Must Believers confess their sins?

While there are a thousand shades of opinion regarding the matter of just what a believer is to do when he is conscious of having committed a sin, there are really only two major views on which to base opinions. The first, and by far the most commonly held, might be called “Short accounts”; the second, “Total forgiveness.”

The short accounts view teaches, essentially, that when the believer sins a barrier is erected between the believer and God which can only be taken down by confession. Confession is held to be either mentally or orally citing the sin in prayer to God. There are great differences of opinion among those who hold this view as to the seriousness of the rift that occurs between God and the believer when the latter sins. Some hold that fellowship is broken to some degree, while others insist that much temporal and some eternal blessing is forfeited until and unless the sin is cited in prayer. Frequently, in this view, the blood of Christ is seen as the basis of forgiveness for the sinner and confession the basis of forgiveness for the saint. Some who hold this view see God as exercising two kinds of forgiveness, judicial and familial. These contend that God forgives the believer’s sins, in the forensic sense, for all eternity at the moment of salvation on the basis of Christ’s shed blood, but now that the believer is in the family of God, he must have forgiveness–in the “family matter” sense–on the basis of confession. One author says that if his son were to offend him he would withhold forgiveness until his son came to him in contrition and sought a restoration of fellowship. He assumes that God would only do the same. But IS THIS GRACE? Does not God forgive believers “…for Christ’s sake” ? (Ephesians 4:32) When believers are instructed to forgive others (same reference) are we to understand that God means us to withhold forgiveness until these others cease to act like enemies and make some kind of amends? And what of the injunction to “bless those who persecute you” ? (Romans 12:14) Are we to withhold blessing until persecution stops, or, is the plain meaning to bless during the persecution?

It is interesting to observe that when men teach “short accounts” they invariably rush to 1 John 1:9 for a major proof-text. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I would like to suggest some things that we MUST note if we are to UNDERSTAND this important verse as God meant it to be understood when He placed it in His Word.

First, John is an apostle of the Circumcision writing to Jews as Jews and not to the Body of Christ. This is plain from Galatians Two, where, having just come to recognize the new and unique apostleship of Paul and Paul’s new and different message of Grace, he, with Peter and James, agrees to confine his ministry to the Jews while the new apostle, Paul, undertakes a new and unprophesied worldwide ministry to Gentiles.

Second, these Jews that John was addressing would know exactly what John was talking about when he conditioned forgiveness and cleansing on the confession (acknowledgment) of sins. They had a purification rite–the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins–and by the act of submitting to this “washing” ritual, they were admitting their sinnership, acknowledging their sins. Without speaking a word, they were confessing their unworthiness to enter Messiah’s Kingdom of Righteousness…the frequently predicted and long awaited reign of Heaven on earth.

Third, every Scripture has a context, and 1 John 1:9 is no exception. “A verse without a context is a pretext.” It is widely conceded that the book as a whole, and chapter one in particular, is a refutation of incipient gnosticism with its denial of the existence of the sin nature and the reality of personal sins and their consequent need of forgiveness. But the immediate context of verse 9 is the section incorporating verses 7 through 10. In verse seven, the Jewish believer commits sins but continues to walk in the light because he continues to be cleansed by the blood of God’s Son. This believer, though he continues to sin, does not walk in darkness, nor is his fellowship broken. A good concordance will reveal that darkness is always associated with the unsaved, never the saved. A believer cannot walk in darkness, nor can his access to the Father be interrupted becuase he has his access on the grounds of God’s Grace and not human merit (Romans 5:1-2). Also, the contrast in this passage is not between a believer who names his sins mentally or orally in “confession” to God and one who does not. The contrast is between the unbeliever who denies having sin (singular, the sin nature) and committing sins (plural, individual acts resulting from the fallen Adamic nature) and the Jewish believer who, by submitting to the Jewish purification ritual–water baptism–has acknowledged (confessed) his sinnership with its resulting sins.

Fourth, no one could possibly cite ALL of his sins to God…no one ever has. Even the earnest attempt to do so would leave you and me without time to sleep, eat, or brush our teeth. And even if it were possible to enumerate ALL of them, we would still have our sinful natures militantly opposed to God and His Word (Romans 8:7).What would confession do for that? Romans shows us that the REAL problem is Sin, the nature, not sin, the act. Monks hid under their beds rather than take a turn hearing Martin Luther’s confession, for, while they finished reciting their own sins in five minutes–or thought they did!–this sensitive monk kept on for an hour and a half and then was back in twenty minutes with more that he had forgotten. Most “short accounters” admit the inability to confess all and then resort to shameless evasion instead of sound exposition to cover the obvious. There are sins of omission, sins that we forget that we committed, sins of ignorance, and sins of stubbornness…sins that we go to our graves refusing to admit are sins. The problems with this view are legion, and they are immense!

Fifth, if John really taught short accounts in this passage, and if this Circumcision apostle had the Body of Christ in mind, why aren’t the Pauline Epistles full of instruction about “confessing” one’s sins in order to procure forgiveness and “restore fellowship”? Instead, we read, “…having forgiven you all offenses” (Colossians 2:13 lit.). Tomorrow’s sins are included for they, along with our past sins, were still future when our Lord died for them and, hence, are no harder for God to forgive.

Now, the CRUNCHER! Won’t teaching TOTAL FORGIVENESS instead of short accounts encourage sin on the part of the believer? On the contrary! The divine principle is that the one who has been forgiven much, LOVES MUCH (Luke 7:36-50). And the question that needs to be asked is, are you and I, as believers, such ingrates that the infinite love and total Grace of God displayed at Calvary cannot move us to love our Savior deeply and serve Him faithfully? Now that I have a new nature, am indwelt by the very Holy Spirit of God, and have the divine dynamic of the Word of God to energize me: AM I SO POORLY EQUIPPED THAT I CANNOT PRESENT MYSELF TO GOD AS ALIVE FROM THE DEAD, but must continue to present my members as instruments of unrighteousness to Sin? (Romans 6:13) HEAVEN FORBID! The Pauline Epistles call each of us to a higher life than that!

But if we shouldn’t invite God into our spiritual laundromats by naming our sins to Him in prayer, WHAT SHOULD WE DO when we are conscious of having sinned? The answer is there in every one of the Epistles of God and Paul. They begin with a foundation of the great Positional Truths that teach us our perfectly secure status beyond the reach of Sin and of Law. THEN comes the appeal to build my life upon this foundation in a God-honoring manner. What God has done for me is always the motivation for what I am to do for Him. “If Jesus Christ be God, and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him!” (C.T. Studd).

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