If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
This verse is often (wrongly) used when witnessing to unbelievers to show them that God will indeed forgive their sins, but that was not John’s intention; he was addressing Christians. We understand this because in verse three he says, “That which we [referring to the Apostles that walked with Jesus] have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” An unbeliever cannot have fellowship with believers much less with the Father and the Son. The implication of our beginning verse is that “Christians” do sin. This is further emphasized in the next verse that says, “If we [John includes himself] say that we have not sinned, we make him [God] a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). You may have heard the saying that “Christians are not perfect just forgiven.” We do sin. It is hard not to sin because, while our souls/spirits have been “reborn,” they still inhabit our sinful flesh. We can improve that condition by learning to yield to the leading of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us, but that is an ongoing process (known as “sanctification”) while we remain in our physical bodies.
If we are truly “born again,” the Holy Spirit (the presence of God within us) works with our spirit to keep us from sin. He also helps us identify the areas of our lives where we do sin. When that happens, John teaches us that we should “confess” our sin (to God), and He will forgive us of that sin. The Greek word translated “confess” is homologeō. It is a compound word: homo meaning “same” and logeō meaning “to say.” Together it means “to say the same” (thing), or “to agree.” In other words when we “confess” our sins, we “agree” with God that we have sinned, and God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is important because while we may be “saved” our continual sin strains the relationship that we have with God. When we fail to confess our sins, we tend to keep on sinning, and at some point we will sense a separation from God. We might even feel abandoned by God. In order to maintain our fellowship (or closeness) with God, we need to keep our sin in check and the way we do that is by agreeing with God that we have sinned when we do sin.
Jesus death on the cross did pay for all of our sins – past, present and future – but in order for His sacrifice to be “effective” for us individually, we must first “believe.” “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:14-16, emphasis mine). That word “believe” is not simply a matter of saying, “Okay, I know that’s true.” It means that we are willing to put our lives into His hands. It means we are willing to “repent” – i.e., turn away from – our sins, but in order to do that, we must first be in agreement with Him (confess) that we are sinners. If we have truly done that, there should be evidence of a changed life in us. We cannot just repeat a prayer and continue to live a sinful life thinking that it’s okay because Jesus already paid for all of our sins. That would be presumptuous! “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17, emphasis mine). In his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:1-2, emphasis mine). That transformation may be dramatic, or it may come about gradually; but there must be a change. That transformation is aided as we submit to the Holy Spirit’s leading in our life, and as we continue to agree with Him (confess) concerning the sin in our lives. Gradually, those sins that used to plague us will become a thing of the past. But John reminds us that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That “cleansing” is what maintains our fellowship with Him.
One added note of assurance: We can do nothing to earn our salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9); it is God’s free gift to us who believe. And just as we can do nothing to earn it, we can do nothing to lose it. “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). While we can feel secure in our salvation, unconfessed sin will keep us from enjoying complete fellowship with God. He wants to forgive our sin because He enjoys fellowship with us just as much as we enjoy fellowship with Him.