In my years of pastoral ministry, I have found that almost every Christian I have known would wholeheartedly amen those truths. But, I’ve also found that there are a few misunderstandings that can muddy the waters and cause folks to doubt whether their sins are truly forgiven. I wanted to take a moment to address a few common misunderstandings, and hopefully bring more certainty to those who may sometimes struggle with the notion of whether they are truly justified in God’s eyes.
“The Christian bar of soap”
I have to be honest. I cringe a bit every time I hear that phrase. It is often used in reference to 1 John 1:9, which says “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, so that He will forgive us our sins and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” When taken out of context, this verse can appear to be claiming that we need to continually confess our sins in order to be forgiven. So I suppose the process would go something like this…
Me: *commits sin*
God: *not happy with me, fellowship broken*
Me: *confesses sin and asks forgiveness*
God: *forgives sin and restores fellowship*
Does that sound familiar? I’ve heard this preached and taught in churches several times. There are a few big problems with this view, however. First, it takes a very low view of sin. The reality of the matter is that none of us is fully aware of every sin we commit. If we were, I’m afraid we would have to spend just about every waking moment of the day confessing and asking forgiveness in order to keep things cool with God. Second, what happens during that time before we confess our sin? Are we no longer justified by faith? Are we stuck in some sort of walking purgatory until we properly confess? Would this have some sort of implication for our eternal destiny? Being “out of fellowship” with God is a bit too vague of a concept in my view. If God’s Spirit dwells within us permanently and nothing can separate from the love God, then we are always under the grace and favor of God. Lastly, this interpretation of 1 John 1:9 is based on an incorrect reading of the passage that takes the verse out of context. Let me explain...
1 John is one of my favorite books in the Bible. It is very unique among the epistles in the New Testament. It is a book of deep contrasts. It speaks of truth and lies, light and darkness, love and hate. It also contains several warnings not to follow some false teaching that had become popular. This new teaching denied that Jesus was the unique Son of God, and it denied that God truly became a man in the person of Christ (see 2:18-27 and 4:1-3). These false teachers also denied the reality of the sinfulness of mankind, and they encouraged others not to confess that deep down we are all broken sinners in need of God’s grace. Look at what John is saying when you add verses 8 and 10 to 1 John 1:9:
If we say that we do not have sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, so that He will forgive our sins and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
John is taking steps here to combat the false teaching of those who would deny that we are sinners in need of grace. In order to be saved, we need to recognize that we are in need of salvation. If we deny our need for salvation, that what are we even being saved from? I believe that is what John was thinking here when he wrote these words. This is not a formula for believers to “get saved” over and over and over. It is a refutation of a dangerous false teaching that would steer people away from the truth.
I believe the heart of our good Father in heaven is that we would know and have assurance that our sins are forgiven and that nothing can separate us from His love. Should we confess our sins? Absolutely. I do it all the time. At least the ones I’m aware of. However, our confession is not a means by which we receive forgiveness, but it is a way for us to agree with God that our sin is ugly and destructive. I confess so that I can continually come back to thanking Him for the forgiveness that was freely offered on the cross, and to ask for the power of the Spirit to overcome sin. The reality is this: all sins-past, present and future!-have been forgiven by God. Rest in the finished work of the cross today.