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, unless indicated otherwise. When words in a quoted scripture passage are shown in bold print, the emphasis is our own.]
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 particular verse 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 verses in subsequent chapters of First John that infer that this book of the Bible was written to people who already were Christians. Among these verses 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 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 to his audience, 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.”
The second scripture is Mark 1:5, which similarly 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.”
And, the third 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 particular 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 several times as many 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 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 Conclusion
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. Conversely, the New Testament teaches that people who are not Christians need to repent, but has only a few scriptures which specifically indicate that people need to confess their sins.
We believe that if a person is already a genuine follower of Jesus Christ and His teachings, it is inconceivable that he/she would sincerely confess their sin(s) to God, but would not also be genuinely repentant. And, although the Bible does not seem to put much emphasis on the confession of sins by a person who desires to become a Christian, it is our belief that confession, as well as genuine repentance, is necessary.