Is 1 John 1 for Believers or Unbelievers?

“Why do you assume that the first chapter of first John is addressed to unbelievers?”

This question was put to me by a friend after reading my recent post on 1 John 1:9.

Judging by some of the comments that have come up in various discussion threads, it’s a question many of you are asking:

–    How can you say that an epistle clearly written for churches was meant for sinners?
–    Aren’t you treading on thin ice when you carve up the Bible saying, “That bit’s not for me”?
–    Aren’t we supposed to heed the whole counsel of God?

These are all excellent questions and I will try to shed some light by looking at 1 John 1. But let me state up front that I do not assume 1 John 1 was written for unbelievers – assumptions of that sort are dangerous. Rather I conclude that it was based on the evidence I will present below.

But first, let me challenge two traditional arguments used to suggest that 1 John 1, and particularly verse 9, is meant for Christians.

1. The New Testament church letters are for saints not sinners

Really? You don’t think they were meant for churches? Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian and in the New Testament churches there were plenty of people who were not saved. I’m thinking of the “false brothers who infiltrated our ranks” (Gal 2:4) and the false teachers, false apostles, and false prophets who seemed to follow Peter and Paul everywhere they went.

We have this rose-tinted view of the early church as a place of harmony and accord. In reality those churches were fractious battlegrounds between Christians, Pharisees, Judaizers, and outright crooks. Read the middle chapter of Peter’s second letter and you will find repeated warnings pertaining to false teachers who deny the sovereign Lord, who live in error and are slaves of depravity. Where are these heretics? They are not out in the world; they are in here “among the people” (2 Pet 2:1).

How about the antichrist? I bet you can’t guess where he lives. Well for starters, there’s more than one antichrist since anyone who denies Jesus is the Christ is an antichrist (1 Joh 2:22). You may be surprised to learn that these antichrists aren’t found in Rome or Washington DC but are among the church. “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us” (1 Joh 2:18-19).

The wonderful thing about church groups is that they are open. Everyone is welcome. But not everyone who comes loves Jesus. Every preacher knows this and tailors their message accordingly. They’ll have something for the saint and something for the sinner. The epistle writers are no different.

2. “John says ‘we’ a lot. That doesn’t sound like he’s talking about them but us.”

Indeed, John says “we” 20 times in chapter 1! But is he referring to “We-believers” or “We-people” or “We-his-royal-self”? I think it is a huge mistake to assume that “we” always refers to a particular set of people in every single instance. We need to consider the context. This is how I read it:

Verse We-himself We-people
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.
3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
4 We write this to make your joy complete.
5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.
6 If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.
7 But 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.
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

It seems clear to me that for the first part of the chapter John is doing a fair impersonation of Prince Charles by referring to himself in the majestic plural. Don’t laugh: this habit actually originated with the kings and princes of the Old Testament. (See 2 Samuel 16:20 for an example.) But halfway through John switches to Thomas Jefferson adopting a “we-the-people” voice. This begs the question, Who are the people? Who is John referring to?

Why do I think 1 John 1 is addressed to unbelievers?

To answer this question we need to look at the “you” that John singles out in verse 3. Who are “the you”? What are they like? Well in the following verses John gives us a very comprehensive description. Let us consider how this group – whoever they are – compares with the typical Christian. See if you can spot the difference…

Verse John’s audience (the “You”) Christians
3 They do not have fellowship (koinonia) with us as we have with God; they alienated from the life of God (Eph 4:18) We have fellowship (koinonia) with Christ and all the members of His body (1 Cor 1:9, 1 Jn 1:7)
5 They need to hear the message that John has heard We have heard and believed the message (Rom 10:17)
6 They walk in darkness We walk in the light (Joh 8:12)
6 They lie and do not live by the truth We have met the Truth and walk in the truth (Joh 14:6, 2 Jn 1:4)
7 They need to be purified from all sin We have been purified from all sin (Heb 10:10)
8 They are deceived We are filled with the Spirit of Truth (Jn 14:17)
9 They need to be purified from all unrighteousness We have received the gift of forgiveness and have been made righteous (1 Cor 6:11, Eph 1:7)
10 They are calling God a liar We agree with God (Rom 10:9-13)
10 God’s word has no place in their lives His word lives in us (1 Th 2:13)

As you can see, the group on the left is nothing like the group on the right. Indeed, the people in this group are the exact opposite of what the Bible describes as a Christian. Hmm. I guess that means that they – those John is addressing in chapter 1 – are not Christians. They are not the “dear children” John begins to address in chapter 2.

