Many in the Churches of Christ have taught that, while baptism forgives our former sins, future sins are forgiven by a three-step process —
1. Confess the sin to God (1 John 1:9).
2. Repent of the sin.
3. Ask God for forgiveness.
Many add a fourth step –
4. Make restitution.
The fourth step comes from debates about whether someone married following an unscriptural divorce can remain in that marriage. The argument is that the sin of the wrongful marriage cannot be forgiven unless restitution is made, by returning the spouse to his or her former spouse — that is, the cure for a wrongful divorce and remarriage is another divorce.
That teaching is false, but not today’s discussion (see The Repentance Argument for that discussion). Rather, today I want to talk about confession.
(1 John 1:9) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and [continuously] purify us from all unrighteousness.
The next test is whether “we confess our sins.” “Purify” here is also in the present tense, and so the promise is that we’ll be continuously forgiven if we do so.
The difficulty with this verse is the mistranslation of “homologeo” as “confess.” In this context it means “acknowledge.” John is not talking about a legalistic requirement that we confess every sin to be forgiven of that sin (who could meet such a requirement?). No, he’s insisting that we admit our sinfulness.
Consider, for example –
(1 John 4:15) If anyone acknowledges [homologeo] that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.
The same word is translated as “acknowledge” in 1 John 4:2-3, 15; 2 John 1:7. In fact, it’s never used of confessing sin in the New Testament. Rather, the word used for confession of sin is usually “exomologeo,” as in James 5:16 and Matthew 3:6.
And this makes sense in context. Look at the verses that bracket 1 John 1:9 –
(1 John 1:8-10) If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 … 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
The obvious contrast is with refusing to admit that you sin. Therefore, the test is not whether we’ve confessed each and every sin but whether we admit that we are sinners. After all, we can only confess occasionally — at particular points in time — while we be humble enough to acknowledge our sinfulness continuously — just as we are purified continuously.
Moreover, “confess” in 1:9 is present, subjunctive active — indicating continuous action. Aorist would mean that we confess at a point in time and so receive forgiveness at a point in time. Present tense means we are to continuously acknowledge our sinfulness and so our reliance on God’s grace. John’s lesson is that the saved are those who continually admit their need for grace. This about humility before God.
Nowhere in the New Testament is it taught that we confess a sin as a condition to forgiveness. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t confess our sins. Rather, I’m just saying that John is not an idiot. You see, he also wrote,
(1 John 1:7) But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
“Purifies” is in the present tense, which in the Greek means “continuously purifies.” This is a promise of on-going salvation — but not a salvation that can’t be lost. He’s not teaching once saved, always saved. But he is teaching that salvation should be continuous, not occasional.
This test is whether “we walk in the light.”
(1 John 2:9-11) Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.
Plainly, John is saying that we walk in the light if we love our brother. How can it be that simple?
Now, John cannot sensibly teach a continuous salvation in 1:7 and a salvation that happens only at the moment we confess our sins in 1:9! Those are two radically different theologies, and again, John is no idiot. Rather, we’ve gone looking for a verse to prove that we are damned for each sin we commit until we confess, and we thought we’d found it in 1:9. We were so certain of the answer, we didn’t bother to check the context or the Greek.
Just as in Hebrews, John teaches a continuing forgiveness. He doesn’t teach “once saved, always saved,” but he is far removed from the notion that I must participate in a 3 (or 4) step process to gain forgiveness of each sin. That’s not how it works.
But we do need to confess our sins. The logic isn’t some law of pardon. It’s all about how relationships work. As always, the best metaphor for our relationship with Jesus is marriage.
A man has a wonderful relationship with his wife. They love each other intensely and passionately. But he has a demanding job, and one year, he utterly forgets his wife’s birthday. What must he do to avoid a divorce — to avoid such a break in their relationship?
Well, a good and wise wife is sensitive to her husband’s situation and understands his imperfections. She loves him, and she knows him inside out. She hates and is hurt that he forgot, but she is not about to divorce him over such a mistake. Indeed, only a deeply neurotic, self-absorbed woman would react otherwise. And she is not that way at all.
Does he need to apologize? Absolutely. But why? She’s not about to divorce him over such a mistake. She’s a good woman. Why bother?
Yes, but he’s a good man, and he knows that they both need for the words to be said. He needs to confess his mistake so she’ll know how he really feels about her. And more importantly, if he doesn’t take the time to apologize, he’ll be more likely to do it again. And he desperately doesn’t want to see that hurt look in her face again. It’s an unbearable thought.
Confession is not only good for the soul, it’s at the heart of healthy relationships. It reinforces in our hearts that we were wrong and don’t need to do it again. Yes, he should confess — but not in order to remain in relationship. He confesses to have a better relationship — because she matters so very much to him.