An Examination of the Controversy Regarding Confession
Two extreme views have entered into the arena of Christian ideas. These views have distracted some, divided others, and created much confusion among the rest of the flock. These views have to do with the issue of Christian conduct, specifically in the question of what is required to effect personal cleansing (from sin) when needed. The bigger picture is how we are to first attain—and then maintain—fellowship with and effective service to God.
The focal point of the controversy is centered in the text of 1JO 1:9. On the one hand, there are those who maintain that believers must examine themselves rigorously and incessantly, so as to always be “confessed up.” This is seen as the golden key to fellowship with God. Some take it to the extreme of saying nothing more is required; if I have “fessed up,” then anything I do is of eternal value because I am “in fellowship” with God.
The other extreme—born, I believe, out of a reaction to the rote repetition of the first—is that 1JO 1:9 is about initial salvation, and that once we confess our sins, by believing in Jesus, all sins are forgiven (a true point) and, therefore, confession of sins is no longer needed. We simply live in the reality of forgiveness and continue to grow in grace.
Obviously, there are varying degrees in both views. My goal is not to present every form the argument takes. Rather, my desire is to present a balanced view that considers both our positional standing and practical function as obedient believers. If nothing else, I would call on both camps to demonstrate spiritual maturity by an attitude of spiritual love; and, if you consider yourselves the stronger, at least to show some consideration to the weaker believer (ROM 14:1, ROM 14:13; ROM 15:1).
Adoption vs. Adult Conduct
“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the [adult] sons of God. For you did
not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption
[adult son-placement] by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’”ROM 8:14-15
Our standing before God is secure; our conduct is, at best, erratic. Every believer is entered into the family of God as an adopted son (GAL 4:5; EPH 1:5). The word for adoption (huiothesia) speaks of the ancient custom of a son entering into adult status in the family. With this came great privilege, along with attending personal responsibilities.
Every believer is placed in the family of God with all the privileges and obligations of an adult son. This position is secured by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of adoption.” It is the work of the Spirit to bring us, in practice, up to our position in Christ. This requires the whole spectrum of spiritual growth into the likeness of Christ. It is worth pointing out that the cry of adoption, “Abba, Father” is quoted from Jesus Christ when He submitted to the will of the Father to go to the cross (MAR 14:36). This is the epitome of conduct for the adult son: submission to the will of the Father. And for the believer, this means being led by the Spirit of God. The Spirit-led believer will have a lifestyle increasingly befitting an adult son who is responsible for his or her personal conduct. This includes being personally accountable for self-evaluation and correction.
The Ideal vs. the Reality
“But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another,
and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from sin. … If we confess
our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins
The two-fold objective, in John’s own words, for the writing of this epistle is:
first, that we might enjoy fellowship, and
secondly, that as a result, we might have fullness of joy (1JO 1:3-4).
The book is written to believers, and the theme is fellowship.
In many ways, this little epistle is John’s way of expounding on the themes Jesus spoke of in the Upper Room (John 13-17). All can be summarized by the phrase “having fellowship.” Note that the term “in fellowship” is never used in Scripture. To “have fellowship” is mentioned in 1JO 1:3, 1JO 1:6, 1JO 1:7. In other words, fellowship with God is an active concept. It is active participation in the Father’s plan. To have fellowship with God is the definition of abiding in Christ (JOH 8:31; JOH 15:4-10; 1JO 2:6, 1JO 2:24-28; 1JO 3:6, 1JO 3:24; 1JO 4:12, 1JO 4:16).
First John sets forth the ideal in 1JO 1:7. To “walk in the light” is to be Spirit-led and to walk in obedience to the Word of God. Whenever we do this, “we have fellowship” with God. At the same time, an ongoing purging, or washing, is going on as the blood of Christ keeps on cleansing us from all sin. This is preventive cleansing, neutralizing the power and impulses of the sin nature (ROM 6:6) by the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, we know experientially that we do not always walk in the light.
The answer to the question, “but what if I fail?” is then given in 1JO 1:9. When sin is detected, under the convicting ministry of the indwelling Spirit, “confession” is the solution. However, it is worth noting that nothing is said here about fellowship. The point of this “confession” is acknowledgement for the sake of correction. This correction implies a return to walking in the light, which is fellowship. It is confession to God, for He is the only One who is truly offended by sin. It is also confession in the sense of acknowledging personal accountability—both for the sin, and for the need for adjustment to God. We should never forget that an ever present work of God’s Word in our lives is “correction” (2TI 3:16).
If we are walking in the light (active obedience to the Word of God), we are having fellowship with God (actively engaged in His purpose). If we are not, we can correct the problem by acknowledging that we are not walking in the light (confession) and by making the necessary corrections.
I do not believe it is possible to go from having fellowship with God into a disobedient life-style unconsciously. We have to make decisions that clearly go against the teaching of the Word of God. We all do this. Neither is it possible to go from a condition of disobedience to active obedience unconsciously. Decisions must be made to depart from disobedience and return to obedience. This cannot be done without an acknowledgement (verbal or mental) that we are out of line. Like it or not, this is confession.