Was that so hard?

Here’s the punch-line: If you think the whole Bible was written for you, you’re going to end up confused, messed up, and in serious trouble.

We need to have a whole Bible theology but that does not mean “read everything indiscriminately and hope for the best.” That would be like going to the drug cabinet in the local hospital and swallowing every pill in sight. A whole Bible theology means you read the written word through the lens of the Living Word. It means filter everything you read through the finished work of the cross.

If, after reading this post, you still think 1 John 1:9 is addressed to believers, that’s fine. You could be right. The real question here is not Who? but What? This is why I say it is essential, when reading this scripture, that we ask the right question!
___
Coming soon…
– Is forgiveness something God does or gives?
– Why do people need to receive the gift of forgiveness if the whole world has been forgiven?
– Practical holiness – your fast-track for setting aside grace
– And much, much more!

24 Comments on Is 1 John 1 for Believers or Unbelievers?

  1. FALSE DOCTRINE. With all humility, I want to state that the view presented here, being espoused by Womack, differs wildly with 2000 years of Christian teaching and church tradition. Saying that 1 John 1 is for non-believers is only the beginning. Error begets error. You will never find a single commentary by any respected Bible teacher (i.e. John MacArthur, David Jeremiah, John Piper, David Wilkerson, Matthew Henry) agreeing with this. The way “Jason” was treated above is indicative of the attitude here, saying that his traditional understanding of Scripture is not tolerable on this forum. He was not espousing works for salvation or forgiveness, but was explaining the mainline understanding of the church for how sealed believers continually deal with sin in the flesh.

    This blog is very similar to errors by many current churches breaking with what the Bible says about homosexuality — in desperate attempts to make the Bible say what people want to hear.

    Very Sincerely,

    Aceb

    • momzilla76 // April 11, 2016 at 8:19 am // Reply

      I ask you to take a step back and look at what it is you just said. You looked first to tradition and church history. Then you looked to ordinary human writers.
      Even during the years the new testament was being written they were dealing with errors things like having to follow the laws of Moses to be saved, being accused of promoting sinful living so grace could abound. Do not base the truthfulness of an idea on how long it has been around.
      I suggest looking at the points of the article again for what it says about the bible verses it is talking about and see if those verses really are supposed to be understood that way or are they supposed to be understood as history says.
      Yes it is what people want to hear because people are desperate from true long lasting deliverance from the sins that afflict them. The verse list under “Christians” in the chart above is the bible power source for that deliverance. History’s understanding of confession and getting to work on beating your sins is a poor substitute for the true power of God.

    • Hey, Aceb. MacArthur, Piper, and Jeremiah are all Calvinists. When I first became a believer , I was living in the LA area and listened to MacArthur regularly. He has gone off the ledge. His Lordship salvation doctrine has unfortunately affected millions of Christians.Piper, at least, does believe in miracles. MacArthur does not. The comments he has made about gays and transexuals –especially since the SCOTUS decision about gay marriage — are some of the vilest, most hateful , and unChristlike I’ve ever heard anyone say during a sermon. Of course , given that he believes God decided before the foundation of the earth whom He would save is very telling to me. Christ died for EVERYONE. But each of us has a choice to make regarding what scripture clearly shows. We can believe that or not. Paul Ellis is not teaching false doctrine. Many of us have come out from under the teachings of MacArthur, Piper, and Jeremiah. I hope you will read more of Paul’s articles and resources. MacArthur’s and Chuck Smith’s teachings made me fear God and walk on eggshells for decades. That changed in 2009. But had I not been sent to this site –and you can discount it as much as you like–by a a prompting of supernatural origins , I would still be unable to articulate it , or detect the false doctrines preached and taught by the likes of MacArthur, Piper, Mohler, Franklin Graham, and so many others.
      I’m so thankful to God for His showing me the real truth about living out the gospel , and I credit Paul E for explaining it so clearly.

  2. Akinola Joshua // May 13, 2016 at 11:31 am // Reply

    Thank u Sir Paul for the post…. The truth has been said so many times here, that we were justified forever by Christ’s finished works. Wow. Hallelujah!!

  3. Wayne Nickel // September 9, 2016 at 6:55 pm // Reply

    1 John 1:9 Written to believers. Good friend, studied linguistics and works with Wycliffe. She doesn’t know any of their bible translators that would view that verse other than to believers. She seemed a bit surprised that anyone would even look differently as to whom the words were directed to. I would think these believers that study culture, language etc and are immersed in prayer and daily research of language would have a good understanding of the context and the audience of whom it was addressed.

