Our Need For Forgiveness – it might be different than you think

Aimee Byrd asked a good question in a comment on one of my posts last week. I’d written about one church’s odd practice of requiring people to seek forgiveness for their own sins and for “ancestral sins”, i.e., sins committed by their ancestors, and Aimee asked:

But I do have a question, are you saying that you don’t think we need to ask for forgiveness when we sin in general? Or are you talking about asking forgiveness for “ancestral sin”?*

Now Aimee is one of the best lay theology thinkers going today and I wanted to respond to her carefully, but a blog comment thread hardly lends itself to a full presentation of ideas. Still, I tried to give some idea of what I think the Bible tells us:

I definitely think we don’t need to ask for ancestral sins to be forgiven. And for our own, I think there is Scriptural support for the understanding that all our sins – past, present and future – are already forgiven. It’s not that we don’t need to confess, since confession is our agreement with God, but I don’t know that we need to seek forgiveness if it’s already been given us once for all.

That answer leaves much unsaid, though, and is subject to so much interpretation as to seem almost meaningless without being fleshed out a bit. So here goes.

Confession and Forgiveness – closely related

When people think of confession the next thing that usually comes to mind for most is forgiveness. The connection of confession and forgiveness goes back to life under the Old Covenant (see, e.g., Leviticus 5:5), but there’s a well-known New Testament verse that couples the two together and which probably leads many Christians to think that the two concepts  – confession and forgiveness – are inseparable.

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.)

This is the go-to passage for people who sin and wonder if God has any forgiveness left for them. Yes! well-meaning pastors, counselors, youth leaders and friends will tell the person. But notice what the verse does not say: it does not say that confession is a necessary and indispensable prerequisite for forgiveness.

The verse also doesn’t say that confession and sin are necessarily inseparable. After all, a person can confess a sin to someone and yet not receive forgiveness from them, and you can forgive a person without the person confessing anything to you at all. Both of these have been true in my life anyway.

Confession and Forgiveness – big difference

Confession and forgiveness are not at all linked when it comes to our most important relationship, our relationship with God. But, you might be thinking, doesn’t that verse from 1 John show that God’s forgiveness depends on our confession?

No it doesn’t.

God forgave us when we were still spiritually dead, when we had not yet been given the gift of faith and could not understand our need for forgiveness in the first place.

First, it’s clear that God saved us from spiritual death by means of his gift, not because of any merit or work of our own, not even the work of confession.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:4-9.)

So we need to keep in mind that not a single thing we’ve done, not even confession of sins, had any effect on God’s decision to raise us up with Jesus and seat us in the heavenly realms. God’s grace and kindness and the work of Jesus himself are responsible for our favored place in God’s family and kingdom. You’re special but you’re special because of Jesus, not because of you.

Second, we need to keep in mind that forgiveness was part of that initial act by God, the one who saved us when we were still spiritually dead.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, 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.)

When Paul wrote those words to the Christians in Colossae (c. 62 C.E.) , he was speaking to people who – for at least some of them – had probably committed sins before Jesus was crucified. But some of them were not even born by the time Jesus died so their sins had not yet been committed. Yet Paul tells them the indebtedness for their sins was nailed to the cross.

We are in the same position as those early believers. Everyone alive today committed sins after Jesus died on the cross. Yet we too are forgiven, our indebtedness nailed to the cross. And we too receive God’s gracious salvation as a gift given us even while we were spiritually dead.

So the question then becomes whether we retain our salvation if we do not confess sin.

Confession and Salvation

If salvation depends on confessing every sin, then I am doomed because I don’t remember every sin I’ve committed. But if instead the sacrifice on the cross defeated sin once for all, then my salvation is not dependent on my confession but on Christ’s death and resurrection. Jesus is our High Priest who offered himself as the atoning sacrifice for us.

Such a high priest truly meets our need — one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests [that is, under the Old Covenant], he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. (Hebrews 7:26-27.)

Jesus himself assured us that once we belong to him there is nothing that will tear us away from him (John 10:28), and no amount of effort on Satan’s part nor anything we or anyone else do can come between us and the love of God. (Romans 8:35-39.)

This is not a license to sin without regard for the need for forgiveness. For one thing, we all need forgiveness for sin. For those who belong to Jesus that forgiveness is given us when God calls us to himself.

For another thing, sin is still bad for believers and non-believers alike. It hurts people (us and others) and it interferes with the work of building God’s kingdom. As Paul declared:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.(Romans 6:1-2, 12-13.)

Our bodies as instruments of righteousness? Yes, because the Spirit of Christ himself lives in us (Romans 8:9) we can offer our bodies as righteous instruments of God’s work in building his kingdom.

