1 John 1:9 reads, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Some Methodist theologians have argued that the two verbs “forgive” and “cleanse” show that this verse is teaching that two separate “works of grace” are needed in our lives. I certainly agree that we need both forgiveness for sins and cleansing from the principle of sin. However, I do not believe 1 John 1:9 teaches “two works of grace” for several reasons.
First, the wording of the verse is against it. John uses an IF … THEN sentence. The IF statement—“If we confess our sins”—sets up the condition that the THEN clause depends on. Since what is confessed are acts of sin, then it follows that what is forgiven and cleansed are acts of sin.
Second, the vocabulary John uses is against it. John does not use the word “unrighteousness” anywhere else to refer to the principle of sin. On the other hand, he does use the word “cleanse” in reference to forgiveness from sins elsewhere (John 13:10-11; 15:3).
Third, the context is against it. John’s main concern in this section (1 John 1:5-2:6) is that we “sin not” (1 John 2:1). He wrote this section to deal with three heretical beliefs about sin:
- the idea that you can be right with God and live a sinful life (1:6)
- the idea that you can be right with God without acknowledging your guilt and need of cleansing (1:8); and
- the idea that you can be right with God because you have never sinned and don’t need forgiveness (1:10).
Since “God is light and there is no darkness in Him,” it is impossible to walk in darkness (practice willful sin) and have fellowship with God. Anyone who claims it is possible is lying (1:6). The only way to have fellowship with God is to walk in the light as He is in the light, which means practical willful obedience (1:7). That takes care of the first error.
It is impossible to walk in darkness (practice willful sin) and have fellowship with God.
When we walk in the light, the blood of God’s son is cleansing us from all sin (1:7). Some people, however, were denying that they had any need of being cleansed (1:8). 1 John 1:8 has often been taken out of context and used to argue that all Christians commit sin regularly.
As both Calvinist and Arminian scholars recognize, this is not John’s point. John is addressing people who wouldn’t deny they have sinned, but they claim they aren’t guilty (“don’t have sin”) and don’t need forgiveness. The Pharisees had made this claim (John 9:41; cf. John 15:22, 24; 19:11), and apparently there were still people in John’s time who were making it. Anyone who denies their need of cleansing from sin’s guilt is deceiving themselves (1:8).
The solution to the second error is to confess one’s sins and ask forgiveness (1:9). God, who is faithful and just, will forgive you and cleanse you. Forgiveness focuses on the removal of the record of sin, and cleansing focuses on the removal of our guilt (cf. Heb. 10:22).
Forgiveness focuses on the removal of the record of sin, and cleansing focuses on the removal of our guilt.
The third error—a denial that one has ever committed an act of sin—is so absurd that John offers no refutation. His blunt reply is “You’re making God a liar.” God has clearly said that all have sinned (Psa. 53:1-3; Rom. 3:10-18; 23).
Given the flow of John’s thought in this section as well as the vocabulary and wording in 1 John 1:9, this verse is addressing forgiveness and cleansing from acts of sin, either at the moment of salvation or at any subsequent point when such acts have occurred. It is not addressing cleansing from inherited depravity. Thank God for the cleansing blood of our Savior that makes and keeps us clean!
Originally published in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.