1 John 1:9

1 John 1:9

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

This verse is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied verses in the New Testament. Frequently it is employed in a legitimate way to refer to sins that the Christian may commit and for which he seeks God’s forgiveness. However, we often find that it is used in tracts and sermons as an encouragement for the lost person to come to Christ by confessing his or her sins. Is this the real meaning of the text?

One of the basic rules of interpretation of Scripture and even secular writings is to determine who is addressed in the given passage. We can determine this by examining the context of the verse. In 1 John 1:3 we see that John is addressing those who have fellowship with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. In 2:1, John writes, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” John is writing to his “little children,” apparently a reference to his younger fellow-Christians or even to those he brought to Christ (cf. 2:12,28; 3:7,18; 4:4; 5:21). These recipients also have an “Advocate with the Father” in Christ Jesus. Obviously, fellow-believers are the reference here; they are the ones who have an Advocate with God. The passage we are examining must be seen as addressed to Christians who fall into sin.

John says, “If we [John and his fellow-Christians] say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1:8). “If we [John and his believing readers] say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (v. 10). Between these two verses, we have the verse in question. John wants to assure his readers that though they have sinned in the past (1:10) and even sin (not habitually) in the present (1:8), still there is hope. Their past sins have been forgiven and any sins that they may inadvertently sin in the present may also be forgiven. Therefore, John writes, “If we [John and his Christian readers] confess our sins, He [God] is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9). The Christian–the one who is in fellowship with the Father and the Son–must confess his or her sins in order to be forgiven and cleansed of those sins.

This verse is misused when it is directly applied to the sinner who has never come to Christ. Obviously, the sinner must also become aware of his sins and repent of those sins (Acts 2:36-38; 3:19,26). He must grieve over his sins and renounce them. To this extent, the principle of acknowledging sin to be forgiven (found in this verse) is applicable to the non-Christian. However, the verse itself is written to Christians (not sinners) who need forgiveness. The verse is grossly misapplied when it is made to say that all the sinner needs to do is to confess his sins to God and he will then be forgiven of them. No, the sinner’s response is more comprehensive than this. The sinner must place his faith in Christ (Acts 16:31), repent of his sins (Acts 3:19), and be baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3-4). He must acknowledge that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9-10) and receive Him as Lord (Col. 2:6). This is a comprehensive response that is described in many passages. 1 John 1:9 is not one of them.

Richard Hollerman

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