What About Unconfessed Sin?
by Paul Hazelden


Contents

•   Introduction
•   Two failed answers
    Universalism
    Traditional Evangelicalism
•   Understanding the problem
    Law
    Sin
•   God's answer
    Sacrifice
    True forgiveness
    Restored relationship
•   Objections
    We underestimate God's holiness
    Sin against the Holy Spirit
•   Conclusion
•   Links

Introduction

The question of unconfessed sin reveals a massive gap in traditional evangelical theology. More importantly, it causes untold grief - suffering which God never intended.

Standard evangelical theology says that we need to repent and confess our sins before we can be forgiven. This means that any sins we forget about or do not realise we have committed cannot be forgiven.

Please remember that we are looking at the problem of unconfessed sin in this article - the problem of what happens about the sin you cannot do something about. If you know about a sin and choose not to deal with it, that will leave you with a problem - but it's not the problem we are looking at here!

Two failed answers

  Universalism

Universalism says that we do not need to repent and confess our sins. Our sins have been forgiven already, and we are all going to Heaven whether we realise it or not.

This is clearly not compatible with mainstream Christian theology, which teaches that some people will go to Heaven, while others will go to Hell (see Mat. 7:14 for one example). However, there is considerable Scriptural support for it.

Quite simply, if Christ died 'for the sins of the world' (1 John 2:2), and if He is the 'Saviour of all men' (1 Tim. 4:10), then the sins of the world have been forgiven and everyone goes to Heaven.

What does it mean to say that Jesus died for the sins of the world? The Reformed answer is that Jesus' death only gave the potential for all men to be saved, but in practice Jesus only died for the sins of the Elect. If we believe this, we cannot tell people 'Jesus died for you' in our evangelism, because we just do not know. He may have done, but we cannot tell until they are either saved or dead.

It's not much of a message to give people. It maintains a logical and consistent position, but does so at the expense of a clear and simple gospel message. I could accept that, if this was the only way to remain faithful to Scripture, but it also requires us to interpret these passages in a way that directly opposes their apparent and straighforward meaning.

The standard evangelical answer is that Jesus died to give everyone the possibility of eternal life - not salvation, but the offer of salvation. But we are still left with the Universalist's challenge: if Jesus died for everyone's sins, why aren't everyone's sins forgiven? Granted, not everyone believes and accepts this forgiveness, but even so, if Jesus has died for the sins of those who do not believe in Him, why do they not go to Heaven as well?

So - Universalism denies part of the Bible's clear teaching in order to remain faithful to another part. The traditional responses counter Universalism only by denying other parts of the Bible. Neither the Universalists nor their critics seem to have the answer we are looking for.

  Traditional Evangelicalism

Back to the problem of unconfessed sin.

The answer given in most evangelical sermons on this subject is that we need to pray. If we ask God, he will reveal our sins, and we can then deal with them through repentance and confession.

I have to be careful to moderate my language here.   Of all the unhelpful, trite and destructive things I have heard repeated in evangelical sermons over the years, this aspect of our teaching has possibly caused more harm than any other. Many faithful Christians have carried a burden of guilt and shame through their lives, and much of their suffering comes directly from this false teaching.

I am passionate about this subject because I know something of the way it has blighted peoples' lives. The longer I live, the greater the damage I see being done in this area by well intentioned evangelicals.

The basic problem with this answer is: it just does not work. I have met many people who believed this teaching, but not one who can testify that it has worked in their lives.

The strange thing is that we boldly proclaim you can have full assurance of salvation, while effectively denying that you can have full assurance of forgiveness. It is impossible to be sure that you have confessed every sin. You can pray, and God will generally reveal something wrong in your life. But this has the opposite effect to that promised.

Instead of leaving the believer with a clean conscience, it re-inforces the belief that there are many more unconfessed sins remaining to be dealt with. Every now and then, the sensitive soul will 're-commit' themselves to the Lord; they will offer up a blanket confession, and feel much better for a few days or weeks. But slowly they come the the realisation that nothing has fundamentally changed, and life returns to normal. Knowing you have unconfessed, and therefore unforgiven sins, is just something you have to learn to live with. Even if the preachers don't explicitly tell you so.

This is bad enough. Unfortunately, it gets worse. The real damage is done when you combine this belief with another standard aspect of evangelical preaching - the conviction that God can only use a 'clean vessel'.   This combination of beliefs produces two outcomes.

