I've heard plenty of exuberant preachers say that you have to admit that you're a sinner and confess your sins in order to be saved. There are a few examples of people confessing sin in the New Testament. However, nowhere in the New Testament does it say that one must confess their sin in order to be eternally saved. Let's look at some of the examples that do appear in the Bible.
Here is an example of people confessing their sins in the New Testament. It appears in both Matthew and Mark. Here is what Matthew says:
People went out to him [John the Baptist] from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. (Matthew 3:5-6)
Paul later tells us, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” (Acts 19:4) For John to baptize someone they had to confess their sins. They weren’t saved by being baptized by John. John’s baptism was to get Israel ready to believe in her Messiah.
Many who confessed their sins and got baptized by John probably believed in Jesus later on. However, there were some who did not. Only two of John’s disciples left John to follow Jesus. (John 1:35-37) Then later a number of John’s disciples, who had confessed their sins and been baptized by him, still did not believe that Jesus was the Christ. (John 3:25-26)
This shows that confessing their sins to be baptized by John was not something that equaled saving faith. There is evidence that a number of those who were baptized by John actually rejected Jesus. Note that those are people who confessed their sins. Thus, confessing sins doesn’t mean someone gets saved.
Confession of sins was not only a means to get unbelieving Jews ready to believe in their Messiah. Confession is prescribed for Christians as well. Many evangelists have quoted this famous phrase from the Apostle John, claiming that it is the way to salvation. However, they are misguided in doing so.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Now wait a minute. In the last section, we established that we get forgiveness automatically when we believe in Jesus. So why is John telling us to confess our sins?
The first thing to notice is that John includes himself here. He says, “If we confess…” So this is not only something that all believers ought to do it is something that even the apostles had to do. By the time John wrote this was he saved? Obviously he was. So he’s not telling people how to get saved, since he, who already had eternal life, includes himself. John is admitting that even though he has eternal life, he should confess his sins. He is talking to saved believers, and is including himself.
The second thing to notice is that he doesn’t mention that we need to confess in order to be saved. It’s nowhere in the passage. What is in the passage is the idea that believer’s need sustained fellowship with each other and with God. In fact, he mentions fellowship four times in the verses leading up to this instruction. He’s selling his readers on the value of continual fellowship with God and with other believers. In verse nine he’s telling them how to achieve it. Confession has to do with fellowship not with eternal salvation. James agrees but adds another fellowship related benefit of confession when he says:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)
Once again we see the overtones of fellowship in this verse. Confessing should happen not just between the Christian and God, but between Christian brothers and sisters. It has a powerful effect on the way we pray for each other and the way in which we unite.
You might be surprised to find out that, though the word confess appears about thirty four times in the New Testament, 76% of the times confess is used, it’s not talking about confessing sins. Most of the uses are talking about confessing the truth about Jesus, or God. Only five times is confession of sin mentioned in the New Testament. None of the examples of sin confession are used as a requirement for salvation.
What’s even more startling is that from those five mentioned we have two categories for the confession of sins. There were those who confessed their sins, but were not saved by doing so, and those who were already saved who confess their sins to have better fellowship with each other and with God.
Clearly, the New Testament does not prescribe the confession of sins as part of the plan of salvation. It can work to prepare unbelievers for eventual faith. It is also one of the primary means believers ought to use to maintain fellowship with each other and with God. However, it is not the way to be saved.