What Does 1 John 1:9 Mean?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 10:40am
QUERY: You have said that a faulty understanding of 1 John 1:9 is a roadblock to a proper understanding of grace and a genuine sense of assurance. Please explain what 1 John 1:9 means.
ANSWER: I have done this in my book, “Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace” (pp. 314-316). The following is mostly from that source:
A main roadblock to assurance is a faulty understanding of 1 John 1:9. This familiar text reads, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The typical approach to this text assumes that every time we commit a sin, we literally fall from grace. I.e., we lose our salvation status and re-enter the state of lostness. Even though all our previous sins remain forgiven, each time we sin again we become guilty for that sin and are condemned to hell for it, unless and until that sin can be forgiven. This is why 1 John 1:9 is so important, because (it is assumed) this text tells us how to get forgiveness for the sins we commit in our ongoing Christian life. If we sincerely confess that specific sin (and pray for its forgiveness), God will graciously forgive that sin and restore us to the saved state again—until we sin again, in which case the process must be repeated.
With this understanding of 1 John 1:9, a sincere Christian sees himself or herself as being trapped in a kind of revolving door between the domains of wrath and grace. The cycle is endless: under grace – sin – under wrath – confession – under grace – sin – under wrath – confession – under grace – sin – under wrath – confession – under grace – and on and on. How does this compromise assurance? Because it causes the Christian to live in fear that he or she will die after committing a sin and before having the inclination or opportunity to confess it and pray for forgiveness.
What is the solution to this life of fear and uncertainty? Of course, the simplest solution would be: just don’t sin! But few of us (if any) are at this point. We still struggle with sin every day. Since that is the case, we need to see that the solution is: JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH! Committing a sin, in and of itself, does not separate us from the grace of God! We live our lives, day in and day out, performing good works and bad works (sins), while remaining under the gracious umbrella of justification through our faith in Jesus. Persistence in sin can cause our faith to die, but individual sins are not equivalent to apostasy. As someone has put it, those who are on a ship in the middle of the ocean can fall or jump off the ship and perish; but they can also trip and fall down on the ship, and thus hurt themselves, without falling off the ship. We are under grace, even when we sin.
Contributing to our faulty understanding of justification by faith and of 1 John 1:9 is a false teaching related to baptism, namely, the common idea that baptism is for the forgiveness of PAST SINS ONLY. This says that in baptism our past sins are forgiven like they are being erased from a blackboard; but after that, every time we sin, each new sin is added to the board until some subsequent ritual (such as the sacrament of penance, or the Lord’s Supper, or the confession of 1 John 1:9) gets it erased. This is a seriously false understanding of baptism. Baptism is “for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38) because in that act we enter into an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship that is equivalent to being constantly covered by his blood just as the “robe of righteousness” (Isa. 61:10) constantly covers our “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). This covering remains secure unless we actually fall from grace by ceasing to believe in the atoning blood of Jesus.
What, then, does 1 John 1:9 mean? We learn this by looking at its context, especially the verses that precede and follow it: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. . . . If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (vv. 8, 10). The problem in both these verses is not sinning as such, but DENYING that we have sinned. What is the opposite of denying that we have sinned? Simply put, confessing that we HAVE sinned. In my judgment this is the point of v. 9: if we confess that we ARE sinners, and in need of God’s forgiveness, he is faithful to CONTINUE to keep us in the state of forgiveness. This is an element of our ongoing repentance. Even if we are not conscious of any recent specific sin, each time we pray we can still confess THAT we are sinners and claim anew God’s promise of justification. (Confession of specific sins is still necessary for the sanctification process, though not for justification.)
This understanding of 1 John 1:8-10 is illustrated and confirmed by Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee is a perfect example of 1 John 1:8, 10; he was conscious only of his perceived goodness and admitted no sins at all. What about the tax collector? What specific sins did he confess? None! In simple humility he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” But he went home justified (forgiven), whereas the Pharisee did not.