If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.
1 John 1:9
Seekers and inquirers have often voiced this deep question of concern: “Why does God forgive? And how does God forgive sin?”
There is plain teaching throughout the Old and New Testaments concerning God’s willingness to forgive and forget. Yet there are segments of the Christian church which appear to be poorly taught concerning God’s clear remedy, through the atonement of Christ, for the believer who has yielded to temptation and failed his Lord.
God knows that sin is the dark shadow standing between Him and His highest creation, man. God is more willing to remove that shadow than we are to have it removed!
He wants to forgive us—and that desire is a part of God’s character. In the sacrificial death of a lamb in the Old Testament, God was telling us that one day a perfect Lamb would come to actually take away sin.
That is how and why God forgives sin now. In John’s words: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:1–2).
I am truly thankful, Lord, for Your constant willingness to forgive me when I stumble in my walk with You.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1:9)
Confession of sin is absolutely crucial to entering the Light (justification) (cf. Mark 1:15; Luke 18:13–14) and walking in it (sanctification). Though this is obvious in Scripture, there are many who even claim that one needs only to accept the facts about Jesus for salvation, arguing that the confession and repentance of sin are unnecessary—or optional at best—for justification. Out of the soil of that errant soteriology comes the antinomian indifference toward a Christian life of repentance and confession for the sake of holiness. (For an in-depth discussion of this erroneous viewpoint and an exposition of the biblical doctrine of salvation, see John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988, 1994], and The Gospel According to the Apostles [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993, 2000].)
Such views exist in spite of biblical calls to repentance and examples of people who openly acknowledged their sins to God. “So Judah said, ‘What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants’ ” (Gen. 44:16; cf. 41:9; Jon. 3:5–10). Overwhelmed by a vision of God’s majestic holiness, the prophet Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5; cf. 1 Chron. 21:17; Dan. 9:20). The Psalms are filled with confessions, most notably David’s in Psalm 51:
Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, let the bones which You have broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. (vv. 1–9; cf. 32:5; 38:1–8, 17–18; 41:4)
The New Testament includes similar expressions. No less than John the Baptist preached repentance with manifest evidence as necessary for entering into God’s salvation kingdom (Matt. 2:4–12; Luke 3:4–14). Jesus demanded recognition of sin and a response of repentance for all who desired salvation (Matt. 4:17), even saying that sinners had to repent or perish (Luke 13:3, 5). The repentance and confession of sin He demanded was so strong it required total self-denial (Luke 9:23–26) and hatred of self (Luke 14:25–27), which made coming to salvation too demanding for some (Luke 13:23–24). Peter and Paul each confessed their sinfulness (Luke 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:12–16), and two of Jesus’ parables concerned men who recognized their own sinful conditions (Luke 15:18; 18:13). Moreover, as the apostles proclaimed the gospel, they made it clear that God calls upon sinners everywhere to admit their sin and repent (Acts 17:30; cf. Isa. 45:22; Acts 2:38).
First John 1:9 fits this pattern with perfect consistency, when rightly interpreted. Because John is writing to believers (“my little children,” 2:1), to those who are antinomian it appears to make forgiveness conditional (i.e., if believers confess, God will forgive; if they do not confess, He will not forgive). This confusion is easily cleared away, first of all by noting that the verse is actually a reiteration of God’s faithfulness to His New Covenant promise of salvation in the Old Covenant: “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jer. 31:34; cf. Luke 1:77–78; Heb. 9:13–14). The reminder that He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness reemphasizes the truth John had just stated in verse 7, that God will, because of His character, secure their eternal glory by continuing to cleanse believers from all future sin. He is faithful to His promise and always does what is righteous. (The aorist tense of the verb aphiēmi [forgive] carries a past connotation and further demonstrates that God’s forgiveness derives from a historical event, the atonement, which has lasting benefits for all who believe.) In chapter 2 John writes, “your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake” (v. 12). Forgiveness is consistent with who Jesus Christ is and with what the Father promised, according to His perfectly faithful (Isa. 49:7; 1 Cor. 1:9; Heb. 2:17; Rev. 19:11), righteous (Ps. 7:11; Isa. 53:11), just (Gen. 18:25; Col. 3:25), holy (Ex. 15:11; Rev. 4:8), and loving (Jer. 31:3; 1 John 4:8) nature. Forgiveness is not incomplete or dependent in the saving sense on believers’ confessing.
