1 John 1:9 – "The Christian Bar of Soap"
In all of the New Testament, there is only one verse which states that we are to confess our sins to God to obtain forgiveness. Yet we Christians are taught from the earliest age that we must ask Him for forgiveness in order to stay on His good side, remain in fellowship with Him, receive His blessings. So every night before bed and every Sunday morning we are busily trying to remember all of our unrighteous deeds and thoughts to once again become clean in His eyes. That's why 1 John 1:9 has the reputation of being the "Christian bar of soap".
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Is there really only one New Testament verse about confessing for forgiveness? Yes, it's a fact! There is that place in James 5, but it's about confessing sins where we have hurt one another –it's for the sake of healing the body of Christ from the divisions that we have created due to our prideful behavior. But that's a story for another time...
Is constantly confessing sin to receive God's forgiveness Biblically sound?
It doesn't seem to matter whether or not it's Biblically sound to constantly ask God for forgiveness; it seems right and feels good. And it does make sense from our own life's experiences. Almost everyone can relate to doing something that offended their father and seeing the relationship improve after offering a humble apology. We knew dad loved us, but apologizing was still the right thing to do. And his reactions to the apology bore out this principle! But before we bring God down to our human level, let's consider some most important issues.
Most, if not all, seminaries teach that our Christian principles should never be based on a single Bible passage but rather by an abundance of references. Else, we would all be displaying proof of our Christianity in radically different ways. An example of this comes from a portion of Mark 16 which carries a note to the effect of: "The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20."
And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. (Mark 16:17-18)
There is no other place in the New Testament indicating that we are to do what is written in that Mark passage. Therefore this passage has not become a widely accepted Christian principle. However, there are an overwhelming number of references stating that we are to prove our Christianity by the genuine love (acceptance, patience, compassion) that we have towards each other. Love is a solid principle to live by –and it's commonly taught.
Why use only New Testament references in this matter? There is an obvious division in the Bible. It occurs between the Old and New Testaments –specifically at the death of Christ Jesus. Hebrews 9 explains that the new will (New Testament, New Covenant) took effect at the time of Jesus' death on the cross.
In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. (Hebrews 9:16-17)
That dividing point is important to remember because it's common for Old Testament Scriptures to come to mind when thinking about sin and forgiveness. The Old Testament is filled with examples of disobedience and a return to God –they begin with a confession and quickly follow with a request for forgiveness.
Keep in mind what changed at the cross...
There are so many Scriptures that divide the Old Testament or Covenant ("The Law") from the New. Here are but a few.
Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. (Galatians 3:23-25)
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16)
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:13-17)
So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:4-6)
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1)
Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4)
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming– not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (Hebrews 10:1)
The Old Testament is truly God's word. Remember however, that it is only a shadow of the reality that was to come –Jesus. So to remain clear on this topic and not be confused by the shadows (as noted in the Colossians 2:17 and Hebrews 10:1 verses above), we will use the New Testament –those Scriptures written after His death– as our guide. If you are intrigued by the subject, you might like to read the sections on Law vs. Grace, Your Identity In Christ, or Die to the Law.
Back to solid Biblical principles...
The common message preached is that we need to confess our sins to restore our fellowship with God. Again, 1 John 1:9 is the only place in the New Testament that message would be based on, if indeed it means that. Let's consider the context of the passage. To begin with, verse 8 says:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)
Certainly, no rational Christian would ever make such a claim. Especially considering that the text clearly states that the truth (Jesus is Truth) is not in that person. And then there's verse 10:
If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:10)
Again, here's that outrageous claim that no Christian would make. They would be stating that they had no place for the word (Jesus is the Living Word) in their lives.
I ask you –as a Christian, do you claim to be without sin? If you do then, according to verses 8 and 10: you are deceived, Jesus is not in you, He is a liar, and you have no place for Him in your life. Do these two verses describe a Christian? Let's look again at verse 9.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Obviously, confessing is important. What is the result of the confession? Forgiveness and purification. At some point in time, each of us realized that we were dead in our transgressions and sins. And to some degree, we recognized our condition: unrighteous, sinful, enemies of God. Then, in some fashion, we asked God to have mercy upon us and forgive our sins.
At that time when you –an unbeliever– asked, how many sins and how much unrighteousness were you forgiven and purified from? Was it just from the ones of that day? Was it for the ones you didn't mention or you overlooked? Was it only for past sins? In God's ways, the word all truly means all –of course the past, but also the ones going on right now and even the ones of tomorrow. He said all and He means it! God is the One who is faithful and just to forgive –not me and not you.
Forgiveness and punishment God's way
If Jesus forgave and cleansed me from "all" unrighteousness (past, present, future) as stated in 1 John 1:9, then what unrighteousness did He miss? I hope you have concluded that verses 8 and 10 are not speaking to Christians. If you have, then why would verse 9 be applicable to a Christian and be sandwiched between two non-applicable verses? If not, there's more to consider as you continue reading further down.
Since He forgave and cleansed me of all unrighteousness, why would I go back for more? Sure, "it feels good to get it out the open ". As mentioned earlier, we have those human examples where we offended our human fathers and saw the need to ask their forgiveness. They are indeed factual examples –but nonetheless, examples of human nature.
Let's consider a different father –a father of two sons. The second son was often disobedient. The father reached his threshold of patience and he took out his anger, frustration and hurt on his first son –one who never did wrong. Afterwards, the father determined that no further punishment would ever be needed –the first son paid the penalty once and for all. Yet, time-after-time, the second son would be disobedient and later go to his father and say "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to, please forgive me." Meanwhile the first son was standing there listening, severely beaten, wounded, bleeding.
