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Confession of Sin in 1st John 1:9

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Question:  I have a question on 1st John 1:9. This is translated differently by different versions of the Bible (NIV = "He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins"; KJV = "He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins"); and from what I know of the Greek, this is a purpose clause, isn't it? = "in order to forgive". I was wondering about the difference and the real meaning of this important verse.

Response:  1st John 1:9 is indeed a very important verse. If we didn't have this verse, we would still come to the conclusion from scripture that 1) it is of critical importance for believers to confess their sins to God with regularity (cf. Ps.32; 38; 51; 130:3; 143:1; Prov.28:13; Matt.6:12; Lk.11:4); and 2) that upon doing so we are forgiven on the basis of our Savior's death on the cross in our place (Acts 10:43; Eph.1:7; Col.1:14; Heb.10:19-22; 1Jn.4:10). But 1st John 1:9 certainly helps to make the point very clear. So, indeed, you are correct that it is of great importance to get it right, to understand and translate it properly. And as to your appreciation of the Greek text, you are also right that technically the hina clause is in the form of a purpose clause and that would make the construction seem a bit unusual, but this is a "koine" usage  (with precedent) which blends result with purpose. So the idea is one of purpose combined with result (compare our similar English construction "so as to"), and this "intended result" comes out of or follows the idea of God's righteousness and faithfulness:

We all sin, even after salvation, and it is a dangerous heresy to claim that we do not, for such claims make God out to be a liar (1Jn.1:10). But it is equally dangerous to pretend that struggling against sin is unimportant (Rom.6:1-2) - believers in Jesus Christ are told to pursue sanctification "without which no will see the Lord" (Heb.12:14). Therefore our proper attitude toward confession should mirror the proper attitude toward sin: on the one hand, we need to be confident in the forgiveness which is in Christ Jesus (Col.1:13-14); and, on the other hand, we cannot afford to become lackadaisical about our personal behavior, as if it made no difference whether we sin or no (the sin's wage is death: Rom.6:23). For while it is true that we will remain imperfect as long as we remain in these mortal bodies wherein sin dwells (Rom.7:24), it is also true that in Christ we have died to sin (Rom.6:1-14; 7:4-6), and so we should be seeking to put it out of our lives as much as possible (Rom.6:12-13), knowing that sin is a hindrance, a stumbling block, a problem which alienates us from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ, and an occasion for punishment from Him (Heb.12:5-12).

Yes it is true, that as long as we are walking with Him, confessing our sins and attempting to do what is right, we can rest assured that He is treating us as sons in His correction of us (Heb.12:5). But consider this analogy. A son who makes a mistake in the process of learning, makes several, makes many, makes the same one several times, but is truly moving forward, growing up toward the good and away from the bad, that son is a son with whom a loving father will patiently bear, confident in a positive outcome. But a son who confesses sin, merely mouthing the words, with no intention in his heart of really changing his ways is a different story altogether. Why is he bothering, except to deceive his father (and perhaps himself)? So our attitude in confession is important. David was overjoyed at the forgiveness he found from the Lord (Ps.32:1-11), and we too should both be happy in the forgiveness of the sins we come to God and admit, but also reverent in that approach - God is not fooled, God is not mocked. The reason that David was reluctant to approach God immediately in some instances is that he was unwilling, even in spiritual rebellion, to make what would amount to a false confession to God, to admit that he had sinned without being both completely convinced in his mind of the wrongness of his sin and determined in his heart to stop it.

Now we are all weak, and it is admittedly hard to be perfect in all this. God knows this. He is merciful, beyond our understanding. But we should take care not to approach the throne of grace in arrogance, not to give mere lip service to confession - as if there were any point in that. When our Lord calls us to "repent", to reassess what we have done and recommit to doing what is right in the future (cf. Rev.2:5), it is not a mere mental understanding of the fact that a sin has been committed that is being asked for - even the demons understand on some level that they have violated God's commands (they just don't really care). We are to care - not to throw ourselves into paroxysms of guilt and self-inflicted mental anguish (such behavior indicates a complete lack of understanding of the mercy of God and forgiveness which is in Christ), but rather to "own up" to our mistakes, to see and understand that we were wrong and did wrong, and at the very least to be disposed to doing what is right and what is acceptable to Him in the future.

Are we weak? God helps our weakness (Is.40:29-31). Are we in need of understanding? God is the One who supplies all wisdom (Jas.1:5). Are we convicted by our own heart of our failures and sinfulness? God is greater than our heart (1Jn.3:20), and God knows how to "rescue sinners from temptation" (2Pet.2:9). If we are only willing to walk with Him, He has the power and the plan to pull us out of the swamp and to lead us forward. We will never attain "sinless perfection" on this earth, but there are many of us, sad to say, who are not much concerned with behavior at all, and who have not yet even begun to fight against sin (Heb.12:4; cf. 1Pet.4:1). This issue is critical in the Christian life, because resistance to negative behavior is the very important defense that is necessary before we can play a proper offense. If the devil has us bogged down in a morass of personal sinfulness where we are ever stumbling from one bad idea to the next (or the same one over and over again), between the guilt, the divine punishment, the natural consequences of wrong behavior, and our inevitable preoccupation with this issue, it will indeed be pretty hard for us to be moving ahead in Christian spiritual growth, preparing and implementing the individual ministries He has called upon each and every one of us to do (Eph.2:10). At the very least, such a pattern of lack of serious confession and continued, chronic sin will be a poor witness and a poor reflection upon those ministries. Let us even stipulate that God in His great faithfulness and infinite, unfathomable mercy forgives every confessed sin, even from those who are not in the least really repentant and have every intention of continuing in these same sins again. Does anyone really believe that chronic misbehavior can be compartmentalized - especially in the lives of believers in Christ - without having a seriously deleterious effect upon ministry, upon reputation, and, not the least of considerations by any means, upon the sense of peace we are promised and commanded to pursue (Jn.14:27; Rom.5:1; Heb.4:1)?

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just so as to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1st John 1:9

Let us therefore be quick to recognize when we have transgressed and equally quick to come to Him, acknowledging our sins in true contrition, neither depending upon any emotional effort on our part for forgiveness, nor disingenuously making such confession only by rote or for show. Proper private confession to God by every believer of every recognized and noted sin is a very important part of the equation of spiritual growth. And in each and every such case "He will faithfully and justly forgive us our sins". As a practical matter, we should not let this issue paralyze us.  Is not the Spirit in us? Does not God promise complete forgiveness if only we confess? Then we need not be overly worried about every minute action, thought and word (it is possible to go to extremes in all things). On the other hand, in addition to immediate confession of instances of clearly recognized, out-and-out willful sin, we ought to make confession a regular part of our prayer life: the "opportunities" for transgression in thought, word and deed are substantial, and we would all do well to walk humbly with our God in this respect (Micah 6:8), remembering always to maintain the same attitude of forgiveness to others which we expect to receive from our heavenly Father, for love covers a multitude of sins (1Pet.4:8):  

Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.
Matthew 6:12  NIV

For more on this teaching, see the following links:

In your Anger, do not Sin: Ephesians 4:26 and the Sin Nature.

Repentance, Confession, and Forgiveness in BB 3B: Hamartiology.

Peter's Epistles, Lesson #15.

Apologies for the lengthy answer - here's hoping you find it helpful,

Yours in Christ,

Bob Luginbill


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