Does 1 John 1:9 address Christians who are in need of forgiveness or was it addressing the lost?
An article on 1 John 1:9, would, at one time, have been excessively brief, but truth always requires more explanation than lies, and with all the misinformation out there needing to be addressed – this article is MUCH longer than I would have liked.
Let me begin by outlining a few simple facts that may keep many from having to read the entire article.
- 1 John chapter 1 NEVER tells anyone to come to Jesus by faith in His finished work – not once!
- Faith is never mentioned at all in this entire chapter.
- If 1 John 1:9 is an invitation to non-believers to come to Christ, then this is the ONLY place in the ENTIRE New Testament where the forgiveness of sins which accompanies salvation can be obtained simply by acknowledging your sin. EVERYWHERE ELSE IN SCRIPTURE you are commanded to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ Jesus and enter into relationship with Him by faith for the release from your sins.
- 1 John 1 :9 is not addressing the sin of rejecting Christ which would appear in the singular, but individual acts of sin which is why it appears in the plural…”If you will confess your sins (plural)“.
- If Christ already forgave all sins by His death burial and resurrection, then there can be no restriction on who was forgiven. If the act of His death and resurrection alone and single-handedly accomplished in full the actual releasing from sin AND its subsequent forgiveness – then faith from anyone is 100% unnecessary – it would just be a fact. For example: Once God established the laws regarding gravity – no one had to “believe” in gravity for it to work – it is simply a fact. So it is, that if Jesus’ death and resurrection not just purchased forgiveness but actually applied forgiveness then everyone would already BE forgiven since it would be based solely upon His action and not our response. If this were true, (and it is NOT) this verse couldn’t be for ANYONE since EVERYONE would already be forgiven.
Since therefore, it is clear that this verse IS for someone – it is our goal in this article to discover WHO it is addressing and WHAT it is promising.
Considering I John 1:9
Today there have developed many different beliefs concerning 1 John 1:9, the following are the most prevalent:
- 1 Jn. 1:9 was written to Christians.
- 1Jn. 1:9 was written to Christians who were being influenced with a Gnostic distortion of the gospel.
- 1 Jn. 1:9 was not written to Christians but to Gnostics.
Now, that John was here writing to a group of Christians who were being seduced into false doctrines seems most likely to me. Almost without question though, it was the doctrine of Docetism that he was confronting and NOT Gnosticism.
[I know these are big words, and I can already sense a number of people are checking out mentally and in all honesty I don’t blame you. Nevertheless, I beg you PLEASE, stick it out and you will find it was well worth your while to press through the theological mumbo-jumbo (Yes that’s a real word).]
Believe it or not, Docetism (and Gnosticisim) are still very much alive today and variations of these doctrines are taught from pulpits and TV media. Oprah Winfrey’s points of view are largely a new form of Gnosticism (or Neo-Gnostic teaching).
So, let’s explain some basic truths first, and then we will proceed with our investigation of this pivotal verse of scripture.
What is Gnosticism and Docetism and is it addressed in the Bible?
2,000 years ago there were several versions of Docetic and Gnostic beliefs, but the one we will focus on here will be the one being addressed by John, in this epistle of 1 John.
In brief, Gnosticism teaches that it is through the revelation of “special” knowledge (Gnosis) that one comprehends the Divine and ascends to the Divine nature. This is where things get tricky because they believe in more than one God.
They believed that the material world is evil, and so is its Creator. So it follows that since the God revealed in the Bible is Creator of the world then, accordingly the Gnostics teach that the God of the Bible is evil.
They teach that the “True God” presides over the spiritual universe and was incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ to reveal to His followers “special knowledge” by which they could escape this corruptible and evil mortal existence. You will see these themes throughout the writings of the Gnostic gospels of Thomas, Mary, Judas, Peter…etc.
Nothing in the first chapter if 1 John indicates a Gnostic audience and only a few references anywhere within the letter even imply such an possibility. So it seems rather clear that John was NOT addressing Gnostics in his letter.
On the other hand, Docetism was the thought that all flesh was inherently evil and that all spirit was inherently good.
Following this notion to it’s fullest natural conclusions you get…
- A gospel which denies the existence of a literal, physical body (and therefore blood) of Jesus. This is because Docetics believe that all flesh is inherently evil, therefore Christ could not become flesh – John 1:14.
- A gospel which lacks promise of physical redemption and resurrection. This is because Docetics believe that all flesh IS evil and therefore cannot be redeemed – Rom. 8:23.
- A gospel which teaches that sin is “normal” for the flesh and was never intended to be eradicated by the work of Christ, since there is no redemption for the flesh anyway – Rom. 8:3.
- Sin is not possible for the “redeemed” because they are spirit.
Now like so many false doctrines this last point has merit which makes it particularly dangerous.
Let’s look at two scriptures which if misunderstood could support this last claim of Docetism.