Confession Yes, Forgiveness Done

I think when a lot of Christians say they are seeking God’s forgiveness what they really mean in practicality is that they are confessing and repenting of sins they have committed. After all, we know that forgiveness is achieved once for all our sins by the one death on the cross.

Our work in the kingdom, on the other hand, is ongoing. Also, sin interferes with our ability to offer ourselves as effective instruments of righteousness, so we still shouldn’t sin. Yet we do, as Paul described vividly in Romans 7.

Which leads me to two questions:

  • In order to retain our salvation, do we need to ask forgiveness for each sin we commit? Apparently not, according to the passages above.
  • Should we confess our sins to God in our ongoing relationship with him, in our desire to follow him and rely on him? Absolutely.

This confession of sin is part of our ongoing confession of Christ himself, acknowledging our need for him and all he has done for us. Confessing Christ in word and in deed, both to God and to those around us, is part of God’s kingdom work done in us and through us. This is all part of God’s gracious gift in the work of Jesus:

This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. (2 Corinthians 9:12-13.)

So the bottom line is that the Bible teaches us both to confess our sins and to live the forgiven lives he has graciously and freely given us in Christ.


*Aimee’s question touches on a problematic doctrine called hyper-grace where even the usefulness of confession is denied. Of course, it’s not really a new problem, since Paul spoke to a similar issue in the Romans 6 passage I quote above.

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29 Responses to Our Need For Forgiveness – it might be different than you think

  1. Hey Tim

    Great post, yep still around. This is a common error n one that has a few more points with it. Not sure what Aimee issue is but this does not just come from the issue of hyper-grace but also legalism n a works based salvation. As there is the teaching that when we are saved, at the moment of salavation we are forgiven of what we did in the past but moving foward we must live sinless lives (Which I am still not sure what that sinless lives means in reference to Romans 7 n 1John 1:8).

    Both issues stem from a misunderstanding of God’s law. However there is also the issue that deals with confession n repentance n that is the inability for us to confess all of our sins. As the Psalmist said “my sins are immeasurable, if you were to count them who could stand.” It is not just the ones we remember or the Holy Spirit brings to mind but as Spurgeon touched on it is not just about repenting for single sins but being in a state of repentance or confession for our constant failure to live for the one who gave all. Again when we view God’s law as anything other than anything than Christ described in Matthew 5:48, all sorts of errors abound.

    Yet, the beauty as you so rightly pointed out is we neither confess or repent as to earn, get, acquire or wait for but to simply recieve that which has already been purchased.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Pat. The idea that unconfessed sin means unforgiven sin is a great error, indeed. Our confession and repentance are because of what God has done for us, not in order for us to gain any favor or forgiveness from him. After all, it’s his kindness that leads us to repentance, not the other way around.

  2. janehinrichs says:

    I believe that the need for confession is so nothing gets between me and God. Let me explain. If I wrong my husband, let’s say I am really grumpy in the morning and yell at him and then he leaves for work, that behavior will be standing between me and him. Of course we are still married, but until I make what I did right it will hinder the flow and love between me and my husband. Now, maybe it is just one-sided.Maybe my husband didn’t take any of it personally but I will be feeling horrible about it and will need to confess to him/ask him for forgiveness before I can just be me with him. I believe it is the same way with God and me. And again, I think it is kind of one-sided — when I sin and I know it, until I bring that matter up with God and get it cleared away in my conscience and such, I am like Adam and Eve hiding behind fig leaves and trees when God comes walking in the garden. If our forgiveness depended on our confession we would all be doomed just as you say Tim. Even if we somehow could keep up on the sin vs.the confession ratio, what if we would die suddenly when we didn’t expect it and Darn, we didn’t get a chance to confess that day! What an awful way to look at our salvation — so unpredictable and fleeting.

    • Tim says:

      Good points, Jane. We always have the Holy Spirit in us, just as in your example you and your husband still have each other. Yet our sins do interfere with us relating properly to God in that relationship. Confession is good and it is a great mercy that God allows us to come to him in confession.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for this post, Tim. Your emphasis on confession as a way to acknowledge our need for God in all areas — not as a requirement for God’s forgiveness — is helpful to me.

    I think it’s also helpful, logically and theologically, when you point out that an “If you do X, then God will do Y” statement (like I John 1:9) does not necessarily mean X is a “necessary and indispensable prerequisite” for Y. I was thinking about something similar only yesterday when our pastor quoted Romans 10:9 (“If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”). Jonathan was sitting beside me in church and I thought, “Well, he can’t do that, and probably never will be able to do it — but I am certain he is saved. Thank you God that it’s not up to us.”

    Great discussion for a Monday morning!

