[Editor's Note: The following excerpt is taken from Dr. Laney's book, Answers to Tough Questions.]
1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The Apostle John wrote his first epistle to combat false teaching (1 Jn. 4:1) with a clear presentation of the truth and to promote fellowship in the family of God (1 Jn. 1:3). In 1 John 1:6-2:2, the apostle presents three tests designed to answer those who claim to have fellowship with God but live in disobedience--the test of conduct (1:6-7), confession (1:8-9), and creed (1:10-2:2). Apparently there were those in the church who denied the existence of sin in their lives (1 Jn. 1:8). Instead of denying their sin, John points out that an acknowledgement of sin will lead to forgiveness and cleansing.
It has been argued that this text applies only to unbelievers who must confess their sins in order to become saved and to appropriate God's forgiveness. It is implied that confession is unnecessary for Christians because they have already been justified--declared righteous--in Christ (Rom. 5:1).
I would certainly agree that Christians are declared righteous in Christ and that a personal act of sin cannot change our righteous standing or position. However, a personal act of sin can change how we relate to God in terms of fellowship. Here it is helpful to distinguish between positional and relational truth. A believer's position in Christ is based on justification. That position can never change (Rom. 8:31-39). But sin does effect how we relate to God in terms of fellowship and intimacy. It is hard, if not impossible, to experience personal intimacy with my Lord when I am unwilling to acknowledge and repent from known sin.
1 John 1:9 deals with how Christians relate to God after they have been declared righteous by faith. When they confess their sins, God is faithful to His promises and righteous in His dealings, providing forgiveness and cleansing for the repentant. Confession is not so much a requirement for believers as it is an opportunity for restoration of fellowship after offending our holy God. Christians are a confessing people! And as we confess, God forgives and cleanses.
Dr. J. Carl Laney is Professor of Biblical Literature at Western Seminary in Portland, OR. For more biblical resources by Dr. Laney, please visit www.carllaney.com.