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Understanding 1 John 1:9

May 19, 2011

Whenever we talk about the gospel of Grace, about the forgiveness of sins once for all, many people raised this question:

What about 1 John 1:9. which says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness?”

This verse has always been misinterpreted by many churches. When we read the Bible, it’s very important that we read it in context of which each book is written. Before I go into the context of 1 John 1:9, let me establish first that you cannot build a doctrine based on one verse in the Bible. The teaching needs to be confirmed and established by various verses in the Bible before it can be sound.

Now, have you ever wondered why Paul, the apostle of God’s unmerited favour, the man who wrote over two-thirds of the New Covenant epistles, did not make the slightest mention of ‘confession of sins’ to all the churches he wrote to? Don’t take my word for it. Review all the letters that Paul worte: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus and Philemon. Paul wrote extensively to all these churches, and yet there was not one mention of the confession of sins in all his Spirit-inspired letters. Why was this so?

Paul has the perfect opportunity to teach the Corinthians to confess their sins of fornication when he wrote to them as they had clearly sinned. But what did Paul do instead? He said,

1 Corinthians 6:19 “… do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you…?”

He did not say,”Do you not know that your body was the temple of the Holy Spirit? Now go confess your sins and restore your fellowship with God and perhaps He will put His Spirit back in you.” There was not even one mention that they had to confess their sins. Instead, Paul reminded them of their identity in Christ, and even in their failures, he maintained that their body is (note: present tense) still the temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul apparently believed that to remind believers to be conscious of who they are and what they have in Christ continually is the key to victory over their sins.

If confession of sins is so important for the church, how could Paul have left it out in every one of his letters to the churches? If our forgiveness of sins is indeed contingent on our confession of sins, hasn’t he done us a great injustice by not including this teaching in any of his letters? Don’t you think that Paul, who loved the church, would have written about the confession of sins in every one of his letters, and given us detailed instructions on how to confess sins, if the confession of sins was truly necessary for us to experience forgiveness of our sins?

Now, all the Scripture was written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Would God Himself have forgotten to include this teaching in all of Paul’s letters if the forgiveness of our sins was based on the effectiveness of our confession of sins? Of course not! Instead, we have clear and certain passages in all of Paul’s letters that state beyond the shadow of a doubt that all our sins are forgiven, and that our forgiveness of sins is “according to the riches of His grace”, and not by our works!

Now the questions you might ask in reference to 1 John 1:9 are these:

“Who was John’s audience? What was he trying to convey in this letter?”

Since Paul did not mention the confessions of sins in his letters, we are left with only one verse – 1 John 1:9 – that people have used for years to justify this teaching.

In school, when you were doing those “fill in the blanks” questions and you don’t seem to know the answers to those questions. My English teacher used to say this: “If you don’t know the answer, it really helps to understand the passage, not only you need to know what is spoken or written, but of whom and to whom, with what words, at what time, what is it intended for, with what circumstance, considering what goes before and what follows after”.

I said it before and I will say it again. When reading the Bible, always look at the context of the verses. Read everything in its context.

When you are reading chapter 1 of 1 John, one of the things that you need to be clear about is whom it was written to, Notice that in the first part of 1 John, there are no greetings to believers. If you look at Paul’s letters, you will see that it was common during those days for the author to greet believers when writing to them. For instance, Paul would write “To the saints who are in Ephesus”(Ephesians 1:1) or “To the church of God which is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”. (1 Corinthians 1:2)

When you compare 1 John with the greetings found in 2 John and 3 John, you can see that John greets believers directly in the other two letter. In 2 John, he writes,

“… To the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth… Grace, mercy, and peace will be with you from God…”(2 John 1:1-3)

and in 3 John, he writes,

“… To the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth: Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things, and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” (3 John 1:1-2)

In contrast, there are no greetings to believers in 1 John 1. Why is that? It is because John was not writing to believers in that chapter. He was addressing the Gnostics who had infiltrated the early church. Gnostics are heretics who do not believe in the existence of sin. That is why John wrote:

1 John 1:8-10 If we say that we have no sin, 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. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

John used the editorial “we” in his writing, but we know that this does not mean that he did not believe in the existence of sin. This passage was clearly written to the unbelieving Gnostics to encourage them to stop their denial of sin, acknowledge the truth that sin exists and acknowledge that they have sinned. It was written to bring them to the realisation that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23).

