“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” (1 John 1:9, NKJV)
Twice John calls us to fess up. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). In his second call, John makes it personal with the One against whom we sin. “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). The issue at this point is not the sin itself but admission that we are sinners. We must fess up that we do have sin on our conscience and on our record. The first step is admitting we have a problem.
What is sin? Later John will describe it as “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4) and “unrighteousness” (1 John 5:17). We sin when we break God’s law, His revealed will given us to obey. We can sin by commission, doing what God forbids, and omission, not doing what He commands. We can sin willfully or unintentionally. Our sin can be in thought, word, and deed. At its essence, sin is an affront to God and leaves us as lawbreakers under the sentence of condemnation.
But John does not leave us cowering in a corner. He lifts our eyes to God, the very God against whom we have sinned. Sandwiched between his twice-stated indictment of sin is the meat of the gospel of grace. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
The word “confess” means “to say the same thing.” In confessing our sin, we do not try to cover up our iniquity with excuses or euphemisms. We do not plea bargain with God. Rather, we call our transgression what God calls it, “sin,” admitting first and foremost that it is against God we have sinned and done what is evil in His sight. We uncover our wrong before Him who is light and from whom nothing is hidden.
John says that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. Why does John not say that God is faithful and merciful to forgive? Faithful we can understand because God is true to His word and true to Himself. He cannot lie. If He says it, He will do it. But just? We don’t want justice when we sin. When the police officer pulls us over for speeding, we don’t want the justice of a ticket; we want the mercy of a warning.
Yet it is justice that John holds up for us and that justice points us to Christ. It is in Him alone that the guilt of our sin is atoned for and the justice of God is satisfied. God forgives our sins ultimately not because we confess our sins but because we confess Christ as the remedy for our sin. Only in Him can we be cleansed from unrighteousness, all unrighteousness.
What does it mean to say we gain forgiveness not by confessing sin but by confessing Christ?