One of the deepest longings of mankind has always been to have communion with a higher being. The priests of ancient cults were held in awe by the common people; Greek cities created their own gods; mystery religions promised communion with a deity through secret rites in a way strikingly similar to the Masons and Mormons.
Modern man is a bit more sophisticated, but he still yearns for intimacy with a higher being. Our "gods" nowadays are usually celebrities. We jump at the opportunity to get chummy with baseball players and beauty queens, movie stars and presidents (which, sometimes, are one and the same).
But our gods are feeble. Our heroes are turning out to be villains: football players are beating their wives; and when they're not beating them, they're cheating on them. Presidents, congressmen and TV evangelists are hopping from bed to bed. Our heroes disappoint us; the super beings have feet of clay.
Christianity, however, holds forth the promise of fellowship with a perfect, immutable, omnipotent God. The Scriptures are clear that there is but one God--the sovereign of the universe, the creator of all that is. He is incomprehensible, yet knowable; transcendent, yet immanent.
But with the possibility of fellowship with such a God, we are faced with a dilemma: How can sinful human beings have fellowship with a holy God? Indeed, the Greek word for "fellowship," koinwniva, means "having something in common." And what could sinful man possibly have in common with a holy God?
This tension is a very real one. There is a tendency, on the part of all of us, to either suppress the degree of our sinfulness, or to tone down God's majesty and brilliance.
How can sinful man have anything in common with a holy God? By one means and one means only: the blood-stained cross of Christ. Because of the substitutionary death of the God-man, we have the audacity--the right even--to call the God of the Universe "Father"!
One of the most remarkable things about Christianity is this fellowship with God. We don't read of fellowship with God even in the Old Testament. The difference is not a lowering of God's standard, but an elevation of the believer: we are hoisted up to heaven on the cross of Christ.
The cross provides access to the Father: it gives us a new birth so that we are indeed the children of God. Yet, Christians still sin. We are still depraved. Even though we are God's children, we often don't walk with God as we ought. And it is our ongoing sinfulness, after we are saved, which causes us to suppress the moral differences between God and ourselves.
Some have been Christians for several years, even decades. And yet you still struggle with sin. What do you do with that sin? What do you do when you sin?
The apostle John speaks to this issue. In his first epistle, he lays out the basic prerequisite for ongoing fellowship with God, in 1 John 1:5-10.
The first prerequisite for ongoing fellowship with God is an admission of our condition. John makes this very clear in this text.
First, he establishes the ground rules: the One with whom we have fellowship is light and in him there is no darkness at all.
There are two opinions as to what light means in this text. Are we talking about moral light or about self-revelation? That is, when John says that God is light does he mean that God is a holy God or that he reveals himself? Is John addressing God's essence or his disclosure?
Both uses of light are found in scripture. Theophanies in the OT were accompanied by great light. Paul says that God dwells in unapproachable light. Texts such as these speak of God's holiness. But the Bible also uses light as an idiom for God's self-revelation. Jesus Christ is called "the effulgence of the glory of God" in Hebrews 1:3. In other words, he is the revelation of God incarnate. This is not to deny God's holiness, of course, but it is to principally address the disclosure of himself to mere mortals.
Many scholars are persuaded that in 1 John 1:5 the author puts the accent on God's moral attributes when he uses the term "light." Thus: If we want to have fellowship with God, we must first of all recognize that God's view of sin has not changed between the Testaments. He is still a holy God: there is no speck of darkness, no hint of moral fuzziness in the Almighty. To be in the light, then, means to be holy.
The other view is that God's light refers to his self-revelation. In other words, God sheds light on who he is and, as we step into that light, on who we are. "Walking in the light" in this case means being honest with God. It means not trying to hide our sin--either from him or from ourselves.
The problem with the first view is just one little thing: it doesn't fit the context.1 First of all, if God's holiness were primarily in view, we would expect some discussion of various kinds of sin--gluttony, adultery, drunkenness, gossip, envy, etc. None of this is mentioned. Instead, the focus is on truth vs. lying. And lying is fundamentally covering up the truth in darkness. The one thing that is urged here, in fact, is not something like "Be holy, for I am holy," but "confess your sins." In other words, "be honest about your lack of holiness, because you can't hide from me anyway."
Second, the overarching theme of 1 John has to do with fellowship. And fellowship, koinwniva, means "having something in common." What could we possibly have in common with a holy God? If we are to have anything in common with God, it must first be an agreement with him about who we are and who he is. The first prerequisite to fellowship with God is honesty.
