These days, there’s a filter for almost anything. People can “edit” and “crop” their entire lives. Simply click the image, select from the endless options of filters that enhance the desired effect, and presto—the world is given the snapshot version of “me” that I want it to have. Unfortunately, the Christian life does not work that way. It was never intended to. God, in His infinite wisdom, has made transparency and confession a necessary component of spiritual health. If we are to grow in Christ, then we must allow someone, or a few someones, to see beyond the cropped and edited version of ourselves.
Given how much confusion surrounds the practice of confession, it’s essential to clarify what is meant by confessing sin. In hearing the term, those who come from a Roman Catholic background may think of the formal sacrament of penance (or the sacrament of reconciliation), in which a person regularly seeks out a priest so that their sins will be absolved. While protestants rightly protest the need to confess sins to or receive absolution from a formal priest, we must not be too hasty in dismissing the sacredness of confession. In confessing sins to one another, we engage in a spiritual endeavor, a holy campaign, against our insurrection. We are declaring war on our own rebellion. We need not go to any priest. Any Christian brother or sister who loves and speaks the gospel will do. And while we need not treat it like a sacramental ritual, we should let it become a sacred lifestyle. By confession, I mean a holy habitus in which a Christian deliberately exposes and confronts their own sin whenever it manifests itself so that others may restore them in the joy of the gospel.
One of the primary dangers of sin is not simply that it exists but that by its existence, it seeks to cripple a joyful relationship with the triune God. According to the Puritans, redemption not only seeks the eradication of evil (ademptio mali) but also the enjoyment of good (adeptio boni). Sin rebuilds the malice that God has broken down and breaks down the good that God built. Sin is, in its very essence, a joy thief that is opposed to God’s good purposes.
Sin’s antithetical nature toward our good God is why confession is so important. Confession is much more than an embarrassing admission of failure, as people have often treated it. Quite the contrary, it is a desperate pursuit of restored joy in the Lord. Without confession, such restoration is impossible.
Confession means coming out of hiding. Augustine once wrote, “In failing to confess, Lord, I would only hide you from myself, not myself from You.” As it did with Adam, our hidden sin leaves us feeling afraid and shamefully exposed. A mere whisper of God’s approach sends us running for the trees. We hide. We deny and we even blame others. But redemption cannot happen until we come out of our hiding place. When God asked Adam, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9), it was not for God’s benefit but Adam’s. Being the omniscient being He is, God knew where Adam was. With His question, God “drew Adam from hiding rather than drove him from it.” Confession answers the question, “Where am I?” It draws me out from behind the tree to acknowledge my sin and receive the good news of a serpent-crushing Savior who has and will overturn the evil I have committed.
Confession means leaving the dirty mudhole and coming back to the clean, refreshing waters of grace. In Jeremiah 2:13, God summarizes his people’s sins. They have (1) “forsaken me, the fountain of living waters” and (2) “hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Sin tempts us to believe that there is better, fresher water outside God. It, then, tells us to start digging. In the end, all we have is a leaky mudhole. In confession, we see the dirty, leaky mudhole for what it is and return to the only stream that can satiate our thirst.
Confession means celebrating the gospel. 1 John 1:8-9—perhaps the most often quoted text when it comes to confession—gives both a warning and a promise. First comes the warning, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” For John, whether or not a person has the truth indicates the state of a person’s relationship with the triune God (for example, see 1 John 2:4). As seen throughout the biblical storyline, proximity to a holy God unveils a person’s sin and guilt. The classic example is Isaiah 6. When Isaiah faces a holy God, he confesses that he is a man of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5). Recognizing sin is an outcome of knowing God. A person might be absolutely sincere when he says, “I have no sins that I can see…no seriously, I can’t think of any weaknesses or vices.” Either this man is proof positive that perfection can be reached in this lifetime, or—more likely—he is looking at himself as man might look into a mirror in a dark room. It is only when the Lord comes in and turns on the light that the man can say, “Oh…now I see it.” Grace brings gracious exposure. Confession is a celebration that God is in our midst and, consequently, our sins have come into the light.
Following the warning comes a promise: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9). The word faithful (pistos) can mean reliable or trustworthy. In some cases, the word can describe someone who keeps a promise (Heb. 10:23). According to John, confession reveals God as both faithful and just. This claim is consistent with how God has revealed Himself throughout redemptive history. In Exodus 34:6-9, God declares that He is both just (by no means clearing the guilty) and gracious (forgiving iniquities). It is a bit of paradox. How can God be at the same time both just in judging our sin and gracious in forgiving it? The cross solves the conundrum. There, God’s justice against sin is poured out on Jesus and the consequent result is forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Confession celebrates the gospel by declaring God’s justice and gracious faithfulness.
On the one hand, confession leads us to freely acknowledge that even in grace, God is still just. Sin is still sin and, therefore, it must be repented. On the other hand, by confessing, a person throws himself or herself upon the reliable mercy of God—a mercy given because Jesus has already paid for our sin on the cross (Colossian 2:14). In this way, confession makes us “living monuments and examples of His goodness and patience.” By God’s own design, confession transforms a community into a gospel-centered community.
 Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 71.
 R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing, Preaching the Word (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 78.
 Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 68.
 See Exodus 34:6-9.
 Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin, 190.