OK! I'm going to take a chance here and post my new way of thinking about the meaning of 1 John 1:9. I think my friends will, while maybe not agreeing with me, cut me some slack on trying to at least stay true to what I see in the text.
I know I’m neither a theologian nor a scholar, so what I’m about to write will leave anyone in either of those categories quite unhappy with my conclusions and writing. But since I’m a communicator I will present what I’m understanding about 1 John 1:9 in what I hope will be a sensible and understandable, not to mention true to the text, rendition of the verse.
Generally speaking, I have always read this verse in the context of keeping up to date with confessing personal sins in order to stay in fellowship with God. So I would summarize it this way:
“When we confess our sins and ask God to forgive us we are keeping short sin accounts with God. This is so we can enjoy fellowship. As God convicts us of our sin it is our duty to confess them knowing that when we do He will forgive and cleanse us so we don't grieve the Holy Spirit and fellowship will result.”
But was I, in fact, correct in what I thought the verse to be saying? I'm wondering!
Commentators generally agree that John is writing this epistle to oppose false teachers and teachings. That's certainly ONE of his purposes I think. For example, John says in 1:8, "If we say [as some teachers were doing] that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." However, John’s purpose seems to me to be slightly more complex than JUST correcting erroneous theology or teachers.
I'm thinking that 1 John 5:13 exposes the main purpose of his writing with 1:4, 2:1, 2:12 showing several other purposes as well. But all other purposes seem to be actually wrapped up in his number one purpose as revealed in 5:13, So, I think we can safely say that John’s goal in writing this epistle seems to be primarily that “they might know that they genuinely possess eternal life."
[Chapter 5 verse 13 is, after all, a summary statement near the end of the book.]
Apparently, those false teachers had created a lot of doubt and uncertainty about personal salvation in the minds and hearts of the people resulting in their question becoming, "How do I REALLY know I'm saved?" So, John, using his personal relationship with Jesus as his authority attempts to convince his hearers about what a real believer actually looks like.
Simply stated, throughout his letter John is not only correcting a lot of false teaching about Jesus’ deity, His humanity, the necessity of love, and what it means to have “fellowship with God,” but he is doing so in an attempt to bring them CERTAINTY about the genuineness of their own conversion.
His method of doing this was, as I read one theologian say, "One of offering different “tests" as evidence of true faith." Those tests showed that true believers will (1) believe that Jesus truly is the Christ come in the flesh, and because of this belief they will (2) walk in Light and not darkness, and(3) walk in Love instead of hatred, and (4) confess sin when convicted and convinced of it, and (5) walk in obedience. I'm thinking that the paragraph that contains 1 John 1:9 is smack dab in the middle of these tests has to be viewed as a test as well.
Now, while it is certainly possible for John to have had secondary purposes in mind as he writes a verse like 1:9, it's wise to keep his overall goal in mind as we read it along with all the other verses.
With this as our background notice that John's greeting and introduction of this letter shows him jumping immediately into his main purpose of giving those “tests” of genuine Christianity. Chapter 1 verse 6 declares that if “we walk in darkness instead of the light, we are lying and are not practicing the truth,” which is the first “test.” One way to look and see whether you have genuine Christianity or not, is to see if you’re walking in the light. Chapter 1 verse 8 continues by telling us that claims to sinless perfection are grounds for failing the “test.” Finally, chapter 1 verse 10 repeats it again by linking a claim to sinless perfection with not having “His Word” in us.
So I'm simply contending that verse nine is a test as well and that's why it's found in this paragraph. Trying to interpret chapter 1 verse 9 as a command to confess IN ORDER TO GET forgiveness denies the surrounding context completely and just doesn't make good sense with this in mind.
Now for some EXEGESIS...
1 John 1:9 is a conditional sentence. In biblical Greek there are technically five classes of conditions with three of those five classes being the ones most commonly used in the New Testament.
A first class condition are statements in the indicative mood that are assumed true for the sake of an argument. Since "confess" in verse 9 is in the subjunctive mood, we can rule out the first class.
Second class conditions are statements that are assumed false for the sake of an argument. They are in the indicative as well. Again, verse 9 is not in the indicative so it can't be a second class condition.
A third class condition is presented as an uncertain you may or you may not kind of emphasis. Many Greek grammarians and scholars place 1 John 1:9 into this category,
But I'm thinking it is more likely that 1 John 1:9 should be categorized as a FIFTH class condition statement which is structurally very similar to a third class condition but isn't tied to a future time [sequence] element as the third class is. Fifth class conditions are a “present general condition,” [remember the context] where the author’s presentation is neutral. [Not a command] Greek scholars also point out that, “a Greek verb can have time significance [sequence] only in the indicative. The only significance that a verb in the subjunctive has, which 1:9 is, is one of aspect.”
This means the argument I once made that this sentence was describing a future [or sequential] event, [forgiveness and cleansing being conditioned upon confession and coming after] was a misunderstanding of the subjunctive mood and the fifth class of conditions completely.
This verse does not comment upon sequence of events at all. Instead, it simply shows a general, logical connection between two ideas. Those two ideas are our confession of sin and something else, namely, an evidence of God’s forgiveness and cleansing already being present when confession happens.
In simple language, a willingness to "confess" sins for a Christian is to EVIDENCE God's already present forgiveness and cleansing in them. In other words, their salvation is genuine. The focus is on a contrast between someone who denies the existence of their sin and someone who willing to admit their sins.
So my contention is that the meaning of the verse is that our confession neither CAUSES forgiveness to be received, nor RESULTS in forgiveness in any way. It simply identifies a person who confesses sin as already having become a recipient of God’s faithful justice and forgiveness.
One final exegetical argument to examine. The parallel nature of verses seven and nine are evident. Technically, verse seven, verse eight, and verse nine are all parallel in structure. In fact, verse seven, is almost identical to verse nine, structurally, since it includes the present tense. In verse eight John specifically shows the intention behind the conditional statement of verse 7: namely, giving evidences or tests of genuine Christianity.
So, our only option in verse seven is to interpret it like this: “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have true fellowship with each other and evidence is in, namely, that Jesus’ blood HAS INDEED already cleansed us from all our sin.”
The same is true for verse 9. “If we continually confess our sins, then the evidence is in that we HAVE INDEED already experienced God’s faithful justice in the forgiveness and cleansing of all our injustices.”
This reading not only allows for the structure of the paragraph and the meaning of the included words, but it also aligns with John’s purpose of writing, as seen in the two adjacent verses, the surrounding paragraph, and the entire letter.
At the risk of saying it over and over again, one more time I say, our confession of sin needs to be seen as a sign of our identity as a believer, not a necessary event in order to acquire forgiveness. When one sees confession AS THIS, when they are broken over personal sins and name them as such, they can have confidence that they are already a forgiven and cleansed child of God.
So how are we to correctly understand chapter 1 verse 9 when properly translated?
The verse DOES NOT TEACH the need for forgiveness or cleansing from God throughout a believers life, nor does it connect future events, confession causing forgiveness and cleansing. 1 John 1:9 is simply another test of genuine Christianity.
One last time! When a person is willing to confess to being a sinner and actions of sin, they can have confidence that they have ALREADY EXPERIENCED the justice of God through His forgiveness and cleansing.
[Dealing with sins is of course necessary for fellowship as shown in the foot washing incident of John 13 and this will be looked at a later time in a later post. But it's not the purpose of 1 John 1:9.]