Tests of Salvation—Part 2: Belief in the Forgiveness of Sins and Confession
(1 John 1:7, 9; 2:1a)
But if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.… If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.… My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. (1:7, 9; 2:1a)
The glorious promise of the gospel is the free and gracious forgiveness of sin given to everyone who truly repents and believes in the person and work of the Son of God. That divine pardon is so comprehensive that God removes all believing sinners’ defilement, guilt, and punishment and replaces those things with righteousness, sanctification, and heavenly reward. Moreover, God’s forgiveness is eternal and unchangeable (cf. John 5:24; Heb. 10:17–18). The apostle Paul summarized that all-surpassing blessing in his epistle to the Romans:
Therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.… And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:1, 28–35, 37–39; cf. Ps. 103:12; Rom. 5:20–21; Gal. 3:13–14; Eph. 1:7; see also Ps. 32:1–2; Rom. 4:6–8)
The fact that forgiveness is complete and irrevocable, however, has led some to wrongly conclude that those who have received salvation need never again confess their sins before God and request forgiveness. The proponents of this view contend that, in order for Christians to accept genuinely their full pardon and fully enjoy their liberty in Christ, they must ignore sin and focus solely on God’s grace. But historically, such teaching has consistently led to the error of antinomianism—a practical disregard for the law of God and a callous lack of concern for violating it. If such people are truly saved, they are indifferent toward the disciplines that produce holiness in their lives. The effects of such faulty thinking are disastrous. (For further discussion of this issue, see John MacArthur, The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1998], chapter 3.)
In order to justify their indifference toward God’s moral law, many who hold such a position relegate Christ’s teaching on forgiveness to another dispensation (contending that Jesus’ instruction applies to Old Testament Israel only, and not to the New Testament church). Thus, they argue, when Jesus commanded the apostles to pray for the Father’s forgiveness (cf. Luke 11:4), His words reflected the era of law, not grace. They further suggest that the reason Christ gave such stipulations to His disciples was because He understood salvation in the Old Testament to be conditional—based on confessing sin, offering sacrifices, and keeping the law. But their claims are ultimately unfounded, for salvation never functioned that way during any part of the Old Testament era (and, obviously, that was not how Jesus understood it). God saved people then on the same basis that He saves them now—by the substitutionary, atoning death of Jesus Christ, which the sacrificial system pictured. Sinners then as now were saved by faith only, demonstrated when, overwhelmed by their sin and inability to keep God’s holy law, they cried out to God for mercy and received His pardon (cf. Ps. 32:1–2a; Isa. 55:6–7; Mic. 7:18–19; Luke 18:13–14). Those whom He saved before the cross, God in eternity past chose, and looking ahead to the death of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” [Rev. 13:8, nkjv]) applied Christ’s coming death to their account, even as He now looks back to Calvary and extends the same electing grace to all who have believed the gospel. The just have always lived by faith (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17), so no sacrifice, confession, or law keeping in any era could earn a right standing before God or satisfy His just judgment against sinners (cf. Rom. 4:1–24; Heb. 9:11–15). Only the perfect, substitutionary death of the Lamb of God could satisfy justice and save believing sinners from God’s wrath. And only the righteous life of Christ credited to their accounts could make them acceptable to God (John 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 1:18–19).
So how can one reconcile the comprehensiveness and permanence of God’s forgiveness and the imputing of perfect righteousness to believers at salvation with the continual need for Christian penitence (e.g., Pss. 6; 32; 38; 51; 102; 130; 143; Matt. 6:14–15)? It is necessary to recognize that divine forgiveness consists of two interrelated aspects: the judicial (or legally forensic) and the sanctifying (or personal, paternal). The Lord illustrated those two aspects of forgiveness when He washed the apostles’ feet in the upper room:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” (John 13:3–10)
Modeling humility and servanthood, the Lord performed one of the most frequent menial acts of courtesy found in the ancient Middle East—a task normally done by the lowest-level slave. Instead of asking one of His disciples to do the dirty work, Jesus Himself removed the sandals of His followers and washed their grimy feet in preparation for the Passover meal.
When Jesus told Peter, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean,” the Lord made a distinction between the two aspects of forgiveness. The all-cleansing bath represents God’s forensic application of Christ’s death to repentant sinners, completely and forever justifying them (Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:22, 24; 4:6–8; 5:1; Gal. 2:16), and freeing them forever from eternal hell. Washing feet, on the other hand, represents the paternal forgiveness of sanctification. Although repentant sinners have already been justified once-for-all, they have not yet been delivered from the presence and power of sin in their daily lives (Rom. 7:15–20; Gal. 5:17). Therefore believers need to confess and forsake sin regularly, thereby washing the metaphorical dirt of sin off their feet (cf. Pss. 38:18; 97:10; 139:23–24; Prov. 28:13; Rom. 8:13; 12:9; Col. 3:5; Heb. 12:1). But in so doing, since they have already been fully cleansed, they come to confess, not to a condemning Judge (cf. Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:11–15), but rather to their loving Father (1 John 2:5; 4:16; cf. Ps. 36:7; Rom. 5:5; 8:39; Eph. 2:4), endeavoring to avoid His displeasure and discipline (cf. Heb. 13:17). It is this kind of forgiveness that confessing Christians seek, and why they forgive others so that God does not withhold the relational forgiveness that blesses (Matt. 6:14–15).
Repentance is not only God’s work in the heart leading to salvation (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 11:18; 2 Cor. 7:10; 2 Tim. 2:25), but also an essential element of every believer’s sanctification (cf. 2 Cor. 7:1). John concludes the opening section by applying two tests of genuine salvation that are related to repentance: a belief in God’s forgiveness of sin and a regular practice of confessing sins. This instruction suggests three terms that describe true believers in contrast to those who falsely profess to be in the fellowship of faith (cf. 1:6, 8, 10). True believers are cleansed from sin; yet, confessing sin; and even conquering sin.
but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1:7)
Walk is used throughout the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters, to describe the effect, not of justification, but of sanctification. Salvation is not only a change in one’s legal status as divine righteousness is credited to one’s account, but a change in behavior as actual righteousness is given to believers by the very indwelling presence of God’s Spirit. Daily living of the Christian life is a Spirit-enabled walk (John 8:12; 12:35; Rom. 6:4; 8:4; 1 Cor. 7:17; 2 Cor. 5:7; Gal. 5:16, 25; Eph. 2:10; 4:1; 5:8; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 4:1). The verb is a present subjunctive, expressing continuous action that is nevertheless hypothetical because it applies only to some people.
Those who walk in the Light do so because the power of God has regenerated them. As “new creature[s]” for whom “new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17), they will behave in a way that reflects the power of God’s righteous life in them, just as God Himself is in the Light (see the discussion of 1:5 in the previous chapter of this volume). The general pattern of their day-to-day actions and attitudes will be godlike. Such walkers will experience fellowship with one another (1:3, 7; Acts 2:42; cf. Col. 1:12; Phil. 2:17–18), which derives from their union with the triune God (1:6; 1 Cor. 1:9; 6:17; 12:6, 13). All true Christians live and walk in the Light (i.e., the life of God) and the communion of the saints.
