If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1:9)
Confession of sin is absolutely crucial to entering the Light (justification) (cf. Mark 1:15; Luke 18:13–14) and walking in it (sanctification). Though this is obvious in Scripture, there are many who even claim that one needs only to accept the facts about Jesus for salvation, arguing that the confession and repentance of sin are unnecessary—or optional at best—for justification. Out of the soil of that errant soteriology comes the antinomian indifference toward a Christian life of repentance and confession for the sake of holiness. (For an in-depth discussion of this erroneous viewpoint and an exposition of the biblical doctrine of salvation, see John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988, 1994], and The Gospel According to the Apostles [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993, 2000].)
Such views exist in spite of biblical calls to repentance and examples of people who openly acknowledged their sins to God. “So Judah said, ‘What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants’ ” (Gen. 44:16; cf. 41:9; Jon. 3:5–10). Overwhelmed by a vision of God’s majestic holiness, the prophet Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5; cf. 1 Chron. 21:17; Dan. 9:20). The Psalms are filled with confessions, most notably David’s in Psalm 51:
Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, let the bones which You have broken rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. (vv. 1–9; cf. 32:5; 38:1–8, 17–18; 41:4)
The New Testament includes similar expressions. No less than John the Baptist preached repentance with manifest evidence as necessary for entering into God’s salvation kingdom (Matt. 2:4–12; Luke 3:4–14). Jesus demanded recognition of sin and a response of repentance for all who desired salvation (Matt. 4:17), even saying that sinners had to repent or perish (Luke 13:3, 5). The repentance and confession of sin He demanded was so strong it required total self-denial (Luke 9:23–26) and hatred of self (Luke 14:25–27), which made coming to salvation too demanding for some (Luke 13:23–24). Peter and Paul each confessed their sinfulness (Luke 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:12–16), and two of Jesus’ parables concerned men who recognized their own sinful conditions (Luke 15:18; 18:13). Moreover, as the apostles proclaimed the gospel, they made it clear that God calls upon sinners everywhere to admit their sin and repent (Acts 17:30; cf. Isa. 45:22; Acts 2:38).
First John 1:9 fits this pattern with perfect consistency, when rightly interpreted. Because John is writing to believers (“my little children,” 2:1), to those who are antinomian it appears to make forgiveness conditional (i.e., if believers confess, God will forgive; if they do not confess, He will not forgive). This confusion is easily cleared away, first of all by noting that the verse is actually a reiteration of God’s faithfulness to His New Covenant promise of salvation in the Old Covenant: “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jer. 31:34; cf. Luke 1:77–78; Heb. 9:13–14). The reminder that He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness reemphasizes the truth John had just stated in verse 7, that God will, because of His character, secure their eternal glory by continuing to cleanse believers from all future sin. He is faithful to His promise and always does what is righteous. (The aorist tense of the verb aphiēmi [forgive] carries a past connotation and further demonstrates that God’s forgiveness derives from a historical event, the atonement, which has lasting benefits for all who believe.) In chapter 2 John writes, “your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake” (v. 12). Forgiveness is consistent with who Jesus Christ is and with what the Father promised, according to His perfectly faithful (Isa. 49:7; 1 Cor. 1:9; Heb. 2:17; Rev. 19:11), righteous (Ps. 7:11; Isa. 53:11), just (Gen. 18:25; Col. 3:25), holy (Ex. 15:11; Rev. 4:8), and loving (Jer. 31:3; 1 John 4:8) nature. Forgiveness is not incomplete or dependent in the saving sense on believers’ confessing.
