Some people may be uncertain whether or not repentance is necessary if they confess their sins. One of the scriptures that might cause them to have such uncertainty is 1 John 1:9, which declares, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Although this scripture mentions confession, it does not mention repentance. Does this indicate that it is not necessary to repent for our sins?
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we are quoting a source that uses a different translation. And, when bold print is shown in the scriptures that we quote in this article, it is to focus on certain words that we will be addressing in our subsequent discussion.]
Strong’s Concordance indicates that the word that is translated as confess in 1 John 1:9 means to admit guilt. Strong goes on to state that confess in this scripture means “to confess by way of admitting oneself guilty of what one is accused of, the result of inward conviction.” Strong does not indicate that there is an inference of repentance.
However, there are several scriptures in subsequent chapters of First John that infer that this book of the Bible was written to people who already were Christians. Among these scriptures are 1 John 2:12-14, 19; 3:1; and 5:13. In other words, 1 John 1:9 is applicable to Christians specifically.
Also, the following comments by Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible indicate that 1 John 1:9 is directed to believers (i.e., Christians):
God has given his testimony to the continued sin and sinfulness of the world, by providing a sufficient effectual sacrifice for sin, that will be needed in all ages, and to the continued sinfulness of believers themselves by requiring them continually to confess their sins, and apply themselves by faith to the blood of that sacrifice.
Penitent confession and acknowledgment of sin are the believer’s business, and the means of his deliverance from his guilt.
Although the reference to confession in John 1:9 is evidently applicable to only people who are already Christians, there are at least two and, perhaps, three scriptures in the New Testament which indicate that confession is necessary for people to become genuine followers of the Messiah (i.e., Jesus Christ) who John the Baptist declares will be coming soon.
One of these scriptures is Matthew 3:5-6, which says, “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him [John the Baptist] and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.”
A second scripture that indicates that confession is necessary for people to become followers of Jesus Christ is Mark 1:5, which states, “ [A]ll the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him [John the Baptist] and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.”
A third relevant scripture is Acts 19:18, which says, “And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds.” However, it is not clear if this scripture is stating that those who believed in this instance were confessing their sins in the process of becoming Christians or if they were confessing their sins after they had already become Christians.
In contrast, there are many more New Testament scriptures which stress that those who desire to become Christians need to repent. With regard to the following scriptures, Strong defines the word that is translated repent as “to change one’s mind or purpose . . . for the better.”
Matthew 3:2: In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Matthew 4:17: From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Mark 1:14-15: Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Mark 6:12: So they [Jesus’ disciples] went out and preached that people should repent.
Luke 13:3: [Jesus Christ said] “[U]nless you repent you will all likewise perish.
Acts 2:38: Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 3:19: [Peter said] “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord. . . .”
Acts 17:30: [Paul said] “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent. . . .”
In addition, there are a number of other scriptures that specifically mention the word repentance, rather than the word repent, and all of them pertain to people who are not already Christians. Among these scriptures are the following:
Matthew 3:11: I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Matthew 9:13: [G]o and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Mark 1:4: John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance [or the remission of sins.
Mark 2:17: He [Jesus Christ] said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Luke 3:3: [H]e [John the Baptist] went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,
Luke 5:32: [Jesus Christ said] “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Luke 24:46-47: Then He [Jesus Christ] said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”
Acts 20:20-21: I [the Apostle Paul] kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you [the elders of the church at Ephesus], and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
Thus, there are many scriptures which indicate that repentance is a prerequisite for people to become Christians (i.e., genuine followers of Jesus Christ and His teachings). Surprisingly, there is not even one scripture that we have found which states that repentance is necessary for a person after they have become a Christian.
Summary and Conclusions
The New Testament instructs those who are already Christians to confess their sins, but does not specifically state that it is necessary for them to repent for their sins. Even so, Christians who do not genuinely repent for their sins should not expect God to forgive them for their sins just because they have confessed them. [For a discussion regarding the importance of the evidence of genuine repentance, see the Appendix that follows.]
Furthermore, it is our belief that confession without genuine repentance is not sincere confession. And, we are confident that 1 John 1:9 infers that sincere confession is necessary for a Christian to be forgiven of his (or her) sins. Nevertheless, Christians who do not sincerely confess their sins will not lose their eternal salvation. Instead, they will not be forgiven for those sins and, as a result, it is likely that they will lose some of the heavenly rewards that they would otherwise receive.
