Why You Don’t Have to Confess Sins (You Didn’t Commit)

Why You Don’t Have to Confess Sins
(You Didn’t Commit)
Tony Cooke

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Confess Sins Tony CookeI am so thankful for 1 John 1:9 (and the rest of 1 John as well) which says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." To me, this verse is wonderfully liberating and a source of joy. It’s hard to imagine that some Christians want to reassign this verse and make it apply to unbelievers. Let me address a thought that may provide insight as to why some may have wrestled with this passage and wish to relegate it to unbelievers.

Satan is called, "the accuser of our brothers and sisters… who accuses them before our God day and night" (Revelation 12:10, NLT). I believe that many Christians, especially young believers, have fallen prey to an insidious strategy of the enemy… the one who, "…walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8). We also know that he is a very crafty deceiver who wants to corrupt our minds from the simplicity that is in Christ (2 Corinthians 11:4). Here’s what I believe has sometimes happened:

  1. A young, sincere Christian wants to do right and please God.
  2. Various temptations come to him, and he feels guilty about the temptations he experiences. He may even think, "If you were really a Christian you would not have had that thought." The ironic thing is that the person may not have even actually sinned. A bad thought simply came to him. He didn’t necessarily receive the thought, entertain the thought, or act on the thought. But still, he feels condemned that the thought even came to his mind.
  3. The young Christian has heard about 1 John 1:9, so he confesses his "sin" to God (even though he may not have actually sinned). The enemy repeats the attack, and the Christian enters into a vicious cycle of temptation-shame-confession, temptation- shame-confession, ad infinitum.
  4. Some Christians at this point will become tormented and obsessive over their guilt. They are trying to repent when what they really need to do is resist (and knowing who we are and what we have in Christ is essential to this)! But some mistakenly label the devil’s temptation as "their own sin." They need to resist false guilt and stop agonizing over a sin they didn’t necessarily even commit. The problem here was never confession-related, but was deception-related.

Can you see how the enemy can take advantage of a young believer? A Christian can become overwhelmingly obsessed with guilt, and because of deception, completely overlook this clear fact of Scripture: Being tempted is not a sin!

Think about this for a minute, because it’s tripped up many, many people. Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus, "…was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin." Jesus was presented with temptation, but Jesus never participated in the temptation. Let me repeat, simply being tempted is not a sin, and according to 1 Corinthians 10:13, temptation is "…common to man."

What is Jesus’ attitude toward us when we are tempted? Does He condemn us? Is He disappointed and disgusted with us? Does He want us to wallow in guilt, shame, and condemnation? No! Hebrews 2:18 says, "…in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted." When you are tempted, Jesus is there to aid you, not condemn you. Do not let temptation define you; let Christ define you!

Consider what Jesus told His disciples. "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation…" (Matthew 26:41). Notice that Jesus did not say, "Watch and pray lest you be tempted." Being spiritually alert and maintaining vibrant fellowship with God doesn’t mean you won’t be tempted, but it will keep you from entering into temptation. It’s one thing to face a temptation. It’s something entirely different to yield to, cooperate with, and participate in temptation. The former is not sin, but the latter is.

Do you recall hearing this phrase? "You can’t keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair." There’s great truth in that statement.

If you face temptation, resist it! If a thought or imagination comes to your mind, cast it down, and turn your attention to Jesus, following Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:8. "…Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things."

However, even if we have actively entertained the thoughts or participated in sin, God still has good news for us. First John 2:1, which reflects continuous thought from what he’s written previously (remember, the Bible wasn’t written in chapters and verses), says, "My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." What was John referring to when he said, "These things I write to you"? He was referring to everything he’d already said (including 1 John 1:9) and all that he was going to say.

First John was not written to different audiences, but to believers as a whole. John recognizes believers at different levels of growth (he identifies spiritual children, young men, and fathers), but when he refers to those outside the faith (including false teachers and those holding false beliefs) he clearly refers to them in the third person (they). John refers to his "little children" (believers) over and over and over again, but he never refers to an outside group as being a recipient of his letter. It is terribly ill-advised to presumptuously insert a supposed audience (Gnostics or others) into John’s epistle that he never identified as recipients.

