“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John 1:9
A gifted Christian counselor and speaker writes, “I work a lot with brave clients who are struggling with addiction. Even if you don’t deal with addiction all day, you probably know as well as I do that addiction is a cunning and baffling foe. Addiction is the one disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease. It lies and tells you everything is fine and ‘You’ve got this’ and you can go right on ahead and have that drink because ‘You can control it this time.’
“Yeah. You so don’t have this. You can’t control it.” 1
Like an addiction, we have a disease called sin that lies to us and tells us everything is fine when it is not fine. Whether we are a non-Christian or Christian, we have the tendency to deceive ourselves. To tell ourselves we are okay when we are not okay.
Each of us has a dark side within us. “Even a religious cynic like Mark Twain said that every man is like the moon; he has a dark side that he doesn’t want anyone to see.” 2
Everything we do is stained with sin (Isaiah 64:6). You may counter, “But a mother nursing her baby is not sin. Nor is sharing the gospel with a neighbor.” While it is true that nursing a baby or sharing the gospel with a neighbor is not sinful, what these statements fail to address is the unknown sins that exist in the nursing mother and person who shares the gospel. Such statements overlook the fact that every person has the same sinful nature as the first man (Adam) who sinned (Romans 5:12-19; cf. 3:9-23). 3
Anderson explains, “Scientists have discovered that the worm does not enter the apple from the outside in, but from the inside out. It’s actually planted there by a huge insect, a little egg in the blossom of the apple. And then as the egg hatches, so to speak, the worm eats away at the apple from the inside out. Satan is like a giant insect. He planted an egg in the flower of humanity, way back there in the Garden of Eden. And it hatched, and the worm of sin has eaten all the way through the human race.” 4
Hence, King David wrote, “In sin my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5b). He is not referring to being conceived out of wedlock. He is saying that from the time he was conceived, there was sin present. 5 Every human being is conceived with a sin nature.
In his first epistle, the apostle John announced the message he and the other apostolic eyewitnesses heard from the Lord Jesus “that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1:5). He then addressed two different responses from Christians to this message about God’s complete holiness. Some believers can claim to have fellowship or closeness with God while living in darkness or disobedience to Him (1:6a). Such a claim is a “lie” and failure to “practice the truth” about God’s holiness (1:6b). But the believer who walks “in the light as God is in the light” by being open and honest with God about whatever God reveals to him, is able to enjoy “fellowship” or closeness with God because of the all-sufficient cleansing blood of Jesus Christ (1:7). So, notice the contrast between deceit (1:6) and honesty (1:7) before God.
John anticipates that when a Christian is experiencing true fellowship with the Lord by being open and honest with Him (1:7), he or she may be tempted to think they are totally free from sin at least in that moment of fellowship with God. He writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8). Again, notice that the apostle John includes himself and the other apostles when he uses the word “we” in this verse. Even the apostles would be deceiving themselves by saying “we have no sin.” Denying that we have a sin nature is self-deception. The “truth” of God’s Word teaches us about our own sinfulness (Romans 3:23; 5:12-19). If we deny we have sin, God’s “truth is not in us” as a controlling factor. 6
Constable writes, “If a Christian claims to be enjoying fellowship with God, he may think that he is temporarily or permanently entirely sinless. Yet our sinfulness exceeds our consciousness of sinfulness. We have only a very limited appreciation of the extent to which we sin. We commit sins of thought as well as deed, sins of omission as well as commission, and sins that spring from our nature as well as from our actions. This verse warns against all forms of the heresy of perfectionism… God’s truth, as Scripture reveals it, does not have a full hold on us—it is not controlling our thinking—if we make this claim [‘I have no sin”]. ‘In us’ suggests not that we have the facts in our mental grasp, but that they have control over us. They are in us like alcohol is in the stomach, rather than like a penny is in a pocket. They influence how we behave.” 7
No one in whom God’s truth is fully at home, can even say for one instant, “I have no sin.” To say such a thing would make oneself without need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ. Christians are in constant need of Jesus’ blood to cleanse them because there is never a time during their lives on earth that they have no sin. Even if they are not conscious of any sin in their life, it would be a lie for them to say, “I have no sin.”
Some interpret the phrase “have no sin” (1:8) to refer to the sin nature or sin principle and conclude that was done away with at new birth. 8 They refer to Romans 6:6 where the apostle Paul says, “knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.” They understand “our old man” is our sin nature or sin principle which refers to all that you were before you became a Christian.
