The Role of Confession


Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason, He said, “Not all of you are clean.” So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.  ‘If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” (John 13:3-15)

The Greek word translated sin is “hamartia” and is defined as a “falling away from or missing the right path”. In the context of the Scriptures, the right path is measured by God’s standards as revealed in the Word of God. When man operates outside the will of God, willfully or not, he is living in a state of sin. In Romans 14:23b, the Bible says, “whatever is not from faith is sin”. This means that when the believer is not believing (trusting) God, he is sinning. This speaks about our ongoing fellowship with God and the only solution to this problem for the believer is confession.

Breaking the bondage

To understand the role of confession in a believer’s life, we need to be convinced that our position “in Christ” is perfect and cannot be improved, that Jesus did pay for all my sins. My experience as a human being living in a corrupt and fallen world is not so perfect because I am subject to all of my human weaknesses. Galatians 5:17 says, “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please”. But if Jesus paid the price for all my sins, why do I need to confess them? Because these sins have an energy, a power unto themselves and can keep me in bondage to the failures and not allow me to experience the victorious life. Confession breaks this bondage by expressing to God a desire to change, agreeing with God’s assessment of the failures. According to Frederick Buechner, “To confess your sins to God is not to tell God anything God doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the Golden Gate Bridge.”

In Mark 10:45, Jesus says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” It was the role of a servant to wash the feet of guests since most travelled without shoes, but Jesus is again challenging the disciples’ understanding of what might be expected of them and what Jesus was willing to do to honor His Father. In John 13, He becomes a servant to illustrate the importance of confession to each believer. He accomplishes this by washing each of the disciples’ feet. A very informative exchange unfolds when He gets to Peter, who questions this whole exercise.

Agreement with God

His first response to Jesus was, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” (verse 6). He is asking the Lord why He should wash the feet of a sinner like Peter. Jesus tells Peter to wait and you will understand later, but Peter responds to Jesus that this can never happen. Jesus tells Peter that if He does not do it, Peter will “have no part with Me”. Jesus was telling Peter that everyone needs the forgiveness and cleansing that only Jesus can give. Impetuous Peter then tells Jesus to wash not only his feet, but his hands and head also. Jesus’ response is very telling, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you”. Jesus is teaching Peter the principles of confession, found in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. He is also referencing Judas Iscariot when He said, “but not all of you”. Salvation deals with the sin condition and confession deals with our walk.

The Greek word translated confession is “homologeo” and is the combination of 2 Greek words, “homo” meaning same and “logoe” meaning to say. It literally means to say the same thing and contains the idea of agreement, consent, or admission. Confession is the process of the believer agreeing with God’s assessment that what he did was wrong. By agreeing with God in this regard, we receive cleansing from God for the thing that we did wrong. The sin was paid for, but the effect of that sin needs to be addressed. When Jesus spoke of those who have been bathed only needing their feet washed, He was teaching that a believer’s faith makes him clean in his position, but his feet, speaking of his experience, his behavior, still needs to be cleansed from unrighteousness. In John 15:3, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you”. Confession is the cleansing of the soul from the power that a sin can have over a believer’s life.

Put Him in charge

The illustration of confession in John 13 is a powerful one because Jesus has become our servant, to cleanse our feet every time we confess. It reminds me of another passage in Genesis 39 dealing with Joseph, son of Jacob, a type of Christ in this passage. It takes place after Joseph is sold into slavery to Potiphar, an Egyptian officer, and becomes Potiphar’s favored personal servant. In verse 2, Scripture says, “The Lord was with Joseph, so he became a successful man” and in verse 4, Potiphar saw that the Lord was with Joseph and put him in charge of everything he owned. Jesus wants us to allow Him to become our servant so that we will put Him in charge of everything. When we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, He adds all things to us, so we do not have to be anxious about tomorrow (Matthew 6:33-34).

David is our example

King David wrote Psalm 51 and Psalm 32 in response to his failures with Bathsheba and her husband. He asks the Lord to wash him thoroughly from the effects of these sins (Psalm 51:7), knowing that the guilt associated with these sins would destroy him. In Psalm 32:5, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah”. It was the guilt of the sin that David was addressing with his confession. He had already addressed his sin in verses 1-2 when he acknowledged that the one whose sins are covered is blessed of God, referring to himself. This Hebrew word used for guilt is “awon” and it used to reference either the sin or the effect of that sin, namely guilt. The consequence of sin in the new covenant is guilt or conviction from the Holy Spirit within each believer. David recognizes that his relationship with God has been harmed by his sins (“Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight” – verse 4) and acknowledges God’s right to judge him.

Hyssop is mentioned in verse 7 as an instrument of purification. In the ceremonial law, hyssop was used as a means by which the virtue of the sacrifice was transferred to the transgressor. This principle is a clear reference to the believer’s forgiveness coming from the shed blood of another. In 1 Peter 2:24, “and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed”.

In Psalm 51:10, David asks God for a clean heart and a steadfast spirit. So much of our ability to continue in the path God has established for each believer is to maintain a clean or pure heart. In fact, Jesus said that the one who has a pure heart is blessed and will see God (Matthew 5:8). Augustine once said, “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works.” Confession leads to a life that produces the fruit of God’s goodness, namely good works.


The quality of confession is determined by the condition of the heart. A sincere heart is a heart that is transparent, not holding anything back, willing to admit all. It means drawing near (Hebrews 10:22) to God regularly, just as we need our feet washed often, and being confident that our willing heart will result in an internal change, “our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience”. An evil conscience is one filled with guilt, either conscious or unconscious guilt. The blood of Christ can do so much more than the blood of goats and bulls to “cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:13-14).

Getting back to our passage from John 13, we find Jesus commending the disciples to do to others as I have done to you (verses 14-15). I believe Paul captured the essence of what Jesus was teaching in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 when he speaks about the ministry of reconciliation. First, as believers we are new creatures (verse 17), having a new life and a new future. In Colossians 1:21-22, “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach”. Reconciliation means I was once alienated and hostile in my mind toward God, but a transformation took place and my fellowship with God is now restored. My response to this supernatural work of God is to accept this ministry of reconciliation (verse 18) as defined in verse 19, that it is “reconciling the world to Himself” through the word of reconciliation. As a result, we become “ambassadors for Christ” and we “beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God”.

Max Lucado once said, “We will never be cleansed until we confess we are dirty. And we will never be able to wash the feet of those who have hurt us until we allow Jesus, the one we have hurt, to wash ours.” By accepting the reconciliation offered to each believer at salvation, we are called to draw near to God to receive cleansing and be empowered to the ministry of reconciliation that allows believers to operate as ambassadors, in Christ’s place, to become representatives of His heart and life for the world to witness.

Need help getting started with confessing your sins? This sin list should help.


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