1 Jn. 3:9 & Rom. 7:16-21,
“(9) Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for His seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” ~ 1Jn 3:9
“(16) If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. (17) But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (18) For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. (19) For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. (20) Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (21) I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.” ~ Rom 7:16-21
Both 1 Jn. 3:9 & Rom. 7:16-21 actually conceptualize a Christian PRODUCING sin from their core nature (meaning from their reborn human spirit). This of course cannot happen, because once born again, the seed of Christ remains in us as we cannot PRODUCE sin from our spirit. In fact, “produce” is what that word “commit” actually means in 1 John 3:9 (which is not immediately obvious in a Strong’s concordance). Therefore when we sin it is no longer us (our true spiritual self) who produce it…meaning our spirit…but it comes from our flesh. Paul clearly taught this, but he did not teach this to imply we are not responsible for the actions we take which side with our flesh, but ONLY to point out where such actions come from if one is born again. This also agrees with Galatians 5,
Gal. 5:16-17, HCSB “(16) I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. (17) For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want.”
So in this way, the initial Docetic belief is correct – however, the Docetics took it to mean that once saved, the redeemed needed no more cleanings from sin since what is done in the flesh is of no consequence.
[NOTE: There is much more detailed information about these false doctrines in another post entitled, Docetism and Gnosticism in the New Testament.]
So knowing that the Docetics believe that Jesus never came in the flesh because flesh is inherently evil – THIS is why John starts his letter by affirming that Jesus was in fact flesh, which was confirmed by John’s physical senses – he had seen Him and touched Him. Also, because Docetics believed that the Creator was Evil but that Jesus was a different and good “god” who came to give special knowledge, THIS is why John made it clear that Jesus IS the God of the Bible and that He was the God of the beginning.
So, John’s very first statement in this letter challenges every foundational belief of a Docetic by first hand, eye witness testimony.
This is also why John says,
“This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist; you have heard that he is coming, and he is already in the world now.” ~ 1 John 4:2-3
This statement would not have been very relevant for a group of Gnostics!
Also, while it is true that Gnosticism embraces the thought of the lower fleshly realm as being evil, the evils of the flesh are NOT the focus of Gnostic teaching.
Our Three Important Questions:
So to create a logical framework and flow for this study, let us approach each of the following questions in order:
- Are the people John is addressing Docetics who are simply “professing” Christianity, but were not truly born again?
- Are the people mentioned in 1 Jn. 1:7-10 Christians, who were being tempted to fall into the teachings of Docetism?
- Does it apply to real Christians of any era, regardless of a belief in Docetism or any other individual beliefs or doctrines beyond those necessary for salvation?
Question #1: Are the people John is addressing Docetics who are simply “professing” Christianity, but are not truly born again?
This is a key question, which I believe both John and the entire Bible make clear. Outside of the SECONDARY purpose of the Gospels, there are absolutely NO biblical writings which were addressed to people outside of the covenants of God.
- In the Old Testament, the writings are to and about the Jewish nation.
- In the New Testament, they are TO the church (whether predominately Jewish or not).
- Even the Gospel’s FIRST and PRIMARY purpose was to create an accurate account of key truths and points concerning Jesus’ earthly life, lineage and ministry for BELIEVERS born after the demise of those who walked with Him. Their use as an evangelistic book was a SECONDARY consideration.
- John mentioned the use of his Gospel as including evangelism in Jn. 20:30,31. But their primary purpose was to preserve the life and teachings of Jesus for future generations of Christians.
Paul tells us the intent and intended audience of all scripture.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” ~ 2Tim. 3:16-17
Luke was indeed writing to Theophilus, but whether or not he was already a believer is uncertain so while one “could” claim Luke as a possible exception to this rule – it would be the only one and remains unproven. The only thing we know for certain is that Theophilus was already instructed concerning the person and doctrines of Jesus PRIOR to the writing of Luke’s Gospel account.
“Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” ~ Luke 1:1-4
So even if we looked no further, than using the testimony of the 64 “other books” of the Bible (66..minus Luke & 1 John), I would say we are on crazy good ground to assume those being addressed in this epistle are in fact genuine Christians.
I am aware that there is a growing sub-culture of those who are beginning to call a number of books into question in one way or another. These are a select few who believe books such as Hebrews and James (or at least portions of it) were directly addressing non-believers rather than Christians. If this is true, the Paul’s words to Timothy are NOT true…“ALL SCRIPTURE is given by inspiration of God…that the MAN OF GOD may become mature…..”. If anyone has any respect for God’s word, that alone should end the argument!
Now, to go a little further on this point requires that we read more than a single verse in this epistle…
Perhaps the 1st glimpse at a Christian audience is found in chapter 1 verse 7.
1Jn 1:7, HCSB “(7) 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.”
John offers no further proofs of being in union with God, than the actions of these people. John knew, that actions alone do not save. In fact, all actions can do is affirm a current reality of being born again – it cannot create that state!
His statement to them was as follows…(definitions added)
If you walk (or conduct yourselves) in the light (revealed truth) as He is in the light, we (John and those he was writing to) have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
We need to take this verse as it is written, AND realize, that in the 6 verses prior to this statement, there is no invitation to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus and enter into relationship with the Father through Him. This SEEMS to point to the idea that those to whom John was writing, were already in a position to have fellowship, so long as they were not walking in disobedience to the revealed truth of Scripture.
Also, a key point is that the word sin here is NOT referring to “known sins”, but sins of omission. THAT IS HUGE!
Kenneth Wuest says,
In 1Jn. 1:7 we have durative action, “keeps on continually cleansing,” referring to the constant cleansing of the saint from the defilement of sins of ignorance by the blood of Jesus. These are habitual in the life of the believer.
