This is Part 6 of a multi-part series I’ve called Rethinking Religion. Here’s a look at the entire series thus far:
- Rethinking Religion, Part 1: What is a Pastor?
- Rethinking Religion, Part 2: Pastors, Titles, Authority, Calling
- Rethinking Religion, Part 3: The Clergy/Laity Distinction
- Rethinking Religion, Part 4: Community and Accountability
- Rethinking Religion, Part 5: Formal Church Membership
- Rethinking Religion, Part 6: Confessing Our Sins (This post)
I urge you to read these in order because each post assumes a reading of the previous posts.
The Apostle John, in his first letter, makes the statement: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9). It would be an understatement to say that this verse has been misunderstood and misapplied throughout much of the church’s history. Those in top-down religious positions of authority have wrongly used this verse to insist we must continually be on high alert and constantly confess their sins in order to receive forgiveness up to that point in time. John MacArthur explains 1 John 1:9 this way,
“It is a subjective, relational kind of forgiveness. It is the restoration to a place of blessing in the eyes of a displeased father. …it is a spiritual washing to rid you of the defilement caused by sin in your daily walk. The verse is speaking of an ongoing pardon and purification from sin, not the cleansing and forgiveness of salvation.” If We Confess Our Sins, Emphasis Mine
He continues by adding,
“The pardon of justification and the washing of regeneration do not eliminate the need for you to deal with the subjective reality of sin in your life.” If We Confess Our Sins, Emphasis Mine
MacArthur insists that 1 John 1:9 is referencing an accumulation of sin caused by my daily walk. In other words, as I live my life, sin accumulates and requires periodic confession in order to be restored to a Father who has become displeased with me in between my confessions because of accumulated sins. For him, it is a “subjective, relational kind of forgiveness” that depends on my faithfulness to repeatedly and continually confess all of my sins in order to receive “ongoing pardon and purification.” In his own words, I become defiled and unclean just be living my life every day, apart from continual confession of sins. For MacArthur, the forgiveness and pardon you received at conversion doesn’t “eliminate the need for you to deal with the subjective reality of sin in your life.” In short, you’re forgiven but not really.
Desiring God Ministries adds a new layer of confusion by insisting:
“You’re not saved through faith alone. Be killing your sin.” Twitter 10/14/2017
Sin management and behavior modification have become evangelicalism’s latest obsession. In our cut-and-paste church/Bible cultures, where we’re quick to grab a verse out of context and use it as a proof text to shame and/or guilt someone into conformity to our opinion, 1 John 1:9 and confessing sin is certainly not immune. Church leaders and religious organizations present their interpretations of it in a schizophrenic “you’re forgiven but you’re not forgiven” way that keeps people doubting and confused about where they stand with God. Have they done enough confessing and who decides what’s enough?
Kevin DeYoung adds this to our conversation,
“God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). We aren’t meant to feel borderline miserable all the time. We are meant to live in the joy of our salvation. So when we sin–and we’ll all sin (1 Kings 8:46; 1 John 1:8)–we confess it, get cleansed, and move on.” Are Christians Meant to Feel Guilty All The Time? (Emphasis Mine).
I whole-heartily agree with the first half of that statement. But the second half is where the train starts to go off the rails as he insists we need to “get cleansed” in order to “move on.” In a follow-up article DeYoung concludes,
“1 John 1:9 then, is not just about getting saved. It’s also about living as a saved person and enjoying it.”Why We Need Confession of Sin (Emphasis Mine).
I think MacArthur and DeYoung accurately reflect the opinion of most modern religious institutions. They interpret 1 John 1:9 as an additional step that’s required in order to be restored “to a place of blessing in the eyes of a displeased father” and to ensure “ongoing pardon and purification from sin.” But are MacArthur and DeYoung correct? When I sin as a Christian, does “getting cleansed” from that sin (forgiveness) and “moving on” depend on me confessing it each time in accordance with 1 John 1:9? After all, according to DeYoung, 1 John 1:9 is “about living as a saved person.” Put another way, are there periods of time (seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, etc.) when I am suddenly unforgiven? Are there periods of time when I am unjustified, unforgiven, or uncleansed where Jesus’ death on a cross becomes temporarily insufficient because I failed to confess every sin?
Do you see the confusion? DeYoung correctly notes, “God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9)” but he then insists that staying cleansed is dependent upon me re-confessing my sins at every point in time that I’ve sinned anew in order to “get cleansed” again at that point in time, thus enabling me to “move on.” This process of ongoing confession of sins in order to be cleansed of all unrighteousness over and over again is assumed to be the normal Christian life, or as DeYoung calls it, “living as a saved person and enjoying it.” And failing to confess all my sins, according to MacArthur, results in a Father who has suddenly become displeased with me due to my lack of performance.