To all who walk in the Light, God grants His grace so that throughout their lives the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses them from all sin. This is not to say that Christians no longer struggle with sin, for no one will ever be totally free in this life from the unredeemed humanness of their flesh (Matt. 26:41; Rom. 7:18–24; Gal. 5:17; cf. Rom. 13:14). However, because the blood of Jesus Christ continually cleanses away every impurity, sin can never change a believer’s standing before God (cf. Rom. 8:33–39). The term blood is often used in the New Testament as a dramatic and graphic way to represent Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross (cf. Acts 20:28; Rom. 3:25; 5:9; Eph. 1:7; Heb. 9:12; 10:19), by which He “released us from our sins by His blood” (Rev. 1:5; cf. Col. 1:20–22; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 2:17; Rev. 5:9).
The salvation cleansing John described encompasses all the sinner’s transgressions, past and future, and depends on no condition but God’s sovereign grace in response to saving faith. John is unmistakably in agreement with the Spirit-inspired teaching of Paul that the redeemed enjoy complete, unalterable, and unrepeatable forgiveness (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Cor. 5:18–19; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Heb. 10:10).
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).
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. (2:1a)
The New Testament makes it clear that Christians, no longer slaves to sin, are given the spiritual means to have victory over sin. Paul’s strong command to believers assumes their resources to conquer the sin that still remains in the unglorified body:
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (Rom. 6:12–14; cf. 2 Cor. 5:15; 1 Peter 2:24)
The law made demands but provided no power or equipping to fulfill them. As a result, it only condemns and does not save.
John’s strong love for his readers and his desire for them to heed his words and not sin comes across in his tender designation, my little children, an expression that occurs six other times in this letter (2:12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21; cf. 2:13, 18). Being faithful, diligent confessors of sin, as an expression of their new creation, made it contrary to their own disposition to abuse God’s grace by indulging in further sin (cf. Rom. 6:1–2; Gal. 5:13; 1 Peter 2:16). John was writing these things to encourage them in consistent holiness, because they were regenerate people indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who had been delivered from habitual sin (cf. Rom. 8:12–13; Titus 2:11–12; 1 Peter 1:13–16). Again John echoes, in a concise way, Paul’s following exhortation from Romans 6,
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (vv. 15–18)
So, at the close of 1 John 1, the aging apostle presents further tests of salvation and a clear picture of who passes those tests. Those who pass are true Christians who embrace God’s forgiveness but are nonetheless constant confessors of their sin. That characteristic is a reality in their lives due to God’s regenerating and sanctifying work in their hearts, by means of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13; Rom. 8:15) and the Word of truth (John 17:17). Genuine believers are thus people who have been cleansed from all sin, yet feel its presence powerfully and are eager to confess their remaining sins and, by the power of new life in the Spirit, conquer temptation.
The Second Denial (vv. 8–9)
The second false teaching John denies is the teaching that, in the case of a particular Christian, sin can have been eradicated. It is the claim that we are “without sin” (v. 8). In itself this statement can have more than one meaning. It can mean that there is no such thing as sin and that, therefore, no one is a sinner. This is a view that has become quite popular in Western contemporary thought largely through Freudian psychology, which denies an objective basis for guilt. It can mean that the particular individuals who make the claim have no sin and have never had it, that they are a unique and privileged people. Or, finally, it can mean that they do not have sin now. In view of the fact that there seems to be a progression in the intensity and seriousness of the claims that John denies, it would seem that the third of these possible interpretations should be preferred. The first false teaching was that it is possible to have fellowship with God and still continue sinning. In this second claim there is the additional error that the individual, either through the Gnostic process of enlightenment or through spiritual development, has ceased to sin at all.
Interestingly enough, in this case John does not say that the person professing such perfection is lying, as he did of the lesser claim in verse 6. He merely says that he has deceived himself. The reason is obvious. In the first case the person is making a claim that he himself, as well as all others, knows to be untrue. But in the second case there is the possibility at least that the person making the claim is deceived. It is far more serious, for it is always better at least to see the facts clearly. Nevertheless, it is error in a different area. The seriousness of the matter emerges in the fact that if a person believes himself not to sin, he therefore excuses his sinful deeds and does not bring them to God for confession and cleansing.
But this is what is needed; indeed, this is what is needed by every Christian. Instead of denying that we sin, we are to admit and confess the sin. Only then can God truly cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
John says that if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just in forgiving it. But why does John use these two particular words? In what sense is God faithful? In what sense is he just? Here the interpreter must draw upon the full biblical teaching. To understand the word “faithful” he must understand that God has promised to forgive sin when it is confessed to him. Thus, Isaiah wrote of God’s promise: “ ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘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). Through Jeremiah God declared, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34). Clearly, if God had spoken such promises and then had refused to forgive sin, he would have been unfaithful. But he is not. He is faithful to forgive in that he has promised to do so and does do so.
The answer to the question of the justice of God in forgiving sins is found in Romans 3:20–28, where Paul explains how it is that God is both “just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (v. 26 kjv). It is possible, he says, through Christ, who, being God and therefore having no sin of his own, was able to and did die for us. God punished our sin in Christ. Jesus became the “propitiation” for our sins, meaning that by him God’s just wrath against our sin was satisfied. It is interesting in this context that the word “propitiation,” used by Paul in Romans, is used by John just three verses further on as he enters more fully into a discussion of Christ’s work.
Live in the Light
1 John 1:5–10
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But 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 cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5–7)
Have you ever stared directly at the sun? That is one of those strange activities that your mother warned you not to do—and yet, drawn by curiosity, sinful tendencies, or even unavoidable innocence, at some time or another you have stared into the sun. Then what happened? Immediately your eyes began to burn, and the intense burning compelled you to turn your face. Then, when you turned from looking into the sun back to the world around you, your eyes had trouble refocusing. You also experienced—because your retina’s cells kicked into overdrive—a brief eclipse and then what seemed like black blotches bouncing around you.
In 1 John 1:5–10, the apostle John intends to provide a similar experience. He sets before us the vision of God as absolute light, a light far greater and purer than that spotted sun above. In so doing, he wants his readers to experience and recognize the blackness that is all around us and within us. He wants us to see the blackness of sin, the great darkness that is exposed only when we gaze intently on the perfect light of God. He also wants us to live in light of that light—to grasp that as “children of the light” (1 Thess. 5:5), we have a living bond with God (1 John 1:3), which means a life of lawfulness (2:1–6) and love (2:7–11).
God Is Light
In the fourth century, a scribe copying what we now call Revelation wrote atop the first page, “A Revelation of John.” He also wrote in the margin the Greek words tou theologou (“the theologian”). Eugene Peterson notes the appropriateness of this title for John:
St. John is a theologian whose entire mind is saturated with thoughts of God, his whole being staggered by a vision of [theos] God. The world-making, salvation-shaping word of God is heard and pondered and expressed. He is God-intoxicated, God-possessed, God-articulate.
