A friend of mine emailed me a thought-provoking question last week after reading the sermon notes from November 13. Granting that confession of sin is the mark of a genuine disciple, he asked in what way God’s forgiveness is conditioned by our confession (as 1Jn 1.9 states).
1. In the broader context of the book, the letter was written to assure believers that they in fact are regenerate (e.g., 5.13). Thus, as has been noted often, John presents tests of eternal life, namely, faith, love, and obedience. Unfortunately many present the latter in such a way that they undo a person’s assurance, thus effectively using John’s tool (the tests) to counteract John’s purpose (assuring believers). For example, Don Whitney’s How Can I Be Sure I Am a Christian? presents the tests from 1 John with corresponding questions, e.g., “Do I love God?”, “Do I love other Christians?”, “Am I holy?” And to each of these questions, the humble believer would respond, “Well, certainly not perfectly! Perhaps I’m not a believer.” But that is the opposite of what John is trying to do in the book. He’s presenting these tests (faith, love, and obedience) to prove that his readers in fact are believers, e.g., the fact that you love God at all proves that his grace is operative in you. (Schriener and Caneday’s The Race Set Before Us and Horton’s Christ the Lord have been particularly helpful for me on this point.)
2. In the narrower context of this section (1.5–2.2) John presents a single indicative (1.5) followed by six conditional statements (1.6–2.2). As you analyze the six, you’ll find that they oscillate between a negative and a positive, so that you are left with three couplets of truth (1.6–7, 1.8–9, and 1.10–2.2). Furthermore, each negative begins with if we say; thus John offers three couplets in which there is an erroneous affirmation followed by a corrective response. So here’s how I’d summarize those couplets:
- Couplet #1
- Erroneous affirmation: “I have fellowship with God but walk in darkness” (6)
- Corrective response: walk in the light (7)
- Couplet #2
- Erroneous affirmation: “I have no sin” (8)
- Corrective response: confess your sins (9)
- Couplet #3
- Erroneous affirmation: “I have not sinned” (10)
- Corrective response: Christ is the Advocate for sinners (2)
3. One other clarifying point about the narrower context. I used to understand the darkness/light imagery to refer to sin/righteousness, i.e., walking in darkness = living in sin, walking in the light = living righteously. But that wouldn’t mesh with v. 7, for what sin would there be to cleanse if I’m living righteously? Instead I take the darkness/light imagery to refer to (what is popularly called today) hiding/transparency. In other words, walking in darkness is living in such a way that the light of God’s truth cannot penetrate, not allowing his light in to reveal what we really are, while walking in the light is living openly in the light of God’s truth, allowing his light to identify us for what we really are. That makes much more sense of the correctives (the blood of Jesus cleanses, we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive and cleanse).
4. So here’s how I’d put these three points together. Since John’s purpose is to assure his readers that they are in fact children of God, vv. 6, 8, and 10 identify those who are not genuinely regenerate, while vv. 7, 9, and 2.1–2 describe those who are. I’d paraphrase it like this: “Do you see how you respond to your sin? how you do not cover it or minimize it? how you openly acknowledge it before the Lord? That is the very proof that you are a child of his. The unregenerate do not respond to their sin that way. They are content to stay in the shadows, content to stand outside the light of God’s revelation. The proof of genuine faith is not sinless perfection, but humble acknowledgement of sin as it is revealed by the light of God.”
5. So more directly to the question, is God’s forgiveness of our sins in any way conditioned on our confession? We have to say Yes, for that’s how the verse is structured! But in context I don’t think the way we’re supposed to read it as if God is waiting for me to confess my sins so that he can finally cleanse me. The context instead indicates that the fundamental posture of genuine believers is that we confess our sins as God brings them to light–a confession that results in ongoing cleansing of all our sins, not just the ones we’ve confessed, but even those God has not yet brought to light.