Well, thanks to the people who suggested this verse as a difficult verse they want an explanation on. I will do my best to help you grasp what this verse is saying. The verse says this:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1.9, ESV)
And it is a difficult verse because it seems at face value that it contradicts the wealth of New Covenant Scriptures that we are forgiven because of the work of Jesus, not because of anything we do: that we are saved by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2.8-9), that the way to salvation is through believing in the work of Christ (Acts 16.31) and not by our works (Romans 4.16, 24). If our forgiveness is dependent on our ability to confess, then we are in trouble – you don’t remember all your sins, and nor do I – so how can we possibly confess them all.
This verse is initially so difficult to reconcile with the New Covenant that some people actually seek to remove it from Scripture. I have heard that, against all principles of letter-writing and grammar, that 1 John 1 was written to non-Christians and 1 John 2-5 was written to Christians. I will give you three reasons why this cannot possibly be true, but firstly let’s just realize this: if your theology has to rip a New Testament letter to the church in two to avoid a verse, you are letting your theological system have more weight than the Word of God has. That can only be reading into the text, not reading out of it.
There are three clear reasons this verse applies to Christians today:
- There is no chapter break between 1 and 2 in the original text. You have to rip a letter written to the church into two to make this idea work
- John uses first person plural pronounsin the verse: “we”, “our” and “us”. Now if John says “we”, “our” and “us” he is including himself. You cannot argue that this verse is not to Christians unless you want to make the case that John was not a Christian. If this verse applies to John, it applies to you.
- People haven’t thought through the implications of what they are saying. For people who claim this verse isn’t for Christians, they have to then accept it is for non-Christians. Some people say it is for all non-Christians, others have a special group of non-Christians that 1 John 1 is apparently written to (again, against all possible logic and grammar!). One prominent teacher tells us that this first chapter of 1 John 1 is written to the Gnostics. Now, let’s just ignore the fact that there were no Gnostics around in the 1st century when this letter was penned, and let’s just say that if it is not written to Christians then it must be written to someone! Do the people who think that it written to non-Christians think that non-Christians (whether all of them or just a special group of them) think that non-Christians have to confess all their sins to be righteous? Do they believe that for a certain group of Gnostics the normal rules of salvation by faith don’t apply? It’s just not been thought through.
I appreciate the passion people have for Christ and the complete work, but ripping verses out of the Bible, or relegating them to a secret group of people who no longer exist, because they are difficult to understand is not the way to honour the Word of God. We have to engage with the Word and find out what it means.
So what does 1 John 1.9 mean? Well, firstly, we have established that it is definitely written to Christians. It is written to born-again, righteous, pure, holy, redeemed people. John includes himself in the recipients of the letter – so it is definitely written to Christians, even mature Christians and leaders and elders! Let’s just be honest – sometimes Christians, whether they are new Christians, older Christians or even church leaders – sin. We get caught up in patterns of sinful behaviour and we need to get out. This verse actually gives us a powerful route out of sin, and to relegate it to a 2nd century cult or rip it out of the letter is to do Christians a great disservice because this verse is powerful and will help you when you rightly understand it.
The first thing we need to do to find the meaning of the verse is examine the words that make it up. Let’s start with the word “confess”, which in Greek is homologia. Homo- means the same as, and logia means words, and homologia means to “say the same words as”. It doesn’t mean we have to ball and squall on the floor and weep and wail about all our sins. It isn’t talking about an emotional experience, although sinning, dealing with sin and making declarations can be emotional at times. It is talking about you saying the same thing as God about your sin. So what does God say about your sin?
Firstly, God says that sin is sin. So stop calling it something else. It’s not your personality type, it’s not a bad habit, it’s not my oopsie. It’s sin. Gossip is sin. Stealing is sin. Outbursts of rage is sin. Looking at a woman with lust in the heart, watching porn, is sin. Sex outside of marriage is sin. Cursing Christians is sin. Pride and arrogance is sin. Call it what it is. Face up to the issue – man up and own your sin! Say out loud: “I have sinned. This action I have done is sin, and I want to be free!” Let’s exercise some responsibility.
Secondly, God says that your sin has been paid for on the cross. It has been dealt with. 2 Cor. 5.21 tells us that Christ became sin with your sin so that you could be made the righteousness of God. So your sin has been forgiven and you have died to sin. Sin is not your master anymore because you are under grace (Romans 6.14). Now you have accurately diagnosed your problem as sin, and are not hiding behind an excuse start to declare that you are free from sin, that you are forgiven, that you are redeemed, that you are righteous, that your spirit is pure and holy, that you are born again. Start to declare this outloud. That is confessing your sin – saying what God says about it.