The problem with this understanding is Paul continues to address the believer’s battle with sin in Romans 6-7 (cf. Galatians 5:15-26). For example, he writes, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.” (Romans 6:12). If the sin nature or sin principle has been done away with at conversion, how can Paul command his Christian readers not to let sin reign in their mortal bodies? And if our sin nature or sin principle is gone, how can Paul write, “17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me… 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.” (Romans 7:16, 20)? It is best to understand that all Christians still have sin to deal with after their new birth. 9
The Greek word translated “done away with” (katargeō) in Romans 6:6, means to “put out of business” or “deposed.” “The idea is that the body of sin no longer has any jurisdiction or legitimate authority over the new believer.” 10
Some understand that when we become Christians through faith in Christ alone, we are no longer sinners, but saints. Those holding to this position argue that Satan wants to deceive us into thinking we have not changed at the core of our being at our conversion, so we are more vulnerable to temptation and sin after becoming Christians. While it is true that we become saints (set apart from our sin and guilt) in our position at the moment of conversion (cf. I Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Ephes. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; et al.), we are still sinners by nature.
Near the end of his life, the apostle Paul says of himself, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” (I Timothy 1:15). While some would say Paul was referring to his pre-Christian experience in this verse, the present tense (“I am”) of this Greek verb (eimi) does not allow for it. 11 After decades of being a Christian, Paul still speaks of himself as a “sinner.”
Even Jesus’ half-brother James refers to his Christian brothers and sisters 12 as sinners when he writes, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8b).
There may be some of you reading this article who are thinking, “Compared to the terrorists who took down the Word Trade Centers, I have no sin at all.” Or “I am not as bad as him or her.” Both statements of comparison are forms of self-deceit and self-righteousness. God is not comparing our sin natures to the sin natures of other sinners. God compares our sin nature to His only perfect Son Who had no sin nature (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; I Peter 3:18) and He says we all “fall short of His glory” (Romans 3:23).
For example, Jesus never had a sinful thought, but you and I sin with our thoughts repeatedly throughout the day. Christ never said a sinful word, but you and I sin with our mouths when provoked in heavy traffic. Jesus never hated anyone, but we sometimes can’t stand to be around the people we live with. The bottom line is all of us have a sin nature except Jesus Christ. 13
It would be wise for us to recall the words of G. K. Chesterson when a newspaper editorial asked, “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterson replied in writing, “I am.” 14
As we grow closer and closer to Jesus Christ (I John 1:1-4), the light of His absolute holiness will expose our lack of holiness (I John 1:5-8). Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul refers to himself as the chief of sinners near the end of his life (I Tim. 1:15). As he grew closer to Jesus, the more Christ’s light of holiness revealed the depths of Paul’s own sinfulness. During this life on earth, there will always be a dark side to our lives that we must face.
While walking in the light as God is in the light, we are exposed to God’s character and Word which by contrast makes us more aware of our own sinfulness (1:7-8). When this happens, John instructs us: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9). As mentioned previously, there are some who understand I John to contain tests to determine if one has eternal life. 15 They think this verse is saying we must confess our sins to go to heaven.
This understanding has several problems. First, it fails to realize John is talking about having fellowship with God and other believers (1:3-4), not salvation. Second, John includes himself and the other apostles with his use of the words “we” and “us” in this context (1:1-8). Surely, no one would conclude that the apostles were not saved at the time John wrote this epistle (cf. John 1:35-2:11). Third, confessing one’s sins to have eternal life is contrary to what John taught in his gospel which emphasized believing in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God to have eternal life (John 20:31). In fact, John uses the word “believe” ninety-nine times in his gospel, 16 but he never says one must confess his or her sins to have eternal life. God’s Word does not contradict Itself. So, I John 1:9 cannot be talking about how to receive eternal life.
First John 1:9 instructs Christians what to do to maintain or restore fellowship with God when they become aware of sin in their lives. We are to “confess” those sins to the Lord. The Greek word translated “confess” (homologeō) is a compound word that literally means “same” (homo) + “to speak” (logeō) or “to speak the same thing” or “to agree.” 17 But with whom are we to agree? In the context the answer is God (cf. 1:5-8). When God reveals unconfessed sin in our lives as we walk in the light, we are to confess or agree with His conclusions. So, when we confess our sins to God, we are agreeing with His view of our sins. He hates our sins (Psalms 45:7). Our sins deeply hurt Him (Ephesians 4:30). 18
“We are admitting that what the light exposes is not just a mistake, a bad habit, or a mere product of our upbringing. It’s sin.” 19
It is important to note that the word “our” in the phrases “confess our sins”and “forgive us our sins” (1:9), is not in the Greek text. The Greek text reads “confess the sins” (homologōmen tas hamartias) and “forgive us the sins” (aphē hēmin tas hamartias). The definite article “the” (tas) in the phrase “forgive us the sins” is what grammarians call “the article of previous reference.” 20 What this means is when we honestly confess “the” specific sin or sins God’s light reveals in our lives, “the” specific sins we confess are forgiven.
