“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 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 1:9–2:2)
“I know that God will forgive my sins if I confess them.” Have you ever heard someone make that statement? Is it true? It certainly seems to be the case when we look at 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Forgiveness appears to be anyone’s for the asking.
But not so fast!
The whole of the transaction of confession and forgiveness is seated in Christ. In an unfortunate chapter division we miss the rest of the story begun in 1 John 1:9. John goes on to say in 1 John 2:2: “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.” Remedy for sin is found only in Jesus Christ (whether Jew or Gentile; i.e., “the whole world”), in God turning aside the penalty of wrath due for sin (propitiation) and in providing for us an alien righteousness, that earned by Christ as the Righteous One.
Forgiveness is found not by mere confession of sin but by confession of Christ.
Without resting in Christ, there can be no forgiveness of sin. Notice that John says of the Father that He is “faithful and just” to forgive us our sin. Why not faithful and merciful? And what does faithfulness have to do it?
Both terms take us to Christ. Jesus perfectly meets the requirement of divine justice. Our sin is not merely pardoned. It is paid for—in full. It is nailed to the cross and we bear it no more. God is true to His word and true to His character in the provision of His Son.
All of this, the payment of sin’s penalty and the provision of a perfect righteousness, is expressive of justification. When we confess our sin (confess = homologeo; i.e., to say the same thing about our offense that God does), we are drawing upon our justification. We are living in and living out the one-time forensic proclamation of our standing in the gospel (Rom. 1:17; 3:21-26; 8:1).
John’s address is to his “little children” (2:1), that is, to believers. This transaction of confession and forgiveness is not between sinner and Judge but between disobedient child and faithful Father. Sin does not and cannot sever the relationship believers have with God, any more than our own children’s offenses could make them not our children. But sin can affect our fellowship with the Father. Not that He leaves us but that we turn our back on Him to follow after sin. When we do confess our sin, we turn around in repentance to find not that He left us, but that we left Him. Though we are faithless, He remains faithful.
But there is another party at the table of confession—sanctification.
Just as Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more,” our confession of sin carries the same charge. John insists that he is “writing these things to [us] so that [we] may not sin” (2:1). True confession is imbued with genuine repentance, including godly sorrow, change of mind and purpose to new obedience.
Any true understanding of the gospel will prompt the response of incredulity, “Are we to sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). Paul points to the absurdity of such a notion: “May it never be!” He then goes on in Romans 6 to explain why that is in terms of our new freedom and identity in Christ.
John does a similar thing in speaking of forgiveness through confession of sin. Through confession, we are assured of forgiveness from the inexhaustible well of God’s grace in Christ (though our sin abounds, God’s grace super-abounds). But to think that excuses sin or tolerates it or, shudder at the thought, promotes it is absurd and totally foreign to God’s workmanship of salvation.
On the contrary, confession of sin returns the repentant to the way of obedience. We turn from lawlessness and abandon our rebellion (1 Jn. 3:4). Confession and forgiveness are not terminal destinations; they are pivot points of new commencement. They are not ends but beginnings of new obedience, exercised by the grace of God that teaches and trains “us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:12–14)
Justification and sanctification are not at odds. They are allies of grace, blessings of salvation in Christ. They sup together without discomfort and with great delight, companions to the glory of God.