  4. Dennis Thompson // October 3, 2016 at 10:40 pm // Reply

    The church there had saved people and unsaved people just as today. The gentiles had to overcome humanism. They didn’t believe they had sin. That is what the explanation in verses 1-8 is about. Jesus talked about hell a lot. Confession of sin regarding as believer can only be possibly mentioned here and in James. If it was important and true it would be plastered and it is not. James 5 is simply about restoring Christian brotherly relationships. So that leaves one, to the unbeliever

  5. This is great sir. You are indeed a blessing to the world. God bless!

  6. Raymond Nolan // June 28, 2017 at 11:23 am // Reply

    All the epistles were written to believers, because it’s our covenant. The Bible must be viewed in light of the revelation of this new testament, including what Jesus said in the gospels. Many times Jesus wasn’t speaking to born again believers. We as Christians have at our disposal all of the covenants in one book. Not everything in the bible is a statement of truth, however everything in the bible is truly stated. As I’ve said, to know whether something belongs to the Christian, it must be viewed in light of the new covenant. This covenant, or rather the fullness of this covenant did not come into fullness at the cross. Nor at the resurrection of our saviour, nor even at His asscention. Even after the
    Holy Spirit came to the earth the epistles hadn’t been written. John therefore wanted to reassure the believers in 1 John 1:1-3 that he and the other early disciples, had seen, touched, looked upon their risen Saviour and because they had, the Christians that hadn’t seen Him, could still have fellowship with Him and our Father. And that’s why their joy would be full. v 4; unsaved folks just don’t have this joy. John says in verse 4 and again in chapter 2:1″ these things write we unto you “‘ what things? The things he just spoke about in the former verses. He says, my little children in 2:1 and almost says the same thing in 1:4 by using the phrase, that your joy may be full.

  7. So if John is addressing unbelievers in 1:9. Does that mean believers never need to ask for forgiveness for the sins committed after being saved?

    • Let me answer your question with a question: Do we need to ask Jesus to die on the cross for our sins? The answer to one is the answer to the other, because on the cross Jesus carried the sins of the world. This is what forgiveness is – it is bearing our sins away.

      God does not act because we ask him too; rather, he acts and then we respond to what he has done. If we confess or agree with God – which is what confession literally means – that’s called faith. It is by faith that we receive his grace. It is by faith we receive his forgiveness. So you can ask or not ask, but the main thing is to receive. It’s saying “Thank you, Jesus.”

  8. I think this sounds like inclusionism. What is easier to say? “sorry Lord” or “please forgive me” when we grieve the Lord with our sin? Why did Jesus tell us how to pray with the Lords prayer?
    Grace is given to lead us into a progressively deeper relationship with Him, grace and truth are attached together with a bungy cord, sometimes that cord stretches when we stray and asking for forgiveness initiates the rebound, but the cord is never broken.
    I get what you are saying about justification, and clearly vs 9 could be interpreted the wrong way and provoke a sin “search and destroy” mission which inevitably results in the religious hamster wheel getting a work out, but that possibility does not remove the necessity for us to acknowledge our sin and let it go, there is no work in letting go, quite the opposite.
    This issue between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man seems to be at the forefront of so much confusion among Christians at the present time, there is nothing wrong with asking the Lord to forgive us, because it is for our benefit if we do, it fosters intimacy with Him and is at the core of our will aligning with His.

    • Inclusionism says humanity was saved and made righteous 2000 years ago; I say Jesus carried the sins of the world 2000 years ago. There is a difference. And no, there is nothing wrong with asking God to forgive you. The problem is insisting that God won’t do his part until you do yours. That’s back to front.

      • Ok, thanks for that Paul, after reading that link i understand where you are coming from and I agree.
        I have been having an extremely challenging time with this inclusion stuff recently, one friend telling me that when he sins he does not even ask for forgiveness anymore because to do so would be “an affront to the cross”, I just recoil at that. The insistence on this inclusion theology has really troubled me. I keep coming back to this position that taking a firm position on a divine paradox is actually legalism even if those promoting it claim to be led by grace.
        The other tendency I have noticed is that no quarter is given, if I do not accept that theology, I MUST be part of the “angry god squad” and lacking in revelation of the truth. To be honest I find this mischaracterization infuriating and I have not always handled it well, I feel that it denies me of my own testimony of grace and completely destroys what i consider to be one of the most important aspects of my walk with the Lord so far.
        It has also made me extremely weary of “grace preachers” now, your site is the only one that I have found so far that seems to offer somewhat of a balance and something that represents my own experience.
        I was aware of your site before, but it was only when I googled inclusion theology that I had a good read of your work (your articles came up top of the search list). I have not found any other site that has addressed the issue in a fair way as you seem to have done, there are plenty of “heresy hunter” type sites, but I can’t be bothered with that garbage.
        Thank you for you reply, it cleared up the issue nicely.

