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Does 1 John 1:9 Affirm that Believers Should Confess Their Sins?

Does 1 John 1:9 Affirm that Believers Should Confess Their Sins?

by Roger Fankhauser [1]

– First John 1:9 makes a very clear statement, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” However, not all agree on who “we” identifies. Some take it as believers only, some take it as a “collective we” so it includes all people, and some take it as a reference to unbelievers. The first approach takes the passage as a sanctification issue for believers; the next two approaches take the passage as a justification issue. The second approach sees a mixed audience, taking the passage as a reminder to believers of their justification and thus looks back to their justification while at the same time making a statement to unbelievers. The third approach limits the audience of 1:9 to unbelievers. Which view is right? This paper defends the position that believers should confess their sins; that is, the passage deals with sanctification, not justification.

Before answering the question, we should address the preferable approach to defend a particular view. First, the passage must be interpreted in its native context. The text in view must lead us to the correct interpretation before we resort to other “proof texts” that support a presupposed understanding. Such texts may be useful, but only as supportive data. Second, the grammar and syntax of particular words must also be viewed in context. For example, one may be able to find uses of pronouns elsewhere in Scripture to support a particular view of the intended referents in the text in view, but that alone does not provide adequate evidence that the pronouns are used the same way. Third, dispensational views matter. If the church begins in Acts 2, those who hold to a mid-Acts birth of the church will deny that some texts are at all relevant in support of a particular point. Fourth, discussions of any other views should avoid straw man arguments or other logical fallacies, as well as pejorative labels and terms. In other words, when disagreeing, we should disagree with a real position and do so in a logically sound and gracious manner.

To understand 1 John 1:9, one must address John’s use of terms in 1:5–2:2 and: (1) identify the referent(s) for “we” and “you”; (2) define “fellowship”; (3) clarify the meaning of “walking in light and darkness” (is this a figure for positional status alone, or does it also entail behavior?); (4) determine whether “the blood of Jesus” has any relevance to post-conversion Christian experience or is limited to justification; (5) identify the referents for “sin/sins” in the passage; (6) clarify the meaning of “confess” and (7) “forgive”; (8) determine the contextual contribution of 2:1-2; (9) relate all these facets to John’s governing purpose; and finally (10) surface and address theological issues that will emerge as related implications of accepting one view or another.

In addressing these issues, I will use the term “justification” to denote completed initial salvation or deliverance from the penalty of sin. The verb “justify” (δικαιόω, dikaioō) does not occur in John’s writing; however, “justification/justified” are common terms used to describe our status the moment we believe. To be justified means to be declared righteous by God or declared not-guilty. It refers to our legal standing before God. Thus, even though this is not a Johannine term, I will use it when speaking of our position in Christ as one who has believed in Him.

  1. Chasing the Pronouns

On the surface, “If we confess our sins…” (1 John 1:9) seems to be addressed to believers. Those who hold other positions argue that the pronoun “we” refers to a group other than believers-only. One view claims this “we” represents a collective viewpoint; that is, the author includes himself in the audience as a literary device, perhaps to create rapport with his audience. Thus, John says “we” but really means “you unbelievers,” often identified as Gnostic unbelievers.[2] Another view claims this “we” is universal, referring to “the whole world,” that is, any reader of the letter. Thus, it can refer to either believer or unbeliever. In this view, the passage serves primarily as a reminder for believers of their justification, but can also serve as a prompt for unbelievers to realize their need for salvation; thus, the primary audience is believers, but this view sees 1 John 1:9 as a reassurance of justification truth, not an exhortation toward sanctification.

Both alternative views argue that nothing in the context clearly defines the identity of “we.” It is clearly not limited to the “we” of 1 John 1:1, and so one must determine who comprises the “we” of 1:6–2:2. Note especially the progression of the pronouns in the passage (emphasis added):

1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— 2 the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us3 that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. 4 And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. 5 This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that 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 that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
2:1 My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2:2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

The pronouns in the first five verses are easy to follow. “We” in 1:1-5 clearly speaks of John and the other apostles (a true “collective we”). The “you” in verses two through five clearly represent his readers. So far, no difficulties. The problem arises in verse six where John reverts to “we.” Is this the same “we” as in 1:1-5; a different composite group defined in context; or a third group entirely? The intended group is clearly defined by the context when John introduces the notion of fellowship, “that you also may have fellowship with us” (1:3). John wants his readers to have fellowship with him and the other apostles, and also with the Father and the Son. We don’t have to define the nature of this fellowship to follow the pronouns; whatever it is, John wants his readers to experience it with the apostles, when he says “if we say we have fellowship” in verse six. This begins a string of seventeen first person plural pronouns (“we,” “us,” “our”) in 1:6-10 with no second person pronouns (“you”). It is thus most logical and consistent with the text to see this second group of first person plural pronouns as comprised of the initial group (the apostles) plus the second group (“you” = the readers); so we could substitute the paraphrase “if we apostles and you” at 1:6 to designate John’s consolidation of both groups into one “we.” Thus, John first speaks of the apostles’ experience and his desire that his readers share the same experience (1:1-4), and he then specifies the truths which must apply to both the apostles (of which he is one, cf. “I” in 2:1) and his readers in order to satisfy that desire (1:5–2:2).

We have another clue that “we” refers only to believers, not unbelievers or a mixed group. In 2:1 John first addresses his audience as “my little children”—a term of endearment for those whose “sins are forgiven” (see 2:12, cf. 2:28; 3:7; 4:4; 5:1)—then reverts to the second person pronoun “I write to you that you may not sin.” This “you” in 2:1 thus marks his reintroduction of the prior distinction between “you” and “we” (1:1-4). This desire for his readers to “not sin” would be a strange goal for unbelievers whose immediate need is not a change in lifestyle but to be justified. John thus distinguishes himself from his readers (“I” [John the Apostle] write to “you” [his readers]); yet he also affiliates with them (“we” have an advocate) as believers in common need of ongoing intercession before the Father (2:1b). This identity is confirmed in 2:1c, as John then differentiates “we” from “the whole world” in speaking of Jesus as the propitiation for our sins and also “for the whole world.”

So if we carefully follow the pronouns in the context, John seems to identify them clearly: “we” in 1:6-10 designates a composite group of believers that includes the apostles, and this group is then distinguished from “the whole world” in 2:2. Therefore, based strictly on the pronouns we can reasonably conclude that “we” in 1 John 1:9 refers to a group of believers distinct from “the whole world” or unbelievers.[3] However, once we identify the intended audience as believers, it raises other questions regarding John’s use of terms in the immediate context.

