According to Jesus, his death and resurrection ushered in the New Covenant of Grace. With the New Covenant of Grace, complete forgiveness was ushered in (Matthew 26:27 and Luke 22:20). Under the Old Covenant of Law, forgiveness was conditional. Conditional forgiveness was God forgiving us based upon our forgiveness of others. Complete forgiveness is God forgiving us of all our sins because Jesus died for all our sins. Through faith, we receive his complete forgiveness. Colossians 2:14 says “He (God) forgave us all our sins.” Because God has forgiven us of all our sins through faith in Jesus, we no longer have to keep asking him to forgive us of sin, instead we thank him for forgiving us and rest in the fact we are forgiven.
Many people who have never been fully taught the truths of the New Covenant of Grace typically respond to the message of complete forgiveness of all our sins by asking about the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12 , 14-15) and 1 John 1:9, since both refer to confessing sin to be forgiven by God. They will ask, “What about the Lord’s Prayer and 1 John 1:9?”. This is a good question. It is the same question I asked when first learning about complete forgiveness under the New Covenant of Grace. So let's take a look at the Lord's Prayer and 1 John 1:9 in light of the New Covenant of Grace.
At the end of The Lord's Prayer, Jesus says that unless we forgive others, God will not forgive us (Matthew 6:14-15, see also Matthew 18:35). Jesus is saying that forgiveness from God is based upon our forgiveness of others. Matthew 18 clarifies how many times we must forgive to be forgiven, seventy- times seven, or every time we are offended, we must first forgive others before God will forgive us. This isn't good news. Jesus is saying that forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiving others. How many people could be completely forgiven based on conditional forgiveness? None! When did Jesus teach this truth on forgiveness? It was under the Old Covenant of Law. The New Covenant had yet to replace the Old Covenant. When Jesus died, the new covenant went into effect replacing the Old Covenant (Matthew 26:27; Luke 22:20: Hebrews 8:13 & 9:15-17). As a result, God set aside the Old Covenant of Law to establish the New Covenant of Grace (Hebrews 10:9-18).
Under the New Covenant of Grace, ushered in by the death of Jesus Christ and explained to Paul by Jesus Christ (Acts 20:24, Galatians 1:11-12, Ephesians 3:1-3), forgiveness is no longer conditional, but complete. Forgiveness under the new covenant of grace is not based upon our ability to forgive others but is based upon the death of Jesus Christ and our faith in his full payment for our sins. Since he fully paid our sin penalty, we are now completely forgiven.
What do we do with this forgiveness we have received? We extend it to those who offend us. Paul says, as he teaches under the new covenant, to forgive one another in the same way God has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:12-13). How has God forgiven us? Completely. Now, we are able to extend the grace of forgiveness to others the same way God has to us.
Under the Old Covenant of Law, forgiveness was conditional upon our earning it through perfectly forgiving others. The law demanded perfection. No one could perfectly forgive. Therefore, under the Old Covenant, no one could be forgiven unless they participated in the animal sacrificial system of the Old Covenant. Under the New Covenant, forgiveness is complete because Christ completely paid our sin penalty and we receive this forgiveness by faith.
Unfortunately, most Christians never come to this full revelation of the Old and New Covenants and cannot fully understand their Bible. It is important people are brought to the full revelation of forgiveness understood through the New Covenant of Grace. In doing this, they can understand their Bible.
Now let’s go to 1 John 1:9. The proper way to discover the meaning of a verse is to study the verse in context. First, determine the author of the book containing the verse. Second, determine the reason the author is writing the book. Third, know the context of the verse. Fourth, know whether you are in the Old Covenant or New Covenant. In other words, has Christ died yet and has Jesus instructed Paul about the message of grace (Galatians 1:11-12; Acts 20:24). Only by studying 1 John 1:9 in context can a proper interpretation of this verse be reached. So let’s take a look at 1 John 1:9 in context.
