Lee writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, as a Christian, I am often confused on how to respond to God when I sin. On one hand, I believe that Jesus paid all my debts, once and for all, past, present, and future, so that I don’t need to ask for forgiveness when I ask God to restore me and help me to walk with him. On the other hand, I feel the need to ask for forgiveness, that I might be forgiven once again. So my question is, should a Christian ask for God’s forgiveness every time he sins, or not?”
Excellent question. I have wrestled with it over and over again over the years, trying to not only think of what the Bible says about it, but what the best way is to talk about it. Let’s establish, first, that the death of Jesus in our place as a substitute is the cancellation of all our sins, not just the past ones when we get converted.
And the best way to show it would be start with the definition and then go into the New Testament. Here is the definition from Psalm 32:1: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven” — what does that mean? — “whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity.” So to be forgiven is to have sin covered. That is, God is not attending to it as a ground of condemnation, and he is not counting it. He is letting it go. That is forgiveness.
Now Paul quotes that verse in Romans 4:4–5 like this: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift, but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” In other words, through our faith, not our works, God counts us righteous. And then he quotes Psalm 32: “Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count sin’” (Romans 4:6–8).
Covered by Jesus’s Blood
So in Paul’s mind, being counted righteous is the flip side of not being counted a sinner. And here is the important thing: this is a once for all event in Paul’s mind that establishes our identity with God once for all. We don’t drop in and out of justification. The declaration of our righteousness happens by faith when we are united to Christ so that, as Philippians 3:9 says, we have a righteousness not our own, but the righteousness that comes “from God that depends on faith.” And forgiveness of sins is inextricably connected with that once for all imputation of righteousness.
“The blood of Jesus is continually cleansing us from sin while we are walking in the light.”
It‘s the same thing in Hebrews 10:16–18: “This is the covenant that I will make with them . . . I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more. Where there is forgiveness of these” — that is through the death of Jesus — “there is no longer any offering for sin.”
So the point is, when Christ dies for sins, the whole sacrificial system stops because that event covers all our sins, and there is no need for any recurrent sacrifice. There is a once for all-ness about it, because according to Colossians 2:14, he canceled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.”
Praying for Forgiveness
Now when we put our faith in Jesus, this becomes ours. The whole accomplishment becomes ours. But Acts 10:43 — “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” — gets the whole package. And so, the question now becomes, should we then pray for forgiveness if, as Christians, we sin? Because didn't Christ cover them all? So why would we pray for forgiveness?
“The declaration of our righteousness happens by faith when we are united to Christ.”
And I am just going to go to one place to answer this and that is 1 John, because no book is clearer that Christians do sin, and what to do about it. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7–9).
Now notice, that is huge. If we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus his Son is cleansing us from all sin. Well, what does walking in the light mean? Look at verse 8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So walking in the light can’t mean sinlessness. Walking in the light must mean that you are aware when you do sin — you are not blind and dark to it. You see it. Verse 9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” And he has just said that if we walk in the light you get cleansed from your sin. And now he is saying, if you confess your sins, he is faithful and just to forgive your sins and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness.
Confess Your Sins
So confessing sins must be a part of walking in the light. The blood of Jesus is continually cleansing us from sin while we are walking in the light, and walking in the light means being aware when we do sin. Confessing it means I admit it. I did it. I hate it. I don’t want it. That is telling the truth about our sin, and if we do that, we are walking with God in the light. We are not dropping in and out of our relationship with God or light. We are walking in the light. We see our sin as sin. We hate our sin. We confess our sin. And, thus, we are enjoying the promise of verse 7 that when we walk in the light, we are being cleansed of our sin.
So how does John connect the blood of Jesus with our ongoing sin? It seems to me he makes it clear. “Your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1 John 2:12) once for all. But here we must walk in the light to go on enjoying the cleansing forgiveness that he has purchased once and for all.
“Go to the Father every day. Lay hold on what Jesus will purchase for you.”
So what does it mean to go on enjoying like this? It means confessing — not denying — and agreeing that our sin is there and hating it. First John 2:1 says, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” In other words, there is a heavenly and an earthly confession of our sin. We confess it and fly to the blood of Jesus that covers it, and Jesus in heaven confesses it and applies his own blood to it. He is our advocate. He continually takes his finished work and applies it to us day by day as we continually apply his work to us day by day.
So my answer to the question, “Should we pray for forgiveness of ongoing sins?” is yes, if we mean, “Father, I confess I have sinned. I am sorry for it. I hate to dishonor you in this way. Have mercy on me now and cover my sin by the blood of your Son, for this is why he died. I hold fast to him as my only hope.”
Lay Hold of Christ
So when Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Pray then like this . . . Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:9, 12), I think that is what he means: “I am going to the cross for you. I will pour out my blood of the covenant for the forgiveness of sins. Go to the Father every day. Lay hold on what I will purchase for you.”
And if Lee asks, “Must I confess every sin?” My answer is, No, because you can’t even remember them all. You don’t know them all. Rather, join the psalmist in Psalm 19:12–13 and pray like this: “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.”