I get it. We ask for forgiveness because we feel guilty and ashamed, repentant and undeserving. But if we have to ask for forgiveness of sin, it means that the substitutionary, atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was insufficient. We still have to ask for forgiveness. Something is wrong with this picture.

When Jesus died for our sins, He died for all of them, and we weren’t even born yet. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. It doesn’t say “If we ask for forgiveness”. It says, “If we confess“. But wait! It then says He will forgive our sins. Why would we need to confess and receive forgiveness again if Jesus took care of all our sins on the cross?

The answer lies in the fact that the Bible teaches that there are two kinds of forgiveness:

  1. Positional Forgiveness. This is the forgiveness granted at the moment of salvation. Our faith in Jesus’ substitutionary, atoning sacrifice has removed the eternal consequences of sin and given us the free gift of eternal life. It establishes our “position” in Christ.
  2. Familial Forgiveness. This forgiveness has to do with the condition of our fellowship with God.

Number 1 above is generally understood by Christians. Number 2 requires some explanation.

A father disciplines his teenage son for disobeying his requirement that he be home by 9 p.m. The son insists that he was only 20 minutes late and has a reason for that. The father says, “Late is late”.  They argue. The son knows he’s wrong and is now upset with himself for having disobeyed his father, not only because of the discipline, but also because his disobedience has created a distance between him and his father.

The son stews in his room while the father goes about his business in another part of the house. Even though separated, their familial relationship has not changed. They remain father and son. Eventually the son decides it is best to go to his father and confess he was wrong and ask his forgiveness. The father forgives his son, whom he loves. The distance between them is dissolved and their fellowship is restored.

Isaiah 59:2 says, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear”. God is all-knowing, so the verse cannot mean that He literally doesn’t hear. It means that He will not answer our prayers. There is a “separation” in our fellowship that is restored by means of confessing our wrong. God accepts our acknowledgment of our sin. That is familial forgiveness and that is what 1 John 1:9 is about; it differs from positional forgiveness.

We I asked God for forgiveness, what I really meant was I was sorry. I had acted outside His moral will and I knew it. Because I am united with the Lord and am one spirit with Him (1 Cor. 6:17), I share experientially in His grief over my sin (Eph. 4:30). So now, I simply confess my sin, thank Him for His forgiveness, and tell Him I am truly sorry. I don’t ask for forgiveness because I’m already forgiven, but I do need to restore fellowship with Him through confession.

Here is a typical prayer of mine:

Dear Lord, I confess that I have sinned against You by (name the sin). Thank you for Your forgiveness. I am so very sorry for what I’ve done. Fill me with Your Spirit so that I can live in continual fellowship with You and do what is pleasing in Your sight. I earnestly desire to know You more and enjoy Your presence in my life today and everyday (1 John 14:21, 23). I acknowledge that apart from You, I can do nothing of lasting significance (John 15:5). In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Confessing our sins takes care of those we remember. Being cleansed from all unrighteousness takes care of those we don’t.