Over the years of my teaching First John I have wrestled with the concept of conditional forgiveness as reflected in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Does this mean that if I don’t confess my sins, I cannot experience the forgiveness and spiritual cleansing made available through the New Covenant? If I fail to confess a particular sin, might I die as an unforgiven and unclean person? Is forgiveness and cleansing conditioned my doing something to receive these blessings?
The epistle of First John was written to churches in which false teachers had appeared 4:1) who were drawing believers away from the Christian fellowship (2:19). These false teachers claimed to be in fellowship with God, but living in darkness and disobedience. They believed that light and darkness could co-exist and that what was sin for others wasn’t sin for them. John responds to this false teaching by offering three tests for what it means to be living in the light (1:6-2:2). The second test is the test of confession (1:8-9). Their spiritual pride had led the false teachers to believe that they were beyond the issues of good and evil. They were saying, “We have no sin” (1:8). John responds by declaring that they are self-deceived.
In verse 9 the Apostle offers a correction to those who insist that they have no sin. John declares that those who acknowledge their sins have in Christ a faithful and just Savior who will forgive and cleanse them. The word translated “confess” (homologeo) means “to say the same thing.” It means to agree with God that sin is sinful and reflects a state of spiritual darkness rather than spiritual light. Yet God is willing to forgive, not because sin isn’t serious, but because He is faithful to his promises (Jer. 31:34) and righteous in his dealings.
But to whom is John addressing the words of verse 9? Some would argue that verse 9 is addressed to unbelievers and that confession of sin involves the acknowledgement of spiritual need and is necessary for salvation. But First John appears to be written to believers to promote fellowship in the family of God (1:3). Maybe John is addressing believers. If so, then confession appears to be necessary for forgiveness and cleansing. If I don’t confess, then I am not forgiven or cleansed. The grammatical structure of verse 9 seems to lead to this conclusion. John begins with a condition (“if we confess”) followed by a proposition (“God is faithful and just”) and ends with the result (“God will forgive and cleanse”). The logical and grammatical conclusion suggests that without confession there can be no forgiveness or cleansing for believers.
I decided to do some further study of the conditional conjunction translated “if” (ean). I first checked my trusty Arndt and Gingrich’s Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and found that “at times the meaning of ean approaches closely that of hotan “whenever,” or of “when” (p. 210). Dana and Mantey’s A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament confirms this. “The idea of uncertainty which ean implies was at times applied to time as well as to fact, and in such instances it is translatable “whenever” (p. 246). 1 John 3:2 is cited as an example of this use of ean.
Could John be offering his readers a word of assurance that whenever they acknowledge their sins, a faithful and just God will forgive and cleanse them? And since believers are a people for whom confession is characteristic (confessing our need; confessing Christ), we can be assured that as we confess, God forgives and cleanses. Believers enter into spiritual life by acknowledging their sin and need for the Savior. And they will continue to do so whenever they sin, appropriating an unconditional New Covenant forgiveness and cleansing.