This idea of our fellowship with God being linked to our continual “walking in the light” agrees with the statement Paul made to the Corinthian believers,
2 Cor. 6:11-18,
“(11) We have spoken frankly to you, Corinthians. Our hearts are wide open.
(12) We have not cut you off, but you have cut off your own feelings toward us.
(13) Do us a favor-I ask you as my children-and open wide your hearts.
(14) Stop becoming unevenly yoked with unbelievers. What partnership can righteousness have with lawlessness? What fellowship can light have with darkness?
(15) What harmony exists between Christ and Belial, or what do a believer and an unbeliever have in common?
(16) What agreement can a temple of God make with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said: “I will live and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
(17) Therefore, “Get away from them and separate yourselves from them,” declares the Lord, “and don’t touch anything unclean. Then I will welcome you.
(18) I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters,” declares the Lord Almighty.”
It is clear that Paul sees the Corinthians as genuine believers and that an “uneven yoke” for them would be to commune with unbelievers. If in fact light can have no fellowship with darkness, and those mentioned in 1 Jn. 1:7 were not even born again, how could simple external alignment with the teachings of God (walking in the light) cause the genuine fellowship John promises his readers?
The word “fellowship” used in verses 3,6 & 7 means “to have joint-participation with someone else in things possessed in common by both,”. It means partnership with, participation with, communion & fellowship with. This is NOT possible between a believer and a non-believer and all the more so between a non-believer and God “…we have fellowship with one another”.
There is also the fact that John continually refers to these people as unified with himself, by the use of the words “we” “us” “our” and “ourselves“, with the exception of verse 6, and the reason for this exception is abundantly obvious in the Greek.
“If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”
Just as in English, the Greek language makes use of hypothetical illustrations. The beginning phrase of verse 6 says, “If we say“. This is a deliberative subjunctive, proposing a hypothetical case. John puts the case as a supposition, not an assumed fact. He deals gently and humbly with his readers, by including himself in the statement. The claim of this hypothetical person is that he is having fellowship with God, while in fact he is not. It is here that John is addressing Docetism directly. He is warning these believers that if anyone comes to them claiming joint participation with God and yet conducts the whole of their earthly life, patterned after the darkness of this world, they are NOT children of God at all – therefore, do not follow them.
Let’s examine these pronouns by which John identifies himself as one with and among those he is addressing.
(7) But if we keep living 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.
(8) If we say that we do not have any sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
(9) If we make it our habit to confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us those sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
(10) If we say that we have never sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
If we are to take John’s words as they are written, he sees himself as being in the same spiritual condition as those he is writing. Therefore we must conclude that John is either saying,
- These people are genuinely born again
- Or…He sees himself as being genuinely lost.
Even if John did not see these people as Christians, he includes himself in the statements concerning sin, confession, being deceived and the Word not being at home within him, under the conditions stated.
It is certain that John was born again, yet AS A CHRISTIAN, he was clearly not exempt from these statements, by his own admission.
Furthermore, in 1 John 2:12-14 he refers to the same people as…
- Little children your sins are forgiven you for His Names sake.
- Fathers, you have known (intimate knowledge) Him Who is from the beginning.
- Young men, you have overcome the wicked one (See 1 Jn. 5:4, 5).
Now, many will claim that the wording of chapter 2 reveals a clear change in audience. This however, is NOT supportable by any of the textual clues. Even in a language such as Greek, when one changes the intended audience, it is announced clearly. Now, there IS a clear transition in tone when we arrive at chapter 2 verse 1, but a change in tone is RADICALLY different linguistically than a transition from one AUDIENCE to another! The only change which takes place here is that after dealing with the false doctrine addressed in chapter 1, and just before he further warns them of of ungodly assumptions mentioned later in the letter, John moves from a more formal address to one that is more endearing and affirming. This is just good relational skills at work. You do not bombard people you love with one transgression after another…one failing after another with no break in between. People EASILY feel beat down, and that is NOT the intention a a writer who FREQUENTLY calls his audience “Dearly beloved”.
Regarding this change in tone Smith says: “Observe the sudden change in the apostle’s manner. His heart is very tender toward his people, and he adopts an affectionate and personal tone: (1) he passes from the formal ‘we’ to ‘I.’ (2) He styles them ‘my little children’ . . . his favorite appellation (compare 2:12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21)…
“He assumes this tone because he is about to address a warning to them, and he would fain take the sting out of it and disarm opposition. He foresees the possibility of a two-fold perversion of his teaching:
(1) ‘If we can never in this life be done with sin, why strive after holiness? It is useless; sin is an abiding necessity.’
(2) ‘If escape be so easy, why dread falling into sin? We may sin with light hearts, since we have the blood of Jesus to cleanse us.’
‘No,’ he answers, ‘I am not writing these things to you either to discourage you in the pursuit of holiness or to embolden you in sinning, but, on the contrary, in order that (hina) ye may not sin.’
So it is that these statements (as written) are not able to be said of unbelievers, nor of any Christians who have converted wholly to Docetism, therefore again, one must conclude that those John was addressing in 1:9 were in fact Christians who were being seduced into Docetism, but had not actually converted to that belief system.
But I thought all were already forgiven!
Many of those who believe 1 Jn. 1:9 does not apply to Christians also believe that everyone’s sins are forgiven by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, because of a misquoting and misunderstanding of a key New Testament verse.