John is the author of 1 John. False teachers had infiltrated the church and were seeking to lead believers away from the truth that Jesus was the Christ (1 John 2:26; 4:1-4) and that he was the propitiation for our sins, meaning he completely took God's punishment for our sins upon himself (1 John 2:2, 4:9-10). These false teachers claimed to have fellowship with Christ and to teach the truth (1 John 1:6). It seems that some of these teachers were like the Pharisees. They were claiming to know God and have fellowship with him, but were denying they had sinned (1 John 1:6, 8). Isn't that what the Pharisees did? John used the same description to expose the hypocrisy of these false teachers as Jesus did to expose the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
Jesus told the Pharisees "nor does his word dwell in you" (John 5:38), "I know you do not have the love of God in your hearts” (John 5:42), "Every one who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34), "you belong to your father the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer. …not holding to the truth..there is no truth in him...he is a liar…” (John 8:44-45). “…I would be a liar like you" (John 9:55). These are the strong words Jesus used as he exposed the Pharisees as false teachers. They did not know God, even though they claimed to know him, they were liars and did not have the truth and the love of God was not in them. They totally rejected Jesus as the Messiah and completely denied they were sinful.
This sounds exactly like the situation that is going on in the church John is writing to. However, before we look deeper into 1 John 1:9, lets look at what the Bible says about those who have place their faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, “Put your trust in the light...so you may become sons of the light." (John 12:36). Paul said in Ephesians 5:8, "For you were once darkness but now you are light in the Lord." The contrast between light and darkness is seen as believer in Christ (light) and an unbeliever not in Christ (darkness).
Now with this understanding about how Jesus addressed the false teachers and a biblical understanding of light and darkness, lets look at 1 John 1:9. John begins by giving his credentials as a teacher of the truth. John said I have seen and touched the risen Christ. He states he is in fellowship with Christ. (1:1-4). He establishes his credibility so that those whom he was writing to would trust him rather than the false teachers seeking to lead them astray.
This message is in 1 John 1:5-10. It is given to help the church test to see if what a person is teaching in the church is actually true and to see if those who are teaching can actually be trusted as credible teachers. It is the same test Jesus used with the Pharisees.
First, in 1 John 1:5-6, anyone claiming to have fellowship with God, like the Pharisees did, and walk in darkness is lying and not living by the truth. To walk in darkness, is to reject Jesus as the Christ as the Pharisees and the false teachers did in the church John was writing to. It is obvious anyone who denies Jesus Christ is not in the light but the darkness. These teachers are liars and are not teaching the truth. Like the Pharisees, the false teachers at the church denied Christ and were teaching lies. They were living in the darkness (1 John 2:22-23; 1 John 4:1-4).
Many teach that this verse applies to a Christian who is living in sin. However, it is clear this is not the context of the 1 John 1: 1-10 as seen in the entire book of John. The person walking in darkness is a person who is denying that Jesus is the Christ and anyone who denies Jesus is the Christ cannot be in fellowship with God. He is a liar and the truth is not in him. This person is clearly in the darkness. The believers John were writing to were living in the truth because they believed Jesus was the Christ and had accepted his payment for their sins (1 John 2:21).
1 John 1:7 says that if we walk in the truth (believing Jesus is the Christ) then we have fellowship with each other because real fellowship begins with belief in Jesus Christ. Because we have placed our faith in him, his blood purifies us from all sin (the New Covenant). This is consistent with the fullness of forgiveness taught by Paul.
1 John 1:8 says that anyone who claims to have never sinned or have never broken God's laws has not come to the understanding of the fact they are sinful and have broken his laws. This exactly what the Pharisees were claiming, as well as the false teachers infiltrating the church. The Pharisees of Jesus time were convinced they had never broken any laws. However, Jesus pointed out to them on the Sermon on the Mount that they had.
In the same way, John is pointing out these were false teachers because they, like the Pharisees, were claiming to be without sin. The truth was not in the Pharisees or the false teachers infiltrating the church. So far, these teachers are failing the test of whether they can be trusted as teachers in the church.
