1 John 1:9
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us
our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
While our present verse is complete in itself, yet it is also a part of a larger whole, and an apprehension of its coherence with what precedes helps to a better understanding of it. It cannot be too frequently insisted upon that the Bible is not a collection of separate and unrelated texts, but rather a living body of Truth, one member of which is connected with and dependent upon another—as the fingers (though each one be complete in itself) upon the hand, the hand upon the arm, and it with the trunk. The principal subject of 1 John 1 is that of fellowship with God in Christ: made possible by the Divine incarnation (vv. 1 & 2), producing a fullness of joy (v. 4), had with Him who is light (v. 5). In verses 6, 8 and 10, we are shown how certain types of godless professors are cut off from this privilege. How then are we to identify those who do enjoy it? That is a most pressing question: What are the clear and infallible marks by which Christians may know themselves to be among those in fellowship with God? 1. Walking in the light (v. 7). 2. Confessing their sins (v. 9). 3. Obedience (2:3 & 5). 4. Love to the brethren (3:14), etc. It is also to be noted that verses 7 through 10 all treat of some aspect of sin, for that is the great obstacle and hindrance to fellowship with the Holy One.
Coming now to the more immediate context, it is obvious that verse 9 supplies the second member of the general thought begun in verse 7, giving the opposite alternative to the one specified in verse 8. First, the believer is judicially cleansed from all sin; yet, second, the root of evil still remains within him. The questions may therefore be asked: Are we still affected by it? Does it at times occasion us to fall? If so, what must we do? Since the sin which indwells the believer is an active principle, it cannot but be that he will be under the partial influence of the same, and thereby moved to act unworthily of his Christian calling. Nor is this to be wondered at, when we consider the vileness and power of the flesh, the implacable enmity of Satan against him, the world laying its snares in his path, ever setting before him a multitude of objects to turn away his heart and mind from Christ. Nor can he deliver himself—even inherent grace or “the new nature” is insufficient for such a task. None but the Lord can give the victory. Yet at times He is pleased to leave us, in some respects and in a variety of ways, unto ourselves, so that we stumble in the mire and befoul our garments. And why does He so act and withhold His supporting arm? That we may realize our weaknesses and have experiential proof that “without Me ye can do nothing,” (John 15:5).
That is a very humbling and painful lesson, yet it is one which God has ordained that all of His children shall learn. It is His will that they should have a fuller discovery of their ruined and corrupt condition by nature, and have a personal acquaintance with their weakness and impotency. It is His will that they feel, bewail, and own both the one and the other, that they may be more sensible alike of the disease and the remedy. When a real Christian sins, he smarts under it. He cannot but be affected and afflicted by it, for his peace and joy are temporarily lost, and his free access to God is broken into. That distresses his mind. Sometimes an old sin is revived, and he is greatly perturbed. Rightly so, for sin must never be regarded lightly or excused. Instead, it is to be loathed and lamented. Nevertheless, the saint must be careful that he does not confound his present case with his unchanging state. Though there be guilt on the conscience, pollution on the mind, grief in the heart, that is a very different thing from being in a sinful state—something which none of the Lord’s regenerate can ever be in again, though they may be over and over again in a sinful case and circumstance.
But God has mercifully appointed a relief, exactly suited to this part of His people’s spiritual distress. Marvel with us, fellow Christian, at the grace which has provided for the restoration of ungrateful and undutiful children. In the verse now before us God has given us directions how we are to act when in and under such sinful cases.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us
our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
And, my reader, there is no relief for the burdened conscience, no restoration to real fellowship with God, until we do so. Alas, that we are so slow, so reluctant to avail ourselves of the same. But pride hinders us, and we are loath to humble ourselves before the One against whom we have transgressed. When we realize who it is we have offended and grieved, call to mind the privileges we have enjoyed and abused, think upon the profession and promises we have made, dwell upon the heinousness of the sins into which we have fallen, there is a sad tendency in us to keep silent, and then to excuse ourselves. But that is fatal both to our present peace and future spiritual prosperity. Unjudged sins produce a cold reserve in the heart toward the Holy One, and if that be persisted in Divine chastisement will be our sure portion.
What has just been said receives forcible illustration in Psalm 32:3-4 where David describes the painful experiences which befell him during those months when he had refused to acknowledge his foul offences. Said he, “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night Thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.” He was like a man in a fever—tossing about upon his bed, trying first one position and then another, but finding no rest. Such perturbation and disquietude of spirit in a believer is one of the surest signs that he is out of communion with the Lord. “There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked,” (Isa. 57:21), and such is the case of a backslider. There is nothing more distressing for one who has walked with God than to have a spiritual relapse; and if he be overcome again and again by his chief besetting sin, then is he most wretched—far more so than had he suffered a temporal loss were afflicted bodily, or had encountered persecution. And there is no relief for him, no ease for his conscience, no joy in the Lord, no delight in His Word, no liberty in prayer, until he unburdens his heart unto Him by free and frank confession.