With that established, it is possible to understand the place of ongoing confession. The word translated confess (homologeō) means “to say the same thing.” Thus believers are those who confess their sins, agreeing with God about their sin—they acknowledge its reality and affirm that it is a transgression of His law and a violation of His will, the presence of which the truly penitent seek to eliminate from their lives (3:4; James 2:10–11; 4:17; cf. Rom. 7:24). What John is actually saying here about confession is that since believers are forgiven, they will regularly confess their sins. Stated another way, their forgiveness is not because of their ongoing confession, but their ongoing pattern of penitence and confession is because of their forgiveness and transformation. As the Holy Spirit sanctifies believers, He continually produces within them a hatred for sin (Ps. 97:10; Prov. 8:13; Rom. 7:15–25; Phil. 3:8–9; cf. Ps. 1:1–2), which results in penitent hearts and a sincere acknowledgment of their sins. The more believers grow in Christ, the greater their hatred of sin becomes and the deeper is their penitence. Paul, the most devout and dedicated Christian, at the end of his earthly sanctification, saw himself as the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
If confession is genuine, it will always stem from proper sorrow over sin and a real longing to turn from sin. In 2 Corinthians 7:9–11 Paul wrote:
I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter. (cf. 2 Sam. 12:13)
The apostle was not referring to feeling bad about the consequences of one’s sinful conduct, which is the worldly sorrow characterized by despair, depression, and sometimes suicide (Matt. 27:3–5). Rather, he was describing the kind of godly sorrow that produces real repentance that leads to salvation. Biblical repentance will result in “earnestness,” “vindication,” “indignation,” “fear,” “longing,” “zeal,” and “avenging.” (For more on these results, see comments on 2 Corinthians 7:9–11 in John MacArthur, 2 Corinthians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 2003], 264–67.) When repentance is present, believers will have a strong desire for God to deal with sin at any cost (cf. Matt. 5:29–30), even when that cost may be high for them personally (cf. Luke 19:8–10). True believers are therefore habitual confessors who demonstrate that God has not only pardoned their sin and is faithfully cleansing them daily from it, but has truly regenerated them, making them new creatures with holy desires that dominate their will. (Later in this epistle, John shows how true believers do not go on sinning [3:4–10], but strive to obey God [3:19–24].)
In spite of this straightforward meaning, many throughout history have misinterpreted and misapplied the concept of confession. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, sees confession as the anonymous divulging of sins to a human priest in a confessional booth. Catholics believe such confession to be a meritorious act, one that earns the confessor forgiveness, if followed by the performance of some penitential ritual (such as repeating a prayer or saying the rosary a certain number of times). Under that system, one essentially receives forgiveness based on the good works of confession and penance.
Others view confession as psychologically and emotionally therapeutic—an act that helps people feel good about feeling bad, ensuring that they “feel” forgiven and experience healing. Still others teach that the confession in this verse refers only to the moment of salvation, with no regard for subsequent times of acknowledging sin. But if one truly trusts in Christ as Lord and Savior (Luke 9:23; Acts 2:38–39; 16:31; Rom. 10:9–10; cf. Mark 10:21–27; John 15:4–8), he will regularly admit his sins before God, as the present, active form of the verb confess indicates.
Perhaps the most popular but erroneous view of confession in this context is that believers are forgiven of only those sins they confess. If that were correct, it would mean that unconfessed sins remain with believers until the judgment seat of Christ, at which time they will have to give an account for those iniquities. But such is simply not the case. No one will enter heaven with a list of unconfessed sins still hanging over his head (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5; Rev. 22:15), because the finished work of Jesus Christ completely covers all of the sins of those who believe, including those that remain unconfessed (see commentary on 2:12 in chapter 7 of this volume). As the apostle Paul wrote:
David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” (Rom. 4:6–8; cf. 8:33; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; Col. 2:13).
Conversion does not mean the eradication of the sin nature. Rather it means the implanting of the new, divine nature, with power to live victoriously over indwelling sin.
1:9 In order for us to walk day by day in fellowship with God and with our fellow believers, we must confess our sins: sins of commission, sins of omission, sins of thought, sins of act, secret sins, and public sins. We must drag them out into the open before God, call them by their names, take sides with God against them, and forsake them. Yes, true confession involves forsaking of sins: “He who covers his sins will not prosper: but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (Prov. 28:13).
When we do that, we can claim the promise that God is faithful and just to forgive. He is faithful in the sense that He has promised to forgive and will abide by His promise. He is just to forgive because He has found a righteous basis for forgiveness in the substitutionary work of the Lord Jesus on the cross. And not only does He guarantee to forgive, but also to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The forgiveness John speaks about here is parental, not judicial. Judicial forgiveness means forgiveness from the penalty of sins, which the sinner receives when he believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. It is called judicial because it is granted by God acting as Judge. But what about sins which a person commits after conversion? As far as the penalty is concerned, the price has already been paid by the Lord Jesus on the cross of Calvary. But as far as fellowship in the family of God is concerned, the sinning saint needs parental forgiveness, that is, the forgiveness of His Father. He obtains it by confessing his sin. We need judicial forgiveness only once; that takes care of the penalty of all our sins—past, present, and future. But we need parental forgiveness throughout our Christian life.
When we confess our sins, we must believe, on the authority of the word of God, that He forgives us. And if He forgives us, we must be willing to forgive ourselves.
 Tozer, A. W. (2015). Mornings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacArthur, J. (2007). 1, 2, 3 John (pp. 37–41). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 2310–2311). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.