Monday, October 20, 2014

Should Christians Confess Their Sins? Part 4

The fourth objection to deal with is that if 1 John 1:9 contains the gospel, it doesn't state the gospel accurately.

The first point to make is that verse 9 doesn’t need to be a self-contained statement of the Gospel. That is, 1 John 1:9 was never intended to stand on its own. This verse is part of a letter and should not be considered in isolation. Having said that, it really depends on just what is meant by “confess our sins.” And so, we must make sure we understand “homologeo” the way John intended it.

I derive my understanding of this word by observing how John uses the word elsewhere. His use of the word in John 1:20 and 1 John 2:23 is instructive. In both passages, “homologeo” is juxtaposed against the idea of “deny.” From this, we can conclude that “homologeo” is the antonym of “deny.” We could use words like “agree,” “acknowledge” or “affirm.” You can affirm a proposition, or you can deny a proposition.

Some might caution that a given word isn’t always used precisely the same way, and this is true. However, when you consider that the verses on either side of 1 John 1:9 are describing denial, we’re justified in understanding “homologeo” in verse 9 as the antonym of “deny.”

So we could say that to confess your sins is to not deny your sins; to acknowledge them. But a there’s a peripheral question: “Which sins?” Is this about individual sins, or is it about recognizing our sinful nature?

So “homologeo” simply means to acknowledge, affirm or agree with a given proposition. But what proposition?

When you consider the content of verses 8 and 10 on either side of verse 9, you see that we (humans) can either affirm our sin, or deny our sin. That is, we either recognize our sinful nature, or we deny our sinful nature. But what follows from this?

If Bob recognizes and understands his sinful nature, then it follows that Bob believes he is unable to justify himself on his own merit. But if Bob will not recognize his sinful nature, then he will tend to rely on his own ability. And so we see that when Bob affirms his sin, he implicitly denies his ability to justify himself. When Bob denies his sin, he (erroneously) affirms his ability to justify himself. This is self-deception, and makes God out to be liar.

To trust in or rely on Christ for justification implies, that you affirm that you are unable to justify yourself, and to affirm that you are unable to do so is to recognize your need of a savior who can justify you.

We see this idea communicated in Luke 18:10-14 when the pharisee affirms his own righteousness, denying that he sins. In doing so, he affirms (quite erroneously) his own ability to justify himself and so “exalts himself.”

By contrast, the tax collector denies his own righteousness, and affirms his abject need of God’s mercy and in so doing, humbles himself. The principle brought out in this story is a trans-dispensational principle that goes back to Proverbs 33 and appears again in Luke, and in James 4, and—I’m convinced—in 1 John. God gives grace to the humble. He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. In the Luke 18 passage, Jesus says that the tax collector (and not the pharisee) went down to his house justified.

With that in mind, realize that there are instances in the NT, particularly in the Gospel of John, where we see allusions to the gospel rather than explicit presentations of the gospel. Consider John 6:54, for example:
“Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
No one in the Free Grace movement believes that receiving eternal life is conditioned upon eating anyone’s flesh or drinking anyone’s blood, certainly not Jesus’ blood… how could we? Clearly this is an allusion to believing in Jesus. We know it is an allusion to believing in Jesus because the result is eternal life and being raised up at the last day, and earlier in the same chapter Jesus puts it in those terms: (John 6:40)
“…everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
The conclusion here is that we need not require John to capture the precise terms of the gospel at every opportunity, especially not when he’s addressing people who have already accepted the gospel and therefore wouldn’t require such precision. Even so, “confess our sins,” can be taken as an allusion to believing in Jesus even without the numerous other verses in 1 John which make it more clear that believing in Jesus is the issue.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Should Christians Confess Their Sins? Part 3

The third reason why some will object to the idea that John is talking about salvation in 1 John 1:9 is that “confess” is a present-tense verb. The thinking is that the action John is describing is one that must continue on and is applicable in the present for his audience.

But consider again the quote from the pastor that I cited above, as he described the gospel:
"When you trust Christ as savior, He declares you as righteous and He gives you—as a free gift—everlasting life.”
Again, this pastor is addressing believers, and he is not presenting the gospel for the purpose of evangelizing his audience. Instead, he is re-iterating gospel truths to people who already have believed the gospel. Is this not a normal and healthy thing for a pastor to do? If so, why would it not be normal and healthy for John to do the same?

In the Free Grace camp generally, we’re somewhat accustomed to refuting this abuse of the present-tense, particularly with verses such as John 5:24, where many see “believes” there as requiring perpetual, continuing faith. But of course, these folks seem quite comfortable with the idea that the present-tense can also refer to a one-time event, such as the word “divorces” in Luke 16:18. Nobody thinks you have to divorce a woman “continually” and then marry another (also “continually”) in order to be accused of adultery.

