(1 Jn. 1:9) Is forgiveness conditional on continual confession?

CLAIM: John writes, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). This passage makes forgiveness contingent on confession (“If we confess our sins…”), which contradicts once-for-all salvation based on grace. Is forgiveness conditional on constant confession?

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

First, if we understand the background of this letter, we realize that John is battling proto-Gnostic unbelievers. If you study the book of first John, you see that libertine dualism was a major problem in Ephesus. This form of Gnosticism believed that the body and soul were separate. Therefore, they reasoned that it didn’t matter what they did in their bodies, as long as their souls were pure. We know this based on the passages that we find throughout the letter. These people claimed to love God, but they hated their brother and were living without love (1 Jn. 2:4, 10-11; 4:20). They also denied that Jesus came “in the flesh” (1 Jn. 4:2), which they held to be filthy. John didn’t think that these dualists were even Christians (1 Jn. 2:19).

Second, this passage uses doublets to distinguish the Gnostics from the Christians. John switches back and forth from one verse to the next. If we restructure the passage this way (below), we see that the odd verses refer to Christians and the even verses refer to the Gnostic unbelievers.

[CHRISTIANS] 5 This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.

[DUALISTS]  6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth;

[CHRISTIANS] 7 but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.

[DUALISTS] 8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.

[CHRISTIANS] 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

[DUALISTS] 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.

John is describing the difference between Christians and non-Christians, rather than Christians who confess their sin. When John uses the term “we,” he is using it in the editorial sense. That is, whoever decides to live one way or the other.

Third, therefore, it would be a mistake to think that John is writing about the Christian devotional life. While the Bible teaches that we are healed through confession (Jas. 5:16), we shouldn’t take that truth from this passage. Otherwise, forgiveness seems conditional on confession.