Our verse in this chapter is one that is precious to probably every believer. Yet its usage or misuse has raised questions in the minds of some. In various Christian magazines, for example, this verse appears in almost every article. It is viewed as the final solution to every problem. There seems to be no other verse expressing the truth found here, so this verse carries a great burden, some of which it was never intended to carry. We will consider this verse in some detail because of its familiarity in an effort to understand it clearly, especially as it contributes to the blessing of forgiveness.
The statement of absolute opposites in 1 John 1:5 is basic to the whole scheme of the letter: "God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all." The letter appears to have been written to a mixed group of people: those saved and knowing it, those saved and not sure, and those not saved and not sure. Throughout the letter more than forty tests are given by which an individual may determine whether he truly possesses salvation in Christ. The tests are all based upon the absolute regarding God being light and not darkness--each is an either/or. Chapter one of this letter also contains tests based upon this absolute.
Verses six and seven appear to be companions, and, similarly, verses eight through ten are closely related. The verses, however, follow a pattern of expressing alternately negative and positive spiritual facts. Verse six is negative, verse seven is positive, and so on throughout the chapter. This arrangement demonstrates a kind of unity, so that we can not draw out one verse and make it say something quite foreign to the emphasis of the rest.
1 John 1:9 is often understood as solving the problem of broken fellowship with God. It is not viewed as a salvation issue then, but rather has to do with the maintenance of the salvation relationship. The verse itself says nothing about fellowship, but verses six and seven do. "Fellowship" itself simply refers to what two or more parties have in common or to a partnership. If one person is removed from the partnership, the partnership no longer exists. Furthermore, "walking in the light" Biblically is a practical description of a salvation relationship. This is reinforced by other references to light (Acts 26:18, Col. 1:12-13, and 1 Th. 5:5). The emphasis in verse seven is on where we walk, not how we walk. The person walking where God is realizes the double blessing of having something in common with believers and of continuing cleansing by the blood of Jesus.
Viewing our verse as one of the tests of the letter, the first part is a description. It is given as a third class condition in the Greek: John did not know, as he wrote, whether this description was true of all his readers, but, he knew that if it was, then so was the rest of the verse.
"Confess" means to agree with or to say the same thing (William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature 1957.). Some dictionaries give an ecclesiastical usage equivalent to asking for forgiveness, but ecclesiastical usage can never determine the meaning of Scripture. Scriptural usage must determine our understanding and application in our churches and personal lives. The dictionary meaning will work wherever the word appears, even when sins are not in view (e.g., Jn. 1:20 and Acts 23:8). Agreement with God concerning sins can take place only in conjunction with knowledge of Scriptures. We cannot agree with what we do not know, and we come to know God's standard through His Word.
"Confess" is present tense and can be rendered "we are confessing" or "we are continuing to confess." As such it describes what is characteristic, what is true of the person in an ongoing way. This person as a characteristic of life, not as a one time act merely, does admit his sins.
The verse does not state to whom we are to confess. James 5:16 speaks of confessing to one another; here the context seems to suggest God, and usually it is so understood. What is confessed is sins, personal acts and attitudes which fall short of God's standard and which originate out of one's inherited, sinful nature.
So the first part of the verse describes a person who recognizes his own sins and admits himself to be the sinful person God says he is and to be deserving of death as the penalty. For him the remainder of the verse is true.
The second part of the verse gives a spiritual fact. The subject is divine--it is either God or Jesus His Son. If it is a reference to God, the forgiveness and cleansing spoken of are still accomplished by the blood of Jesus Christ, as verse seven clarifies. He is described as faithful and righteous or just, i.e., He is absolutely dependable and fully meets legal requirements in the accomplishment of what is expected. God always acts according to His Word; if He has spoken, we can depend on it--He is faithful. He is also righteous in extending forgiveness and cleansing, though on the surface it might appear as weakly overlooking sins. When Jesus Christ died sacrificially on the cross, He satisfied God's requirement for the sins of the world so that now God can be gracious and merciful toward sinners without violating His justice (Rom. 3:25-26).
The spiritual fact involves two actions--forgiving sins and cleansing unrighteousness. These might be seen as two ways of saying the same thing, as in Hebrew parallelism, to strengthen the idea or to broaden our understanding. Or better it can be seen as the legal and practical aspects of the same truth. Legally the person is not being held accountable for the sins, and in a practical way there is the removal of all that would disqualify a person for the presence of God. The two actions are aorist tense with present sense, stating what is continually true for the believer.
1 John 1:9 then is a description of a believer with a statement of spiritual fact true regarding him. The verse was written for personal evaluation. Are you a person who in an ongoing way admits before God your sins as revealed in the Scriptures? That is the evidence, not the cause, that you are a person for whom that forgiveness which Jesus Christ provided on the cross is continually effective. We could not know that as an evidence for true faith except that the Holy Spirit has revealed it to us in His Word.
There is a history regarding confession of sins that has clouded our understanding and use of this verse. We have allowed practice to determine the meaning of the verse rather than normal laws of language usage. At least some of this must be attributed to Roman Catholicism and even before that to the old Babylonian religion which began way back in Genesis 11. Ancient doctrines and practices have infiltrated, sometimes in mystery forms, the various religions of the world, and Protestantism is not exempt! Protestantism has gotten rid of the priest but has kept the doctrine.
