When I came to faith in Christ, my concern was how I could be sure I was saved. Warren Wilke used Eph 2:8-9 to show me that all who believe in Jesus have been saved once and for all. I knew I was born again. I don’t recall that we discussed the issue of the forgiveness of sins.
In John’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus never promised the forgiveness of sins to those who believed in Him. In part 4, we will discuss this further. But at this point, I want to make the point that forgiveness is not identical with regeneration/salvation/justification.
Shortly after Warren led me to faith in Christ, he shared 1 John 1:9 with me. If I confess my sins, then God will forgive the sins I confess and cleanse me from all unrighteousness. Warren called this fellowship forgiveness.
I went on staff with Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) two years later. I taught others the things that Warren had taught me.
One issue that came up a lot with college students was the third question which was asked of me in part 1 (see here): Are believers out of fellowship with God between times of confession?
The answer is no. As long as we are walking in the light of God’s Word (1 John 1:7) and confessing our known sins (1 John 1:9), then we are forgiven of all our known sins and cleansed of all our sins, including the ones unknown to us.
There is a major difference between confession of sins and repentance of sins. If we are out of fellowship with God, then the remedy is repentance, turning from our sins and turning back to the Lord (Luke 15:11-32). But if we are in fellowship with God, then confession is the means by which we maintain ongoing fellowship with Him.
A believer could go weeks, months, or even years in fellowship with God. Why? Because fellowship with God is not some exalted status that only super Christians attain. It should be the normal Christian experience. As long as we are honest with God and sitting under clear Bible teaching (= walking in the light), we continue to live in fellowship with God. Fellowship forgiveness is an ongoing experience.
Pastor Adams in Dora Lake, Minnesota, told me a cautionary true story about another pastor whom we will call Bill who got obsessed with confessing his sins. Bill seemed to think that he was out of fellowship with God if there was some unknown sin in his life.
Let’s just say that a godly believer only sins once an hour. I think that is probably an underestimation, especially if we include sins of omission, thought, and word. What if Bill got up at 6 AM and committed a sin on his way to church at 6:45, but he was not aware he had sinned? Then Bill sinned at 7:30 at church, but again, he was not aware of it. Finally, at 9:00 Bill committed a third sin while talking on the phone and this time recognized it and confessed it. In his way of thinking, he had been out of fellowship with God since his first sin at 6:45. Here is the scorecard so far in his day: in fellowship with God for 45 minutes and out of fellowship with God for 2 hours and 15 minutes. That means he was out of fellowship 75% of the time! However, since Bill was not aware of the first two sins, he did not have a good grasp of how often he was in fellowship with God.
Pastor Bill bought a watch with a countdown timer to deal with this problem. He set the watch for 10 minutes. I assume he waited to start the timer until his day had begun in earnest, say at 7:30. When the alarm went off, he would pause and reflect. “Did I sin in the last 10 minutes?” If something came to him, he confessed it. If nothing came to him, then he confessed what he called the unknown sin.
Then he reset the 10-minute alarm.
This cycle continued all day long. After eight hours at work, he had reflected and confessed known or unknown sins sixty times. I wasn’t told, but I assume he stopped the countdowns at night.
This went on for about two weeks. Pastor Adams told me that Bill was so burned out after two weeks of this that he nearly had a nervous breakdown. He stopped this practice and went back to confessing his sins when he was convicted of them.
We are not out of fellowship with God when we commit an unknown sin. Surely the sins of which we are aware are but the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Probably over 90% of the sins we commit we are not aware of. The beauty of confession of sins is that 1 John 1:9 says that when we confess our sins, God not only forgives those sins, but he also cleanses us from all unrighteousness.
For an obsessive-compulsive recovering perfectionist like me, the thought that I need to introspect every ten minutes is frightening. The Holy Spirit is perfectly willing and able to convict us all of our sins. He uses our families to reveal our sins as well. We do not need an alarm to go off every few minutes to tell us to confess. The Scriptures don’t even hint at such an idea.
We are to walk by faith. I have faith that God is convicting me of sin, and I don’t need to try to figure out all that is wrong with me. I like the acronym PBPGINFWMY. It stands for Please Be Patient; God Is Not Finished With Me Yet. I think many of us need to be patient with ourselves and need to recall that God is not finished with us yet.
In part 4 we will discuss the question as to whether there are two types of forgiveness or just one. Clearly there is such a thing as fellowship forgiveness. But do the Scriptures teach that there is a blanket forgiveness, often called positional forgiveness?