1 Jn. 2:2,
“and He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”
This verse says that He is the propitiation for EVERYONE’s sins.
So what does that mean? Does that mean everyone is forgiven – carte blache with no need for faith in Jesus? No, not at all!!!
The word propitiation simply means – the sacrifice which paid the price. In fact, it is on this distinction between the price being paid and the pardon being applied, that the name of this article was given.
Jesus is the propitiation, which supplies the method of deliverance from our sins, as well as being our means of reconciliation with God. We are made capable of genuine fellowship with God, because we have relied upon Christ, as the One Who became the vicarious and expiatory sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus was both the priest offering the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself!
He did this for every human, born in every age, from the beginning of time to the end of the world. – ALL TRUE!
This does NOT mean, however, that because the price was paid, it immediately eradicates sin in relation to the sinner OR the believer.
It simply means the price was paid.
That is a absolute fact- structurally, grammatically and historically! No noteworthy scholar would ever even attempt to argue against this fact!
To add to this statement, that His propitiation forgives sins, which remain unacknowledged or unrepented of, is simply to go beyond the meaning of the words or the promise of scripture!
To pay for something is entirely different than utilizing it.
Upon proof-reading this article, my wife Teri made this wise observation…
He is the bridge – just because the bridge is there for everyone does not mean that everyone crossed it.
Even in the wording of 1 Jn. 2:2, it is grammatically clear, that the propitiation was not just once for all, but continual. The sacrifice was offered ONCE FOR ALL, but the propitiation is ongoing.
He IS (not was) the propitiation. His blood still forgives not already forgave! His blood did not speak – it continues to speaks better things before God the Father than Abel’s. –
“and to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.”
The word speaks reveals that it is a continual speaking forth. It would seem that it is due to this, that Jesus is able to continuously be our Advocate before the Father. His blood is continually speaking mercy and advocating for grace to be given – resulting in forgiveness for all who will rely upon it, even still!!!
It is also in this way that He functions as High Priest. Yes, He offered (poured out) His blood once for all, but ever stands applying His blood to penitent sinners and RE-pententing (repenting) saints.
IS it my nature or my fruit that is being forgiven?
THIS is a MAJOR and KEY POINT…
Forgiveness for sins should not be understood as referring to forgiveness for our nature. Once a person is born again, our spirits are re-created and everything is of God – 2Cor. 5:17-21.
We become one spirit with Him – 1Cor. 6:17.
This does not however, negate our need for reconciliation of the soul and body.
Paul addresses this in 1Cor. 6:12-20…
“(12) All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. (13) Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (14) And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. (15) Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! (16) Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “THE TWO,” He says, “SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH.” (17) But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. (18) Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. (19) Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? (20) For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.“ ~ 1Cor. 6:12-20
Rom. 6-8:8 talks about our proclivity to walk according to the flesh even after having come to Christ.
Rom. 8:5, says that this is due to the attention we allow our minds to give, to the cravings of our bodies.
Rom. 8:5, HCSB “(5) For those whose lives are according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those whose lives are according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit.”
James, writing to the Jewish Christians of the dispersion said that they needed to receive, with a teachable heart, the engrafted word of God, which was able to save their SOULS.
You cannot graft something into a stalk that is not genetically compatible!
The people James was addressing were Christians! Like so many Christians of today’s world, they had simply allowed their fleshly tendencies become dominant (See James 4:1-12), but he claims by his wording that they were of the same sort or stalk as the Word they were to receive.
These same Christians were called “sinners” in James 4:8, because their actions were so continually and profoundly sinful that it began to define them as people. Nevertheless, they needed only to repent of their sin and draw near – they did not need to come to Christ – for they were already His!
This was an inference from Jesus’ lesson to Peter,
“(6) …Peter said, Lord, are my feet to be washed by You?
(7) And Jesus, answering, said to him, What I do is not clear to you now, but it will be clear to you in time to come.
(8) Peter said, I will never let my feet be washed by You, never. Jesus said in answer, If I do not make you clean you have no part with Me.
(9) Simon Peter said to Him, Lord, not my feet only, but my hands and my head.
(10) Jesus said to him, He who is bathed has need only to have his feet washed and then he is clean all over: and you, My disciples, are clean, but not all of you.
(11) He had knowledge who was false to Him; that is why he said, You are not all clean.”
Notice that Jesus states that anyone who IS clean, does not need to be cleaned head-to-foot, all over again, but that even clean people’s feet still get dirty!
Later in James 5:14,15 sick believers are told to call for the elders of their church to anoint them and pray for them that they may be healed. Then he says to these believers, “IF they have committed any sins they SHALL BE forgiven.“
That James was talking to Christians is obvious through the entire letter, though I offered but a single example of it above. However, it is clear from this verse alone that those he is addressing are Christians by the fact that it is in question as to whether they have sinned or not. Consider the wording, “IF THEY HAVE COMMITTED ANY SINS“. If the people we was addressing were non-believers this would be a ridiculous statement – their whole LIFE is sin!
So in answer our FIRST question, “Are the people John is addressing Docetics who are simply “professing” Christianity, but were not truly born again?” I believe, due to all the proofs written above, and MANY MANY MORE – the answer is a clear and definitive NO!
These people were quite clearly and genuinely born again, Christians. They were, however, Christians who (like the Galatians) were being seduced, to sway from the clear teachings of the Apostles, concerning the real body and blood of our Lord and its necessary sacrifice for our redemption from sin.