So we come back to the question, why would some people want to keep 1 John 1:9 from applying to Christians? One explanation is based on what we discussed earlier. Having been deceived, some obsessively and compulsively confessed "sin" (even though it may have only been a temptation). They got on a vicious and tormenting cycle of confessing and re-confessing "sins" over and over again and eventually decided that their "confessing sins" was not bringing them victory. As a result, they decided confession of sins must be part of the problem, and so, BASED ON THEIR NEGATIVE EXPERIENCE, they decided it must not apply to them. In short, they reject the truth of confession because they had experienced a deceptive counterfeit.

This would be like a person who heard that aspirin could help them with a headache, but instead of following the instructions and using the aspirin properly, they beat themselves on the head with the bottle. After a while, they decide that aspirin doesn’t work and actually makes things worse. Let me encourage you to never subordinate the plain meaning of Scripture to your personal experience or your so-called personal revelation. Our experience does not judge the Word. Instead, Scripture should judge our experience. And we must never distort the Scripture to accommodate our experience.

First John 1:9 is a glorious invitation to us, when we have missed it, to "…come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16). Option 1 is that we had not sinned to begin with, but Option 2 is that Jesus remains our Advocate! He is for us, not against us! We can come to Him, be honest with Him, and in faith acknowledge—not simply our failure—but also his great mercy and kindness. We act on 1 John 1:9 the same way we act on any Scripture – in faith!

When we confess a sin, we are not groveling before God or wallowing in our sin. We are not trying to "earn" forgiveness, and we are not questioning whether He still loves us or will give us a second chance. No! We come in faith to the One Who promised us cleansing, and we receive a fresh application in our lives of the wonderful forgiveness that He procured for us 2,000 years ago when He shed His precious blood for us.

So why "confess" sin we’ve committed? That word means to acknowledge, to concede, to admit, or "to say the same thing." It makes perfect sense, biblically and otherwise, when we’ve missed it, to be honest with God, acknowledge our mis-step, and to agree with God about the issue.

Max Lucado wrote "Confession is not telling God what he doesn’t know. That’s impossible. Confession is not complaining. If I merely recite my problems and rehash my woes, I’m whining. Confession is not blaming. Pointing fingers at others without pointing any at me feels good, but it doesn’t promote healing. Confession is so much more. Confession is a radical reliance on grace. A proclamation of our trust in God’s goodness. ‘What I did was bad,’ we acknowledge, ‘but your grace is greater than my sin, so I confess it.’ If our understanding of grace is small, our confession will be small: reluctant, hesitant, hedged with excuses and qualifications, full of fear of punishment. But great grace creates an honest confession."

When believers in Ephesus experienced the beauty of God’s grace, they confessed (acknowledged and admitted) that their behavior had been wrong and they made a clean break from those practices. Acts 19:18-19 (NLT) says, "Many who became believers confessed their sinful practices. A number of them who had been practicing sorcery brought their incantation books and burned them at a public bonfire." To these believers, confession and repentance went hand in hand.

There was a time when the Corinthians weren’t simply tempted to sin, but they had plunged headlong into the practice of sin. Paul said, "I am afraid that when I come I won’t like what I find, and you won’t like my response. I am afraid that I will find quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorderly behavior. Yes, I am afraid that when I come again, God will humble me in your presence. And I will be grieved because many of you have not given up your old sins. You have not repented of your impurity, sexual immorality, and eagerness for lustful pleasure" (2 Corinthians 12:20-21, NLT).

Had they merely been tempted in some areas, Paul’s counsel would have been totally different. But because of their active involvement in sin, he made it clear that they needed to repent from their behavior, and repentance begins with an acknowledgment (that’s what confession is) that they needed to get back on-track with God and obey His word. Remember, we never have to confess a sin we didn’t commit, but if we do miss it, we should be very thankful for 1 John 1:9.