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.