It’s not that the present-tense cannot ever refer to continuous action, but to understand the present-tense that way is frequently not necessary and would lead, in many cases, to absurdities.

Therefore, it’s quite plausible that the present-tense in 1 John 1:9 was not intended to refer to “continuous action,” but rather to a one-time event, i.e., the point of forsaking hope in all but Christ. And so we find that the use of present-tense verbs turns out not to be a very sound reason to think that John cannot be talking to believers about salvation/justification.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Should Christians Confess Their Sins? Part 2

As I described in Part 1, I have noted five basic objections to the idea that John’s first epistle is about justification, and if these objections can be defeated, then it becomes reasonable to say that 1 John 1:9 could pertain to justification. The second objection I will deal with is that the book of 1 John is about "fellowship," not salvation. Therefore, so the argument goes, 1 John 1:9 cannot pertain to salvation or justification.

This is a noble objection because it aims to squash a very popular view of 1 John, where various verses are seen as “tests” of whether a person is actually saved. This “Tests of Life” model is deeply flawed and completely indefensible. I’ve heard Lordship teachers say that 1 John is about “assurance of salvation,” but it’s not difficult to see why this doesn’t work: If you have to “test” whether you’re saved or not, you quite obviously have no assurance. The entire approach is an exercise in futility. And since the criteria for proving you “have life” are so subjective and poorly defined, the tests can’t ever be counted on to produce a reliable result.

Free Grace teachers generally advocate the “Tests of Fellowship” model in opposition to “Tests of Life” as if it doesn’t suffer similar problems. You see, to say that the test is for “fellowship” instead of “life” doesn’t get around the fact that the criteria are subjective and poorly defined. Such tests cannot give you reliable results. Given God’s character, it’s difficult to imagine how God could give us tests that are unreliable.

John says in 1:4 that his purpose for writing is “that your joy may be full.” But when you consider the flaws of either “test” model, it becomes clear that if these “tests” are taken seriously, no one’s going to come out of it with any “joy.” They’re going to see that, well, they don’t keep His commandments, and so they must not have life. Or they must not have fellowship. Neither is good. How are such tests compatible even with the very first purpose statement of the letter?

To deal with this objection, we have to explore this idea of “fellowship.” I need to be sure that I understand what the term means. Unfortunately, John only uses the word “koinonia” 3 times, and all of those are in 1 John. So if we were to limit our word study to John’s writings, that’s all we have to go by.

In 2 Corinthians 6:14, however, we get a clear idea of the word’s meaning when Paul writes:
“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.”
Paul is concerned about being “unequally yoked together” with unbelievers. The metaphor relates to oxen pulling a cart, engaged in a common cause. The oxen are “yoked together,” a picture of “joint participation.” Notice how broad this is. And the two rhetorical questions which follow add some emphasis. In English, (NKJV) we can see there are two different words here that correspond to being “yoked together.”
“For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?”
In the first question, the word “fellowship” is “metoche,” and then the word “communion” in the second question is the Greek word “koinonia.” When you compare the English translations, it’s clear that the two words are synonymous, meaning “fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation.”

Accordingly, I take “fellowship” to be a very broad term which simply means “joint participation.” It refers to two or more individuals being united in a plan, like two oxen pulling a cart. The question to ask here is: “Is ‘koinonia’ a word that can be used to describe our permanent identification with Christ, and our association with God through faith in Christ?” It seems that it’s used that way in 1 Corinthians 1:9 and Philippians 1:5, so the answer must be “Yes.” But does that mean it’s used that way in 1 John? Not necessarily, but the fellowship mentioned in 1 John is fellowship with God, so we’re already in the ballpark. I am convinced that “fellowship” in 1 John 1 does refer to our permanent, unbreakable union with God through faith in Christ and that 1 John 1:9 describes how that fellowship is established.

John’s Purpose:

So if both “Test” models are flawed, what is the point of John’s letter? Well… John tells us in plain terms. Purpose statements are found in 1:4, 2:1, 2:12, and 5:13. Considered as a whole, these purpose statements fit neatly under a larger umbrella. John wants to assure people that they really do have eternal life. It’s clear that John’s audience had been exposed to some false teachers and this apparently left a mark. These believers had evidently come under attack by deceivers who were trying to undermine their confidence in the truth they had already believed. The emphasis the text places on personal sins in John’s letter suggests that false teachers may have capitalized on the personal failures of the members. John wants to reassure these people again. And how better to do that than to re-iterate those basic truths of salvation, truths that the audience had heard and believed previously, but had been brought into question? In 5:13 John wants them to know that they have eternal life. In 2:12 He says that their sins have been forgiven (perfect tense). In 2:1-2 John reminds them that Christ’s advocacy on their behalf is the solution to their sin. All of this adds up to making complete the joy of John’s audience in 1:4.

