Forgiveness is one of our deepest needs. It was for the forgiveness of sins that Jesus died on the cross. Christ commissioned his disciples to proclaim this good news to the world. In perhaps every book of the New Testament, we find an articulation of this promise — we can be forgiven.
The forgiveness of sins lies at the heart of the gospel. One of the strongest assurances of this promise is found in John’s first epistle. John writes, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins” (1 John 1:8-9). The truth of this is written plainly and simply.
Why then, do so many of us have a hard time accepting this promise?
While it may be easy to proclaim forgiveness for others, when it comes to our forgiveness, many have a hard time accepting this reality. The weight of sin lies heavy upon their shoulders. To be sure, they want to be forgiven, they just don’t think they can be.
Have you ever felt like this? Have you ever questioned God’s forgiveness of your sins? Have you ever struggled with feeling that your sins are just too big, or that you have erred one too many times?
If ever we feel this way, it is important to listen to John. In this small verse, tucked within a small letter in the back of the Bible, John outlines three reasons why you can be assured of your forgiveness.
What Does 'If We Confess Our Sins' Mean in 1 John 1:9
Sin amounts to unfaithfulness. Whenever we transgress the ways of God, we turn our faithfulness elsewhere. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, for example, their faithfulness to God was replaced by faithfulness to their own desires. This is the plight of all humanity.
This essential truth of humanity, however, is not the truth of God. John testifies that God is faithful. God is faithful to the people God created and redeemed. Again, consider Adam and Eve.
The two broke the only rule in the garden of Eden, and yet God remained steadfast to his love for them. God came walking in the garden in the cool of the day, calling out to the wayward couple. What is more, God acted graciously by providing garments of skin for their care and protection.
We see this reality played out in the lives of Moses, David, Mary Magdalen, Peter, and Paul. In fact, Paul was so taken by this truth that he exclaimed, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).
God is faithful to God’s promises. For God to renege on the promise of forgiveness would be to fundamentally deny God’s own identity and personality. This simply cannot happen.
The statement that God is faithful to forgive our sins is not merely a religious sound bite. This is a declaration of who God is at the core of God’s own identity. It is a reality of God we can trust. We can trust this because, ultimately, God’s faithfulness is not based on who we are, but on who God is.
Why 'If We Confess Our Sins' Shows God's Justice
We often speak of justice in terms of God’s desire to vanquish the forces of darkness. We associate justice with divine wrath. We see justice as the manner by which God will rid the world of sin. God removes all the unrighteous, separates the sheep from goats, and burns the chaff.
While this may be part of God’s justice, it is not the fullness of it. Believing so makes it appear as if justice is contrary to forgiveness. Can the Lord be just and forgiving at the same time?
When John writes that God is just, he is declaring that God is consistent with God’s own righteous character. God’s justice means that God does not go back on God’s own word.
Justice is not simply a matter of God’s end-time defeat of sin and death, it is also a matter of the graceful bestowal of life and salvation.
Consider, for a second, what it would mean for God not to forgive. Far from declaring a hearty justice, unforgiveness would completely work against Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. God would be unjust because God would be acting against the activity of God’s own incarnation.
Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection would be rendered null and void. Forgiveness comes by way of Christ’s cross because, on the cross, Jesus took our sins upon himself. This divine sacrifice frees us to live eternally in the unbounded love of God.
A refusal by God to forgive would undermine the very activity and purpose of Jesus. If we confess our sins, and yet they still remain, then Jesus’ death holds no value. God the Father would be completely contrary to God the Son.
Thus, the only way God can be “just to forgive our sins” is for God to uphold Christ’s sacrifice. The justice of God means that God acts in accordance with God’s salvation plan, revealed in Jesus. This ensures our forgiveness.
'If We Confess Our Sins' Is an Invitation
Given the faithfulness and justice of God, the question we often wrestling with is, “Why do we need to confess our sins in the first place?” Isn’t it enough to claim our forgiveness? The answer is quite simple, we still sin.
While the eternal power of sin and death has been ultimately destroyed in the death of Christ, we still live in a world where we struggle with the effects of sin. The world is imperfect and flawed, and what is more, we bear this reality within ourselves.
As we all know, there are times when we step out of the flow of God’s plan. Like Adam and Eve, we follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
Confession of sin is an invitation to experience the love and mercy of God. Too easily is this misunderstood. Confession, it is believed, is the erring of our dirty laundry, the declaration of all the reasons why God should withhold God’s love and affection.
This is not the case. Confession is the deliberate decision to place our sins at the foot of the cross. In confession, we pledge our lives to the God of love and mercy. Yes, this can be uncomfortable.
Confession acknowledges the messy parts of our lives. This is done, however, in service of opening us to the love and mercy of God. In letting go of our sins, we are freed to grasp more tightly the loving presence of Jesus.
Consider what occurs when we withhold our confessions. When we keep our sin within us, refusing to voice it to the God who knows it all anyway, the sins of our life play spiritual havoc within us.
David describes his own harboring of sins as feeling as if his “strength was dried up as in the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:4). Keeping silent about his sin desiccated the spiritual vitality of his life. He was left feeling negative and discouraged. This is what happens within us when we try to cover over our sins, pretending that they do not occur.
This is not the experience that God wishes for us. We may fear that confession will only open us to the wrathful judgment of God, yet this simply is not true.
In fact, we realize quite the opposite! When we confess our sins, we experience the spiritual freedom that comes from Jesus removing all that hinders his presence and love.
Confession is the way we recognize our continual need for God. If we say we have no sin or no need of confession, we deceive ourselves. We cut ourselves off from the Savior’s invitation to experience his steadfast and eternal love.
Confession helps us realize the everlasting forgiveness in the present moment of our lives. It opens us to God’s steadfast love, and infinite mercy.
Ultimately, if confession of sin is less about feeling guilty over our mistakes, and more about receiving the love of Jesus where we need it the most, why is this not something we would want to do?
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.