This week's Growing in Grace podcast (just posted yesterday) is entitled, "Avoiding the Temptation of Seeking God's Forgiveness." Kap and I were talking about this, and we agreed that it's a rather clever title (haha!). Often in the church, when we think of temptation we immediately think of seeking God's forgiveness! But this title is saying essentially the opposite of that, and there's no doubt that at the very least it will raise the eyebrows of some people, and will anger many more.
Now, Kap and I are absolutely not into being "shock jocks" or saying offensive things just to be offensive. We really, truly have a heart to see people released from the bondage that they are in due to misunderstood passages of scripture and bad teaching that they've received in the church. That's why we say the things we say. And so to address this issue further, I responded to a comment made on Kap's facebook page, to show where we're really coming from. The comment had to do with the common interpretation of 1 John 1:9, which says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
At face value, this one sentence seems to be telling us that every time we sin, we need to "confess it" (admit our guilt"), and that's the common understanding of this verse. But I shared a different view as a response on Kap's page, and here is what I said:
One thing that I do believe is important in good biblical exegesis is to know the circumstances revolving around the writing of a given epistle. Each epistle was, of course, not written in a vacuum, but was written to address not only general doctrinal issues, but also specific problems that arose in each church or community that the writer was writing to.
Many Bible study aids address what was going on in regards to the circumstances surrounding the writing of 1 John. As an example here's what Nelson's Bible Study says in its introduction to 1 John.
"Gnosticism was a teaching that blended Eastern mysticism with Greek dualism (which claimed that the spirit is completely good, but matter is completely evil)... Based on the concept that matter is evil and spirit is good, some Gnostics concluded that if God was truly good He could not have created the material universe. Therefore, some lesser god had to have created it... The dualistic views of Gnosticism were also reflected in the prevalent belief that Jesus did not have a physical body."
There was a "mixed crowd" among those who would read John's epistle, including these Gnostics. They believed all matter to be evil, and so "sin" wasn't an issue, as it didn't matter what a person did with their body. The word translated in English as "confess" really means "to say the same thing as another, i.e. to agree with, assent" in the Greek. It doesn't mean "to admit" or "to plead guilt" as we often use the word in English. John wasn't trying to get Christians to "admit their sins" every time they sinned. Rather, he is addressing the heresy that the Gnostics had infiltrated the church with, that Jesus had not come in the flesh (because to them, all flesh is evil, so Jesus could not have come in the flesh) and that sin was not an issue.
John countered all this with, "we declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us — that which we have seen and heard..."
Later on in the epistle, John writes, "I write to you, little children (addressing believers), because your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake." 1 John 2:12
So John is saying that they are forgiven. But how did he know they were forgiven? He wasn't with them. He didn't know whether or not they had been 'confessing their sins.' But of course, that wasn't the point. He was addressing heresy, as opposed to instructing the church to admit their sins all the time.
In addition to all this, I read all of Paul's epistles and I don't see one mention of him instructing the church to confess their sins. In the entirety of the book of Romans, which probably contains the longest and most thorough explanation of salvation and life in Christ, there is no mention of confession of sins. And again, none of the epistles were written in a vacuum. They were written to address specific issues that were going on in the churches. Two things that Paul really focused on, for example, was the legalism of the Galatians and the sinful behavior of the Corinthians. When it came to the sinful behavior of the Corinthians, not once did he mention to them any notion of confessing their sins.
He didn't question their salvation and he didn't question whether they were forgiven or not. Rather, he addressed them as "saints" and told them who they were in Christ, and he told them that such behavior was not befitting of the new creations that they were. They had already come to know Christ and were already forgiven and cleansed of all sin. Paul exhorted them to therefore live like the forgiven, justified, sanctified, cleansed people that they already were, due to having been saved by grace through faith, and not through anything they'd done.
And the fact that they (and we) are new creations - that is such a huge thing! A new creation is brand new. It's not new in the sense that "I lost my wallet and so I had to replace it with a new one," because the "new" wallet is essentially the same as the old one and functions in the same way. Rather, we are "new" in the sense of something entirely different than what we previously were. A prerequisite for a new creation is that they've already been forgiven and cleansed of all sin. You can't be this new creation in Christ, and yet be uncleansed and unforgiven. Otherwise, you go back and forth between being in Christ and out of Christ and in Christ and out of Christ and in Christ and out of Christ, over and over and over again. You go back and forth between being cleansed and forgiven, and uncleansed and unforgiven, and cleansed and forgiven and uncleansed and forgiven, over and over again.
The good news is that we were cleansed and forgiven once and for all. We were made a new creation once and for all. When we do things that go against our new creation identity, we remain cleansed and forgiven and we remain a new creation. We are exhorted to live as the new creations that we are, rather than having to go back and be cleansed and forgiven over and over and over and over and over again.
Paul says "ALL things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful, not all things edify." We can do whatever we want, and we don't go back to a state of being "unclean." And Paul says that it's foolishness to behave like that! So the answer isn't the confession of sins over and over again. The answer is for us is, "be transformed by the renewing of your mind on an ongoing basis. You are already cleansed and forgiven and made a new creation forever! Now think on these good things and allow it to transform how you live and relate to God and others.