What about 1 John 1:9? Part one.

Posted: Fri. Dec, 1 2017


1 John 1:9
9  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

At first glance, this verse appears very cut and dry.

If we confess our sins, God, being faithful and righteous, will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

If we don’t , He won’t.

God forgives us of our sins when we confess them. So when we don’t confess them, God doesn’t forgive us.

However, there are several problems with this interpretation.


Have our sins already been forgiven ?

Just to be clear, whenever I use "we" or "us" or "our" in this blog, I am referring to Christians - believers in Christ, redeemed and justified and sealed in Christ forever.

First, we are told in several passages in the epistles that we have forgiveness of sins.  That our sins have already been forgiven.  All of them.

EPH 1:7-8
  In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He lavished on us.

EPH 4:32
32  Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

COL 1:13-14
13  For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, 14  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

COL 2:13-14
13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

COL 3:13-14
13  bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

To  be redeemed is to have the forgiveness of sins.  As believers in Christ, we have already been redeemed.  So our sins have already been forgiven.

ROM 4:23-25
23 Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.

By the blood of Christ our sins have been forgiven.  So God justifies us: He credits our faith as His righteousness.  Justification follows redemption.

In other words, if you are justified, your sins have been forgiven.  God credits our  faith as righteousness, having forgiven our lawless deeds and covered our sins.  The Lord will never take our sins into account. Our sins and lawless deeds He will remember no more.

One more verse on this, and it is particularly relevant, since it appears in the letter of 1 John itself.

1 John 2:12
12 I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name's sake.


The basis for forgiveness of sins in the New Testament

Second, outside of 1 John 1:9, the basis for the forgiveness of sins in the New Testament is NOT confessing sins.

 It turns out that the forgiveness of sins is mentioned over 40 times  in the New Testament.  Of those 40 or so, just one  - 1 John 1:9 - links forgiveness with confessing sins.  (Some might claim that   James 5:16 does also, but a careful read of the passage shows that prayer is the basis for forgiveness in this passage, not confession of sins.)

The top two reasons given in the New Testament for sins being forgiven are the blood of Christ (in the epistles)  and forgiving others (in the gospels, particularly Matthew).


Are we completely cleansed already by the sacrifice of Christ?

Third,  other passages in the New Testament  besides 1 John 1:9  say that we, believers in Christ, are already  completely cleansed.

The blood of Christ has already cleansed us. That’s Hebrews 9:11-10:14.

In addition to that, it seems pretty clear that once you are cleansed of ALL unrighteousness, that’s a finished work and never has to be repeated again.

HEB 10:1-2
1 For the Law, since it has only  a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins?

If someone has no consciousness of sins, if his conscience is clear concerning his sins,  how exactly is he to confess his sins? 

While the sacrifices of the Law could never make perfect the worshiper, the one offering of Christ HAS perfected us - for all time!

HEB 10:14
14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.


A dilemma

This is a real dilemma.  How can 1 John 1:9 say one thing, but the rest of the New Testament say something else?

There are a few ways out of it.

First, you could say that John is right, and Paul and the writer of Hebrews are wrong.

Or you could reverse that and say that John is wrong.

Except that the entire Bible is written by the Holy Spirit and NONE of it is wrong!

So we are left with the possibility that we may be missing something.

Is there something about 1 John that distinguishes this letter from the epistles of Paul, in such a way as to clear up any seeming contradictions?  Are we looking at 1 John 1:9 the wrong way?  Does it serve a different purpose from the one that is popularly attributed to it?

It is this possibility that has led to this study.

One thing is for sure:  It’s never a good idea to establish a foundational teaching out of one verse.

 It’s a big red flag actually when a teaching is based on a certain interpretation of a single verse.  Especially when a central pillar of Christianity is at stake - like the forgiveness of our sins.

Yet this is exactly what people have done with this verse.

They have constructed entire teachings, about forgiveness, and fellowship, and cleansing, using this one verse. And you never would have come up with those  teachings if you had been studying the rest of the New Testament apart from this verse.

That’s not to say we should ignore this verse, or dismiss every one of these teachings.  Far from it.

But we do need to put 1 John 1:9 in its proper place among the teachings of the New Testament epistles.

And in order to do that, we need to understand how the letter of 1 John relates to the rest of the New Testament.


Five alternatives

But let’s begin now by considering the following question:

 Why should we care about getting 1 John 1:9 right?

To answer that, we will now introduce five alternative interpretations of  1 John 1:9.

  1.  It’s about the sanctification of believers.  Believers must continually confess all their sins in order to remain in fellowship with God, be forgiven of their sins, and thereby make progress in overcoming the flesh so as to grow spiritually.  This interpretation by necessity splits the forgiveness of sins into two pieces: positional versus experiential, or pre-salvation versus post-salvation.
  2. It’s a gospel message to unbelievers.
  3. It’s directed specifically to Jewish believers in an early Jewish Christian assembly.
  4. It provides the means for identifying true Christian leaders in contrast to false teachers.
  5. It describes Christian believers in contrast to any unbeliever.

