Does God forgive our sins if we confess them? The answer requires some explanation, and some backstory.
Sinners Saved By Grace
Even our best intentions are infected by sin that remains in the flesh. All of us can identify with Paul in Romans 7 as he wrestles with that remaining sin. The line from the hymn rings true: “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”
That’s exactly what cavorting after sin is—turning our backs on God to follow after sin. Sometimes, though, it’s more like glancing over our shoulder than fully turning our backs. Yet that, too, is sin.
Even when we stand firm against sin, we recognize we considered it a bit too long, lingered a tad too lustily. Rather than a decisive rejection of sin as was the case with our Lord Jesus in His impeccability, we allow sin audience. Perhaps flirting albeit not embracing. Mixed motives accompany our best of intentions.
Like a formerly smoke-filled room, sin leaves its foul odor on everything. We resonate with Paul in his realization of this when he says, “Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from the body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
That expiatory ejaculation has reference to the life to come, as we look forward to the day when we will be free from sin’s oppression. It also has reference to right now as we remain in the flesh, wrestling with sin, awaiting that day.
Our God ministers to us in the face of our sin. First, He reminds us that as Christians, regenerate of the Holy Spirit, sin is not illusory in our experience. Sin no longer rules us but it has yet to be exiled. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:8). Lest we miss the point or minimize the sobriety of remaining sin, God restates it in terms of personal affront. “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:10).
Sandwiched in between this bifurcated diagnosis are words of healing, words inviting us to the balm of Gilead to salve our sin-weary souls. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
What spurs God’s cleansing? Highlighted by the Apostle are God’s faithfulness and justice. “Faithful” makes sense because God is true to Himself, true to His promises. God has provided remedy for our sin through the saving work of Jesus. But why “just”? Wouldn’t we have expected John to say that God is “faithful and merciful” or “faithful and loving”?
The justice of God is precisely what is in view and what we need to hear. That’s the standing article of the gospel. That’s what Paul is eager to explain in Romans 3 through 5. It is justification of the ungodly that stimulates Paul to say, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” It is through the cross that God demonstrates that He is both just and the justifier of those who have taken residence through faith in God’s provision of Christ.
That’s why after citing that God is faithful and just John goes on to say (in an unfortunate chapter division):
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)
Sin’s Double Cure
Jesus is the expiation for our sins, atoning for them. He is the propitiation for our sins, wherein the wrath of God due us was turned aside to fall on Him on Calvary’s cross. The cup of wrath in our hand brimmed with the wages of our sin was taken from our hand and drained to it dregs on the cross. The wrath of God for our sin was propitiated (fully satisfied). We are made propitious (fully pleasing). The debt of our sin was not pardoned; it was paid.
The rest of the story is that of a perfect righteousness, a spotless record of obedience, imputed to us. God looks on us no longer clothed in filthy rags of sin but clothed in the pristine righteousness of Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. This Jesus is our advocate at the Father’s side. The enemy prosecutes our sin of 1 John 1:8 against us. Jesus represents us as our advocate. He answers the accuser with 1 John 2:1-2. The debt of each and every sin—past, present and future—is paid in full.
Does that promote license? Does that allow for tolerance of sin in our lives? That’s a natural question, as evidenced by Paul in discussing such matters, when he says, “What shall we say them? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). John follows suit by insisting that he writes these things that we may not sin (1 Jn. 2:1).
We want to take note of one important caveat when confessing sin, the answer to our opening question. The promise of forgiveness of sin when we confess belongs to those who belong to Christ. It is not a promise extended to those outside the household of faith. Only believers gain comfort and assurance from it. John extends it to “my little children,” those who have fellowship with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ” (1 Jn. 1:3)
Jesus is the propitiation for the sins “of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:1). That points not to universalism but to the fact that the gospel is not for Jews only. It is for Gentiles as well, whoever believes in the given Son, that they might not perish but have eternal life. There is only one provision for sin, only one way given by God for salvation of sinners. Any other is a counterfeit of the devil, an empty promise offering a false hope. The wrath of God continues to abide on those outside of Christ (cf. John 3:36).
Confessing Sin and Savior
In other words, God forgives when we confess but He does not forgive because we confess. The basis of God’s forgiveness is His faithfulness and justice bound up in the sacrificial, substitutionary, saving work of Jesus Christ for us. Confession prayer is confessing prayer.
In 1 John, God formats our prayers of confession to not only confess our sin in keeping with 1:8 and 10 but also to confess Christ as its satisfaction before a holy God (1:9, 2:2). While justification is a one-time declaration to faith, its effects are brought to bear every time we confess our sin.
In addition, inherent in our prayer of confession is a resolve not to sin. Because of Christ, we repent and purpose by His grace to bring forth fruit in keeping with our repentance—a call of discipleship as long as we find ourselves in the flesh.
Sin disrupts our fellowship with God, as we turn from Him casting the wandering eye in spiritual adultery. But sin neither breaks nor alters in any way our relationship with God. Our relationship with Him is no longer sinner to Judge but is now child to Father. Nothing can separate us from the love of God lavished upon us in Christ.
John writes his first epistle to “those who believe in the name of the Son of God that we may know we have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). John cites several evidences of assurance throughout his epistle. Lack of sin is not one of them. Lack of recognition, acceptance and trust in God’s sole provision is. Confessing confesses both our sin and our Savior.