STUDY FIVE: ‘IF WE CONFESS ...’ 1John 1:9

We have seen that denying that we are sinners who sin identifies us as being deceived, and as not having God’s word/truth – as walking in the darkness, not in the light. John is obviously warning his readers, including us, of the terrible implications of making any claim to sinlessness of either nature or action.

Promoting oneself as sinless may make us feel good, and even look good in the sight of others, but it actually is not good. It is not good because it is contrary to the word of God. And it is not good because it holds us captive in a constant need to personally maintain that perceived sinlessness.

The thing that is good is to agree with God’s verdict that we are sinners who sin – sinners by nature and sinners by action, and thereby to avail ourselves of the forgiveness he has provided for us in the death of Jesus his Son.

In 1John 1:9 ‘if we confess our sins’ is the opposite of claiming that we have no sin or have not sinned.

 

A. ‘IF WE CONFESS ...’

When we hear the phrase ‘confess your sins’ we generally tend to think of verbally naming or listing our sins. We think of ourselves coming before God in prayer and telling him all of the sins we can remember doing that day, or that week. What we imagine is very similar to the Roman Catholic confessional, where a person ‘goes to Confession’ and tells the priest ‘I have sinned’ and lists those sins. The idea of naming individual sins is the key feature in this popular understanding of ‘confess’.

A.1 The meaning of the word ‘confess’
But when John says ‘if we confess our sins ...’ the word he uses is homologeo, which has the sense of ‘acknowledge’. It is not about naming, identifying or listing, it is about acknowledging. In the New Testament context, it is to say the same as, to agree with the issue in question. It is used elsewhere in the New Testament in this sense:

Check these verses, which all use this word. What do you learn about the meaning/use of the word?
Matthew 10:32

Romans 10:9

1John 4:2, 3

1John 4:15

2John 7

In each of these verses the issue is: do we acknowledge, do we agree, that Jesus Christ is who he himself claimed to be, who both God the Father and the apostles acknowledged him to be? Do we acknowledge Christ to be both God and a human being? If we do, we are walking in the light.

So walking in the light means that we know and acknowledge the truth about who Jesus Christ is, and, similarly, walking in the light means we know and acknowledge the truth about who we are.

Walking in the light means that we acknowledge that we are sinners who sin. Not just at the point of our initial conversion, but as a continuum. Walking in the light means that we agree with God that we are sinners and we agree with God that we have sinned. We do not dare to claim to be without sin when he has told us that we are sinners.

John’s verse 9 is the godly opposite of verses 8 and 10. Just as verses 8 and 10 go hand in hand with verse 6, so verse 9 goes hand in hand with verse 7. It is an evidence of ‘walking in the light’ – walking in the truth, whereas verses 8 and 10 are ‘walking in the darkness’ – walking in deception, following a lie.

A.2 Should we ‘confess’ our sins, that is, with the popular understanding of ‘confess’, should we present God with lists of our sins?
There is quite a difference between the practice of ‘confessing your sin’ that is popularly encouraged on the basis of 1John 1:9, and the explanation of 1John 1:9 given above.

If verse 9 is included by John to teach that acknowledging that we are sinners who sin is an aspect of walking in the light, in contrast to verses 8 and 10 which deny our sinfulness and express darkness and deception, then is there any place for coming before God in prayer with a list of our sins on our lips?

This is an important question, because, on the basis of the popular interpretation of verse 9 various things are said. For example:

‘You have to keep short accounts with God’.

‘Only confessed sins are forgiven.’

‘God won’t hear your prayers if there’s sin in your life.’ (Or, ‘in your heart.’)

These statements are actually quite frightening. They interfere with the very nature of the full forgiveness that God has granted to us in Christ Jesus.

Consider these texts and answer the questions:
Colossians 2:13, 14: How many of our sins were forgiven by the death of Jesus?

 

Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14: Is forgiveness something that comes and goes, or something that we have in Christ as our present and permanent possession?

