Most Christians are familiar with the confession of sins. However, this is not the only way the word confession is used in the scriptures.However, there is another newer meaning of confession which is tied to the Word of Faith movement which is positive faith confession. This seems to have more in common with the New Age movement than the contextual usage in the scriptures or in the ancient Greek speaking world for that matter. Frankly, confession was never used as a means of personal profit or gain among Christians. Verbal confessions did not serve to actualise spiritual realities so to speak.
The word itself is pregnant with meaning in the scriptures. The early Christians adapted its usage in the secular world for the own ends. The Greek word that is usually translated as confession can mean to acknowledge; to bear witness; to pledge allegiance or to make a commitment; to make a public declaration; and of course to be in agreement among other things. I think all these definitions colour the understanding of confession for the early believers. No matter the context I believe there are two features of confession that always hold. Confession is never a private activity and it is always taken seriously. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy will help us gain some insight into what this word really means.
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time–he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. – 1 Timothy 6:12-16 ESV
Paul charges Timothy to keep the faith and not deny God, just as Jesus was faithful. From the passage we can see that confession has some legal overtones. There is an arbitrator, testimony, and witnesses involved. The word confession was in fact used in judicial proceedings. Now in the ancient world, as it is today, in court one is sworn to speak the truth before God or the gods. Even if you escaped the judgment of men you would not escape the judgment of a higher power. Confession had moral and even religious significance.
In this particular context confession means to testify about something. What did Jesus testify to before Pilate? Now the Gospels do no give us too much information about what transpired between Pilate and Jesus. From these confrontations and what also occurred before the Sanhedrin of Jewish leaders we can surmise at least two things. Jesus acknowledged YHWH as God and himself as the Lord’s Messiah. Now Jesus was not the first to claim he was the Messiah but he went to his death because of this. Perhaps, what was so controversial was what he meant by it.
Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” – Matthew 26:63-66 ESV
Jesus identified himself with Son of Man of Daniel 7, a figure who had authority on par with God. He was not just the king of Israel, but the King of the World, a position solely occupied by God. He was willing to die for this claim, that he in some strange capacity was the God of Israel, the very God of his accusers.
From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar. – John 19:12 ESV
Now Caesar had styled himself as a god, the king of the world. Jesus’ confession was in direct conflict with this. In a conversation with Pilate he basically told him that Rome did not have any real power of itself. It was rather God who gave them authority. He claimed, in not so subtle terms, that YHWH, the God of Israel, the true King of the World, had now come to take his rightful place in and through the Galilean before him. People used to confess there political allegiances. Confession in that sense could mean to swear your loyalties to your superior. As they say, if Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. The political implications of Jesus’ statements was certainly not lost on them.
Paul, in recreating the courtroom scene, was illustrating the judicial, moral, religious, political and even eschatological significance of Jesus’ life in that one pivotal scene. He then transfers it and applies it to the entire Christian life. In this one scene he was demonstrating what it means to be a believer. Like Jesus it meant you had to be willing to pay the ultimate price for your convictions. Martyr comes from the Greek word for testimony. Martyrdom in the Gospel sense means to live and die the Faith.
The seriousness of confession for the early believers cannot be overstated. Many of them like Jesus had gone on trial for the Faith. Timothy and Paul were both not strangers to trial and tribulation for the sake of his name. Timothy could undoubtedly relate to the metaphor of his entire life being on trial before God, the world and his own conscience. Confession for the early believers meant showing their allegiances by acknowledging God had appointed Jesus Lord over all things. This was not just a verbal testimony but something they lived out every single day in obedience to the one they called King. They could not confess him with their mouths and then deny him in their actions.
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. – Romans 10:10 ESV
People sometimes think confessing Jesus is the point at which you become a Christian. This notion is often based on the above verse. Conversion as a discernible moment in time might be true for some but not for everyone, myself included. Bringing back the courtroom scenario people do not confess to something they are about to do. They confess to something they have done. Similarly, confession did not serve to make them Christians, it was a declaration of who they already were. You can only say what you already believe and not a moment sooner. Furthermore, Christianity is not lip service. When Jesus made the good confession it was a kind of summary of the evidence of his entire life and mission. The early believers were never brought on trial on suspicion of one day becoming Christians. Yet confession also bound you to continue living that way. Once you have shown where your allegiances lie and you are not willing to rescind your testimony, it means you have sealed your fate. No matter what happens you are committed to him. When we confess Jesus as Lord we have sworn faithfulness to God before heaven and earth.
Another misunderstanding of Romans 10:10 is that it is the means to secure your private salvation, suggesting an individualistic approach to Christianity is sufficient. The writer of Hebrews often speaks of ‘our’ confession. The Greek word for confession, homologia, literally means to say the same thing as another person (homos – same thing; logos – word.) Confession is used for agreement between one or more parties. The Church is united in agreement that Jesus is Lord. Confession does not only associate you with Jesus but also his followers. To confess faith in Christ means to belong to the community of people that acknowledges and obeys Jesus as Lord in the name of God the Father.
We need to get back to a Christ-centred understanding of confession, one that is not individualistic or materialistic. Confession means conviction, commitment and community. The power of confession is found in the one whom we confess. The one we confess will never deny us.