Along this same line of commendation, Robert Yarbrough adds the following observation concerning John’s letters:
If 1-3 John leaves the disciple who studies them with any single lasting impression, it is the grandeur and centrality of God.… Part of this is the sheer volume of references to him. There is hardly a verse or even clause anywhere that does not name a person of the Godhead (Trinity), a divine attribute, or a divine work (like a command that has come from God). These letters are not simply theological, as one might say ale is alcoholic; they are rather theology distillate, analogous to highest-proof grain alcohol that is highly flammable and intoxicating in even small amounts. God—mainly Father and Son, but occasionally also Holy Spirit—suffuses every situation John envisions, each piece of counsel he issues, every sentiment he conveys, each affirmation he sets forth. No OT psalmist is any more God saturated in awareness than the writer of these letters.
After the prologue (1 John 1:1–4), the body of the letter begins with a proclamation. It is a heralding of a royal decree defining the divinity! Who is God?
People answer this question in a variety of ways. An atheist claims that the notion of God is fictitious or delusional, while an agnostic believes that God is an unknowable possibility. Other views range from God’s being seen as cosmic Santa Claus to God’s being hailed as the divine feminine. The Westminster divines answered this question, stating that “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (WSC A. 4). John gives a shorter definition than the catechism, but it is no less accurate: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
Perhaps John earned the designation “the theologian” not only because he is God-focused but also because he is able to bring clear definition to difficult concepts, as he does here. Instead of compiling a list of all the single, compound, and descriptive names for God (there are 192 in the Bible), or laying out all the designations and descriptive and metaphorical titles for God (there are 152),4 John simply goes with “light,” an image and word that even a child can picture and say.
But in what sense is God light? Light enables vision, produces growth, reveals beauty, exposes blemishes, guides travelers, and warms the earth. Is one, some, or every one of those characteristics characteristic of God’s character? The Bible sheds some light on what John likely means by “light.” In the Old Testament, when referencing God, light symbolizes communication (what God reveals) and character (who God is). In Exodus, for example, God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush and to Israel as a cloud of fire illuminating the people’s way. When the tabernacle is erected, God’s presence is signaled with fire present in the golden lampstands. In the Psalms, we read lines such as “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Ps. 27:1) and “You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment” (104:1–2). Interestingly (and Christologically significant!), this Old Testament imagery is echoed in the New Testament by and for Jesus. For example, Jesus announced, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; cf. 9:5). He also claimed, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46). Similarly, Simeon described Jesus’ mission as “a light for revelation” (Luke 2:32), while Paul spoke of the resurrected and exalted Lord as “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:15–16). Perhaps the biggest light show concerning Jesus was his transfiguration, when his face was “like the sun” and his clothes “white as [the] light” (Matt. 17:2). Jesus’ self-producing, self-sustaining, and self-projecting light reflects only one other person on the scene: the Father, who shows up with or within “a bright cloud” (v. 5). So while God the Father is the “light” that John has in view in 1 John 1:5, who am I to say that Jesus—who “has made [the Father] known” to us (John 1:18; cf. 14:9)—doesn’t shed some light on the communicative and character dimensions of God? And after all, it is Jesus who has given the apostles this precise message to announce: “This is the message we have heard from him [Jesus] and proclaim to you” (1 John 1:5). While this message is not a complete summary of Jesus’ earthly teachings, it certainly is an excellent summary of the divine nature, the starting point of the gospel, and the antidote for the community John addresses that is “beset by darkness of a doctrinal, ethical, and relational nature.”
Jesus’ light on the Father centers on the Father’s character, namely, that “God is light” in the sense that he is perfectly pure both morally (no evil/all good) and intellectually (no error/all truth). As 1 John 1:9 clarifies, “light” equals “faithful[ness]” (God does what he says he will do) and “just[ice]” (and he does so in absolute righteousness). That perfect purity is emphasized in the synthetic parallelism below (in which the first idea in the first line is expanded on or further explained in the second line):
|no darkness at all
The double negative in Greek—“no darkness … none” (author’s translation)—highlights God’s positive perfections. “In him is no shade, speck, or stain of moral imperfection.”
My God, how wonderful thou art, thy majesty how bright!
How beautiful thy mercy-seat, in depths of burning light!
How wonderful, how beautiful, the sight of thee must be,
Thine endless wisdom, boundless pow’r, and aweful purity!
This “aweful purity,” as the poet Faber called it, must be our starting point. To John, God is both “love” (1 John 4:16) and “light” (1:5). But the apostolic ordering is significant. To the issues in ancient Ephesus as well as to our evangelistic presentations in the contemporary world, it matters that light comes before love. God’s holiness (he is light) shows our unholiness (we are stained black with sin) and thus the need of an incarnate and crucified Christ to wash us in his holy blood.
If We Say We Have Fellowship
In 1 John 1:6–10, John moves us from the acknowledgment that “God is light” to what it means to live in that light. These personal implications are the logical extension of the preceding verses. If we are to have fellowship with God (v. 3), who is holy (v. 5), then we are to be holy as he is holy. This is a call not to obtain equality with God but rather to share a quality with him. John warns, exhorts, and instructs in this way:
If we say we have fellowship with [God] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice [literally, “do”] the truth. But 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 cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6–7)
These verses are the first two of five terse conditional clauses (if, etc.). As table 1 below shows, the ordering of the phrases goes this way: negative, positive, negative, positive, negative. Note also that the phrase “if we say” occurs three times followed by a corrective phrase that starts “we” (1 John 1:6, 8, 10), with the last clause—“We make [God] a liar”—an intentionally shocking end stress. Those negative if-clauses contrast the positive phrases that speak of the Father and the Son’s cleansing actions (the Father “cleanses us,” v. 7, and Jesus’ blood “cleanse[s] us,” v. 9).
|If we say
|We lie and do not practice the truth
|If we walk
|He [God] cleanses us from all sin
|If we say
|We deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us
|If we confess
|[God] cleanse[s] us from all unrighteousness
|If we say
|We make him [God] a liar [untruthful]
Table 1. John’s Symmetric Structure
While it is clear that the phrase “if we say” introduces some aspect of false belief within the church followed by a denial and correction, it is uncertain that these are popular slogans from the false teachers we will meet in 1 John chapters 2–5. I do not deny that the spiritual adultery that happened in Jeremiah’s day is witnessed by John in his own: “the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests [leaders] rule at their direction; [and!] my [God’s] people love to have it so” (Jer. 5:31). Yet it is also quite possible that Christians—false teachers or no false teachers—are tempted to think and act in the way laid out in 1 John 1:6.
In 1 John 1:6, the apostle teaches that a person claiming closeness with God while walking in the world’s darkness (see John 3:19–21) has broken fellowship with God, or never had it in the first place. Yarbrough contrasts “cheap talk” (1 John 1:6) with “authentic living” (v. 7). Envision the cheap talk in this way. Picture the popular gospel drawing in which God in his holiness is on one side of the chasm and man in his sinfulness is on the other side. The cross is then drawn in the middle to show the only way to get to God. In verse 6, John gives an ironic twist to that image. In the chasm, he draws a man yelling up to God and boasting to the world, “I’m in fellowship with God.” Like Talkative in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, “He talketh of Prayer, of Repentance, of Faith, and of the New-birth: but he knows but only to talk of them.… Religion hath no place in his heart.… All he hath lieth in his tongue.” He thinks he is “on moral high ground when from God’s viewpoint we languish in some [dark] pit.”12 What a grim and gross sight of human arrogance!
