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Do you need to confess your sins to be forgiven by God (1 John 1:9)?

Quick Answer: While 1 John 1:9 is often interpreted as a formula for believers to get more forgiveness of sins, the verse is actually addressing sin deniers known as Gnostics. So, John is not prescribing a “daily bar of soap” to help Christians get more forgiveness and cleansing from God. Instead, he is inviting unbelieving sin deniers to acknowledge the reality of sin and find forgiveness and cleansing of all unrighteousness (past, present, and future!) through Jesus Christ.

Diving Deeper: Few verses have caused more confusion than 1 John 1:9. We may say, “Well, sure, we’re forgiven in Christ, but we still need to confess our sins to be forgiven daily by God.” Or we may believe there are two types of forgiveness – one “positional” and one “relational.” Yes, some propose we’ve been totally forgiven “positionally” but we need to confess each sin in order to be cleansed and restored to fellowship with God daily.

Is this view the truth of the Gospel? No, in fact, it is spiritual double-talk. The plain truth is that we cannot be simultaneously forgiven and not forgiven. Either Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to take away all of our sins for all time (Hebrews 10:14), or it was not.

Consider this: If 1 John 1:9 does apply to believers, then every passage in the New Testament which speaks of our total forgiveness must be ignored. For example, passages like John 1:29, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13, Hebrews 8:12, Hebrews 10:14, and Hebrews 10:17, which speak of our “once for all” forgiveness in Jesus, would need to be ignored. Yes, we would be disregarding all these by claiming we need to confess each and every sin to “activate” or “appropriate” God’s forgiveness.

While many teach along these lines, the truth is so simple and so powerful: We believers are totally forgiven people – past, present, and future – no matter what. So, if we are completely forgiven people, then what is happening with 1 John 1:9? 

When we read Scripture, it’s tempting to assume everything we read is directed at us. But in the case of 1 John 1, the apostle is addressing a group that did not have fellowship with the Father or the Son. In other words, John has an evangelistic intent as he writes, “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ”(1 John 1:3). In John’s letter, fellowship is synonymous with salvation. John is making a serious judgment call about this particular group of individuals. He is declaring they are not yet saved, and he writes them so they will admit their sinfulness and obtain fellowship with God.

This is why this first chapter addresses two specific beliefs that prevented them from being saved. First, John addresses the Gnostic denial of the physicality of Jesus. This group of heretics did not believe Jesus came in the flesh, because they thought the body was evil. Here, John uses sensory words to demonstrate that Jesus was physically present on Earth: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). John’s point is clear: Jesus came in the flesh, and anyone who denies His physicality is not of God (1 John 4:2).

Second, John addresses this group’s denial of the reality of sin. In 1 John 1:8-10, he says: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous, so that He will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” Both verse 8 and verse 10 address someone who claims to have no sin and to have never sinned. Clearly, this person is an unbeliever. After all, what is Step 1 to becoming a believer? You recognize (or confess) the reality of your sinfulness. And once you’ve recognized your sinfulness, you can see the need for forgiveness and cleansing in Jesus.

In summary, 1 John 1:9 is an invitation to the sin denier to acknowledge their sinfulness and be forgiven and cleansed of all unrighteousness. This happens at salvation. Notice the word “all” in the passage: all unrighteousness. This is reminiscent of the “once for all” forgiveness we see throughout the New Testament. If you’ve believed in Jesus, you’ve been forgiven and cleansed of all unrighteousness (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; Hebrews 10:14; 1 John 1:8-10; 1 John 2:2). 

Jesus did not suffer and die for you to be partially forgiven or “positionally” forgiven. He died once for all your sins, so you could have fellowship (relationship) with Him forever (Hebrews 10:12-14; 1 John 1:3). Remember that God does not have an apology-based economy for sins, but a blood-based economy (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 9:22). Hebrews 9:22 says without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. Jesus shed His blood once, and it worked the first time – no repeat needed. Therefore, a believer is a totally forgiven person – past, present, and future (Hebrews 10:14). Yes, as a believer we are called to agree with God about sin and turn from sin, but these don”t make us more forgiven. It is finished!

Let’s Make It a Conversation!
1. React to this statement: 1 John 1:9 is not a bar of soap for Christians.
2. How does the Gnostic context and audience help us properly interpret 1 John 1:9?
3. Can anyone say they have no sin and claim they have never sinned and be a believer? Why or why not?
4. React to this false teaching: Christians are totally forgiven positionally but not relationally.
5. Read Hebrews 10:14. How does the “for all time” nature of your forgiveness further clarify 1 John 1:9?

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