Forgiveness and Confession
Q: I am considering seminary and have a theological question: When Christ died, didn’t He forgive sins once for all? Why is confession necessary (1 John 1:9) when our sins past, present, and future have already been removed by the blood of our Savior? If only past sins were forgiven at the Cross then confession of our present sins leaves too uncertainty in the believer. What assurance could we have that we confessed “correctly”?
It seems that the underlying Greek of “confess” means “agreement.” Does 1 John 1:9 simply point out that we are agreeing that our sins have been forgiven at the Cross and that there is nothing human we can do to add to Christ’s work? Through that agreement, we celebrate His goodness and mercy. Otherwise, if present sins are not forgiven until we confess them then we could never be assured of forgiveness of any or all of our present sins.
Thank you for helping me understand this passage. I’d also appreciate any references so that I may do further reading on this subject.
A: I pray for your guidance and direction from the Holy Spirit as you ponder your possibilities. Certainly, while the task may be difficult, the Scriptures remind us, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. (1 Timothy 3:1)”
As for your questions, let’s first look at the context of your question by reading verses 7-10. John wrote, “[I]f we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” The word “confess” does have roots meaning to agree with another. Thus we confess faith, agreeing with God when He tells us who He is and what He does. However, we also confess our sins, agreeing with God when He tells us that we are unfit to live in His presence.
You correctly note that full forgiveness was won by Christ through His suffering and death. Several verses in Hebrews touch on this, as do Paul’s writings. However, both before and after His death and resurrection, Christ emphasized to the apostles that the heart of the Gospel ministry is the forgiveness of sins. This is more than merely preaching a generic message of Christ’s suffering and death — it includes applying this forgiveness to others both by personalizing the proclamation and by actually forgiving sins according to the Savior’s commands. While preaching, baptizing, and communing all involve the actual forgiveness of sins, let’s focus on absolution.
Prior to His death, Jesus told the Twelve, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19)” He reiterated this in Matthew 18, when, after teaching them about unconditional forgiveness, He continued, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (v. 18)”
That He meant actually forgiving penitent sinners and withholding forgiveness to the impenitent, He made clear in the upper room on the night after His resurrection: “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’ (John 20:21-23)”
The forgiveness won by Christ is complete. By the Son’s death, the Father declared all to be righteous. Jesus earned salvation for Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Osama Bin Laden just as He did for you and me. Of course, Hitler, Stalin, and Bin Laden all rejected Him and thus died in their trespasses. As Scripture says, “He died for all (2 Corinthians 5:15)” and “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous. (1 Peter 3:18)” Regarding this unmerited gift, Lutheran theologians coined the term “objective justification.”
However, God doesn’t apply forgiveness in a vacuum. He works through Baptism, Absolution, Communion, and the preaching and teaching of His Word. People are born “separated from Christ ... having no hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12)” Our birth condition worsens throughout life. As David confessed, so must each of us: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.... Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:3, 5)” Each of us is born as — and remains — a real sinner with real sins.
The giving of the gift of Christ’s sacrifice to each of us is intended to do more than merely bring us to agree with God. It involves actual forgiveness of the actual sins of actual sinners. When Christians lapse into sin, we need real forgiveness. Besides the Gospel preached or applied in Absolution, this forgiveness also comes through Holy Baptism, which “now saves you, (1 Peter 3:21)” and Holy Communion, Christ’s “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:28)” Lutherans call the application of forgiveness to each of us and our appropriation of it by faith in Christ “subjective justification.”
In summary, absolute forgiveness from the cross and ongoing, individual forgiveness in the present tense are both sound Biblical teachings. Article IV of Lutheranism’s Augsburg Confession says it this way: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight. [Romans 3:21-26 and 4:5]” Confession of sins shouldn’t bring doubt but certainty, for I know not only that Christ died “for all,” but that He died for me. He not only earned forgiveness on the cross, He also grants it to me “seventy times seven” times — and more (cf. Matthew 18:22).
Augsburg Confession quote from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, © 2005 by Concordia Publishing House.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #562:2