“8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:8-10
We’ve been working our way through a study of 1 John on this blog as a way to make additional usage of the notes and expositions I’ve used in teaching this book of the Bible. The previous 3 posts are available here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. In this post, we come to the Apostle John’s 2nd test, again a moral or ethical test, though this time on the recognition of sin. As we discussed in the intro to 1 John, the likely heresy of the age that John was confronting was a form of Gnosticism. It has been suggested that those who seceded from the churches in Asia Minor were Gnostics and had come to believe that the “trivial” or everyday sins of the people no longer effected them, in essence they believed they were capable of being without these sins. It’s to this erroneous notion that John directs his second test, a recognition of sin.
John begins this section by confronting the belief that a person can attain sinless perfection. Gnostic beliefs, while varied and numerous, included a warped and unbiblical view of good and evil. Fundamentally, they had a flawed view of believer’s sanctification, so some began to withdraw themselves from society in order to help promote a higher level of sanctification, perhaps living more of an ascetic lifestyle. Others took the opposite approach believing it didn’t really matter how one lived, resulting in loose or lacking moral values.1 Still, others believed “to have reached such an advanced stage in spiritual experience that they were ‘beyond good and evil.’ They maintained that they had no sin, not in the sense that they had attained moral perfection but in the sense that what might be sin for people at a less mature stage of inner development was no longer sin for the completely ‘spiritual’ man. For him ethical distinctions had ceased to be relevant” 2 It’s likely this latter group are those that John is addressing as he states, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” John again presents the negative aspect of his test and adds a stinging indictment that those who claim to have no sin are self-deceptive and lack the truth. In verse 10, John reemphasizes his argument by adding “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” As though saying those who deny their sinfulness practice self-deception and lack truth wasn’t harsh enough, he goes on to say that by doing so they actually are calling God a liar and they possess not His word. Boiling that test down, those who say they have no sin lie not only to themselves, but call God a liar and are not His children. God’s word clearly states the sinfulness of man (see Romans 3:10-18. Not only that, but passages such as Genesis 8:21 and Jeremiah 17:9 explain that man’s sinfulness is beyond deeds, such as do’s and don’ts but actually extends to the nature of who man is. At his heart he is sinful. It therefore goes without saying that to argue a point contrary to God’s Word is calling God Himself a liar and that’s the very position that John stresses to his readers.
In addition to a failure to recognize sin, it’s remarkable how few professing believers understand the necessity of confession of sin to God on a regular basis. If it’s even done at all, it seems all too often that repentance is believed to be a one-time event, whereas in this passage we see John emphasizing believer’s confession. Just like it would be absurd to say that a believer in Christ could stop having faith in Him and still have salvation, the opposite side of the same coin is also true, it is an unbiblical, even absurd, idea that confession of sin to God should cease at any point. We see this sandwiched between the two negative applications of John’s moral test as he adds an evidence of genuine salvation, i.e. confession of sin, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is an oft-quoted passage, but I fear it’s one that is rarely deeply considered or one that’s read in its context. Notice the links in the statement John is making, believer’s confession of sin magnifies 2 aspects of God’s being: 1) The character of God, i.e. His faithfulness and justice and 2) The actions of God, i.e. His forgiveness of believer’s sins and cleansing from all unrighteousness. It seems clear that in this verse John views the actions of God as an outworking of His character. It would serve us well to explore this relationship a bit more deeply.
How are we to understand God’s faithfulness and justice? Well, through His forgiveness of sins and cleansing from unrighteousness for starters. God’s faithfulness is inextricably linked to His promises made to those who repent of their sin and place their faith in His Son, Jesus, namely he offers them forgiveness and removal of sin. As Matthew Henry points out, “God is faithful to his covenant and word, wherein he has promised forgiveness to penitent believing confessors.”3 Remember in the last post where we looked at the significance of Christ’s blood poured out in the New Covenant for the forgiveness of sins. We see this again in a passage from Colossians, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Col. 1:13-14 God is faithful to His promise for those who seek forgiveness through repentance and faith. He has promised forgiveness of sins for those who repent and place their faith in Jesus. If God were not faithful to that promise, He would not longer be God. But indeed He is faithful and He is most certainly God, a forgiving and merciful God for those that seek Him.
The second attribute of God’s character that John mentions here is His justice and it is put on display through the cleansing of believer’s [who make confession, remember this is evidence of genuine faith] from all unrighteousness. God is able to do this because the demands of His justice have been met in the cross of Jesus Christ. Think about this believer, not only were the sins you committed prior to your salvation forgiven in Christ, but ALL of your sins, even your future ones. Practically speaking all of our sins were future when Christ made His atoning sacrifice. God’s holiness was vindicated through the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ, who took the punishment, namely the wrath of God, for all those who would ever believe on Him. As Paul states, “It [God’s forbearance in passing over former sins] was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Romans 3:26 In an amazing and humbling divine work, God is able to be just and the justifier of believer’s because of Christ’s atonement.
The Apostle John’s test here is twofold: 1) the recognition of sin and 2) the confession of sin. Dear reader, do you recognize sin in your life? Do you despise it and desperately want rid of it? Do you cry out like the Apostle Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Romans 7:24 Do you make quick confession of sin or do you let it linger and fester? Is your chief concern the offense of a holy God? These are signs of genuine believers. Contrast that with the negative implications of the test. Are you oblivious to sin in your life? Do you fail to recognize it and fail to confess it? A denial of sin is self-deception and ultimately the self-deceived are not only lying to themselves, but are calling God a liar as well. A test of true assurance in the Christian faith is continual recognition and confession of sin. Do you pass the test?
Before reading the next post in this series, consider the following for additional study (from 1 John 1:8-2:2):
1. Why does John buttress his argument of believer’s confession of sin with Christ’s role as advocate? (vs. 2:1)
[Note: if you have not already done so from the last post determine the significance of Christ’s role as advocate (vs. 2:1)?]
2. In verses 1:8-2:2, what aspects of Christ’s atonement does John emphasize?
3. As revealed in our study passage (1:8-2:2), on what basis is Jesus “qualified” to serve as believer’s advocate?
1 Hill, Jonathan, Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity [Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2006], p. 65
2 F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1978], p. 26
3 Henry, Matthew, Commentary on the Whole Bible