Question #2: Are the people mentioned in 1 Jn. 1:7-10 Christians who were being tempted to fall into the teachings of Docetism?
Well, were they Christians? ABSOLUTELY! Were these Christians being tempted to forsake the forgiveness of fleshly sins by adherence to the doctrine of Docetism? Almost certainly! Although, it cannot be confirmed (as far as I know) with 100% certainty, it does provide us with the most viable reason for why John addresses some of the issues he does in this letter (especially in the first chapter). It also explains why he outlines specific points in his introduction. As far as I am aware, there are no note-worthy scholars who are divided on this point. It seems virtually certain, that these people were being influenced by those who held Docetic beliefs.
Question #3:“Does it apply to real Christians of any era regardless of a belief in Docetism or any other individual beliefs or doctrines beyond those necessary for salvation?”
I will address this by actually dissecting the verse in question. It is my belief that if one carefully considers the words being written by John without bias, they will have to come to the conclusion that it could not have been written to an unbelieving audience. I believe the words themselves clarify for us that John’s epistle was directed to those who knew God and were His by faith and that the need for continual forgiveness of individual acts of sins is a reality for all Christians of every era.
Let’s examine 1 John 1:9,
“If we make it our habit to confess our sins, He is Faithful and Righteous to forgive us those sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
As I said before, the “we” includes John here, and it seems clear to me that he is speaking to Christians, for in other places John tells the unregenerate that faith is the means necessary for forgiveness as in John 3:16, “…whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
However here, these people are told only to confess – not the Lordship of Jesus for salvation as in Romans 10:9,10, but to confess their sins for forgiveness. This is a VERY important point and should not be treated lightly or ignored.
Notice also that the word sins is in the plural!
The only sin a unbeliever needs to repent of, is the sin of unbelief as John 3:16 says. The word repent means to change the mind, so John 3:16 is telling unbelievers that they need to change their minds about Who Jesus Christ is, in relation to them and God. He is Lord and Savior and the ONLY means to the Father – this they must believe and submit to.
In OUR passage here, John’s audience is not being told to repent for their sins but to confess their sins. We are just about to address the meaning of the word confess, but it needs to be said here that included in the USE of the word confess, is the necessity of having already repented (changed the mind) concerning those sins. No one is going to confess sins they have committed, without having first changed their minds about their actions.
Also notice the tense – “if we make it our habit”.
The Greek word for confess here is homologeō, (I will address its meaning in a few paragraphs). The important thing I want to point out in this verse is that it appears in the present subjunctive. This turns this verb into a continuous action of speaking. Therefore, once again, it cannot be for the unbeliever, for their confession of Jesus Christ, as Lord unto salvation, has a specific point in time at which it is accomplished in them. There is NO NEED to continue to confess Jesus in order to finally become or to stay born again. True Christians will continually confess Him before men, but not for salvation or forgiveness of sins.
No, this confession in 1 John 1:9, is continual, not for the sin immediately being confessed, but a continual coming to confess sins plural, because the saint never becomes completely sinless in his ACTIONS, this side of eternity. Thus, John’s statement in 1 John 1:7, 8 & 10.
I find it a little humorous that many of those who believe that this verse is for the non-regenerate, are also against the teaching that in order to get born again, one needs to first repent of their sins.
If this verse IS in fact to non-believers, why then would they be asked to confess their sins for forgiveness? Furthermore, how many of their past sins do they need to confess in order to acquire their total forgiveness?
Now, I am NOT in disagreement with the idea that sinners DO NOT need to repent for their sins in order to come to Christ. In fact NOWHERE in the whole of the New Testament, AFTER the ministry of John the baptist, is a sinner EVER told to repent of sins FOR salvation.
If you will read every account of a non-Christian being instructed to repent – it is ALWAYS about their beliefs concerning Jesus. In other words, they are being told to “change their mind” (repent) about Who Jesus is to them and before God.
I state this as a challenge to those of you who believe that repentance of sins is a necessary step in salvation. You will find, if you are honest with yourself and the Word, that no such requirement is even mentioned in the whole New Testament.
The ironic thing is, that the only ones who ARE told to repent of their sins in the New Testament are Christians!
If one were to honestly think through the concept of ‘repenting of sins’, they would inevitably realize that Christians are the only ones who could do this!
Christians are the only ones whose minds are new in Christ and therefore are the only ones who could change their thoughts about sin. If you are NOT Christ’s, then sin still lords over you and you cannot change your mind about sin! The sinner is ONE with their sin!
Therefore it is clear that only the Christian CAN repent of sin!
A sinner’s thoughts are one with their sin. Until THEY are changed by coming to Christ, their thoughts cannot change in relation to sin. Before salvation, sin is the very nature and mind of a person – just like Jesus & Paul said …
“(43) Why don’t you understand my language? It’s because you can’t listen to my words.
(44) You belong to your father the devil, and you want to carry out the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning and has never stood by the truth, since there is no truth in him. Whenever he tells a lie he speaks in character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
“(3) We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and by nature we were children under wrath, as the others were also.”