  1. The meaning of “fellowship”

The meaning of fellowship, and how it is experienced, is central to the understanding of 1 John 1:9. Many disagree on the meaning of the passage because they disagree on what fellowship means. The noun translated “fellowship” is κοινωνία [koinōnia]. Of the twenty occurrences in the New Testament (NT) four are found in 1 John 1:3-7.[4] Koinōnia speaks of a shared experience of some kind, a “partnership.”[5] Louw and Nida define it as “an association involving close mutual relations and involvement—‘close association, fellowship.’”[6] BDAG gives as the primary definition “close association involving mutual interests and sharing, association, communion, fellowship, close relationship.[7]

So how should we view the four instances of koinōnia in First John?

that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ…If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:3, 6, 7)

The first phrase speaks of John’s desire for his readers to have fellowship with “us” (John as a member of the entire apostolic community). The normal sense of koinōnia as “close association, fellowship” certainly holds here. John wishes for his readers to enjoy something that he too enjoys, as he defines in the second phrase, “our [the apostles’] fellowship is with the Father and with His Son.” While this phrase could conceivably describe their permanent union with God,[8] it seems more natural to understand this fellowship as the vitality of their ongoing relationship with God: “We (the apostles) enjoy fellowship with the Father and His Son (experience, not position). We want you to experience fellowship with us at the same level of fellowship we experience with the Father and the Son.” In 1:4 John goes on to specify his goal for this fellowship: that “your joy” may be made complete (or “our joy,” depending on the textual variant).[9] I take John’s use of koinōnia in these first two cases as emphasizing close, intimate relationship. Normal use of koinōnia and the context of 1:1-4 both support this idea.

John’s third use of koinōnia is found in 1:6, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” I’ll revisit what it means to “walk in darkness” but for now, the one who is walking in darkness and, at the same time, claiming to have fellowship with Him (God, 1:5) is lying and “not doing [present tense] the truth.” Doing (ποιέω, poieō) speaks of activity (i.e, practice), not of positional truth.[10] Doing the truth means to act in accord with the truth, that is, to act in accord with God’s character and will (compare the same sense in John 3:21 which depicts “walking in the light”; see next section).

John’s final use of koinōnia (1:7) relates to the opposite of “walking in darkness.” John says, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” It seems difficult, if not impossible, to understand “walking” as “our fellowship with you is that we are both believers in Jesus, thus our position is the same.” Here, fellowship clearly refers to an ongoing relationship or the ongoing vitality of that relationship. Thus, I conclude that “fellowship” with God in 1 John 1 refers not to our justification (position) but to the ongoing vitality of a person’s existing relationship with Him—a conditional intimacy or richer present experience and enjoyment of eternal life.[11]

The issue of “fellowship with God” is misconstrued by many who argue against the “tests of fellowship” view (or similar views, such as fruit of fellowship, abiding in Christ, etc.) as well as by some who do hold the fellowship view. The picture is often painted of fellowship as an on/off switch. I am either completely in fellowship or completely out of fellowship. And if I am completely out of fellowship, the solution is to confess my sins to return me to fellowship. I see fellowship in a more dynamic way, more like a “dimmer switch.” Think of “full bright” as perfect intimacy with God (“walking in the light”). Most of us are somewhere between “full light” and “off.” I am convinced we are either growing closer to God (turning up the dimmer switch) or moving away from God (turning down the dimmer switch).

In Revelation 2–3 John depicts the spiritual state of seven churches. Several of these churches demonstrate movement away from healthy intimacy with God. For example, he tells the church at Ephesus that they have left their first love (Rev. 2:4).[12] To leave a first love obviously implies that they had a first love. And the text implies that this departure was not sudden but gradual. He commends them for some good they continue to do (2:2-3) but exhorts them to “remember from where they have fallen.” Thus, they have “turned the dimmer down.” The church in Laodicea is told they are neither hot nor cold (both useful conditions)—becoming lukewarm easily fits the idea of a gradual change. He (Jesus) tells this church that “those whom I love I reprove and discipline, therefore be zealous and repent.” This description affirms that this is a genuine church (i.e., they are believers). He then tells them that He stands at the door and knocks, and promises that He will dine with any who respond and they will dine with Him (3:19-20); in the Bible, this concept of sharing a meal consistently fits the idea of closer fellowship (e.g., Acts 2:42, 46).

The idea of a gradual departure from fellowship is also portrayed in Hebrews.[13] The author tells his readers and himself “For this reason [chapter 1] we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it” (2:1). The word translated “drifting away” (παραρρέω, pararreō) means “to gradually give up one’s belief in the truth.”[14] This is not an “on/off” move; it is a dimmer switch, gradually moving away. On the positive side, increasing levels of fellowship are implied when James commands us to draw near to God, promising that He will draw near to us (James 4:8). Peter also tells us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). The NT pattern is one of either growing in our faith and thereby increasing intimacy (fellowship) with God or drifting away and thereby decreasing intimacy (fellowship) with God.

III. Walking in Light / Walking in darkness

First, what does it mean “to walk?” In the NT, “walk” consistently pictures ongoing activity, not a position secured at a point in time. The term “walk” (περιπατέω, peripateō) when used non-figuratively means “to go here and there in walking, go about, walk around” or, when used figuratively, “to conduct one’s life, comport oneself, behave, live.[15]

John addresses two spheres in which a person can walk: darkness or light. The metaphorical use of light and dark is common throughout the Bible. John uses the imagery extensively in both his gospel and first epistle. In his gospel, John identifies Jesus as the light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5); in 1 John, “God is light.” Depending on the context, “light” and its function can refer to absolute purity (1 John 1:5), illumination of the way of righteousness (Psalm 119:105, John 3:21, 8:12), illumination of sin (John 3:19-20), or illumination of one’s spiritual state (John 1:5, 9). “God is light” and, emphatically, “in Him is no darkness at all” (1:5). Light speaks of life and purity; darkness, by contrast, speaks of death and impurity. The “darkness” of sin is revealed by the purity of the light. In other words, if light speaks of God and His character, darkness speaks of anything contrary to God and His character, including death, sin, and evil. So:

walking in the darkness = conduct/thoughts contrary to God; sinning; doing evil; experiencing death; ignoring or loving the darkness; less like Jesus;

walking in the light = conduct/thoughts in accord with God; doing good; experiencing life; responding when “darkness” is revealed; more like Jesus

Is it possible for a believer to “walk in darkness”? Absolutely. Although many statements concerning our walk state the positive (e.g., “walk worthy of the calling to which you have been called” [Eph. 4:1] and later “now you are [position] Light in the Lord; walk [practice] as children of Light” [Eph. 5:8]), many others are surrounded by warnings to avoid practices characterized by darkness: Paul says we “should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind” (Eph. 4:17) and “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness” (Eph. 5:11). In Romans 6:13, Paul admonishes:

and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.

The point of these passages and others like them is that the believer is fully capable of walking contrary to their new, true identity, contrary to God’s character in Christ. Thus, the believer is fully capable of “walking in darkness.” The phrase does not speak of position, but practice. John, like Paul, desires that the believer not live his life in darkness but in accord with who God is and their identity in Christ (“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” Eph. 5:1).

