John Piper asks in his devotional book Taste and See: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life a very important and intriguing question:
How can we be justified by faith, once for all, and yet need to go on confessing our daily sins so that we will be forgiven (p. 95)?
The New Testament teaches both. When we trust in Jesus, believing in him and submitting to his Lordship, that faith is counted to us as righteousness (Rom. 4:3, 5-6). Indeed God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us as he takes our sin upon himself (2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9).
Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. (Romans 4:7-8; Psalm 32:1-2)
This righteousness, which is counted to us, is therefore dependent on the work of Christ in the place of sinners. Our forgiveness and justification is solely a gift of grace bestowed upon us by a just, holy, and loving God (Rom. 6:23). We cannot earn it and we cannot lose it (John 1:12-13; Phil. 1:6).
However, there are also places in the New Testament that teach that our forgiveness is dependent on the confession of our sins. Two passages are clear on this. 1 John 1:9 gives us an “if-then clause” indicating that God will forgive us our sins if we confess them. Therefore, forgiveness of sins is in one sense dependent on our confession. Piper rightly observes that “confessing sins is part of ‘walking in the light,’ which is what we must do if the blood of Jesus is to go on cleansing us from our sins.” He derives this from 1 John 1:7. The other passage that indicates our forgiveness of sin is in a way dependent on our confession of sin is Matthew 6:12. Jesus commands that when we pray we ask for forgiveness. Now, if all of our sins past, present, and future are covered and forgiven as a result of God’s grace and our faith in Jesus, how is it that our continued forgiveness is somehow dependent on our confession? In fact, why would we even need to confess sins? Aren’t we seen in light of Christ’s imputed righteousness to us? How can we be justified by faith, once for all, and yet need to go on confessing our daily sins so that we will be forgiven?
Piper finds a very helpful answer in the thoughts of Thomas Watson. Before reading, know that this is a very biblical and correct answer to our question assuming that we understand the ground and purchase of the forgiveness of all our sins (past, present, and future) is the death of Christ Jesus once for all time (Heb. 10:10). This pastor and theologian from the 1600’s sheds wonderful light on this confusing reality:
When I say God forgives all sins, I understand it of sins past, for sins to come are not forgiven till they are repented of. Indeed God has decreed to pardon them; and when he forgives one sin, he will in time forgive all sin; but sins future are not actually pardoned till they are repented of. It is absurd to think sin should be forgiven before it is committed…
The opinion that sins to come, as well as past, are forgiven, takes away and makes void Christ’s intercession. He is an advocate to intercede for daily sin (1 John 2:1). But if sin be forgiven before it be committed, what need is there of his daily intercession? What need have I of an advocate, if sin be pardoned before it be committed? So that, though God forgives all sins past to a believer, yet sins to come are not forgiven till repentance be renewed. (Body of Divinity, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979, p. 558)
Puritan Thomas Watson (1620-1686) gives a very logical answer to this dilemma. Let it be known that our pardon and forgiveness is dependent on nothing but the blood of Christ. But present and future sins are forgiven on this basis “in time”. For if they were forgiven without need of repentance, what need have we of an advocate? Therefore, the answer to our initial question is twofold. The basis of the forgiveness of our sins is the death of Christ. Secondly, our forgiveness is applied to each transgression to remove God’s displeasure of it at the renewal of our repentance. While the “judicial wrath” of God is removed through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the “fatherly displeasure” still remains when his justified children sin against him (Body of Divinity, 556). We are united to Christ by faith and thus are guaranteed forgiveness through our repentance.
The promise of this [new] covenant is that God will never turn away from doing good to us and will never let us turn away from him, but will always bring us back to confession and repentance (Jer. 32:40). (Taste and See, 97)
As a justified believer, when you sin, confess this sin to a Father who is eager to restore his pleasure to you and yearn for the day when there will be no more need for confession of sin or renewal of repentance.