Firstly, you find many Christians spend their entire lives waiting to be made holy enough to start the work God has (we are all assured) lined up for them. They may get involved in various ways, help out with this or that, volunteer for something or serve on a committee or two. But they are always waiting for the real, significant work that is going to come their way when they become mature enough to be clean vessels and fit to do the Lord's work.

I hardly need to spell out what this means. For some, they are doing the work the Lord has planned, but are unable to enjoy it, or take the appropriate degree of delight, satisfaction and pride in what they do, because they are convinced He has something else planned, so this must be a temporary, second best type of service they are offering. For others, they cannot take up the ministry God is calling them to because they are 'not ready', 'not sufficiently prepared' or some such excuse.   They hardly ever say it is because they are too sinful or not forgiven enough - we evangelical Christians don't admit to such things - but that is what it boils down to in the end.

The second problem is experienced by those who commit themselves to some Christian ministry that God is clearly calling them to exercise. They often make that commitment in faith that God will 'sort them out' - the expectation being, of course, that He will do this before they start the work, of course. Such people often throw themselves enthusiastically into the ministry - maybe as a Priest, Pastor, or some other full time Christian worker - and know God's blessing on their ministry and life, but all the time there is a nagging fear or conviction they they are living a lie. True Christian Ministry can only come from someone with 'clean hands and a pure heart' (Psalm 24:4), and the more they work at it, the more conscious they are that this is something they are lacking.

Every time they stand up and proclaim the gospel or pronounce God's forgiveness of sins, they are convicted of their own need to 'get clean' before God, and their own inability to attain that state. They are condemned by their own sermons, but keep going because they are convinced that what they preach is right, even if they are too immature, weak or sinful to enjoy the wonderful blessings they describe. I am convinced that some sermons are little more than simple wishful thinking, while others have a real element of faith in them: if I can preach it fervently enough, perhaps I will come to believe it myself.

There are many factors which combine to produce stress in the ministry. But I am convinced that one vital and often unrecognised source of stress is the fact that many ministers of the gospel believe themselves to be living a lie. They preach sound evangelical theology, they proclaim you can live as a Christian enjoying your relationship with the Father as a forgiven and restored child, but they fail to enjoy and delight in that relationship themselves because of the unconfessed sin they know to be lurking in their lives.

Understanding the problem

I could continue to describe the problem in much more graphic detail, describing many conversations I have had with people over the years But I doubt that anything more needs to be said: most people recognise the problem easily enough. The question is, what can be done about it? Before we come to look at the Biblical answer, we need to look in a little more detail at what the Bible says about the problem.

A major part of our difficulty lies in the fact that we fail to understand the Bible's clear teaching about how we can become guilty. On the one hand, we are guilty for far more than we generally recognise, but on the other hand, we often feel guilty when God says we are innocent.

  Law

The law is much more than the Ten Commandments.

It is reasonably easy to avoid murder and adultery - at least, it was before Jesus re-defined them! But other aspects of the law are much harder to keep. How many of us manage to love our neighbour as ourselves, even for one day?

But even in the Old Testament, when the sixth commandment only said you must not kill people, there were many sins you could commit without realising it. You could use the wrong saucepan by mistake, or you could walk over an unmarked grave and not realise you were ritually unclean.

If you think of the law as being restricted to the ten commandments, it may be just about keepable (although the one that says don't covet is quite tricky) - but when you add all the rest of Leviticus, it's quite impossible.

  Sin

We often fail to distinguish between different types of sin. Although we have several words - sin, transgression, wrongdoing - we only seem to have one concept.

But in the Bible, the language is much more subtle.   Or, to be precise, the languages. In both the Old and the New Testaments, there is one main word (or root) which is translated as 'sin' in English. In the Hebrew, it is 'chata' and in the Greek, 'hamartia'. In both languages, the root meaning is 'to miss'.

The usual picture used to describe the root meaning of the word is that of archery. You aim at a target, and if you miss, the word is 'hamartia'. Now, it is easy to see how this meaning gets applied in a moral sense. A physical falling short easily becomes an image of a moral falling short, failing to make the mark, failing to achieve the expected standard.

But the point remains that the base meaning of the word is not essentially moral failure, just failure in general.   In the Old Testament, 'sin' is also used to translate 'shagah - 'to stray' - which may be a stupid thing to do, but again, is not primarily a moral issue. It is also used to translate 'avown' (fault) and 'asham' (guilt) - which are clearly moral failings.

Does this matter? You bet it does! For the sake of our own mental health, and to be responsible in our interpretation of Scripture, we simply have to recognise that:

Failure is not always a moral issue.

