If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. —1 John 1:9
That is one of the first verses many new Christians memorize — and rightly so. It holds forth the comforting promise of forgiveness and cleansing for all of us who have struggled with guilt in this sin-stained world. Yet there are some today who, because they fail to comprehend the extent of divine forgiveness, deny the clear teaching of 1 John 1:9 and teach other to do the same. They say that to pray for forgiveness reveals unbelief. After all, a healthy Christian doesn't experience guilt because he understands Christ's total forgiveness. Why seek forgiveness when you already have it?
However, their guilt-free brand of Christianity not only burdens guilty people with more guilt, but also strips away the only means to alleviate the guilt of sin-confession. Rather than helping Christians draw near to God, they are reinforcing the barrier of sin that interrupts their relationship with God. But that's not the end of the story.
The Bible clearly teaches that Christians should seek forgiveness. Consider this:
- In each one of the penitential psalms (Ps. 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143), the psalmist is demonstrating the heart of a justified believer when he seeks forgiveness. In each case the psalmist is already a believer, fully forgiven.
- In the gospels, Christ taught believers to ask the Father to forgive their sins (Matt. 6:12; Mark 11:25; Luke 11:4). Some of those to whom He spoke were already born again. In 1 John 1, the verb tenses show that confession and forgiveness should be a continuous experience. Verse 7 literally reads, "The blood of Jesus His Son keeps cleansing us from all sin," and verse 9 likewise says, "If we are continually confessing our sins." Those to whom John wrote were already fully forgiven believers (cf. 5:13).
But the question remains: Why are you supposed to seek God's forgiveness if He has already justified you? If justification takes care of sin past, present, and future, so there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1), why pray for forgiveness? Aren't you praying for something that is already yours?
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.
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. He chastens those whom He loves, for their good (Heb. 12:5-11).
Let me show you the difference:
- 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.
- Judicial forgiveness provides an unshakeable standing before the throne of divine judgment — parental forgiveness deals with the state of our sanctification at any given moment and is dispensed from a throne of divine grace. So the forgiveness Christians are supposed to seek in their daily walk is not pardon from an angry Judge, but mercy from a grieved Father.
Some object to the idea that God could ever be displeased with His own children. They ask: Can our once-and-for-all forgiven sins ever provoke divine displeasure? The answer is a resounding "Yes." In fact, it is because of God's righteous displeasure over your sin that He refuses to leave you the way you are — sinful.
In a very practical sense, God's indignation over your daily sins demonstrates His love for you. That's the thought of Hebrews 12:5-11 where some form of the word discipline is used seven times. Divine displeasure over your sin brings discipline, reproof, and scourging. That's a good thing, not only because it helps rid your life of sin, but it also shows His love for you and confirms your relationship to Him — "those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives" (v. 6).
God's discipline — sometimes involving punishment for disobedience — is painful; no one will argue with that. But you must remember: He is causing you to share in His holiness (v. 10); He is training you (v. 11); He is producing in you the "peaceful fruit of righteousness" (v. 11). So when you have sinned, humble yourself, confess your sin, and submit to His loving discipline.
Remorse over sin, daily confession, and a continual attitude of repentance are marks of a healthy Christian life. What's the benefit? Look again at 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (italics added). Forgiveness and cleansing — those promises are as refreshing to the sinner as a cold drink of water to a thirsty man.
David testified to the power of confession in Psalm 32: "When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer…I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, "I will confess my sin to the Lord"; and You forgave the guilt of my sin" (vv. 4-5). The guilt of David's sin affected him physically — he found relief only through full confession.
We've already discussed the difference between judicial and parental forgiveness — the latter is in view in 1 John 1:9. It is a subjective, relational kind of forgiveness. It is the restoration to a place of blessing in the eyes of a displeased father. Similarly, the cleansing of 1 John 1:9 doesn't refer to regeneration. Rather, 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.
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 you entertain such an idea, you will either be consumed by your guilt or you will steel yourself against the pangs of your conscience — either reaction will separate you from a loving Father.
Instead, keep confessing your sins; seek God's forgiveness and cleansing daily. As the verse says, He is faithful to Himself to forgive your sins and He is just, having already made full atonement for your sins through the sacrifice of His beloved Son. When you confess your sins, you are restored by a loving Father who delights to shower the brokenhearted and repentant with His mercy and compassion.