This tells us that when we become aware of sin in our lives, it is this awareness that breaks our fellowship or closeness with God. So, if we confess the sins of which we are aware, then God is “faithful and just” to forgive those specific sins. The word “forgive” (aphiēmi) can mean to “cancel” a debt that is owed. 21 This is judicial or positional forgiveness whereby God cancels our sin debt to Him the moment we believe in Jesus for His complete forgiveness of all our sins so we can become His forever children (cf. Acts 10:43; Col. 2:13-14; John 1:12; 6:37). We are declared totally righteous before God in His courtroom at the moment of faith in Christ (Romans 3:21-4:5; 8:33). John is not talking about this kind of forgiveness in I John. In I John the apostle is talking about personal or fellowship forgiveness whereby the barrier that sin creates between a Christian and God is removed so his fellowship or closeness with God is restored. 22
An example of this can be found in Luke 17:3-4 whenJesus said to His disciples, “3 Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” Two brothers (permanent relationship) are estranged because one brother has sinned against the other. The sin of that brother does not destroy their relationship, they are still brothers, but it does break their fellowship or closeness with one another. This fellowship cannot be restored until the sinning brother “repents” and comes to the offended brother and seeks his forgiveness (17:3). Jesus says the offended brother is to forgive the sinning brother even if he commits the same sin “seven times in a day.” Why? Because they are brothers and always will be. They have an eternal relationship through Christ. 23
This is one of the reasons our heavenly Father is “faithful” to forgive us when we confess our sins to Him because we have an eternal relationship with Him (John 6:35-40; 10:28-29; 17:3). There may be times when we think that going to God for forgiveness of the same sin with no victory in sight presumes upon His grace and mercy. We may ask ourselves, “How can the Lord forgive me over and over for the same sin?” The simple answer is God is “faithful.” His faithfulness is not based upon ours. He has promised to forgive us when we come to Him on His terms. His forgiveness for our fellowship or closeness with Him is based on His forgiveness for our relationship with Him. 24
For example, when parents decide to have children, they already know their children will commit sins. They are aware that their children will be imperfect. But this does not prevent the parents from choosing to have the children. And when the child is conceived, an eternal relationship begins. Nothing, including death, can change the fact that this child will always be the child of his or her parents. So, in a sense, since this relationship will last forever, the child has positional forgiveness for all his or her future sins. And based on this positional forgiveness, the parents are predisposed to fellowship-forgiveness whenever their child sins against them but also chooses to come back to them and seek their forgiveness. God gave us positional or relationship forgiveness when we became His forever children through belief in Jesus Christ (John 1:12; Ephes. 1:7; Col. 2:13-14). Based on that, He will always be “faithful” to grant us fellowship-forgiveness when we confess our sins to Him (I John 1:9; cf. Matt. 6:12, 14-15) to restore our closeness to Him. 25
You may be thinking that this does not seem right to keep coming over and over again to God asking for forgiveness for the same sin. Isn’t that taking advantage of God’s grace and mercy? It seems contrary to God’s holiness. Oh, but it is right for God to forgive His children when they confess their sins to Him. 26 This forgiveness is not contrary to God’s holiness – He is “just” (I John 1:9). The word for “just” (dikaios) is the same word used as a title to Jesus Christ in I John 2:1 where it is translated “the Righteous One.” When Jesus finished paying the penalty of the sins of the world on the cross (John 19:30; I Cor. 15:3-6), He satisfied God’s holy demand to punish sin (I John 2:1-2). So, God is not compromising His holiness when He forgives the sinning Christian when he or she confesses their sin. This forgiveness is not based on our deservedness or performance. It is based on the atoning sacrifice of Christ. 27 Christ’s shed blood is sufficient for the sinning Christian (1:7; 2:1-2).
I am not suggesting that God takes sin lightly nor should we. God hates sin. He is grieved by our sins. The Lord wants His children to gain victory over that sin. But until a believer is open and honest with God about the sin God reveals to him or her, that believer will not be in fellowship with God. Nor will he or she have access to God’s power while living out of fellowship with the Lord.
