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If We Confess Our Sins 

Both Protestant Bible scholars and the Catholic teaching authority (Magesterium) interpret the verse 1 John 1:9 as instructing Christians to continuously confess to God all known sins with the result that God forgives and cleanses the confessor of those specific sins.

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.
Protestant

For Protestants the confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness are continually required to regain fellowship with God after committing sin, though they maintain that forgiveness for sin is a matter of pure grace.

The remedy for believer's sins may be stated in one word: confess (1 John 1:9). This does not mean to merely mouth or recite the sins. It means to see those sins as God sees them. That will surely bring repentance and the earnest desire to change. But if the same sins reoccur, the remedy remains the same. (Basic Theology, Charles C. Ryrie)

Confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness are continually required. Jesus taught all His disciples without any exception to pray for the forgiveness of sins and for deliverance from temptation and from the evil one, Matt. 6:12, 13. And John says: 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. (Systematic Theology, L. Berkhof).

Present forgiveness for both the unsaved and saved is a matter of pure grace, and the divine conditions which are imposed with this fact. In this age, the unsaved are forgiven as part of the entire accomplishment in salvation on the one condition that they believe (Eph. 4:32), and the saved are forgiven on the one condition that they confess (1 John 1:9). (Grace, Lewis Sperry Chafer)

It is pointed out by most Protestant teachers that sins, and the failure to confess them, cannot destroy a true believer's "union" with Christ, however, it is taught that unconfessed known sins have the potential of destroying a believer's "communion" with Christ.

Catholic

Catholic doctrine takes confession, or the absence of it, to an even graver matter. Within its complex religious system sins are divided into two groups: "venial" and "mortal." For the Catholic, after baptism, all sins must be confessed. Any unconfessed "venial" sins, ultimately, are cleansed through the personal suffering of the Catholic in "Purgatory;" While unconfessed "mortal" sins cause the once "initially" justified Catholic (through water baptism) to forfeit his justification, thereby subjecting him, once again, to the dangers of the eternal flames of Hell.

For the serious Catholic the perpetual act of confessing sins must become a formidable discipline throughout his religious life. Personal confession of grave sins, with its intended result of priestly absolution, is accomplished through its sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation/Forgiveness/Conversion."

"The means by which God forgives sins after baptism is confession: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Minor or venial sins can be confessed directly to God, but for grave or mortal sins, which crush the spiritual life out of the soul, God has instituted a different means for obtaining forgiveness -- the sacrament known popularly as confession, penance, or reconciliation" (Internet Article, Catholic Answers).
The Problem

However, the problem with both the Protestant and Catholic interpretation of 1 John 1:9 is that nowhere else in the Bible is it mentioned that the forgiveness of sins (and the divine cleansing of them) is through the act of personal "confession." Instead it is taught, elsewhere, in numerous places that God Himself justly forgives all sins and cleanses the believer, once for all, through the sacrificial blood of His Son on the cross: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn. 1:29).

Under the Law of Moses national Israel was forgiven and cleansed of sins annually, based on the blood sacrifice performed by the High Priest on the "Day of Atonement:"

Lev. 16:30 "...for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be clean from all your sins before the Lord." (cf. 17:11).
This annual sacrifice for centuries prefigured and anticipated the final, once-for-all, substitutionary, blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all sins and the power of God cleanses the sinner through faith in Christ alone:
Heb. 9:9-14 "But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?"

Heb. 9:26 "...but now once at the consummation He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself."

Heb. 10:9-14 "..."by this will (God's) we have been sanctified by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all...but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God...for by one offering He as perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (cf. Heb. 1:3).

The Apostolic Message

Prior to the Apostle Peter introducing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles (Acts chapters 10-11), he was given a vision in which a variety of animals, considered unclean for a Jew to eat according to the Law of Moses, were set before him and he was told by a voice to "arise, kill and eat." But Peter thrice stubbornly refused and then a voice responded, "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy."

Peter eventually understood the meaning behind the vision: That God, through the cross, forgives and cleanses not only Jews but Gentiles also through personal faith in the resurrected Christ.

Acts 10:43 "Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him has received forgiveness of sins."
Paul
Acts 13:38 "Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you,"

Eph 1:7-8 "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us."

Eph 4:32 "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you."

John
1 John 2:12 "I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name's sake."
John and The Gnostics

What the Apostle John wrote in 1 Jn. 2:12 was directed at those who had acknowledged their sins and turned, by faith, to Jesus Christ to reeive the divine forgiveness provided in the cross. When the gospel of Jesus Christ was presented to them they believed. And upon belief their sins were forever forgiven (Matt. 26:28; Lk. 24:47; Acts 10:43; 13:38; 26:18; Col. 1:14) and they were gifted salvation (Eph. 2:8-9); an all inclusive word which incorporates the gifts of justification (Rom. 3:24), eternal life (Rom. 6:23), as well as the Holy Spirit who seals the believer "for the day of redemption" (Acts 10:45: 11:17; 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; Eph. 4:30).

But in his Epistles John addresses a rudimentary form of heresy that had begun to make inroads among the churches in Asia Minor, later called Gnosticism, from the Greek word "gnosis," meaning knowledge. It basically taught a superior, esoteric, knowledge of "God," self and the world through which the initiated experienced freedom (redemption) and salvation. It concerned itself with the origin of the material universe, and held to the idea that material was essentially evil. And God, being totally good, could not touch matter. So it fostered the idea that the physical world was created by "aeons" (emanations from God) which came in between God and matter (which was an illusion). In the realm of practical morals Gnostics taught that sin of the body (material part of man) could not touch the soul (immaterial part of man) and therefore, essentially, they denied the historic Christian teaching of the reality of sin and the divine condemnation associated with it. Therefore some Gnostics adopted a lifestyle of license. And it is in this context that John writes to his readers:

1 John 1:6-10 "If we say that we have fellowship with Him and {yet} walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess (acknowledge) our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to 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."
John was not directly addressing the true believer here who, having already been convicted of sin through the work of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the gospel message, turned to Christ by faith and received divine forgiveness. But instead he was addressing those directly influenced by the Gnostic teachers and their heretical denial of the reality of sin and the need for divine intervention through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. He referred to those infected by the Gnostics as deceived, void of the truth in them, and accused them of calling God a liar (a distant description of a true believer).

It is to those deceived by the Gnostics that John pens his instruction that if they "confess" (acknowledge) their sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive them of their sins and to cleanse them from all unrighteousness. The word "confess" (Gr. homologeo) means "to declare" (fess up); "agree with;" "admit;" "to confess by way of admitting oneself guilty of what one is accused of, the result of inward conviction" (Vines).

So in context 1 John 1:9 is not giving instruction as to how a true believer is to get his sins continuously forgiven after baptism (Catholic); or how to regain fellowship with God after committing sin (Protestant). But it is directly addressing the unbeliever who denies the reality of sin itself. Of which the true believer has already been convicted, has acknowledged, and by faith turned to Christ for forgiveness and cleansing through the sacrificial blood He shed on the cross (Heb. 1:3).

Col. 2:13-14 "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross."

Acts 10:15 "Again a voice {came} to him a second time, "What God has cleansed, no {longer} consider unholy."

Rev. 1:5 "...and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood"

Conclusion

Certainly the believer may (and should) confess to God known sins he has committed - but not for the sake of divine forgiveness and cleansing. For such an exercise continuously denies the power of the cross through which God now has the freedom to forgive and cleanse a sinner, for Christ's sake.

1 John 2:12 "I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name's sake."

1 Cor. 1:23-24 "...but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."

Written by Gary Nystrom

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