With that established, it is possible to understand the place of ongoing confession. The word translated confess (homologeō) means “to say the same thing.” Thus believers are those who confess their sins, agreeing with God about their sin—they acknowledge its reality and affirm that it is a transgression of His law and a violation of His will, the presence of which the truly penitent seek to eliminate from their lives (3:4; James 2:10–11; 4:17; cf. Rom. 7:24). What John is actually saying here about confession is that since believers are forgiven, they will regularly confess their sins. Stated another way, their forgiveness is not because of their ongoing confession, but their ongoing pattern of penitence and confession is because of their forgiveness and transformation. As the Holy Spirit sanctifies believers, He continually produces within them a hatred for sin (Ps. 97:10; Prov. 8:13; Rom. 7:15–25; Phil. 3:8–9; cf. Ps. 1:1–2), which results in penitent hearts and a sincere acknowledgment of their sins. The more believers grow in Christ, the greater their hatred of sin becomes and the deeper is their penitence. Paul, the most devout and dedicated Christian, at the end of his earthly sanctification, saw himself as the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
If confession is genuine, it will always stem from proper sorrow over sin and a real longing to turn from sin. In 2 Corinthians 7:9–11 Paul wrote:
I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter. (cf. 2 Sam. 12:13)
The apostle was not referring to feeling bad about the consequences of one’s sinful conduct, which is the worldly sorrow characterized by despair, depression, and sometimes suicide (Matt. 27:3–5). Rather, he was describing the kind of godly sorrow that produces real repentance that leads to salvation. Biblical repentance will result in “earnestness,” “vindication,” “indignation,” “fear,” “longing,” “zeal,” and “avenging.” (For more on these results, see comments on 2 Corinthians 7:9–11 in John MacArthur, 2 Corinthians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 2003], 264–67.) When repentance is present, believers will have a strong desire for God to deal with sin at any cost (cf. Matt. 5:29–30), even when that cost may be high for them personally (cf. Luke 19:8–10). True believers are therefore habitual confessors who demonstrate that God has not only pardoned their sin and is faithfully cleansing them daily from it, but has truly regenerated them, making them new creatures with holy desires that dominate their will. (Later in this epistle, John shows how true believers do not go on sinning [3:4–10], but strive to obey God [3:19–24].)
In spite of this straightforward meaning, many throughout history have misinterpreted and misapplied the concept of confession. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, sees confession as the anonymous divulging of sins to a human priest in a confessional booth. Catholics believe such confession to be a meritorious act, one that earns the confessor forgiveness, if followed by the performance of some penitential ritual (such as repeating a prayer or saying the rosary a certain number of times). Under that system, one essentially receives forgiveness based on the good works of confession and penance.
Others view confession as psychologically and emotionally therapeutic—an act that helps people feel good about feeling bad, ensuring that they “feel” forgiven and experience healing. Still others teach that the confession in this verse refers only to the moment of salvation, with no regard for subsequent times of acknowledging sin. But if one truly trusts in Christ as Lord and Savior (Luke 9:23; Acts 2:38–39; 16:31; Rom. 10:9–10; cf. Mark 10:21–27; John 15:4–8), he will regularly admit his sins before God, as the present, active form of the verb confess indicates.
Perhaps the most popular but erroneous view of confession in this context is that believers are forgiven of only those sins they confess. If that were correct, it would mean that unconfessed sins remain with believers until the judgment seat of Christ, at which time they will have to give an account for those iniquities. But such is simply not the case. No one will enter heaven with a list of unconfessed sins still hanging over his head (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5; Rev. 22:15), because the finished work of Jesus Christ completely covers all of the sins of those who believe, including those that remain unconfessed (see commentary on 2:12 in chapter 7 of this volume). As the apostle Paul wrote:
David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” (Rom. 4:6–8; cf. 8:33; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; Col. 2:13).
1:9 / If the opponents’ attitude and belief are wrong (vv. 6 and 8), the right approach to sin is to keep on walking in the light (v. 7) and to be honest about one’s sins (v. 9). If we confess our sins is the true alternative to claiming to be without sin. The word confess (homologeō) means, literally, to say the same thing, thus, to agree or to admit. When we confess our sins, we agree with God and the community that they are sins (which the secessionists would not do). Then our self-understanding is true, and we have the basis for an effective solution to the sin problem. Confession was likely not only in private to God but publicly to the community (cf. Matt. 3:6; Acts 19:18; Jas. 5:16; and Didache 4:14 and 14:1, an early Christian document written about the same time as the letters of John).
There are (as in v. 7) two consequences of openly acknowledging our sins. God, who is faithful and just, will (a) forgive us our sins and (b) purify us from all unrighteousness. Literally, the verse says, If we confess our sins, he is faithful (pistos) and just (dikaios), with the result that he will forgive (hina aphē; hina with the subjunctive mood is here a result or consecutive clause) us the sins and cleanse (katharizō, purify; cf. v. 7) us from all unrighteousness (adikias).