Confession of sins was a means of grace in the Babylonian religion. By it you could appease the god and restore his favor or a least stave off his hostility. It paved the way to forgiveness. It was further necessary for initiation into the mysteries, which you must know if you were to progress to the most intimate knowledge of the god. The consequences included being relieved of misfortune, having blessing restored, and being placed into bondage to the priest. The confession was made to a priest who once knowing your most intimate affairs of life had control over you (Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 2d ed., 1959), pp. 9-11; T. G. Pinches, "Confession (Assyro-Babylonian)," Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. by James Hastings, John A. Selbie, and Louis H. Gray, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, n.d.) III, 825-27.).
In Roman Catholicism eternal condemnation is avoided through baptism first of all and later through confession. It is required for salvation and for participation in the sacraments. The benefits of confession include restored holiness, a greater sense of sin, removal of sin, restoration of divine friendship, increased self-knowledge, growth of humility, correction of bad habits. It is further seen as countering spiritual lethargy, purifying the conscience, strengthening the will, obtaining self-control, and increasing grace. Interestingly, confession here, like in the Babylonian religion, also results in bondage to the authority of the church as existing in the priesthood. Clearly confession in both of these systems is an important part of salvation by works ("Confession, Auricular," New Catholic Encyclopedia, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967) IV, 131-132; Keith Green, ed. and comp., Catholic Chronicle III: Salvation According to Rome, (Lindale, TX: Pretty Good Printing, 1981).).
In Protestantism the situation often is similar. Confession of sin is viewed as also obtaining a long list of wonderful benefits. These include forgiveness, peace, happiness, a better marriage, prosperity, knowledge of God's will, the filling of the Holy Spirit, etc. Confession becomes then a means to an end, a work that obtains the blessings of God. If it is truly so, then salvation is of works and not of faith in the finished work of Christ.
A common error regarding forgiveness is that it deals with only those sins committed before conversion. In that case sins committed later are dealt with through confession. Biblical support for such thinking is lacking. Note the following statements:
There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).
Is salvation totally in Christ, or is it not? What more can be done for sins for which an offering satisfactory for all time has been offered? Is God yet dissatisfied? We must give attention to what the Bible does say regarding what happens when a believer sins. 1 John 1:9 describes a person toward whom forgiveness and cleansing are continually effective, not one who has trusted Christ and must now do additional acts for additional forgiveness. There is no need for nor possibility of forgiveness outside of Christ's work on the cross.
Some would argue that if I have total forgiveness from the point of trusting Christ, I may then live as I please because my salvation is secure regardless of my behavior and I no longer need to ask for forgiveness (ecclesiastical usage of confession). This overlooks the very meaning of the word confess. If I agree with God, then I will side with him in my view of sins. That agreement itself becomes a powerful motivation to turn from sin. One who continues in sin unrepentantly cannot possibly be considered as agreeing with God, as confessing in any true sense. Furthermore, the context of 1 John will not allow this error. Consider these statements:
No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.... No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in Him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God (3:6,7,9).
In light of these truths we simply cannot say that recognition of total forgiveness from the point of conversion will result in careless living. Careless living only proves that there is no salvation, whether a person 'confesses' or not.
Fellowship was introduced in our discussion of the context above. The thinking is that the believer is connected to God by two strands, one of salvation and one of fellowship. The strand of salvation is never broken, but the strand of fellowship is broken when the believer commits an act of sin. This is restored by confession. This whole phenomenon is then illustrated by a parent and child in their feelings toward one another after the child has disobeyed. It makes a point, but one that is not seen Biblically. Fellowship is a salvation concept, not a maintenance concept. If I am not in partnership with God, neither is He in partnership with me. In that case I have no salvation whatever. There are not two strands--there is only one, that of God's gracious love extended to us through Jesus Christ Who by His sacrificial death satisfied God's justice forever.
Some view the effects of confession in another way as removing the effects of a believer's disobedience. This does not hold either in that the terms 'forgive' and 'cleanse' are used quite consistently throughout Scripture in relation to sin and salvation, not the maintenance of salvation spiritually before God.
Putting the verse in the negative is a helpful exercise. The question that needs to be raised is, "If my sins are forgiven on the basis of my acts of verbal confession as a believer, what happens if I refuse to confess them?" Restating the verse negatively will give us the answer. "If we are not confessing our sins, He is not faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Or "If we are not confessing our sins, He is faithful and righteous not to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." The end result of not confessing is no forgiveness and no cleansing. Who is it that does not have forgiveness and cleansing? It cannot be the believer. The person who does not confess his sins is not a disobedient believer, he is an unbeliever! If he is really a believer, the discipline of God can be expected to bring him to the place of confessing. So we come back to see the verse as a description of a believer as one who does behaviorally agree with God concerning his sins with forgiveness and cleansing being unseen, yet real, spiritual facts true of him.
So what happens when a believer sins? Why not go to the verse that specifically speaks to that issue? "And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins" (1 Jn. 2:1-2). Jesus Christ the righteous continues to represent us and the Father continues to see us in His Beloved Son. And the consequence on our part? Humble praise in recognition of love far beyond our own, and, motivated by that love, a growing fervency in love and obedience to Jesus Christ.
1 John 1:9 is the external description of a believer with the corresponding internal spiritual reality. The one who fits the description of confessing sins knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that forgiveness is his. It is his not because he confesses but because Christ has provided the ultimate sacrifice. He confesses because through Christ there exists a relationship of openness, fellowship, between God and him. Such a person is the only one who has the freedom to confess--he rightfully has no fear of judgment. He now has freedom from guilt, freedom to concentrate on Christ's work for him instead of a continual introspection to ferret out sins for confession in order to obtain forgiveness, and he has real freedom to love the Lord and practice His Word energetically! Where there is not the awareness of full forgiveness in Christ, these consequences can never be realized in fullest measure.