Is it Wrong to Confess Your Sin?

Question
Bob George says on the basis of 1 John 1:9 that we should not confess our sins because they were already forgiven us at the Cross. Does 1 John 1:9 apply to the Christian or to the non-Christian? If to the Christian, in what sense does God forgive our sins? Wasn't the issue of the Christian's sins settled at the Cross?
Answer
Bob George's doctrine that Christians should not confess their sins to God is totally unbiblical, his interpretation is unsound, and those who follow his teaching cut themselves off from an important means of grace: prayers of confession of sins.

I have actually done a fair bit of work with 1 John 1:9, and I can confidently assert that it applies to believers. I have included below an adapted bit of commentary I wrote on this verse (a small portion of a research paper that I wrote on 1 John 1:7b-2:2). It is somewhat academic, so please forgive the style (I have done my best to make it comprehensible without totally rewriting it). I'll provide a summary at the end for you (in case the language is a little too thick to follow easily), as well as some additional comments (if you want, skip straight to these comments to get the main point of the argument).

Also, in case you aren't entirely familiar with the terms "apodosis" and "protasis," these refer to conditional sentences (one that lists a condition, as well as what will or may happen if that condition is met). For example, in the conditional sentence "If my wife comes home late, then I'll have to make dinner for myself," the "apodosis" is the "then" portion of the sentence ("I'll have to make dinner for myself") and the "protasis" is the "if" portion of the sentence ("my wife comes home late").
The apodosis of the condition ought to be taken as the entirety of "he is faithful and righteous, so that he forgives our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness," not simply as "he is faithful and righteous." It does not refer to God's eternal character, but rather to the nature of God's relationship to the one who confesses. The longer apodosis indicates that "he is faithful and righteous" speaks not directly of God's eternal character, but more precisely of the nature of his dealings with those in covenant with him. John's only other use of the word pair "faithful" (pistos) and "righteous" (dikaios) is in Revelation 19:11, where it describes "the Word of God" (Rev. 19:13) coming in judgment, during which time he prosecutes the Adamic covenant.

The Septuagint [Greek translation of the Old Testament that was current in Christ's day] supports this idea in that the words "faithful" and "righteous" appear together describing God in only 2 verses, both of which refer not to his character but to his covenantal dealings. In Jeremiah 42:5, the remnant of God's people asks for God's grace, and submits itself to his covenantal authority with these words: "May the LORD be a true (dikaios) and faithful (pistos) witness against us if we do not act according to everything that the LORD your God sends us through you." God's faithfulness and righteousness qualify the type of witness God will bear against them, not God's character. The other occurrence falls in the beginning portion of Moses's song in Deuteronomy 32:4: "A God of faithfulness (pistos) and without injustice, Righteous (dikaios) and upright is He." The song of Moses itself calls creation to witness the covenant between God and Israel (Deut. 31:24-30), so that this description of God pertains precisely to his administration of the covenant.

Marshall picks up on this idea, without reference to Revelation or the Septuagint, in saying that "the faithfulness lies in [God's] adherence to his promises" and "the justice lies in the inherent rightness" (Marshall, p. 114) of the forgiveness of one who confesses. God appropriately administers his covenant.

The protasis of this verse begins with "if ever" (ean) and the present tense "confess." This contrasts with the aorist tense "say" (in "say that we have no sin") of verse 8. This contrast indicates that "confess" refers not to initiatory confessions such as those rendered in baptismal ceremonies, but to a customary action. According to Westcott, the action here described is not simple confession to God, but acknowledgment of sins "openly in the face of men" (Westcott, p. 23). In support of this definition of "confess," he appeals, among other texts, to 1 John 2:23 and 4:2,3,15, all of which speak of confessing Christ. This seems unlikely, though, since the denotation of "confess" is not limited to "proclaim," and since confessing sins obviously differs greatly from confessing Christ. No doubt he makes this assertion based on his understanding of "if we say" in the parallel constructions of 1:6,8,10. However, these verses do not name the confessor's audience, and thus do not prove a public setting.

