Monday, February 19, 2007

1 John 1:9

“If we continue to confess our sins, faithful is He and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from every unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).”

We have now arrived at verse 9 of 1 John, a verse which seems to have created some confusion amongst Evangelical Christians concerning the discipline of the “confession of sins.” There are some well-meaning Christians that advocate the false teaching that redeemed believers are not required to confess their sins for any reason at all. It is claimed that the Christian is already justified in Christ, and his sins are forgiven him (Eph. 1:7). Why should the believer, then, confess his sins after being saved in Christ Jesus? Is it not true that all his sins are cleansed by the atoning death of our Savior? Worse, it may even be a sign of a lack of faith if the believer continues to confess his sins. Does he doubt the fact that Christ is able to forgive him of all his sins?

Such an understanding of Scripture confuses the position which a Christian has in Christ with his responsibility as a failing individual on earth. We must seek to understand what John is trying to convey to his readers here in 1 John 1:9. Firstly, is John speaking to unbelievers or believers? John is obviously not referring to unsaved individuals here, as the word “we” includes John himself. He is instructing Christians what to do with sins in their lives. While the sinner is to repent and believe in Jesus’ atoning work on the cross, the saint is to confess his sins. Merriam Webster defines the verb “confess” as “to acknowledge (sin) to God.” Thus, to confess is to own up or to admit that one has indeed committed the sin.

According to Wuest, “The verb [confess] is present subjunctive, speaking of continuous action. This teaches that the constant attitude of the saint toward sin should be one of a contrite heart, ever eager to have any sin in the life discovered for him by the Holy Spirit, and ever eager to confess it and put it out of the life by the power of that same Holy Spirit.” Robertson adds that the “confession of sin to God and to one another (James 5:16) is urged throughout the N.T. from John the Baptist (Mark 1:5) on.” But why should the Christian confess his sins? We must remember that the Christian is justified in the sight of the righteous God, and in legal terms we are indeed forgiven of all our sins - past, present and future. The NT, therefore, seems to convey to us a confusing message. On one hand, we are forgiven of all our sins as believers. On the other hand, we are commanded to confess our sins.

One commentator translates the verse as, “If we confess our sins, He . . . will forgive the sins we confess and moreover will even cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” As fallen creatures with fallen minds, we are unable to perceive every single sin we have ever committed, let alone every sin we will ever commit. God alone knows the full extent of a person’s unrighteousness at any given moment. How are we, then, able to confess all our sins? We cannot. John did not ask us to confess our every sin as if we know all our sins. We are, however, responsible to acknowledge every single sin that we are made aware of by the Holy Ghost. There is thus no need to agonize over sins of which we are unaware. This, however, does not explain why we are required to confess our sins.

As sons of a loving heavenly Father, our positions (as sons) do not change with every sin we commit in our lives as Christians. The Calvinistic proclamation of “Once saved, always saved” is a truism we must not forget. But the son who loves his Father must also acknowledge his faults and failures. A son who never feels the need to ask his heavenly Father for forgiveness for his sins can hardly have much sensitivity to the sins he had committed. Furthermore, our Lord taught his disciples to seek forgiveness of their sins in a prayer (Matt. 6:11-12) that is known to every Reformed church, and possibly, every evangelical church. Our Lord cannot be undermining the extent of His atonement when He asked Christians to seek forgiveness! Herein lies the necessity of human responsibility. Even free grace teacher, Zane Hodges, admits that “confession of sin is never connected by John with the acquisition of eternal life, which is always conditioned on faith.”

Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit. Christians, however, are not taught to say, “Well, since my walk with God is made better by the Holy Spirit, and it is His responsibility to transform me to be more Christ-like, I can do whatever I like without feeling remorse or compunction for my sinful actions.” As he grows in grace and spiritual maturity, the true believer becomes more and more sensitive to sins in his life. He will desire a closer walk with his heavenly Father, and he will feel remorse for failing his loving Father in thoughts, words or deeds. The Christian cannot escape his responsibility to live a holy life (1 Peter 1:14-16). Likewise, the believer is not exempted from asking forgiveness for sins in his life. Justification must not be confused with sanctification. Asking God for forgiveness does not contradict the fact that the Christian is, indeed, forgiven of all his sins. In fact, it is the believer’s responsibility to confess whatever sins the Spirit brings to remembrance in his life. Therefore, the teaching that Christians should not confess their sins is erroneous, and even deleterious to the believer’s sanctification process.


Mike Messerli said...


Having studied this for over 35 years, and debated it to exhaustion I have had to come to some very specific understanding of scriptural theology overall. In brief here it is-
1. When we accept Christ as savior he forgives all our sins. I don't think any thinking evangelical would disagree.
2. When we look at 1 John 1:9 we are in the middle of a thesis of John that ends in 2:2, so we are only part way through his thoughts.
3. The greek word for confess in 1:9 means "to agree with", not to ask forgivness.
4. I have forgiveness already, but I still sin...that is the dilemma that Paul talks about in Romans 7, so how do I address ongoing sin?
5. Steps to deal with sin- I confess (agree with God) that what I did was sin, I thank him that I am forgiven in Christ... in fact my sin shows why I needed a savior, I repent! That's big to me, and finally, I ask him to fill me with his spirit to live his life through me.
6. Confession of sin for forgiveness is not mentioned all through the New Testament. It's in Mat. 6 (speaking to a Jewish audience), in James 5 and here. The James 5 passage is speaking about confession of sin to one another. It's not mentioned anywhere else. In fact Paul didn't mention it once!
7. If this was an important theology don't you think Paul would have addressed it at least once?
8. I'm not saying that we ignore sin, in fact I am more resolute about dealing with sin than I have ever been, but I do not believe that confession of sin for forgiveness is a biblical teaching, but I still deal with my sin very aggressively- for me the key in scripture is REPENTANCE, and that's my focus.