John teaches that we cannot claim to have fellowship with God and still continue to “walk” in “darkness.” He tells us that we are not to be hypocrites, pledging allegiance to God with our lips but trampling on his law with our lives. Those who profess to know God are to be distinguishable from the rest of the world—as distinguishable as light is from darkness. We are to be different especially, as we will see in 1 John 1:8–10, in both our attitude toward sin and our actions against it. Before we look at the final verses, however, notice first John’s correction in verse 7, “But if we walk in the light, as he [God, 1:5] is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” To walk in the light is to live a life that reflects the holiness of God. As we will explore in the next chapter, it is to imitate Christ’s lovingly obedient example.
There are two results of walking in the light. The first result is fellowship with other believers. We saw in 1 John 1:1–4 how John sees an intrinsic connection between our relationship with God and our relationship to the apostolic eyewitnesses. Here we see that if we are rightly connected to God, then we will be rightly connected with other Christians. What a curse-crushing truth! Christian koinōnia walks upon the communal enmity caused by the fall and walks across all ethical and cultural divides created by human sin. How wonderful it is to think and act on this truth. Our local churches should celebrate this reality when we gather for worship, share meals, reach out to the lost, provide for the poor, comfort the oppressed, support and encourage missionaries, and join hands with gospel-centered churches in our cities and around the world.
The second result is that “the blood of Jesus … cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Rudolf Bultmann claimed that this phrase was an artificial editorial edition, and that the “content” of the verse “is disturbing.” Bultmann missed the whole point. He failed to see the logical connection that when one walks in God’s light, that light shows us who we are—sinners! As a result, the only way forward is to cling to the cross, or, to follow the metaphor here, to be washed in the blood. As Christians, we need the ongoing benefits (“cleanses” is in the present tense) of Jesus’ atoning death (“the blood”). We also need to know and remember that “all sin”—or perhaps translated “every sin” or “any you please”14—is continually covered.
Does John mean the sin of adultery, bearing false witness, coarse joking, deceit, envy, fraud, gossip, holding a grudge, idleness, judgmentalism, killing the innocent, lying, malice, not keeping oaths, oppressing the poor, prayerlessness, quarrelling, returning insult for insult, slander, trusting in riches, unlawful divorce, violence, and witchcraft? Yes. Does he mean the sin of loving the world, loving yourself, not loving your neighbor or enemy or fellow Christian or God? Yes. They are “all” covered! Every single sin that stains us and makes us too defiled to commune with a holy God has been cleansed by Christ’s propitiation. His atoning sacrifice for our sin has made fellowship with God possible. Amazing! While Bultmann found Jesus’ blood disturbing, we are to find it preserving. It preserves our fellowship with each other on earth and with our Father in heaven.
If We Say We Have No Sin
With our eyes open to the awesome effects of Christ’s atonement, let us not be blind, as some of John’s opponents were, to the reality of our ongoing struggle with sin. In 1 John 1:8–9, John moves from his first claim and correction (vv. 6–7) to his second. The second claim is saying that “we have no sin.” The correction follows: “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
This false claim sounds quite contemporary. We have come up with creative names for sin (mistake, flaw, slip-up, my bad). We have reinterpreted our wickedness through very sophisticated psychological and social lenses (e.g., if a woman pregnant out of wedlock will likely suffer economic and emotional hardships, then abortion is acceptable). Still, the irony is that sin isn’t dropped from our vocabulary in the common heartfelt confession, “I am not a sinner!” “We have no sin” is the ancient version of it. Here John is dealing either with someone who denies that there is something fundamentally wrong with human nature brought about by Adam’s sin or with a Christian who believes he is now sinless by virtue of some mystical fellowship with Christ. I take it to mean the second. I say that because the verb is in the present tense (an ongoing action) and because each time the expression echō hamartian (“to have sin”) is used in the New Testament (John 9:41; 15:22, 24; 19:11), it addresses the guilt related to actual sins. Yet whether it is the denial of the existence of original sin in all humans or actual sin in the believer, the thought is heretical.
John replies to this old but still-alive heresy by saying that such people are untruthful and self-deceptive. Those who deny their sinful nature (“we are not sinners”) deceive no one around them and certainly not God. When Adam, as our representative, first sinned, God regarded that sin to be ours as well. We inherited sin from Adam! And the guilt of Adam’s sin imputed, as well as the continuing effects of that imputation even in the regenerate, should be obvious (cf. WCF 6.3.6). The only people they deceive are themselves. Note for emphasis the parallelism:
|the truth is not in
Such liars are “doubly damned—guilty before God objectively and sinning again by being oblivious to the fact.” No one lives like those prisoners described in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Life on earth is no illusion. Sin is no shadow on the wall. For example, like every other parent in the world, I am teaching my young children not to hit, bite, lie, and steal. I am teaching them not to be selfish. Why? I do so because those sins come so naturally to them. It is not just my kids. Why is it that we have never had to spend one instant telling our children how to love themselves, but that we battle daily to make them consider others better than themselves? Those who deny original sin deny the very noses on their faces. Yet the sad fact is that we live in a world where people have Pinocchio-sized noses but they simply ignore the obvious. The Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev gives a contrary perspective. Wisely, he writes, “I do not know what the heart of a bad man is like, but I do know what the heart of a good man is like, and it is terrible.” Or you might be more familiar with Jesus’ version of that truth: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children …” (Matt. 7:11). According to our sinless Savior, even gift-giving fathers are not free from the radical fallenness of the human condition.
Both Scripture and experience teach that man is both majestic and monstrous. We indeed are majestic, for among all creation we alone have a capacity for rational thought, moral choice, artistic creativity, covenantal relationships, and humble worship of the divine. But we are also monstrous. As Jesus said elsewhere, “For from within, out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21–22). It is out of the heart—the very core of our being—that sin sprouts. Our sinful nature cannot be explained away by the social sciences as a surface problem!
What, then, is the way forward? Part of the solution that John gives to the denial of sin is the confession of sin: “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). If there is anything we are to “say,” it is not that we have “no sin,” but rather that we are “full of sin”—from head to heart and tail to toes—and therefore, “I’m sorry; please forgive me.”
Confession can be public (Luke 18:13) and private (Ps. 32:5), individual (Ezra 10:1) and corporate (Neh. 9:3). We can confess personal sins (Matt. 3:6) and even the sins of others (Dan. 9:20). Confession can be made to others (Josh. 7:19–21), to those offended (James 5:16), and always to God (Ps. 51:1–4). The confession that John speaks of in 1 John 1:9 is to God. Following the biblical pattern for confession, we are to present our “transgressions to the Lord” (Ps. 32:5; cf. Dan. 9:20), knowing that whoever confesses will obtain his mercy (Prov. 28:13–14).
