* Confess the sin to God (and perhaps publicly, if the sin was public)
* Repent of the sin (by no longer doing the sin)
* Pay restitution where appropriate and possible. This element is usually ignored except in the context of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, where it is insisted on.
* Ask God for forgiveness.
Interestingly, this theory is remarkably similar to the Catholic sacrament of penance, except that the Churches of Christ require confession of sin directly to God, not to a priest as God’s representative. But in both cases, the sin remains unforgiven until the necessary steps have been taken.
One consequence of this theory is that those who worship with instruments are damned in their sins, because they’ve obviously not repented of their sin, being unaware that they have sinned.
Of course, unless I’ve managed to confess and turn away from every single sin in my life, I’m damned, too, because only one unforgiven sin is enough to damn. Therefore, this system leaves many a Christian in desperation over his salvation. It’s literally impossible to meet this test.
Where I grew up, our church routinely had an opening prayer, a “main” prayer, three prayers over communion and the contribution, and a closing prayer. We might also pray for those who “come forward” or as part of the sermon. And every single prayer, every single time, included a prayer for forgiveness of our sins — as though we literally could not go 10 minutes without begging forgiveness for unknown and unspecified sins — just in case.
The biblical basis for this theory is highly suspect. For example, the usual proof text for having to confess our sins is 1 John 1:9 —
(1Jo 1:9 ESV) 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The word translated “confess” is homologeo. Here are examples of the other uses in the New Testament —
(Mat 7:23 ESV) And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
(Mat 10:32 ESV) So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven,
(Joh 1:20 ESV) He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”
(Joh 9:22 ESV) (His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.)
(Joh 12:42 ESV) Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue;
(1Jo 2:23 ESV) No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.
What does it mean to “confess” Jesus? If we were to use non-churchy language, what would we use? I think we’d say “acknowledge.”
When John the Baptist “confessed” that he is not the Messiah, he was not admitting wrongdoing. He was acknowledging the truth of the matter. He was certainly not admitting error.
Next, let’s consider 1 John 1:9 in context–
(1Jo 1:8-10 ESV) 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we ______________, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
V. 8 speaks of saying “we have no sin.” V. 10 speaks of saying “we have not sinned.” Therefore, what surely goes in the blank? “acknowledge our sins.”
Hence, the NASB translates —
(1Jo 1:9 NAB) If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.
Tyndale reached the same conclusion–
(1Jo 1:9 TNT) Yf we knowledge oure synnes he is faythfull and iust to forgeve vs oure synnes and to clense vs from all vnrightewesnes.
Bauer and Danker’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, the most respected dictionary of koine Greek, says that the word translated “sin” in v. 9 may also be translated “sinfulness.”
As v. 9 is obviously the antithesis of verses 8 and 10, the intended meaning has to be “if we acknowledge our sinfulness,” not “if we confess each and every sin.” John is no legalist, and he is not prescribing a ritual for forgiveness. Rather, he is making the point that we much approach God with humility rather than arrogance, ready to admit our wrongs.
(Jer 14:20 ESV) 20 We acknowledge our wickedness, O LORD, and the iniquity of our fathers, for we have sinned against you.
Of course, if we are aware of a specific sin, confession of that sin to God is necessary, but not as a condition of forgiveness — or else no one could be saved. Rather, confession is necessary as part of the process of spiritual formation — it helps God transform you so that you are better able to defeat that sin.
Forgiveness, as Paul said back in Romans 5, is already accomplished. The need isn’t to be forgiven. That was handled at baptism. Rather, having been baptized, our fervent desire is to pursue God, to become like Jesus, and to live our lives as people deeply in love with our Creator.
Nothing could be more foreign to our relationship with God than a rule that we are damned for every sin that we’ve failed to confess and repent of. That contradicts Romans 8:1 (“Now there is no condemnation …”); Romans 6:23 (“The free gift …”); and all the other passages we’ve already considered.
On the other hand, the scriptures are realistic about human psychology. If I were to be caught guilty of adultery, I’m definitely on the road to damnation unless I repent — not because I have a sin charged against me but because my heart is far from God. The only way to fix my heart is to give up my pet sin — but if I struggle in so doing, I’m still forgiven because the test isn’t whether I’ve completely forsaken the sin but whether I’m in rebellion. If I desperately try to obey but fail due to the weakness of the flesh — well, that’s what grace is for.
(Rom 7:18-19 ESV) 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
(Rom 7:21-24 ESV) 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
— just before he wrote —
(Rom 8:1 ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
— because it’s all about the heart as changed by the Spirit. It’s not that we defeat sin but that we pick a side and choose to be on God’s.
And so, our traditional interpretation of 1 John 1:7 is largely right. We really are continuously forgiven by God so long as we walk in the light. It’s just that being in the light is not about our obedience to commands inferred from the silences. It’s about whether I have faith and am therefore indwelled by God’s Spirit and whether I am in submission to the Spirit in me.
(Rom 8:9-11 ESV) 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
In short, if you possess the Spirit, you are saved. Period. But, of course, you can fall away. But this does not happen over and over and over. No, falling away is far worse than most in the Churches of Christ teach.