If We Confess Our Sins

May 15, 2009 at 10:53 am | Posted in Questions for Pastor Glenn, Security and Assurance, Theology | 1 Comment

1 John 1:9.  There is a lot of confusion on this famous verse by the apostle John.  Many young Christians memorize these words and understand them to say that each sin we commit must be confessed before God will forgive it.  Those sins we confess to God are forgiven, and those we do not are not forgiven.  This is a complete misunderstanding.  I mentioned this in my post on Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and wanted to follow up on it here.

First, understand that God forgives sin on the basis of what Jesus accomplished on the cross and not on the basis of our confession.  In fact, forgiveness is a present reality that believers in Jesus have now.  See Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:13, 2:14 for example.

Now consider the words of 1 John 1:9.  There are three reasons the assumed understanding of this verse is wrong:   First, John’s present tense verbs in this book often indicate a life-style rather than a one-time event.  This is a common grammatical tool in New Testament Greek, and John utilizes it frequently.  One example is found in 1 John 3:6:  “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.  No one who continues in sin has either seen him or known him.”  The NIV clarifies the Greek by translating “keeps on sinning” and “continues in sin,” but the verbs are both in the simple present tense as indicated by the more literal NASB, “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him  .  .  . ”  And consider 1 John 3:9, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.”  Again the NIV clarifies the second verb with “go on sinning,” but the NASB gives the more literal “and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”  I like the NIV here, because it captures the obvious meaning and avoids the possible misunderstanding that even one sinful activity or attitude disqualifies a person for God’s kingdom.  The verb “confess” in 1:9 is in the present tense.

The second reason is John’s use of the present tense verbs in the subjunctive mood.  John uses another grammatical tool to give his readers tests of true and false Christianity.  Again there are numerous examples in the book.  For instance 2:9, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.”  “Claims” is such a verb, so is “loves” in 2:15, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  One final example is “acknowledges” found in 4:15, “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.”  Throughout this book John gives several tests of genuine Christianity (a quick reading in English will reveal this), and many of them are in this grammatical form.  “Confess” in 1:9 is not only a present tense, it is also in the subjunctive mood.

Finally, the context of 1 John 1:9 reveals that these two grammatical tools are utilized here.  Verse 8 says, “If we claim (present subjunctive) to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  And verse 10 reads, “If we claim (present subjunctive) we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”  In other words there are three tests of genuine Christianity in the immediate context of verse 9 (verse 6 is the other), and two of them are about what we might say concerning our own sinfulness.  The first has to do with continued sin and the second with individual acts of sin.  It is between these two that John says, “If we confess (present subjunctive) our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.”  John’s meaning is this:  Those who continually deny being sinners, and those who continually deny sinning, are not true believers.  Those who willingly admit they are sinners are the ones God forgives.

Have you known anyone who calls himself Christian, yet is never wrong in his own mind?  This passage gives us reason to suspect the authenticity of his Christian claim.  Don’t take this to the extreme by disqualifying everybody who shows one of these patterns in this book.  All of us are sinful broken people; all of us have sin patterns in our lives that we are trying to overcome.  John addresses the overall direction of a person’s life, and that direction will, over time, reveal the true believers.  They admit they are sinful; they confess that the divine Son of God became flesh in the person of Jesus; they trust him for forgiveness; they remain in God’s word; they love other believers.

There is another reason the popular understanding of this verse is wrong.  However, this is too long already, and that will have to wait for another post at a later time.

1 Comment »

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  1. This is also encouraging.

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