Death and Unconfessed Sin
What happens to a Christian who dies with a known yet unconfessed sin in his life? Does he die in an unforgiven state? If he dies unforgiven, then what is the result?
This question reflects a very common misunderstanding of at least four important things: 1) the doctrine of justification, 2) the doctrine of sanctification, 3) the biblical teaching on the confession of sin, and 4) the interpretation of 1 John 1:9.
Christ's Righteousness is Imputed to Us
A Christian is a person who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit (John 1:12-13; 3:5-8; Eph. 2:1). As such this person is justified, which means he or she has been declared righteous because of the imputation of the perfect righteousness of Christ. In other words, Christ's perfect obedience is credited to this person, which is apprehended by faith (Rom. 3:24-26; Eph. 2:8-9).
In justification a person is not made righteous but is declared so, so that he or she is "covered" by the righteousness of Christ (Phil. 3:9). It is this imputed righteousness that gives us a right standing before God and since Christ's righteousness is perfect and unchanging the person that has faith in him never loses that right standing.
We Consciously Seek to Do God's Will
In sanctification those who have been justified are being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29-30, Eph. 2:10, Phil. 2:13). That is, they are being made righteous which means they will consciously seek to do the will of God in thought, word, and deed.
There are, however, a few things to be noted about our pursuit of holiness in this life. First, our holiness in this life will never be perfect (Isaiah 64:6, Luke 17:10). Second, our performance of good works is not what sustains our right standing with God. What sustains us is the righteousness of Christ, which is why Paul says that he "became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30).
Good Works Have No Merit Apart from Christ
Contrary to what many evangelicals think, we are not saved by faith and then sustained by our own good works. This would require all of our good works to be perfect in and of themselves and that is simply not the case. Third, our good works are done in faith and have no merit apart from Christ who is our mediation and High Priest (1 Tim. 2:5, Heb. 13:15-16).
Confession of Sin Has No Inherent Power
As for the confession of sin, it is evident from the Lord's prayer (Matt. 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4) that this should be a regular part of the Christian life, but there is no inherent power in the act of confession. This leads us to consider 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
The Greek word translated as "confess" means "to agree, acknowledge, or give assent." When we are brought to faith we are enabled by the Holy Spirit to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). In other words, we confess that we are sinners under the just wrath of a holy God and by faith we confess that Jesus has lived for our obedience and died for our sins. It is this faith driven confession that united us to the atoning work of Christ.
What John is alluding to in 1 John 1:9 is the repentance that is an ongoing part of our sanctification. As Christians regularly attend the appointed means of grace (hearing the Gospel preached and taking part in the Lord's Supper), their sins are regularly revealed and they in turn confess those sins and repent.
Every Christian Dies with Unconfessed Sin
As previously stated, we never reach a state of sinless perfection in this life. Therefore, every Christian that dies does so with unconfessed sin. The distinction between known and unknown sins is an empty one in light of the holiness of God. Our confidence and our assurance is in our confession of Christ alone for salvation. But we must be careful not to make confession a work upon which the sustaining power of Christ's atonement is contingent.
Reader's comment, January 2007: This article set me free concerning works that I thought I needed to maintain or do in order to stay a born again believer. Thank you for truth. Truth that set me free this day. I couldn't stop smiling after reading the article.