I received an actual letter—handwritten—from Robert asking about confession and forgiveness:
Some preachers teach that we as Christians must confess our sins in order to be forgiven of sins after we are born again, according to 1 John 1:9. As I understand it, all our sins were forgiven at the cross. We appropriated our salvation when we believed in Jesus for eternal life. God gave the Apostle Paul the dispensation of the gospel of grace…Where in Paul’s epistles does it teach us to ask for more forgiveness after salvation? When we do fail and sin, we thank God for His forgiveness through what He did for us at Calvary (1 Cor 15:1-4; Eph 2:8-9)… Am I correctly understanding this?
There are two very important questions here. First, must Christians confess our sins in order to be forgiven? Second, if that is true, where do we find that teaching in Paul’s epistles?
The traditional explanation is that there are two types of forgiveness. Positional forgiveness is what Robert is talking about. When we believe, we are forgiven of all our sins, even all future ones. Positional forgiveness is linked with our eternal security. Fellowship forgiveness is different. The issue in this forgiveness is not our eternal destiny, but our ongoing fellowship with God. In order to remain in fellowship with God, a believer must confess His sins.
I’ve been challenged by a pastor friend to rethink the idea of positional forgiveness. He suggests that all forgiveness is fellowship related. It is true, of course, that once we believe in Jesus we have everlasting life, we will never die spiritually, we will never come into judgment regarding everlasting life, and we have already passed from death into life. However, where in the Bible is that called forgiveness?
When the Lord Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He said that they should say, “And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4).
When the Lord washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:5-11), He illustrated the truth of Luke 11:4 and 1 John 1:9. The eleven believing disciples were clean, but Jesus said to Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:8). The word part (meros) refers to fellowship with the Lord.
First John 1:9 indicates that if we confess the sins of which we are aware, then God forgives us of those sins and He cleanses us from all unrighteousness, that is, all the sins of which we are not aware. By the way, 1 John 1:7 is often overlooked. It says that the blood of Jesus only cleanses us from our ongoing sins if we are walking in the light, a reference to sitting under sound Bible teaching and having a godly mindset.
An event from the ministry of Paul is instructive here as well: “And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds” (Acts 19:18). While that confession was before men, it was certainly primarily to God. And why were they confessing their deeds unless Paul had told them to do so?
I have not had time to study all of the NT passages that refer to forgiveness. I plan to write a journal article (hopefully for Spring 2022) on the question of whether there is such a thing as positional forgiveness. But there is no question that born-again people need fellowship forgiveness.i
Question 1: Yes, Christians need to confess our known sins in order to have ongoing fellowship with God. The proof is seen in the passages I cited above.
No, we do not need to confess our sins to retain everlasting life. Once we are saved, we always will be saved.
Question 2: Yes, the idea of confession of sins and fellowship forgiveness is found in Paul’s epistles in my opinion. However, I must admit that Paul does not use the expression confess sins (though see Acts 19:18 mentioned above) and he only twice in his epistles uses the expression the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7; Col 1:14; see also Col 2:13, “having forgiven you all trespasses”). He also uses that expression twice in his recorded Acts sermons (Acts 13:38; 26:18). When he does refer to the forgiveness of sins (or forgiveness), it is not certain whether he is referring to the fellowship forgiveness of our past sins that we have experienced, or to positional forgiveness. For example, Eph 4:32 is quite close to being a paraphrase of Luke 11:4. Paul wrote, “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” Colossians 3:13 is a parallel text.
I realize many understand Paul to be speaking of positional forgiveness in Eph 4:32 and Col 3:13 (as well as in Eph 1:7; Col 1:14; 2:13). But it is much more likely he is speaking of the fellowship forgiveness we have received. We forgive others as God has forgiven us. We do not forgive others in advance for their future sins. We forgive them after they sin against us. Ephesians 4:32 probably is saying that God forgives us when we confess our sins.
I think the idea of confession of sins is implied throughout Romans 5-8 as well. See, for example, Rom 6:12-14, 19; 7:24; 8:5-7.
I plan to do more work on this question as well.
Let me close by saying that even those who do not believe that we need to confess our sins to gain fellowship forgiveness still nonetheless teach that we must not deny our sins. As Robert suggests, all of us at a minimum when we recognize sin thank God for the forgiveness of sins that we have in Christ and in His blood. Whether you see that as positional or fellowship forgiveness or both, every time you are aware of sin in your life, you are drawn to acknowledge it (not deny it) and to rely on Christ’s blood for your forgiveness.
i Well, some do teach that there is no such thing as fellowship forgiveness. Some understand 1 John 1:9 to be an evangelistic verse, which is quite odd since the apostle includes himself when he says, “If we confess our sins…” Some suggest that all forgiveness is positional and final at the moment of the new birth. I plan to address this issue in the journal as well.