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Can we be forgiven of things we don't presently know are sinful? In 1 John 1:9, we're told the following (NKJV, emphasis added):

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

I've recently been listening to a debate on whether a Christian can be forgiven of sins of ignorance, things one doesn't presently know to be sinful. In the debate, three different interpretations of confessing sins are offered, with only two of the three being endorsed by either of the two debaters. I'll list them in order of how specific the confession must be.

  1. To "confess our sins," we must name every instance of sin we ever committed. "On October 11th, I lied to my boss about why I was late to work." (Neither debater took this extreme position.)

  2. We don't have to name off the time and date of every sin we ever committed, but we do need to confess "our sins" (not simply that we're sinful). Therefore, if we commit the sin of lying, then just praying, "Forgive me of my sins" is too general; we must ask forgiveness for lying specifically. "Father, forgive me for the times I've lied." This also implies we must know that lying is sinful, or else we won't know to confess it. If we don't know that lying is sinful, we must find out and then confess the sin of lying before we're forgiven.

  3. If we make general confessions of sin (e.g., "Forgive me of my sins"), we are confessing sin. And if we confess any sin at all, 1 John 1:9 says we'll be cleansed from "all unrighteousness." Therefore, if we're guilty of things we don't yet know are sinful, they'll also be forgiven.

The three positions above hinge on what it means to "confess our sins," whether it's (1) listing off each and every specific sin we committed, (2) confessing each type of sin we committed, or (3) confessing that we've sinned in general.

Do other passages in Scripture that use the phrase "confess sins" ever involve (3) general confessions? Specifically, I'm looking for whether verses use the expression "confess sins" but involve general confessions, if such verses exist. For example, Nehemiah 1:6 might qualify since it says Nehemiah would "confess the sins of the children of Israel" (NKJV, emphasis added) but, I assume, did not involve listing each type of sin.

What does it mean to "confess our sins"? Does the expression "confess sins" ever involve (3) a general confession in Scripture? If so, where, and does it shed light on 1 John 1:9?

Note: My primary question is on what the phrase "confess ... sins" means in 1 John 1:9 and, to back up one's answer, verses elsewhere in Scripture where "confess sin" is used in that sense (hence my example of Nehemiah 1:6). This is a Hermeneutics site, so focus more on how the expression "confess sin" is used in Scripture rather than the general theology of forgiveness.

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  • 4
    I suggest this would be better on SE-Christianity, rather than here.
    – Nigel J
    Aug 23, 2023 at 19:08
  • 2
    I have to agree that this is a Christianity question
    – Mary
    Aug 24, 2023 at 0:15
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    It should be in here if there is scriptural reference to answer the question Aug 24, 2023 at 14:24
  • I added a note to clarify what I'm asking about, which better explains why my question makes sense on Hermeneutics.
    – The Editor
    Aug 24, 2023 at 15:24

3 Answers 3

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There are several points to note about the state of human sinfulness:

  1. All are sinful, Rom 3:10-23, 1 John 1:8, 10, Ps 51:5, etc.
  2. The human condition is so desperate that many times we do not even realize we are sinning. Thus, the Bible often talks about "sins of ignorance", and "unintentional sins", Heb 9:7, Eze 45:20, Lev 4:27, 5:18, Num 15:24, 15:25, Acts 17:30, etc.

Thus, it is humanly impossible to even be aware of the full extent of our sinful state - only God knows this. Indeed, the Bible also talks about the "mystery of iniquity" (2 Thess 2:7).

Lastly note that 1 John 1:8, 10 discuss two types of sin:

  • V8 - "sin" is a noun and thus a state of being - it is describing a person's sinful state and tendencies
  • V10 - "sin" is a verb and this refers to sinful acts

Thus, sin is both an act and a state of existence.

Therefore, when 1 John 1:9 talks about confessing our sins, and based upon V8 and V10, we must confess both our known acts of sin and confess our sinfulness and sinful state, our sinful tendencies. This necessarily must include our sins of ignorance about which, by definition, we know nothing about.

I leave it to the Holy Spirit (John 16:7, 8) and the individual to decide how specific such confession should be. The eternal gospel of heaven (Rev 14:6, 7) has two outstanding teachings:

  • we are great sinners
  • Jesus is a much greater and far more gracious Savior.
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It will be make clear when reading verse 8-10 together

8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

  • vv8 - 'If we claim to be without sin' - the claimer implies he will not sin in the past and to the future. So he deceives himself for nobody will believe his words and only he does.
  • vv10 - 'If we claim we have not sinned' - the claimer implies he has not sinned in the past but if he sinned in the future, he will confess his sin. So he was called a liar for he deceives others with a claim he does not intend to do.
  • vv9 - 'If we confess our sins' - the claimer is giving a general confession.

David confessed to the Lord

But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. (Psalm 19:12 NIV)

If Nathan did not pay him a visit, would David revive from his struggling guilt and received pardon from the Lord? David knew there is nothing the Lord won't know

You, God, know my folly; my guilt is not hidden from you. (Psalm 69:5 NIV)

Therefore, it is not the action a confession made to claim righteousness, it is the truth of heart to God to claim righteousness. A person that honest to himself should know there are sins he is aware of, and some may not. For the Lord is the final judge and we are not, we ourselves cannot pardon our own sins. It should be a good practice to exercise all three options truthfully in our heart, but not a performance in public.

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Accepting that one is a sinner is the beginning of conversion, but to make a general confession that one has sinned is almost meaningless. Christians already know that everyone, including themselves, has sinned.

Confession requires not only an admission of sin in general, but of specific instances of sin.

The underlying problem in this question is that confession is treated strictly as if confession itself is a goal that one achieves and then is rewarded for.

In a superficial way it is, but really it isn't. Confession is simply a tool one uses to work toward the real goal.

Confession is only the first step in a long process:

  • This is what I did (recognize).
  • It was wrong to do it (recant).
  • It was wrong because … (regret).
  • Where possible, I will undo whatever damage I caused (redress).
  • I did it because …  (recognize).
  • I want to do never do it again (remorse).
  • God's holy spirit will help me to know when I am about to do it again (reconnect).
  • God's holy spirit will help me to refrain from doing it (reinforce).
  • With time, the thought of doing it will become abhorrent to me, and not doing it will become natural (repent).
  • I have become a new person (rehabilitate).
  • God has forgiven my sin (reconcile, remission, redemption).
  • My character is now one step closer to God's perfect character (refine).

That process started with the recognition of a single instance of sin and ended with a more God-like character.

That instance was almost certainly only one of many times that the same sin was committed. But that one confession has served its purpose; there is no longer any need to confess any other instances of that specific sin.

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