It is quite possible that John here thinks of something like Jesus's parable of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18:11-14, a situation in which both men made their declarations to God. The point of the confession does not appear to be that it is made before man, but that it is made and that sin is not denied. John is concerned that people recognize their need for Christ on a perpetual basis as they continue to "abide" in him. It might be argued that John thinks of a public confession because he is writing to a church about those identifiable signs that indicate that those among them are either true or false believers. Neufeld's theory offers another possibility: the reader is being asked to consider himself as the potential holder of the orthodox assertion of this verse, and of the unorthodox assertions of the mated verses (vv. 8 and 10). "Each of the assertions is phrased in such a way as to force the reader to make a choice between two options" (Neufeld, p. 90). Thus, John may not have in mind the identification of false believers on the basis of their public confessions, but instead the self-evaluation of each one of his readers. After all, one of John's main goals is to build assurance (1 John 5:13), which cannot be had merely by external verification of one's qualifications but requires honest introspection.

Another question this conditional statement raises is: Does God forgive only those sins which one confesses? In answering this question, it is important to remember that the verse does not intend to provide information about those sins one fails to recognize, but about the sins one recognizes and confesses as opposed to those sins one denies. Having said this, it is still possible to draw some inferences from the language of the verse. While the protasis describes the confession, the apodosis speaks not only of forgiveness of sins but also of cleansing "from all unrighteousness." This is a significant shift of wording because the apodosis also contains the word "righteousness" in its description of God's administration of the covenant. Thus, the verse seems to imply, not just that God forgives the confessed sins, but that he goes beyond this by completely restoring the confessors to a right standing under the covenant. The sum of the verse seems to be that those who characteristically confess their sins are regularly forgiven and maintained in right covenantal standing in Christ before God. This verse ought to grant great assurance to Christians that lives of confession go hand in hand with fellowship and acceptance with God. "It is of great moment to be fully persuaded, that when we have sinned, there is a reconciliation with God ready and prepared for us: we shall otherwise always carry hell within us" (Calvin, p. 167).
Okay, so much for the relatively academic stuff. The point is that the grammar of 1 John 1:9 indicates that the confession of which John speaks is habitual as opposed to a single event, and that the words "faithful and righteous" refer to God in his ongoing covenant relationship with his people. John is speaking about the way God maintains his relationship with believers, restoring them to right covenant standing through the means of the confession of their sin. It is also worth noting that John speaks of forgiveness of "sins" not of the forgiveness of "sin." That is, John is thinking of sinful acts, not of the general state of sinfulness.

Moreover, 1 John 2:1-2 demonstrates that John is writing to believers. Specifically, he says that he writes in order to help Christians avoid sin (2:1), and adds that if anyone sins, "we have an Advocate." That John uses the first person plural ("we") in response to the condition "if anyone sins" indicates that the "anyone" is "anyone of us," not someone who is not yet part of "us." That is, believers continue to sin, and when we do sin, Jesus pleads our case before the Father, obtaining forgiveness for us on the basis of his death on our behalf ("propitiation for our sins"). But John gives no indication that Jesus obtains this forgiveness for us apart from the means established in 1 John 1:9, namely confession of sins. Rather, the flow of the letter in these verses indicates that John is still talking about the same people and the same confessions of sin. In short, when believers confess their sin, Jesus pleads their case before the Father and the believers are subsequently forgiven and cleansed.

This last point highlights an important distinction that Bob George fails to make, specifically the distinction between what Jesus did on the cross, and what the Holy Spirit and Jesus do now. Jesus obtained forgiveness for us on the cross, but we were not forgiven of all our sins at that time. Rather, the application of forgiveness comes to us in our own lives as the Holy Spirit applies forgiveness to us and as Christ intercedes for us - and they do not do these things before we sin. Rather, it is an ongoing application. As we continue to sin, the Holy Spirit continues to apply forgiveness to us. This is what makes Christ's current intercession so important. If his work on the cross had finished his intercession for us, then all that would remain for him to do would be to wait for his return. But the Bible tells us that Christ is in heaven right now interceding for us (e.g. Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25), meaning that he is now before God's throne pleading the merit of his shed blood on behalf of believers who continue to sin. As Jesus maintains God's approval through this intercession, the Holy Spirit is free to forgive and cleanse us of the sins we regularly commit.

According to John, our forgiveness takes place by means of confession (1 John 1:9). That's why I wrote at the beginning that prayer of confession is a means of grace. Our confessions are part of the means that God uses to apply forgiveness and cleansing to us. If we refuse to confess, we hinder our ongoing forgiveness and cleansing - a very bad situation indeed.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.