So, let’s continue our look at the religious practice of “confessing our sins over and over again.”
The English definition of confession is to admit to or acknowledge something. But in the Scriptures, confession is associated with change. Confession is just one step in a sequence of steps that leads the guilty out of the darkness and into the light; it’s simply the beginning of a process that ultimately leads to a change in lifestyle or behaviour.
The early Catholic literature on penance and confession support this broadened definition. In the early days of Catholicism, you weren’t allowed to confess the same sins over and over. Only once. Because after you did your penance, change was expected. Penance comes from the word repentance. Repentance is often pictured as a person walking one way, realizing the error of that way, and changing direction to walk in the opposite direction.
In the Scriptures, confession is clearly connected with restitution, repentance, and restoration. In the Old Testament, confessions was always public and was associated with restitution. Consider this edict from God to Moses: “Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged” (Numbers 5:6-7 NIV).
For the Jew, this wasn’t about feeling better about yourself; it was about making things right with the one you’d sinned against — with interest. It wasn’t enough to be sorry. God was interested in change. And having to go public with your sin and make restitution certainly motivated people to change.
When John the Baptist waded onto the scene, he called people to repentance as well as the confession of sins: “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4-5 NASV).
This wasn’t private confession. This was public confession made in connection with public repentance. Joh’s audience was going public with their intentions to live a different kind of life. They weren’t confessing just to silence their conscience; they were really to leave their sin behind and head in a different direction. Confession wasn’t simply a means to feeling better about their sin; it was a public step toward abandoning sin.
A bit further into the New Testament we find the infamous tax collector Zacchaeus following this Old Testament model of confession. But instead of the required one-fifth that God instituted in the law, Zacchaeus gave back four times what he’s taken illegally.
Zacchaeus wasn’t the cute little man depicted in our childhood songs and Sunday school classes. He was a wicked man considered a traitor to his nation. He’d wronged many of his fellow Jews, leaving a trail of relational wreckage in his wake. But when Jesus invited Himself over to Zacchaeus’s house that fateful day, the little tax collector was changed. He found in Jesus the hope and forgiveness he has long since given up on. But Zacchaeus knew instinctively that it wasn’t enough to confess his sins to Jesus. That was a first step, but only a first step.
“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).
How did Jesus respond? He didn’t say, “Oh no, no, no, Zacchaeus! You’re forgiven! It was enough that you confessed your sins to Me. There’s no need to make a public spectacle of yourself.” Instead, Jesus said in effect, “Now I know for sure that salvation has come to this house. Your public admission is evidence of a changed heart.”
Zacchaeus didn’t just admit to his sins of the past, he took public responsibility for them. He confessed in the truest sense of the biblical term.
Over and over the Bible speaks of confession, not in terms of conscience relief, but in terms of life change. Never is confession offered as a substitute for repentance. It’s but a first step toward repentance.
More next time…