In The Way of a Pilgrim, a classic book in Russian Orthodox spirituality, the author combines the publican’s prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” with Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” He calls this combination the Jesus Prayer. This is modeled by Franny in J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. The Jesus Prayer consists of repeatedly saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Although this is called the Jesus Prayer, in reality it is far from how Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6:5–15). Especially if you increase the speed and number of repetitions, it resembles more a pagan mantra than a Christian prayer. Yet this Jesus Prayer certainly highlights the necessity of a life of continuous confession, which is the point that John is making. Our confession is not merely the sinner’s prayer (the confession made when we first came to Christ) but the sinner-simultaneoussaint’s prayers (our continual confession of sins as we grow in God’s lightness and thus likeness). To borrow from two traditional Presbyterian prayers for corporate worship, we should pray privately and publicly:
Almighty God, you love us, but we have not loved you.
You call, but we have not listened.
We walk away from neighbors in need,
wrapped in our own concerns.
We condone evil, prejudice, warfare, and greed.
God of grace, help us to admit our sin, so that as you come to us in mercy,
we may repent, turn to you, and receive forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
O Lord our God, Thou art holy and we are sinful; Thou art strong and we are weak; Thou art ever in the light and we walk in darkness. Give us of Thy Spirit; That in penitence and trust we may grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour. Enlighten our minds; Purify our hearts; Renew our wills; And may we give ourselves wholly to Thee; For the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Throughout Scripture, we find warnings about the danger of concealing our sins as well as the blessings of confessing them (e.g., “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy,” Prov. 28:13). Indeed, genuine repentance does lead to mercy, or to forgiveness and cleansing, as John words it, because God is “faithful and just.” We are often faithless and unjust. We sin against God and others. God is always faithful and just. He keeps his promised punishments for sin and does so through the cross. So again on the basis of Christ’s blood, God forgives and cleanses. He cancels the debt and brings restoration, and he removes the stain of sin, making us holy and thus renewing our fellowship with him.
If We Say We Have Not Sinned
As we will see in the chapters ahead, John will continue some of these same themes as he moves into chapter 2. But before he gets there, he adds one final thought, dealing with a final false claim: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him [God] a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10).
Once a woman confided in the hymn-writer Charles Wesley, “I am a great sinner. I am a Christian, but I sometimes fail so dreadfully. Please pray for me.” Wesley looked at her rather sternly and replied, “Yes, Madam, I will pray for you; for truly you are a great sinner.” Taken aback by Wesley’s demeanor and straightforward reply, she answered, “What do you mean? I have never done anything very wrong.” In verse 10, John is dealing with someone similar to this woman, namely, a person who acknowledges original sin but fails to see the depth of her depravity—or, worse, someone who thinks she has become perfectly sanctified. And while we might chuckle upon hearing that Wesley story, this attitude toward sin is no laughing matter. In fact, this third false claim might be the most serious of the three mistakes in moral judgment.
In Proverbs 30:20 we find one of those poignant proverbs: “This is the way of an adulteress: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I have done no wrong.’ ” That is not just the ancient adulteress’s mentality. From the Oval Office to death row, we have become experts in eating from the forbidden tree, wiping our mouths, and then turning to the world and saying, “I have not sinned. I have done nothing wrong. What do I need to confess?” But God’s Word tells us here that God hates such denial. Why? He hates it because to say that we have never sinned is to call God “a liar.” What sacrilege! To lump God who is “light” (1 John 1:5) in with the dark world’s darkest characters—the devil (John 8:44) and false teachers (1 John 2:22; 4:20; 5:10)—is a grave offense. This claim of sinlessness stemming from whatever it might be called today—“a complete surrender,” “second blessing,” “double portion of the Spirit”—makes God a liar because God makes the opposite claim. He claims that “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). He claims, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl. 7:20). He claims that we are in need of ongoing forgiveness because we continue to sin (1 John 2:1). So who is right and who is wrong? Who is lying? Is it the man, claiming that he has never sinned, or is it God, who claims that all have sinned? There is only one right answer: “Let God be true, and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4 niv).
It is said that a man who claimed to be without sin once confronted Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher. Intrigued, the preacher invited this man home for dinner. After hearing the claims through, Spurgeon arose from his chair, picked up his glass of water, and threw it across the man’s face. Immediately and understandably, this “perfect” man showed his imperfections, causing quite a scene, allowing his anger and language to cross the line of courtesy. To which Spurgeon (with a twinkle in his eye, I imagine) replied, “Ah, you see, the old man within is not as dead as you claim. He had simply fainted and I have revived him with but a glass of water!”
That story might or might not be true. But it does help to illustrate the point: there may be a few “perfect” people who need a perfectly good splash of water to awaken them to their imperfections. For, you see, no one in the kingdom of God on earth “has been so transformed by God that they have reached a level of spiritual maturity that excludes the need for ongoing forgiveness.” No one has reached “sinless perfection.” We are all still sinners in need of God’s constant cleansing.
Forgive Us Our Daily Debts
At almost exactly the center of the Sermon on the Mount (with 116 lines before and 114 after it) is a perfect masterpiece on prayer—the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–13). It is perfect in both structure and substance. Structurally, Jesus gives six petitions in two symmetrical parts. The first part, with its three petitions, focuses on God, and thus all the petitions contain the word your (referring to God)—“hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come,” “your will be done.” These are what we might call the divine petitions. The second part, with its three petitions, focuses on human needs; hence the our and us in the petitions—“give us this day our daily bread,” and “forgive us our debts,” and “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” These are the human petitions. These final three petitions focus, in some way or another, on our struggle with sin. We live “in the land of debts,” and “we are up to our ears” in debt. We war against daily temptations. We fight against the cosmic evil forces without and common evil forces within. And yet we pray to our holy, heavenly God—“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9).
“God is light” is the message of 1 John 1:5–10. If we are to walk in the light, as we are called to do, our first step is to recognize the darkness within. A proper assessment of self and sin—in which we say neither “we have no sin” nor “we have not sinned” but rather “we have sin” and “we still sin”—should lead to a life of consistent contrite confessions whereby the Father’s forgiveness is given and our fellowship with God and others, through the blood of Christ, is renewed. It should also lead to a life that reflects the light of God—a theme that we will explore further in the rest of the epistle.
9. If we confess. He again promises to the faithful that God will be propitious to them, provided they acknowledge themselves to be sinners. It is of great moment to be fully persuaded, that when we have sinned, there is a reconciliation with God ready and prepared for us: we shall otherwise carry always a hell within us. Few, indeed, consider how miserable and wretched is a doubting conscience; but the truth is, that hell reigns where there is no peace with God. The more, then, it becomes us to receive with the whole heart this promise which offers free pardon to all who confess their sins. Moreover, this is founded even on the justice of God, because God who promises is true and just. For they who think that he is called just, because he justifies us freely, reason, as I think, with too much refinement, because justice or righteousness here depends on fidelity, and both are annexed to the promise. For God might have been just, were he to deal with us with all the rigour of justice; but as he has bound himself to us by his word, he would not have himself deemed just except he forgives.
But this confession, as it is made to God, must be in sincerity; and the heart cannot speak to God without newness of life: it then includes true repentance. God, indeed, forgives freely, but in such a way, that the facility of mercy does not become an enticement to sin.