Furthermore, the word “confess” (homologeō) means, “to say the same thing as another,” or, “to agree with another.” Confession of sin on the part of the saint means that they say the same thing about their actions of sin that God does. They are to agree with God regarding all the implications of that sin as it relates to the Christian and to their Father as a holy God, against Whom this sin was committed.
Again, this is distorted by yet another group who believe that though 1Jn. 1:9 is clearly written to Christians – they are NOT to say the same thing about sin as God does, but to say the same thing about forgiveness as God does. In other words, the believe that “confess your sins” means, to say “I am the forgiven” which is what they believe God says about their sins.
So, what could be wrong with this? Well, it completely side-steps the entire process & point! God is wanting a dialogue with His children. He wants His kids to own their actions – admit to them and acknowledge that they are contrary to God and His holiness. he wants them to acknowledge that the character of God the Father is the standard and that as children they acted contrary to their birthright. This confession or acknowledgement of the sinfulness of sin requires inward contrition which draws God near (Psa. 34:18; Psa. 51:17; Isa. 57:15; Isa. 66:2; James 4:8) and restores proper relationship. To only acknowledge that Jesus forgives sin, is to side-step contrition. It is to be the child who seeks to change the subject rather than admit a wrong done – it is, in effect, to be a spoiled brat!
Notice also, it DOES NOT SAY to confess who they ARE before God. It CLEARLY SAYS, CONFESS your SINS – NOT your person or your redemptive state – but your SIN. So to say that confess means to admit that you are the forgiven is to confess your condition in Christ – NOT confess your sins. It totally fails to do what the verse requires!
Many people from the “grace movement” cling to the idea that we should only confess that when we sin we were not being true who we are as God’s children.
While I would agree that it is clearly a healthy thing to realize that as a child of God your actions of sin are NOT YOU, even as Paul said in Rom. 7:16-21 as we mentioned earlier, it is NOT what John is commanding of sinning Christians!
This process of confession, includes the saint’s hatred of sin. He is confessing his sense of guilt and contrition because of it, as well as his determination to rely upon Christ within to put it out of his life once and for all.
This is what confession of sin here means. It is a much stronger word than the English word with which it has been translated – “confess”.
All of this so far was stated by Paul to those Corinthian believers, who repented of the sin of allowing believers, who were living in sin, to worship with them in their sacred gatherings.
One has to ask themselves – why would Paul require that brothers and sisters in the Lord who are continue in sinning without repentance to be removed from the church, if sin was no longer an issue?
If God has forgiven their behavior before they even commit it, who is Paul to evict them from the church for not repenting? By doing this are we not acknowledging the presence of sin as opposed to forgiveness?
Paul addressed a specific instance of sin in 1Corinthians 5:1-13. By the time of the writing of 2Corinthians, Paul had received word back from Corinth by Titus, that the church was repentant of their sins and so wrote these words in response to them [See 2Corinthians 2:1-11],
“(5) In fact, when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest. Instead, we were afflicted in every way: struggles on the outside, fears inside.
(6) But God, who comforts the humble, comforted us by the coming of Titus,
(7) and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort he received from you. He announced to us your deep longing, your sorrow, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced even more.
(8) For although I grieved you with my letter, I do not regret it–even though I did regret it since I saw that the letter grieved you, though only for a little while.
(9) Now I am rejoicing, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to REPENTANCE. For you were grieved as God willed, so that you didn’t experience any loss from us.
(10) For godly grief produces a repentance not to be regretted and leading to salvation, but worldly grief produces death.
(11) For consider how much diligence this very thing–this grieving as God wills–has produced in you: what a desire to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what deep longing, what zeal, what justice! In every way you have commended yourselves to be pure in this matter.
(12) So even though I wrote to you, it was not because of the one who did wrong, or because of the one who was wronged, but in order that your diligence for us might be made plain to you in the sight of God.
(13) For this reason we have been comforted. In addition to our comfort, we were made to rejoice even more over the joy Titus had, because his spirit was refreshed by all of you.
(14) For if I have made any boast to him about you, I have not been embarrassed; but as I have spoken everything to you in truth, so our boasting to Titus has also turned out to be the truth.
(15) And his affection toward you is even greater as he remembers the obedience of all of you, and how you received him with fear and trembling.
(16) I rejoice that I have complete confidence in you.”
Now I highlighted certain parts of this passage so that those who are protecting their theology that “Christians do not need to repent of sin”, cannot escape the plain truth of this letter.
The points are:
– They grieved over something.
– Their grief lead to repentance.
– Their repentance lead to salvation (not spiritually, for they were already born again, it resulted in the salvation of their souls).
– It produced diligence.
– It produced a desire to clear themselves. Of what? The obvious answer is…of something they knew was wrong a.k.a. sin.
– It produced an indignant heart. To what? The straight forward answer would be… to the sin of the one and their sin in tolerating it.
– It produced fear. What kind? Again, the obvious answer would be… Godly fear or reverence. Paul is here praising them for it, and one could hardly attribute to Paul, that he would praise a church for being fearful or full of terror.
– It produced longing. For what? For God and for right standing with God and Paul, their father in the faith (1Cor. 4:15).
– It produced justice.
– It produced a situation where it was clear, that in every way, they had “commended yourselves to be pure in this matter.“ Pure from what? Again, I believe the only obvious answer if of sin.