I have to ask you: did Jesus ever sin? In the moral sense, that is - did He ever do anything blameworthy, incur guilt for a moral lapse? The New Testament is very clear that he was faultless, spotless, innocent.

But the New Testament also records that He was born as a baby, and grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). This means He was less wise, and then became more wise. He grew, He developed like any other infant. He had to learn to walk and talk like any other child. He did not spring into existence as a fully formed, perfect adult human being.

I have never heard anyone from the mainstream evangelical church teach that Jesus did everything perfectly first time. He would have been a very strange child if He had never mispronounced a word or got His grammar confused when learning to talk, or if He never stumbled and fell when learning to walk. Or if the first time He ever threw a stone, (and every subsequent time) He hit precisely the spot He was aiming for. He certainly would not have been human like us if that were the case!

But people who are quite willing to concede that Jesus must have failed at times when He was learning to do things, and that these failures were not moral lapses - these people are often very reluctant to accept the idea that some of their own failures are not moral lapses.

To put it bluntly, many Christians believe they are expected to be more perfect than Jesus was.

We see imperfection as a moral failure, when often it is the best that can be achieved in imperfect circumstances. I am convinced that much of the time, what we consider to be a sorry failure, God regards as as a stunning success. We blame ourselves for falling short of some standard, when the failure is not a moral one, and our Father is delighted we have achieved the very best He hoped for.

Now, please don't get me wrong: I am not saying that we do not sin, or even that we don't sin quite a lot. But we seem to spend a lot of time worrying about things which are not sins, while totally ignoring many things which are far more morally damaging.

God's answer

  Sacrifice

The Bible tells us a great deal about sacrifice.   The Old Testament describes numerous types of sacrifice. One common way of approaching the sacrifices is to put them into three groups:

When more than one sacrifice was being offered (Num. 6:16-17, for example) they were generally offered in this sequence - which makes sense. Similarly, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest had to offer a sacrifice for his own sin and that of his family before he could officiate on behalf of the nation (Lev. 16:11-15).

It is clear in the Old Testament that if you knew you had sinned, you were responsible for making the appropriate sacrifice. But it is also clear that on the Day of Atonement the High Priest must carry out his duties 'because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. (Lev. 16:16, my emphasis). In other words, the sacrifice covered all the sins the Israelites did not know about.

This point is made explicit in the New Testament, in Hebrews 9:7. Most translations say that the High Priest enters the sanctuary but once a year, 'and not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the sins (or errors) of the people'. However, the NIV accurately reflects the original Greek, which does not use the usual word for sin or error, but instead uses 'agnoematon' (literally, 'ignorances'). Clearly, the main focus was on the sins the people did not realise they had committed.   The others, we assume, had already been forgiven.

  True forgiveness

Of course, the sacrifices of the Old Testament could not really deal with sin. They were only a foreshadowing of the one perfect and complete sacrifice offered by Jesus.   But the sacrifices of the Old Testament help us understand Christ's work in the New, as the Hebrews 9 passage explains.

The key point is that the work of Jesus is better, 'more perfect', more effective than the activities described in the Old Testament. His work cannot be 'more perfect' if He failed to deliver forgiveness to those who are ignorant of their sin, since this is part of what was promised (and, in faith, delivered) under the old covenant.

So it is clear that Jesus, in His High Priestly role, offered Himself as an atonement for all our sins - both the ones we know about and the ones we are ignorant of.   Both the sins we have confessed, amd the sins we have not confessed.

  Restored relationship

If this is true, someone may object, why do we bother to repent and confess our sins at all? But this objection completely misses the point.

The forgiveness of sins is a means, not an end in itself. God's purpose is not to forgive us, but to restore us.

Yes, we could refuse to repent and confess. Our sins would be just as forgiven. But we would be continuing to live outside the relationship of love and obedience our Heavenly Father desires for us to have with Him.

The problem with sins is not that it needs to be forgiven (since this has already been done), but that it gets in the way of our relationship with our Father.

Why does sin get in the way of our relationship with our Father? Not because He refuses to forgive us until we repent - we are forgiven already. But God is truth - ultimate reality - and if we withdraw from reality (by pretending the action is not wrong, for example) we hold ourselves back from Him.

This is why confession is so important: the honest acknowledgement of the truth. Yes, I did it, and yes, I know it was wrong. As we accept the truth, we find ourselves in touch with the One Who is Truth.

And since the God of truth is also good, once we know something to be wrong, we must choose whether to continue holding on to that wrongness, or to repent and turn to God once more.