He is God, as in vv. 6–7. His character is faithful and just. That is, he is true to his people and to his promises (especially to forgive on the basis of the blood of Jesus, v. 7), and he puts things right which are wrong (especially people, in a right relationship with himself). Faithful and just are terms which reflect God’s covenantal connection with his people (Brown, Epistles, pp. 209–10).
These qualities in God are seen as he acts redemptively toward those who humbly acknowledge their need (v. 9a). God forgives and cleanses his people from all their unrighteousness. These two verbs show that the problem of sin in one’s life cannot be solved by human action (v. 6, claiming to be right with God when one is not, or v. 8, denying that one is a sinner). Even confession only opens the door to an answer; it is not self-efficacious. God must act, and God does. As in all of Scripture, salvation is from God. The form of salvation here is forgiveness and cleansing from sin. The verbs are parallel and functionally synonymous. From all unrighteousness (adikias) recalls God’s character as just (dikaios v. 9b).
1:9. John comforts us, however, with the truth that even though we have sin in our lives, we can still be purified from this sin and maintain our fellowship with God (and resultant fellowship with other believers).
Scholars offer two major interpretations of this verse. The first possible meaning is that this confession refers to the confession of sin at salvation. It is a once-for-all confession that solves the problem of eternal judgment for sin. The reasoning is that if it referred to sins we commit after salvation, we might die after we commit a sin but before we confess it. Therefore, that sin would be unforgiven, since this verse teaches that we are not forgiven until we confess. If so, we would go to hell. Since the Bible doesn’t seem to allow a person to lose his or her salvation, the reasoning goes, it must be referring to confession at salvation.
Others take this interpretation a step further and teach that a Christian does not have to confess his sins and ask forgiveness from God after he has become a Christian because a believer already has forgiveness in Christ (Eph. 1:7). Many Christians, according to this understanding, spend too much time in morbid introspection. They wonder if they have confessed all their sins and if they are in fellowship with God or not. They never experience freedom in Christ. This is needless, since Christ has already granted us forgiveness. We do not have to keep track of our sins and confess them. We just have to live under the realization that our sins are already forgiven, enjoying our freedom in Christ.
It is true that all our sins are forgiven at the moment of salvation in the sense that none of our sins after salvation will keep us out of heaven. In that sense, all of our sins are forgiven, and we will never have to pay the penalty for those sins. This is the teaching of Ephesians 1:7.
This does not mean, however, that if a person sins after salvation he will go to hell. Verse 7 says that if we walk in the light—if we are saved, if we are children of light—then the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.
This does not mean we no longer have to ask for forgiveness from God for our sins. This interpretation seems to miss the point given to us by our Lord in the disciple’s prayer (Matt. 6:11–12). Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts” (trespasses). This is a needless instruction if we need not ask for forgiveness after our salvation.
This interpretation is contrary to our human experience. Yes, in a loving relationship we often get forgiveness before we ask for it, or without asking for it. But the healthy, sensitive, intimate relationships tend to be those in which the guilty person readily asks forgiveness from the offended party, not because forgiveness must be given or else the relationship will be broken, but because it is the loving and sensitive thing to do. It is careless and insensitive not to ask forgiveness for our sin against someone else, even though we may feel assured of receiving it.
The forgiveness John talks about in 1:9 can be understood as parental or familial forgiveness, not judicial forgiveness. That is, we all receive judicial forgiveness one time when we receive Jesus as our personal Savior (Eph. 1:7; Rom. 5:6–11). We were, at that time, saved from the penalty of our sins. It is called judicial forgiveness because it is granted by God acting as a judge. After our salvation, we still sin (Phil. 3:12; Jas. 3:2, 8; 4:17). This sin does not cause us to lose our salvation (Rom. 8:37–39), but it does break the fellowship between us and God, just as the sin of a child or a spouse breaks the fellowship with parents or a mate.
We confess our sin out of respect and love for the person we have sinned against. God forgives our sin, purifies us from all unrighteousness, and restores us to his fellowship. We need judicial forgiveness only once. We need parental or familial forgiveness whenever we sin.