Third, the metaphor of light works well with this view. The relationship of light to dirt is twofold: first, light reveals the dirt. But second, light cannot be contaminated by dirt. When God shines on us, this exposes our sin, but it does not defile God. When we agree with him about that sin, we are walking in the light.
After establishing who God is, John turns to us and how we relate to God. John will not permit us to rationalize about our sin. To be in God's light means to be exposed to the truth about himself and ourselves.
Yet, there is a pernicious problem we face. In vv. 6-10, John mimics three errant views that his opponents held and then shows how they miss the mark. All have to do with the depravity of men; all have to do with hiding from the light.
First, in v. 6 John says: "And if we say that we have fellowship with him and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth."
John continues the imagery he began in v. 5, that of light and darkness.
The first prerequisite to fellowship: walk in the light. Be honest with God about who and what you are!
But this raises a problem. To have fellowship with God, to be in the light, don't we have to live a sinless life? That would seem to be the case if light meant holiness.
The implications about this are vast: if "light" means holiness, then to walk in the light would seem to mean absolute holiness. It is precisely because some folks have understood light this way that they view fellowship with God as something we can be in one moment and out of the next. I think this approach produces a schizophrenic Christian who ends up thinking he's spiritual one moment and carnal the next. Worse, he begins to focus on his performance more than on his relationship to God. Never does habit or character enter into this picture of spirituality.
And, quite frankly, such a view of spirituality actually promotes sin. Because this view allows me to take fleshly detours all I want: as long as I just confess my sins afterward, I'm spiritual again.
Further, you really can't base this view of spirituality on 1 John 1. Notice what John says in verse 7: "but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."
To walk in the light is not to live without sin: otherwise, the blood of Jesus would not be needed to cleanse us while we are walking in the light. All the verbs in this verse are present tense. The force seems to be that while we are walking in the light the blood of Jesus is cleansing us from our sins.
This text is not, therefore, speaking of being "in fellowship" and "out of fellowship" on a moment-by-moment basis. If "light" means "exposure," this would mean that one second we're admitting that we're sinners, and denying it the next. Such a view is neither true to life nor to the scriptures.
But if "light" means honesty and integrity and transparency, then to walk in the light is not absolute holiness. But it is the necessary prerequisite to holiness.
In vv. 8-10, John switches from his metaphor and gets down to the nitty-gritty.
Verse 8: "If we say that we have no sin, we lie and the truth is not in us." The man who claims to have no sin is the one who claims to have no guilt. In effect, he is saying that his sins don't matter to God, that not only does God not care about his sin, but that he is not responsible for his actions.
Verse 9 contrasts the attitude of verse 8: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. "
John is speaking here not of the confession which leads to salvation, but of the ongoing, repeated confession of the Christian. He is not addressing justification, but sanctification.
There is much confusion about what confession of sins involves.
In general, confession moves in two directions in scripture: confession about God and confession about ourselves. Both such confessions involve belief, not merely acknowledgment. Fundamentally, it is a recognition that God is in control and we are not.
Some have argued that the word used here for "confess," oJmologevw, means "only to name your sins to God."2 "It does not mean to renounce your sins."3 It is further asserted that confession in this context is merely a judicial term, as if we are standing before God as our judge and simply agreeing with him about our sin. One author put it this way:
Before the Supreme Court of heaven, how you feel about your sin is of no consequence.
Confession that compels self-reproach or penance is blasphemy and rejects the grace of God. Never insult God by adding an emotional plea for forgiveness. First John 1:9 does not say, If we ask or beg for forgiveness. Just acknowledge your sins.4
There is much that is true in this statement--and much that is false. And that's the problem. Too many Christians view the text just this way--and they end up sinning more and more and enjoying God less and less. A proper understanding of confession in 1 John 1:9 involves several points.
First, confession involves belief. It is to agree with God about our sin. Such acknowledgment is not merely on a cognitive level, however. Notice the context: v. 8--"if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves." Now, obviously, if someone merely says that he has no sin, he doesn't deceive himself. What is spoken must be believed. I could say to you, "There is no God." But that statement doesn't make me an atheist unless I believe it. It is the same for confession of sin. If we confess our sins, without even trying to enter into an understanding of the depths of our sin, we deceive ourselves.