But is that what the Apostle John meant in 1 John 1:9? If ongoing cleansing and forgiveness of all my sins depends on my ability to continually confess them all, what happens if I miss one? What happens if I forget one? What happens if because of feelings of shame, fear, regret, or condemnation, I willfully omit one? Again, it seems schizophrenic to me to believe all my sins have been forgiven (Hebrews 8:12) but not really forgiven because at the end of the day (or maybe the beginning or middle of the day), forgiveness, or “cleansing”, is tied to me confessing my sins over and over with the resulting forgiveness only effectual up to the point in time of my latest confession. Is that how forgiveness of sins works? Let’s take a close look.
Forgiveness of Sins Requires The Shedding of Blood
Blood is God’s currency for forgiving sins. Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22). In God’s economy blood must be shed in order for the forgiveness of sins to be experienced. This begs the question, when was, or is, the forgiveness of sins accomplished? Perhaps a better way to say it is to ask, when was the last time blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins? Was it not at the cross? Does Jesus die all over again every time I sin and confess that sin? If I think experiencing the ongoing forgiveness of sins is conditional and depends on my confessing each individual sin as a way to “get cleansed’ so I can “move on” and feel better about myself, there are serious holes in my understanding of the cross, grace, and the gospel. How many times do I have to be cleansed of ALL unrighteousness? How many times was Jesus’ blood shed to cleanse me of ALL unrighteousness? The answer to both questions is once. Forgiveness of sins isn’t progressive; it’s once for all. It is finished.
Confusing Old Covenant Types with New Covenant Truths
I think that’s what we’ve done. Whether on purpose or unintentionally, we’ve applied an Old Covenant picture of the forgiveness of sins, the repeated animal sacrifices that could never take away sin or relieve the conscience of the offender, and superimposed it on New Covenant passages like 1 John 1:9, changing the phraseology along the way to make it fit better. Under the Old Covenant, the repeated sacrifices under the law were a constant reminder of sins that neither took them away nor gave the worshiper a clear conscience regarding their sins.
“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-4 Emphasis Mine)
This description of the impotence of the Old Covenant sacrificial system to remove sins sounds dangerously close to how we interpret 1 John 1:9. Sure, the cross brought forgiveness of sins to you but you’re only forgiven until you sin again, then it’s up to you to confess your sins again (repeat the sacrifice of confession) at which time you receive new forgiveness, but you’re not really forgiven because your sins are never really taken away, only covered up temporarily until you screw up again. Then the process starts over ad infinitum, ad nauseum. But something is seriously wrong with this picture.
Under the Old Covenant sacrificial system, sins were temporarily covered but never removed. They were never taken away because as we noted above, it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. The Old Covenant sacrificial system was a picture or illustration (Hebrews 8:5) pointing to the better once-for-all-time sacrifice of Jesus, which actually did forgive and take away the sins of those who believe. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way,
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:11–14 Emphasis Mine)
Those who come to Christ are made perfect for all time by Jesus’ single offering of himself for their sins. Jesus isn’t dying all over again every time I commit a sin and confess it. His one sacrifice is sufficient to forgive and take away all my sins. His one sacrifice is all there is. The New Covenant reality to which the Old Covenant merely pointed, was that by Jesus’ once-for-all-time death on a cross, the forgiveness of sins was actually accomplished and there remains no more sacrifice for sins. The work is done. The sacrifice is complete. It’s finished and the result is that our sins, past, present, and future, have been both forgiven and forgotten and there will never be another sin offering:
“Then he adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Hebrews 10:17–18 Emphasis Mine)
if my interpretation of 1 John 1:9 doesn’t agree with what the rest of scripture says about Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice for sins, there is something wrong with my interpretation. If, as DeYoung puts it, 1 John 1:9 is about me “getting cleansed” over and over again as part of the normal Christian life, what do I do with all the other New Testament passages that tell me I’ve already been cleansed and forgiven once-for-all? I don’t know about you but this dilemma confused me for years. I never could reconcile the two in my thinking as I was told that all of my sins were forgiven, past, present, and future, but I also needed to be confessing my sins to keep short accounts with God and be forgiven. It doesn’t make sense. Is Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins sufficient, or this about me and Jesus gettin’ ‘er done together? Before drawing any conclusions, let’s look at one more layer of the religious forgiveness puzzle that adds additional confusion.
Two Types of Forgiveness?