The objection is that 1 John is about “fellowship,” not “salvation,” as if they are two different things. When we trust in Christ, we become “yoked together” with God, and we cannot become “un-yoked.” This, I’m convinced, is what John had in mind with the word “koinonia.”

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Should Christians Confess Their Sins? Part 1

Years ago I began to notice a fundamental discrepancy in certain aspects of Free Grace teaching. This discrepancy was not one that would endear me to Lordship Salvation… rather, it made me question whether some aspects of what I’ll call “standard” Free Grace teaching might be, well, a bit less than “Free Grace.”

I began to notice what appeared to be a certain amount of “doublespeak” when it came to the question of whether our sins are forgiven. I noticed that passages like Psalm 103:12, Job 14:17, Micah 7:19 and Hebrews 8:12 seem to emphasize the totality of forgiveness, while the teaching regarding 1 John 1:9 seemed to diminish that totality with the suggestion that when a believer sins, there is a sense in which he is not forgiven until and unless he acknowledges that sin to God, and that until he does that, he is “out-of-fellowship” and his prayers will not be heard. This is a view that I will refer to as "Frangible Fellowship." The word "frangible" essentially means "able to be broken." And something that can be broken needs to be repaired. On the Frangible Fellowship view, naming individual sins to God is the repair.

Frangible Fellowship teaches that the barrier between myself and God was removed, even permanently, by my faith in Christ, but that a new barrier—an interruption in my fellowship with God—could pop up again, brought about by sin, which was supposedly sealed up in a bag, hurled into the depths of the sea and removed as far from me as the East is from the West.

To be fair, I could follow the reasoning. It did appear that 1 John 1:9 was prescribing an action for the audience to whom he was writing. And although “forgive us our sins” and “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” sounded a lot like justification, I could understand why the teachers I was listening to were insisting otherwise. These were, after all, believers who had already been justified. So why would John prescribe for his audience an action which would result in what they already had? And if John wanted to tell anyone how to become justified, why wouldn’t he mention anything about faith in Christ? And why does John use present-tense verbs which seem to imply action that continues on to some extent?

I don’t mind admitting that questions like these looked daunting to me at first. But at the same time, I just couldn’t ignore certain features of the text, and so I was driven to look for answers to those questions. And it turns out that those questions do have very reasonable answers which are quite compatible with an emphasis on faith alone in Christ alone plus nothing.

In this article, I will argue that 1 John 1:9 does pertain to justification. I will present five basic objections people have to understanding it that way, and I will offer defeaters for each of those objections. I will then offer scriptural support for the understanding I’m advocating, and I will propose a reasonable context for the letter and show how this understanding fits that context, and I will offer additional reasons why I think 1 John should be understood this way and why I think the traditional understanding is in error.

I want to say that I have been deeply influenced—in a good way, I think—by various pastors whom I trust, but who hold the view of 1 John which I am critiquing. I mean no disrespect to any of them, nor to any other pastor who teaches Frangible Fellowship. I was taught the doctrine from an early age and believed it and practiced it for decades. When I began to realize that things didn’t appear to add up, I decided to strike out on my own, and it seems to me to have been worth the effort.

Objections to Overcome:

I have noted five basic objections to the idea that John’s first epistle is about justification:
1) Collective pronouns refer to John + readers
2) 1 John is about “fellowship,” not salvation
3) Use of Present-Tense Verbs
4) 1 John 1:9 misstates the gospel
5) The conditional statements in 1 John 1:6-10 are prescriptive
If these objections can be defeated, then it becomes reasonable to say that this passage could pertain to justification. If there remains no reason to avoid that conclusion, then we can go forward with exploring how that might work. In this first entry, I will address the first of the five objections.

Objection 1: Collective Pronouns

Misidentifying the antecedent for the collective pronouns in 1 John 1:6-10 is, I’m convinced, the biggest barrier to understanding John’s intent in this passage. The common reading is that “we,” “us” and “our” in these verses refer to John plus the people whom he’s addressing. And there’s no doubt in my mind that John is addressing people who have previously trusted in Christ and who do have eternal life. However, there’s nothing in the grammar here that actually tells us—in an objective way—what the correct antecedent is. This is an interpretive question that will be answered by contextual cues.  But what is the context? Certainly, part of the context is that John is addressing believers. But what problem do these believers face? Well, John seems to be interested in reassuring these people about their salvation. All four of the purpose statements found in the letter are consistent with this basic idea, and throughout the letter there are numerous references to believing that Jesus is the Christ as opposed to denying the same. This culminates in 1 John 5:13, at which point John explains that he’s written the letter so that his audience will know that they have eternal life. Does this not imply that the audience has been doubting it? So let’s look at that as a sort of “hypothesis” for the context and see if that leads us in any interesting directions.