In contrast, although the New Testament contains a number of scriptures which teach that people who are not Christians need to repent, it contains only a few scriptures which specifically indicate that people who are not Christians need to confess their sins. For these people, the only way they can have certainty of God’s forgiveness for their sins, as well as have assurance of eternal salvation, is to sincerely confess their sins, genuinely repent for those sins, and trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. [For a discussion of how to receive God’s forgiveness, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?”]
What Is the Significance of Fruits Worthy of Repentance?
In Matthew 3:8, John the Baptist says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “[B]ear fruits worthy of repentance. . . .” [Note: An identical account is recorded in Luke 3:8a.]
In this incident, John was speaking specifically to Pharisees and Sadducees, who were Jews, not Christians. However, it can be argued that this scripture has relevance for everyone who is not a Christian, not just to Pharisees and Sadducees. Furthermore, it can also be argued that this scripture may also be relevant to Christians who harbor certain sins in their life, since the point of Matthew 3:8 is that genuine repentance will result in positive changes in a person’s behavior and, conversely, if a person’s behavior does not show positive changes, that person’s repentance is not genuine.
Before we continue, we think it would be beneficial to define the term repentance. Strong’s Concordance defines the Greek word metanoia that is translated as repentance in Matthew 3:8 as “afterthought, change of mind.” Unger’s Bible Dictionary defines repentance as “ a fundamental and thorough change in the hearts of men from sin and toward God.” And, according to Webster’s Dictionary, repentance “implies full realization of one’s sins or wrongs and a will to change one’s ways.” Webster also notes that a synonym for repentance is penitence, which “implies sorrow over having sinned or done wrong.” So, these three sources combine to indicate that genuine repentance implies both sorrow over having previously sinned and a will (or desire) to not continue to sin.
Now, we will consider what several Bible commentaries have to say about Matthew 3:8 that is relevant to our discussion of fruits worthy of repentance.
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible explains Matthew 3:8, as follows:
Bring forth therefore fruits … – That is, the proper fruits of reformation; the proper evidence that you are sincere. Do not bring your cunning and dissimulation to this work; do not carry your hypocrisy into your professed repentance, but evince your sincerity by forsaking sin, . . .
Fruits – Conduct.
Meet for repentance – Fit for repentance; appropriate to it the proper expression of repentance.
In reference to the same scripture, John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible states,
Yield therefore fruits worthy of repentance. [R]epentance, which is attested by words, is of no value, unless it be proved by the conduct: for it is too important a matter to be estimated lightly, or at random. And so John [the Baptist] affirms, that the solemn declaration, which they made, is not enough, but that, in process of time, their works will make it evident, whether or not they have seriously repented. It ought to be observed, that good works . . . are here called fruits of repentance: for repentance is an inward matter, which has its seat in the heart and soul, but afterwards yields its fruits in a change of life. . . . [R]epentance is an inward renewal of the man, which manifests itself in the outward life, as a tree produces its fruit.
John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible provides the following explanation of Matthew 3:8:
Bring forth therefore fruits,…. That is, if you are truly penitent, if you have a proper sense of sin, and true repentance for it, do such works as are suitable to it, and will show the genuineness of it; for
fruits meet for repentance are the same as “works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20) and as a tree is known by its fruit, so repentance is known by good works; these are the fruits and effects of repentance, and which are proofs with men of the sincerity of it.
With regard to the same scripture, Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible says,
All who are listening to him [John the Baptist] are therefore to bring forth fruit which is worthy of ‘repentance’, of indicating that their hearts and minds are truly changed (truly repentant) by bringing forth fruit which will indicate that God has rained on them with the water of His word and Spirit . . . as his baptism indicates.
And, Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible states in reference to Matthew 3:8,
You come here and thrust yourselves into a crowd of penitents, but this is not enough, true repentance is not a barren thing; neither are your leaves of external profession a sufficient indication of it, you must bring forth the fruits of holiness, fruits that may answer the nature of true repentance. The proper products of habits are called their fruits . . . .
Fruits meet (answerable to amendment of life)
for repentance are works that are the proper product of repentance, or justly answering an external profession of repentance. As faith, so repentance, without works is dead.
All of the aforementioned Bible commentaries indicate that if a person claims to be repentant, the fruit (or works) of that person will demonstrate whether or not their repentance is genuine. Therefore, if a person is truly repentant, their conduct will be significantly better than what it was previously. Conversely, if someone is not truly repentant, their conduct will not show significant improvement. And, because God is omniscient, He knows who is truly repentant and who is not, so repentance that is not genuine has no merit (i.e., it does not result in God’s forgiveness of the applicable sins). [To learn more about God’s omniscience, click on “Is God Really Omnipotent and Omniscient?”]