In many grace books it is common to find some discussion on 1 John 1:9. This verse is special because it is the only verse in the new covenant that appears to link confession of sins with God’s forgiveness. If this verse was in the old covenant it would be no great thing, but because it’s in the new it stands out.
In his book Pure Grace, Clark Whitten writes:
Whenever the subjects of sin and the need of confession are raised, this verse (1 John 1:9) is universally quoted and trotted out as a proof text. Why? Because there aren’t any others to quote! (p.91)
1 John 1:9 is often used to support a mixed-grace message of conditional forgiveness, as in, “God won’t forgive you unless you review all of your sins.” Naturally this message is incompatible with the gospel of grace, the words of Jesus, and everything else the new covenant says about forgiveness.
Yet the mixed-grace preacher will insist from this one verse, that you must confess, if not to be re-forgiven, then at least to restore your relationship with the Lord. He will say things like, “If you sin against your spouse, don’t you confess?” Of course you do, but that’s hardly an argument for conditional forgiveness.
As I have said elsewhere, there’s a difference between healthy and unhealthy confession. Confessing sins is good for you, but only when it’s done with a heart of faith. Sadly, confessing-to-be-forgiven often reflects unbelief or ignorance regarding the finished work of the cross. Instead of making things better, this sort of confession promotes self-trust and frustrates grace.
Do sins need to be confessed to be cleansed?
Much of the debate over 1 John 1:9 hangs on the question of Who is John addressing? Who are the “we” who need to confess their sins? Is John describing unbelievers, as I have said elsewhere? Or is he describing all of us, because we all get dirty from time to time and need to be re-cleansed?
Maybe this is the wrong question. Perhaps we don’t need to get too worked up over who John had in mind when he wrote this verse. We can agree that we all need Jesus to cleanse us from sin and unrighteousness—every single one of us.
A better question is whether Jesus will cleanse us from all sin or only some sin (specifically the sin we confess). Does he cleanse us from all unrighteousness or only some unrighteousness? Here John is unequivocal. Jesus cleanses us from “all unrighteousness” (v.9). The blood of Jesus that was shed on the cross “purifies us from all sin” (v.7). And then, just in case we missed it, John says it a third time:
I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. (1 John 2:12)
All means all
Jesus doesn’t just deal with the sin of your past, but the sin of your present and future as well. This is great grace! This is the revelation that will empower you to go and sin no more.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. (1 John 2:1a)
Confessing sins will not help you overcome sin, but grace will! We don’t confess to expunge sin, we confess to receive grace. Big difference.
If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. (1 John 2:1b)
The mixed-grace preacher says, “When you sin, you’d better start talking,” But the apostle John says, “When you sin, Jesus does the talking!”
Why does Jesus talk? Because when you sin the Accuser will accuse you and if no one says anything you’ll end up feeling accused. But listen to the Advocate speaking on your behalf, drawing attention away from your sin and onto his sublime sacrifice, and you’ll feel righteous and clean. You will experience what is already true about you in Christ.
The mixed-grace preacher says you have a responsibility to deal with your sin. But the hyper-grace gospel declares you have a responsibility to heed the Spirit of Grace as he gently leads you in paths of righteousness. Fact is, you can’t deal with your sin, but grace can!
What is the wrong question?
When you sin there are two questions you can ask. The wrong question is, “What can I do to fix this?” That is the question Adam asked as he reached for the fig leaves. It’s a bad question that will lead to self-trust and death. A better question is, “What has Jesus done to fix this?” and John plainly tells us: He has cleansed us from all unrighteousness!
I hope you can see now that when the mixed-grace preacher says, “You have to confess to make things right,” he is answering the wrong question. And when John says, “Believe Jesus and have life in his name” (John 20:31), he is answering the right question.
The mixed-grace preacher says you have to work to make yourself righteous and clean. But John the hyper-grace preacher says you need to believe that Christ’s sacrifice cannot be improved upon and that in him you have been eternally cleansed from all unrighteousness.
The problem is you won’t believe if you listen to the Accuser (or the mixed-grace preacher). Instead, you’ll work to pay the price and do the penance and make yourself clean. Don’t do that, says John:
I write so that you may not sin, but if you do, don’t heed the Accuser; listen to the Advocate! Agree with him and make his words your words. Stop playing the blame game, making excuses, or pretending you can beat this thing. Instead of belly-aching about your imperfections, praise him for his perfections, because that’s where the grace is found – in him! You want to confess? Then confess this: “By the blood of Jesus I have been cleansed from all unrighteousness. In him I am righteous and free from the power of sin. This is not because of anything I have done, but because of everything he’s done. Thank you, Jesus!
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