I loved your thoughts, and really enjoy the way you processed them. Thanks for sharing, it's a great topic, but I think that the way the grace message as been portrayed distorts the true teaching of this passage....

Also, welcome back, great to see you posting again.

thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

vincit omnia veritas said...

rmhDear Pastor Mike,

Thank you very much for your helpful input and comments. I will definitely ruminate further on this issue. With regard to the fact that Christians have been forgiven of all their sins, I absolutely agree with you (and who wouldn’t?). Confession of sins reflects the sensitivity of the truly born-again Christian to his “flesh” nature (Romans 7), and as such, is in conjunction with his walk with God and the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

The following is a helpful (hopefully!) article on confession from the Reformed perspective:

Ra McLaughlin summarizes the matter well in the following paragraphs:

“The point is that the grammar of 1 John 1:9 indicates that the confession of which John speaks is habitual as opposed to a single event, and that the words "faithful and righteous" refer to God in his ongoing covenant relationship with his people. John is speaking about the way God maintains his relationship with believers, restoring them to right covenant standing through the means of the confession of their sin. It is also worth noting that John speaks of forgiveness of "sins" not of the forgiveness of "sin." That is, John is thinking of sinful acts, not of the general state of sinfulness.

Moreover, 1 John 2:1-2 demonstrates that John is writing to believers. Specifically, he says that he writes in order to help Christians avoid sin (2:1), and adds that if anyone sins, "we have an Advocate." That John uses the first person plural ("we") in response to the condition "if anyone sins" indicates that the "anyone" is "anyone of us," not someone who is not yet part of "us." That is, believers continue to sin, and when we do sin, Jesus pleads our case before the Father, obtaining forgiveness for us on the basis of his death on our behalf ("propitiation for our sins"). But John gives no indication that Jesus obtains this forgiveness for us apart from the means established in 1 John 1:9, namely confession of sins. Rather, the flow of the letter in these verses indicates that John is still talking about the same people and the same confessions of sin. In short, when believers confess their sin, Jesus pleads their case before the Father and the believers are subsequently forgiven and cleansed.”

I also came across an interesting article in the autumn 2001 edition of the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society.

In regards the Lord’s Prayer, the Westminster Larger Catechism answers the question succinctly:
Q. 194. What do we pray for in the fifth petition?
A. In the fifth petition, (which is, Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors) acknowledging, that we and all others are guilty both of original and actual sin, and thereby become debtors to the justice of God; and that neither we, nor any other creature, can make the least satisfaction for that debt: we pray for ourselves and others, that God of his free grace would, through the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, apprehended and applied by faith, acquit us both from the guilt and punishment of sin, accept us in his Beloved; continue his favour and grace to us, pardon our daily failings, and fill us with peace and joy, in giving us daily more and more assurance of forgiveness; which we are the rather emboldened to ask, and encouraged to expect, when we have this testimony in ourselves, that we from the heart forgive others their offenses.
Also, the Heidelberg Catechism states:
Question 126. Which is the fifth petition?
Answer: "And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors"; that is, be pleased for the sake of Christ's blood, not to impute to us poor sinners, our transgressions, nor that depravity, which always cleaves to us; even as we feel this evidence of thy grace in us, that it is our firm resolution from the heart to forgive our neighbour.
Ultimately, I think we are all looking at the same answer from a different perspective. Thank you once again for your comments; I really appreciate your thoughtful insights and exposition on the Word of God. Hear from you soon!


Mike Messerli said...


thanks for the comments....I spent a lot of time in Campus Crusade for Christ, and other evangelical organizations that have agreed with your view- it IS the evangelical view, but I honestly think that is has been accepted and defended without thinking through our holistic theology on salvation, forgiveness and sanctification. I know my view is the minority position, but I do think it stands up better under the umbrella of the finished work of Christ than the traditional view......but I know I will continue to be the minority. Most Christians cannot accept the reality of the finished work of Christ, and still feel the need to "do something" about their is a hard issue to work through.

Thanks again for your thoughts. I enjoy the interaction.

Mike Messerli said...


May I say one more thing on this topic- I say all I have said in the shadow of our senior pastor falling into sin, having an affair, divorcing his wife, being dismissed from the pulpit, taking up with the "other woman", and showning no signs of repentance. Now, is he forgiven of all of this? Of course, but how do we, as the church, deal with him? We have seperated from him according to 1 Cor. 5 because we see no signs of repentance. AND, he has yet to come to the body and ask forgivenss. This is such a difficult topic, we are wading through all of scripture now in how we handle a brother in sin...I know he's saved, I know he is forgiven, so how do we respond to/deal with him? The topic is so difficult, and yet scripture seems very clear. I do thank you again for venturing into these waters. I appreciate your insights.

ddd said...

Pastor Mike,

and that is why the doctrine of election and reprobation is important ! That senior pastor may or may not be saved, and I don't think you should shut off the possibility of the latter (1 Jn. 2:19). As long as he is unrepentent, he is to be treated as an unbeliever (and thus NOT regarded as saved). Only IF he confesses and repents of his sins then he is to be regarded as a believer again.