What About 1 John 1:9?

1 John 1:9One of the most asked questions on the radio that Bob George answered was, “What about 1 John 1:9?” The 1 John 1:9 question is still being asked today. So, how are we to understand 1 John 1:9 in light of the New Covenant?

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1 John 1:9

When we read the Bible, we need to look at the context in which each book was written. If we don’t do that, it’s easy to misinterpret what a particular book or chapter is really saying. When that happens, we can easily come to wrong conclusions, which can then cause a lot of misunderstanding about the work of Christ on our behalf.

One example of this is that many people believe that although their sins have been forgiven prior to salvation, after salvation it is up to them to obtain forgiveness through their confession. Others believe that all their sins have been forgiven at the cross, however, they cannot experience forgiveness unless they confess each time they sin. The verse both parties use to defend their belief is I John 1:9. Let’s read the first chapter of 1 John, and keep in mind two important questions: “Who was John’s audience?” and ‘What was he trying to accomplish in this letter?”

The audience was a confused church in Asia. The pastor there asked John to write a letter to help clear up some major doctrinal heresy called “Gnosticism.” Gnosticism comes from the Greek word “gnosis”, which means knowledge. The Gnostics were a group of people who believed they possessed superior spiritual knowledge. They believed that all flesh is evil and that only spirit is good. Because they believed that, they didn’t believe that Jesus really came in the flesh – they believed He was an illusion. They also believed that because sin had to do with our flesh, there really wasn’t sin – sin was also just an Illusion. (That’s similar to people today who believe sickness is an illusion.) The church in Ephesus was filled with people who not only didn’t believe Christ came in the flesh, they didn’t believe sin was real.

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of Life” (I John 1:1). In other words, John is establishing that he was an eyewitness to the fact that Jesus truly did come in the flesh. He did this to convince the Gnostics that Jesus was not an illusion.

“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ” (verse 3). This verse says two things. First, John repeats the fact that he, the rest of the apostles and other people saw Christ in the flesh. He wanted the Gnostics to realize that there were many people who could testify to the reality of Christ. Second, he is saying that there are some people in the audience who were not in the fellowship with Christ.

“This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (verse 5). John’s message in this verse is clear: God is light and in Him there is no darkness. We are either in the light (saved) or in darkness (lost). Scriptures are full of this comparison between light (saved) vs. darkness (lost). On our next posting we look more in-depth to learn more about light and darkness in the scriptures.

“If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” (verse 6). In other words, if someone says he has fellowship with Christ, but is walking in darkness (lost), he is lying and not practicing the truth. The Gnostics claimed to be in fellowship with Christ (saved), and yet were actually living a lie and therefore weren’t practicing the truth.

“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, purifies us from all sin” (verse 7). In other words, if we walk in the light (are saved) we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin. To put it another way, once we are saved, we are permanently in the fellowship because the blood of Jesus continually cleanses us from all sin. Therefore, we aren’t forgiven because we confess our sins. We are forgiven because of what Christ did for us on the cross.

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (verse 8). John is now addressing the belief the Gnostics had regarding sin because they didn’t believe it was real and therefore believed they had no sin. The “we” John is using here doesn’t refer to believers. He is referring to the Gnostics, who believed they were without sin. Because they claimed to be without sin, then they were only deceiving themselves and the truth (Jesus) was not in them.

However, verse 9 says that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” In other words, if the Gnostics were to confess they had sins, then God, Who is faithful and righteous, would forgive and cleanse them from their unrighteousness. In the Greek language, the words “forgive” and “cleanse” mean past actions that have results today and will continue to have results in the future. Also, the word “all” used in these verses means all. It doesn’t mean that we are cleansed of our past sins and our past unrighteousness, it means we were cleansed of all our unrighteousness. And if God cleanses us from all unrighteousness, then we are cleansed forever!

“If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word has no place in our lives” (verse 10). Basically this verse is a repeat of verse 8. To put it simply, it means that the Gnostics can’t claim to be without sin and yet be saved. John is saying that because the Gnostics claimed they had no sin, they were actually calling God a liar and therefore didn’t know the truth.

The purpose of the first chapter of 1 John was to compare the truth of God to the error of gnosticism. John was addressing the Gnostics, who were deceived by their own teaching. He wanted the Gnostics to understand that what they believed conflicted with what God said. He was not, however, addressing believers.

Today, there are people who believe that Christians must confess their sins in order to be forgiven. They believe that it is possible for us to be “in and out” of fellowship with God and that we must “keep short accounts” (or stay “fessed up”). The Bible doesn’t teach that we are “in and out” of fellowship with God. A person who is saved is in fellowship with God – eternally. “God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.” (1 Corinthians 1:9). A person who is lost is not in fellowship with God. There is no bouncing back and forth. You are either in fellowship with God (saved, walking in the light) or you are not in fellowship with God (lost, walking in darkness).

