How wonderful it is that God judicially pardons believers in Christ of all their sins–past, present, and future–when they are saved: “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses”( Col. 2:13). Some grace teachers, therefore, believe that confession of sin in the Christian life is unnecessary and legalistic.
The New Testament makes it obvious that God still requires righteousness in the disciple’s attitudes, words and actions: “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Can we retain the majority, evangelical view that Christians still need to confess their sins, while avoiding a legalistic works-oriented view of it? We believe so.
The traditional evangelical view has scriptural support and wide endorsement. Dr. Griffith Thomas put it this way: “God forgives us once as a Judge, but many times as a Father.”
Obedience is linked to the full appreciation of God’s fatherhood: “Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you.” ‘I will be a Father to you, And you shall be My sons and daughters, Says the LORD Almighty'” (2 Cor. 6:17,18).
The New Testament epistles indicate that known sin requires repentance. Christ admonished the wayward Ephesian believers,”Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place–unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5, Cf. v.16). How can a person repent without acknowledging/confessing what has been wrong?
What are the consequences of the disobedient believer ignoring his/her sins?
Neglecting or suppressing repentance:
- grieves and quenches the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19)
- hinders prayer (1 Pet. 3:7)
- hinders our usefulness to God (2 Tim. 2:20-22)
- mars our testimony (Col. 3:17)
- robs us of potential reward (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
- brings God’s corrective discipline (1 Cor. 11:29-32)
- deserves church discipline (Rev. 2:5; 1 Cor. 5:5)
- requires correction by spiritual brothers and sisters (Gal. 6:1,2)
If it is common courtesy to ask forgiveness of someone we have offended (intentionally or unintentionally), should we show less sensitivity and respect to our Redeemer?
How should we interpret 1 John 1:9?
1 John 1:9 declares, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” With the commendable aim of avoiding an installment plan/legalistic view of confession in the Christian life, some interpret 1 John 1:9 as referring only to the initial confession at salvation. However, we can maintain the traditional interpretation of this verse without falling into legalism.
The use of “forgive” here is not judicial forgiveness (which has already been granted – Rom. 8:1; Titus 2:14), but paternal forgiveness (restoring full communion – 2 Cor. 6:17,18).
Concerning the wording of 1 John 1:9, Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson observed “If we confess (ean homologōmen). Third-class condition again with ean and present active subjunctive of homologeō ‘if we keep on confessing.‘ Confession of sin to God and to one another (James 5:16) is urged throughout the N.T. from John the Baptist (Mark 1:5) on.”  Therefore, confession of sins includes but is not restricted to our initial salvation.
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.” The concept of a believer’s “cleansing” from wrong attitudes and behavior occurs elsewhere in the New Testament (2 Cor. 7:1; 2 Tim. 2:21; James 4:8).
But, what about the Gnostic issue as the background of this epistle of 1 John? Yes, an early form of this false teaching did interfere with a correct understanding of the gospel and valid Christian living. That is why there are several “tests” in 1 John to identify those who professed having a special spiritual “knowledge” (gnosis), but gave no evidence of new life (1 John 1:6-10; 2:3-5,15,19;3:14,15). The first of these tests of a true believer is that he/she will not ignore willful sin.
Not for this dispensation?
The word “forgive,” (Gk. – aphiemi) is used of the Christian’s relationship with God (cleansing) in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:12; Luke 11:4). To avoid an obsessive concern with introspective confession, some believe that the pre-Pentecost context of the Sermon on the Mount removes this petition from the today’s Model Prayer. Yet, it seems unlikely that this basic instruction on the elements of a disciple’s prayer life would only apply for a few years (until Calvary).
James 5:15 still uses “forgive” related to the Christian’s walk: “And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” Since James considers the possibility of sickness due to chastisement (1 Cor. 11:29-32), forgiven here refers to God’s act. The epistle of James qualifies as being in the present dispensation.
Willful, unconfessed sin hinders fellowship with God and others
Most Bible teachers use the word “fellowship” to describe an unhindered quality of communion with the Lord. However, since the Greek term for “fellowship” (koinonia) overlaps the concept of “relationship,” some disagree with referring to a disobedient Christian as “out of fellowship”. Therefore, the term “communion” may more accurately denote the condition of intimacy with God.
In Hebrews 13:15, “praise” is literally, “confess,” (Gk. – homologeo); it is used here as expressing the Christian’s worship to God. It seems appropriate that “confession” in worship would include confession related to repentance (John 4:24; Psalm 51:6; Rev. 2:5).
Walking according to the flesh disrupts relationships (James 4:1-7) because loving God and others is the essence of righteous motives, words and actions (Matt. 22:37-40).
Confession of sins in a grace context
The confession of sins in the Christian life should not involve morbid introspection. Then, what are valid indications of the need to confess and repent of sin?
- We look to God, who will convict us by His Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11; Psalm 139:23,24).
- If our conscience is violated, we have sinned and need to make it right: “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.”
- God’s Word is the plumb line of His righteous standards. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16,17).
- Also, we should also be receptive to the loving admonition of a fellow believer who may point out a “blind spot” of disobedient actions in our lives. “Exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13).
Andrew Murray, widely respected for his writing and influence through the Christ-centered, grace-oriented deeper life, acknowledged the role of confession in the believer’s fellowship with God: “Too often the confession of sin is superficial, and often it is quite neglected. Few Christians realize how necessary it is to be sincere about the matter. Some do not feel that an honest confession of sin gives power to live the life of victory over sin. But we, in fellowship with the Lord Jesus, need to confess with a sincere heart every sin that may be a hindrance in our Christian lives.” 
Let us depend on God’s enablement for righteous living. Abundant life includes confession and repentance of known sins, since disobedience grieves His Holy Spirit.
 Robertson’s Word Pictures, 1 John 1:9
 Andrew Murray, God’s Best Secrets. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1998. (earlier edition: Biola Book, 1923). section one: “Fellowship,” reading 10: “Confession.”
Copyright by John Woodward 1999, rev. 2005, rev 2016. Permission is granted to reproduce for non-commercial use.
Scripture quotations from The Holy Bible, New King James Version (copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson)