Must Christians confess their sins? 1 Jn 1:9 deals with the confession of sins. A few cross references will help respond to the objections that this verse has any application to Christians. There are several aspects of this verse that we need to consider. We will group the cross references and comments according to each item we consider. Here are the various considerations regarding 1 Jn 1:9.
When you take a moderate dispensational view of the Bible you find that the books from Hebrews to Jude apply doctrinally to the Tribulation. Yet, they contain many verses in them that also apply to Christians in the church age.
- Heb 3:6, 14 matches Matt 24:13 which clearly pertains to the Tribulation [Matt 24:15-21], and specifically to Jews in the Tribulation.
- Hebrews 6:4-6 clearly contradicts the eternal security of the believer. This passage applies to a Tribulation saint who can lose his salvation for taking the mark of the beast.
- Heb 10:26-31 applies to a Tribulation saint who cannot be baptized into the body of Christ and be sealed [Eph 1:13]. Jesus will rapture the body of Christ before the Tribulation begins.
- Jas 2:20-26 contradicts Rom 4:3-8. Yet, James is written to the twelve tribes [Jas 1:1]. Their salvation is dependent upon the faith of Jesus AND keeping the commandments of God [Rev 14:12, Col 2:16-17, Matt 24:20].
- 1 Jn 3:14-15 clearly pertains to the Tribulation saints which “doeth righteousness,” [1 Jn 3:7 and contrast 1 Jn 3:10]. They are rewarded with eternal life for their love and beneficial treatment of the Lord’s ‘brethren’ [Matt 25:34-40]. Notice that the ‘children of the devil’ get the devil’s punishment [Matt 25:41-46] for not doing righteousness to the Lord’s brethren.
Jewish Confession of Sins
1 Jn 1:9 is one of those verses that immediately catches the eye of a moderate dispensationalist because it contains the word “confess” in connection with confessing sins. Confessing sins is clearly something that you find the Jews doing all the way up to and including the baptism of John [Lev 5:5; Num 5:7; Neh 1:6, 9:2; Dan 9:20; Matt 3:6; etc.]. And this is something that they will obviously do in the Tribulation as a result of the need to keep the commandments of God [Rev 12:17, 14:12] and the faith of Jesus.
The Dual Application of 1 Jn 1:9
But 1 Jn 1:9, like so many other verses in these “Tribulation” epistles, has a dual application to saints in the church age. Clearly, that the Lord forgave our sins at salvation [Col 1:14; Eph 4:32]. However, the context of 1 Jn 1:9 is not salvation. The context is cleansing and fellowship [1 Jn 1:7] and acknowledging sin [1 Jn 1:8, 10]. And concerning those three subjects, “confessing” sin certainly matches Paul’s doctrine, which brings us to the next point.
One of the objections to applying 1 Jn 1:9 to Christians is that this verse doesn’t match Paul. Paul never said anything about us confessing our sins in order to get forgiveness for our sins. Neither did he say anything about the lost confessing their sins in order to get forgiveness. Yet, it is important to remember that Paul certainly did not shy away from the subject of sin in his own life. He “confessed” (admitted, acknowledged) the sins of his past [Acts 26:10-11; 1 Tim 1:13]. Paul “confessed” what the sin that dwelled in him was doing to him [Rom 7:14-20]. Furthermore, Paul “confessed” that “I am chief” among sinners [1 Tim 1:15]. While he didn’t confess any of these to get forgiveness, he confessed his sin nonetheless.
Confession of Sins for Cleansing
Paul was clear that although we have been forgiven we must “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God,” [2 Cor 7:1]. You can’t do that unless you can identify and stay away from that which is filthy and “unclean,” [2 Cor 6:14-18]. The inability to identify and separate from sin affects a Christian’s fellowship with God. When you find that you have sinned in any of these, “confession” is what helps you cleanse yourself and restore your fellowship with God [Ps 32:5; Prov 28:13]. And confession of sins and restored fellowship are the context of 1 Jn 1:9. As a practical matter, the Corinthians, who would not examine and judge themselves before receiving the Lord’s supper, became weak and sick and many of them died, though they were “forgiven” [1 Cor 11:28-32, compare Heb 12:5-11].
Confession of Sins for Restored Fellowship
1 Cor 5:1-5 presents an interesting case. A young man in the church was sinning by fornication. Paul instructed the congregation to “deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” [1 Cor 5:5]. Thus, his fellowship with the brethren was broken [1 Cor 5:11; 1 Jn 1:3, 7]. The punishment had its intended effect and the man evidently quit the sin. Paul’s instructions to the church were to forgive him and restore him to fellowship [2 Cor 2:6-11]. Commenting about his own forgiveness of the fellow, Paul said, “to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ,” [2 Cor 2:10]. That sounds an awful lot like Jn 20:23.
The reason that we do not need to confess our sins in order to be saved, and thus forgiven, is that our salvation is a product of the new covenant [Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:8-12]. However, it is absolutely essential to remember that the new covenant is only partially complete in us. You understand this when you consider the doctrines of sanctification and redemption. Sanctification is, for us, a three-part process. We have been sanctified [past] by the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Next, we are being sanctified [present] with the washing of water by the word. And, finally, we will be sanctified as a glorious church in our glorified bodies [future] after we are raptured [Eph 5:25-27]. We are waiting on the redemption of our body [Rom 8:23; Eph 1:14] which we will not get until Jesus comes. When Jesus returns he will completely fulfill the New Covenant. Until then, we must deal with sin whether we confess it or not.
Sins we commit after we are saved do not change the destination of our souls since we are in Christ [Eph 2:6]. However, they can affect the outcome of our judgment at the judgment seat of Christ [2 Cor 5:10, Col 3:24-25]. When we go back to sin after we are saved we can totally forfeit our eternal inheritance [1 Cor 6:9-11; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:5]. Paul wrote these verses to saved people. They are written to Christians who “are again entangled” in sin [like 2 Pet 2:19-21 and Eph 4:17-19]. The way out of that mess is to repent [2 Tim 2:24-26]. And confession of sins, practically speaking, is a good way to “acknowledge the truth.”