A: The Bible teaches that we are to confess our sins to God. We read in 1 John 1:8-9, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Other Scriptures clarify that such confession must be made to God. Romans 14:10-12 states, “But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: ‘As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.”
We read that the people came to John the Baptist, “confessing their sins.” (Matthew 3:6). Note, however, it does not say that they were confessing their sins to John. Other Scriptures tell us that confession of sins is to be made to God.
The practice taught by some religions to confess our sins to a human mediator to obtain forgiveness by that person is not Biblical. We are taught that we have only one Mediator and Advocate between God and man who makes intercession for us before God the Father — Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5; 1 John 2:1-2; Hebrews 7:25). It is God who forgives sin (Mark 2:7; Isaiah 43:25; Acts 5:31). David understood that sin, in the final analysis, is against God (Psalm 51:3-4), as God gave us His law which defines for us sinful conduct (James 4:12).
John 20:23 does not justify a different conclusion. In John 20:23, Christ tells His disciples, “‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'” This passage does not teach confession to a priest. Read in context with the parallel passages in Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18, Jesus is giving His ministers spiritual discernment to ascertain whether someone has repented of his or her sins or not. In addition, Christ gives His ministers the authority to disfellowship a person from the Church in case sins are not repented of (compare 1 Corinthians 5:2; 1 Timothy 1:20), with the goal to restore such a person to the congregation in case of subsequent repentance (2 Corinthians 2:6-10; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). Jesus’ words in John 20:23 — as well as in Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18 — are not to be understood as saying that God’s ministers are free to “forgive” sins — or to refuse to grant forgiveness — and that God is bound by such a decision. Rather, the passages, correctly translated, convey the thought that God inspires His ministers to make those decisions, and whatever they bind on earth HAS ALREADY BEEN bound by God in heaven.
We should therefore generally not “confess” or tell our sins to others. There is, however, one exception to this rule.
We are being told in James 5:16 that we are to “confess [our] trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that [we] may be healed.” The Greek word for “trespass,” paraptoma, is used in numerous additional passages, for instance in Galatians 6:1; Ephesians 2:1; 2:5; or 2 Corinthians 5:19. It is consistently and correctly translated in the New King James Bible as “trespasses” in those passages. We are told in Colossians 2:13 that God, upon our repentance, forgives us all of our “trespasses.” We are also told that if we forgive men their “trespasses,” our Father will forgive us our “trespasses” as well, but if we do not forgive men their “trespasses,” our Father will not forgive us our “trespasses,” either (Matthew 6:14-15; compare Matthew 18:35).
The “trespasses” which we need to confess to our brother or sister, in order to obtain his or her “forgiveness,” are those that we have committed against our brother or our sister. Mark 11:25-26 tells us, “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” Unresolved problems between brethren might even prevent healing of physical sickness. James 5:16 tells us, “Confess your trespasses to one another [with the goal to “clear the air”], and pray for one another,THAT you may be healed.” After all, Christ told Peter to forgive his repenting brother “seventy times seven.” In Peter’s question, the brother had sinned against Peter and had come to him to express to him his sorrow — in other words, to “confess” to Peter his trespass or sin against Peter.
We also read in Luke 17:3, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Notice, too, Matthew 5:23-24, “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First, be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”‘
If we commit a sin or trespass against someone else, resulting in an offense and a problem within our relationship with that other person, we are to “confess” our sin or trespass to that person, asking him or her for forgiveness, with the goal of restoring our relationship. At the same time, we are NOT to “confess” or talk about our sin or trespass with others, unless a situation develops as described in Matthew 18:15-17. Notice, however, the very first step in the Matthew 18 process: “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him ALONE. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” At that moment, the process is supposed to end, and the sin or trespass against the brother is supposed to be forgiven, buried and gone. It is not to be “resurrected” by the parties, and it is most certainly not to be talked about to others.
At the same time, the Bible does not teach that we should “confess” or tell others (including a minister) sins that we might have committed against God. God can forgive and forget (Hebrews 8:12) — people, though, being human, have a long memory many times when it comes to the sins of others.