 

Ephesians 1:7, 8: How extensive and comprehensive is the forgiveness that God has given us in Christ?

 

Romans 4:7,8: Will God ever hold our sins against us?

 

Through the blood of Jesus Christ we have, we possess, in Christ, forgiveness of all our sins. All of our sins means all of our sins ... not just those before we became a Christian, not just those we have ‘confessed’ (named), not just those we have recognized and remembered, but all.

This totality of forgiveness is stated by John:

‘If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin’ (1:7).

‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (1:9).

Walking in the light and confessing our sins have the same outcome: we are purified by the blood of Jesus from all sin, all unrighteousness. The blood of Jesus and God’s forgiving/purifying work through that blood, apply to all. All sin. All unrighteousness (legal guilt). (We will look at this in more detail in this study.)

 

B. THE EXAMPLE OF DAVID

But, someone might ask, what about King David? Didn’t he confess his sins of adultery, and arranging Uriah’s murder, to God? That is an interesting question, because there is no record of David actually naming/listing these sins.

The Old Testament reports:

When Nathan the prophet confronted him with the reality of his sins, it was Nathan, not David, who actually named the sins (2Samuel 12:1 -10). David acknowledged his sins with the simple words ‘I have sinned against the LORD’ (verse 13) – he acknowledged that Nathan, speaking on God’s behalf, was right – he had sinned against the LORD. Nathan responded with a message of God’s forgiveness (verse 13), but also with consequences/punishment (verses 11, 12, 14).

David knew and acknowledged that he had sinned, and was very much aware of his sinful nature (Psalm 51), but there is no record of him actually naming/identifying/listing those sins. The word translated ‘acknowledged’ in Psalm 32:5 is the same word translated ‘know’ in 51:3. ‘Know’ is the most frequent translation of this word. It refers to knowing, to being acquainted with. It is used of acknowledging sinfulness and sins only in these two Psalms, in Jeremiah 3:13 & 14:20, and Hosea 5:15.

In Psalm 32 David reflects on the nature of forgiveness, and the huge sense of relief and release that comes from acknowledging that he has sinned. The verb translated ‘confess’ in verse 5 is predominantly translated either ‘give thanks’ or ‘praise’. This is the only occasion in the Psalms where it is translated as ‘confess’. It literally means something like ‘hold out the hand’ (with palms facing up). About this word Vine says:

“At first glance the meanings may appear unrelated. But upon close inspection, it becomes evident that each sense profoundly illumines and interprets the other. ... The usual context seems to be public worship, where the worshipers affirm and renew their relationship with God. The subject is not primarily the isolated individual, but the congregation. Especially in the hymns and thanksgivings of the Psalter, it is evident that yadah is a recital of, and thanksgiving for, Yahweh’s mighty acts of salvation.

“An affirmation of confession of God’s undeserved kindness throws man’s unworthiness into sharp relief. Hence, a confession of sin may be articulated in the same breath as a confession of faith or praise and thanksgiving. The confession is not a moralistic, autobiographical catalogue of sins – individual infractions of a legal code – but a confession of the underlying sinfulness that engulfs all mankind and separates us from the holy God. God is even to be praised for His judgments, by which he awakens repentance (e.g. Ps. 52:4). So one is not surprised to find praises in penitential contexts, and vice verse (1 Kings 8:33ff; Neh. 9:2ff; Dan. 9:4ff). If praise inevitably entails confession of sin, the reverse is also true: The sure word of forgiveness elicits praise and thanksgiving on the confessor’s part. This wells up almost automatically from the new being of the repentant person.”
(p44, 45, W.E. Vines, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson,1985)

Note Vine’s comment: ‘The confession is not a moralistic, autobiographical catalogue of sins – individual infractions of a legal code – but a confession of the underlying sinfulness that engulfs all mankind and separates us from the holy God.’

