Why does the Bible teach we are to confess our sins if we are already forgiven?
What is the role of confession? If we are already forgiven, it seems unnecessary, doesn’t it?
The Greek word we use for confess means “to agree with.” When we confess our sins to our heavenly Father, we are agreeing with Him. We are agreeing with His attitude about sin; that is, sin is against Him, it is destructive to His purpose for our lives, and it carries with it consequences that will prove painful.
Confession also implies that we are assuming responsibility for our actions. We are not blaming our actions on others. Confession means that we see ourselves in relationship to our deeds of sin just like God does.
1 JOHN 1:9
Undoubtedly, the most often-quoted verse regarding confession is this one: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:9, New American Standard Bible). When taken at face value, the verse would seem to indicate that our forgiveness is conditional upon our confession. This raises all kinds of questions: What if we forget to confess a sin? What if we don’t realize we have committed a sin? And on and on we could go . . .
One reason our forgiveness, insofar as our salvation is concerned, cannot be based upon our confession is that we are not always aware of our sins. In a hurried, insensitive moment, with a sharp word we can deeply hurt someone but be unaware of the damage to the person’s spirit. In fact only God knows the real depth of our unrighteousness. He has made gracious and adequate provision for such actions. John assures us, “but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin,” (1 John 1:7). Again, our forgiveness is inseparably connected with the blood Christ shed for us.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
The confusion over confession hinges on our tendency to assign certain definitions to words without regard to the context in which they are used. For instance, whenever we read the word saved or save in the Bible, we immediately think about eternal salvation from the penalty of our sins. And certainly the term saved is used that way. But not every time. For instance, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, one of the thieves hanging with Him shouted out, “Save Yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). Clearly this was not a plea for salvation in the eternal sense. He just wanted Jesus to save his physical life. In Acts 27:20, Luke describes Paul’s shipwreck, “Since neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small storm was assailing us, from then on all hope of our being saved was gradually abandoned.” Did Luke believe that since the storm was so bad they would all die and go to hell? Certainly not. Once again, saved refers to physical deliverance . . .
The individual who becomes a child of God, thus establishing an eternal relationship with the heavenly Father, begins to relate to God in a new way. The new believer has new rights as well as new responsibilities. After the individual has become a partaker of eternal life, a new set of guidelines governs the relationship with God. One of these new guidelines has to do with restoring fellowship with the heavenly Father after the believer sins. The believer must receive what one author has termed “familial forgiveness.”
Eternal salvation and forgiveness of the debt of sin separating us from God are not the issues here. This is a matter of family business. So John includes himself when he writes. “If we confess our sins.” The parable of the prodigal son is the perfect illustration of this type of confession. The son’s fellowship with his father could not have been restored until he first returned home. So it is with us. Until we turn back to God from our sin, fellowship is broken. Notice that God does not withhold fellowship; we, as sinning believers, damage the relationship. The following example may help to clarify this point.
THE CASE OF THE STOLEN WATCH
Suppose that just before I begin to preach I take off my watch and lay it on the pulpit. I forget that it is there and walk off and leave it. Someone from the balcony notices that I left it. He makes his way down to the platform area, and thinking that he is unobserved, he simply walks by the pulpit and slips the watch into his pocket.
However, someone sees him take my watch and the next day informs me as to the identity of the thief. It is someone I know. Naturally, I am surprised and disappointed, but I choose to forgive him. Once I deal with any negative feelings I may have, there is no barrier in my relationship with this man as far as I am concerned. My relationship with him has not changed. Even though he stole my only watch, I have forgiven him for his actions; I have canceled the debt; I have assumed the loss. When I see him sitting in the balcony the following Sunday, I do not say, “Hey, you stole my watch.” I have forgiven him, so I must trust the Lord to convict him of his sin.
But suppose the offender discovers that I am aware of his action. By coincidence, we meet in the hallway. There are just the two of us and I say to him, “How are you? I’m glad to see you.” You see, I am free because I have forgiven him. I am not carrying the excess emotional weight of an unforgiving spirit, bitterness, or resentment for his action. But what do you suppose is going on inside him? He feels guilty, embarrassed, ashamed, fearful, regretful, found out.
