The verse most Bible teachers refer to when teaching people to “stay in fellowship with God by keeping short accounts on their sins” is 1 John 1:9. 1 John 1:9 says:
“If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins
and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
This was the verse that was emphasized to me more than any other verse in the Bible by those who communicated the religious system I had come to embrace. At this point in my life, I did not realize I needed to compare men’s words with God’s word. I just assumed what they were teaching was right and this is what I needed to do. But after the Spirit of God gave me the revelation of God’s grace in his word, I realized I needed to evaluate the words of men with the word of God, the Bible. It wasn’t just important to know what a verse said, but to actually find out what it means. I was familiar with what most commentaries and study Bible notes said about 1 John 1:9. All of the ones I read pretty much said the same thing: to stay in fellowship with God, we must daily confess our sins.
I began to study 1 John 1:9 in context. I read through the book many times to get an understanding of the issues John was addressing. One of the issues was that of fellowship with God. However, in my studies, I felt he was addressing the issue of fellowship with God concerning false teachers seeking to lead believers in Jesus astray from truth, and was not addressing the issue of believers staying in fellowship with God through continual
confession of sin.
John Wrote To Protect People From False Teachers Claiming To Be In Fellowship With God
In John 1:1-5, John himself claimed to be in fellowship with God or to have knowledge of the truth because he had spent time with Jesus. Because of the time with Jesus, he had an understanding of truth these false teachers did not have. If his readers could trust anyone, it would be John, rather than the false teachers making erroneous claims that they were in fellowship with God, having the knowledge of the truth about God and eternal life.
In chapter one, John was not writing to provide a religious system by which believers can stay in fellowship with God. Instead, he was writing to protect believers from being led astray by the false teachers and the religious system they were falsely proclaiming about knowing God and possessing eternal life.These false teachers, infiltrating the church John was writing to, claimed to be in fellowship with God, know the truth, and have knowledge of eternal life, but denied they had sinned and that Jesus was the Christ. They were claiming to be in the light by having spiritual knowledge about God, but in their denial of personal sin and their denial of Jesus being the Son of God, the Christ, they were making God out to be a liar (1 John 1:10, 5:9-10). They were making God a liar because God said “all have sinned” (Romans 3:21), and because God’s testimony was Jesus is the Christ. By these denials, all of which are contrary to the Christian faith, they were in the darkness, even though they were claiming to be in the light, or in fellowship with God. John, therefore, communicates one of the foundational truths of Christianity in 1 John 1:9 which says, “If we [sinful members of the human race] confess our sins [admit we have sinned], he is faithful and just [God will do would he said he will do based upon what Jesus has already done for us through his blood] to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
We Experience Forgiveness and Righteousness the Moment We Believe
So when do we experience the forgiveness of God and become righteous before God? The moment we believe! This verse is not for believers in need of “staying in fellowship with God by keeping short accounts on sin”. That is not at all the context of 1 John 1:9. Rather, it is the statement of a foundational Christian truth in comparison to the denial of personal sin by the false teachers.
John Wrote to People Whose Sins Had Been Forgiven
John was actually writing to those whose sins had been forgiven because these false teachers were trying to convince them they had not been forgiven! 1 John 2:12 says:
“I write to you dear children because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.”
Every time John used the phrase “I write to you” it was to expose the religious beliefs of the false teachers and to confirm the truths the believers already been taught (1 John 2:20-21). And what was the truth they had been taught? When you place your faith in Jesus you receive all of God’s forgiveness!
Those In the Darkness Were False Teachers Claiming to Know God
Obviously, those John addressed as being in the darkness and not in fellowship with God were not believers in Jesus, but the false teachers who claimed to know God, yet denied the essential truths ofChristianity which were that they had sinned (John 1:8), and that Jesus is the Christ (John 2:22-23).
Pharisaical Teachings Had Infiltrated the Church
What is interesting is the same words John used to identify the beliefs and claims of false teachers infiltrating the church are the same words Jesus used to identify the false beliefs and teachings of the Pharisees. Jesus told them that even though they claimed to know God and be in fellowship with God that the truth was not in them and they were liars (John 8:55). He told them they did not know God at all, even though they claimed they did (John 7:28; 8:19, 54-55; 15:21). They were in the darkness since they did not believe Jesus was the Christ (John 8:12-13; 12:46). These were the very same denials of those infiltrating the church John wrote to which leads us to believe that a Pharisaical religious system was being propagated by the false teachers and John was writing to expose their system and beliefs.
