What follows is a position paper I wrote while preparing for a recent sermon. The conclusions represent the conclusions of the elders of MPC on this subject. I continue to learn and be amazed at God's grace and love toward us. This topic is just one in a long list of examples.
Church tradition has addressed the application of confession in the life of a believer in a variety of ways. Some suggest it has no application for the believer because of the complete forgiveness found through faith in Jesus Christ. Others suggest just the opposite and go as far as to say that God has granted church leaders with ability to remit sins and confession should therefore be a consistent practice within the church in order to maintain a righteous standing before God. With such extremes in opinion, it is important to understand what scripture has to say about this topic.
Perhaps the most common text used in the discussion of this topic is 1 John 1:9. It is in this letter than John writes to 2nd and 3rd generation Christians within the context of growing false teaching in order that they may be encouraged in the promise of God and the hope of their salvation (1 John 5:13). However, the corruption of the Gospel message has created confusion and so John begins his letter with the express desire to bring clarity for those who have trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior.
To do so, John draws on the use of symbolic language to make his point clear. In this letter, he contrasts truth and lie by using the symbols of light and darkness. This usage is common for John and can be found throughout his writings (John 1:5, John 3:19, John 8:12, John 12:35, John 12:46, 1 John 1:5, 1 John 1:6, 1 John 2:8, 1 John 2:9, 1 John 2:11). In each case, John uses the term darkness to describe the realm of Satan and his mission of deceit among mankind. Light, on the other hand, represents the holiness and purity of God. Jesus himself used this same language when he said, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life” (John. 8:12).
Beginning in verse 5 of his letter, John describes the attributes of the light (1 John 1:5, 7, 9; 2:1-2) which he then contrasts with the darkness (1 John 1:6, 8, 10). This pattern continues through the end of this chapter as John seeks to clarify truth amidst the lies being proclaimed by the false teachers. Understanding this pattern of comparison and contrast is important in the accurate interpretation of 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” (1 John 1:9).
The term confess literally means “to agree”. Thus, in the context of this verse, it means to agree with God regarding the existence of sin exposed by the light. Additionally, the grammar of the word “confess” indicates a continuous action. Therefore, it is not one single act of confession, but a habit or lifestyle of confession for the person who walks in the light.
For this reason, 1 John 1:9 is not a cause-effect statement suggesting only “if” we confess our sin will we then receive forgiveness for of sin. Instead, it is a comparison and contrast between those who walk in the light and those who walk in the darkness.
John says, if you walk in darkness, you will ignore the reality of sin in your life and you will have nothing to confess. Yet, if you walk in the light, you will recognize the sin revealed by the light because of the fellowship you have with your Savior and as a result, you will confess.
Confession is a defining characteristic for a person of faith. If you trust in Jesus alone as Savior, your life will be characterized by the presence of confession. In contrast, the person who walks in darkness, the one who does not admit to sin – He will not live a life of confession.
Forgiveness, as John instructs us, is not based on the act of confession. It exists because, and only because, of the faithfulness and righteousness of God. Because GOD is faithful and just, the saint who sins is forgiven and cleansed of all unrighteousness!