John was preaching the gospel to the Gnostics and telling them that if they confessed their sins, God would be faithful and just to forgive them their sins and cleanse them from all unrighteousness. That is why at the beginning of 1 John, John said:

“… that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3)

John was clearly preaching to non-believers (in this case, the Gnostics) about Jesus and His finished work, and inviting them to fellowship in Christ with the other believers in the early church.

With this context in mind, it becomes clear that 1 John 1:9 was not written to believers. This verse is reference to the prayer that a sinner prays to accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Saviour. If you are a believer, it means that you have already prayed that prayer. Now, let me ask you this: How often do you have to pray the sinner’s prayer? Only once! You are “born again” only once! You cannot be born again and again.

In the same way, how often do you have to confess you sins for Jesus to forgive you and cleanse you from all unrighteousness? Only once! In that very instance when you prayed the sinner’s prayer, all the sins that you would commit for your entire life were forgiven once for all. You received the full redemptive work of Jesus on the cross into your life, and all His blessings. His favour, His health and His success became yours! You do not need to confess your sins again and again to be forgiven. You are already forgiven! Today, you can be honest with your Father about your mistakes and failures, knowing that He loves you and has already forgiven you. You don’t confess your sins to Him in order to be forgiven.

While 1 John 1 was written to the Gnostics, John directs his attention to believers in Chapter 2. It becomes immediately clear that he is talking to believers once the chapter begins he writes:

“My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)

Right after John addresses to the believers, he states clearly that if anyone of us sins, we have an Advocate with the Father! Notice there is no mention of confession of sins at all. This is the same John who wrote 1 John 1:9, which has been wrongly misinterpreted to teach believers that they have to confess all their sins and to keep short accounts with the Lord to have fellowship with Him.

No, when we as believers fail today, our Advocate fights for us. Our Advocate shows any accuser His nailed-pierced hands as a receipt for the payment that He made for our sins at the cross. Whenever we fail today, there is no power in confessing our sins, but there is power in confessing our righteousness in Christ, our identity in Christ and our unmerited favour in Christ!

Furthermore, in verse 12 of the same chapter, John states:

“I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.”

 Here, John takes it for granted your forgiveness of sins without confession. It would be a strange double-talk for John to write 1 John 1:9 and 1 John 2:12 both to believers.

Instead of being sin-conscious, become righteousness-conscious, and receive the power of God to step out of that sin that seems to have a grip on you. Receive the power and wisdom of God to turn around any failure in your life. Sin-consciousness will make you depressed and keep you in a cycle of sin even when the unmerited favour of God is on your side. Every time you search your heart for sin and failings, guess what? You will find something! Instead of looking at your own failures, turn away from yourself and look at Jesus. Look at His heart of love and His forgiveness towards you. When you know, that you do not deserve His grace, and yet receive it, how can you help but be transformed? How can you help but want to worship Him?

Jesus wants you to have no more consciousness of your sins. Instead, He wants you to have a consciousness of your righteousness in Him. The more you are conscious of your righteous identity in Him, the more you are transformed by His unmerited favour, the more the desire to sin dissipates and the more you become a true worshiper. Believers who know that their entire life of sins is forgiven by the blood of Jesus won’t want to run out there and sin like the devil. Instead, they become true worshipers of Jesus with hearts purified by His blood and having no more consciousness of sins! (Hebrews 10:2)

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Natasha
    June 10, 2011 at 2:50 AM

    GREAT article! I didn’t know what to make of that verse to be honest. Reading you article just confirms what I already knew but ow I can explain it to others in a way that makes sense. I am just wondering where you go to find out who certain books of the Bible were written by. How did you find out that John wrote 1 John 1 to the Gnostics?

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