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 + readersIf 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.
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
Objection 1: Collective PronounsMisidentifying 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.