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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Confession (of Sin)

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CONFESSION (of sin).—In the OT a large place is given to the confession of sin, as being the necessary expression of true penitence and the condition at the same time of the Divine forgiveness. Witness the provisions of the Mosaic ritual (Leviticus 5:3 ff.), the utterances of the penitential and other psalms (e.g. Psalms 32:5; Psalms 51:3 ff.), and prayers like those of Ezra (Ezra 10:1), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:6-7), and Daniel (Daniel 9:4 ff., Daniel 9:20). It may surprise us at first to find that in the Gospels the confession of sin is expressly named on only one occasion, and that in connexion with the ministry of John the Baptist (ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν, Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:5). But apart from the use of the actual phrase, we shall see that the Gospel narratives take full account of the confession of sin, and that, as in the OT, confession is recognized both as the necessary accompaniment of repentance and as the indispensable condition of forgiveness and restoration to favour, whether human or Divine. There are three topics which call for notice: (1) confession of sin to God; (2) confession of sin to man; (3) Christ’s personal attitude to the confession of sin.

1. Confession of sin to God.—It is to God that all confession of sin is primarily due, sin being in its essential nature a transgression of Divine law (cf. Psalms 51:4). And in the teaching and ministry of Jesus the duty of confession to God is fully recognized. Our Lord begins His ministry with a call to repentance (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15). In the midst of His public career He characterizes the generation to which He appealed as an evil generation because of its unwillingness to repent (Luke 11:29; Luke 11:32). Among His last words on earth was His declaration that the universal gospel was to be a gospel of repentance and remission of sins (Luke 24:47). And as confession is inseparable from true penitence, being the form which the latter instinctively and inevitably takes in its approaches to God, we may say that all through His public ministry, by insisting upon the need of repentance, Jesus taught the necessity of the confession of sin.

But besides this we have from His lips a good deal of direct teaching on the subject. The prayer which He gave His disciples as a pattern for all prayer includes a petition for forgiveness (Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4); and such a petition is equivalent, of course, to a confession of sin. In the parable of the Prodigal Son the prodigal’s first resolution ‘when he came to himself’ was to go to his father and acknowledge his sin (Luke 15:17-18); and his first words on meeting him were the frank and humble confession, ‘Father, I have sinned’ (Luke 15:21). The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, again, hinges upon this very matter of the acknowledgment of sin and unworthiness. It was the total absence of the element of confession from the Pharisee’s prayer, and the presence instead of a self-satisfied and self-exalting spirit, that made his prayer of no effect in the sight of God; while it was the publican’s downcast eyes, his smitten breast, his cry, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’ that sent him down to his house ‘justified rather than the other’ (Luke 18:10-14; cf. the words of Zacchaeus, another publican, Luke 19:8).

Under this head may be included one or two cases of confession of sin to Christ. When Peter cries, ‘Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord’ (Luke 5:8), and when the sinful woman in the house of the Pharisee silently makes confession to Jesus as she washes His feet with her tears (Luke 7:37-38), it is too much to say of these confessions, in Pliny’s language (Ep. x. 96) with regard to the hymn-singing of the early Christians, that they were offered ‘to Christ as to God.’ But they were certainly made to one who was felt to be raised above the life of sinful humanity, and to be the representative on earth of the purity and grace of the heavenly Father.* [Note: It is a point worth noticing, in the comparative study of the Gospels, that St. Luke, who is pre-eminently the Evangelist of salvation for the sinful, supplies us with the great bulk of the Gospel evidence that the Divine forgiveness is conditioned by the confession of sin.]

2. Confession of sin to man.—According to the teaching of Christ and the Gospels, confession of sin should be made not only to God but to man, and, in particular, to any one whom we have wronged. In Matthew 5:23-24 confession to a justly offended brother is directly enjoined; and more than that, it is implied that the very gifts laid on God’s altar are shorn of their value if such confession has not first been made. In Luke 17:4 again, our own forgiveness of an offender is made to depend on his coming and confessing, ‘I repent.’ But apart from this confession to the person wronged, a wider and more public confession of sin meets us in the Gospels. The necessity of such confession is implied, for instance, in our Lord’s denunciations of hypocrisy—in His condemnation of the life of false pretence (Matthew 23:14); of the cup and platter outwardly clean, while inwardly full of extortion and excess (Matthew 23:25); of the whited sepulchres fair to look at, though festering with rottenness within (Matthew 23:27). It is implied similarly in His frequent commendation of simplicity and single-mindedness, and honest truth in the sight both of God and man (cf. Matthew 6:22-23; Matthew 7:3-5; Matthew 8:8; Matthew 9:13).

