There has been a heated debate going on regarding 1 John 1:9. The point of contention is whether a New Covenant Christian must confess sin to be forgiven.
This originated from Joseph Prince’s book, Destined to Reign, which was the genesis of many modern teachings on grace. Personally, I find Joseph Prince to be the only character on Christian TV that I can stomach. He is an amazing Bible Teacher; he exudes love and grace, and demolishes many wrong belief systems. I also read Destined to Reign a few years ago and found it to be very agreeable. I disagree with something in practically every book I read, so there is no reason to be nitpicky.
The First John 1:9 debate came up because Prince basically says that Jesus forgave all sin at the cross, past, present and future, thus we are already forgiven and should only confess that we are the Righteousness of God in Christ. To confess our sin is to reinforce a “sin-consciousness”. Since Prince’s book, there have been dozens of young grace teachers which have echoed this concept.
Enter Dr. Michael Brown.
Dr. Brown released his response book Hyper-Grace in January 2014. He presented many contentions with the “Grace Movement”; one of the main ones being the Joseph Prince view of confession of sin no longer being necessary.
Although I strongly disliked his book, Dr. Brown actually does a great job looking at the foundation of Prince’s argument. Prince and those in his boat say that 1 John 1:9 was written to gnostics and not to Christians. Dr. Brown takes a detailed look at the claim and it crumples like a dead tree stump. There is no reason to believe that the first chapter of the first letter from John was written to gnostic non-Christians. In fact, I do agree with Dr. Brown that all the evidence points away from such an absurd conclusion. While I do not continue to agree with where Dr. Brown’s conclusion take him, I am in agreement that it is a mistake to teach that any part of First John was written to gnostics. Here are a few reasons:
#1. The early church was under tremendous persecution, for this reason, none of the books of the New Testament were written to non-Christians. Gnostics in the first century were not reading the letters of John. It is ridiculous to even consider such a theory.
#2. The argument has been presented that 1 John 2:1 begins with, “My Dear Children,” thus this supposedly is the beginning of where John is writing to Christians. Yet John actually continues by saying “My dear children, I write this to YOU so that YOU will not sin…” (Emphasis mine) John connects the second chapter with the first and tells his readers why he wrote the first chapter to THEM, so that THEY would not sin. He tells whom he has been writing to in the first chapter and why.
#3. John writes inclusively of himself and his Christian readers, “if WE confess OUR sins, He is faithful…” Otherwise John should have aimed it at the non-Christians, “if YOU confess YOUR sins, He is faithful…”
Ultimately, I believe the debate has been framed wrong. It is not about: “Do we confess we are righteous or do we confess our sins.” That has NOTHING to do with what John is addressing in 1 John 1:9
Let’s start by getting the context right. Here is 1 John 1:5-2:2.
In this passage about walking in the light, John contrasts parallel thoughts in verses 8 and 9. In verse 8, John’s point is that if someone will not be open and honest about their mistakes, then they live under self-induced deception. Whereas in verse 9, John says that if a person will be open and honest about their mistakes, then they will be forgiven and purified.
The contrast is between Claim or Confess; Claim to be without sin (live in denial), or Confess that you have sin (receive forgiveness).
You cannot receive forgiveness if you cannot admit you have made a mistake. The parent of any three year old can understand this. If your child defiantly stands in the kitchen with chocolate all over their face and lies to you about eating the chocolate, then you have the “Claim’s to be without Sin kid” and they are being a liar, if you have the “Confesses they ate the chocolate kid” then they get their face washed and they run off to play in the yard.
John is not writing to say that a believer will never be free from the grip of sin; otherwise, why would he say in 2:1 that, “I write this to you so that you will not sin”?
John’s perspective was that Christians do not have to sin, but if they happen to sin (eat the chocolate), they should be open and honest about it so that they can receive forgiveness and purification. This is not about whether we are righteous or sinners, it’s about what we do if we sin (eat chocolate), do we lie, hide and cover up; or are we honest, in the light, and transparent?
John is basically saying, “If you eat the chocolate, don’t lie about it. God is a good Father; He will wash your face and send you off to play. Jesus is your advocate, your Father is the judge, the whole courtroom is in your favor, and Jesus died for your chocolate forgiveness perfectly. Stop hiding your mistakes, just be transparent, there is no reason to hide your chocolate eating.”