Scripture also doesn’t teach the idea of “keeping short accounts” (being “fessed up”). Teaching that we are to “keep short accounts” with God causes very real and damaging problems because we miss the point of what confession really is. Such popular teaching makes confession a mindless cure-all, a “bar of soap” we use daily to clean up our flesh. A common scenario would be of a person privately confessing to God a bitter attitude towards another and then asking for forgiveness. Afterwards, he doesn’t think about it, feeling that he has adequately met the “spiritual” requirement.

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins” (Colossians 2:13) The fact is that while the sin issue is dead between you and God, it isn’t between the people with whom we come in contact daily. When we realize we’ve wronged another, we need to go to that person and take steps toward reconciling the relationship with that person.

It is easy to “confess” our sins and continue on, thinking we have met a spiritual” requirement. But has there really been a change in our attitude, and not just our action? That would be like the little boy whose father angrily tells him to sit down and be quiet in church. The little boy does so, but tells his father that “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside!” God is much more concerned with changed attitudes. As our attitudes change – through the truth of God’s Word – our actions will eventually change.

Teaching we must confess our sins in order to be forgiven doesn’t produce changed hearts. Why? Because we have placed ourselves under a “law” which demands that we confess every sin in order to be forgiven and stay in fellowship with God. However, there are no laws, Mosaic or man-made, that can free us from sin. The law was never meant to free us from sin because “the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56). Therefore, we usually end up repeating the same sin before the week (or even the day) is over and feel guilt and frustration over our inability to change.

This obsession with confession keeps us under the power of sin because we are consumed with thoughts of ourselves in a sincere desire to please God. As a result, though, we become so concerned about whether we are “in or out of fellowship” with God that we don’t have time for our relationships down here. We are too busy keeping “short accounts” to be able to serve our brothers in love. Compare and see how many times the Scriptures exhort us to love one another versus confessing our sins. The emphasis is overwhelmingly in favor of loving our brothers.

We need to focus on the fact that God has forever settled the sin issue. Before Christ, men’s sins separated them from God. Christ was the only solution to this dilemma. Then He hung on the cross and said “It is finished!”, He meant it is finished! God has bridged the gap between Himself and man through His Son. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them… God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18,19,21).

Since the Bible tells us that all of our sins are forgiven because of the grace of God, then what do we do when we do sin? Ignore it and say “I’m under grace, so it doesn’t make any difference if I sin?” Many believe that teaching the forgiveness of Christ will cause people to go out and sin more. Paul dealt with this argument over 2,000 years ago. He responded, “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2). He continues to tell us that “we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. . . In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. . . For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:6,7,11,14).

The more we understand our identification with Christ, the more we understand that we have been freed from the power of sin. We are freed from sin because of the work of Christ Jesus on our behalf, not because of our law keeping. Teaching the forgiveness we have in Christ is not a license to sin – we don’t need a license to sin. The only reason people often believe this is true is because they lack an understanding of God’s unconditional love, forgiveness and acceptance. They do not understand the motivating power of Christ’s love for them.

The Bible tells us “to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:23,24). Concerning lying, for instance, we are told “to put off falsehood and speak truthfully to our neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (verse 25). Or, concerning stealing, Ephesians 4:28 says that “he who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” In other words, stop lying and start telling the truth. Quit stealing and go to work so you can share with others. These are not laws we are to keep. Because we are children of God, it doesn’t make sense for us to continue lying or stealing.

These are just a few verses that tell us what to do when we do sin. Not one verse says to confess our sins before we can go on with life. The motivation, instead, is found in Ephesians 4:32, which says we are to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” The only way we can ever love, forgive and accept others is because Christ has first loved, forgiven and accepted us. It is true that we will treat others the way we feel God is treating us. If we feel we have to perform for God and ask His forgiveness each time we sin, we expect the same performance from everyone else. If we believe God loves us only when we do the right things, then we tend to also love others when they, too, do the right things.

The opposite is also true. Only when we understand the unconditional love, forgiveness and acceptance of God will we ever be able to share that same love with those around us. It is impossible for us to love and forgive one another if we are constantly worrying about our own acceptance to God. The simple truth is that “we love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

If we believe we must continually confess our sins in order to be loved and forgiven by God, we are actually mocking God and telling Him that Christ’s work on our behalf was not sufficient. The damage caused by this belief is extensive. There are many who are in bondage to this “law” that was created and perpetuated by man. That’s why it is so important to understand what the bible says about Christ’s finished work on the cross and our identity in Him. As we understand these truths and keep our eyes on the Lord instead of ourselves, we will see our lives change.

Enter God’s rest today.

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