(1Jo 1:8-10 ESV) 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
Notice the ABA structure of these three verses. Each begins “if.” Verses 8 and 10 are closely parallel, providing two different results from the same hypothesis. If we claim to have no sin, then (i) we deceive ourselves, the truth (gospel) is not in us, (ii) we make God into a liar, and his word (logos) is not in us.
Now, Hebrew writing — not just the poetry — is filled with parallelisms. Verses 8 and 10 are obvious parallels. They aren’t exactly the same, but they are very similar and talk about the same thing.
But Hebrew parallelism is not only about synonyms. It can also be about antitheses, that is, opposites, and v. 9 is the opposite of verses 8 and 10. And what’s the opposite of claiming to have no sin? Well, acknowledging sin.
One of the great mistakes of the 20th Century Churches of Christ is to interpret v. 9 as referring to confession in the Catholic confessional sense. That is, many of us teach that sins are not forgiven until specifically confessed. It’s a Catholic doctrine, except we confess to God or the congregation (by “going forward”) rather than the priest.
But this, despite the translation, is not what the verse says. You see, the opposite of “say we have not sinned” is “say we have sinned.” This is a call for acknowledgement of sinfulness, not for particularized confession of each sin.
The promise we read about in the last post is that we’ll be continuously forgiven if we’re in the light. Now we’re told we’ll be continuously forgiven if we “confess our sins.” “Confess” is, again, present tense. We are to be continually “confessing” sin.
The difficulty with this verse arises from the poor translation of homologeo as “confess,” whereas in this context, it actually means “acknowledge.”
John is not talking about a legalistic requirement that we confess each sin to be saved (who could meet this requirement?) No, he’s insisting that we admit our sinfulness.
Consider, for example–
(1 John 4:15) If anyone acknowledges [homologeo] that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.
The same word is translated as “acknowledge” in 1 John 4:2-3, 15; 2 John 1:7. In fact, it’s never used of confessing sin in the New Testament. Rather, the word used for confession of sin is usually exomologeo, as in James 5:16 and Matthew 3:6.
After all, we can’t claim the grace of God until we admit we need this grace. We can’t come to the throne of grace arrogantly claiming perfection. To ask for forgiveness is to admit the need for forgiveness.
It’s the reality and generosity of God’s grace that gives us permission to admit our sin — to God, to ourselves, and to each other. It allows us to live as forgiven sinners rather than people pretending to be good enough.
Now, John isn’t teaching antinomianism, that is, the idea that we don’t have to be obedient. Rather, he’s starting with the basics and expects us to keep up. And the basics are that if we’ll admit our sin to God, he’ll be faithful to forgive us.
(Realize that he is writing to Christians. Therefore, he doesn’t have to start with a lesson on faith in Jesus. That does comes later in the book. Rather, he’s decided the people he’s writing to need to renew their humility before God before he provides further detail. It’s a good lesson plan.)
Now, with the broad outline of the three verses established, let’s consider some particulars.
(1Jo 1:8 ESV) If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
Any truly self-aware person will admit his sinfulness. In modern America, this is not so easy for some — including some Christians. But John says it’s essential. You see, if you can’t admit your sin (not every sin — who on earth is aware of every single one of his own sins?), then you’re a self-deceiver.
Now “deceive” is the same word found in such passages as —
(John 7:12 ESV) 12 And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.”
(Rev 12:9 ESV) 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
In all the other uses by John, “deceive” refers to someone (or Satan) deceiving someone into damnation. And so John is saying that those who can’t admit to their sin are tempting themselves to leave Jesus. It’s a very serious charge indeed.
John then says, “the truth is not in him.” That phrase has become idiomatic for “lies all the time.” But what John means is “the gospel is not in him.” He is damned. You see, those in the light are free to admit their sin because they are entirely forgiven — “there is no darkness at all” — continuously.
And so, if you want to fall away from Jesus, become so hard hearted and so arrogant that you can’t admit to your sin.
(1Jo 1:9 ESV) 9 If we [acknowledge] our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
“Sins” is plural in the Greek and the word used can refer to particular sins or sins in general. Plainly, in verses 8 – 10, sins in general are in John’s mind. After all, if we had to confess every single sin to be forgiven of every single sin, we’d all be without hope. It’s not possible.
Now “faithful” refers to keeping a promise or covenant, and this is surely an allusion to God’s many promises to forgive those who are his sons — those with faith in Jesus. That’s plain enough. But John also says God does this because he is “just”! But we all know that a truly just God would damn us all!
But the Greek can mean “observant of what is right.” God does the right thing. But, again, the right thing is to damn us. That is — unless God has changed the rules. After all, God is bound only to keep his word. There’s no law higher than God! And if God gave his word to forgive those who have faith in his Messiah, then the right thing to do is honor his word.
Therefore, John is subtly reminding us that God is acting on his covenant promises. This is no mere whim or favor. This is not about God’s mood or whether he likes us. It’s not about how hard we pray. It’s about being true to his promises. And God always keeps his promises.
I can’t count on God to be swayed by my confessions, my prayers, my pleas for forgiveness, the deals I try to make with him, or my winning personality. Rather, my confidence is in God — that he will keep his word.
(1Jo 1:10 ESV) If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
“Make him a liar” means, of course, that God has declared that we’re all sinners in need of grace. Now, there are plenty of verses in the Bible that say this, but I think John is thinking more cosmicly. I think he’s referring to the crucifixion. God’s Son died on the cross for our sins, and that means we’re sinners. The cross proves our need for forgiveness even if nothing else does.
“Word” is logos, and that’s a reference to the gospel and to Jesus, not to the Bible. In 1:1, John referred to Jesus as “the word of life.” To say the “word is not in us” is to declare that we’re separated from Jesus. This is not a condemnation of our Bible study habits but of us. If we can’t bring ourselves to admit our sinfulness, we’re damned.
Notice the contrasts. We’re either in light or in darkness. We either admit our sinfulness or we don’t. We’re either forgiven continuously — or not at all. We either saved or lost.
John admits of no in betweens. And you can’t be in light and unforgiven. Either you’re in light, admit sin, and forgiven — or none of the above.
John will explain his view of the world in much more detail as we go.