Confession and repentance are not mechanical actions He requires of us before allowing us to regain fellowship with Him, but the two key ingredients which bring us to a renewed and restored relationship with this God Who is both good and loving.

But they are only essential if we know we have sinned. I cannot confess a sin I do not know about. But then, if I do not know about it, I am not refusing to acknowledge the truth - I am not holding myself back from the God of truth.

Equally well, if I do not know something is wrong, I cannot repent of it. But then, I am not holding onto something I know to be wrong. I am not choosing to embrace evil, so it does not hinder my fellowship with a holy God.

As soon as my eyes are opened, as soon as the Holy Spirit reveals an area of sin im my life, then I must respond: I must confess the truth of what He has revealed, accept the truth of my own sinfulness, and turn away from it so that my relationship with Him can be restored. But until He chooses to reveal this sin, until He decides that the time is right for me to take this step, He is content for me to live in ignorance.

Rooting out all the sin in my life is a process that will take all my life. It a process called 'sanctification. It is the way God has chosen to work. He has decided we will not be made perfect in an instant. He has decided to form us into the image of Jesus one step at a time. How could a loving God turn His face from me today because of sin which He has chosen not to reveal to me until tomorrow?

Objections

I intend to add to this section if anyone raises with me any objection to the basic message of this article. No objections have come this way as yet. Here are a couple of issues I have come across in other contexts.

  We underestimate God's holiness

It is suggested that any approach which attempts to explain or justify God's behaviour in sending sinners to Hell is misguided because we under-estimate the importance of God's holiness: He would be entirely justified if He chose to save nobody. Nobody deserves to be saved, and if He chooses to save some, that is an expression of His grace.

I quite agree that we generally under-estimate the importance of God's holiness. I also agree that He would be entirely justified if He chose to send everyone to Hell. But He has chosen not to do this - for which I am most grateful - and He has chosen to tell us a great deal about who will end up in Heaven or Hell and why. I am not seeking to 'justify' God's behaviour, only to understand as clearly as possible what He has chosen to reveal.

  Sin against the Holy Spirit

Matthew 12:31-32 tells us about a sin that cannot be forgiven. There are equivalent passages in Mark (3:28-29) and Luke (12:10). How does this teaching fit into the framework described here?

It is interesting to note that this is one of the standard 'difficult' passages, and the standard interpretation fits very well into the framework I have described.

Context is always vital, and especially so in this case. In both the Matthew and Mark passages, the context is that people were claiming that the source of Jesus' power was Satan (or 'Beelzebub') - Matthew 12:24 and Mark 3:22. In Luke, the context is a collection of sayings, some of them fairly obscure, which rely on other passages for their clarification.

In both Matthew and Mark people are attributing actions which are clearly right and good to the powers of darkness. If someone chooses to believe that good is evil, they are both rejecting the good and turning their backs on the truth.   In other words, they are choosing to reject God.

God reveals Himself more clearly at some times than at others; He reveals Himself more clearly in some situations than in others. It is less seriouus to reject an unclear revelation of God than a clear revelation. The clearer the revelation, the more important our response to it.

The essence of the normal evangelical interpretation of these passages is that, if you deliberately and knowingly reject God (even if you do not call what you are doing by that name) then there is no hope for you. You cannot be forgiven, because you have rejected the only source of forgiveness.

The clear teaching of these passages, and others, is that it is possible to reject God in such a way as makes forgiveness impossible - not because God has decided to give up on them, but because they have decided to give up on God. This fits very well into the framework being described here.

Conclusion

I could go on much longer. I could quote many more passages, but I suspect little more would be added.   Once you have seen this truth, you can recognise it running as a golden thread throughout the Bible.

There is no problem with unconfessed sin, because our sins have been forgiven. If we choose to hold onto sin, that choice makes a barrier between us and God. If we choose to reject Him and turn away from Him, the fellowship is broken, the joy gone. But that does not mean He ceases to love us, or changes His mind concerning the forgiveness He has already granted, forgiveness for every one of our sins.

If you have never turned to God, then turn to Him now - accept the love and the forgiveness He offers. Be accepted as a member of His family. If you are already His child, enjoy the love and forgiveness which are already yours, and allow Him to guide you through the steps of sanctification as your relationship with Him deepens with each passing day, month and year.

He will not hold your sins against you, so don't allow them to mar the joy of your relationship with Him, or to hold you back from the path He wants you to follow. You will never be perfect, not in this life - but He wants to use you the way you are. Why not allow Him the joy of seeing His desires for you fulfilled?

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