If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness [1John 1:9].
I recall preaching on this passage a few years ago in Massachusetts. After the service one of the leaders of the church came to me, excited about the promise of 1John 1:9; it was as if he heard a new truth that morning. The reason I’ve not forgotten this man’s excitement is that it reminds me that the foundational truth of our faith bears repeating; it also reminds me that we should never take for granted what people know. I’ve known this passage for decades – but then have I? Maybe I’ve only known it for a few moments. Maybe I don’t really yet know it. Because this is a verse that is often quoted and memorized it’s a verse whose depth can be missed – we think we are skipping over a shallow stream when the water is actually many fathoms deep. That which is familiar is often that which is not really known.
If we confess our sins…In verse 7 we have an image of continuous cleansing as we walk in the light as He is in the light; in verse 9 we see that conscious confession also has a place in the mystery of forgiveness of sin. We have been cleansed, we are being cleansed, and we shall be cleansed. There is an unconscious cleansing that is part of our daily life in Christ, but there is also a time for confession of sin. We are aware of some sins when they occur or shortly thereafter; there are other sins of which perhaps we are never aware. I’ve had moments when the veil of time has been pulled back and I’ve seen myself years ago and thought, “Oh my, Lord please forgive me for that action, for that thought, for causing that pain.”
He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins… These words can only be written in the light of the Cross of Christ. Without the Cross God would be righteous to consign us to judgment without mercy for when we sin we are worthy of judgment. However Jesus Christ has died for us, He has paid the price for our sins, and mystery of mysteries He has taken our sins upon Himself; the judgment for our sins has been poured out on Jesus Christ. In light of the fact that our sins have been borne by another, when we confess our sins God righteously recognizes the Christ of the Cross and forgives our sins. God’s faithfulness is to His Son, the work of His Son, the price His Son paid, and to His own promise and word. God’s faithfulness is also to those who have believed the Word of His Son and who have placed their faith and trust in Jesus Christ – God is faithful to those who trust Him.
And to cleanse us from all unrighteousness… There is a place that I think only God sees; at any rate there are places that I cannot see. I cannot see the hearts of others, and I cannot even see my own heart. When I think my heart is pure I am a fool, when I think my heart is wicked I’m also a fool. Certainly outside of Christ my heart is desperately wicked, but now I am in Christ and I have His cleansing. I can believe my thoughts and feelings, I can believe the thoughts and feelings of others, I can believe what the enemy would like me to believe, or I can believe Jesus Christ. How can I be cleansed from all unrighteousness? I don’t know, not really. I have a rudimentary knowledge of Good Friday and Easter, but the veil is so thick, the glass so dark, that I understand little.
C.S. Lewis struggled with how something someone did 2,000 years ago could affect him in the 20th Century; I don’t know that Lewis ever figured that out but I do know that Lewis experienced the reality of the effect of the Cross and Resurrection. I can’t explain it. It is bigger than me; I’m an ant and the mystery is Everest. Too many clouds, too many wind currents, too many peaks and hidden crevasses. I can pitch my tent on the mountain and experience the mountain, but I cannot traverse the entire height and depth and width of the mountain. I can follow the paths of those before me; I can travel with companions today; I can look backwards and see others coming; but I cannot master the mountain – it is big and I am small.
There are unseen things on the mountain of the mystery of the Cross. A throne room before the ages, a distant garden, a future descending city; strange creatures around the throne, a Lamb slain, a Lion, a Baby in a feeding trough, blood running down a body crowned with thorns, a piercing cry that it is finished. Countless Biblical images of things familiar and unfamiliar – the Passover, the Day of Atonement, and the Ark of the Covenant…how long is the list? Images from God that condescend to make the unknowable approachable – I may not understand the mystery but I can approach it; I may enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of the Lamb – I think I would do well to enter it face down.
In 1John confession of sins is in the context of koinonia; there is cleansing and forgiveness because our heavenly Father and Lord Jesus desire fellowship with us; we are saved and redeemed to know the fellowship of the Trinity, and in knowing the fellowship of the Trinity we know fellowship with one another; in knowing fellowship with one another we know the fellowship of the Trinity.
When we are spiritual infants we may confess our sins to be saved from judgment; as we grow in Christ we confess our sins because our hearts long for fellowship with Him and with one another.