“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
For many Christians, this verse is an invitation verse, inviting sinners to confess their sins in order to receive the forgiveness of sins. Cut and dried.
Interestingly, this verse is taken out of context. In its original habitat, this verse is the second of three positive marks that identify a true believer. He is one who confesses his sins. As such a one, he is also one who continually receives the forgiveness of sins. Nowhere in the context does John affirm that confession is the direct item-per-item cause of forgiveness. John instead gives an inference.
An “if-then” statement can work in two main ways, either in a cause-and-effect relationship (“if this happens, then this will happen”) or in an inferential relationship (“if this is true, then this also is true”). For the statement, “If I stay out in the rain without my coat,” the follow-up statement “then I will catch cold” would be cause-and-effect, while the statement “then I am a fool” would be inferential. In its context, 1 John 1:9 is an inferential “if-then” statement.
For proof, consider the negative marks, which are all inferential “if-then” statements:
“If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1:6).
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8).
“If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1:10).
Moreover, the first and second positive marks are also inferential “if-then” statements:
“If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1:7).
“If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins” (2:1-2).
Regarding the first test, does walking in the light cause fellowship or cleansing? In the third test, does random sinning cause Jesus to be an Advocate? Granted, there is an fitting relationship between the “if” and the “then” statements, but in both tests John affirms that the “then” statements about fellowship and advocacy are items that true Christians already have. Similarly, in the second test, the forgiveness and cleansing of sins is something true Christians already have, given the faithfulness and righteousness of God (based on the Cross). These tests are inferential “if-then” statements.
In addition to the context, it should also be noted that the verse itself reads different in the original Greek than it appears in English. The verb “confess” is present tense in the Greek, indicating a habitual action, rather than a one-time occurrence. In other words, a true Christian is someone who confesses his sin regularly–to God, of course; and to others as appropriate, which is the point of this passage (cf. Jas. 5:16). Confession is a mark of a Christian, as is an open lifestyle (1:7, to “walk in the light”). In contrast, denying either the action or the guilt of the action is a mark of hypocrisy (1:8, 10).
Therefore, based on 1 John 1:9, does a Christian need to ask God for forgiveness after sinning?
If the verse were a cause-and-effect “if-then” statement, the answer would certainly be “Yes”. Many seem to live under such an impression, thinking that salvation may be in jeopardy if a sin is forgotten and not confessed. This leads to a works-salvation that is based on the faithfulness of man more than the faithfulness of God. Truthfully, it is doubtful whether ever sin can even be known, let alone remembered and confessed. “Who can understand his errors?” asked the Psalmist. No one. If salvation depended on a person confessing every sin, none would enter heaven. And even for those sins that are known, 1 John 1:9 only states that it is the habit of the true Christian to agree with God about such matters: “Yes, Lord, I have sinned and have incurred guilt.” As for God, He faithfully and righteously continues to forgive the true Christian and to cleanse him from “all unrighteousness,” whether known or unknown.
In the next post, we plan to explore the matter even further, using an analogy given by Jesus Himself.