One question I periodically come across is whether there a place for Christians to confess their sins after conversion. Obviously it is an integral part of Christianity to believe that all sin (past, present, and future) has been dealt with by Christ on the cross. He has paid for all sin in full, assuring the believer of forgiveness and a future hope of eternity with Christ in heaven. So, is there any need to confess sin after conversion?
A verse that is central to whether or not we should confess our sins after we are saved is 1 John 1:9. At first reading, 1 John 1:9 seems to imply that believers ought to confess their sins. However, some have argued that if 1 John 1:9 teaches believers are to confess their sins after conversion, then this would undermine the very heart of the gospel.
The Broad Biblical Teaching on Forgiveness
It is appropriate to survey why this is even a debated point. There are clearly passages in Scripture which teach that Christ has completed a sacrifice for all sins. For example, Hebrews 7:27; 9:26; and 10:14 all talk about Christ’s single sacrifice being offered once for all in contrast to the Old Testament practice of continual sacrifices. It is once for all, and done.
We also have passages like Romans 5:1 which talk about our past justification which leads to a status of present peace with God. Acts 10:43, likewise, links belief in Christ with the forgiveness of sins. There is definitely broad biblical teaching which links full and complete forgiveness to those who believe in Christ. It is understandable then that some want to read the confession of sin in 1 John 1:9 as applying to unbelievers and not believers. However, a fair reading of the context of 1 John 1 indicates this is not possible.
The Pronoun Usage in 1 John 1:9
The near context always determines the meaning of a verse. With regard to the issue of confession in 1 John 1:9, a simple exercise is to trace the first person plural pronouns of 1 John 1 (“us”, “we”, “our”) and determine their referent. The first person plural pronouns of 1 John 1:1-4 are either references to the Apostolic ministry, or else John’s shared experience with fellow believers. 1 John 1:5-10 uses plenty of first person pronouns, and they all are a continuation of a broader argument—what does the life of a believer look like (e.g., 1 John 1:6). The plural pronouns and logical inferential markers all show this unit is cohesive. It is not possible to take 1 John 1:9 and isolate it from 1 John 1:5-10. The plural pronouns should be viewed as having the same referent—believers.
The Meaning of Confess in 1 John 1:9
If 1 John 1:9 is referring to believers (which is indicated by a simple tracing of the argument in 1 John), then how are we to understand the idea of “confess” with regard to believers? I think perhaps the best way to understand it is in light of the distinction between position and practice, or perhaps it could be called identity and function.
For example, there is a very clear indication in Paul that our old man and the body of sin has been crucified with Christ, so that we are no longer identified as enslaved to sin (Rom 6:6). Yet, Paul himself seems to indicate that there is a battle within the believer against sinful tendencies (Gal 5:17-21; cf. Rom 7:15-25). So, even though there is a positional identity of being freed from sin, the believer still experiences and struggles with sin. There is an identity, but there is also the function of every day life.
Similarly, Scripture also speaks about the identity of fellowship and communion with Christ. For example, 1 Corinthians 1:9 talks about being called into fellowship with Christ. 1 John 1:3 also talks about having fellowship with the Father and with Christ.
However, there are indications that believers can have that fellowship broken by sin. For example, Psalm 66:18 indicates that if the psalmist cherished iniquity in his heart, God would not listen to him (there would be broken communion). Similarly, 1 Peter 3:7 indicates that problems in a marriage will lead to one’s prayers being hindered. So, there is a positional aspect of fellowship, but there is the practice of every day living as well.
This seems to be the most natural (and consistent way) to read 1 John 1:9. John’s point is that all believers need to recognize there is sin in our lives (1 John 1:8). The solution is not to hide it or to pretend we do not sin, but rather to confess it. The term “confess” (ὁμολογέω) should be viewed acknowledging to God what He already knows.
When we confess sins as believers, we are essentially saying, “You are right, and this is a problem which is a violation of what you have commanded. I take responsibility for this, and want to have a restored relationship with you.”
The use of the plural “sins” (ἁμαρτίας) indicates this is not a generic confession, but a specific naming of actual violations. When we practice 1 John 1:9 we confess specific sins to God, acknowledging that our fellowship with him has been temporarily hampered due to the sin.
Thus, the to confess sin in 1 John 1:9 is not to be viewed necessarily as the initial repentance and submission to Christ, which leads to a positional identity of forgiveness and fellowship with Christ. Rather, the confession of sin in 1 John 1:9 is better understood as the functional process of living the daily Christian life, and facilitating a real relationship with Christ.