You see you can only have God’s remedy for your problem when you admit God’s diagnosis for your problem. Keep denying it is sin, keep blaming the other people for making you behave like that, you start to distort the world. Your thinking darkens and you become corrupt. Admit it is sin, declare it is sin, then you can declare God’s solution to sin: the blood of Christ and the cross of Christ.
So now you have confessed your sin, we find out that God will do two things. Not because He is merciful and kind (though He is!) but He will do these things because He is faithful and righteous. You see if you have sinned, and you have confessed that sin, then you need to know that God isn’t going to do what He does next because of His goodness but because of His righteousness and faithfulness. Christ died for your sin because of God’s goodness, but now that Christ has paid the full price for sin, it would be unrighteous for God not to help you in your sin!
How does God help us? Well, the Scripture says He forgives us and He cleanses us from all unrighteousness. This again causes problems for us complete work people, we read this and go “well, I am forgiven” and “I am righteous” so what is this about? Let’s just look a little deeper and find out.
Firstly, God forgiving us? Aren’t we forgiven because of Jesus at the cross, rather than because of our awesome confession? It depends what you mean by forgive. The Greek word for forgive is also equally translated as separate, and even as divorce a couple of times. It means to firmly and deliberately separate two things. This verse isn’t talking about God forgiving us because we finally said sorry – I know it’s been preached that way, but God is not waiting for an apology! Forgiveness is rooted in the cross, not our apology. It’s talking about the fact that God will separate you from your sin – when you start declaring what the Bible says about your sin, you find that sin loses it’s power to tempt you, to control you, to hold you. When you start declaring that you are free from sin, and sin has no dominion over you because you are under grace not law, that sin loses its power to con you into thinking you have to obey it. That is what 1 John 1.9 means by forgiveness – it’s about being free from that sin.
Then the cleansing from all unrighteousness. Look, we all should know that our spirits are righteous the moment we get born again. You are totally righteous in your spirit. Therefore, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this Scripture is not talking about our spirit! Then it shouldn’t be too difficult to realize it’s talking about our souls. Your spirit is righteous, but your soul – not so much. If you had an x-ray machine that could see spirit and soul, and you were standing next to Jesus and you set the machine to spirit – you would not be able to tell the difference between you and Jesus. You are one spirit (1 Cor. 6.17). That’s awesome – your spirit is the righteousness of God.
But if you turned the dial on the machine and set it to soul – to thought processes, to how we think and respond and feel. I am guessing it wouldn’t be that hard to work out which one is Jesus and which one is us! Our souls are not yet fully renewed and not yet fully restored – we are a work in progress in our souls. But when we start declaring the Word of God and what God says about sin – confessing our sins – then God, in His faithfulness and righteousness – starts to cleanse our souls from that unrighteousness. Our thoughts start to line up with His thoughts, our ways subsume into His ways. It’s awesome! You see now why the power of this verse means that it should not be relegated to non-Christians or Gnostics or ripped out of the Bible! It’s part of grace!
Now you sin and most of the time, you can pick yourself up again. This verse isn’t saying to confess all our sins, it’s talking about those times where a sin or group of sins just seems to be having the victory over us and our life. Sometimes, and it happens to all of us, a certain sin just seems to get the better of us. It seems to be winning. In those cases, here are the 4 steps to victory:
- Agree with God that it is a sin. Stop making excuses or blaming the others, or your DNA, or the situation. It is sin. Confess (declare) that your actions are sinful. This is the diagnosis that allows the remedy – if you can’t make the right diagnosis, you won’t take the right cure!
- Agree with God that sin has been dealt with on the cross. Start to declare and agree with God that sin has been dealt with. That you died to sin, that sin is not your master. Read Romans 6.1-14 out loud. Declare that it is for freedom that you have been set free. Declare that your spirit is righteous, that you are pure and holy. Confess (agree with God) that this sin has been dealt with on the cross.
- God will then forgive (separate) you from your sin. You will find as you declare and agree with God what He says about your sin that it’s power is dethroned. Your confession gives you authority and wisdom. It dislodges the sin from your thoughts, and God jumps in and separates you and your sin.
- God will cleanse you (your soul) from all unrighteousness. He will start to help you renew your mind and think God thoughts.
The Christian life is not just health and wealth, it’s also manifest righteousness. It’s living free from sin, living free from selfishness. Never having to lose relationships because of your selfishness is one of the best blessings about living the Christian life. And confession of sin, as defined Biblically – not culturally or dogmatically – is one of the most powerful tools in the Christian life. Don’t follow the people who because of the misusers of this verse have become non-users of this verse! Become a user of this verse and learn how to live a life free from sin today.