“If we continue to confess our sins, faithful is He and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from every unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).”
We have now arrived at verse 9 of 1 John, a verse which seems to have created some confusion amongst Evangelical Christians concerning the discipline of the “confession of sins.” There are some well-meaning Christians that advocate the false teaching that redeemed believers are not required to confess their sins for any reason at all. It is claimed that the Christian is already justified in Christ, and his sins are forgiven him (Eph. 1:7). Why should the believer, then, confess his sins after being saved in Christ Jesus? Is it not true that all his sins are cleansed by the atoning death of our Savior? Worse, it may even be a sign of a lack of faith if the believer continues to confess his sins. Does he doubt the fact that Christ is able to forgive him of all his sins?
Such an understanding of Scripture confuses the position which a Christian has in Christ with his responsibility as a failing individual on earth. We must seek to understand what John is trying to convey to his readers here in 1 John 1:9. Firstly, is John speaking to unbelievers or believers? John is obviously not referring to unsaved individuals here, as the word “we” includes John himself. He is instructing Christians what to do with sins in their lives. While the sinner is to repent and believe in Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, the saint is to confess his sins. Merriam Webster defines the verb “confess” as “to acknowledge (sin) to God.” Thus, to confess is to own up or to admit that one has indeed committed the sin.
According to Wuest, “The verb [confess] is present subjunctive, speaking of continuous action. This teaches that the constant attitude of the saint toward sin should be one of a contrite heart, ever eager to have any sin in the life discovered for him by the Holy Spirit, and ever eager to confess it and put it out of the life by the power of that same Holy Spirit.” Robertson adds that the “confession of sin to God and to one another (James 5:16) is urged throughout the N.T. from John the Baptist (Mark 1:5) on.” But why should the Christian confess his sins? We must remember that the Christian is justified in the sight of the righteous God, and in legal terms we are indeed forgiven of all our sins - past, present and future. The NT, therefore, seems to convey to us a confusing message. On one hand, we are forgiven of all our sins as believers. On the other hand, we are commanded to confess our sins.
One commentator translates the verse as, “If we confess our sins, He . . . will forgive the sins we confess and moreover will even cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” As fallen creatures with fallen minds, we are unable to perceive every single sin we have ever committed, let alone every sin we will ever commit. God alone knows the full extent of a person’s unrighteousness at any given moment. How are we, then, able to confess all our sins? We cannot. John did not ask us to confess our every sin as if we know all our sins. We are, however, responsible to acknowledge every single sin that we are made aware of by the Holy Ghost. There is thus no need to agonize over sins of which we are unaware. This, however, does not explain why we are required to confess our sins.
As sons of a loving heavenly Father, our positions (as sons) do not change with every sin we commit in our lives as Christians. The Calvinistic proclamation of “Once saved, always saved” is a truism we must not forget. But the son who loves his Father must also acknowledge his faults and failures. A son who never feels the need to ask his heavenly Father for forgiveness for his sins can hardly have much sensitivity to the sins he had committed. Furthermore, our Lord taught his disciples to seek forgiveness of their sins in a prayer (Matt. 6:11-12) that is known to every Reformed church, and possibly, every evangelical church. Our Lord cannot be undermining the extent of His atonement when He asked Christians to seek forgiveness! Herein lies the necessity of human responsibility. Even free grace teacher, Zane Hodges, admits that “confession of sin is never connected by John with the acquisition of eternal life, which is always conditioned on faith.”
Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit. Christians, however, are not taught to say, “Well, since my walk with God is made better by the Holy Spirit, and it is His responsibility to transform me to be more Christ-like, I can do whatever I like without feeling remorse or compunction for my sinful actions.” As he grows in grace and spiritual maturity, the true believer becomes more and more sensitive to sins in his life. He will desire a closer walk with his heavenly Father, and he will feel remorse for failing his loving Father in thoughts, words or deeds. The Christian cannot escape his responsibility to live a holy life (1 Peter 1:14-16). Likewise, the believer is not exempted from asking forgiveness for sins in his life. Justification must not be confused with sanctification. Asking God for forgiveness does not contradict the fact that the Christian is, indeed, forgiven of all his sins. In fact, it is the believer’s responsibility to confess whatever sins the Spirit brings to remembrance in his life. Therefore, the teaching that Christians should not confess their sins is erroneous, and even deleterious to the believer’s sanctification process.