If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
I haven’t posted in over a month, so I decided I wanted my next post to be a good one. After a great discussion in Sunday School yesterday morning, I realized what I wanted to do. It’s a long one so hold on tight…
A year or so ago, I preached to the youth and after I finished one of the adults came to me and told me that he was disappointed about the sermon. I was a little disturbed by this and asked him why. He responded, “Because this sermon is something the whole church needs to hear, not just the youth.” Since I longer have a pulpit, a blog will have to do.
I think that 1 John 1:9 is possibly one of the most harmfully misused verses in the Bible. Sure lots of verses get taken out of context and cause confusion, but the way that this verse is often used cripples believers in their walk with Jesus and buries them under a pile of guilt. Many of you have been told that in order to stay right with God, when we sin, all we have to do is confess and he’ll forgive us. If we don’t confess those sins and receive that forgiveness, we end up “out of fellowship” with God and he doesn’t hear our prayers. When we sin, God still loves us and our salvation is still intact, but he’s not going to talk with us until we “get right with God” and deal with our “unconfessed sin.” Therefore, we often live lives characterized by guilt, sure that God isn’t listening to us anymore because he’s so disgusted with us.
I had a seminary professor who calls this “Protestant Penance.” Catholics to confess the priest and the priest punishes them for their sin; Protestants confess to God and punish themselves. If I had to guess, I’d say that about 95% of my prayers in high school began with “Lord please forgive me for ________.” But is this what the Bible says the Christian life is supposed to look like? Does God want us to feel guilty? I’ll get back to 1 John 1:19 in a little bit but first, let’s see what else the Bible says about sin, guilt, and forgiveness.
From Temptation to Condemnation
When Satan wants to mess with a Christian, he uses two opposite strategies. The one we’re most familiar with is temptation. He coaxes and persuades us, leading us toward sin. He wants us to sin, but once we cross that line and commit a sin, he switches gears.
“See? I knew you were no good. You’re disgusting!”
“Can you really call yourself a Christian after doing that?”
“God can never use a weak, pitiful sinner like you.”
The Hebrew word that we translate is as Satan is ha-Satan a.k.a. “the accuser.” Satan first tempts us to sin and then destroys us with guilt because of that sin. And to make it even worse, he convinces us that God is the one accusing us and beating us down. Romans 8:1-2 tells a different story:
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
No condemnation! God does not condemn those who are in Jesus. Instead or condemnation and guilt, we have freedom. This freedom is made possible because we are forgiven, our sins are no longer on us, we have the righteousness of Christ, and we are now at peace with God. But how forgiven are we really? When a person becomes a Christian, God forgives them of their sin because Jesus took their punishment on himself at the cross. Does that forgiveness only cover the sins committed prior to conversion so that a Christian must continually go back to God begging for forgiveness in order to stay in a right relationship with God?
How Forgiven Are We?
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)
I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more. (Isaiah 43:25)
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14) (emphasis mine)
How forgiven are we? Our sins are so far removed from us, as far as the east is from the west, and God remembers them no more. Does that mean God actually forgets? No, but he doesn’t hold our sins against us and when he looks at us he doesn’t see those sins anymore. He sees us like he sees Jesus… completely, totally, perfectly righteous! When God forgives sin, he forgives ALL our sin. That’s ALL of them – past, present, and future. The sins we committed before conversion were forgiven but so were all of the sins he hadn’t even committed yet! I know I’m going to sin in someway tomorrow, but that sin is already taken care of, forgiven, and God won’t hold it against me or pull away from me because of it. I don’t have to go back to God to confess and ask for forgiveness; instead, I can praise him for having already forgiven me!
But What About 1 John 1:9?
See, I told you I’d get back here eventually. This verse says we have to confess our sins to to receive forgiveness, right? So we need to get out our lists every day and start fessing up if we want to stay right with God, right? Wrong. Let’s look at the verse in context with the rest of the passage.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
John wrote this letter to deal with the problem of some false teachers called the Gnostics. One of the claims that these false teachers were making was that they were sinless. In the passage above, John is warning his readers that those who say that they aren’t sinners are lying to themselves. Instead, we should humble ourselves and confess our sinfulness and receive God’s forgiveness. In the Greek language, the words “forgive” and “cleanse” mean past actions that have results today and will continue to have results in the future. This is not a continual cycle of confession and forgiveness. When we come to God and confess our sinfulness, we are forgiven. Period. From ALL unrighteousness.
When we’re cleansed of our unrighteousness and clothed in the righteousness of Christ, our sins are taken care of completely. This obsession with confession keeps us focused on our selves and our sins instead of focusing on the one who has already taken those sins away. Sin doesn’t make God turn his back on us or separate us from him. He doesn’t hold our sins against us anymore.
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
So What Do We Do?
This might have shaken you up a little. If you believe what I’ve been saying here, you might be wondering what you’re supposed to do now. You know you’re going to sin and you feel like you need to do something to make up for it. After I taught this before someone told me that they still wanted to confess and ask for forgiveness because it made this feel better. I guess that’s okay, but realize that it’s really more of a psychological trick to make you feel better about what you did than anything that actually affects your relationship with God. So what do we do?
First off, realize that you don’t have to do anything to stay in favor with God. There is nothing you can possibly do that will make God love you any less or any more. You can sin in the most blatant obviously way possible and God’s not going to love you less. You can sell all of your possessions, move halfway across the world, and devote your life to spreading the gospel to sick children in a third world country and God’s not going to love you more. God doesn’t play favorites. So when you sin, realize you already have the favor of God, he still loves you as much as he ever will, he’s still committed to being in a relationship with you, and you don’t have to do anything to restore that relationship because it’s not actually broken.
Secondly, if you’re feeling guilty, check to see where that guilt is coming from. Are your feelings driving you to change for the better or are they beating you down, making you feeling hopeless and useless? Sorrow over sin that leads to repentance is a good thing, but guilt is not. God does not make you feel guilty. Instead he convicts you to spur you onward toward change. Godly sorrow makes you turn away from sin and work to be more holy; worldly guilt makes you give up.
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. (2 Corinthians 7:10-11)
Finally, when you sin, stop doing whatever it was that you were doing and go on with your life. Thank God that he loves you and that that he has forgiven you before you messed up. Remind yourself that you have freedom from sin and guilt and you cannot be accused by the one who wants to destroy you. Celebrate that God doesn’t require you to do or be anything other than who you are in order to gain his favor. Smile knowing that spiritually, you’re just as righteous as Jesus himself and that is the way that God looks at you. And live in his peace, his joy, and his freedom.
Are you excited knowing that when you say your prayers tonight, you can spend a lot more time on thanks than begging for forgiveness? Do you feel more freedom after reading this? Got your pitchforks out ready to string me up as a heretic? The comments section is your place to share.