  1. How does “the blood of Christ” fit an audience of already justified believers?

John affirms that the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7), that “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1:9), and then describes the extent of this atonement: “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (2:2). Is this terminology regarding Christ’s blood in 1:7-9 necessarily limited to the event of justification, or could it have some relevance to the believer’s “walk”? (I explore the related question of the extent and scope of his work of propitiation in Section VIII.) Some would argue that to applying Christ’s blood to our “walk” illogically implies something is incomplete in Christ’s finished work. Indeed, Scripture clearly teaches that God forgives every sin the moment one believes (e.g., Col. 2:13-14), and the bulk of NT references to “the blood” concern justification issues. However, this does not mean that the blood cannot also apply as a “cleansing agent” in a person’s ongoing life in Christ:[16]

Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. (James 4:7-9, emphasis added)[17]

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. (1 John 3:2-4, emphasis added)

In the first text James commands the reader (presumably a reader with some kind of sin issue) to purify his or her heart (aorist tense); in 1 John 3:3 the reader who has his hope fixed on Jesus purifies himself (present tense). This purification has nothing to do with one’s position in Christ, one’s acceptance by God, or the judicial forgiveness of sin—it deals with the “dirt” one picks up in the normal walk of life.

The narrative of John 13:3-11 depicts precisely the kind of cleansing of believers John had in view in 1 Jn 1:7-9. Jesus uses three terms in John 13 to make His point, νίπτω (niptō), meaning “to wash a part of the body,”[18] λούω (louō), meaning “to wash the body,”[19] and καθαρός (katharos), meaning “pertaining to not being dirty”[20] or “pertaining to being ritually clean or pure.”[21] Jesus warns the disciples that they would not understand what He was doing at the time, but the encounter establishes the future prerequisite for their servant leadership. Here the disciples who are already “clean” (cf. also John 15:3) must have their feet washed as a way of dealing with daily sin (“dirty feet”): “He who has bathed [λούω, louō] needs only to wash [νίπτω, niptō] his feet, but is completely clean [καθαρός, katharos]; and you are clean [καθαρός, katharos], but not all of you [referencing Judas]” (John 13:10). The term (καθαρός, katharos) signifies the judicial result of Christ’s propitiation, but this “cleanness” could be visible to the world only by niptō cleansing. The verb καθαρίζω (katharizō, “cleanse”) in 1 John 1:9 thus combines νίπτω (niptō) with λούω (louō) to achieve a “cleanness” (καθαρος, katharos, John 13:10) in Christ that is made visible through reciprocal love—the fruit of abiding (15:3-17).

So what does a forgiven believer do when he or she sins? The blood of Christ covers not just the legal needs for forgiveness but the practical need of keeping the heart clean to love well.[22] Thus, references to the death of Christ in the context of 1 John do not limit the associated cleansing by Christ’s blood to the singular event of one’s initial salvation (see also Section VIII).

  1. Identify the intended referents of “sin” and “sins” in the passage

In 1 John, the author uses the word “sin” 27 times, ten of those in the verb form (noun, ἁμαρτάνω [hamartanō], verb ἁμαρτία [hamartia]). Note the references to sin/sins in 1 John 1:7–2:2:

But if we walk [verb] in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin [noun, singular]. If we say that we have no sin [noun, singular], we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins [noun, plural], He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins [noun, plural] and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned [verb], we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin [verb]. And if anyone sins [verb], we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins [noun, plural], and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

When we look at the nouns, we see that John used both singular and plural forms. Is John addressing our capacity to sin or specific sins? I think the answer is “both,” but with emphasis on the specific sins. Some take the singular in 1:7-8 as a reference to our sin(ful) nature. Some hold that we lose our sin nature when we believe, but I will not address the arguments for or against that issue here. Nevertheless, it seems the singular noun points to our capacity for sin, regardless of how one understands that capacity;[23] so, each person has an inherent “capacity for sin,” and it is this capacity that generates specific “sins.” Here, the plural form points to individual sins, as it does consistently throughout the NT.[24]

  1. What does it mean for believers to “confess”?

The key issue in 1 John 1:9 centers on the phrase “if we confess our sins,” ἐὰν ὁμολογῶμεν τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν (ean homologōmen tas hamartias). Those who argue this verse refers to believers say the verb “confess” (ὁμολογέω, homologeō) means “to say the same thing [as God].”[25] At the heart of the word is the idea of agreement and/or acknowledgement. Thus, when a person “confesses,” the main idea is to agree with and/or acknowledge that which is confessed. The context must define the object of what is confessed.

First John uses the word five times (1:9, 2:23, 4:2, 4:3, 4:15). In all but 1 John 1:9, that which is confessed is Jesus and some aspect of His identity. However, that does not mean that the confession in 1:9 is defined as confessing something about Jesus. What is confessed must be defined by the immediate context. Here, the object is clearly stated: our sins (τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν). As noted above, the article and the plural “sins” denote our specific sins; thus, “if we admit/acknowledge/agree with God about these sins, God promises a relational kind of forgiveness” (see Section VII below).

The if/then construction, “If we confess our sins, [then] He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” is a third class conditional, that is, it speaks of a probable future condition. We could paraphrase it, “Perhaps we will confess our sins, perhaps we won’t. But more than likely, we will.” In the context of 1 John 1:9, it seems best to think of the present tense as iterative. Whenever we walk in the light (1:7), commit some sin (implied in 1:6, 1:8 and 2:1), and confess that sin (acknowledge that we have sinned), then the apodosis is in effect. The confession is neither “once for all” nor “continual”;[26] it is iterative (i.e., confessing whenever we realize we’ve sinned).

This view is caricatured by those who disagree that 1 John 1:9 can refer to believers—they claim it relegates the believer to continually scour his past and present life, searching for unconfessed sins. However, John’s primary purpose is not a morbid preoccupation with “sin searching.” Each person still has a sinful nature that can and will generate both known and unknown sins (implied by the phrase “cleanses us from all sin,” 1:7), and we must know how to be cleansed of such sin in order to sustain our fellowship (see Section IV above). John’s larger aim in promoting the joy of fellowship (1:3-4) is to provide us with incentive to abide in Christ (2:28–5:20)—a state that, like fellowship, pertains to practice and ongoing relationship, not position. Thus, walking in the light will expose that sin and challenge us to “agree” so we can “realign” with Him as Light.

Thus, confession is not mere lip-service. The implication of acknowledging that one has sinned is that the one confessing recognizes the seriousness of that sin. As David confessed, “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:4a).[27] This fact exposes the disconnect that exists in the thinking of anyone who would argue: “I can go ahead and sin and then simply confess it. God will forgive me.” Implied in the meaning of homologeō (ὁμολογέω), at least in the context of John’s usage in 1 John, is an agreement at the heart level. The other uses of the verb in 1 John 2:23; 4:2, 3, and 15 bear this out.

