What does it mean to ‘confess’ our sins? 1 John 1:9

This morning I read a portion of 1 John and happened to remember a rather odd teaching I heard a long time ago.

It ran like this:

Everyone knows 1 John 1:9, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ However [the teacher continued, who also “confessed” that he had never studied Greek], the word to “confess” is homologéo (ὁμολογέω); the two parts of the verb are “the same” and “to say”; so, the verb “really” means “say the same thing” as someone else. Then [he concluded], we do not have to tell God what we have done wrong, since he is omniscient and already knows all about it. Instead, we must simply tell him that, “I agree with you, that my sins – which I will not be enumerating at this time! – are already forgiven. I say the same as you say.’

Similarly, a recent article (“How to Confess Your Sins to God”) asks the rhetorical question, “Since God says He does not remember our sins, is it polite or wise to keep bringing them up to Him?” No! he says: “There is no need to ask for something you already have. Doing so is disrespectful to the One who has given you forgiveness.”

Within an entirely different paradigm, some preachers of the “prosperity gospel” teach that, confession of sin is a denial of God’s grace. Such is “counterfeit grace”, according to Joseph Prince whose doctrine is unsound in several areas: anyway, Prince says that teaching our disciplesto confess their sins to God sends “a mixed message that deposits insecurity and uncertainty in their hearts, leaving them wondering if they are truly forgiven and if the work of their Savior at the cross is complete.”

This interpretation of the verb “confess does not mean confess” is problematic for several reasons. First of all, it is not always possible to determine the meaning of a word by studying the meaning of its parts. In the case of exérchomai/εξέρχομαι, no problem: ek = from, and érchomai = go, come, then, exérchomai = “depart”. Simple. However, this does not always work!

The second problem is that one should not rely on the etymology of a word but, if possible, its use in various contexts. So, while homologéo can mean “say the same” in a few contexts (in the New Testament, only Acts 23:8 – “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three”), it is hardly relevant in 1 John 1.

For example, the rite of the Day of Atonement was, “to confess” the sins of Israel. Not simply say, “I agree on this sacrifice,” but enumerate, recite the list of his sins:

And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. Lev 16:21


I confess my iniquity, I am sorry for my sin. Psalm 38:18

And, one can say that, “confess” is the opposite of “hiding, concealing”:

Whoever conceals his transgression will not prosper; but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. Prov 28:13

Within the Jewish tradition of the Apostolic era, they used homologéo to signify, “confess, admit” in contexts like 1 John 1:9. For example:

Do not be ashamed to confess your sins. Ecclesiasticus 4:26

And in the NT:

Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. Acts 19:18

So Christians were a scripture people, it is the biblical background, not an etymological study, which guides us to an understanding of how to confess sin.

Then, the idea of homologéo in 1 John 1:9 is that we must enumerate our sins before God to seek his forgiveness, “and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1:7)

OTHER TEXTS: 1 Chronicles 21:8, Nehemiah 1:6; 9:33-37; and especially Judges 10:10-16 – “And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.”… And the people of Israel said to the Lord, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.”

As Spurgeon put it: “The Father’s bosom is the place for penitent confessions. We have been cleansed once for all, but our feet still need to be washed from the defilement of our daily walk as children of God.”

Additional note: I just heard this on the “Truth for Life” radio program by Alistair Begg:

Now, for that reason it’s imperative that we keep short accounts with God. By confessing our sins as we become aware of them, we keep short accounts with God…[forgiveness] is not ours until we seek it with repentance…Our sins after we are converted are not forgiven until we repent of them. God has not provided for us some great slush fund, as it were, that just sloshes between a debit and a credit side in the ledger.

“What does it mean to ‘confess’ our sins? 1 John 1:9,” by Gary S. Shogren, New Testament Professor, ESEPA Seminary, San José, Costa Rica


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