God has most graciously provided for just such emergencies. He is pleased to address Himself unto His people thus: “Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord; and I will not cause Mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful... Only acknowledge thine iniquity, that thou hast transgressed against the Lord thy God, and hast scattered thy ways to the strangers ... Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord, for I am married unto you,” (Jer. 3:12-14). “I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus: Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn Thou me, and I shall be turned; for Thou art the Lord my God,” (Jer. 31:18). “Take with you words, and turn to the Lord: say unto Him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips,” (Hosea 14:2). Such Scriptures are exactly suited to us when we are in particular cases and distressing spiritual circumstances arising from our inherent sinfulness and actual defilements. Let no Christian allow a lying Devil to rob him of such precious and needed portions of God’s word by listening to ‘dispensationalists’ who say they are not for him. They are as much a part of his spiritual heritage as is Psalm 23.
Many such passages as the above would be meaningless to believers today were their experiences different from what they actually are. On God’s part they are blessed memorials of His grace; on our part they are solemn testifications unto sad wanderings of heart. Our cases vary much at different times. This morning I may be able to say, “Thou anointest my head with oil: my cup runneth over,” but ere night falls I may have to lament, “Iniquities prevail against me,” (Ps. 65:3). When such is the case, the only thing to do is to pour out our hearts before the Lord. Not to conceal it in our minds, but to cry, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness, according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions,” (Ps. 51:1-3). He is the only one who can pardon us, and to Him we must go. “I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord: and Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin,” (Ps. 32:5). Then will the restored soul have reason to exclaim, “Thou, Lord, are good and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon Thee,” (Ps. 86:5).
Confession is not optional but obligatory, a necessary thing. First, that God Himself may be honored, (Joshua 7:19). Non-confession is a virtual and practical disowning of His rectoral office—“he confessed and denied not,” (John 1:20). Second, that God may be obeyed. He has appointed that His children should daily acknowledge their sins and ask for His forgiveness, (Luke 11:4). “God’s justice is satisfied by Christ, but it must be glorified and owned by us,” (T. Manton). All through Scripture pardon presupposes confession, (Lev. 26:40; 1 Kings 8:33; Jer. 3:12-13; Luke 15:18). Nowhere is there a promise of forgiveness unless acknowledgment of sin is made. God requires us to sue out our pardon: as He said to the ascended Saviour, “Ask of Me, and I shall give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance,” (Ps. 2:8). Third, that we may be affected and afflicted by our offences in a due manner, for genuine confession is an expression of hatred of sin and grief for it. Failure at this point is a bar to our advancement: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper,” (Prov. 28:13). Fourth, in order to the maintenance of our communion with the Holy One. “Only on the footing of sin daily confessed and pardoned can there be any fellowship between us and God this side of heaven,” (C.H. Spurgeon).
Confession of sin is both the consequent and the condition of fellowship with God, as also is walking in the light. Communion with God produced frank and honest dealings with Him, bringing things out into the open. Such a one not only walks in the light, but he owns whatever in him is opposed unto the light. Yet it is much more than a bare admission that he has sin (in contrast with verse 8): it is the acknowledgment of individual and specific sins which is the form that confession must ever take if it is to be real and valid. A merely general acknowledgment soon degenerates into an empty phrase. The God of Truth will tolerate no pretence. The flesh would have us gloss over things and call them by a pleasanter name than “sins,” but close dealing with God purges the spirit of guile. In the light, things are seen in their true colors; contact with God convicts of what is contrary to His holiness, and that leads to a contrite confession.
As Candlish discerningly remarked, the confession here is from those who are walking in the light, and “such confession is very different from that in which the natural conscience seeks a lightening of its guilty burden, and a lessening of its guilty fears.” Rather does it proceed from an ardent longing of soul for everything to be put right between himself and his Beloved, refusing to hide anything from Him. The farther we proceed thus with God, the more intimate be our dealings with Him, the more discoveries do we make of what is displeasing to Him, and such discoveries are welcome to us. He desires truth in the inward parts, and we do so too and therefore do we open our hearts fully to Him, and bring everything out into the light. Such confession is a spreading of our case before the Lord, concealing nothing, palliating nothing. It is the laying bare of our inner man to the loving and wise Physician, who alone knows how to deal with us. Of course, where sins are committed against our fellows they must be confessed unto them too, (Matt. 5:23-24; Jam. 5:16).