Back to the issue of identifying the antecedent: When a writer uses a collective pronoun such as “we” or “us” or “our,” the writer is referring to a group of individuals that includes the writer himself. Whatever the antecedent, it needs to be a group of people that includes, at minimum, John himself. Since John is a believer and since the members of his audience are believers, it’s not unreasonable to think that perhaps “believers” is the group to whom “we” refers. But it’s not the only option.

The human race is also a group which includes John himself, and also encompasses his readers. So, it’s possible that “we” could refer to humans generally… and there are at least two verses in the New Testament where a collective pronoun is used this way: Acts 4:12 and 2 Peter 3:9.

Another example of the kind of pronoun use I’m suggesting is found in Isaiah 64:5. Isaiah was, of course, a believer; he was saved. But in this verse, Isaiah is addressing God and says:
“You are indeed angry, for we have sinned. In these ways we continue; and we need to be saved.”
 The English translations use the pronoun “we” in this passage, and I’ll assume that the translators have accurately captured Isaiah’s intent, and that there is widespread agreement about that. With that in mind, notice that even though Isaiah is already saved, he’s still using a pronoun which includes himself in the group that “needs to be saved,” and that “we” appears to refer to humans generally. I’ll grant that this is not a carbon copy of the scenario we find in 1 John, but it demonstrates a certain “freedom” with pronouns that some want to deny when they get to 1 John.

Recently I listened to a lesson from a Free Grace teacher which was centered on the truths of salvation. Addressing a congregation of believers, the pastor said the following:
“When you trust Christ as savior, He declares you as righteous and He gives you—as a free gift—everlasting life.”
 Notice that this is a conditional statement. He could just as easily have said “If you trust in Christ…” But more importantly, notice that his statement is conditional even though he’s addressing people to whom the condition no longer applies. The people in his congregation have met the condition already, and yet he’s addressing them as though they haven’t. Why? Because he is re-iterating to them a basic salvation truth. And as a “consumer” of Free Grace teaching, I find I am on the receiving end of this sort of thing frequently. It is quite a normal phenomenon in my experience. This occurred to me while listening to a trusted Free Grace teacher as he taught on 1 John 1:9 and said, essentially, that John couldn’t be talking about salvation because his audience was already saved. I immediately thought “Wait a minute… I’m saved, and I hear about salvation all the time.” In fact, I had heard about it quite a bit from this same pastor who now seemed to be telling me that such things never happen. I mean no disrespect to this pastor—one reason why I don’t wish to name him—but this is quite a large non-sequitur.

It’s important to point out, however, that it would not make sense for John to be “presenting the gospel” to this particular audience. And notice that in the practical example offered above, the pastor is not presenting the gospel to his audience. That isn’t his intent because he expects that the people to whom he’s speaking have already accepted the gospel. Nevertheless, he is teaching them about salvation, re-iterating the basic truths of salvation because, quite obviously, those truths need to be beat into our heads repeatedly. And it appears that New Testament writers recognized the wisdom of doing just that. Consider 2 Peter 1:12 where Peter writes:
“For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth.”
Peter recognizes how important it is to remind his audience of truths they are already aware of, and isn’t it interesting that Peter thinks it’s negligent not to?

The notion that the collective pronouns in 1 John 1:6-10 refer to humans in general is entirely defensible from grammar and from context. But, there is something else that tends to bother people about this idea: It asks the reader to believe that these antecedents change rather abruptly. Although this may seem counterintuitive, I have found numerous examples where such changes are evident and, in fact, undeniable. The first example is in 1 John 1, and is recognized even by those who teach the Frangible Fellowship view.

The collective pronouns “we,” “us” and “our” in the first five verses of 1 John cannot refer to the same antecedent as the same pronouns in verses 6-10. We know this because his audience never saw, heard and touched Jesus. John is talking about a group of people (the apostles) who had done these things, and then told this audience about it. The teachers who teach the Frangible Fellowship view, then, are comfortable with antecedents changing abruptly because they go on to teach that in verses 6-10 the collective pronouns refer to John and his audience, not John and the apostles as in verses 1-5.
Two more examples can be found in Acts 4:9-4:12 (pronoun: we) and also 2 Peter 3:2-9 (pronoun: us).

In the end, we shouldn’t be uncomfortable with the idea that the antecedents to pronouns change, and we should recognize even in our own communication that we use pronouns in a very fluid manner.

As I’ve discussed this idea about the pronouns with those who teach this traditional view, I’ve been reminded frequently that John is addressing believers. These reminders, while well-intentioned, often come after I’ve already made it clear that I also believe John is addressing believers. And even after I clarify again, the reminders seem to keep coming. The reason for this is a foundational assumption that “we” and “us” must be confined to John and his readers. It ignores the very real possibility that in these verses John is addressing his audience as mere human beings… and much like the example above, John is treating his audience as if they have not yet believed, as he re-iterates to them these basic truths of salvation.