FIRST JOHN 1:9 TELLS WHO TO CONFESS WHAT?
(1Jn 1:9) If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
In what follows, I want to show with the above scripture that this verse does not teach what most people in the church have supposed. The majority of the church today believe that this verse tells us that Christians must confess their sins to be forgiven. But that is not at all what the verse is supposed to communicate. So let’s look at the verse in its context, as well as its inclusion with other Scripture, and then you decide for yourself.
I just want to say two things to begin: First of all, never attempt to build doctrine on one verse of scripture. In Matthew 18:16 Jesus tells us himself that you need at least two or three references before you can confirm anything that has been said or written. And that applies to the Word of God as well as it does to any other teaching. Because Jesus, speaking the infallible words of his Omniscient Father, would certainly not disregard the direct statement that he had previously made in Matthew 18:16.
Now in the second place – and get ready for a clincher here: 1 John 1:9 is the only place in the New Testament that tells us to confess our sins! Paul, in all the letters that he wrote, never tells the Christian that he must confess his sins – not even one time. And Paul is unquestionably the lynchpin, paradigm, and exemplar of New Testament theology. Then don’t you think if Christians had to confess their sins to be forgiven, the Holy Spirit would have told Paul to at least mention it in his letters to the people of God? But Paul says nada about it! Did the Holy Spirit just forget? Or did Paul just not hear Him when He spoke? Paul didn’t write a word about confessing our sins, as Christians, to have them forgiven, because it is not God’s directive that His children do so.
The presumption usually made – and it is just that, a presumption – is that verse 9 conveys that Christians must confess their sins to be forgiven. But this verse has nothing whatsoever to do with God’s message for His children. When we take this verse out of context, the inference is that a Christian must confess his sins to be forgiven. But from what is said above, and from what you will see below, this is not what the verse is saying. In fact, there is no verse in the Epistles (exempting this singular possibility) that tells us that we, as Christians, ought to confess our sins so that we may be forgiven.
Miles Coverdale, in his Coverdale Bible, says the following in the Preface:
“It shall greatly help thee to understand scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom, and unto whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what extent, with what circumstance, considering what Goethe before, and what followeth after.”
Essentially, Rev. Coverdale was saying that to understand the Bible, we need to read everything in its context. Also, and possibly even more important than context, is the directive given to us in 2 Timothy 2:15 – “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” And this, of course, is true for 1 John 1:9, as well as for any other scripture. The church, however, has turned this verse of Scripture on its head, not only from contextual considerations, but also from excluding its message from what is taught in the rest of the Bible.
Most Christians believe that when they sin they can confess those sins, and then God will forgive their sins. However, there are at least two insurmountable problems with this line of thinking: First, if God requires his children to confess their sins to be forgiven, then why did Jesus have to die, and receive Judgment for those same sins? Also, why did God not teach this most important directive, if indeed it is a necessary action for being forgiven for the sins we commit? Those are two extremely monumental difficulties for the Bible students who hold to the necessity of our confession, in lieu of the detrimental condition of not having even one sin unforgiven! No sin will be allowed in heaven. Not one! Thus if God requires His children to confess their sins, then even if one be missed, a person will miss heaven and spend eternity with the devil in hell! But if we look at this verse of Scripture in its context, as well as compare it with what Jesus did on the Cross, and with the significance of that event, as well as with the other parts of clear and understandable Scriptural instruction, we see that the above assessment of having to ask for forgiveness, is unequivocally incorrect.
First of all, we must understand to whom chapter one of First John is written. Most conservative theologians say that the first chapter of First John is being written to various intruders into the Church. These intruders were the Gnostics of John’s day who would come into a church to teach Gnostic theology. I won’t attempt to go through all of the doctrines of these people, but will just mention two of their beliefs: First, they believed that man’s flesh was evil. Therefore, according to them Jesus did not come in the flesh. And secondly, they believed that sin was an illusion, and not a reality.
So let us look at 1 John 1 from these particulars. First of all look at the pronouns that the Apostle John uses. He says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.” Notice that John uses “we” three times and “our” two times in the first verse. In fact, in the first chapter, using the KJV, John uses “we,” “us, and “our” 29 times, and “you,” and “ye” five times. So in the first verse, John was referring to himself and the other Christians that were with him, and was writing to the recipients of the letter as other than Christian. This can hardly be disputed.
And now look at verse two: He says “the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness and declare to you.” Did you get that? He said that we have seen the life that was manifested. Here he’s talking about Jesus being revealed, and that John and the other Christians have seen and bear witness to that life. In other words, they had become Christians. Now then we come to one of the clenchers in this chapter: John says that we “declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us.” We are declaring to “you” what was manifested to “us.”
Here we have John and the Christian community declaring the eternal life that Jesus gives to those who will accept it. Thus, the ones being written to in chapter one of 1 John, are not Christians. But wait! These are the ones to whom John has said, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” Now, what on earth is this verse telling us? John is saying that when a person comes to Christ for salvation, he must realize that he is a sinner, that he has broken the law of God in other words, and if he does not admit his need in this respect, Jesus cannot save him. John is indicating here that the recipients of the letter have not had their sins forgiven at the time the letter was written. In this scripture, to say again, he was writing to Gnostics and not to Christians. John was making it known to these people that if they would confess their sins, God would forgive them, and thus save them. In fact, John confirms this as the precise method God uses to touch any person who comes to Jesus. But he was just showing these Gnostics how they too could receive Jesus into their lives, just as John and those with him had previously done.
Now how many times does a person get saved? Does he ask Jesus to come into his heart on Tuesday, and then next week do the same thing again? Of course not. When you are saved, you are saved one time and you don’t continue to ask Jesus to come into your heart every week thereafter. If you do, then you didn’t believe that the Lord came into your heart in the first place. Well then, how many times will the non-Christian have to ask God to forgive their sins? One time. When you come to Christ, you confess your sins before God, and then He forgives and cleanses you. And He does that, not on the basis of what you’ve done, but on what Jesus has done. And that is exactly what 1 John 1:9 is talking about. It is not talking about Christians confessing their sins. When Jesus went to the Cross our sins were forgiven. This happened about 2,000 years ago, and was a once-for-all time event! You weren’t even born when the transaction was made. And so we just receive today what Jesus did on the Cross many, many years before we were ever even thought of. But once you have received the Lord, you are no longer a non-Christian. You have become a new creation, and transformed into the righteousness of God in Christ! God then remembers your sins no more (Heb. 8:12). After that, my friend – and in conclusion – 1 John 1:9 no longer applies to you – or me. Hallelujah!