VII. What kind of forgiveness is in view?

Does a forgiven Christian need forgiveness? Some say “no,” arguing that this view logically leads to the conclusion that Christ’s work on the cross was not sufficient. Others answer “yes,” arguing that forgiveness can relate to position or practice—relationship or fellowship. A full analysis of the various contexts and uses of forgiveness is beyond the scope of this paper; however, the range of meaning for the most commonly used Greek terms for “forgiveness” or “forgive” allows for either of these options, and context must determine the intended sense.

“In the New Testament two words are used to express the concept of forgiveness: aphiemi, ‘to send away, to let go,’ and charizomai, ‘to show favor, to pardon or forgive.’”[28] Of these, ἀφίημι (aphiēmi) is the most prevalent (49 of the 77 occurrences of “forgive” in its various forms in the NASB; the noun form, ἄφεσις [aphesis], “forgiveness,” accounts for another 15 occurrences). Paul rarely uses the term forgive (fourteen times in nine verses in the NASB, using aphiēmi only once, aphesis twice, and χαρίζομαι [charizomai] for the rest).[29] The vast majority of occurrences of “forgive” are found in the Synoptics (52 of 77 occurrences in the NASB); John uses the word only four times (twice in John 20:23, 1 John 1:9, 1:12, all four using aphiēmi).

The judicial act of forgiveness of the believer by God is a onetime act. Thus, Paul says we are forgiven (χαρίζομαι, charizomai) all trespasses (Col. 2:13). His teaching on justification implies the same idea. Once justified (declared righteous), our legal standing before God remains unchanged. If a forgiven Christian needs forgiveness, it cannot mean forgiveness related to this standing before God. If John means this aspect of forgiveness in 1 John 1:9, then of course he is not referring to post-conversion sins committed by Christians.

However, the semantic range of the act of forgiveness in the NT (especially aphiēmi) includes meanings other than the believer’s legal standing before God.[30] The context must define the kind of forgiveness in view. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors… For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (Matt. 6:12-14, where each “forgive” translates aphiēmi)

There seems to be a connection between an individual’s forgiveness of others and the Father’s forgiveness of that individual. In both cases that speak of the Father’s forgiveness, the verb is in the future tense. Thus, His forgiveness is subsequent to the forgiving of others. This immediately creates a problem: if this is speaking of judicial forgiveness before God, then that forgiveness is conditioned upon an act on the part of the individual; that is, it depends upon some work. Plus, forgiving others implies something that occurs repeatedly in life (see Matt 18:21-22). It is likely a person will encounter multiple people in their life time that they need to forgive. Thus, either (1) this forgiveness from God is not the same as the judicial forgiveness a person receives from God; or (2) the passage somehow does not apply to the church age,[31] and thus has no relevance to the issue of forgiveness in 1 John 1:9. The former seems far more likely than the latter. However, the interpretation does not rise or fall on whether or not one agrees that this passage has applicability on some level to the church age.

If we are legally forgiven for every sin the moment we believe in Jesus, then in what sense does a Christian need forgiveness? The situation is not legal but has to do with “family” forgiveness. Legally, the believer never again faces the issue of their eternal destiny. That is settled once and for all the moment they are justified. I will use my relationship with my son to illustrate my point. He is forever my son; nothing can ever change that. Biologically, he is mine. This parallels our justification before God: once we are justified, we are His child forever.[32] My son sometimes did things he should not have done … given me “the look” … hit his brother … argued with us … goofed off in class. He experienced consequences resulting from those choices. While we moved further apart during those times (“dimmer switch”), I still loved him; he still loved me. Yet the practical relationship between us changed. Once he admitted to me that he messed up (aka “sinned”), I forgave him and, in our practical relationship, we could grow closer together. That confession had nothing to do with his position as my son, nor my love for him; it served to stop our drift away from each other and allowed us to start moving closer.

James 5:14-15 provides an example of a brother (see 5:12) who receives forgiveness for his sins:

Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven [aphiēmi] him.

Both verbs “will raise him up” and “will be forgiven” designate future (not past) actions, which imply they occur subsequent to the prayer of faith. Assuming this person is a believer (as the context indicates), he is already judicially forgiven. Yet, this brother still needs forgiveness. The idea that a forgiven believer needs forgiveness is not foreign to the NT. This forgiveness has nothing to do with his position in Christ, but impacts his intimacy with God.

John uses the word “forgiven” again in 1 John 2:12: “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake.” The question is: If this use of “forgiven” refers to our position (“legal forgiveness”), how can it also mean “family forgiveness” in 1:9?

Whereas the first occurrence of a word in the text normally demonstrates the author’s subsequent intent for that word, the context may show evidence of a change in the intended meaning in the logical flow. It seems such a change does exist between 1:9 and 2:12. The verb “forgive” (aphiēmi) in 1:9 is in the aorist tense; the form in 2:12 is in the perfect. The perfect tense denotes completed action in the past with results that continue to the present. This fits the idea of positional truth: we are legally forgiven everything in the past, and that position is secure. The aorist, however, signifies “action expressed by the verb as a simple event or fact, without reference either to its progress or to the existence of its result…. The time of the action, if indicated at all, is shown, not by the tense, but by some fact outside of it.”[33] Thus, the perfect tense conveys an ongoing state resulting from a past event; the aorist simply points to an act itself without reference to ongoing state. Thus, the relational forgiveness in 1:9 (aorist) refers to an act that can be repeated in time because of the familial position gained by our once for all judicial forgiveness in Christ—a state that continues up to the present (2:12, perfect). We are judicially forgiven (2:12) as a permanent foundation for our confidence to then “abide” in Christ relationally (2:28–5:21).

VIII. The broad scope of Christ’s “advocacy” in light of sin, 1 John 2:1-2

This relational forgiveness in 1 John 1:5-10 is reliably guaranteed by the assurance of 2:1-2:

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.

John writes “these things” (looking back to 1:5-10) to “my little children” (believers) so that they would not sin. Yet he also acknowledges that as believers they will sin: the probable future condition “if anyone sins” coupled with 1:10 (“If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar…”) points to the inevitability of sin in the believer’s life.[34] “These things” include their need to confess these sins and be cleansed in order to conform to the image of the “the righteous one.”