The False Teachers Couldn’t Love
These false teachers John was writing about had the same problem the Pharisees had in Jesus’ time. Though they claimed to know God, the love of God was not in their hearts (John 5:42; Matthew 22:34-40). They were very hateful people (Luke 7:36-50). This was the reason Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 7:36-50). John asks how they can really know God, since God is love. If they really knew God, they would know God is love, resulting in loving others (John 4:7-8). However, their concept of God was not one of love and forgiveness for “sinners” but one of condemnation and judgment.
As the false teachings of those claiming to know God spread, those who had believed on the name of Jesus lost their confidence in God’s love and forgiveness and were now living in terror of God’s punishment (1 John 4:16-18). So John wrote to them reminding them of
God’s love displayed when Jesus took God’s full punishment for our sins upon himself through his death. This perfect love demonstrated through Jesus’ death casts out all fear of punishment and condemnation from God for those who believe (1 John 4:18). John wrote to remind his readers to rely on God’s love for them (1 John 4:16), rather than be manipulated by the false teachers who were denying Jesus was the Son of God, who had no love in their hearts for others (1 John 4:20-21), and who were stealing the confidence of the believers by terrorizing them with the inaccurate teaching of God’s judgment, totally dismissing the truth of Jesus’ death as the total punishment of God for sin (1 John 2:1-2, 4:7-5:5). No wonder John said they were liars, in the darkness, and the truth of God’s word was not in them (1 John 1:6, 8, 10; 2:4, 9-11; 22-23).
The False Teachers Were Making God Out to be a Liar
Many Bible teachers claim that 1 John 1:10 refers to believers in Jesus who were denying they had sinned, thus, making God out to be a liar, proving God’s word was not in them. How can John be referring to believers when he says that the word is living in believers in 1 John 2:14? In my understanding of this verse, John 1:10 is not referring to believers who are out of fellowship with God, but to false teachers claiming to be in fellowship with God, or know God, yet seeking to lead the believers away from the truth of God. Jesus told the Pharisees they had no room for his word in their hearts (John 8:37) and that God’s word did not live in them (John 5:38). This seems to be exactly what John was saying. Yet, in many commentaries and study Bible notes, John 1:6, 8, and 10 refer to those John addressed as believers, rather than false teachers.
The False Teachers Taught More Than Belief Was Needed to Possess Eternal Life
These false teachers were also teaching that eternal life was something more than simply believing in Jesus. Evidently, they were teaching the believers that a person had to participate in their religious system for eternal life. As a result, they were confused. They were uncertain if they had eternal life. So John wrote to correct the false teaching causing confusion among the believers. He says in 1 John 5:11-13:
“God has given us eternal life, and this life is in the Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know you have eternal life.”
John cuts through all the religious requirements for salvation being promoted among the believers by these false teachers by stating that eternal life is in a person, Jesus. He says eternal life is not gained by participating in a religious system, but is given to us in Jesus when we believe. John concludes his letter by saying:
“We also know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true - and we are in him who is true-even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life" (John 5:20).
No Religious System Needed for Eternal Life
Maybe like me, you fell into a religious system, trying to maintain God’s forgiveness by practicing religious rituals. Maybe you fell into a religious system trying to avoid God’s punishment by following religious requirements. Maybe you live daily trying to stay in fellowship with God, but secretly wonder if you are in fellowship with him. Maybe you live daily terrified of God’s judgment. Maybe you were manipulated into thinking by faithfully participating in a certain religious organization you could gain eternal life. I have good news for you! If you have come to faith in Jesus, if you believe on his name, your sins are forgiven and you have eternal life. His perfect love has fully paid your sin penalty, completely removing you from his judgment. You can be confident you are loved and forgiven. You are in the truth. His word lives in you. You are in fellowship with God. You are in the light. The story of God’s love and forgiveness has intersected with the story of your life. This is the story of grace!