The title of this post is exactly the same as a recent article on the Gospel Coalition web site. The author of the article explains the issue more fully in his first sentence. “It’s an understandable question: If we’re justified by faith and forgiven all our sins—past, present, and future—then why is it necessary to continue seeking forgiveness?” Though the author makes a good, honest attempt to answer the question, it gives me no pleasure in saying that I believe he fails to address an important aspect of the issue that would actually answer the question more correctly.
He says, at one point, “God commands us to confess our sins as we sin (1 John 1:9). This command not only applies to our initial justification, but as the context of 1 John makes clear, confession is ongoing for Christians.” Later he adds: “Such an experience [confession of our sins] is not a new justification but a renewed application of our justification.” It is a mistake to tie the confession of our sins to our justification. Martin Luther never gained the peace of God he sought by confessing his sins while a Roman Catholic monk. The instrument (or means) of justification is faith, sola fide, faith alone. We don’t confess our sins to be justified. While it’s true that in coming to Christ, we may at times focus on individual sins we have committed, it’s not the confession of these sins that is the instrument of justification. We do repent, determine to turn from our life of sin when we are saved, but it is faith in Christ alone that brings about the justification and forgiveness of all our sins—past, present, and future.
What is strangely missing in the author’s whole discussion of the problem is the word sanctification. It is the believer’s sanctification, not justification, that demands confession of our individual sins. 1 John 1:9, which clearly requires believers to confess their sins, has absolutely nothing to do with our justification, but is an essential aspect of our sanctification. All of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven as far as our position in Christ is concerned—justification. But God is still working to perfect us in this life—progressive sanctification. And our progress in holiness and our daily communion with our Father require what I have called elsewhere a “sin-confessing attitude.” We must, as Paul says in Romans 8:13, “put to death the misdeeds of the body,” and dealing with our sins requires so to confess and repent of our sins on a daily basis if we are to make progress in holiness.
It simply confuses the question under discussions to attempt to explain the requirement of 1 John 1:9 by relating it to justification. Confession of our sins is a matter of sanctification, pure and simple.