The assurance for those who sin is that they have (present tense) an “Advocate with [πρὸς, pros] the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” John uses πρὸς (pros) four times referencing the unique,

intimate relationship between Jesus and the Father.[35] Jesus fulfills His role effectively as an advocate based on his perfect fellowship with the Father. The term “Advocate” (παράκλητος, paraklētos) is rare in the NT; it is used only here of Christ, only by John, and only here outside of John’s Gospel. Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as paraklētos four times in the Upper Room Discourse (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7), describing him as “another helper” like himself (John 14:16). The term means “one who appears in another’s behalf, mediator, intercessor, helper.”[36]

Jesus’ work as paraklētos is more like that of an intercessor than that of a defense attorney.[37] The believer’s position is secure the moment one believes (e.g., 1 John 2:12; John 5:24; Rom. 5:1; Col. 1:13)—permanently justified—so Jesus is not pleading to preserve their justification in light of subsequent sin. Rather, sin in a believer’s life necessitates a “High Priest” to intercede on their behalf, precisely as affirmed in Hebrews 4:12-16 and Romans 8:33-34. Jesus’ intercession prior to his crucifixion show his desire to “realign” with God those for whom he intercedes, as when he prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail (Luke 22:31-33). The most iconic depiction of this role is John 17: Jesus prays for “all those who will believe” that the Father might keep from the evil one (17:15); sanctify them in the truth (17:16), and “perfect them in unity so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me” (17:23).

The guarantee that Jesus’ post-conversion intercession will succeed is his finished work on the cross: He is the propitiation (ἱλασμός, hilasmos) for our sins (1 John 2:2). This term occurs only here and in 4:10.[38] The author uses the related word ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion) in Hebrews 9:5 to denote the “mercy seat” within the Holy of Holies. (9:12). Paul uses the same term in referring to Jesus in Rom. 3:24-25, “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” The use of ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion) and related terms in the NT is linked to the Old Testament (OT) concept of the Day of Atonement, one specific day per year (Lev. 16:29) on which the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. The priest sacrificed one goat as a sin offering and, after confessing all the iniquities of the people over it, released a second goat into the wilderness (Lev. 16:5, 7-10, 15-19). The release of this second goat portrays the removal of sin from the people.[39] The Day of Atonement covered all the sins[40] of all the people of Israel.[41] God is thereby dealing with the entire nation as a redeemed people.[42]

However, in addition to the Day of Atonement, which covered the people’s sin for one year, the law also provided sacrifices for the people to deal with day-to-day sin (see Section IV above). Leviticus 1-7 describes the practices of offerings, for both unknown sin (4:1–5:19) and known sin (6:1-7). However, nowhere in these offerings does the mercy seat come into play. The “burnt,” “sin,” and “peace” offerings in the OT were prescribed by God to propitiate the individual sins of OT believers by the shedding of blood (Leviticus 3–7), and the propitiation in view in 1 John 2:2 includes the same kinds of day-to-day of sin among NT believers (1:6–2:1), just like those Jesus propitiates (ἱλάσκομαι [hilaskomai]) in Hebrews 2:17-18 (emphasis added):

He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.

This raises the question of the scope of Christ’s propitiatory work. Scripture often links Christ’s death with God’s justice.[43] As Jesus hung on the cross, “darkness fell upon the land” for about three hours followed by Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:45-46, Mark 15:33-34, Luke 23:44-45). The Book of Hebrews refers repeatedly to Jesus’ sacrifice for sin (7:27, 9:26, 28, 10:10, 12, 14). This is the event described by Paul in 2 Cor. 5:21a, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf.” Perhaps the most graphic picture of God’s justice being poured out on Jesus is Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant:

4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.6 … the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. 7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted… 8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away … 10 But the Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering… (Isaiah 53:4-10)

Clearly, hilasmos includes satisfying God’s justice. Jesus IS the hilasmos. But the term hilasmos seems to communicate more than just satisfaction. Elsewhere in the Bible, “removal of sin” includes the removal of legal guilt (e.g., John 1:29, 1 John 3:5). Both parties—God and man—benefit from Jesus being the hilasmos. God’s justice is satisfied; man’s guilt removed.

This may be another instance of a Johannine double entendre in which he intends ἱλασμός to include both senses. Jesus’ ministry in heaven provides both expiation and propitiation. Thus [the] choice of “atonement” allows for the ambiguity desired by John that communicates the full scope of Jesus’ work to be included.[44]

Since Jesus’ death is sufficient to satisfy God’s just requirement for any and all (“the whole world”, 2:2), the sole issue between unbelieving man and God is faith in Jesus: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). A person who believes is declared righteous (justified), a permanent change in their legal standing before God.

For this reason, some err by asserting that God will never deal harshly with His children when they sin; they do not see these sins as a “family matter” to be addressed with a view to correction and reconciliation. Thus, even though God’s just demands against sin are permanently satisfied, God still corrects sinning believers as a loving Father, as explained by the writer of Hebrews:

5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; 6 For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives’” (Heb. 12:5-6).

Notice that this discipline results from the love of God.[45] The response of God toward a sinning son is different from the response that requires legal satisfaction for sin. The latter was satisfied at the cross; the former moves God to act in the life of His child with the intent of producing “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11).

God desires His children to walk in the light (1 John 1:5-10, cf. John 3:21; 12:36). Thus, when they fail to do so (“walk in darkness”), God is free to train them as a loving Father rather than condemn them as a judge. The ongoing efficacy of propitiation empowers God to deal severely with an errant child of His by ensuring the security of that child with the confidence that when that child confesses his sin, God listens, and Jesus’ once-for-all shed blood cleanses (see Section IV, above). Jesus’ sacrifice fully satisfies God’s justice; His position with the Father ensures His effective role as advocate on the children’s behalf. So the believer can have absolute confidence that when he or she confesses their sin—no matter how grievous—Christ’s propitiatory blood cleanses them every time from all contamination by sin and “realigns” them, in their fellowship with Him, with the Father’s righteous character (1 John 1:7, 9; 2:1-2).

  1. Relating All This to John’s Purpose

Whether or not “fellowship” is John’s primary purpose for the entire book does not appreciably change the interpretation of this section which clearly addresses “fellowship.” However, when we go on to consider John’s subsequent emphasis on abiding, the prospect of full joy in securing this fellowship seems to serve as an incentive for John’s readers to aspire to a larger aim: that they might abide in Christ for the confidence they need to love each other “in deed and in truth” and thereby manifest God’s righteousness as a bold testimony of life in Him (2:28–5:20).

John says he desires his readers to have fellowship with him, that John’s and the other apostles’ fellowship is with the Father and with the Son (1:3). Thus, he wants his readers to fully enjoy both horizontal fellowship and vertical fellowship (1:4). This fellowship speaks of something more than entering into a saving relationship with Jesus; it addresses the closeness of our relationship with God. This closeness is not an “on/off” relationship; instead it is more like a dimmer switch—the believer either moves closer to or draws farther from God.