The father would say "My punishment was vented, why are you reminding me of the hurtful thing that I have put behind my back and never want to remember again? Why are you asking for forgiveness when every one of your sins requires the shedding of my first son's blood? Are you asking my other son to pay twice for most your offense? Have you no respect for the one who was punished in your place?"
His ways are higher and greater and different and grander than our human ways. Hebrews 10:29 says that one who continues to live in unbelief –that the first covenant is gone and the new one is now in effect– has "trampled the Son of God under foot, treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and are insulted the Spirit of grace".
It's an insult to God to continue to ask. We are asking His Son to climb back up on that cross and repeat His crucifixion.
Who is the book of 1 John written to?
When Bible teachers defend the relevance of 1 John 1:9 to a Christian, their argument always begins with the presumption that 1 John is written to Christians. In fact, they say that all of the books of the New Testament are written to believers. If that were true, then we Christians must have gone terribly astray in our missionary outreaches. Here are a couple of cases to consider.
The Gideons must be wasting their resources and efforts. They are the group that provides Bibles to hotels and motels around the world. Their goal is to bring travelers to Christ. Somehow they think that an audience of lost souls can read the Bible –not just the Old Testament– and find God.
Pastors ask us to bring our lost friends and family members to church so that they can hear God's word preached from the Bible –from both the Old and New Testaments. And by hearing that word be convicted such that they turn to Christ for salvation. Easter and Christmas are the two holidays that fill churches for that very reason.
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
If the Bible isn't written to everyone, then how can we ever be saved? Well, of course the Bible is to everyone. There are passages to the lost and passages to those who are in Christ. It's the role of the Holy Spirit to convict the lost –showing them their spiritual death– through the Bible. The Spirit uses the same Bible to teach, correct and encourage believing Christians. He is the One who sorts it all out in the hearts of the reading audience.
Looking at the audience from John's point of view...
Below is an attempt to demonstrate how John intended his message to be heard. I put it in terms of how we might see him as an evangelist speaking in a church one Sunday morning. He is preaching a message about what he and his apostle brothers experienced over the last several years since Jesus' death. Maybe you can imaging him gently pointing to himself in cases where he is speaking about himself and the other apostles, and pointing toward the audience in other cases.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched -this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. (1 John 1:1)
In verse 1, John –pointing to himself– is relating how he and the other apostles saw and touched Jesus in person, up close. They recognized that Jesus was God who was in the beginning and was the source of eternal life.
The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1:2)
John and the other apostles learned first-hand that Jesus was God on earth and was the only source of life –He was life.
We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3)
As the evangelist in front of our audience, he would be saying something like: "We apostles proclaim to you hearing my message this morning what we apostles have seen and heard, so that you who came to hear me today also may have fellowship with us apostles. And our fellowship as apostles is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ."
We write this to make our joy complete. (1 John 1:4)
John –pointing to himself– continues, "The message that we apostles are communicating are doing so in order to make our joy complete."
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
Here's his testimony. "We apostles heard directly from Jesus when we were with Him and we declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all."
If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. (1 John 1:6)
Like Paul who warned the people in the book of Galatians about impostors who were spreading a false gospel, John was saying, "If we apostles (or anyone else for that matter) claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in the darkness, we would be lying and not living by the truth." Anyone saying they had personally known Jesus yet by their life demonstrated a completely different message would be a liar –their life would not be based on the Truth.
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)
Here the word "if" is better translated "in as much as". While pointing to himself, John was saying: "In as much as we apostles walk in the light, as He is in the light, we apostles have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin." The apostles had fellowship with each other. They walked, ate, prayed, participated in miracles, and witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ Jesus. They knew the fulfillment of His purpose –His blood purifies all (past, present, future) sin.
Now we return to where we began. Verse 8 is to the unbeliever saying, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." Then verse 9 says to confess sin and be saved. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." Making the point one more time for the unbeliever, verse 10 says, "If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives."
1 John 1:1-10 is an appeal to unbelievers to come to faith in Jesus. He was the One who John had met and personally got to know. Yet this little verse, 1 John 1:9, has become the "bar of Christian soap" that is used to make us feel better when we act out our unbelief.
The question hanging in the air is: "Should we never to talk to God about our unbelief (our sinful thoughts, attitudes, actions)? No way; we should always be in communication with Him about everything –in our easy times and in our struggles. It's by His renewing our minds that we increase in faith, so that we trust Him even more.
Is that confessing? Well, confessing means "to agree with". So, yes it's confessing. And it's good to be in agreement with God about those thoughts that lead to bad attitudes and manifest as hurtful or faithless actions.
But it's not confessing to obtain forgiveness. Forgiveness was totally accomplished at the cross when Jesus said "It is finished". As Christians, we earnestly desire to live effective lives for God. That happens when we are walking by faith, trusting that what He says and does is best for us. This all comes about by having a renewed mind –one that is transformed by knowing Him through His word.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God –this is your reasonable act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)
Let's not hang Jesus on that cross again just because it feels good or seems right according to our human understanding. Again, let me recommend that you read the sections on Law vs. Grace, Your Identity In Christ, or Die to the Law. These go into greater depth what it means to grow as a Christian, to be pleasing to God, living by faith rather than works.
Be Reconciled to God
There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:9-11 - NIV)