If “any one sin” (1 John 2: 1), what is to be done? The answer is seen in the preceding verse: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us [our] sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1: 9). Confession, therefore, is the method by which the conscience is to be kept free. A Christian, having erred in thought, word or deed, might pray for pardon for years and not have any assurance from 1 John 1: 9 that he was forgiven. The moment, however, he truly confesses his sin before God, it becomes a simple matter of faith in what God has said in His Word for him to be absolutely certain that he is forgiven and cleansed.
The difference between asking for pardon and confessing sin is illustrated every day with children. If a child has done anything wrong he finds much less difficulty in asking his father to forgive him than in openly and unreservedly confessing the wrong. In asking for forgiveness the child may have in his mind a number of things which tend to lessen the sense of evil. He may be secretly thinking that he was not so much to blame after all, or be motivated by a desire to escape the consequences of his wrong–doing. In confessing the wrong, however, there is just the one thing: self–judgment. Self–judgment means having a just sense of the moral evil of the fault, an appreciation which can only be brought about in connection with full confession.
In principle, God’s dealings with his children when they do wrong are the same. He must have the whole thing brought out and thoroughly judged. He will not only make us dread the consequences of sin, but hate the thing itself, because of sin’s hatefulness in God’s sight. Were it possible for us to be merely forgiven for the asking, then our sense of sin and our shrinking from it would not be nearly so intense and, as a consequence, our estimate of the divine communion with which we are blessed would not be nearly so high.
God has been perfectly satisfied as to all the believer’s sins in the cross of Christ. No further propitiation is required: “he is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2: 2). We do not need to supplicate God to be “faithful and righteous” (1 John 1: 9) when His faithfulness and righteousness have been so gloriously displayed, vindicated and answered in the death of Christ. Our sins can never come into God’s presence, inasmuch as Christ, who bore them all and put them all away, is there. But if we sin, conscience will know it and feel it. Indeed, more than that, the Holy Spirit, will make us feel it—He cannot allow so much as a single wrong thought to pass unjudged. How could it be otherwise in a child of God? What then? Has our sin made its way into the presence of God? Has it found a place in the unsullied light of the holy of holies? Impossible, for the “patron” (or advocate) is there, “Jesus Christ [the] righteous” (1 John 2: 1). He will maintain, in unbroken integrity, the relationship with God in which we stand. But though sin cannot affect God’s thoughts in reference to us, it can and does affect our thoughts in reference to Him, and while sin cannot make its way into His presence, it can make its way into ours. It cannot hide the advocate from God’s view, but it can hide Him from ours. Like a thick, dark cloud, sin gathers on our spiritual horizon preventing us from basking in the blessed beams of our Father’s countenance. It cannot affect our relationship with God, but it can very seriously affect our enjoyment of that relationship. What, therefore, are we to do? The Word answers: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us [our] sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1: 9). By confession, we get our conscience cleared, the sweet sense of relationship restored, the dark cloud dispersed, the chilling, withering and distressing influence removed and our thoughts of God set straight.
If we sin, our inclination is to ask God for forgiveness, but the divine method for cleansing the conscience is confession. If I confess my sins, then I know that I am forgiven because the Word tells me so: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive” (1 John 1: 9). No doubt it is ever a happy moment when the believer who has failed is found on his knees before God, but this does not alter the fact that there is an immense moral difference between praying for forgiveness and confessing sins. It is quite possible, of course, that an individual’s prayer may involve the confession of his sin and thus come to the same thing, but it is always as well to keep close to Scripture in what we think and say and do. Confession involves self–judgment, but praying for forgiveness may not. In point of fact, it will often be found that a habit of begging God for the forgiveness of sins flows from ignorance as to the way in which God has revealed Himself in the Person and work of Christ, and unintelligence as to the relationship in which the sacrifice of Christ has set the believer.
Now if God forgives sins, He must be “faithful and righteous” in doing so. However, it is evident that our prayers, however sincere and earnest, could not form the basis of God’s faithfulness and righteousness in forgiving us our sins. Nothing but the work of the cross could do that. God has already judged our sins in the One “who himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2: 24) and in the act of confession we judge ourselves. This is essential to divine forgiveness and restoration. The smallest sin on the conscience, if unjudged, will mar our communion with God. Sin in us need not do this, but if we allow sins to remain on us we cannot have fellowship with God. Thus in verse 13 of Leviticus 7 we read that the offerer “shall present his offering of leavened bread with the sacrifice of his peace–offering” (my emphasis), and yet in verse 20 it says that “the soul that eateth the flesh of the sacrifice of peace–offering which is for Jehovah, having his uncleanness upon him, that soul shall be cut off from his peoples” (my emphasis). Leaven was permitted because there was sin in the worshipper’s nature; uncleanness was forbidden because there should be no sin on the worshipper’s conscience. The “leaven” of the worshipper’s sinful nature was perfectly met by the blood of the sacrifice. God has put our sin out of His sight forever. Though it is in us, it is not the object on which His eye rests. He sees only the blood. He can go on with us, and allow us the most unhindered communion with Himself on that account. But if we allow the sin which is in us to develop into sins, then we become unclean and communion is out of the question until there is confession, forgiveness and cleansing. To attempt to have fellowship with God in our sins would involve the blasphemous insinuation that He could walk in companionship with sin: “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not practise the truth” (1 John 1: 6).