John then makes a statement describing God’s absolute purity “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1:5). Darkness speaks of death, impurity, sin. He follows this with three erroneous statements “we” might make and offers a solution for each problem.[46] As noted in the first section of the paper, the use of pronouns following this point in the chapter identifies “we” as the readers plus John (and presumably the rest of the apostolic community):

Error one: If we say that we have fellowship (closeness, intimacy, alignment) with Him and yet walk in the darkness (consciously indulging in conduct and thoughts at odds with God’s revealed character, i.e., sin) we lie and do not practice the truth (my claim does not match my conduct; therefore, I am lying), 1:6.

Solution one: but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light (conduct and thoughts in accord with His righteous character), we have fellowship (closeness, intimacy, alignment) with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin (Jesus’ blood is sufficient not only for absolute judicial forgiveness but also for cleansing us from the day-to-day dust we get on our feet when we do sin as a believer, compare John 13:8-10), 1:7.

Error two: If we say that we have no sin (that is, I am free from the capacity to sin, or a sinful nature), we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us (as in 1:6, my claim does not match the truth), 1:8.

Solution two: If we confess (admit/acknowledge, which is more than “admitting we got caught”) our sins (specific sins as we become aware of them) even though we can’t abolish our capacity to sin, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins (a relational or family forgiveness, not judicial forgiveness which fully covers the legal penalty for any and all sins) and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (addresses any unknown sin, thus this temporal cleansing covers both those sins we know and those we do not know), 1:9.

Error three: If we claim we have not sinned (specific sin) we make Him a liar (for as Light He has clearly exposed certain deeds as “darkness,” aka evil, compare John 3:19-20) and His word is not in us (what we say is contrary to His word, so it is not actively in us; in a sense, we put it on the shelf and ignore it), 1:10.

Solution three: if anyone sins (implied, we will), we need not deny we have sinned for we have an Advocate (mediator, intercessor, one who “aligns” us) with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, 2:1, who is able to wipe out any and all contamination from sin that might tarnish our reflection of the Father’s righteous image whenever we sin, 2:2.

  1. Answering Some Challenges to This View

Q 1: Some dismiss 1 John 1:9 as relevant for believers because, they say, John was addressing Gnostics, not Christians.

A 1: It is not entirely clear who were the false teachers that John addressed.[47] Some claim they were Gnostics since John begins this epistle affirming the reality of Jesus coming “in the flesh” and the reality of sin in the lives of his readers.[48] However, Gnosticism did not rise into prominence until the second century. Most of the information we have concerning Gnosticism come from documents written long after 1 John was written. So, history does not side with John addressing unbelieving Gnostics as his primary audience.

But let us assume, as it appears, that some proto-Gnostic teachings had crept into the church, and John wrote at least in part to address these errors. That does not necessitate his audience consist of unbelievers. The same logic fits Galatians, where Paul addresses the problems brought in by Judaizers. He does not assume his audience consists of unbelievers, but rather confused believers. The same is true in 1 Corinthians, where Paul addresses a number of pagan practices that crept into the church. Descriptions of the Corinthian audience indicate he does not assume his audience consists of unbelievers, but rather confused believers. The same holds for 1 John: Even if John is addressing Gnostic influence, he does not assume his audience consists of unbelievers, but rather confused believers. Concluding that 1 John 1:9 does not apply because John is addressing unbelieving Gnostics glosses over the text.

Q 2: If “confession” is so important for believers, why did Paul not address it? Didn’t that leave the church in a quandary since this was one of the last books written?

A 2: We must always be careful asking questions like, “Why didn’t Paul say…” Here is what we can clearly say: Paul did not tell his readers, in these exact words, to confess their sin. He did not tell this to believers (as the means of receiving family forgiveness) or to unbelievers (as the means of receiving justification). However, neither did Paul say anything about abiding in Christ. Nor did John say anything about justification. Each author used the words they chose to use to convey the message they intended to convey (recognizing the Holy Spirit’s role in inspiration, 2 Pet. 1:21). The early church was not primarily protected by the written word but rather by the apostolic community until the written word was complete. That the church did not have in writing “if you confess your sins” until the mid 90’s is no less (and no more) problematic than the church not having Romans until the late 50’s. As the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) demonstrates, the early church dealt with problems as they arose. Seemingly, the problem of denying one’s sinful actions (or more fundamentally, one’s sinful nature) had not risen within the church to the point of requiring a written record, and thus Paul had no reason to address it directly. We do not know what the apostles communicated verbally, only what they wrote in the Scriptures. John addressed this problem because, it seems, the problem (whether proto-Gnostic thought or some similar error) did not need to be addressed in any earlier writing.

Paul implicitly allowed room for confession when he spoke of repentance (2 Cor. 7:9-10; 12:21, 2 Tim. 2:25).[49] Repentance means “change of heart, change of mind.” To change one’s mind implies an admission of their error. He also allowed room in his numerous statements that effectively say “don’t do these sins, instead, act like this” (e.g., Eph. 4:17-24). John more explicitly commands confession, probably in response to the errors he is addressing, claiming they have no sin and have not sinned.

The idea of confession is not unique to 1 John. David says, “I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ And You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah” (Psalm 32:5). Proverbs 28:13 says, “He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy.” The details surrounding confession may change (e.g., the NT does not require any animal sacrifice), but the concept of confession transcends the law.

Q 3: Wouldn’t confession of sin lead to a preoccupation with sin instead of enjoying freedom in Christ?

A 3: Not necessarily, and it should not, when properly understood. Throughout the book, John has a strong emphasis on abiding in Christ and on loving one another as God loves us. In other words, he seems to want his readers to experience their eternal life here-and-now to the maximum. When a believer in the process of walking in the light stumbles and sins, John says, “confess it—agree, admit, acknowledge it—then move forward.” He wants the reader’s preoccupation to be with Jesus, not sin. See Section VI for additional discussion.

Q 4: What if I don’t confess everything?

A 4: On the one hand, sin we are unaware of is covered in the phrase, “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Thus, when we acknowledge our sin, we have a clean slate. On the other hand, if I knowingly sin and refuse to acknowledge it as sin, I am still walking in darkness, thus moving away from God rather than closer to Him.

Q 5: If propitiation fully satisfies God’s righteous demands against the sins of the whole world, should we say sin is not an issue in evangelism?

A 5: Although this is not a challenge to the view expressed in this paper, it is a pertinent question raised by some. The story of man’s need for Jesus is incomplete without addressing sin and the alienation sin created between God and man. Man’s sinfulness and need of a Savior is the “bad news.”[50] The NT repeatedly points to man’s sinfulness as the reason for his need for salvation.[51] As a few examples:

  • Romans clearly paints the picture in 1:1-3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Paul launches into his discussion of justification only after showing that man is universally sinful.
  • Paul describes the Ephesians as once dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5).
  • In his summary description of the gospel, Paul says “Jesus died for our sins, according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3).
  • In 2 Cor. 5:21, Paul asserts that Jesus, who knew no sin, became “sin on our behalf.”