There are some Christians who teach that a Christian does not need to confess his sins and ask forgiveness because a believer already has complete forgiveness of all his sins including his future sins (Ephes. 1:7; Col. 2:13-14). But this conclusion confuses the believer’s positional forgiveness (Acts 10:43; Ephes. 1:7) with his fellowship forgiveness (I John 1:9). A Christian who does not see his need to seek his heavenly Father’s forgiveness when he disobeys the Lord will not be very sensitive to the multiple ways he grieves God. In addition, the Lord Jesus taught His believing disciples to seek forgiveness of their sins when He taught them how to pray each day (e.g., the expression “give us this day our daily bread” precedes the request “forgive us our debts” – Matt. 6:11-12). 28
We have talked about confessing the specific sins in our lives of which we are aware. But what about all the unknown sin in our lives? The last part of I John 1:9 explains that when we confess the specific sins of which we are aware, God is “faithful and just” to not only forgive those specific sins we confessed, but He will also “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This “all unrighteousness” refers to all the other sins in our lives that we are not aware of. It has been estimated that 90% of the decisions we make are unconscious in nature. 29 There are many sinful choices we all make of which we have no conscious knowledge. We all have far more sin in our lives that we do not know about. But God sees all our sins – the sins we consciously choose (“our sins”) and the sins we unconsciously choose (“all unrighteousness”). We do not need to agonize about the sins we are not conscious of because the shed blood of Jesus Christ “cleanses us” from all of them when we confess the specific sins God’s light reveals to us (1:7, 9). Nothing in our lives is left uncleansed.
In conclusion, the apostle John’s primary concern in I John is a believer’s fellowship or intimacy with God. This is emphasized in the first chapter where the word “fellowship” occurs four times (1:3, 6-7). Present and known sin in the life of a Christian breaks his fellowship or closeness with God, but it does not jeopardize his eternal relationship with the Lord. God is described as a gracious and merciful heavenly Father Who wants to help His children grow in their relationship with Him. He wants to help His children get back up when they fall and hurt themselves. He does not wait for them to mess up so He can stomp on them or punish them. Instead, He comes along side of them to help them get back up so they can continue on the right path.
Anderson illustrates this with something extraordinary that happened at the 2,000 Sydney, Australia Olympic games. “The gun went off for the running of the 400-meter final. Not far into the first turn the runner from Great Britain pulled a hamstring muscle and immediately came to a halt, searing pain shooting up and down the back of his leg. Of course, the people watching in the stands felt his pain and expected him to limp dejectedly off the track. To their surprise he did not limp off the track. He had spent years preparing for that race. It was a dream come true to qualify to represent his country in the Olympic Games. He was not prepared to limp off the track. That wasn’t in his mind. That’s not how the script was written. So, he kept moving forward, limping along, staying in his lane so as not to be disqualified from a race he had no hope of winning.
“As he limped/skipped along, the grimace in his face turned to tears. The race had long since finished, but the fans were on their feet cheering, tears streaming down their faces. The other runners, who had finished the race, turned around to see what was happening. The stands were clapping, cheering, and crying all at the same time for they could see the determination in this Afro-Englishman to finish the race.
“Then there was a disturbance barreling its way through the stands and onto the track. It was a big, burley, Afro-Englishman fighting through the security guards, running toward the Olympic runner. He went up to this limping Olympian and put his arm around him. Suddenly, everyone knew what was happening. This was a loving father coming down to help his son off the track, saying, ‘Son, son, you don’t have to finish this race.’ His son said, ‘Dad, I’ve got to finish this race.’ So, his father responded, ‘Then, son, I’m going to finish it with you.’ So together, arm in arm, they went around the track and finished the race with the crowd cheering and stomping their feet.
“What a picture of the love of our heavenly Father for His wayward children and how He longs to come down from heavenly heights to pick us up when we stumble, to put His arm around us, to help us finish the race, even if we have to limp all the way home. All He asks is that we don’t lie or deny the reality of our pulled hamstrings. Limp if we must, but don’t leave the track. Stay in the race. Don’t try to hide your failure from Him. He’s there to help us home. And someday, after a particularly serious fall, you may look back and realize your most intimate moments with Him were when He was there to pick you up when you turned your face toward Him.” 30
Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word which instructs us not to deny the sin Your light reveals to us, but to agree with Your point of view – that it is sin, and it is repulsive to You. All You ask is that we be honest with You about our sin. All of us can deceive ourselves into thinking we are not nearly as bad as Your Word points out to us. We can refer to our sin as a bad habit, a mistake, or weakness, when it is an abomination in Your sight. Knowing that You are faithful and just to forgive our sins the moment we confess them to You, invites us to be honest with You instead of hiding in the darkness of broken fellowship. Thank You, Lord God, for putting Your arm around us when we do fall and walking with us through the pain of our own sinful choices. There are still consequences to face, but we do not have to face them alone. For You are with us and You promise never to leave us or forsake us. Thank You heavenly Father for being faithful even when we are faithless. In the mighty name of Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
