Thursday, June 30, 2005


Asking for Forgiveness

I have heard 1 John 1:9 referred to as “the Christian’s daily bar of soap.” The idea is that, though we continue to sin as believers, we can get clean by confessing our sins and asking God to forgive us. It is too bad that people who teach this view don’t read the verse in its context, and read it with their eyes open.

First, the verse does not say, “when an individual confesses sins.” Take a look at verses 6 through 10. Five times John introduces a sentence with “If we . . . ,” each one suggesting a faith position or worldview commitment. Each “if we” has a corresponding condition that always is associated with that position. These are not separate actions that a given person could fluctuate among or repeat, but positions that people take.

In verses 6-7 we find the first two contrasting positions. “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness” is the position of the hypocrite. The hypocrite’s condition is that of lying. In contrast, “If we walk in the light” is the position of the obedient believer. The obedient believer’s condition is that of true fellowship and purity.

In verses 8 and 10 we have two other negative positions. “If we claim to be without sin” is the position of the amoral philosopher who believes sin is not a real concern—or the supposedly perfected religionist who believes he has got beyond sinning. The amoralizer/perfectionist lives in the condition of self deception. “If we claim we have not sinned" is the position of the self-righteous. The condition of the self-righteous is rebellion against God’s holiness revealed in his Word, calling God a liar.

In verse 9 we have the contrasting position to the two just mentioned. “If we confess our sins” is the position of the honest sinner acknowledging the truth of the Gospel’s claim. The condition of the honest sinner is forgiveness and purification. The condition of being forgiven does not change with each sinful act; it is the result of the position taken with regard to the Gospel.

Second, the context gives us teaching about what happens when an individual believer sins. “I write this to you so that you will not sin,” John says in 2:1. “But if anybody does sin,” a very different process kicks in from that advocated by the popular misunderstanding of forgiveness.

The sinning “anybody” is not exhorted to go through some religious ceremony, no confession or repentance is called for, no penance would be helpful. Instead, Jesus Christ the Righteous One goes into action on that individual’s behalf, as the forgiven person's defense attorney before the court. He presents his “atoning sacrifice” (really his “propitiation”) to turn God’s anger against sin away from us.

There is no repeated forgiveness, let alone a repeated asking for forgiveness. The work of Christ on the cross is the sufficient and only basis for the forgiveness of all our sins. All forgiven sins were paid for in that one act (at a time when all our sins were future). By taking the position of the honest sinner in 1:9 (only one time needed), we continue to be in the condition of forgiven and purified. Jesus will take care of it from there.

Let’s read with our eyes open.

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