Popular Beliefs and Practices: Confession and Repentance

Because if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved: for with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Romans 10:9-10).

And when they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life (Acts 11:18).

Christianity features many beliefs and practices that prove very popular; many of them are accepted and perpetuated without much thought or consideration to what is said in the Scriptures. We do well to test the spirits and prove all things so that we may be able to do all things in good conscience by Jesus’ authority (Colossians 3:17, 1 John 4:1).

Both confession and repentance are important elements of Christian faith and practice. Both are enjoined upon Christians according to the Scriptures (Acts 2:38, 11:18, Romans 10:9-10). Nevertheless, many maintain misapprehensions about the nature of confession and repentance on account of religious confusion and incomplete definitions.

Confession translates the Greek term homologeo, which means “to speak the same thing as.” In confession, therefore, we are verbalizing what we recognize to be true.

When most people think about confession they immediately think about confession of sin. When we speak about the need to confess in order to be saved, as in Romans 10:9-10, it becomes very easy and understandable to assume that such confession involves confession of sin. And so it is that many believe and teach that we must confess that we are sinners or even our specific sins in order to satisfy the need for confession in Romans 10:9-10.

For Christians who are already in Christ, confession of sin is necessary if we would be forgiven of sins we have committed while in Christ (1 John 1:9). We must confess our sins before God; we do well to have at least one fellow Christian with whom we feel comfortable confessing our sin (James 5:16, 1 John 1:9). Honest grappling with our sins before God and among trusted Christians proves necessary for a healthy faith and walk in life; if we prove unwilling to speak out our sins, we allow them to fester and grow toxic within us, leading us to greater sin, alienation from God and His people, and we risk condemnation. David spoke well regarding this situation in Psalm 32:1-11.

Confession of sin is important and necessary for Christians, but it is not the confession spoken of in Romans 10:9-10. By coming to belief in Christ we already demonstrate our recognition that we are sinners (Romans 3:23); we see no indication in the New Testament of God requiring the one who would come to Christ to confess all of their sins beforehand. Instead Paul speaks of confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the good confession which Simon Peter made in Caesarea Philippi and that Jesus made before Pilate (Matthew 16:15-20, Luke 23:1-3; cf. 1 Timothy 6:13). Without a doubt Timothy made this confession before many witnesses (1 Timothy 6:12); while Acts 8:37 may be textually in dispute, the Ethiopian eunuch would have most likely made a confession similar in substance before he was baptized.

Western Christians may take confession of Jesus as the Christ for granted, but it remains an important moment in our faith. Belief and faith is something which only God and the believer can see; for anyone else to know it, the believer must say what they believe. Such a statement at many times and in many places comes with significant risk to life and limb, and yet it remains necessary as an encouragement to fellow believers and for the confessor him or herself to verbally identify with Jesus and thus with His people. This confession of Jesus as the Christ is the confession of the Gospel message and remains the basis for our faith and continued participation in the purposes of God (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:13, Hebrews 3:1, 4:14, 10:23, 13:15).

When we come to faith in Jesus, we must confess that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God; once in Christ, we then must hold fast to that confession and live according to it, confessing our sins when we fail to live up to the standard of the Gospel of Christ.

Confusion exists regarding confession on account of its multiple applications in definition. Many are confused about repentance on account of different meanings between English and Greek. In English, repentance involves expressing regret or sorrow for past behavior: being sorry for having committed sin. The Greek term translated by repentance is metanoia, which means “a change of mind,” generally for the better.

Repentance is a major element of the Gospel message; Jesus’ proclamation to Israel can be summarized as, “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). On Pentecost Peter expected the Israelites who believed in Jesus to repent (Acts 2:38); when Jewish Christians perceived the hand of God in the conversion of Cornelius, they declared that God had granted to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life (Acts 11:18). God expects those who would come to Christ to repent; Christians are to live so as to make good on that repentance and repent whenever they turn aside from following Jesus (Acts 26:20).

By necessity such repentance involves sorrow for past sin and the past trajectory of one’s life; by deciding to make a change and to follow Jesus, we demonstrate recognition of the error of our past deeds. We are to be ashamed of the things we did in the past which led us to death (Romans 6:21); we must never forget what we were before we came to Jesus, and resolve to never be like that again (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8).

But Biblical repentance is much more than just being sorry for what we did in the past: it is the mental resolution and commitment to follow the ways of Jesus wherever they lead. We come to Jesus when we recognize that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God; we are to declare that confidence before others. It is in repentance that we make good mentally on that faith: we have come to know that Jesus is Lord, so we now are committing to do what He says. The resolution is mental; Jesus emphasized that what we feel and do is an expression of what we believe and think, and so if we wish to change our feelings and actions, we must first change our beliefs and thoughts (Mark 7:14-23; cf. Philippians 4:8). If we change our thoughts and mind, our feelings and actions should follow.

Peter manifests an excellent commitment to repentance in John 6:68-69. He trusts that Jesus is the Holy One of God and that He has the words of eternal life. We know that Peter will experience many trials and difficulties because his understanding of Jesus and His mission were not entirely consistent with who Jesus really was and what He was actually doing (cf. John 13:36-38); nevertheless, Peter maintained his confidence in Jesus as the Holy One of God and proved willing to change his mind and behavior to align with Jesus’ will (John 21:15-19, Acts 1:1-12:25).

Both confession and repentance are necessary for salvation yet remain important behaviors with significant implications throughout our lives in the faith. To come to Jesus we must declare with our mouths that He is the Christ, the Holy One of God; we must change our minds, deciding to follow Jesus wherever He may lead us. We must then continue to live our lives in light of that confession and repentance, continually confessing our failings and wrongdoing before God and trusted Christians, continually changing our minds when necessary so as to pursue righteousness and avoid immorality, manifesting our confession and repentance in our lives. May we put our trust in Jesus as Lord, confess Him, and repent, and obtain salvation!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Popular Beliefs and Practices: Confession and Repentance

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