Now we come to I John 1:9. This verse says, "If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." The word “confess” means to admit the truth about something. In this verse, confess means to admit the truth about our sins. We are admitting the truth to God that we have broken his laws. We are not like the false teachers denying they have sinned, thus proving they are liars and the truth is not in them. We are admitting the truth. We have sinned.
Once we admit the truth about our sins as unbelievers, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The word “faithful” means he will do what he said he will do. God keeps his promises. The word “just” means he will do the right or legal thing.
What is the right thing God will do for us out of his faithfulness to us? Forgive us. The reason he can forgive us is because Christ paid the full penalty for our sins. John is writing to convince the church about the accomplishments of the cross. He says Christ is the propitiation for our sins in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. This simply means Christ paid the full payment for our sins and God's justice is satisfied. He did this out of love. Once we confess our sins as an unbeliever, then God is faithful and just to forgive us all our sin based upon Christ's death. This happens at salvation and is consistent with the New Covenant of Grace. It's interesting to note that John is writing to a group of people whose sins had already been forgiven (l John 2: 12), rather than to those who needed to keep confessing their sins to stay forgiven before God. It is sad that people can quote 1 John 1:9 but can not quote 1 John 2:12.
Not only does God totally forgive us, but he also cleanses us from all unrighteousness. This means he declares us righteous (totally cleansed from all sin) in his sight forever. Again, this is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans which says we have been declared righteous in God’s sight by faith (Romans 3:21-22) and have received the gift of righteousness (Romans 5:17).
Finally, 1 John 1:10 says that by claiming to have never sinned we are calling God a liar and his word has no place in our lives. God has given the law to show us our sin. Romans 3:19-20 says the whole world stands guilty before God. Romans 3:10 says that all are unrighteous before God as unbelievers. Anyone claiming to have not sinned is obviously calling God a liar. How can the truth of God’s word be in a person who rejects the basic truth that "all have sinned"? It can't. And it wasn't in these false teachers. These false teachers miserably failed the test of a true teacher.
1 John 1:10 cannot be talking about believers since to become a believer in Jesus is to admit that we have sinned. The liars of 1 John 1:10 were the same liars of 1 John 2:22-23 and 4:1-3. It was those who denied they had sinned, who denied Jesus was the Messiah, and who denied that Jesus came in human flesh. Certainly, these were not believers John was referring to, but the false teachers. Actually, John referred to the believers he was writing to as being in the truth (1 John 2:21).
The rest of 1 John deals with the inability to love by those who claim to be in the truth. What does being in the truth produce in the heart of people who know God? Love and right living. The Pharisees certainly had a problem loving during the life of Jesus. Those who come to know God are given a new set of desires to love and to live right. John is confronting the biggest fear of a legalist, which is if people know they are forgiven and righteous in God's sight they will just keep on sinning. John says to a legalist that isn't possible because this person has been born of God and can't continue to live in rebellion to truth because the Spirit of God in him will not allow that since the Spirit brings us into a loving relationship with our Father and we become like him as we get to know him (l John 3:1-10). It is not that we will not struggle with our flesh and be tempted to sin. We will. The battle between the Spirit of Jesus in us and our flesh will be a part of a believer’s experience (Romans 7:14-25 and Galatians 5:13-18). However, deep inside the heart of a believer is a desire to please God and live a life of purity and love.
As you can see, 1 John 1:9 clears up in the light of proper Bible interpretation. It is not a verse for Christians to continually confess their sins to God for forgiveness. It is a verse stating a simple truth of the Gospel. If you admit as an unbeliever you have sinned, then God will forgive you and make you righteous before him. This happens the day you come to Christ and is consistent with the new covenant.
Some will ask, "Then what do we do when we sin? Are you saying we do not need to confess our sins to God?". No, that is not what I am saying. True believers will be bothered by their sin. When we sin as loved children of God, we go to our loving Father and acknowledge our sin to him and thank him we are forgiven and righteous before him asking him to change us. We are honest with him about our sin. It is important to understand sin will still have consequences in the life of a saved person. Jesus does not take away the consequences of sin but he does take away the condemnation of sin for the one who has come to faith in him.
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