The NIV translation, will forgive us our sins, is a valid translation, but the word our is not in the Greek text. Literally, it reads, “will forgive us the sins.” It is possible to translate this as an article of previous reference, which contrasts “forgive us the sins” with all unrighteousness, which follows it. According to Hodges,
John’s thought might be paraphrased, “If we confess our sins, he … will forgive the sins we confess and moreover will even cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Naturally, only God knows at any moment the full extent of a person’s unrighteousness. Each Christian, however, is responsible to acknowledge (the meaning of “confess,” homologomen; compare 2:23; 4:3) whatever the light makes him aware of, and when he does so, a complete and perfect cleansing is granted him. There is thus no need to agonize over sins of which one is unaware (Zane C. Hodges, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, 886).
God’s forgiveness of our sin under these conditions is based on his justice. He is just and will forgive our sins. We might expect that forgiveness in this instance is based on God’s mercy, but it is based on his justice. God is just because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin when he died on the cross. God has promised to forgive our sins in Christ (2:2) when we confess them, and he will abide by his promises.
9. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
The writer presents typical Semitic parallelism. Verse 8 is parallel to verse 6, and verse 9 is a partial repetition and further explanation of verse 7. Because of its affirmative message, verse 9 is one of the more well-known passages of the epistle and even of the entire New Testament.
(b) Affirmation The text consists of three parts. The first is the condition, the second the assurance, and the third the fulfillment.
“If we confess our sins.” This is the conditional part of the sentence that points to our acknowledgment of sin. We openly and honestly face sin without hiding it or finding excuses for it. We confront the sins we have committed, without defending or justifying ourselves. We confess our sins to show repentance and renewal of life. We are not told when, where, and how to confess our sins, but daily repentance of sin leads us to continual confession. John actually writes, “If we keep confessing our sins.” He writes the word sins (in the plural) to indicate the magnitude of our transgressions.
“He is faithful and just.” Here is the assurance. God is faithful with respect to his promises. He is “a faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deut. 32:4). He does not scold or rebuke us; he does not become impatient; and he does not go back on his word. The only condition God requires for forgiveness is that we confess our sins. True to the promises made to the people of his new covenant, God declares, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34; Heb. 8:12; 10:17).
“[He] will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Note the fulfillment. Although translators put the verbs in the future tense as if the acts of forgiving and purifying will eventually happen, the Greek text says that God effectively forgives and purifies once for all. The first verb to forgive describes the act of canceling a debt and the restoration of the debtor. And the second verb to cleanse refers to making the forgiven sinner holy so that he is able to have fellowship with God. God takes the initiative, for he says to us, “Come now, let us reason together.… Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isa. 1:18).
1:9 In order for us to walk day by day in fellowship with God and with our fellow believers, we must confess our sins: sins of commission, sins of omission, sins of thought, sins of act, secret sins, and public sins. We must drag them out into the open before God, call them by their names, take sides with God against them, and forsake them. Yes, true confession involves forsaking of sins: “He who covers his sins will not prosper: but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (Prov. 28:13).
When we do that, we can claim the promise that God is faithful and just to forgive. He is faithful in the sense that He has promised to forgive and will abide by His promise. He is just to forgive because He has found a righteous basis for forgiveness in the substitutionary work of the Lord Jesus on the cross. And not only does He guarantee to forgive, but also to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The forgiveness John speaks about here is parental, not judicial. Judicial forgiveness means forgiveness from the penalty of sins, which the sinner receives when he believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. It is called judicial because it is granted by God acting as Judge. But what about sins which a person commits after conversion? As far as the penalty is concerned, the price has already been paid by the Lord Jesus on the cross of Calvary. But as far as fellowship in the family of God is concerned, the sinning saint needs parental forgiveness, that is, the forgiveness of His Father. He obtains it by confessing his sin. We need judicial forgiveness only once; that takes care of the penalty of all our sins—past, present, and future. But we need parental forgiveness throughout our Christian life.
When we confess our sins, we must believe, on the authority of the word of God, that He forgives us. And if He forgives us, we must be willing to forgive ourselves.