      • Thanks Daniel. I hear you, especially the bit about belittling other people’s testimonies. That’s not cool. Even when I walked in mixture and confusion, I experienced the goodness of God. Anybody can.

        It saddens me that inclusionism has become synonymous with grace preachers. It is true that some who preach inclusionism (and many who preach universalism), were once known as grace preachers. But I can assure you that this grace preacher, and the vast majority of my grace-preaching friends, strongly reject inclusionism. However, since those who preach inclusionism tend to be loud and angry, they attract attention, as you have observed. I’m glad you took the time to write and ask for clarification.

      • John W Reed // August 14, 2017 at 2:33 pm //

        Great word of encouragement Paul. Daniel, inclusion delusion is different as night and day from the Gospel of Grace. I want to encourage you Daniel to find some real solid Grace preachers. Beside Paul, Ryan Rufus is a great teacher of Grace. His dad Rob Rufus is great as well. Tricia Gunn is an amazing Gospel minister as well. Lucas Miles, Andrew Wommack, Creflo Dollar, Andrew Farley all solid Grace ministers that will help your walk in Grace.

    • Daniel, you mention, “Why did Jesus tell us how to pray with the Lords prayer?” He told the Hebrew that, “forgive us our trespasses”, back in the old testament, before he did a 1 John 2:2, which took care of (propitiated) all sin’s. No, there is no scripture’s that tell us to ask forgiveness, only those telling us to confess sin and confess Jesus lord, to be saved, as in Romans 10:9,10. To ask for forgiveness is doubting Gods Son did his propitiation work on the cross, thus requiring him to do something about it, “ For Christ also has once suffered for sins…” (and will not do it again, for anyone asking), 1 Peter 3:18!
      No, it is done, john 3;16, 1 john 2:2 , Romans 4:25,1 Peter 2:24 and all that remains is faith believing. As John said; “If we sin, we have an advocate”, never speaking of an asking, but more of a knowing! No, the only man that was told to “ask God for forgiveness” was when Paul confronted Simon, Acts 8:18 for his severe wickedness in being in “the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity”, probably thinking he had blasphemed the Holy Spirit, which he, no doubt, had.
      The whole world has “universal” forgiveness, yet to “procure” such forgiveness, one must receive it, by faith, believing, John 1:12.

  9. Jesus spoke about Hell a lot. Christianity begins after the cross. 1 John 1:9 and James 5 are the only 2 places where you can even attempt confession of sin for a believer. 2 places?? However you find many places where a born again believer what Repents. Good word of truth

  10. My only issue with this is that the original letter didn’t have chapters. 1 John 2:1 seems to tie in with 1 John chapter 1 saying my dear children I am writing this to you.

    • It’s true the chapters were added, but sometimes they were added in places that make sense. Having opened his letter with a general introduction, John now turns his attention to the church.

  11. Thanks for the article. Joseph Prince wrote an interesting article on this very subject. To this day in much of Judaism there is little concern for the need for atonement for sin. So the admonition for the confession and cleansing from sin is necessary. But the cleansing comes only by faith in Jesus and His work on the cross.

  12. Let me clarify you my friends, 1 JOHN 01:09 was written to the group of people called Gnostics the (The group of Unbelievers) in first century. they were the people who were denying the incarnation of Christ. This verse is not for the believers. hii guys Plz dont worry about sins which you r committing (but do not commit sin). the sins of the whole world is taken away by Jesus our Lord. Your sins are forgiven forever. Jesus has taken the sins from the beginning to the end.

    Paul wrote 13 books in NT then why didn’t he told to confess sin in any book or letters.
    actually Paul knew very well that Jesus has paid the price and made us righteous (those who believe)

  13. if you are confessing the sin,,,, dont forget,,,,,,,you are dishonoring the blood of Christ our Lord

  14. Johns letter is to believers letting them know they who have recieved the light have been saved
    They now walk in the light by their recieving the true light
    Even by believing on his name
    The blood of Jesus christ cleansed them from all sin
    Because they recieved the light and walk in his light
    For they have the light of life by the son.

  15. Tumusiime Joseph // June 17, 2019 at 4:14 pm // Reply

    All I can say is, Andrew Wommack, you are blessed because you bless me.

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