John wrote:  'If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness' [1 John 1:9]. Many Christians understand this 'confession' to mean coming to God in prayer and identifying an itemized list of specific individual sins.

There are three problems with this understanding of confession as making an itemized list of our  individual, personal sins:

Firstly, there does not appear to be anywhere in the Bible where this actually happens. There are a few occasions where an individual prays on behalf of the nation of Israel, identifiying, in part, the nation's list of sins. But nowhere can we find an individual coming before God with a list of his personal sins.

Secondly, in context, 1 John 1:9 sits between two verses identifying a presumptuous refusal to acknowledge oneself as a sinner who sins. In context, verse 9 identifies the required acknowledgement of oneself as a sinner who sins.

Thirdly, the word translated 'confess' in verse 9 means to acknowledge; nowhere else where it is used in the New Testament is there any possibility that it means to make an itemized list. [For example: Romans 10:9 - acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord'; Matthew 10:32 - acknowledging Christ before men, Christ acknowledging us before God.] 

But, people respond, what about King David? 

That is a good question, for it actually establishes the fact that confession is not about an itemized list of sins. If we did not have the historical records in 2 Samuel 11 we would have no idea at all what David's sins were. In Psalm 32:5 he mentions that he acknoweldged his sin to God. In Psalm 51 we learn exactly what he said in that confession.

      • He committed himself to the compassionate mercy of God [verses 1]. This is itself an acknowledgement that he was a sinner who could never merit God's acceptance. This is also what the tax-collector did in Luke 18:9-14.
      • His confession encompassed far more than his specific sins of adultery and murder; they are not even mentioned.  It embraced the totallity of his life and his being [verses 1-5]. This is also true of the Luke 18 tax-collector. Both acknoweldged before God that they were sinners. They did not present themselves as basically good people who had a brief list of sins to admit to.
      • He acknowledged the rightness of God's assessment of him as a sinner [verse 4].
      • He acknoweldged that at the bottom line it was God against whom he had sinned [verse 4].
      • He committed himself to God for forgiveness and renewal [verses 1,2,7-12] not in regard to two specific sins, but in the innermost depths of his being. He trusted solely in God's mercy for this, not at all in his own merit or deserving.
      • He committed himself to live for God [verse 13].

In response to such a confession, such an acknowledgement of God as both just and merciful, such an acknowledgement of oneself as a sinner, God says, as Jesus did of the tax-collector, 'this man ... went home justified.'

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2008