And to cleanse us. The verb, to cleanse, seems to be taken in another sense than before; for he had said, that we are cleansed by the blood of Christ, because through him sins are not imputed; but now, having spoken of pardon, he also adds, that God cleanses us from iniquity: so that this second clause is different from the preceding. Thus he intimates that a twofold fruit comes to us from confession,—that God being reconciled by the sacrifice of Christ, forgives us,—and that he renews and reforms us.
Were any one to object and say, that as long as we sojourn in the world, we are never cleansed from all unrighteousness, with regard to our reformation: this is indeed true; but John does not refer to what God now performs in us. He is faithful, he says, to cleanse us, not to-day or to-morrow; for as long as we are surrounded with flesh, we ought to be in a continual state of progress; but what he has once begun, he goes on daily to do, until he at length completes it. So Paul says, that we are chosen, that we may appear without blame before God, (Col. 1:22;) and in another place he says, that the Church is cleansed, that it might be without spot or wrinkle. (Eph. 5:27.)
If yet any one prefers another explanation, that he says the same thing twice over, I shall not object.
10. We make him a liar. He goes still further, that they who claim purity for themselves blaspheme God. For we see that he everywhere represents the whole race of man as guilty of sin.
Whosoever then tries to escape this charge carries on war with God, and accuses him of falsehood, as though he condemned the undeserving. To confirm this he adds, and his word is not in us; as though he had said, that we reject this great truth, that all are under guilt.
We hence learn, that we then only make a due progress in the knowledge of the word of the Lord, when we become really humbled, so as to groan under the burden of our sins and learn to flee to the mercy of God, and acquiesce in nothing else but in his paternal favour.
8–9 John has just mentioned at the end of v. 7 that those who have fellowship with God are cleansed of sin by Jesus’ blood. He now offers another test that further distinguishes those who receive this cleansing from those who do not. The new test follows the same formula as that in 1:6: “If we claim to be without sin, [then] we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Verse 9 restates this test from a positive perspective: “If we confess our sins, [then] he … will purify us from all unrighteousness.” The latter test is again undergirded with an undeniable principle about God’s nature. Not only is God “light,” he is also “faithful and just” and will therefore respond to our admission of guilt by forgiving our sins.
There is an important shift from the singular hamartia (“sin,” GK 281) to the plural hamartias (“sins”) between vv. 8 and 9. The singular “sin” appears in v. 8 with ouk echomen, “we have no sin” (NIV, “we claim to be without sin”). John elsewhere uses the phrase “to have sin” to emphasize the guilt that is accrued by committing sinful acts (cf. Jn 9:41, where the NIV translates hamartia as “guilt”; 15:22–24, where the NIV translates “not have sin” as “not be guilty of sin”; 19:11, where the NIV translates “has greater sin” as “is guilty of a greater sin”). Rensberger, 53, notes that John always uses this phrase of “people hostile to Jesus.” While many scholars would again suggest that John is addressing a doctrine of the Antichrists, it seems more likely he is referring to the world’s disregard for Jesus’ proclamation. Both Jesus and the Spirit insist that the world is guilty of sin (Jn 12:47–48; 15:22–24; 16:8–11), but the world, by refusing to accept Jesus, denies this claim. Jesus has very low regard for such people and tells the Pharisees on one occasion that “if you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin [lit., would have no sin]; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt [lit., sin] remains” (Jn 9:41).
The same complex of ideas underlies 1 John 1:8–9. While John is a dualist, he is not a perfectionist. All people—the world, the Jews, and believers—are guilty of sin. Christians are different from the rest in that they acknowledge this fact and receive forgiveness, but those who deny their guilt only deceive themselves. John seems to be thinking here of the initial experience of Christian conversion, when those in the world admit their sin, accept Jesus, and subsequently receive “the right to become children of God” (Jn 1:12).
John’s dualistic perspective is evident in the promise that those who confess their sins will be “cleansed” (katharizō, GK 2751; NIV, “purify”). John has already used this term in v. 7 to indicate that those who walk in the light are “cleansed” by Jesus’ blood. The Greek katharizō reinforces the language of “light” and “darkness” by distinguishing people as “clean” or “unclean.” Those who do not confess their sins are unclean and alienated from God, whereas those who do confess are made pure, thereby allowing fellowship with him. Cleansing is necessary because, in a further dualistic distinction, God is “just” (dikaios, GK 1465) while sinners are “unjust” (adikos, GK 94; NIV, “unrighteous”). This injustice is eliminated only through the mercy of a just God.
It is interesting to note that John associates God’s forgiveness with his justice (dikaios) rather than his mercy (eleos, GK 1799) or grace (charis, GK 5921). The terms “faithful and just” echo OT covenantal language, stressing that God keeps his promises (cf. Dt 7:9; 32:4; Ps 145:13; Mic 7:18–20). The promise John has in mind seems to be connected with God’s sending his Son into the world to take away sins—an act that allows us to “rely on the love God has for us” (1 Jn 4:16; cf. Jn 3:16–17). This act of love should give Christians comfort and confidence about their salvation and their unique relationship with God (1 Jn 5:13–15).
9 Again, as in verse 7, the writer presents the contrary position to that which he has just outlined. Instead of claiming that we are without sin, we ought to confess our sins. Although the statement lies in a conditional clause, it has the force of a command or obligation: we ought to confess our sins, and, if we do, he is faithful and just.… To confess sins is not merely to admit that we are sinners, but to lay them before God and to seek forgiveness. If we do so, we can be sure of forgiveness and purification on the grounds of God’s character. He is faithful and just to13 forgive confessed sin. The faithfulness lies in his adherence to his promises that he will forgive his people: “Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever because he delights in steadfast love.… Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as thou hast sworn to our fathers from the days of old” (Mic. 7:18–20). The justice lies in the inherent rightness of the act; if the conditions are fulfilled, God would be wrong to withhold forgiveness. His forgiveness is not, therefore, an act of mercy which stands in opposition to his justice, for his mercy and justice are ultimately one. The description of God’s act is an expansion of that in verse 7. The thought of purification from sin is expanded in terms of forgiveness of sin and purification from unrighteousness. Sin is regarded as making us guilty in the sight of God, and therefore in need of forgiveness, and also as making us unclean in God’s sight, and therefore in need of purification. Most commentators regard the two terms as synonymous, but it is possible that purification signifies the removal not only of the guilt of sin but also of the power of sin in the human heart.
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).
9. confess—with the lips, speaking from a contrite heart; involving also confession to our fellow men of offenses committed against them.
faithful—to His own promises; “true” to His word.
just—Not merely the mercy, but the justice or righteousness of God is set forth in the redemption of the penitent believer in Christ. God’s promises of mercy, to which He is faithful, are in accordance with His justice.
to—Greek, “in order that.” His forgiving us our sins and cleansing us, &c. is in furtherance of the ends of His eternal faithfulness and justice.
forgive—remitting the guilt.
cleanse—purify from all filthiness, so that henceforth we more and more become free from the presence of sin through the Spirit of sanctification (compare Heb 9:14; and above, see on 1 Jn 1:7).
unrighteousness—offensive to Him who “is just” or righteous; called “sin,” 1 Jn 1:7, because “sin is the transgression of the law,” and the law is the expression of God’s righteousness, so that sin is unrighteousness.