This last word “pure” is important in this discussion because it is in reference to Christians and their actions. The word “pure” is hagnós and is closely related to the word holy. It means freedom from defilement or impurities. Does this passage say that this was their condition PRIOR to their repentance or after? It was a RESULT OF REPENTANCE!
Now in 1 John 1:9, we have so far covered the words confess and sins (plural).
The next pivotal word is Faithful…
“…He is Faithful and Righteous to forgive us those sins…”
This is the Greek word πιστός (pistós) and means two things.
- Objectively (meaning from God’s perspective) it means trustful or One Who can be relied upon with assurance.
- Subjectively (meaning from our perspective) it means trustworthy, Someone you can safely place your reliance in or on.
It means to be certain, sure and true to.
Now let me address another issue people have with this verse applying to Christians. They believe that if 1Jn. 1:9 is to Christians, it calls into question God’s faithfulness, and if you follow their reasoning you can see where they get this idea.
From their point of view, if this verse is written to Christians it would mean that if we fail to confess our sins, God suddenly becomes unfaithful to the covenant by holding sins against us.
Let me say here that God’s faithfulness is not at stake, neither is it on trial here. I will illustrate this from 2 Tim. 2:11-14 in a moment, which also indirectly answers this question.
God’s faithfulness is a state of being. He IS Faithful, but He is also TRUE!
God’s faithfulness remains steadfast, regardless of your confession. God stands behind the finished work of Jesus on the cross. He supports it and honors it in every way! That is why, when we sin as Christians, we do not immediately fall away to the point of apostasy. HE WHO KEEPS YOU IS FAITHFUL – Hallelujah!
However, Paul tells Timothy,
2 Tim. 2:11-14,
“(11) This saying is trustworthy: For if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him;
(12) if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will also deny us;
(13) if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.
(14) Remind them of these things, charging them before God not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers.”
People who misunderstand 1 John 1:9, will most likely misquote and miss apply verse 13, of 2 Timothy chapter 2 as well.
They will likely say that it means, if we are faithless to God He remains faithful to us. However, that is NOT even what the plain English words say, and it is decidedly not in keeping with the meaning and flow of the entire passage.
The word faithless means to NOT BELIEVE or in the case of a Christian – it means to cease to believe in and rely upon Christ – a.k.a. to deny Him.
Read the previous verse, “…if we deny Him, He will also deny us;”
In fact, notice how ALL of the promises listed in these verses to BELIEVERS are conditional! They all begin with “IF“.
Beyond that, it does not say that God cannot deny YOU – for according to the previous verse we know He can – “…if we deny Him, He will also deny us;”!
This verse says He cannot deny Himself.
In other words – your faithlessness – does not make God’s Faithfulness void – He is Who He is. He cannot deny that!
Now I am about to quote Calvin but it is NOT because I am a card carrying Calvinist, but neither am I an Arminian. I am actually somewhere in between. Never the less, just because I do not agree with everything Calvin says, does not mean I cannot learn some profound wisdom from some things he said.
Calvin said, “Our faithlessness cannot in any way detract from the Son of God and His Glory. Being all sufficient in Himself He has no need of our confession. It is as if he had said, ‘Let all who will, desert Christ, for they deprive Him of nothing; when they perish, He remains unchanged.”
Calvin here is right!
So, 1 Jn. 1:9 does not mean that if we fail to confess our sins, God suddenly becomes unfaithful to the covenant. What it means is that YOU have become unfaithful to the covenant. You have failed one the the “if” conditions of our covenant with God. This is easily fixed – just confess it! You will find that He is Faithful!
Also, as I addressed earlier, our failure to confess does not remove our relation to God, it effects our fellowship. I will also address this further in a little bit.
Listen, I know it is hard to let go of a bias, I’ve had to do it over some things I was boldly, dogmatically and PUBLICLY verbal about… so I get it! Honoring God’s word however, is far more important than coddling a pet doctrine we feel the need to protect. God is NOT under any compulsion to adhere to or honor our misunderstandings of His promises.
The next word is Just…
This is the Greek word δίκαιος (díkaios) and though it is similar to the word for righteousness, it is not that word. It actually means, equitable in character or action. By implication is means innocent, holy, just, meet.
The next word is Forgive…
This is the Greek word, αφίημι (aphíēmi) and is a very powerful word. It means to liberate a person from their sins (plural).
“To forgive” is hina aphēi, “in order that He may forgive.” Aphēi is second aorist subjunctive, speaking, not of a process, but of a single act. This makes 1 Jn. 1:9 stands in contrast to 1 Jn. 1:7 where we have a durative action, “keeps on continually cleansing,”. The forgiveness addressed in 1 Jn. 1:7 is, as I said earlier in the article, in reference to the constant cleansing of the saint from the defilement of sins of ignorance by the blood of Jesus. These are habitual in the life of the believer. Sins we confess however, as in 1 Jn. 1:9, are not habitual – meaning constant and unrepented of.
As Wuest says, “No child of God knowingly sins habitually. These sins for which confession is required are infrequent, isolated instances in the well-ordered life of a believer. Therefore, the aorist tense is used here, speaking of a single act of forgiveness. The word is the second aorist subjunctive form of aphiēmi, “to send away, dismiss,” hence of sins, “to remit” as a debt, “to put away.”
