Let My People Think

Here’s one verse that is often taken out of context and misconstrued.

1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

We are tempted to read “cause-effect” relationship in this verse in a way that’s not supported by the verse’s grammar in any way at all. The problem is not with the verse; the problem is that our Protestants minds are still so conditioned by the Roman Catholic confessional booth that we tend to read into the verse the stuff that’s not even there.

Here’s what the verse DOESN’T say ” if I confess sins – God WILL BE faithful and just to do xyz”. Future tense in NOT used in the second part of this verse. It’s fascinating how often this crucial detail gets missed. Rather, the verse says “If I confess sins – God IS [ALREADY] faithful and just to do xyz”.

Let me put it a different way. The relationship between the two clauses of this sentence is not “cause and effect.” The relationship is not between between me confessing sin and God forgiving and cleansing. The relationship is between me confessing sin and God being faithful and just! Both of these are stated in the present tense. Your confession cannot cause God to be faithful and just – otherwise your lack of confession would cause God to be unfaithful and unjust. This is nonsensical, and it should be quite obvious.

Therefore, the logical relationship between the two clauses of this sentence is not “cause and effect”, but “evidence and inference”. I confess precisely because I do know that God is already faithful and just. A similar structure in English is “If you see me wearing rubber boots, it’s raining”. Me wearing rubber boots is not causing it to rain outside. Rather, me wearing rubber boots is inferred from the presence of the rain outside, the latter easily seen as evidence and cause from my actions.

Semantically, the “evidence-inference” structure is the converse of “cause-effect” relationship. If you want to better highlight the “cause-effect” relationship, you can simply introduce the word “because” in front of the second part: “If you see me wearing rubber boots, it’s because it’s raining”. Or with 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, it’s because God is faithful and just […]”

Let’s continue to look at the syntax of the passage. The first part of the verse’s second clause: “God is faithful and just … ” is followed by a pair of prepositional phrases “to forgive …” and “to cleanse … “. In English the verbs “forgive” and “cleanse” are stated in infinitive, which makes them tenseless (i.e., without a temporal reference point) by definition. So automatically reading them in future tense is not supported by this grammar in English.

However, in Koine Greek it’s much more clear than even that. Both of those verbs are specifically stated in aorist tense, which most commonly denotes a tenseless fact derived from a punctiliar action sometime in the past. In English translations, aorist is typically rendered as past tense (most commonly) or present tense (e.g., in imperatives), but never in a future tense! So, putting this whole clause in the future tense is a completely untenable proposal from every single grammar consideration that there is.

To hyper-literally translate this into English, here’s how this would sound:

1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, [it’s because] He is faithful and just to have been a forgiver of us sins and to have been a cleanser us from all unrighteousness.

That’s about the only way to remove the temporal aspect from verbs stated in aorist tense in English. It’s the same as translating “I play piano” in aorist in Greek to “I am a piano player” (meaning “I play piano in general”) in English. Either way, you see how this tit-for-tat mentality of “me asking God is the cause, God complying is the effect” quickly falls apart, upon closer examination.

Let’s quickly turn our attention to the first clause of 1 John 1:9 to make our final observation. That clause simply says “If we confess our sins”, NOT “If we ask God to forgive our sins”. Again, it’s fascinating that such crucial detail gets left out of the verse. Let me say this again: the verse doesn’t instruct the sinner to ask God for forgiveness! It only instructs to admit (rather than deny) their sins. The Greek verb “To confess” (“homologeo”) simply means “to say the same thing”.

In other words, you admit your sins (rather than deny them). The previous verse says that “if we say if you have no sin – we are deceiving ourselves, and there is no truth in us”. The discourse is about one’s general stance regarding their sins or omissions. So that’s how it all fits together – a general acknowledgement that you have sins, which is why you signed on with Jesus in the first place. This verse says nothing at all about admitting individual sins one at a time as a prerequisite for receiving forgiveness. The verse is talking about a general stance – admitting that you have sins rather than denying to have them.

Let me repeat this one more time, in case you haven’t absorbed this yet. “If we confess sins” is not equal to “if we ask God to forgive our sins”. This is reading Roman Catholic confessional booth into the verse that has zero support for it. Roman Catholic theology postulates that the priest re-crucifies Jesus each time the mass is served, so each time a fresh batch of sins committed, it gets a fresh supply of Jesus’ blood during the mass. That theological stance was actually one of the major causes for the Reformation.

In holding that position, the Catholic theologians don’t understand that the blood of Christ shed on the cross that one time is timelessly efficacious for the purpose of cleanse you from your every sin – past, present, or future. Well – all of my, your, and everyone else’s sin today is future relative to the cross of Calvary, so you better hope that the shed blood of Christ is good enough to cover future sins.

And that’s your “Christian bar of soap”, if you want to call it that – the fact that the blood of Christ has everlasting efficacy toward your sins, coupled with your unshakable faith in that fact. All you have to do for your cleansing and righteousness is two things: as a general stance, admit that you have sins for which you need forgiveness and cleansing .

If you are a Christian, that stance should be by default. Otherwise if you think you are sinless without the need of Jesus to save you from sins, why would you want to be a Christian in the first place? And secondly, you need to believe that the blood of Christ still avails forgiveness and righteousness to you, nearly 2000 years after the event. You need to know that God is still faithful and just, and that the forgiveness and cleansing applies to you today.

Knowing this truth forever liberates you from dwelling on your sins, being afraid to miss the “rapture express” to heaven, being afraid to die before you had a chance to confess, and all the rest of that religious nonsense. And incidentally, it takes the imaginary but very persuasive levers over your eternal destiny out of the hands of people wearing funny robes and hats (or starched shirt collars and three piece suits, whatever the case may be), and puts them squarely within your disposal – which is how it should have always been.

No one can disempower you to personally trust Jesus Christ for anything and everything. And trusting Christ alone to completely and utterly deliver you from sins, be it your personal sins or societal and systemic sins that we all feel the impact of, is the bread and butter of our faith life with Christ.


Comments on: "1 John 1:9 : The litmus test of our faith basis" (2)

  1. Very good distinction. We confess our sins to get ourselves clean (your “bar of soap” analogy), not to be forgiven. We’re already forgiven at the cross, which was when 100% of our sins were in the future. John goes on to say that if we think we have no sin we’re a liar. In other words, we’re delusional.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s a very good way to put it! Confession of sin should also be a background stance – i.e., I deal with sin on an ongoing basis, and therefore I always need the blood of Jesus to cleanse me. If it’s not my own sin, it’s the sin that’s in the world.
      The core of this, though, should be on confidence that the blood of Jesus is cleansing me (John 1:7 – best translated by continuous tense) from all sin. It is so because we are in Christ. And we confess our sin exactly because the remedy is already there for us.

      Liked by 1 person

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