“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
1 John 1:9
Recently, in the time I’ve set aside between study, work, and loving on my wife, I’ve been reading through the book of 1 John. I’ve always loved this letter and I’ve grown to love John because of his brilliant writing in what amounts to a largely simple style. This verse in particular is a beautiful one for the truthful punches it packs.
John begins his brief letter stating his personal interactions with the Savior. He saw, touched, heard, and walked with Jesus Christ in the flesh and now endeavors to share His Truth with those who do yet know it for the purpose of bringing them into fellowship, which means “to have something in common.” In other words, for those who know Jesus Christ, the playing field is level. No matter the occupation, salary, GPA, neighborhood of residence, ethnicity, or historical background, the church can fellowship with one another (and with God) because they have Jesus in common and He is the only thing that truly matters.
Starting in verse five, John transitions to discussing how a believer should walk in the open with Christ and others. Perfectibility is not achievable on this side of glory according to the Apostle (vs. 8) and because of this ongoing reality he gives the prescription.
Depending on one’s background, a lot of different ideas can come to mind with that word. Headlines are regularly running apologies from pedestaled persons who are owning up to perceived moral failings. Cavalier interpreters often use this verse to justify a life lived independently of the Lord’s design which can then be subsequently covered by an admission of one’s mistakes in order to coax God into being “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and…cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It’s the get-out-of-jail-for-free card. After all, that’s what the Bible says, right?
Here is where Greek makes this an interesting study. The word John uses here is ὁμολογέω (pronounced “hom-ol-ogh-EH-oh”), which literally means “to concede that something is true” or “to say the same thing as another.” Clearly, that implies that there is more to this act of confession than simply tickling the ears of God with an admission (likely absent) of guilt. He is not interested in a mere verbal declaration of one’s actions as being off-kilter. Rather, His desire is for a lifestyle transformation to be present.
What John is saying here is that God’s forgiveness and cleansing is experienced explicitly when we come to see our sin on God’s terms. Throughout human history, we have learned to be masters of diluting the potency of sin so that our condition is outwardly manageable and inwardly isolated. We divine excuses for what ultimately separates us from our Father. If you don’t believe me try turning on the television or opening up a newspaper. Greed, gluttony, casual sex, social exclusion, it’s all there and more. We just label them with nicer headlines like “conservative principles,” “hot dog eating dynasties,” “bodily independence,” “country clubs,” and so on. Stay with me here and don’t get lost in any politics because all I am saying is that our world is not as great as it thinks it is. For all of the promises it doles out, it has never delivered.
This has led our culture to many admissions of wrongdoings, but little evident life change (Anthony Weiner, anyone???). To fully enter into the experience described in 1 John 1:9, we must learn to call our sin what God calls our sin. We must learn to ὁμολογέω. Just as the church needs Christ in common for true fellowship with one another (vs. 1-4) so the believer needs God’s Truth for true fellowship with his Lord (vs. 5-10). Sin is more than a mere blunder committed in a time of weakness; it is a cosmic offense against the holy God who created us. Warren Wiersbe says, “Confession simply means being honest with ourselves and with God, and if others are involved, being honest with them too. It is more than admitting sin. It means judging sin and facing it squarely.”
True confession is heard in the words of King David some time after committing his act of adultery with Bathsheba and subsequently having her husband killed on the front lines of war. Though he had clearly sinned against others, David recognized the primacy of his actions when confronted by Nathan – “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:13). The latter portion of John’s promise is also evident in his life as God was faithful to forgive him and cleanse him.
This famous verse of John’s epistle is not an invitation to live a life on a divine loophole. Confession is more than mere admission. It is agreeing with God about our human condition and seeking healing on His terms, not our own. The cross makes it explicitly clear that God is serious about sin, but it also reveals that He is ferociously faithful with His forgiveness. His faithfulness is not a cheap word; it is a promise sealed by the blood of His Son. Our confession should be motivated by the seriousness of the cross and the wonder of the grace made available through the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ show that the Lord is faithful and just to forgive and to cleanse.