What does it mean to confess something? There are two possible answers. Either you are 1) admitting that you did something wrong, or 2) stating that you believe something. Scripture has a lot to say about both subjects, but in the book of 1 Timothy, it is that second definition that is particularly on Paul’s mind.
Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and 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 testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He will bring about at the proper time…
1 Timothy 6:12-15a
Paul twice uses the words “good confession” in these verses. In both cases, they involve making a bold statement of truth. That was the content of Jesus’ discussion with Pontius Pilate when He said, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” (John 18:37b) We are led to believe that the confession that Timothy made was a proclamation of his saving faith in Jesus Christ, or else it had to do with his pastoral ministry.
Scripture makes a strong link between internal faith and the external profession of that faith. Consider what the Apostle Paul wrote elsewhere.
But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.
Now, I think it is safe to say that Paul is not implying that the mere act of speech results in salvation, or else mute people would never stand a chance. We need to look at what exactly he is telling people to confess: “Jesus as Lord”. He is emphasizing the importance not only of having a warm fuzzy feeling that God loves you, but of having a proper theological understanding of one’s place before God, of acknowledging Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf and bending the knee in submission, and of being willing to make such a proclamation publicly.
Jesus declared, “And I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will confess him also before the angels of God; but he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:8-9) Therefore, this concept of confession is very important. A person whose life has been radically changed by the regeneration of the Spirit and union with Christ – that kind of person is not going to turn around and deny Christ publicly. There will be a link between what they believe and what they say, “…for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” (Luke 6:45b)
Yet, there is another time that Paul uses the word “confession” in his first letter to Timothy, and it brings us to a deeper understanding of the concept. He begins by saying, “By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness”. (3:16a) He then launches into a great statement of belief.
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.
1 Timothy 3:16b
The first thing to note here is Paul’s reference to “common confession”, that is, a word of testimony spoken by the Church corporately. In the previous verse, he spoke of “the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth”. (3:15b) Now, Paul is telling us to make common confession of that truth.
The second thing to note is that Paul gives an example of the kind of thing we ought to confess: a statement of doctrine that stresses the nature of Christ and His saving work. Therefore, Paul wants us to speak together, and he wants that speech to be rooted in doctrinal truth.
What is so special about Christians confessing something together as opposed to confessing something individually? Because the very act of confessing binds us together in our common beliefs. It reminds us that God is not only doing something in each of us individually, but He is doing something with us corporately. Christ’s work was not only about allowing a bunch of individuals to have individual relationships with Him. He came to establish the Church – the body of believers that would commune with each other and with Him corporately.
It is important for Christians to make common confession of God’s truth, because it helps us to remember what is actually holding us together. Our friendships may be strong, but human connection is not enough to keep the Church going. The Church was brought into being by Christ, it exists in Christ, and it will persevere to the end in Christ. It also exists to proclaim the truth of God’s Word, which is not only a nice series of facts or a nice story, but a living message that binds us together. Without scriptural truth, we don’t stand a chance. It is the foundation of everything we do.
To finish, let me reference a place in the book of Hebrews where the author first states an important theological truth, then bids us “hold fast our confession”, then stresses how that confession is connected with our life together.
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
All scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.