To exclude the issue of sin in evangelism sidesteps the root problem behind why people are lost in the first place. Propitiation provides the basis for “good news” by eliminating every barrier except one, belief in Jesus who died on the cross for our sins, was raised from the dead, and gives eternal life to any and all who believe in Him.

[1] This paper began as a Facebook discussion with another individual about 1 John 1:9. Not surprisingly, the discussion got lost in a myriad of comments. Thus, I suggested to him that we each write a paper presenting our view. Neither of us was convinced by the other, but my initial response to him evolved into this paper. Some of the comments and conclusions presented by the other individual are unique (some of them I have not seen elsewhere), thus, some of the comments here (mostly in footnotes) may seem unusual. However, since some who read this paper are familiar with the other person’s arguments, I opted to leave the comments here. I want to thank Charlie Bing and especially James Reitman for their comments, which prompted me to dig further in a number of areas for this paper, and for their editor’s eye. The NASB95 will be used throughout.

[2] For example, Bob George,, accessed April 6, 2015; D. R. Silva, Hyper-Grace: The Dangerous Doctrine of a Happy God (Havre, MT: Up-Arrow Publishing, 2014).

[3] This distinction precludes the view that “we” here is intended to be “universal” as in Acts 4:12; 2 Pet. 5:9; and Isa. 64:5. First, finding texts that use similar syntax does not in itself justify the same interpretation in 1 John. The progression of the pronouns in context defines who John means by “we.” Second, the texts cited do not really support the argument. In Acts 4:12, the “we” in context clearly refers to everyone listening, specifically the leaders of Israel (4:6, 8) and (probably) John, to emphasize that Jesus is the only means of Israel’s salvation. Similarly in Isaiah 64:5, justification is not in view, but rather the corporate deliverance of the nation after her failure to keep the covenant. Isaiah was identifying with national Israel regardless of his personal positional status.

[4] The verbal form κοινωνέω [koinōneō] appears 8 times in the New Testament, only once in John (2 John 11).

[5] Wendell Johnston, “Fellowship,” in Don Campbell, et al, The Theological Wordbook (Nashville: Word, 2000).

[6] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 445.

[7] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 552-53 (hereafter BDAG).

[8] The argument that koinōnia could refer to our permanent identification with Christ, that is, our position in Him as a believer, citing passages like 1 Cor. 1:9 and Phil. 1:5, seems very weak when we look carefully at these uses of koinōnia. In both passages, the context allows for far more than just our union with Christ. First Corinthians 1:4-8 refers to all dimensions of the Christian experience (“enriching” speaking of present life as distinct from the future “day of the Lord”). The context in Philippians 1 speaks of their participation with Paul and his work. In fact, Paul uses a related word in 1:8 to refer to their work with him (συγκοινωνός, sunkoinōnos). These examples are scarcely compelling evidence that koinōnia refers to “our permanent identification with Christ.”

[9] In this case, the pronoun does not change the meaning appreciably. Either John and the apostles will be filled with joy knowing their readers are experiencing this fellowship, or the readers’ joy will be fulfilled by sharing the same fellowship with them. In both cases, the emphasis is upon the joy experienced because of this fellowship.

[10] The point of “we lie and do not practice [do] the truth” is that the words do not match the practice. The combination of “do” (ποιέω, poieō) and “truth” (ἀλήθεια, aletheia) appears only here and in John 3:21. “The idea of ‘doing truth’ is unique to John among the New Testament writers. Though the verb ποιέω is commonly used throughout the New Testament with a wide range of meanings, when John uses it conceptually he describes a quality of conduct” (Gary W. Derickson, First, Second, and Third John, in Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, ed. H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012], on 1 Jn 1:6).

[11] I will address below the roles of “walking,” “confession,” and the “blood of Jesus” in meeting the conditions for this more intimate present experience of eternal life.

[12] Granted, John is addressing the churches in Rev 2–3 corporately. However, the corporate response reflects individual responses. A church cannot corporately “leave their first love” if individuals within the church do not do so. In addition, he does not use the word “fellowship” within Revelation. However, the individual actions and attitudes he describes of “overcomers” fits the basic criteria for fellowship or intimacy; thus the passages certainly may be used to illustrate the concept I am proposing.

[13] Hebrews speaks volumes concerning the danger of drifting away, hardening one’s heart, the need to deal with ongoing sin in the lives of believers, and the potential severity of God’s discipline towards his sinning children. The book demonstrates that God does see and address the sin of his children, who are completely forgiven judicially. However, further discussion of this correlation with First John is beyond the scope of this paper.

[14] Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon, 374, emphasis added.

[15] BDAG, 803. See also Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon, 504.

[16] Although the passages cited do not contain a direct reference to “the blood,” the references to sin, cleansing, and purifying support the implication that “the blood” is the “cleansing agent.”

[17] Some may object to believers here being called “sinners” and thus think this appeal applies to unbelievers. However, the focus here is on the believer’s practice, not identity. A sinning believer is, in practice, a sinner!

[18] Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon, 522.

[19] Ibid, 522; λούω (louō) in this passage depicts the cleansing of sin that accompanies justification.

[20] Ibid., 698.

[21] Ibid., 535.

[22] “God cleanses us at conversion in the sense that He will never bring us into condemnation for our sins. However, we need continual cleansing from the defilement that daily living brings because it hinders our fellowship with God (cf. John 13:10). The ‘blood of Jesus’ is a metonymy for the death of Jesus” (Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible [Galaxie Software, 2003], on 1 Jn 1:7).

[23] I hold that we still have a sinful nature, but that we have a greater capacity in Christ to say “no” to sin, so that it is no longer necessarily our master.

[24] The verb appears 47 times in the New Testament, ten of those within 1 John. In every instance outside of 1 John, the verb clearly speaks of the act of committing sins. The noun appears 173 times, 17 of those within 1 John. Seventy seven uses of the noun are plural (six in 1 John). In each case, the plural designates acts of sin.

[25] BDAG (708–709) defines ὁμολογέω (homologeō) with the following range of meaning: (1) to commit oneself to do something for someone, promise, assure, (2) to share a common view or be of common mind about a matter, agree, (3) to concede that something is factual or true, grant, admit, confess , (4) to acknowledge something, ordinarily in public, acknowledge, claim, profess, praise.

[26] The Greek present tense is often abused by not carefully considering the ten or more options for its use in any given context (see Daniel B. Wallace, New Testament Greek Syntax [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009]).

[27] The concept of sin against God is timeless: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

[28] Wendell Johnston, “Forgiveness,” in Theological Wordbook.

[29] Of course, Paul does use other terms, such as justify and justification, that relate to forgiveness.

[30] The verb aphiēmi appears 143 times in the New Testament. The lexicons give it a wide range of meanings; it is not a technical term referring only to judicial forgiveness. Abbott-Smith breaks the meanings into three broad categories, “to send forth, send away, let go,” (under which he includes forgiveness); “to leave alone, leave, neglect, forsake”; and “to let, suffer, permit” (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek lexicon of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1937), s.v. ἀφίημι. See also BDAG, 156; Louw and Nida, vol. 2, 40.

