(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 our forgiveness conditional on constant confession?

RESPONSE: There are many problems with holding to this perspective.

First, one of the rules of hermeneutics is to interpret the unclear in light of the clear. Confession of sin is never mentioned as a condition of salvation in any of John’s writings. The only condition for salvation is faith in Christ (Jn. 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; 1 Jn. 5:1, 12-13). Therefore, it would be quite odd if John was suddenly adding a condition for salvation in this one verse. We shouldn’t build an entire theology of salvation on one passage, but on the many clear passages in John’s writings.

Second, it commits a logical fallacy to make a negative inference based on a true proposition. That is, if we don’t confess our sins, does this mean that Jesus won’t forgive us? No, that’s fallacious. That conclusion commits what is called the “negative inference fallacy.”[1] John is not affirming a negative, but only a positive: Everyone who confesses their sins will find forgiveness. This text simply says nothing about those who don’t confess their sins. It only speaks about those who do.

Third, it would be practically impossible to confess each and every sin. If confession is truly a condition for salvation, then we need to bite the bullet and admit that this would apply to each and every sin. It is no use saying that Jesus will “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” in order to solve this difficulty. Surely Jesus will forgive; the stated condition is with regard to whether or not we have confessed.

Fourth, the historical background is essential to understanding John’s meaning. John is battling proto-Gnostic unbelievers in this letter, and their libertine dualism was a major problem in Ephesus (see “Introduction to 1 John”). This form of Gnosticism held that the physical body was impure, and the soul was pure. Therefore, Gnostics reasoned that it didn’t matter what they did in their bodies, as long as their souls were pure. In this section, this Gnostic dualism emerges: They walk in the darkness (v.6), and they deny that they are sinful (v.8, 10). This fits with Gnostic dualism: The soul is considered pure—even if the body commits heinous acts of sin.

Fifth, John is correcting this Gnostic teaching by alternating back and forth in this section. Indeed, John switches back and forth from one verse to the next. Hiebert notes, “The claims indicated in verses 6, 8, and 10 seem clearly to represent views advanced by the false teachers.”[2] Stott[3] concurs with this view—namely, John is raising a Gnostic objection and then refuting it. We discover a similar pattern elsewhere in the letter where John writes, “The one who says…” (1 Jn. 2:4, 6, 9) and “If someone says…” (1 Jn. 4:20). Clearly, John is interacting with the views of the false teachers. John uses the word “we,” but Stott notes, “[John] is not suggesting that he has ever himself said or thought the errors he is rebutting. He uses the first person plural only because he is stating general principles which are applicable to all people equally.”[4]

Therefore, John’s focus is between those who practice the truth and those who reject the historical and apostolic Christian faith. This is why there is a back and forth “symmetry”[5] between the truth and falsehood in these verses. In the alternate verses, John addresses those who “lie and do not practice the truth” (v.6), those who are deceived and do not have “the truth” in them (v.8), and those who “make [God] a liar” (v.10). Clearly, the “truth” of the gospel is what is at stake here.

If we restructure the passage in 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.

[GNOSTICS] 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.

[GNOSTICS] 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.

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

To repeat, the distinction here is not between Christians who confess their sins and those who don’t confess their sins. Instead, the distinction is between true Christians and Gnostic non-Christians. When John uses the term “we,” he is using it in the editorial sense: Anyone who decides to choose for Christ or against him.

Finally, John claims that all sins are forgiven through confession—not just some. He writes that Jesus’ blood “cleanses us from all sin” (v.7) and “all unrighteousness” (v.9). Jesus’ death was so costly that it was a satisfactory propitiation for every person on Earth (1 Jn. 2:2). John doesn’t claim that only some of our sins are forgiven, but rather all are. The concept of habitual confession simply doesn’t fit with this language.

Indeed, the verbs “forgive” and “cleanse” are aorist and subjunctive. This means that these terms “portray forgiveness and purification as complete actions.”[6] Later, we read that our forgiveness was completed in the past. John writes, “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake” (1 Jn. 2:12). Again, this simply doesn’t fit with the concept of habitual confession.

[1] D.A. Carson defines the negative inference fallacy in this way: “It does not necessarily follow that if a proposition is true, a negative inference from that proposition is also true.” D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), p.101. Consider some examples of this fallacy:

(1) “All the basketball players were exercising at the gym. Therefore, no one else was exercising there.”

(2) “Jeff hates broccoli. Therefore, he likes every other kind of vegetable.”

(3) “Jesus gave an exception for divorce. Therefore, there are no other exceptions for divorce.”

These are all examples of the “negative inference fallacy,” and it does not logically follow. A way to avoid the fallacy is to change or add the word “only” to the major premise of the argument or proposition (i.e. “Only the basketball players…”).

[2] Hiebert, D. Edmond. “An Exposition of 1 John 1:5-2:6.” Bibliotheca Sacra. July-September 1988. 332.

[3] John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 19, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 77.

[4] John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 19, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 77.

[5] John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 19, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 77.

[6] Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John, ed. D. A. Carson, Second Edition, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; London: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2020), 74.