Ver. 9.—As in ver. 7, we have the opposite hypothesis stated, and the thought advanced a stage. Not the exact opposite, “if we confess that we have sin;” but, if we confess our sins.” It is easy to say, “I am a sinner;” but if confession is to have value it must state the definite acts of sin. The context (“deceive ourselves … he is faithful”) shows that confession at the bar of the conscience and of God is meant. Circumstances must decide whether confession to man is required also, and this St. John neither forbids nor enjoins. Note the asyndeton; there is no δὲ, as in ver. 7. He is faithful and righteous. Δίκαιος must be rendered “righteous” rather than “just,” to mark the contrast with unrighteousness (ἀδικία), and the connection with “Jesus Christ the Righteous” (ch. 2:1). To forgive … to cleanse. As explained in ver. 7, the one refers to freeing us from the penalties of sin, justification; the other to freeing us from its contamination, sanctification. The sense of purpose is not wholly to be surrendered. No doubt ἵνα, like other particles, becomes weakened in later Greek; but even in later classical Greek the notion of purpose is mixed up with that of consequence. Much more is this the case in the New Testament, and especially in St. John, where what seems to us to be mere result is really design; and this higher aspect of the sequence of facts is indicated by ἵνα. It is God’s nature to be faithful and righteous; but it is also his purpose to exhibit these attributes towards us; and this purpose is expressed in ἵνα ἀφῇ ἡμῖν.
9. The writer now sets out, in balanced contrast, the truth corresponding to the second statement of the error which was being propagated by the heretics. The claim to be sinless is a self-deception. For sin is a fact of life, and characteristic of those who are Christians, as well as those who are not. Indeed, the believer is likely to be more sensitive than the worldly person (cf. 2:15–17) to the real nature and seriousness of sin. But its reality does not prevent fellowship with the “faithful and righteous” God, provided that the sin in question is acknowledged before him. In this affirmation (as in v 7 and 2:1b) John may be replying to a misreading by the secessionists of the fourth evangelist’s teaching in John 8:31–47; see the comment on v 8.
ἐάν ὁμολογῶμεν τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν, “if we acknowledge our sins.” The contrast with v 8 is again introduced by ἐάν (“if”); this is the fourth use of the formula in the three pairs of ἐάν clauses which occur in 1:6–2:1. In the present v ἐάν has an adversative force (hence our translation, “but if”); although the opposition between vv 9 and 8 is not so deliberate as it was between vv 7 and 6 (using ἐάν … ἐάν δὲ, “if … but if”).
Although the verb “we acknowledge” (ὁμολογῶμεν) appears in a conditional clause (beginning with ἐάν), the whole phrase has the force of a command (so Marshall, 113). We ought to acknowledge our sins; and, if we do, God responds. The manner of the acknowledgment is not specified. However, Westcott (23) may be right to suggest that an element of public confession before others, as well as God, is involved; for elsewhere in the Johannine corpus the verb ὁμολογεῖν (“to acknowledge”) is used in the sense of open “witness” (see 2:23; John 1:20; Rev 3:5; cf. also Matt 10:32; Rom 10:9). For the cognate verb ἐξομολογεῖν (“to confess”), used in a baptismal context, see Matt 3:6 = Mark 1:5; Did. 4:14. The use of the plural, “sins” (τὰς ἁμαρτίας), probably indicates that the confession of particular acts of sin is meant in this context, rather than the acknowledgment of “sin” in general. The exact phrase, ἐὰν ὁμολογῶμεν τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν, occurs only here in the NT (but cf. Mark 1:5; James 5:16, “confess your sins to each other”). For “sin” see the comment on 1:7.
πιστός ἐστιν καὶ δίκαιος, “he is faithful and righteous.” Although the adjective δίκαιος (“righteous,” or “just”) can be used of Jesus in Johannine thought (cf. 2:1; also John 5:30, referring to the judgment of Jesus as “just”), the subject of the present phrase, “he is (ἐστιν) faithful and righteous,” is obviously God (the “he” of vv 6 and 7). To acknowledge sin, John says, brings into focus these two separate qualities in God’s character: his faithfulness, and his righteousness. The Gr. construction, πίστος ἐστιν καὶ δίκαιος … (“faithful he is and righteous.…”), suggests the way in which both divine qualities are called forth by the open acknowledgment of human sin.
God’s “faithfulness” is regularly associated in the Bible with his covenant promises (cf. Ps 89:1–4; Heb 10:23); and these include forgiveness when man breaks the covenant relationship (cf. Jer 31:34; Mic 7:18–20). So here forgiveness is a part of his faithful nature. Furthermore, God’s righteousness is closely linked at this point in the text with his faithfulness. Brooke (19) interprets δίκαιος (“righteous”) in this context as a virtual synonym for πίστος (“faithful”); that is to say, God shows his “justice” by remaining true to his promise of forgiveness, even when man has failed to fulfill his covenant obligations. Dodd (22–23) regards God’s “forgiveness” in this passage (= πιστός) as a function of his righteousness (= δίκαιος); cf. Rom 3:21–26; 2 Tim 2:13. In other words, God’s righteousness (as in Isa 51:5) is a salvific action, not merely an attribute. Because by nature God is forgiving, he forgives.
Neither of these two interpretations brings out John’s meaning fully. While (with Brooke and Dodd) it is important not to oppose the love and justice of God (as happens in some conservative theories of the atonement), it remains true that the NT, and indeed the Bible as a whole, finds a place for both. God’s attitude to man is one of faithfulness, and the desire to forgive (πιστός). Moreover, he can forgive because, while remaining righteous in being and action (δίκαιος), he has made it possible for us to become righteous (cf. the last phrase of this v also John 17:25 and Rom 3:26). That this is a probable exegesis of the present passage is supported by the fact that God’s activity, as described in v 9, follows and interprets more completely the concept of divine “purification” from sin mentioned in v 7 (note the use of the same verb, καθαρίζειν, “to purify”). Again, we are not told how this happens; but acknowledgment of sin, John claims, inevitably results in God’s forgiving and purifying response; and the possibility of this is grounded in the death of Jesus. For δίκαιος see further the use of the cognate noun, “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη), at 2:29; 3:7, 10; and note John 16:8, 10. The first two texts also use δίκαιος.
ἴνα ἀφῇ ἡμῖν … ἀπὸ πάσης ἀδικίας. The sphere of God’s “purification” from sin (v 7) is now explained. The clause is introduced by ἴνα (“so that”), which depends on the preceding two adjectives, “faithful and righteous.” The faithfulness and righteousness of God are such “that” he will forgive/purify (purpose), and does so (result). Cf. Moule, Idiom-Book, 142, who notes the lack of a sharp dividing-line in Semitic thought between intention and consequence.