Each of these is very different from the others.  You will draw very different doctrinal conclusions about 1 John 1:9 depending on which of these you adopt.

Our daily focus

So what's at stake in interpreting this verse properly?


For one thing, our interpretation of 1 John 1:9 determines what the focus of our daily life as Christians will be.

Are we to focus on our sins, or are we to put that focus on Christ and His word instead?


Our relationship with God

Second, it will influence how we see  our relationship with God.

Is God still our judge in the matter of sins?  Is He operating on a legal basis with us, blessing us for obedience (confessing)  and punishing us for disobedience (unconfessed sins)?

Or does He operate on the basis of grace, blessing us freely first and then obedience can follow?


Our fellowship with God

Third, is our fellowship with God lost every time we sin?

2 Cor 13:14
14  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

If the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is conditioned on having no unconfessed sin, then so is the love of God, according to 2 Cor 13:14.  But is it true that God stops loving us each time we sin?  Is the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ turned off when we sin and turned back on when we confess that sin?


Are there two kinds of forgiveness?

Fourth, are there two kinds of forgiveness of our sins by God, or simply one?  Does God forgive our sins in heaven, and then have to forgive those same sins again on earth if we confess them?

What other verses in the Bible besides 1 John 1;9 teach that there are two kinds of forgiveness of our  sins by God?

At this moment, at any moment in our lives as Christians, are our sins forgiven - or NOT?


Our sanctification

Are we to deal with our sinfulness as believers by confessing our sins? Is this the path to sanctification?

If you think that the right way to deal with your sinfulness is to confess each sin,  you will put your energies into that.

But what if the rest of the epistles are correct? They teach something very different about sanctification.

According to the letters of Paul, Christians are sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

We first put away the old man, considering ourselves dead to sin, putting to death the deeds of the body by means of the Spirit. (EPH 4:22; ROM 6:11-14; ROM 8:4-13.)

Then we are to be renewed in our spiritual mind. (EPH 4:23; ROM 12:1-2.)

And then we put on the new man, so as to walk by means of the Spirit. (Eph 4 :24; GAL 5:16-18; COL 3:1-11).

Tellingly, the Holy Spirit does not appear in 1 John until the last verse of chapter 3.  The Spirit's role throughout 1 John is to enable us to know the truth and discern lies.  His sanctifying work is not mentioned in 1 John.

The Gospel

Most fundamentally, does our interpretation of 1 John 1:9 rest on an adequate understanding of the gospel?

Does it take into account the real nature and extent of our sinfulness?   What passages  like ROM 7:13-25 and MAT 5:20-48 and EPH 4:25-31 reveal about the depth of our sinfulness?  

How much sinning do we really do every day?  How much confessing does that amount to?  And given our ability to rationalize and delay, exactly how much time each day would we be spending  “out of fellowship” ?

Above all else, does it honor what Christ accomplished with His death on the cross?  Or does it betray an inadequate understanding of the victory of the cross?

Did God condemn sin in the flesh at the cross?

Did He cancel out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us?  Has He taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross?

Is the blood of Christ the perfect sacrifice for our sins, or not?

Is Christ the complete propitiation for our sins, or is God not completely satisfied unless we also confess all our sins?

1 John 2:1-2
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.


This calls for a comprehensive study

 So I hope you can see that it matters a LOT how we interpret 1 John 1:9.  There is a lot at stake here.

In fact, the way we interpret this verse can change how we view our redemption, our justification and our sanctification.   These are the fundamentals of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So this calls for a comprehensive study of 1 John 1:9.

We will begin by taking a top-down approach.

Who is the author, and what else is said about him in the New Testament?

What was his purpose in writing 1 John?

How does 1 John 1:9 relate to the Bible as a whole?

What does the rest of the New Testament say about the subjects raised in 1 John 1:9?

What fundamental truths in the New Testament cannot be violated by our interpretation of 1 John 1:9?

How about the rest of John’s writings?  How do they shed light on 1 John 1:9?

How about the other epistles?

How about the epistle of 1 John as a whole?  What is the background of 1 John?  What is the major message of the epistle, and how is it structured?

How about the immediate neighborhood:   1 John 1:1 to 2:14?  What can we learn about 1 John 1:9 by examining the paragraph of which it is a  part?

After that, we will proceed from the bottom up by examining the words, grammar and syntax of 1 John 1:9.

So we have quite a bit of ground to cover here.  We need solid answers to the questions that this verse raises.

The answers can provide the material and perspective we need to accurately and insightfully construct our interpretation of this challenging passage of Scripture.

Next time, we will begin our top-down study of 1 John 1:9.

Until the next time, we’re all ….

In His grip,

Pastor John

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