Taking an example from the story of the prodigal son (LUK 15:11-32), we see the prodigal coming to the point of confession/correction in LUK 15:17-19. His consistently bad decisions had brought him, hungry and ragged, to a pig-pen existence—a perfect illustration of a carnal believer (1CO 3:1-3). The phrase “he came to himself” is an idiom, or figure of speech, which identifies an awakening to reality—a coming to terms with his foolish decisions and their inevitable consequences. His present misery is now seen as the direct result of his former, arrogant decisions and actions summed up with three verbs in LUK 15:13: “gathered ... journeyed ... wasted.” Thus, he now makes a corrective decision, “I will arise and go to my father.” The only solution is to return to his father's house—a picture of fellowship.
It is worth noting that the prodigal son plans to verbalize to his father the confession and correction, which by his actions he has already made. But like many remorseful believers, he goes too far. When he gets home, he plans to say to his father, “Father, I have sinned ...” This confession encompasses the sum total of his arrogant decisions and foolish actions. But then he seeks to add what he had been thinking, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants” (LUK 15:19). But, before he can say this, his father cuts him off—restoring to him all the rights and resources he had forfeited.
In this is a great lesson. The issue for the believer is never our worthiness. Our position with the Father is based on the merits of Christ alone. Furthermore, the heavenly Father will, under no circumstances, ever treat a son like a hired servant. A son of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, will never be demoted by God to a second-rate position due to sin. Simple confession and correction are sufficient to restore the privileges of kinship which we so often forfeit through our sins.
The Maturity of Accountability
“Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter [dishonorable conduct],
he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work.”2TI 2:21
“And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”1JO 3:3
The above passages make it clear that each believer is personally accountable for his own purification. The word used in Timothy speaks primarily of “washing” (same root word in 1JO 1:9), whereas in 1JO 3:3, the word (hagnizo) implies more of a purification by separation from what is defiled. In both passages, a departure from sinful conduct is required. This is never possible until sinful conduct is recognized and admitted as such.
In his book Special Men, Dennis Foley tells of a particularly good first lieutenant he had by the name of Bill Pfeiffer. One of the qualities that stood out in his mind was that, “He put the burden on us to critique ourselves, to define our own shortcomings and then to explain to him how we were going to correct them. We spent hours writing up reports on our own deficiencies and the plans to fix them … He didn’t bully us, instead he led us,” pg. 63. I can think of no better definition of the function of adult-son status and the need for self-evaluation. Anyone who says they do not need self-evaluation and correction does not have a clue how far they are from the goal!
Paul gives a very clear picture of this process of self-evaluation and correction in EPH 4:20-32. When we identify sin which is contrary to “the truth … in Jesus,” we must “put off” the conduct of the “old man” (how we lived as unbelievers under the power of our sin nature), and then “be renewed in the spirit of [our] mind” (i.e., shift from human viewpoint to God’s viewpoint, as presented in His Word), then we must “put on the new man which was created according to God in true righteousness and holiness.” In other words, we make a decision to live—not from the flesh, but from the Spirit. We put away lying, and instead we speak truth (EPH 4:25). We cannot do this unless we acknowledge that lying is sin, and more to the point, that we are lying. This is “confession” (coming to agreement with God about our conduct). Whether stealing, or corrupt speech, or bitterness and wrath, none can be dealt with until they are identified for what they are: sins according to God. We know that all these sins can be called by another name, or justified in some way, and we all have done this. Not until we identify them as sin (confession) can we conquer them by the fruit of the Spirit.
We have, all too often, played the game of calling sin by less convicting names. In our age of political correctness, it is the norm to call evil good, and good evil. It is obvious that no one will correct sinful conduct while under the self-delusion that it is “right.” Thus, in the controversy over the issue of confession, believers take sides, hate one another, and divide the Body, because they are “right.” How could you possibly get two believers on two sides of a doctrinal issue to demonstrate the love of Christ to each other as long as each is “right” in his own eyes?
To come to the realization that I am wrong before God, and to acknowledge it (whether verbal, formal, or only mental) is to make confession. But it is no good without the following correction of attitude and action. If I see a brother, who has been involved in any sin, suddenly put that sin away and come to obedience in that area, I do not need to ask if he has made “confession”—his life proves it. Rather than prod and probe him about the means, I should rejoice with him about the end result.
Any believer who claims no need for self-evaluation, confession, and correction is obviously deluded about their own sinfulness and is ignorant of Satan’s devices (2CO 2:11). Paul describes the spiritual condition called “carnality” in 1CO 3:1-3 as that of a child of God who “[behaves] like mere men.” In other words, he lives in the world as if at home, unaware and unconcerned about the fierce spiritual conflict that is raging all around him. A soldier on a battlefield who thinks he is sitting in his living room would be considered insane. The believer in carnality has denied his calling, been deceived by his enemy, and is seeking to live in comfort on the battlefield of life.
