Confession of sins is a vital element in the Christian’s walk with God. And no verse is more important in this regard than 1 John 1:9. In the following article excerpted from his new commentary on 1-3 John, Zane has given us a wonderful explanation of this key verse. Editor.
9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Instead of denying our sinfulness (see verse 8), however sincerely, we should be prepared to acknowledge it. It is true that, as we walk in the light in fellowship with God, at any given time we may not be conscious of our sinfulness. But “the light” which shines forth from the God with whom we have fellowship has a revelatory role to play in our lives. As long as we walk in that light, we are in a position to be shown our failures; when that happens we should confess them.
It should be noted that the word repentance is not used here, nor anywhere in the Epistle. The reason for this is simple. In John’s usage, Christian repentance is appropriate when a pattern of sin is persisted in and needs to be changed (see Revelation 2:5, 16, 21, 22; 3:3, 19). In our text, John is talking about those who discover sin while in fellowship with God, not those who have wandered away from Him or have lost some previous spiritual attainment. That is a separate issue. The audience of First John is spiritually stable and has nothing to repent of (see 2:12-14, 21). Their task is to “abide,” or “stay,” in Christ and His truth (see 2:24, 28), not to “turn back” to Him.
The exposure of our sin by the light confronts us with a challenge to the fellowship in which we are walking with God. If we deny what the light shows us, we have ceased to be honest and open with God and fellowship ends. But if we confess (Greek: homologeō “to agree, admit, acknowledge”) the sins that the light reveals, we can depend on God to forgive them and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If this happens, fellowship continues.
An analogy can be found in a man who has just put on a suit which he has superficially examined for dirt or spots. If he walks into a lighted room wearing that suit, he may be active in that room for some time before he actually notices a spot or two on the suit. At this point he can deny the truth of what he has seen in the light by saying, “No, that is not a spot of dirt but a part of the weave of the fabric.” But if he does say this (to push the analogy further) the light in effect goes out and he is now in darkness.
In the same way, a Christian can maintain his fellowship in the light by promptly confessing what God’s truth reveals to him. Failure to do so plunges him into darkness. Of course, a Christian can also deliberately step out of the light by deciding to do what he knows to be wrong. The Christian who deliberately chooses sin has also deliberately chosen to forfeit his openness and integrity before God. He has stepped into the darkness and can return to the light only by confession.
The importance of all this can hardly be overstated. King David, in his great psalm of confession after his sin with Bathsheba, gives expression to a simple yet profound truth. He says to God, “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts” (Psalm 51:6). In another psalm we read, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalm 66:18). And in the Book of Proverbs we are told, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). Clearly, God values inner integrity, and the absence of this in our hearts is precisely what it means to “walk in darkness.”
If then we are open and honest toward God so that we confess the sins that the light reveals to us, what is the result? The apostle states that in this case He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
In extending forgiveness, God is faithful. He can be relied upon to forgive when we confess our sin. Often a believer feels very guilty about his failures and is tempted to wonder whether God’s forgiveness will really be given. The apostle encourages us therefore to depend on His reliability in this matter, rather than on our feelings.
God is also just when He acts in forgiveness. The word just in Greek is dikaios, meaning “righteous.” Because of the shed blood of Christ (verse 7), there is no compromise of God’s righteousness when He forgives. We need not fear that God will refuse to forgive because it would not be “right” for Him to do so. The blood of Jesus Christ was sufficient for all the sins of the whole world (cf. 2:2), and thus for all of ours!
So when we confess our sins, God can be relied upon, and is completely just, not only to forgive us our sins but also to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The NKJV places the word our in italics since there is nothing in the Greek that strictly corresponds to it. We could translate “to forgive us the sins,” with the implication being “the sins we confess.” No one but God can ever possibly know the full extent of our sinfulness, so that we can only actually confess the sins of which we are aware. God does not ask more of us than that.
But what about the sins of which we are unaware? These are covered by the words and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Therefore, whenever we make confession—honestly acknowledging what we know to be wrong, whatever other sin there may be in our hearts or lives is totally cleansed away. Nothing is left uncleansed, since all unrighteousness is as broad as possible. If there is any distinction here at all between sins and unrighteousness, then it would probably be that unrighteousness is broader and covers any latent attitude or outlook that is sinful in character, whether or not it has found expression in overt sin. The point of the verse, of course, is that when we honestly acknowledge whatever sins we are aware of, the cleansing that follows covers everything that needs cleansing.
This article was taken from The Epistles of John: Walking in the Light of God’s Love by Zane C. Hodges (Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 1999).