MacArthur attempts to explain how once-for-all forgiveness of sins and progressive forgiveness of sins can coexist. He reasons,
“The answer is that divine forgiveness has two aspects. One is the judicial forgiveness God grants as Judge. It’s the forgiveness God purchased for you by Christ’s atonement for your sin. That kind of forgiveness frees you from any threat of eternal condemnation. It is the forgiveness of justification. Such pardon is immediately complete — you’ll never need to seek it again.” If We Confess Our Sins (Emphasis Original)
He then continues,
“The other is a parental forgiveness God grants as your Father. He is grieved when His children sin. The forgiveness of justification takes care of judicial guilt, but it does not nullify His fatherly displeasure over your sin.” If We Confess Our Sins (Emphasis Original)
For MacArthur, there are two types of forgiveness: judicial and parental. Judicial forgiveness, as he explains it, is what we received at conversion and parental forgiveness is a progressive, ongoing type of forgiveness that he insists 1 John 1:9 is referring to. In MacArthur’s mind, judicial forgiveness is the type of forgiveness that Christ’s death secured but there is also another type of forgiveness that is up to me to obtain via ongoing confession of all my sins from conversion forward. Failure to do so results in God’s “fatherly displeasure” of me.
But is that the gospel? Are there two types of forgiveness in scripture? Is the gospel partly God’s doing and partly my doing to keep the Father happy and accepting of me? MacArthur’s explanation is mysteriously lacking any references to scripture. Chapter and verse please.
Context, Context, Context
I think a simple look at the context of 1 John 1:9 and a look at the context of the letter as a whole will remove the mystery of what it means to confess our sins and who should be doing it. John knew the people he was writing to. He knew there were unbelievers in the group. In almost every assembly or congregation, there are unbelievers. We’re fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. As a former pastor in institutional church settings, I knew there were usually unbelievers present. With some of them, it was more obvious than with others. That is the case with John’s letter.
The context shows us that John opens his letter, addressing the unbelievers among the assembly. Phrases like “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1:5), “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1:3), and “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1:8) all point to an unbelieving audience. Not just an unbelieving audience but an unbelieving audience holding to a very early form of what later became known as Gnosticism.
Gnosticism came to have a wide range of beliefs but some of the most common teachings were that the material world was evil and the spiritual world was good. Therefore, Jesus couldn’t have had a physical body. John confronts that belief with his description of Jesus as the one “we’ve heard, we’ve seen, we’ve looked upon, and we’ve touched” (1:1). Since the material world was considered evil, sin was irrelevant and didn’t exist. John confronts this belief with, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8) and “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1:10). Relative to our conversation, this is where 1 John 1:9 fits in (literally).
John is presenting the gospel to a group of early gnostic unbelievers within the assembly who, among many other things, denied the existence of sin. But John’s plea to them was that they “may have fellowship with us.” It’s a plea to believe given to a group of people who denied the existence of sin. It’s a plea that if they will recognize their sin and agree with God that we have all sinned and are in need of forgiveness, God is faithful and just to forgive their sins and to cleanse them of all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). This is a plea to come to Christ directed toward unbelievers. It isn’t a directive to believers to keep confessing sins when they’re committed to secure additional forgiveness. It’s a one-time confession that brings us into the kingdom. Not only does it bring us into the kingdom but it keeps us there. “Cleanse us” is in the present tense. He continually cleanses us of all unrighteousness. His one sacrifice forgives and removes all of my sins, past, present, and future. There are no additional confessions for justification. There isn’t a judicial forgiveness and a parental forgiveness. Such a distinction is nowhere in scripture and muddies the gospel.
Is The Father Displeased With You?
Is MacArthur’s assumption correct when he says,
“Judicial forgiveness deals with sin’s penalty — parental forgiveness deals with sin’s consequences. Judicial forgiveness frees us from the condemnation of the righteous, omniscient Judge whom we have wronged — parental forgiveness sets things right with a grieving and displeased but loving Father.” If We Confess Our Sins (Emphasis Original)
Christian, the idea of a Father who is displeased with you is outside the gospel. Christian, there is nothing unclean about you nor is there anything about you that is displeasing to God. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom (Luke 12:32). Your life is hidden with God in Christ (Colossians 3:3). By one sacrifice you have been made perfect forever (Hebrews 10:24). You have been made the very righteousness of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). That is your identity. That is God’s opinion of you and it never changes. The Father treats you like he treats Jesus (1 John 4:17).
In light of your identity, I will be the last one to discourage you from having honest conversations with your loving Father about your failures, struggles, and sins. Not because there’s anything lacking in your justification or forgiveness or because he is displeased with you on some level, but because those conversations can be healing and the richest conversations in light of his incredible love for you and his unconditional acceptance. You have access to the Father and you can come to him with confidence and boldness. He loves you and nothing can alter that.