By contrast, the spiritual believer wages relentless warfare against his enemy—both from without and from within—and finds constant need for cleansing, correction, and diligent application from lessons learned by failure and defeat. The path to victory is littered with many a failure, but lessons learned from each one bring greater strength and dedication to press on to our “upward [high] call[ing] of God in Christ Jesus” (PHI 3:12-15).
Eternal Forgiveness vs. Temporal Fellowship
The question is often asked, “If we are forgiven all sins (past, present, and future) when we believe in Jesus Christ, why do we need confession?” This is a reasonable question, and many are confused by it. Let us seek the wisdom of the Apostle Paul.
In EPH 1:7; COL 1:14, and HEB 1:3, Paul makes it clear that Christ paid for all sins, and that we are forgiven all of them when we believe in Jesus Christ. Not only are we forgiven, but we are imputed forever with the righteousness of Christ (ROM 4:5-6, ROM 4:22-24). Paul even makes the point that sin is no longer imputed to the believer at all (ROM 4:7-8). So why even bother thinking about sin in our life? Yet, consider that in Romans 6, Paul deals extensively with the issue, particularly in ROM 6:11-23, where he tells us to “reckon” ourselves dead to sin, and to not let sin “reign” in our bodies, but rather to “present” ourselves to God as “instruments of righteousness.”
“Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly Not!” ROM 6:15
We cannot consider ourselves dead to sin, unless we identify what is sin in our life. This requires, at the very least, the inward “confession” that we are not “walking in the light,” followed by correction “present yourself to God.” Any believer who says they do not do this is either perpetually carnal or a liar. Even after believing in Christ, “the wages of sin is death” (ROM 6:23), and we still reap what we sow (GAL 6:7). Without self-examination and correction, no believer would ever be conformed to the image of Christ!
Jesus brought Peter to the point of confession after His resurrection. Peter’s boast had been that he loved the Lord, and would be faithful, more than the other disciples (MAT 26:33). Then he denied the Lord three times. So by the lake, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these [other disciples]?” (JOH 21:15). Three times, Peter was asked, and affirmed his love, but never added “more than these.” There is no doubt that Peter knew exactly the point Jesus was making, the sin He was highlighting, and the confession that was obvious.
The problem is that many believers are sticklers for ritual. They would say, “Since Peter did not specifically say, ‘Lord, please forgive me for denying you three times. I have sinned, and now confess my sin,’ therefore it was not true confession.” I say again, the point of biblical confession is to acknowledge, identify, and correct the sin, in order to return to the fellowship of walking in the light.
Another example is the incestuous man in Corinth (1CO 5:1-5) who was able to continue in his sin because not only he, but the whole church, refused to identify it as sinful. Rationalism is a very effective tool of Satan. When Paul called it not only sinful, but “such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles [heathen],”1CO 5:1, the church then took action and the man was expelled from the assembly. This could only have occurred because he refused to correct the problem.
Later (2 Corinthians 3-11), he evidently ceased the sinful conduct and corrected his life. We have no record of him coming before the church and ritualistically saying, “Please forgive me, I have sinned in taking my father’s wife, etc.” While this may or may not have happened, the fact that “confession” had occurred was validated by the corrected conduct. God alone sees the soul; we humans must judge by outward evidence. If a believer, caught in some sinful conduct, ceases to do it and lives obediently, I am satisfied that every requirement of “confession” has been made.
Priests and the Laver of Cleansing
“He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet …” JOH 13:10
“… just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify
and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word …”EPH 5:25-26
Under the Old Covenant, the Priest was inaugurated into office by being “bathed” (EXO 29:4; EXO 40:12; LEV 8:6). Then, on approaching the altar for service, they were to wash their hands and feet (EXO 30:19-20). It is to this practice that Jesus referred in the Upper Room. Peter had already been “bathed” (a picture of initial salvation). What he and the other disciples needed now was “foot-washing.” Unless the need for this cleansing was acknowledged, the disciple “[had] no part” (JOH 13:8), or “fellowship” with the Lord. This acknowledgement comes after careful self-examination (1CO 11:28), leading to correction and obedience.
The spiritual work of cleansing, for which Christ died, is an ongoing work. In fact, the process can be divided into three stages of cleansing:
The washing of obedience, 1JO 1:7 This is preventive cleansing, keeping us from falling into sinful practices.
The ultimate and final cleansing will be our resurrection and glorification in the likeness of Jesus Christ.
This is a great subject, and I am sure that I have not done it justice. Regarding the two sides of the controversy, I say “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (ROM 14:5). We all stand before our Lord and Savior, but when I look for those who are acting as adult sons of God, I will find those who demonstrate the love of Christ for all who are in the Body. Satan is a master of deception, and he is the agent of division.
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about
like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1PE 5:8)
Even Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”!