Confession can be difficult to wrap your mind around. In many people’s minds, it still carries a stigma from the Catholic church. Isn’t confession something you have to do with a priest? If you are Catholic, or used to be Catholic, confession has to do with mediation. You go confess your sins to the priest so that he can mediate before God, give you advice, or reprimand you for what you’ve done. If you’re not Catholic, chances are you don’t put a big priority on confession.
For others, confession can stem from overactive guilt. Because of a misunderstanding of forgiveness, grace, and the gospel, sometimes we think we need to confess in order to be forgiven. This is partially true, and this is the aspect of forgiveness I want to zoom in on.
Confession is absolutely necessary for forgiveness at conversion. If you want to come to Christ, you must repent, confess your sin, and put your trust in Christ. True conversion is marked by repentance. This is the heart of Jesus’ message in the gospels; “Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Mark 1:15), and Paul’s proclamation of the gospel, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). It’s hard to conceive of repentance without confession. How can you be broken for your sin if you don’t name it, admit to it, and renounce it? Good so far.
When you come to Christ, you are forgiven of every sin you’ve ever committed, past, present, and future. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid for all of your sins. Why then should we ask for forgiveness? Coming from the other direction, if we sin every day and we have to confess in order to be forgiven, how can we ever be sure about our salvation? If we go through life worrying that every little thing we do might go unconfessed we will constantly be worried about the state of our salvation.
This is quite the quandary. Some of the confusion is due to the way we typically interpret 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.” Sometimes we turn this verse into a proof-text for transaction-based confession and forgiveness. The ESV Study Bible has a helpful note on this, “Christians must confess (their) sins, initially to receive salvation and then to maintain fellowship with God and with one another.”
We initially confess our sins so that we can be saved and forgiven. This is referred to as justification. When we confess our sins, we are justified, brought back into relationship with God, and treated like we never sinned. But we also continue to live in a fallen world. While our subsequent sin does not affect our justification, it does effect our relationship with God. Romans 5:1 sums up our justification, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” But what happens when we continue to sin? Paul goes on, “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Confession is part of this access to God.
Confession has everything to do with our newly restored relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We don’t confess so that we will be forgiven of that particular sin. We confess so that we will continue to grow in our relationship with God, despite that particular sin. Some have described this as the difference between our justification and our adoption.
Now, I want to add this - some of you might push back and say, well doesn’t that mean you can do whatever you want? That’s the right question. Paul answers it in Romans 6:1. if you never confess, God will not retroactively punish you and take away his forgiveness. He’s not vindictive like that. But if you never confess your sin, never mourn over the things you’ve done, not long for the day when you are perfectly conformed to Christ’s sinless image, you may not actually be saved. You may not have the Holy Spirit. Here’s the second half of that ESV note on 1 John 1:9, “Yet John also makes it clear (1 John 3:6, 9) that persistent unrepented sin is not the mark of a Christian—God “will by no means clear the guilty” (Num. 14:18). Unrepentant sin is a distinguishing mark of unbelief.
If you are in Christ, you confess to grow in your relationship with God. As a Father, God delights in you, he treasures you, and he wants to meet with you every day. He has given you his Spirit so that you can please him and do all the things he has laid out before you (Eph. 2:10). Confession is the lubricant of this relationship. Confession reminds us that our sin still matters; it is an offense to a holy God. Even though we have assurance of our salvation through what Christ did for us on the cross, confession gives us the assurance that we have the Holy Spirit and that we are being conformed to the image of Christ.
In your time with God, get into the habit of confessing your sin. Talk to him about your shortcomings, and the areas you continue to struggle. Admit that sometimes you don’t care as much as you should about doing things that are in direct violation of his word. As you build this kind of honest and transparent relationship with God two things will happen. First, you will be amazed at the way you will grow in your hatred for sin. Second, you will see God grow you like never before. Don’t confess in hopes that God might continue to love you, confess so that you might continue love God more and more.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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