I give him a warm, friendly handshake; I smile; I even invite him to lunch. But he nervously excuses himself; his eyes are unable to meet mine. He hurries off. He is miserable. His conscience is gnawing at him. His smile and sense of humor are gone.
The only way he is going to be comfortable around me and have fellowship with me again is to clear his conscience by confessing to me that he took my watch and by asking for my forgiveness
My reply would then be, “You were already forgiven. I forgave you even before I knew who took it.”
He did not have to come to me to get forgiveness; he was already forgiven. His confession was necessary for him to clear his conscience and to be restored to his previous fellowship with me.
That is what happens when we come to God confessing our sins. The confession does not persuade God to forgive us. He did that at the Cross. The confession restores us to our previous level of fellowship and intimacy with Him–from our perspective. God did not change. He did not turn away from us because of our sins. His love was not affected. He was not disappointed. He already knows about the sins we are yet to commit, and His response is the same, “Forgiven!”
AND THE CONSEQUENCES?
I do not mean to imply that forgiven sins have no consequences. One scriptural principle does not nullify another. We are clearly warned, “Be sure your sin will find you out,” (Numbers 32:23). Sins may find us out only in our own conscience, or it could be a public discovery. But find us out they will. The apostle Paul warns us, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap,” (Galatians 6:7). We may not reap it immediately nor in the way we expect, but we will reap.
Does this mean we are not forgiven? No! Then why do we have to suffer if God has forgiven us? There are two reasons. First, sin, by its very nature, is always accompanied by certain painful consequences, and the sin itself determines the nature of the consequences. It does not matter if we are saints or sinners. There are unavoidable consequences. That is the law of life.
A second reason we must suffer the consequences is that God, though forgiving, is committed to conforming us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). The painful consequences of our sins are expressions of God’s love, not of His anger. He knows that to allow us to escape would only result in our continued disobedience and our ultimate failure. He reminds us, “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines,” (Hebrews 12:6). He further encourages us by reminding us that “all discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness,” (Hebrews 12:11).
Confession is essential, not to receive forgiveness, but to experience the forgiveness God has provided through the death of Christ and to have unhindered fellowship with Him. But there is more. In confession we experience release from guilt, tension, pressure and emotional stress resulting from our sins. Failure to confess our sins ensures the continuation of those unnecessary negative feelings.
THE POSITION OF BELIEVERS
Failure to understand the purpose and place of confession can result in fear and uncertainty about our salvation; it takes the cutting edge off our joy; it leaves us with a nagging doubt that deprives us of the peace our Lord intends for His children. We must remember that confession does not merit us any more love or forgiveness than we already have. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
If we are not clear about the nature and power of our confession, our service for Him will be hindered. Our ambivalence will short-circuit our motivation to serve God because we will not feel worthy or competent. We will have a nagging sense of guilt: I wonder what God thinks of me? I wonder if He is pleased with me? The cloud of doubt will continually hang over us: Have I confessed everything? Am I sorry enough for my sins? Have I said the right thing? When we understand our true position in Christ, these thoughts will no longer harass us. We will be able to confess our sins and, on the basis of Christ’s shed blood, accept our forgiveness and thank God for His great grace toward us. And if some form of restitution needs to be made toward an offended party, we will do so.
Christ paid our penalty at Calvary. We cannot add to the payment by feeling sorry for our sins or confessing the same sin over and over again. This is not to belittle the awfulness of sin but to magnify the grace of God. Believers are united to Christ by faith. The following verses proclaim our position in Him:
“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8:1).
“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” (Colossians 1:13-14).
“In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory,” (Ephesians 1:13-14).
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Romans 8:35,38-39).
Hallelujah! We are eternally secure in Christ. Failure to confess our sins does not alter our eternal security, but it interferes with, and greatly hinders, our fellowship with the Father. That is indeed a costly mistake.