If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [1 John 1:9]
When I was growing up in church, I was taught that I needed to confess my sins in order to be forgiven and justified before God. This meant that when I had faith in Christ, I walked righteously. When I lost faith and thus sinned, I swayed from the path of righteousness. I needed to confess my sins in order to become righteous. This began a path of relentless confession. I wanted to be accepted in God’s eyes and justified in His presence. This meant that I needed to confess every sin to Him lest I saw from the path of righteousness.
My friends thought I was berserk. Every time I was rude to someone or used a vulgar word or two, I would crouch under my table and confess my sins. Every time I shouted, I’d quickly turn around and whisper a prayer of confession. Clearly, my friends did not like me, for more reasons than just that, but knowing that people were scared away from Christ because of me, I knew I needed a change in life. I thought that every sin I made has made me unrighteous and has put me out of fellowship with God, despite having faith in Christ for salvation. Only after I encountered the pure, unadulterated gospel of grace that my life improve effortlessly—glory to God alone! When God revealed to me that I only needed faith in Jesus to be justified forever, past, present and future sins. I was accepted in the beloved (Ephesians 1:6) and no longer condemned, ever (Romans 8:1). Yet, this has got me thinking about making sense of 1 John 1:9 in light of the Gospel, in terms of two simple yet profound questions.
Question 1: Does confession of sins make us righteous?
Most conventional Christians say yes, quoting Scripture to substantiate their views when really it’s because they have been brought up with that teaching. Let me first qualify what I mean by “confession of sins”, “us” and “righteous”. By “confession of sins” I mean list out all the wrong things that I did in the day, week, month, year or in my whole life. In this sense, no, since no person can ever list out all of his sins, conscious or unconscious, but supposed we redefine “confession” as admitting that we are sinners in need of a Saviour.
By “righteous” I mean a state of right-standing with God, that I am accepted, favoured, not condemned and loved by God. If by “us” I mean Non-Christians, then yes, confessing that we are sinners in need of a Saviour is synonymous to placing faith in Christ, and salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus as Saviour. Yet, for the Christian, we are justified by grace and are kept justified by grace (1 John 2:1). Confession of sins did not keep us justified—the blood of Christ did. Furthermore, as far as God is concerned, we no longer bear the sinner identity, but in Christ, we are the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are righteous people who at times make mistakes, which we then confess not in order to be forgiven but precisely because we have been forgiven.
The definition of “confess” should also raise eyebrows, since “confess” in the Bible isn’t exactly “confess” in English. The word ‘homologeo’ means ‘to agree with’; in other words, we agree with God with regard to our sin, that Jesus has paid for it with His blood that we may be forgiven through it and that we are the righteousness of God in Him.
Advocates of the belief that confession precedes forgiveness then argue that forgiveness could mean ‘parentally’ instead of ‘judicially’, in the sense that Christ’s blood bought our judicial forgiveness before God as judge, whereas confession of sins precedes parental forgiveness before God as Father. This leads to my next question.
Question 2: Does confession of sins give us parental forgiveness?
The failures of our human parents may imply such. When we lie to our parents, they get angry and scold us, and our apology appears to calm them down. Yet, I know that when I have children and they make mistakes, I will present a firm corrective tone to correct their ways, but deep down I’ve already forgiven them for their mistake. I’m not angry at them, but their action. What would hurt me even more is for them to actually be afraid to freely tell me that they messed up and try to hide from me, when I love them and will do what I can to help them learn from their mistake and move on. Again, I argue that we confess because we are already forgiven, accepted and beloved, and that we can freely talk to God about our failings and mistakes.
My answer to this question is thus no, because the blood of Jesus has cleansed us from all our sins once and for all and continues to cleanse us even as we make mistakes. This means that judicially or parentally, we continue to walk in the light because of Jesus’ finished work, and when we fall, His blood continues to cleanse us and keep us in the light. We fall in the light, not out of it. This gives us boldness and confidence to confide in our God, to tell Him our failings, because He doesn’t condemn us and is ready to release His divine power that grants to us all things that pertain to life and godliness. His fresh wave of grace and gift of no condemnation gives us the power to go and sin no more (John 8:11).
As children of God, we don’t stay in sin, and it is His grace that empowers us to live life His way. If He knows better than us, and He has planned everything out for us, don’t you think that however awesome our plan seems to be, God’s one will supersede it in awesome-ness? Because God has already forgiven us, we can find strength to live the set-apart life. Precisely because we have been freely forgiven, justified and accepted in the Beloved, we can freely tell God our failings and weaknesses that His grace can be made sufficient in (2 Corinthians 12:9).
To end off this essay, let me describe my life post-revelation. After God revealed to me the Gospel, that I can’t sin away my righteousness in Christ, and that in my worst, God still accepted me in the Beloved, I had a new lease on life. I realised that as Jesus is, so am I in this world, and as He is righteous, holy and blameless, so am I in this world, giving me boldness in the day of judgement (1 John 4:17). I started seeing myself from God’s lens, as a child of God. As Jesus was excellent in everything He did, so will I, by the power of God, also put in a spirit of excellence in my studies. As Jesus was unashamed of the Gospel, so was I.
Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle with personal weaknesses and do fall into sin every now and then. Yet, I did not confess my sin in order to be forgiven, but I simply confessed, in essence, “Thank You Lord for Your grace. I know I messed up, but thank You for your gift of grace and of no condemnation, that You will help me overcome these struggles.” Now, confession is a fruit of righteousness, not a route to it. I confess because I am forgiven. Nothing can separate me from the love, acceptance and favour of God ever again (Romans 8:39).