It seems to be recognized in the Gospels that acknowledgment of sin to man as well as to God has a cleansing power upon the soul. There may, of course, be a confession that is spiritually fruitless, to which men are urged not by the godly sorrow of true repentance, but by the goads of sheer remorse and despair. Of this nature was the confession of Judas to the chief priests and elders (Matthew 27:4, cf. v. 5). On the other hand, the confession of the penitent thief to all who heard him (Luke 23:41) was the beginning of that swift work of grace which was accomplished in his heart through the influence of Jesus. It illustrates George Eliot’s words, ‘The purifying influence of public confession springs from the fact that by it the hope in lies is for ever swept away, and the soul recovers the noble attitude of simplicity’ (Romola, p. 87).

3. Christ’s personal attitude to the confession of sin.—That our Lord never made confession to man, and never felt the need of doing so, is sufficiently shown by His challenge, ‘Which of you convicteth me of sin?’ (John 8:46). But did He make confession of sin to God? The fact that John’s baptism was ‘the baptism of repentance’ (Mark 1:4 ||), and that the people ‘were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins’ (Matthew 3:6), together with the further fact that Jesus Himself came to the Jordan to be baptized (Matthew 3:13, Mark 1:9, Luke 3:21), might be so interpreted. But against such an interpretation must be set the attitude of John both when Jesus first came to him (Matthew 3:14) and afterwards (John 1:29), the language of Jesus to the Baptist (Matthew 3:15), the descent of the Spirit (Matthew 3:16), and the voice from heaven (Matthew 3:17). The baptism of John, we must remember, had more than one aspect: it was not only the baptism of repentance, but the baptism of preparation for the approaching kingdom of heaven (Matthew 3:2) and of consecration to its service (Luke 3:10-14). It is not as an act of confession, but as one of self-consecration (including, it may be, an element of sympathetic self-humiliation, cf. Philippians 2:8), that the baptism of Jesus is to be regarded. He had no sins to confess, but He knew that John was the prophet divinely commissioned to inaugurate the kingdom of righteousness (cf. Matthew 21:32), and to inaugurate it by the rite of baptism (Matthew 21:25 ||). And by submitting Himself to John’s baptism He was openly dedicating Himself to the work of that kingdom, and taking up His task of fulfilling all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). (See Sanday in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ii. 611; Lambert, Sacraments in NT, p. 62 f.; Expos. Times, xi. [1900] 354).

But, above all, it is to be noted that while Jesus taught His disciples to pray for the forgiveness of sins, we never find Him humbling Himself before God on account of sin, and asking to be forgiven. And the complete silence of the Gospels upon this point acquires a fuller significance when we observe that there is not the slightest evidence that He ever engaged in common prayer with the Apostles. When Jesus prayed to the Father, He seems always to have prayed alone (Matthew 14:23; Matthew 26:36 ||, Luke 9:18; Luke 11:1; cf. John 1:7, where He prays in the presence of the disciples, but not with them). The reason probably was that while the attitude of a sinful suppliant and the element of confession, whether uttered or unexpressed, are indispensable to the acceptableness of ordinary human prayer, these could find no place in the prayers of Jesus. (See Dale, Christian Doctrine, p. 105 f.; Forrest, Christ of History and of Experience, pp. 22 ff., 385 ff., Expos. Times, xi. [1900] 352 f.).

Literature.—Young’s Analyt. Concord. s.v.; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, art. ‘Confession’; Ullmaon, Sinlessness of Jesus, p. 69 ff.; and for special points the works quoted in the article.

J. C. Lambert.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Confession (of Sin)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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