Read 2Samuel 12:1 – 14. Answer the questions:
Was David’s ‘confession’ in verse 13 part of a habit of daily ‘confession’ of sins, or because God confronted him about particular sins?

How did God confront David about his sin?

Suggest how God confronts us about our sins today?

Does this passage set an example of daily confession of sins, or does it set an example of responding with acknowledgement of our sins when God points them out through his Word?

 

Answer these questions about Psalm 51:1 – 17
Which verses express David’s knowledge of God as a God of love, mercy and forgiveness?

 

Write out the verses in which he acknowledges that he has sinned.

 

 

Write out the verses in which he acknowledges that he is a sinner.

 

 

 

Did David name, list or give details of his specific sins?

Which verses express David’s confidence in God’s forgiveness?

 

Answer these questions about Psalm 32:
How did David understand God’s forgiveness?

 

Describe David’s joy and confidence in God.

 

Did David name his sins, or did he reach out to God acknowledging his sin and guilt?

 

What is the difference between ‘the upright’, that is ‘the righteous’ (even though they are sinners), and ‘the wicked’?

 

Psalm 51 is David’s cry to the Lord, his ‘confession’, after Nathan the prophet, speaking God’s word, had confronted him with his sins involving Bathsheba and Uriah. Psalm 32 reflects on that ‘confession’.

What answer do these reports about David give to our question: ‘Should we confess our sins, that is, in terms of the popular understanding of ‘confess’, should we regularly present God with a list of our sins?

In 2Samuel 12 we find that David confessed/acknowledged his sin when God, through the words of Nathan the prophet, rebuked him for those specific sins.

Psalm 51 teaches us that ‘confession’ is something far greater and far deeper than simply presenting God with a list of our sins. The words David used express acknowledgement of and agreement with God’s verdict. David knows that he is a sinner who sins, and it is something that he knows in an on-going way because that is who he is. David knows that God has every right to reject him, to cast him away, to distance himself from him. But he also knows that with God there is mercy, with God there is forgiveness, with God there is unfailing love.

In Psalm 32, David’s knowledge and acknowledgement of his personal sinfulness and the sinfulness of his actions did not lead him to morose despair; rather it led him to confident joy and gladness in the presence of his awesome God. His ‘confession’ (his hands raised with open palms) was at the same time confession, supplication, praise and thanksgiving – sins and sinfulness acknowledged, forgiveness received, the Lord praised and thanked, and the resultant joy.

 

C. WHAT DOES ‘CONFESS’ MEAN FOR US?

So we come back to the question: what does John mean by ‘if we confess our sins’? What is it that John is expecting Christians to do?

To ‘confess our sins’, to acknowledge that we are sinners who sin, is to demonstrate that we are walking in the light: that we know God, through knowing his Son, not only as a God of holiness and justice but also as a God who is merciful, gracious, compassionate, forgiving.

To ‘confess our sins’ is to live/walk with the knowledge that we are sinners who sin. It is to walk with God on the basis of his gracious forgiveness which gives us the freedom to admit our sinfulness. It is to relate to God always by his grace, and never on the basis of any personal sinlessness.

To ‘confess our sins’ means that when the Holy Spirit through the word of God, whether the written word, or the faithfully proclaimed word, confronts us with our sinfulness and/or a specific sin, we acknowledge that God’s word is true: that it is just as God is saying to us: we are sinners, and we have committed that sin.

Jesus’ parable in Luke 18 is instructive.

Read Luke 18:9 – 14. Answer these questions:
What did the Pharisee think about himself?

What did the tax collector think about himself?

Which of these two men presented God with a ‘list’?

How did the tax collector confess his sin/sinfulness?

What did the tax collector know about God that moved him to this ‘confession’?

Which man received forgiveness?

With which man do you identify – the one who denied sinfulness and related to God on the basis of merit? Or the one who acknowledged his sinfulness and cast himself on God’s mercy?