First, it’s necessary to understand that verses 6-10 are juxtaposed against each other. As you read, you bounce from one side of the net to the other like a ping pong ball. Verse 6 has you on one side of the net, then it’s over to the other side for verse 7, then back over the net again for verse 8, and so on. On the traditional view, the “net” in the metaphor is a particular understanding of “fellowship,” a fellowship which can be broken and then repaired or, if you prefer, exited and then re-entered. On this view, you exit fellowship (though you remain eternally saved) by sinning and then you re-enter fellowship by acknowledging that sin, either by name or otherwise.
And on this view phrases like “walking in darkness,” “denying that we sin,” “making God out to be a liar” are understood as descriptions of a believer who is out-of-fellowship. Conversely, verses 7 and 9 are understood (on the traditional view) as descriptions of a believer who is “in fellowship.” Or, they represent the means for regaining fellowship, presumably (key word) after one has sinned. And so descriptions like these:
…the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin
He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.…are understood to mean “restore fellowship,” in spite of the fact that this sort of language isn’t used anywhere else in the NT to refer to any such thing.
It strikes me that if we found this kind of language anywhere else in the NT, we would say that it points toward justification. And, of course, we do find this kind of language elsewhere in the NT, and it does point toward justification. Revelation 1:5, Ephesians 1:7 and 2:13, Colossians 1:14, 2 Peter 1:9, Romans 5:9 are some examples where the same sort of imagery is used in reference to justification, often invoking the blood of Christ, forgiveness of sin, cleansing or washing from sin, etc. But when we confine the collective pronouns in 1 John 1:6-10 to John and his audience of believers, we create a problem. At that point we are forced by our assumptions to make the above expressions refer to something other than justification, because the audience is already justified. And so to preserve the harmony, a second category of forgiveness is contrived, one that is uniquely applicable to believers. Having done this, however, we now have to find a way to escape the conclusion that we’ve denied (to some extent) the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross. After all, when we say that there is any sense in which we are not forgiven, then we’re saying that there’s something more Christ could have done.
But when we keep in mind the solutions I’ve offered for those five basic objections, this talk about the blood of Jesus cleansing from all unrighteousness can fall naturally into the realm of justification. And at that point, other things fall neatly into place.
In verses 6 and 7, there is a contrast between “walking in darkness” and “walking in the light”. The traditional view asks us to believe that “walks in darkness” was intended by John to indicate a Christian’s poor behavior. But we don’t find any examples in any other NT book where the light/dark metaphor is used to indicate behavior. Instead, we always find the metaphor associated with having believed in Jesus or having rejected Jesus. That may not prove that John was using it that way in 1 John, but when we have a metaphor like this that is repeatedly used elsewhere to indicate belief/unbelief, we should be very cautious about concluding that it means something different in a particular book especially when it’s the same author.
Looking at the Gospel of John, we find that light/dark metaphor used in association with believing the gospel or rejecting the gospel (John 3:18-21, John 8:12, John 12:35, John 12:46). This also runs parallel to some occurrences in the epistles where the metaphor is used the same way: (2 Corinthians 6:14, Ephesians 5:8 and 11, Colossians 1:12-14, 1 Thessalonians 5:5, 1 Peter 2:9).
Other expressions occur in verses 6, 8 and 10 which are oddly familiar from John’s other writings, and all are associated with the notion of rejecting the gospel. There is an emphasis on lying, not practicing the truth, deceiving ourselves, the truth/God’s word not being in us and making God out to be a liar.
In 1 John 5:10, the person who does not believe that Jesus is the Christ is said to make God out to be a liar. In John 8:37 and 8:44 the idea of God’s word “not being in” someone is associated with rejection of the gospel. In John 3:21, the idea of “practicing truth” is associated with believing in Jesus, and so it stands to reason that “practicing a lie” would correspond to rejecting the gospel. And that is precisely how John uses it in Revelation 22:15:
But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie.Those who are “outside” are those who have rejected the gospel, and in doing so they “practiced a lie” and their sins are counted against them since they would not humble themselves to realize that they needed a savior.
In 1 John 2:22, John says that whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ is a liar.
Am I saying that believers can’t tell lies? Of course not. Nor am I saying that we couldn’t use these kinds of expressions to describe believers in certain circumstances. Metaphors are pretty flexible that way. Certainly, there are believers who lie, who deceive themselves, and who, you might say, do not practice the truth. But if we use those expressions that way, we shouldn’t think that we’re using them the way John intended them in his writing.
A Rose By Any Other Name
Throughout John’s letter there are allusions to or re-iterations of believing in Jesus or believing Jesus is the Christ. Some are more explicit than others. And this is what we would expect if John was concerned with little more than restoring his audience’s assurance. For purposes of this exercise, I’ll skip the allusions to the gospel that I think are present in Chapter 1. But John makes reference to “keeping His commandments” three times in the letter: 1 John 2:3, 3:3 and 5:2,3. The belief that these are references to our behavior—commandments like not stealing, not murdering, not committing adultery, etc.—is widespread. However, it seems John tells us that this is not what he has in mind. In 1 John 3:23 John tells us what His commandment is:
And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.In 1 John 5:3 John says that “His commandments aren’t burdensome.” Well, if His commandments amount to nothing more than believing in Him, then how could they be burdensome? Relying on someone else is never “burdensome,” is it? Isn’t the whole idea that Jesus bears the burden for us? Relying on Him to bear the burden couldn’t possibly be burdensome. But if “keeping His commandments” means avoiding sin, then doesn’t it strain credulity to suggest that this is not burdensome?
