it is more than that. To ask for forgiveness might be nothing more than a desire for the slate of offenses against God to be wiped clean without any need for transformation or change. Confession is more than that. It includes a regret for our sin that desires change and transformation. The one who confesses does not plan to repeat the sin (though he may indeed repeat the sin despite his desires not to repeat it); he hates the sin and wants to be rid of it (e.g., Ps. 51:2).
- Confession is an admission of guilt. It is commonly explained that the Greek word translated “confess” means, “to say the same thing as.” That might be a strict translation of the compounds that make up the word (homologeo = homo, “the same thing,” and logeo, “to speak), but to use that translation in other biblical contexts where this word is used would generally make little sense. Rather, the sense of the word is “affirmation,” or “concede something as true,” “to admit a wrong.” This was the example of David in the aftermath of his sin with Bathsheba (Ps. 32:3-5). So to confess our sins means that we acknowledge plainly and honestly our guilt for the depth and breadth of our sin.
- In summary, to confess sin means to regret our action, admit our guilt, desire change, and seek forgiveness from the one who has been sinned against.
- The object of confession is God. As David noted, all sin ultimately is against God (Ps. 51:4) and while we seek the forgiveness of fellow men when we sin against them, we must always also seek forgiveness from the Lord whenever we sin for every sin is a violation of his Law and every sin is rebellion against Him.
- The confessor (in this verse) is a believer. John views most of his readers as believers (cf. 2:12-14) and he repeatedly identifies himself, a follower of Christ, with them by his repeated use of the pronouns “us” and “we.” So why should a believer ask for forgiveness since his sin has already been judicially forgiven and his salvation is secure (1 Pt. 1:5ff)? He confesses his sin because the sin of the believer disrupts fellowship and relationship with God. So he confesses his sin and seeks forgiveness not for his salvation, but for the restoration of his relationship with the Lord.
- Confession is not optional. While the word “if” is used by translators at the beginning of this verse, it does not have the sense of “maybe he and maybe he won’t and it doesn’t matter if he does or doesn’t.” Rather, the sense is, “when we confess…” So John is pointing to the normalcy and regularity of confession and to the character of God who forgives and cleanses our sin.
- Confession is specific. Confession is given not for sins in general, “God, I did some wrong stuff today,” but is specific and precise with the exact sin: “God, when I spoke those words, I was unkind and ungracious; you gave me an opportunity to extend grace to others and I was harsh, bitter, and angry instead. Those angry words came from a heart that is selfish and self-absorbed; I was desiring others to serve me rather than being willing to serve others, and worst of all, I was worshipping myself and exalting my desires rather than worshipping you and exalting your desires.”
- Confession is for known sin. This seems self-evident, but confession is for those things that we know we have done wrongly. Some might be fearful always having some unconfessed sin. John MacArthur is helpful here: “Perhaps the most popular but erroneous view of confession in this context is that believers are forgiven of only those sins they confess. If that were correct, it would mean that unconfessed sins remain with believers until the judgment seat of Christ, at which time they will have to give an account for those iniquities. But such is simply not the case. No one will enter heaven with a list of unconfessed sins still hanging over his head (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5; Rev. 22:15), because the finished work of Christ completely covers all of the sins of those who believe, including those that remain unconfessed.” In fact, it would be impossible to know with our finite minds all of the ways in which we sin against the infinite God. We simply cannot know all our sin. So here’s the principle in summary: if you know you have sinned, confess it; and rest in the grace of God that applies the blood of Christ to any remaining unconfessed sins.
While confession is humbling for the sinner, it is also a great grace from God, given to restore us to Him and keep us in real fellowship and unity with Him and other believers.