1. Jenna Riemersma, Altogether You (Marietta, GA: Pivotal Press, 2020), pp. 42-43.
2. David R. Anderson, Maximum Joy: I John – Relationship or Fellowship? (Grace Theology Press, 2013 Kindle Edition), pg. 49.
3. Adapted from Ibid.
6. Zane C. Hodges, The Bible Knowledge Commentary Epistles and Prophecy, Editors John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (David C. Cook, 2018 Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 3519 to 3523; cf. Zane C. Hodges; Robert Wilkin; J. Bond; Gary Derickson; Brad Doskocil; Dwight Hunt; Shawn Leach; The Grace New Testament Commentary: Revised Edition (Grace Evangelical Society, Kindle Edition, 2019), pg. 589.
7. Tom Constable, Notes on I John, 2022 Edition, pg. 25.
8. Ibid., pg. cites Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary series (Waco: Word Books, 1984), pg. 29.
9. Adapted from Ibid., pp. 50-51.
10. Ibid., pg. 52.
11. Ibid., pg. 51 says “the grammar here will not allow for the ‘historical’ present because the “historical’ present is never used with the verb ‘to be,” citing Daniel B. Wallae, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), pg. 529.
12. Throughout the book of James the author refers to his readers as “brethren” (1:1, 16, 19; et al.), as those “brought …forth by the word of truth” (1:18), and as having “the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1), all of which are terms or phrases used of genuine Christians.
13. Adam’s sin nature is passed down through the father. Since Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and not of a sinful human father (Matthew 1:18, 20), Christ’s human nature is perfect and without sin (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; I Peter 3:18).
14. Anderson, pg. 52.
15. Anderson, pg. 15 cites cites John MacArthur, Jr., Saved without a Doubt (Colorado Springs: Cook Communications, 1992), pp. 67-91; Constable, pg. 46 cites James Montgomery Boice, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979); Raymond Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible series(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982); F.F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (London: Pickering & Inglis Ltd., 1970; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986); John Calvin, The First Epistle of John, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries series, Translated by T. H. L. Parker. Reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-61); John F. MacArthur Jr., The Gospel according to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988); John R. W. Stott, Basic Introduction to the New Testament, 1st American ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964); Brooke Foss Westcott, The Epistles of St. John (1883. Reprint ed. England: Marcham Manor Press, 1966); and Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Scripture Press Publications, Victor Books, 1989).
16. John 1:7, 12, 50; 2:11, 23; 3:12(2), 15, 16, 18(3), 36(2); 4:39, 41, 42, 48, 53; 5:24, 38, 44, 45, 46, 47(2); 6:29, 30, 35, 36, 40, 47, 64, 69; 7:5, 31, 38(2), 39, 48; 8:24, 30, 31, 45, 46; 9:35, 36, 38; 10:25, 26, 37, 38(3), 42; 11:25, 26, 27(2), 42, 45, 48; 12:11, 36, 37, 38, 39, 42, 44(2), 46, 47; 13:19; 14:12; 16:9, 27; 17:8, 20, 21; 19:35; 20:29, 31(2).
17. Constable, pg. 25; Anderson, pg. 53; Zane C. Hodges, The Grace New Testament Commentary, pg. 590.
18. Anderson, pg. 53.
19. Tony Evans, CSB Bibles by Holman, The Tony Evans Bible Commentary (B & H Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2019), pg. 1719.
20. Hodges, The Bible Knowledge Commentary Epistles and Prophecy, Kindle Location 3528.
21. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: Third Edition (BDAG) revised and edited by Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 Kindle Edition), pg. 156.
22. Anderson, pg. 54.
23. Ibid., pp. 54-55.
24. Ibid., pg. 55.
25. Adapted from Ibid.
27. Hodges, The Bible Knowledge Commentary Epistles and Prophecy, Kindle Location 3532 to 3537.
28. Ibid., Kindle Location 3537 to 3545.
29. Ted Roberts, Seven Pillars of Freedom Workbook (Pure Desire Ministries International, 2015), pg. 232.
30. Anderson, pp. 56-58.