All sin was remitted, paid for, put away on the basis of the satisfaction offered for the demands of God’s holy law which sinners broke, when the Lord Jesus died on the Cross. The law was satisfied. All the sins the believer commits, past (those in his unsaved condition), and future (those in his saved state), were put away. The forgiveness spoken of here has to do with familial relations and not with the breaking of God’s law per se, for that was taken care of at the Cross and recognized as such at the time the sinner placed his faith in the Savior. Therefore, sin in a Christian’s life is a matter, not between a lawbreaker and a judge, but between a child and his father. It is a matter of grieving the Father’s heart when a child of God sins. The putting away of the believer’s sin upon confession is therefore a forgiveness granted by the Father and a restoration to the fellowship that was broken by that sin. When the saint confesses immediately after the commission of that sin, fellowship is not broken except for that time in which the sin was committed.
Even the use of the words given here indicate a letting go of topical sins and not a forgiving a sinner and setting him free from his fallen nature.
These sins, being let go of, are those of a child against a father and in that relationship the child’s actions are not what defines them, but they are things for which the son or daughter need to be be cleansed for further co-participation with God. For them to cling to their sin as acceptable, makes co-partnering with His Kingdom work impossible, since they are working against Him. They create the scenario of a Kingdom or Temple divided against itself.
This is no more than common sense. One does not treat a stranger like a child and a child like a stranger. If a stranger were to come into your house and take money from your purse or wallet – it would be a legal matter and brought before judges. If a child did the same it would be a familial problem and brought before the family. The two cannot be compared as on equal footing!
Now, just because a child is a child does not automatically make them clear of the offense. Even in natural families it is clear that if a child does not come to their parents and admit their guilt of wronging them, there remains a barrier between them that hinders growth IN THE relationship while the relationship itself is still in tact.
Why is that?
The scriptures tell us that two cannot walk as one unless they are in agreement. If the parent believes a wrong was done and the child maintains that they were within their rights – they cannot walk as one because their is disagreement. If there is to be a restoration of peace and oneness (in action not being – again this child’s DNA has not changed – they are still the parents offspring) there must be a surrendering on the part of one party or both.
When applied to God and His children, there can be only one party who can change and surrender and that is us! We do this by “saying the same thing as” He does about our actions (sins).
The result? Our feet are cleaned (remember the example of Peter as the Lord washed his feet from earlier?).
The final words are taken together because it includes not only the word Cleanse, but the unrighteousness we are cleansed from.
Cleanse… This is the Greek word, καθαρίζω (katharízō) and means to cleanse thoroughly and set free from the filth (or stain) of sin. To purify from the pollution and guilt of sin.
This word is perhaps the clearest reference to an external cleansing. It is used for garments and children alike. One does not need to change their child or replace their dirty cloths – only cleanse them topically. The child and the garment themselves remain unchanged. Underneath all that dirt, is a clean child.
from…Unrighteousness… This Greek word, αδικία (adikía) means all that is not in 100% conformity to God’s perfect Justice!
So the answer to the question, “Does it apply to real Christians of any era regardless of a belief in Docetism or any other individual beliefs or doctrines beyond those necessary for salvation?“, I believe to be ABSOLUTELY YES!
I hope that you can now see this statement of 1John 1:9 as an invitation to intimately commune with our Lord after having dirtied ourselves in sins, be washed of them and remain in unbroken fellowship with Him.
We are invited in the midst of our weakness to receive the strength He offers, which cleans us from the external filth and stain of sin, removes from us a guilty consciousness of sin, and empowers us to live free from it’s ability to lord over us ever again!
It is very much the same conversation and invitation God gave to Paul in 2Cor. 12:8-10 concerning another type of weakness.
In short, a religious faith without 1John 1:9 is tantamount to a religion that acknowledges God, but denies the power of knowing Him. (II Timothy 3:5)
Both in the Old Testament and in the New, there are scarcely any stronger warnings to the people of God, than to fall prey to false doctrine. To create a reason to consider what I have written in this study, carefully read the following passages – realizing that they were written to Christians under the NEW Covenant.
- II Peter 2:19-22 [esp. recognize WHO he is addressing in II Peter 1:1-4 & where the heresy will be taught II Peter 2:1-2]
- I Cor. 5 [esp. recognize that Paul is advocating brothers judging another brother in sin and removing him from their fellowship until he repents – which we know he did as it was recorded in II Cor. 2:5-11. Paul seems to think sin is important and has to be repented of and dealt with.]
- I Cor. 11:18-34 [esp. recognize that these people were genuine Christians and members of a local body]
- Gal. 5:1; Gal. 5:16-21 [esp. recognize that these were Christian Gentile brethren – born again – Paul says sin is deadly and important to recognize.]
- Eph. 5:1-7 [Again, recognize that these were predominately Gentile Christians, THEY KNEW GOD! Paul was a Jew. The only way in which these people could be considered “brethren” was if they were one spirit with him through Christ. PLEASE read this book in context and know Paul never warned non-believers of sin. He never told them to clean up their act – he only invited them to Jesus. Here Paul is addressing wayward Christians!]
- James 4:1-12 [This book was predominately to Christian Jews – see James 1:1-2; 1:19; James 2:1; James 3:1] In James 5:19 he clearly sees these people as living in the truth (Jesus) or they could not do what he tells them to do here. You cannot turn someone from error if you are in error yourself. – Lk. 6:39.
It would be a privilege to hear from you if you have any questions or comments.