So it turns out that “keeps His commandments” can be seen as an allusion to believing in Christ, since this is His command. We also see allusions to believing in Christ (often contrasted against rejection of Christ) in 1 John 2:23, 1 John 4:2, 1 John 4:15, 1 John 5:1, 1 John 5:5, 1 John 5:10 and 1 John 5:12. These are, of course, the more obvious examples. But another expression that John uses is “practices righteousness.” This appears in 1 John 2:29 and 1 John 3:7. As with “keeps commandments,” the common reading here is that this is a reference to our avoidance of sin. But there are clues that this is not what John has in mind.
We can find one such clue in John 5:28-29, which says that those who “have done good” will be resurrected to life, while those who have done evil will be resurrected to condemnation. Funny… no mention of believing in Christ. Why? Well, Jesus had just spelled it out in verse 24. Whoever believes in Him will not come into condemnation and has passed from death to life. In verse 28, those who have “done good” (practiced righteousness”) are those who have believed in Him. Therefore, “practices righteousness” is an allusion to believing in Jesus. We find more warrant for this conclusion when we consider 1 John 5:1, which says that whoever believes in Jesus is born of God. But in 1 John 2:29 John says that whoever “practices righteousness” is born of God. And if that’s not enough, recall that one result of faith in Christ is that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. With that in mind, 1 John 3:7 makes all the sense in the world:
He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.So we’ve seen two good reasons to view “practices righteousness” as an allusion to believing in Christ, and now we’ve got a verse that describes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to those who “practice righteousness.” And we’ve seen good reason to understand “keep His commandments” as a reference to believing in Jesus, and we’ve seen good reason to conclude that “walks in darkness” refers to unbelievers, while walking in the light refers to believers, and given the way John uses these metaphors elsewhere, we don’t have any good reason to understand them any other way. The cumulative case for a paradigm shift is building.
The Frangible Fellowship view of 1 John suffers from a number of problems which ought to encourage us to seek out a better way to understand the letter:
Date of Writing
John’s first epistle is dated from between 65 AD and 95 AD, and this presents an interesting challenge for the traditional view. In an article about 1 John 1:9, Zane Hodges wrote that it would be difficult to find a verse “more crucial and fundamental to daily Christian living.” Essentially, Hodges is saying that the ideas he finds in 1 John 1:9 aren’t found anywhere else. It follows, then, that prior to the circulation of this letter, all Christians were “out-of-fellowship” and weren’t aware of any way to restore that fellowship. This is unthinkable.
Forgiveness, or Forgiveness?
If we deny that 1 John 1:9 pertains to justification, then we must create a new kind of forgiveness to explain away the justification flavor of verses 7 and 9. Also, we must believe that John is speaking of this new kind of forgiveness in verse 9, while in 2:12 (13 verses later) he’s speaking of the first kind of forgiveness. But under the paradigm I’m suggesting, forgiveness can simply mean “forgiveness” and we can now take passages like Psalm 103:12. Micah 7:19 and Hebrews 8:12 at face value, having confidence that we are completely forgiven.
There is no mention of confession and restoration of fellowship where the epistles address incidents of sin, such as the incident where the man is sleeping with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5. If it’s true that sin interrupts fellowship with God and confessing that sin restores fellowship, then it’s very strange that Paul didn’t mention it here. You would think he’d have included instructions for the offender to confess his sin so as to restore fellowship, but such instructions are conspicuously absent.
The issue of forgotten sins has long been a challenge to this traditional view. One popular solution is to infer that “forgive us our sins” points to the sins you confessed, and “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” refers to the sins you have forgotten. This is problematic for at least two reasons: First, it expects that your confession cites specific sins. But we have good reason to think that “confess our sins” is very general. Secondly, the text says nothing about why a given sin has not been confessed. The person may have forgotten that sin, but they may have simply chosen not to confess it. The text does not disallow this. With John’s use of the plural form of “hamartia” in mind, we can conclude that you really only need to confess two sins.
Before, or After?
On this traditional reading of 1 John 1:9, there’s no mention of when the confession has to take place relative to the actual sin, nor is there a demand that you cease the sinful activity. The text simply says that I have to agree with God about the sin, and then God will forgive me. By this understanding I can plan to do something which I already regard as a sin. That is, before I’ve even committed the sin, I agree with God that what I’m about to do is a sin. And so I’m forgiven even before I’ve committed the sin. This reveals a fundamental problem with this aspect of the traditional view: It presumes that we don’t already agree with God that the sin we’re about to commit is a sin.
So, in considering the title question, “Do Christians need to confess their sins?” I am convinced that this was not John’s intent, and that the question itself reveals a misunderstanding of 1 John 1:9. I’m convinced that in this passage John is describing what is required of humans in order to become forgiven and declared righteous, where “confess our sins” amounts to little more than a personal realization that one cannot hope to justify one’s self; that a savior (Christ) must be relied upon instead. This is contrasted in 1 John 1 against the person who refuses to accept the truth, who insists on their own ability to justify themselves. Such a person, John explains, is walking in darkness, deceiving themselves, practicing a lie, making God out to be a liar, and the truth (God’s word) is not in them.