1:9 Though John uses we primarily to refer to himself and the other apostles as eyewitnesses of Christ (v. 1), here the term includes all believers who confess (acknowledge) sin. God says that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. To confess is to agree with Him, to admit that we are sinners in need of His mercy. If a believer confesses his or her specific sins to God, He will cleanse all unrighteousness from that person. The believer need not agonize over sin of which he is not aware. Forgiveness and cleansing are guaranteed because God is faithful to His promises. Those promises are legitimate because God is just. God can maintain His perfect character and yet forgive us because of the perfect and righteous sacrifice of Jesus, His own Son (2:2). Our salvation costs us nothing; it is a gift of God. But salvation is costly; it cost God the death of His Son. Since John is speaking to believers, the forgiveness here is not for their initial justification-salvation. His concern is sanctification-salvation. Christ accomplished the first portion of our salvation on the Cross while on earth (John 17:4). The second part of our salvation is before the throne of God, where Christ makes intercession for us (Heb. 4:15, 16; 7:23–28). the sins: The Greek text does not really say “our” sins, as is indicated by the italics in the English text. Literally the text reads, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us the sins.” It is probably that the sins of which John speaks are those we confess, not just any and every sin we commit. John proceeds on to say that Christ also, along with this forgiveness, cleanses us from all unrighteousness in our hearts. We should be careful to distinguish this family forgiveness of the Father for His children from the forgiveness we received at our redemption. This passage is written to those who are already saved from eternal judgment due to their sins but now are children of God in need of forgiveness for failures in their children walk.
1:9. In view of verse 8, Christians ought to be ready at all times to acknowledge any failure which God’s light may expose to them. Thus John wrote, If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. Though the NIV‘s translation “our sins” (after the words “forgive us”) is quite admissible, “our” is not in the Greek text. The phrase (tas hamartias) contains only an article and noun and it is conceivable that the article is the type which grammarians call “the article of previous reference.” If so, there is a subtle contrast between this expression and the “all unrighteousness” which follows it. John’s thought might be paraphrased: “If we confess our sins, He … will forgive the sins we confess and moreover will even cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Naturally only God knows at any moment the full extent of a person’s unrighteousness. Each Christian, however, is responsible to acknowledge (the meaning of “confess,” homologōmen; cf. 2:23; 4:3) whatever the light makes him aware of, and when he does so, a complete and perfect cleansing is granted him. There is thus no need to agonize over sins of which one is unaware.
Moreover, it is comforting to learn that the forgiveness which is promised here is both absolutely assured (because God “is faithful”) and also is in no way contrary to His holiness (He is “just”). The word used here for “just” (dikaios) is the same one which is applied as a title to Christ in 2:1 where it is translated “the Righteous One.” Dikaios is also used of God (either the Father or the Son) in 2:29 and 3:7. Obviously God is “just” or “righteous” when He forgives the believer’s sin because of the “atoning sacrifice” which the Lord Jesus has made (see 2:2). As is already evident from 1:7, a Christian’s fellowship with God is inseparably connected with the effectiveness of the blood which Jesus shed for him.
In modern times some have occasionally denied that a Christian needs to confess his sins and ask forgiveness. It is claimed that a believer already has forgiveness in Christ (Eph. 1:7). But this point of view confuses the perfect position which a Christian has in God’s Son (by which he is even “seated … with Him in the heavenly realms” [Eph. 2:6]) with his needs as a failing individual on earth. What is considered in 1 John 1:9 may be described as “familial” forgiveness. It is perfectly understandable how a son may need to ask his father to forgive him for his faults while at the same time his position within the family is not in jeopardy. A Christian who never asks his heavenly Father for forgiveness for his sins can hardly have much sensitivity to the ways in which he grieves his Father. Furthermore, the Lord Jesus Himself taught His followers to seek forgiveness of their sins in a prayer that was obviously intended for daily use (cf. the expression “give us today our daily bread” preceding “forgive us our debts,” Matt. 6:11–12). The teaching that a Christian should not ask God for daily forgiveness is an aberration. Moreover, confession of sin is never connected by John with the acquisition of eternal life, which is always conditioned on faith. First John 1:9 is not spoken to the unsaved, and the effort to turn it into a soteriological affirmation is misguided.
It may also be said that so long as the idea of walking in the light or darkness is correctly understood on an experiential level, these concepts offer no difficulty. “Darkness” has an ethical meaning (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “skotos,” 7:444). When a believer loses personal touch with the God of light, he begins to live in darkness. But confession of sin is the way back into the light.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 2310–2311). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Walvoord, J. F., & Zuck, R. B., Dallas Theological Seminary. (1985). The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, pp. 885–886). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.