    • Tim says:

      Your take on Romans 10:9 is right in line with this post, Jeannie. Our relationship with God relies entirely on the finished work of Jesus, not on whether we have the right capabilities. Good thing too because none of us have the right capabilities, not even close.

  4. EricaM says:

    One reason my family left the first church we attended when I was young was because the pastor was insisting that you *had* to confess every single sin, quite literally. They expressed their discomfort with this belief, he reiterated it, and so we left.

    In the Orthodox confession prayers, we ask God for mercy for any forgotten sins as well. While we are asked to confess what sins we can remember, it’s not necessary to keep a running list, and I would say it isn’t wise. While it is good to remember that God has been infinitely merciful to us, focusing so intently on our sins can definitely lead to discouragement.

  5. People see sins in us that we don’t see or won’t see. Thank God for His grace. We see sins in others that they don’s see and won’t see. Thank God for His grace.

    Meditation and application of Scripture helps us deal with our hidden sins, brings them to light and springs us forward in our sanctification. Or, one could avoid Scripture and pump up ones own self-esteem and pride and forget about being sinful. Thank God for His grace and reminders that we are sinful and Christ is a great Savior.

    • Tim says:

      I am glad for every reminder of who God is and my eternal need for his grace (although the reminding might hurt a bit once in a while)!

  6. Victorious says:

    I hear this need to confess every sin in order to obtain forgiveness quite often. I have a strong suspicion that confessing is for our benefit in erasing that failure from our conscience lest we constantly labor under guilt feelings. We are, in a sense, recognizing and admitting our need and gratitude for what Jesus did for us.

  7. Pingback: Mark Driscoll’s Demons – the false doctrine of the Mars Hill demon trials | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  8. Aimee Byrd says:

    Good discussion. And I will say that I shied away from responding before, but now you went and wrote an article about it 😉
    While I definitely agree that Christ has paid for all of our sins so that they are all forgiven, and that it isn’t the case that we need to be anxiously confessing sin in fear that we may miss one and not have forgiveness, I still think asking for forgiveness on a regular basis is an important part of the Christian life. And I think is is our privilege, because when we sin, we offend God and grieve his Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30). When the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin, he brings us to repentance, and we come to our father confessing, repenting, asking for forgiveness in prayer and we receive restoration. That 1 John 1:9 verse is a promise of forgiveness in Christ. Christ himself taught us to pray for forgiveness.
    I agree that a comment is too short for explanation, and I thought about writing a response article to this great topic, but then I found this one by Tim Challies that is pretty good: http://www.challies.com/articles/should-we-pray-for-forgiveness

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Aimee. All of the blessings you identify are found in confession and repentance, rather than in seeking a forgiveness that is already ours according to Hebrews 7. If Hebrews 7:27 doesn’t mean that our sins are all forgiven in one sacrifice without the need to continually ask forgiveness then I don’t know what it means. Repentance and confession, yes, but not asking forgiveness.

      I appreciate the Challies link too. In it he says, without any scriptural support, “This ongoing sin forms the very basis for why we must continually ask forgiveness.” He’s wrong, unfortunately (and there are more problems with his logic applied to Scripture in that post than just that one sentence). Our ongoing sin is certainly the reason Jesus died once for all; it’s not the basis for our continuing need to ask for that forgiveness, but it does form the basis of our ongoing need to confess and repent in our continued growth in God.

      The commentary that Challies relies on actually supports my position and not his: “‘… what is here requested is a manifestation and application of pardon to the conscience of a sensible sinner; which, as it is daily needed, is daily to be asked for’ (John Gill – Commentary on Matthew).” Gill is saying that what we daily need is the application of pardon to the conscience, that is, we need to be reminded daily of the pardon we have received from Christ. This mindfulness comes from confession and repentance. To say that we also should ask forgiveness for sin already forgiven, though, is like asking for food we’ve already eaten.

      • Aimee Byrd says:

        I agree with much of what you are saying, Tim. Forgiveness is already ours, and Christ has covered our sins once and for all for the believer. I don’t need to be anxious about missing a sin to confess that he will not forgive until I ask. But on the other hand, Jesus does teach us to pray for forgiveness, and I think that is because it is our privilege to come to the Father who no longer condemns us, and restore our relationship with him. I see repentance and asking for forgiveness as intimately connected. It is a blessing in our sanctification because it keeps us from presumptuousness and it reminds us that we have a forgiving Father and a Savior who has already secured this for us.