This is one of the problems I have with formulaic Christianity, or "connect the dot theology." We tend to push God away by all the formulas we create. Every Christian knows how to "1 John 1:9" it! You go get drunk and afterward "1 John 1:9" it. You pick up a Playboy for the "intellectual stimulus" it provides. So, you get a little carried away and you start reading as if by Braille! Well, you can just "1 John 1:9 it" and get back on track . Right? Friends, that's not spirituality. And that's not confession.
The very fact that "1 John 1:9" has become a part of our religious idiom indicates that we too often view this text mechanically--and therefore our relationship with God mechanically, too. Quite frankly, we have come to use this text in such a way that trivializes sin and builds callousness toward God as our Father.
First and foremost, then, confession of sins is an admission of guilt--an admission which we affirm both in word and heart. Thus, confession always involves belief.
Second, confession of sin involves a recognition of our inadequacy and our need. When I confess, "Dear Lord, I confess my sins. And I promise, I'll never do that again!" I am being totally dishonest with God. In the same breath we tell God we screwed up and that we have the ability to keep from blowing it again! But didn't Jesus say, "Apart from me you can do nothing"? And didn't Paul tell us that "no one does good, not even one"--and that even believers constantly "fall short of the glory of God"?
On the one hand, it is good to express shock and horror over our sin before God. But when we express disbelief ("How could I have ever done that?") then we are dangerously close to thinking that we have the ability apart from the Holy Spirit to get back on track. Fundamentally, confession is being honest with God about who we are.
Third, the context for the confession is not just judicial: it is also relational. On the one hand, confession is before God as the one who passes judgment. And he passes no judgment on those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. There is a precious truth here: because Christ has paid the full price of sin, it would be unjust of God to dole out a penalty on any who are in Christ. Therefore, it is not necessary, nor is it even right to plead with God to forgive us. Such pleading would be a slap in the face of Jesus--he paid the full price! That is why it is just for God to forgive us our sins: Jesus already paid the price.
So I can quite agree with those who see a judicial context for the confession here. But there is more--much more. If this were merely a judicial context, we would expect to see only legal terms used. We would not expect to see any family terminology.
I believe that the Westminster Shorter Catechism is quite correct when it says: "What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever." Until we come to grips with seeing God as Father we not only can't enjoy him; we also will not understand what it truly means to confess our sins to him.
God is not just a place where we dump our sins. God is a person; he is our Father. Understanding this relationship helps us to understand the next point.
Fourth, confession of sin always involves repentance. The scriptures are very clear that one cannot come into a relationship with God without repentance; and they are equally clear that one cannot sustain fellowship with God without repentance.
When Luke speaks about salvation he uses terms such as "repent, believe," and "turn away from sins." All of these terms are used frequently in the book of Acts. Sometimes only "believe" is mentioned as that which saves a person. We're all familiar with Acts 16:31-- "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved." Some folks like to think that the whole gospel is summed up in those words. In many respects, that is true. But notice what is missing: not one word about what to believe is mentioned. Who is this Jesus Christ that the Philippian jailer was to believe in? Could he believe anything about him that he wanted--and still get saved? Obviously not. He couldn't deny his resurrection, for example. What is going on here happens very frequently in the NT--something of a theological shorthand. Paul must have communicated the contents of the gospel to the jailer ahead of time. When the time was right, he simply said, "believe."
Elsewhere in Acts "believe" is not even mentioned, yet it is obvious that faith is required. Notice Acts 3:18--"Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out." Is Luke saying that one's sins can be forgiven apart from faith? Or is he saying there are two different ways to get saved: one is by faith and the other is by repentance? No way! He is simply using this theological shorthand, focusing on one aspect in this text.
In some texts Luke combines both faith and repentance. Notice Acts 20:21. This is the heart of Paul's gospel message. The construction in Greek suggests the closest possible connection between repentance and faith. In fact, one might say that all genuine faith includes repentance.
What I am getting at is this: just as belief or faith does not always need to be mentioned in the text for us to know that it is there, so also repentance does not always need to be mentioned.
Back to 1 John 1:9: Now, you might say: "But the word 'repentance' is not even in the text. How can that be part of confession?" Because interpreting the scriptures is not just doing a bunch of unconnected Greek word studies and etymologies. It is examining the words that a particular author uses in their contexts.
Every seminary student knows that the books of the Bible need to be interpreted in light of the author's usage of terms and expressions. Some writers prefer the word "repent" to speak of how we, as Christians, should relate to God. Some use "trust"; still others use "obey" or "confess." All of this is to say that we are both depraved and deprived--we need both God's mercy and his power to face sin. In order to understand the words in a given context, you must understand how that author uses the terms. Let me illustrate:
Remember, reading the NT letters is like listening to half a phone conversation . . . Unless you know the party on the other end, it's difficult to tell what is being said.
