Why Do We Confess If Our Sins Are Already Forgiven?
Interview with John Piper, Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org
Why do we keep confessing our sins if all our sins have been canceled in Christ? It’s a great question from a listener to the podcast named Andy, who represents a lot of listeners out there asking this very same question. Here’s how Andy put it: “Hello, Pastor John! Can you help me understand the work of Jesus, whereby all of our sins — past, present, and future — were forgiven in Christ, and yet, we are called to continually confess? I’m thinking specifically of the ‘It is finished’ statement in John 19:30, and the amazing reality that Christ ‘forgave all our trespasses’ and ‘canceled our record of debt that stood against us’ in Colossians 2:13–14. But then we’re called to constant confession too in 1 John 1:9. How do you make sense of these truths?”
I love that question because it gives me an occasion to exult with you, and with all of our listeners, in the immeasurable greatness and beauty and preciousness and wonder of what Jesus did, in fact, on the cross, achieve once for all when he died and rose again for his sheep. And I say “for his sheep” because Jesus says in John 10:15, “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
In other words, in the death of Jesus, God has a very special, peculiar design or intention or purpose to purchase and create a flock for himself, including the purchase of our faith, our union with Christ, our forgiveness of every sin (past, present, future), our eternal right standing with God as adopted children and as new creatures in Christ — all that purchased once for all by Jesus. That’s what God intended and achieved when Christ died and stood in the place of his sinful flock, his sheep.
Paid in Full
Now, Andy sees this glory; he sees it and he’s exulting in it with me, I believe. He sees in John 19:30: “It is finished.” And he sees in Colossians 2:13–14: “God made [us] alive together with [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Those just have to be some of the most amazing verses in all the Bible for describing what became of our debt that we could never pay: canceled, nailed to the cross. And you can add to what Andy has seen and pointed out:
Hebrews 7:27: “[Christ] has no need, like those [Old Testament] high priests, to offer sacrifices daily . . . since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.”
Hebrews 9:26: “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
Hebrews 10:14: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
Hebrews is really good at this. There it is: “once for all” — not repeated. Not repeated in history, not repeated in the Roman Catholic mass Sunday after Sunday, not repeated in any kind of Protestant religious performances that we may attempt through baptism or whatever. Once for all: done, finished, complete, debt paid in full, can’t be added to, can’t be improved upon. That’s the foundational glory of the achievement of Christ when he died for us on the cross.
So, Andy’s question is this: “Well, if the death of Christ achieved the forgiveness of all the sins of all God’s people for all time, what does 1 John 1:9 imply when it says, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’?” Or verse 7: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light . . . the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” So, Colossians 2:13 and the passages that we saw in Hebrews sound like our forgiveness was achieved, completed in the death of Christ. But 1 John 1:9 and 1:7 sound like our forgiveness and our cleansing depend on our confessing those sins and walking in the light.
That’s the issue that Andy is raising. Now, here’s how I would resolve the tension biblically. There are two steps in the resolution.
Whosoever Will Must Come
We should distinguish between the purchase and the permanent securing of our forgiveness once for all at the death of Jesus, on the one hand, from the personal possession and enjoyment of that benefit, which comes to us through faith, on the other hand. At the death of Jesus, our sins are canceled, nailed to the cross, debt fully paid. So, payment and securing are accomplished once for all — never to be repeated, permanently, infallibly for all God’s people when Christ died.
But the personal reception, the possession, the enjoyment of that achievement, that purchase, that securing of forgiveness comes to God’s people only through faith in Christ — union with Christ by faith. I say that because of texts like Acts 10:43: “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.” I mean, that’s clear. Everyone who believes receives forgiveness of sins. And Romans 3:28: “We hold that one is justified by faith.” So, we are justified, including forgiveness of sins and right standing with God, by faith.
And the reason there’s no conflict, no tension, between the absolute certainty of the forgiveness achieved in the moment of Christ’s death, and the fact that this forgiveness is dependent upon, contingent upon, God’s people coming to faith in Christ — the reason there’s no conflict, no danger of anyone missing out who was died for in that way is that God sees to it in his sovereignty that all those for whom he fully paid do in fact come to faith. There are no dropouts. Those whom he foreknew, he predestined; those whom he predestined, he called; those whom he called, he justified; those whom he justified, he glorified (Romans 8:29–30). He sees to it. That’s the first step in resolving the tension between Colossians 2:13 and 1 John 1:9.
Confess and Kill
Here’s the other one. The Bible teaches that there are traits that God’s people have that show they are in fact God’s people and do truly belong to Christ — truly born again, truly united with Jesus. These traits are how we can know that our sins were fully paid for and that our forgiveness is fully secured by the death of Jesus.
And one of those traits is how we deal with ongoing sinning in our lives. This is the complicating issue: Christians sin. That’s what John is dealing with in 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” So, the question becomes this: “Well, if you are a true child of God, and if your sins are truly and fully paid for — covered, canceled — what will you feel? What will your thoughts and actions be toward your ongoing sinning? What trait will mark you?” Here are two biblical answers.
Colossians 3:3: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” That’s a description of wonderful, completed salvation. We’re already home. Then comes Colossians 3:5: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire.” So, one trait of those whose sins are fully paid for is that we make war on our sinning. That’s the mark of those whose sins are fully canceled: We make war on our sinning. We put them to death. But you can’t do that if you don’t admit — that is, confess — that you have any.
The second trait is confession (1 John 1:9). You have to confess your sins in order to make war on them. If you don’t think you have any, if you’re not confessing, “Yes, I have sinned and I’m sorry,” you won’t make war. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.”
So, confessing our sin is the agreement with God that we have sin and it must be fought and killed. If we don’t confess this truth, we’re living, John says, in an illusion. We’re lying, we’re deceived, we’re calling God a deceiver, and we’re not saved. If we believe we have no sin and that it doesn’t need to be killed, we’re living in an illusion, not in salvation. So, confession of sin is not the basis of our forgiveness; it is one of the traits that shows we are truly in Christ, where all our sins are covered by his blood.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Coronavirus and Christ.