  9. Ruth says:

    This brings up a horrible comment I remember reading, by an author in a ‘Christian’ n
    paper. A sad lady asked if it was true micarried babies or young children went to Heaven, as they had no a chance to ‘make a decision’ or be forgiven. The answer was so cruel. ‘Well, they are born in sin, so no they can’t enter except through Christ. You can’t presume they will be there, the Bible doesn’t say so, that is arrogant.’
    Whew, I was young, and thought them cruel idiots then!
    When I lost my son’s twin at 3 months in utero, my first thought was of God’s grace and mercy, and ‘suffer the little children to come unto me’, became a truth anew.
    Forgiveness of what, did the author elucidate? No, but thank God for sensible, loving Christians in my life who reminded me I would see my bubs in Heaven.
    This matters so much, because I miscarried in the ladies of the school where I was teaching, afterwards, I went back and taught the rest of the day, in shock. This is a lovely Christian school where I still teach, and I just know I feel close to bubs there, however, I can’t go in without remembering the pain and confusion, and shock.
    Wonder if I will know if bubs was a boy or girl, I think Jesus might let me in on that mystery when I see Him face to face….tears now of course, but gratitude for the huge, happy kind man my twin son has become, he knows, and senses an incompleteness as does his father who was a twin, of which one didn’t survive too. Sigh….thanks for your blog, it brings unexpected blessings…:)

    • Tim says:

      Ruth, that is tragic and I am so sorry. We too have experienced miscarriage, and it is in no way to be treated lightly or callously. My comfort is found in 2 Samuel 12:23 where David speaks of one day going to be with his child who died in infancy. It strongly suggests to me that he is talking about heaven and not just the grave.

      • Ruth says:

        Thankyou so much Tim, I’m reading that Bible passage soon, just to remind myself that there is Bible comfort to be found, and I have always believed in Heaven and babies being there. Tim, I don’t really understand what Samuel is getting at, but I’ll trust to your answers. I’m sure he is being kind, just don’t get it ( maybe I don’t want to!)
        Istart teaching again at that school, and I told the current Head about it, and he offered me a another ladies to use, and, asked if I would be okay coming back….very kind man, and so are you. 🙂

        • Tim says:

          That head sounds very kind indeed, Ruth. I pray God blesses you warmly and richly with much comfort.

    • Ruth – You will see your child again. You may even have the chance in the future to raise that child who never saw light in this life again in the age to come.

      It is a fact that there will be human beings who will be alive after Jesus returns. While you and I may be changed into spirit beings at the first resurrection, it is quite a large subject, but as Tim mentions partially, the idea that David will got to his son, does not necessarily mean that his son will be raised to immortal life.

      There is also the issue of all who died before the age of accountability. Or also what about those children who are small like babes in arms when Jesus returns? There is no Scripture which says they will be changed into being immortal beings. They will stay human and will grow up during the reign of Christ and some will die during that time even though they may live very long ages. What will happen to them? As I said, it needs further elaboration which I am working on and hope to publish one day in a full length book.

      Blessings from the Holy Land

      Samuel Martin

      • Tim says:

        Thanks for these additional thoughts, Samuel. They remind me that much of how we see the age to come also depends on whether we are more likely to view Scripture in a pre- post- or amillennial manner. In any case, I know that Christ reigns and that is a blessed thought!

        • One thing is clear. Ruth will not experience heaven until she meets her child again and until she knows him or her. God will make sure that happens.

    • Aimee Byrd says:

      Ruth, that is an awful comment. What a shame. And I am sorry for your loss.

  10. Tim – One point you are not addressing in this piece is the angle of forgiveness not between God and mankind, but between mankind and mankind. The sins that Jesus died for cover the debt that mankind has between him/herself and God, but there is no text in the Bible which shows that the sins that you and I commit one against another have been dealt with bilaterally. That is yet to take place for the most part unless you go and make the reconciliation with that person in this life, which is exactly what the teaching of the Day of Atonement is all about.

    No thinking person will agree that God is going to sort magically just sweep sin away and erase the pain in my soul. He gives us the example, but the reconciliation is still going on. I will be ready to forgive anyone, but if they are not going to forgive me, I will bring two others with me and ask again. If they don’t listen, then I will bring the assembly. If they still don’t listen, God has the right to have all of their sins publicly dealt with first in secret if they wish, but if they don’t wish, then in public.

    The reconciliation between God and man is all done. It is as you said finished. The reconciliation between man and man is far from finished.

    • Tim says:

      There are a ton of points I didn’t address in this short post, Samuel!

      On the ministry of reconciliation: it is ongoing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and is yet another blessing flowing from the throne of the Lamb who was slain for us.

  11. Give us today our daily bread.[a]
    12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.

    Notice that last verse. There are lots of people who I have still not forgiven because they have never asked and showed that they were sorry for what they did. I will forgive them when they ask and express sorrow and that, like I will have to do myself, they finally repent.

  12. Pingback: Jesus Is Not the Definition of Self-Righteous

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