These are words for which the most common misunderstanding results from the extreme narrowing of their application in modern English. Today, they are usually used in a legal, or quasi-legal context, and deal with admitting or concealing criminal – or at least unsavory – conduct. This, however, comprises only a very minor part of classical and New Testament uses of the terms.
Homologeo, and its prefixed form, exomologeo, traditionally translated “confess, profess, promise, and thank”, had a much broader classical domain. The literal meaning, from “homos”, “the same”, and “lego” , “to speak or to say”, was “to say the same thing, to agree.” It was used mathematically of correspondence or coordination, socially of a promise or agreement to do something, logically or philosophically of admitting ignorance and of granting or conceding a proposition, and of common consent or consensus in a group discussion.
Some of these aspects appear in New Testament usage. By far the most frequent – at least a dozen times – refers to acknowledging one’s identification with Jesus (Mt.10:32, Lk.12:8, Jn.9:22, Rom.4:11, 10:9, 10:10, 15:9; Ac.24:14, Phil.2:11, Heb.4:14, 13:15; I Jn.4:2, 4:15), and his reciprocal acknowledgment of those who do so (Mt.10:32, Lk.12:8, Rv.3:5).
The more frequently “preached” association with “sins” occurs only five times, two of which involve John the Baptist and not Jesus (Mt.3:6, Mk.1:5). It is significant that every one of these, including also Ac.19:18, Jas.5:16, and I Jn.1:19, uses the term hamartia, (failure, shortcoming, error). Paraptoma (deliberate transgression) is never mentioned at all (see W.S. #7). James, in particular, links “confession” within the brotherhood to mutual prayer for one another’s strength and healing. And in Ac.19, it is the result, not the condition, of the conversion of the magic practitioners. Even in these few references, there is nothing to suggest that one is asked, (much less required) to sift repeatedly through a list of “no-no’s” to find items to “confess”, or to apologize for some sort of vague, unknown offenses (just in case you missed one!). It is simply an acknowledgment that one has not perfectly measured up to the Lord’s – and our own – goal.
Other references raise puzzling questions. Why did the traditional translators choose to depart from the usual rendition, “confess”, and choose “thank” in Mt.11:25 and Lk.10:21 – the only time they did so? Did they reject the idea of Jesus simply “agreeing” with the Father?
Denial, on the other hand, represents three different words.
Antilego, literally “to speak against, to dispute or question, to declare opposition, to contradict,” concerns factual disputes (Ac.28:19, 22; Lk.20:7, Jn.19:12), back-talk(Tit.2:9), or overt contradiction (Ac.13:45, Lk.2:34).
Arneomai, and its prefixed (stronger) form, exarneomai, refers to people: “to deny, to disown, to utterly reject, or to refuse any association.” They occur in contrast to homologeo in Mt.10:23 and parallel Lk.12:9, and II Tim.2:12,13; and repeatedly in the scene with Peter before Jesus’ crucifixion (Mt.26, Mk.14, Lk.22, Jn.18). This is the charge leveled against the Jewish leadership (Ac.3:13,14) and against unfaithful former brethren (I Tim.5:8, II Tim.3:5, Tit.1:16, II Pet.2:1, I Jn.2:22,23, Jude 4).
Once, arneomai has nothing whatever to do with faithfulness, Lk.8:45, the “not me” response to Jesus asking who touched him in the crowd.
One aspect that does not occur in classical usage appears in I Tim.5:8, II Tim.3:5, Tit.1:16, Rv.2:13 and 3:8, where one’s profession of faithfulness is evaluated (or negated) by his behavior. Likewise, its usefulness in determining the reliability of both human and spiritual “messengers” (II Pet.2:1, I Jn.2:22) goes beyond classical parameters, although the idea of “self– denial” is not entirely unique to the Christian message.
The two concepts are frequently used together, by way of contrast, usually either between acknowledging the truth of a statement of fact and opposing or rejecting it (Ac.23:8, I Jn.2:22, 4:2), or making similar statements about one’s relationships: not very complicated at all.
The very same word that describes Peter’s “denial” of association with Jesus, and the behavior that negates one’s “profession of faith” (I Tim.3:5, II Pet.2:1, Tit.1:16), is used in Jesus’ admonition to self-denial in all three parallels, and Paul’s similar message in Titus 2:12.
But were the traditional translators unaware that John the Baptist was simply acknowledging, and not contradicting, the reality of his own status (Jn.1:20) under cross-examination?
Homologeo is not always positive: it is used of Judas’ “promise” to the chief priests to betray Jesus (Lk.22:6), of Jesus’ warning to impostors (Mt.7:23), and Herod’s promise to Salome (Mt.14:7)!
Likewise, arneomai is not always negative. It may be simple honesty, as in (Heb.11:24) Moses’ refusing to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, or the temple authorities’ recognizing that they could not deny the miraculous healing of the lame beggar (Ac.4:16). Paul echoes Jesus’ own statement (Mt.10:33) when he reminds Timothy (II Tim.2:12) of that warning, but quickly adds (v.13) that this does not in any way inhibit or deny Jesus’ own faithfulness.
The congregations that Jesus commends, in the messages to Pergamon and Philadelphia, are cited for (Rv.2:13) “not denying” his (Jesus’) faithfulness, even under brutal persecution, and despite their minimal power, (Rv.3:8) having “kept my word, and not denied my name (see W.S.# 66 and 24).
Used in a manner consistent with the New Testament, both of these terms/concepts are an integral part of faithful living.
Like most “abused words,” they need simply to be restored to their intended understanding.
A good start would be to revise and re-define the practice of “confession” and restore it to the joyful acknowledgment of belonging to the Lord Jesus – a celebration, rather than a mournful duty – looking forward to the day when “Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!”