“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
I was pretty young when I first memorized 1 John 1:9. But over the last month or so I’ve been meditating on various portions of the Apostle John’s first letter, and as I came to this verse, I realized I’d been missing something.
This verse presents a simple if-then statement. First comes the condition, then the result. The condition is our choice to confess. That word “confess,” by the way, is given in the Greek text as a present active subjunctive verb, implying a continuous action or habit — “if we keep on confessing” (as A. T. Robertson put it).
The result comes next, and it is forgiveness. Who does the forgiving? God Himself (He is the object of the words “He” and “Him” from verses 5b-9). God is faithful and just (or righteous); and on this basis, we are assured that He will continue to fulfill His promise to receive all who come to Him.
Don’t forget about those verb tenses. This is not a violent spiritual crashing about, falling into and out of God’s forgiveness depending on whether we have mentioned to God our latest sinful act. Rather, this confession is a habit or discipline that is a part of having fellowship with God and walking in the light, as the foregoing verses describe.
That much I’ve known for a long time. But I suddenly noticed that the verse doesn’t stop there. There is another result of this continual confession, and it is cleansing. John is equally adamant that, based on God’s faithfulness and righteousness, we can certainly expect His forgiveness and cleansing. Notice also what is being forgiven is “our sins” (same word as what we confess), but that which we are cleansed from is “all unrighteousness.” This is, if possible, an even broader term. John went on to explain later in his letter that God is righteous, and all who know Him walk in righteousness; unrighteousness is all that is unlike God. This result — being cleansed from all that is unlike God — is predicated on confessing our sins.
This amazing, powerful promise leaves me with a rather stark implication: if I find that I am not being cleansed from unrighteousness, there is something wrong with my confessing.
Why do some kinds of confessing leave me just as guilty-feeling and sin-prone as before, while others are infused with grace, hope, and the profound change of true repentance? I’ll leave that for you to think about. But as an example, we can see that King David experienced this latter type after committing adultery and murder. This story is the subject of the latest article from Harold S. Martin, “A Broken and Contrite Heart.” Is your heart broken and contrite in such a way that God responds with both forgiveness and cleansing?