Confession is alike a sign and adjunct of repentance, since it proceeds from both conviction and contrition. It begins by owning the fact of sin (Joshua 7:20), and then the fault of it, or as David called it, “the iniquity of my sin.” He not only acknowledged his crime of adultery, but the foulness and enormity of it. So again when his heart smote him for his pride and presumption in numbering Israel, he not only admitted what he had done, but added “I have sinned greatly in that I have done ... I have done very foolishly,” (2 Sam. 24:10). The aggravations of our sins are to be declared: that they were committed against light, persuasions, warnings, conscience, the motions of the Spirit; for such things, especially after our being the recipients of countless privileges, mercies and blessings, greatly heighten the enormity of our iniquities, and are to be sorrowfully owned by us. Observe how Daniel did so when confessing the sins of his people: “Neither have we obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in His laws, which He set before us by His servants,” (9:10). The guilt of our sins too must be confessed: what we should suffer did we receive our deserts, (Ezra 9:13).
Confession of sins is to be made freely, owning every known offence, making no attempt to hide anything, either from God or ourselves. We are not to generalize but to particularize, and acknowledge sins of omission, some of which—such as failure to perform duty, lack of love, absence of zeal, unthankfulness are worse than many sins of commission. If we are definite and precise when making known our requests unto God, we should be equally so in specifying our sins. Contritely, with a due sense of the infinite evil of sin, as it is dishonoring to God’s holiness, an opposition to His sovereign majesty, a contempt of His law, a flying in the face of His Word, and a grieving of His Spirit. If there be a real apprehension of those things, a regenerate soul cannot but be filled with godly sorrow over his transgressions, and mourn before the Lord on their account. Sincerely, laying bare our case before God just as it stands, proffering no excuses, refusing to throw the blame upon others. Though an unpleasant exercise unto flesh and blood, nevertheless it is salutary to unburden the conscience, pour out our grief into the ears of One who is “very pitiful and of tender mercy.”
Confession is to be accompanied with shamefacedness, lamenting our ingratitude unto Him who daily loads us with His benefits. The more we realize our base requital of God’s wondrous love to us, the more shall we say, with Ezra, “I am ashamed, and blush to lift up my face to Thee, my God,” (9:6). It is to be accompanied with hatred of sin and loathing of ourselves, such as marked those of whom the apostle could say, “Ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge,” (2 Cor. 7:11). It is to be made in faith, in the everlasting efficacy of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ—just as when Aaron confessed the sins of Israel, he did so with “both his hands upon the head of the live goat,” (Lev. 16:21)—asking the Father to pardon you for Christ’s sake. It is to be done daily. Keep short accounts with God and suffer no cloud to remain between your heart and Him.
“He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Here is the grand encouragement for us to perform this painful duty: it makes way for blessing, for though confession is not the cause, yet it is the condition of Divine forgiveness. That forgiveness is what the penitent soul seeks from God, and as he does so, let him bear in mind the fact that one of the titles which Deity has been pleased to take unto Himself is “the God of pardons,” (Neh. 9:17, margin)! Unto such we are to repair: unto Him who declares, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more,” (Jer. 31:34). “Let us therefore come boldly [unhesitatingly and freely] unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need,” (Heb. 4:16). Unto us, considered in ourselves, Divine forgiveness is always an act of pure mercy or clemency, for it is something we deserve not. But more—and oh, the preciousness of it!—God’s forgiveness is also an act both of faithfulness and justice: faithfulness to His promises, His covenant engagements; justice unto Christ, in bestowing on His people what He purchased for them.
We are inclined to think the Spirit has designedly duplicated terms here for the comfort of distressed believers. “Faithful and just” are of much the same import, and while they may be distinguished (as above), yet both have a regard to the everlasting covenant, the latter being brought in to supply an additional ground of confidence for us—that the fulfillment of God’s gracious promise is at the same time an act of strict righteousness on His part. As Calvin pointed out, “The penitent has here two of God’s attributes, faithfulness and justice, to encourage and support him.” Thus the contrite soul should have full and firm assurance of God’s readiness to pardon. Personally we believe that both the forgiveness and the cleansing here include alike a judicial and an experiential one, an objective and a subjective, but lack of space now prevents our enlarging upon that statement. Admittedly the point is a difficult one: not only to apprehend, but more so to express—such is always the case when the finite mind is occupied with things that are infinite.