God’s saving action, in response to acknowledged sin, operates in two directions: forgiveness of sin, and purification from “every kind of unrighteousness.” The images are expressive; for sin is an offense which God expiates, and also a stain which he removes (cf. Stott, 77). The verb ἀφιέναι (“to forgive”) means literally “to release,” or “to let go.” Its background is forensic (cf. Luke 7:43, concerning release from debt); although in the LXX the verb is also used in a cultic setting (cf. Lev 4:20; 19:22). For the verb καθαρίζειν (“to purify”) see v 7. The two verbs, “forgive” and “purify,” are not entirely synonymous; for καθαρίζειν may mean the removal of sinful desire in general, as well as of the guilt attaching to actual sins (cf. Westcott, 25). But the primary significance of this passage is in any case related to the divine pardon which is available for every believer who confesses to sinful actions (hence the plural, τὰς ἁμαρτίας, “sins”; see v 7a).
John no doubt chose the term ἀδικία (“unrighteousness”), instead of ἁμαρτία (“sin”), because it forms a contrast with δίκαιος (“righteous”), used of God earlier in the sentence. The only other occurrence of the word in the Johannine letters is at 5:17, where ἀδικία is identified with ἁμαρτία. The singular phrase, “every kind of unrighteousness” (πάσης ἀδικίας), refers to the confession of sin in detail.
God’s salvific actions in this v are regarded as constant. The verb ἀφῆ (literally, “he forgives”) is thus in the present tense, suggesting his daily forgiveness. (At 2:12 the verb appears in the perfect tense, where the complementary sense is that of the initial experience of divine forgiveness on becoming a Christian.) The pronouns ἡμῖν (literally, “to us”) and ἡμᾶς (“us”) are repeated for emphasis; God’s healing is essentially personal, and concerned with the individual.
- This v sets out the third version of the heretical affirmation about the unimportance of sin. For its possible background in the teaching of John’s Gospel see the comment on v 8. The present expression of the heretics’ claim (“we have not sinned”) is the most clear-cut in the series; and the description of its consequence (we make God out to be a liar) is the most grave.
ἐὰν εἴπωμεν ὅτι οὐκ ἡμαρτήκαμεν, “if we claim that we have not sinned.” To introduce the claim to be without sin, and its counter in 2:1b, John uses the final pair of ἐάν (“if”) clauses in this passage. The conditional clause (“if we claim”) is followed (as in vv 6 and 8) by a ὅτι (“that”) clause, containing a statement in indirect speech (“that we have not sinned”).
The statement about the absence of sin in the life of the believer may have been suggested by the reference in v 9 to the need for our “sins” (τὰς ἁμαρτίας) to be acknowledged. Cf. the similar connection between vv 7 and 8. Moreover, this explicit assertion on the part of the heretics (“we have not sinned”) may have been initially a response to John’s accusation (v 8b) that the claim to sinlessness was a piece of self-deception (cf. the link between vv 8a and 6b).
It is difficult to see any real difference between the affirmations “we are sinless” (v 8) and “we have not sinned” (v 10); although Westcott (25) argues that in the earlier v the heretics are represented as denying the “permanence of sin as a power,” whereas here they are said to be denying absolutely the practice of sin in their own lives. A broader, and more likely, distinction possibly exists in these two vv between the principle of sin, ἁμαρτίαν οὐκ ἔχομεν (literally, “we do not have sin,” using the present tense of the verb), and its expression in sinful acts (οὐκ ἡμαρτήκαμεν, “we have not sinned,” using the perfect).
We should not lose sight of the fact that at this point John is still drawing out the ethical implications of his thesis, “God is light” (v 5). He has already declared that “living in the light,” and thus sharing fellowship with God and God’s people, cannot be compatible with “living in the darkness” (vv 6–7). The writer later urges those of his readers who were inclined to heresy to renounce sin altogether (2:1a), especially in the face of their claims to be sinless (vv 8, 10). In other words, God’s nature as light not only invites us to become like him by living in the light, thus sharing his fellowship; he also makes possible the first vital step toward this transformation, as we confess our sin (when we recognize our natural unlikeness to God) and acknowledge our consequent need of the salvation that is through him.
ψεύστην ποιοῦμεν αὐτόν, “we are making him out to be a liar.” Further consequences of the heretical claim to be sinless are now specified. In vv 6 and 8 the result of such a claim has been described as falsehood on man’s part: “we are not practicing the truth” (v 6); and “the truth has no place in us” (v 8). In this v John defines the outcome more strongly, with reference to God. The main subject of 1:5–7 and 1:8–2:2 is clearly God, although he is mentioned by name only in v 5. Thus the pronoun αὐτόν (“him”) here must refer (as in vv 6 and 7) to God himself; similarly with αὐτοῦ later in this sentence.
The declaration “we have not sinned,” John claims, has a double consequence. One is positive, and the other negative. First, the claim to be without sin suggests falsehood on God’s part; it “makes him out to be a liar.” The universality of human sin is a common biblical doctrine (cf. Ps 14:3; Isa 53:6; John 2:24–25; Rom 3:22–24); and so also is the theme of the mercy of God, who forgives the sinner (Jer 31:34; Eph 4:32; among the Johannine writings the actual verb ἀφιέναι, “to forgive,” occurs only in this letter). Thus, to deny the fact of sin in one’s own life is to deny the holy and forgiving nature of God; it is to impute falsehood to him, and to challenge his own verdict on man’s guilt as a sinner (see John 16:8–9; Rom 8:1; cf. Schnackenburg, 88). The use of the expression ψεύστην ποιεῖν τίνα (“to make someone a liar”) is characteristically Johannine (cf. 5:10, where the same formula occurs; also John 5:18).
καὶ ὁ λόγος αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν ἡμῖν, “and his word has no place in us.” The second (negative) outcome of the claim to be without sin is an extension of the first. It is that “his word has no place in us.” The “word” (λόγος) of God may refer to the personal Logos (as in John 1:1–14). Equally, it could refer to the message of the gospel, the proclamation about the Word (see the comment on 1:1; cf. also 2:14; John 17:6; Acts 4:31). The meaning in this latter case would be that those, like the heretics, who claim that they have not sinned cut themselves off from all that God has said to man in Christ, and from all that he continues to say through the Christian preaching of the apostles.
However, as in 1:1, a deliberate ambivalence may be included in the reference to λόγος at this point. To make God out to be a liar, the writer may be saying, is only possible either for someone who is not listening clearly to the good news about Jesus, or for someone in whom Jesus, by his Spirit, does not dwell (cf. John 14:23; 15:4; Col 1:27). We may notice in passing the extent to which, as here, John and Paul are at one in their profound understanding of the Christ-Christian relationship; see Smalley, “Christ-Christian Relationship,” especially 96–100.
The phrase “(his word) has no place in us” (οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν ἡμῖν) is parallel to that in v 8, “(the truth) has no place in us.” For the use of εἶναι ἐν (“to be in”) see the comment on v 8. The significance in both places is roughly synonymous. However, if the term λόγος in the present context is ambivalent, and includes a reference to Christ (see above), it could be argued that John regards the indwelling of God’s word in more personal terms than the interiority of divine “truth.” Nevertheless, see John 17:17, where Jesus describes God’s “word” as “truth.”
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 526). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.