Let me illustrate this further with scripture.
This really is a very important concept to grasp. It's easy for us to get so caught up in the words of the text that we forget their meaning. So let me illustrate further: "My mother used to like climbing vines." What do I mean by that? (There are two options here. Either my mother used to like vines that climb, or else she used to climb to climb vines. How can you tell what I mean by these words unless you know me or my mother?)
Now, back to 1 John 1:9 (again!): even though John does not use the word "repent," he certainly implies it. "Repent" is a term, in fact, that John never uses--either in the Gospel of John, or in 1 John, or 2 John, or 3 John. But that doesn't mean that John is opposed to repentance any more than he's opposed to faith. Because when he gets to Revelation, when he quotes the resurrected and glorified Lord Jesus in his instructions to the seven churches, all of a sudden repentance shows up in John's writings. And eight times the Lord tells these churches to repent. At one point, he even says, "Those whom I love, I chasten and reprove. Be zealous, therefore, and repent" [3:19]. Repentance, then, is a part of how Christians continually relate to God.
I fail to see much of a difference between "repentance" in one place and "confession" in another. If forgiveness is promised for those Christians who repent in one place, and to those Christians who confess in another, does this make either action unnecessary? Of course not. It simply means that the terms used are different.5 And it just so happens that John preferred to use the term confess while Jesus preferred to use the term repent.
Unless we want to say that John disagreed with Jesus, I think it's best to see confession as including repentance.
Why is this so important? Precisely because how you view confession indicates how you view God. Is he merely the Chief Justice who dispenses grace whenever we "name our sins," or is he is our Father?
That would be true confession.
In neither scenario would the young man think that his father would not forgive him. But only in the second one does he truly confess. Confession before a judge might not involve repentance--heck, you'll never see that judge again; but confession before a Father always does, because you live with the man.
Fifth, confession involves acknowledging our sins and our sin. We are to confess not just what we have done, but also what we are (v. 8). We are not honest to God if we simply admit the symptoms, or feel sorry only for the consequences.
Most Christians have an incredibly naive and simplistic view of sin. Typically, we view sin in terms of action and consequences, not in terms of attitude and causes. But sinful acts are merely the end result of a process.
James says when lust is tempted, it conceives sin and sin brings forth death [Jas 1:14-15]. In other words, there is movement from lust to temptation to overt sin to death. When we bandage up the overt sin, we're not dealing with the whole problem. We're really lying to ourselves about the root causes of such sins.
This kind of approach to sin is like fleeing temptation, but leaving a forwarding address!
When we rationalize about what we have already done, it is as if we are calling God "the devil." The Greek text should probably be translated, "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him [God] to be the liar, and the truth is not in us." To deny our sin is to turn heaven into hell and hell into heaven. We need to be honest with God about who we are and who we were.
I am more and more convinced that the basics of what God expects of us can be laid out very simply. The Christian life is not difficult to understand; it's just impossible to accomplish--that is, apart from the work of the Spirit in our lives. At bottom, God wants us to be honest with him about what we are and who he is. We must both admit our condition and accept God's provision. We must live in constant dependence on him. The Christian life cannot be lived without faith. Nor can it be lived if we deny our sinfulness.
We have bought into a great myth about holiness. We think that the longer we are Christians, the holier we become--and the holier we feel. That just ain't the case. Spiritual growth does not mean that we feel holy. Just the opposite: it means that we feel sinful--and we know that God has forgiven our sin. It means that as we step more and more into God's light, the cobwebs and dirt and grime in the dark corners of our soul get exposed. Just when we thought we had our house in order, God shines his floodlight on a neglected spot. It's a spot that's been there for so long, we thought it was part of the floor pattern. But God says it's dirt, and we come to agree. You can't argue with a floodlight. But we can't get that spot out. Only the Holy Spirit can. And when we admit to God that that's dirt and we can't clean it up, but HE CAN, then we're being honest with God!
At bottom, confession involves honesty in a relationship to our Father. That's one reason I don't personally care for the expression, "Rebound and keep moving." Because to many Christians that means:
If this is what "rebound and keep moving" is all about, I want nothing to do with it. We are to embrace God's forgiveness--yes! But we are also to embrace God as our Father! He is not the means to an end, or a temporary pit stop along the way. He is the end, he is the goal.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism nailed spirituality on the head: "What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever."