© Rosemary Bardsley 2016

The question:

Is only confessed sin forgiven?

1John 1:9 states that ‘if we confess our sins’ God ‘will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’.  On the basis of this verse some Christians believe, and are taught, that:

[1] Only ‘confessed’ sins are forgiven, and that

[2] Christians should make it a regular practice to ‘confess their sins’ – that it, verbally identify their sins, in an itemized list, to God.

On the basis of these two understandings:

[3] unless such ‘confession’ is practiced the ‘unconfessed’ sins are not forgiven.

There are a number of problems with this interpretation of this verse.

There does not seem to be anywhere in Scripture that an individual believer actually does this. There are examples of national repentance and confession in which lists of sins are made, but not of individual lists of sins. When we check David out, not even he identifies his individual sins, he simply admitted his sinfulness [Psalm 51:1-5]; so too did the tax-collector in the temple [Luke 18:9-14]; so also did Isaiah [Isaiah 6:5]. We are told that people came to John the Baptist ‘confessing their sins’ [Matthew 3:6], and that the people of Ephesus confessed their deeds [Acts 19:18], but in both of these there is a different Greek word to the one used in 1John 1:9; in addition, this was a public response to a message publicly calling people to ‘repent, because the kingdom of heaven is near’ [Matthew 3:2]. In other words, this was a crisis response to the call to repent, not a daily listing of sins of someone already a believer. Acts 19:18 also refers to a public acknowledgment in a specific crisis/repentance situation.

The word translated ‘confess’ in 1John 1:9 is homologeo which occurs in the New Testament 23 times. It means ‘to acknowledge’ or, literally, ‘to speak the same thing about’. It is the word Paul used when he said that those who ‘confess’ that Jesus is Lord, will be saved [Romans 10:9]. It is the word Jesus used when he said that he will ‘acknowledge’ before the Father, those who ‘acknowledge’ him before men [Matthew 10:32]. It certainly does not mean ‘to identify one by one’, and it is used only here in 1John 1:9 in relation to sin. Thus the person who ‘confesses’ their sins, is one who ‘acknowledges’ or ‘says the same’ as God says about sin - this person acknowledges that he/she is a sinner who sins. That is what David did in Psalm 51, what Isaiah did in 6:5, and what the tax-collector did in Luke 18. It is only such a person – a person acknowledging that he/she is a sinner, and casting themselves therefore on the mercy of God, who can be saved.

This is supported by the two verses on either side of 1John 1:9. In verse 8 we find people who refuse to acknowledge that there is any sin in them. John states ‘the truth is not in us’ if we demonstrate such a refusal to admit to being sinners, and we are deceiving ourselves. In verse 10, we find people who claim they have not sinned: if we say this, John says, we are actually calling God a liar and his word is not in us. Both of these two refusals to acknowledge sin are categorized as the opposite of God’s truth. The person who knows the truth knows that he/she is a sinner who continues to sin. Verse 9 teaches us that it is only this person, who knows this truth and therefore acknowledges this truth, to whom God’s gift of forgiveness is granted.

This forgiveness of sins that is granted in verse 9 is further described as cleansing ‘from all unrighteousness’. Immediately we are removed from the picture of an individual person listing his sins every day in order to be forgiven those sins and to regain acquittal. John is speaking here rather of the reality of the complete salvation that comes to all who acknowledge their sin and cast themselves on the mercy of God, trusting in the righteousness of Christ and not in their own supposed righteousness. The word translated ‘righteousness’ means legal innocence, or acquittal as legally innocent. Unrighteousness is the opposite – it is legal guilt. The gift of righteousness – justification – the declaration of acquittal - is granted once for all when we believe in Christ. It is not dependent on any daily, repetitious ‘confession of sins’. It is not something that has to be re-applied to us every time we sin and ‘confess’; rather it is a gift freely given in Christ at the point of our conversion.

The Gospel clearly teaches that in Christ ‘we have ... the forgiveness of sins’ [Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14]. Note the present continuity of that – ‘we have’. Forgiveness of sins is the permanent, present possession of all who are ‘in Christ’. It is not, and cannot be, something that is on-again-off-again, dependent on whether or not we have ‘confessed’ all our sins one by one.

To suggest that only those sins that we have individually ‘confessed’ are forgiven also overlooks two important facts:

[1] that it is impossible for us to remember all of our sins;

[2] that we do not recognize all of our sins. What we call ‘sin’ and what God knows is ‘sin’ are two quite different things. His standard of 100% moral and legal perfection far exceeds what we think is ‘good’ or ‘right’.

Anyone, therefore, who believes that they have ‘confessed’ each their individual sins has also, either deliberately or ignorantly, minimized both the nature of ‘sin’ and the holiness of God.

The New Testaments teaches us that Jesus Christ, by his substitutionary, sin-bearing death, saves sinners:

‘I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ [Matthew 9:13].

‘ “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God’ [Luke 18:13,14].

‘God ... justifies the ungodly’ [Romans 4:5].

‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst’ [1Timothy 1:15].

It is this acknowledgement, this confession, in which we agree with God’s verdict that we are sinners who sin, that 1John 1:9 demands of us. In this confession we acknowledge that we are totally dependent on his mercy, and not at all depending on our own perceived righteousness. In this confession we affirm that we trust not in ourselves but always, ever and only in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who loved us and laid down his life for us, bearing our sins in his own body on the cross.