Let’s look at one of the most controversial issues in the message of “radical grace.” 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” First, I want to say up front that I believe in this verse and I preach this verse. Every sinner needs to confess his or her sins to God. When we confess our sins we are forgiven and cleansed. It is important to confess our sins to God.
* The word “confess” in 1 John 1:9 in the Greek language is a present subjunctive, first person plural. The fact that it is first person plural shows that John is including himself in this statement. Thus, this verse is addressed to both believers and unbelievers. The fact that it is present implies continuous confession so this confession of sins can happen more than once.
* Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Jesus taught His disciples to ask for forgiveness.
* In Revelation 3:3, Jesus tells the church in Sardis to “repent.” Apparently, Jesus felt that even though the church in Sardis was full of born-again believers, some of them still needed to repent.
* In my marriage, it never hurts to say “I’m sorry” to my wife when I have done something to hurt her.
* As a believer, you do not confess in order to maintain your salvation, rather you confess to restore fellowship with God in much the same way that a child says “I’m sorry” to his father after being disobedient. My son Caleb never stops being my son no matter what he does, but when he does something wrong, it is good for him to apologize.
Furthermore, John brackets 1 John 1:9 with two other important points. He writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8), and “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10).
We all sin, even after we get saved. But God does not see our sin any longer—He sees Jesus. This is why John writes, “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). If we do sin, we have an Advocate who stands between God and us.
In Jesus, there is no sin. When God looks at someone who has been born-again, He sees Jesus standing there in our place. “You know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).
So, 1 John 1:9 must be read in light of these verses:
* “Whoever abides in Him does not sin” (1 John 3:6).
* “He who sins is of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
* “Whoever has been born of God does not sin [and] cannot sin…” (1 John 3:9).
Some translations change these verses to say, “Whoever has been born of God does not [continue] to sin…” This is used to teach that the sin these verses are talking about is a continuous, habitual sin. However, this translation is not supported by the Greek tense used in these verses. The word “cannot” in 1 John 3:9 is the Greek word ou dunatai which can be translated as “not able” or “not have the power” to sin.
According to the plain reading of 1 John 3:9, if you abide in Jesus, you do not sin. If you have been born of God, you do not sin and you cannot sin. If you do not sin, then in God’s eyes you do not need to confess your sins all the time.
Some people in the church today feel that if they miss confessing a single sin, their salvation is in jeopardy. So, what happens if they forget to confess a sin? What if Jesus comes back in the twinkling of an eye and they have not had a chance to confess yet? I do not base my eternal security on whether I have confessed every sin or not. If I did, I would always worry that I had missed one. However, I think it is right for us to humble ourselves before God and say, “Sorry for messing up.”
There is a “grace way” to confess your sins, and there is a legalistic way of confessing sins. In the Roman Catholic Church, people confess their sins to a priest. Before Martin Luther had a revelation about grace, he was so concerned about confessing every sin that once he sat with a priest for over six hours in order to confess every single thing he had done wrong. He confessed every sin of commission and every sin of omission. He carefully searched his memory for every sin he had ever committed. At that time, he believed that “Sins to be forgiven must be confessed. To be confessed they must be recognized and remembered. If they are not recognized and remembered, they cannot be confessed. If they are not confessed, they are not forgiven.” Yet, despite all this effort, he still felt sinful in front of a righteous Judge. Finally, the priest got tired and said, “Martin, just go home.”
The legalistic confessor says, “Forgive me for lusting after that woman. Forgive me for doubting you for a second. Forgive me for telling a little lie. Forgive me for my lack of faith. Forgive me for that angry thought.” Once you start listing all your sins, you will never run out of things to repent of.
In contrast, the person who understands grace says to God, “Thank you for forgiving me. Thank you that I am the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. Thank you that the blood of Jesus covers all of my sins. Thank you for giving me the grace to overcome every sin.” This is how we “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23). The sinner confesses his sins, the believer confesses his hope in Christ.
The word “confess” comes from the Greek word “homologos” which is a compound word from “homo” meaning “same” and “logos” meaning “word.” So, the word “confess” means to say the same words Jesus is saying. So, when we confess our sins it means we say the same word about our sins that Jesus is saying. What is Jesus saying? He is saying, “Son, your sins are forgiven you” (Matthew 9:2). You are already forgiven, so if you ever make a mistake, just tell God you are sorry and say, “Thank you Jesus, my sins are forgiven.”
When God looks at you, all He sees is the “righteousness of Christ Jesus.” Begging for forgiveness all the time is like paying a debt that has already been paid. Imagine if someone completely paid off your mortgage. If you continued to write checks to the mortgage company every month, you would be foolish.
Under the New Covenant, your debt has been completely paid off. Stop trying to pay it again through your prayers, your confessions, or your good works.