[31] Since the teaching of Matthew 6 took place during the period of the law, can we then apply Jesus’ words to the church age? While it is true that the events of the gospels do occur “under law,” to dismiss them as having no relevance is overly simplistic and denies that we can apply anything from the Old Testament (OT) without putting us back “under law.” Whenever the law is cited in the Gospels, we need to ask how the author intended to handle the OT issue: was the OT teaching adopted? … modified? … abrogated? At least three contextual clues imply that this passage does apply to us: (1) Teaching within the Sermon on the Mount is not easily dismissed as Old Covenant teaching. While commentators differ as to the exact relationship between the Sermon and the church, few, if any, relegate it completely to the era of the law and therefore completely irrelevant. (2) The primary audience of the sermon were disciples (“and after he sat down, his disciples came to Him and He began to teach them,” Matt. 5:1-2). Arguably, the vast majority of His disciples were already believers at this point, given that the events of John 1–5 occur between Matt. 4:11 and 4:12. (3) The idea of “forgive others and God will forgive you” does not appear in the OT explicitly. Thus, it is apparently new within the Sermon but in reality simply raises the OT notion of restitution (cf. Exodus 21–22) to a “higher standard” of righteousness than the law required.

[32] Some object that physical birth does not parallel justification. However, the analogy clearly works, since our adoption as sons is coincident with justification (Gal. 4:1-7). I am forever God’s child from the point of justification onward, independent of my behavior, just as my physical son is forever my son, independent of his behavior.

[33] Ernest De Witt Burton, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek, 3rd ed. (Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1898), 46–47.

[34] This does not mean, however, that the believer has no power over sin nor that he/she should simply give in to it. In fact, just the opposite is true. Paul makes clear in Romans 6-8 and Galatians 5 that we have the ability through the Holy Spirit to be victorious over sin. This victory comes as we “walk by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:2, Gal. 5:16).

[35] In both John 1:1 and 2, the Word (Jesus) is with (pros) God; in 1 John 1:2, eternal life (Jesus) is with (pros) the Father, and in 2:1, an Advocate (Jesus) is with (pros) the Father. In these verses, “[Pros] presents a plane of equality and intimacy, face to face with each other” (Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. V [Nashville, TN, Broadman Press, 1932], 4).

[36] BDAG 766. Louw and Nida add that “the principal difficulty encountered in rendering παράκλητος is the fact that this term covers potentially such a wide area of meaning” Greek-English Lexicon, 141-2.

[37] Gary Derickson and Earl Radmacher note that paraclete “literally means ‘one called to the side of another’ with the secondary notion of counseling, supporting, or aiding. Though it was rarely used as a legal term, ‘Paraclete’ means more than a defense lawyer. In fact, such a use of the term is rare in the extra-biblical literature… As a legal term it referred more to the friend who goes to court with the defendant than to a professional advisor or attorney” (The Disciplemaker: What Matters Most to Jesus (Salem, OR: Charis Press, 2001), 123.)

[38]Two related terms terms are used two times each as well: ἱλάσκομαι (hilaskomai) in Luke 18:13 and Heb. 2:17; and ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion) in Rom. 3:25 and Heb. 9:5. The basic meaning of ἱλασμός (hilasmos) is “appeasement necessitated by sin, expiation” or “instrument for appeasing, sacrifice to atone, sin-offering”; the sense of ἱλάσκομαι (hilaskomai) is “to cause to be favorably inclined or disposed, propitiate, conciliate” or “to eliminate impediments that alienate the deity, expiate, wipe out”; that of ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion) is the “means or place of expiation” (BDAG, 473–474, emphasis added).

[39] This is the idea implicit in Psalm 103:10-12, “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

[40] Attested by the phrases “all their sins” (Lev. 16:16), “all the iniquities,” “all their transgressions,” “all their sins” (16:21), and “all your sins” (16:30).

[41] Attested by the phrases “all the assembly of Israel” (Lev.16:17) and “all the people of the assembly” (16:33).

[42] The Law was never the basis for justification (e.g., Gal. 2:16, Rom. 4:1-8). The Day of Atonement provided “unlimited atonement” for the nation of Israel since all the sin of all the assembly was propitiated. That does not mean every Jew was a believer; Romans 4 makes it clear that before and during the era of the law, justification was only by faith. The sacrifice was sufficient for all, but only those who believed were saved.

[43] See, for example, Rom. 4:25, 5:8, 8:3, 1 Cor. 5:7, 2 Cor. 5:21, Gal. 1:4, Eph. 5:2, 1 Pet. 3:18.

[44] Derickson, First, Second, and Third John, on 1 Jn 2:2.

[45] This is Christ’s admonition to those in Laodicea, that those whom God loves, He reproves and disciplines (Rev. 3:14). Similarly, Paul teaches that the Word of God is “profitable… for reproof and correction” (2 Tim. 3:16). The word for “discipline” is παιδεία (paideia), means “to punish for the purpose of improved behavior—’to punish, punishment’” (Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon, 489); “the act of providing guidance for responsible living, upbringing, training, instructionchiefly as it is attained by discipline, correction” (BDAG, 748).

[46] David R. Anderson, Maximum Joy: First John: Relationship or Fellowship? (NP: Grace Theology Press, 2013), 50-69.

[47] “It is probably a mistake to attempt to systematize the thought of the heretics whom John opposed in this letter. According to his own statements, he had ‘many’ false teachers in view (2:18; 4:1). There is no reason to think that all of them held exactly the same views. The ancient Greco-Roman world was a babel of religious voices, and it is likely that the readers were confronted by a variety of ideas. Still, the heretics had in common their denials of the person of Christ, though they could have done so in different ways. On the basis of 2:19 it may be suggested that they had originated chiefly in Judea. But beyond this little can be said with certainty about the exact nature of the heresy or heresies that gave rise to John’s epistle.” (Zane C. Hodges, “1 John,” in vol. 2, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck [Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985], 880-81.)

[48] See note 2.

[49] “The apostle writes [in 2 Cor. 7:10] that godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation. While many take salvation as a reference to regeneration, that does not fit the context. Paul is writing of the repentance of people already born again. Salvation here refers to deliverance from the deadly consequences of unrepentant sin, not only in this life, but also before the Judgment Seat of Christ (cf. Luke 15:11–24).” (Dwight L. Hunt, “The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin [Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010], 795.)

[50] See Evantell’s gospel presentation,, accessed January 31, 2015.

[51] Saying this does not deny that various specific needs may lead a person to recognize their need for Jesus. Fundamentally, however, every one of these other needs has its roots in sin and its consequences.

One Comment

  1. Roger,
    Thank you for the clear discussion of the issues.

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