Picture the scene. An Israelite camp in the desert, several thousand years ago. The tabernacle, pitched on top of a hill in the center of the camp. The high priest, running down the hillside shouting that he has found the perfect spotless lamb, which will be sacrificed on behalf of all the people, taking care of their sins for the rest of their lives.
Imagine the excitement! After that one final sacrifice, all the men of Israel gather to begin tearing down the tabernacle. Then they move on with a whole new way of life. No longer do they have to worry about sacrifices to clean up their track record. Instead, they can live guilt free, knowing that a perfect lamb has done away with their sins once and for all.
Of course, this never happened. Instead, what we see is the Israelites having to offer animal sacrifices over and over throughout their history, because no single sacrifice was sufficient to perfectly cleanse them. Hebrews explains clearly: [The law] can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. (Hebrews 10:1--2)
Although we never read of an Old Testament priest finding the perfect lamb, this announcement was, in fact, made. When? Not long before the sacrifice that would initiate the New. Upon seeing Jesus, John the Baptist declared, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).
Today, we have a perfect Lamb in the person of Jesus Christ. His sacrifice rendered the temple ceremonies null and void. There’s no longer any purpose for the tabernacle, the temple, or the daily sacrifices.
Because Jesus Christ’s sacrifice cleansed us once for all, not repeatedly over time, there’s no method or procedure required for us to remain forgiven. We’re invited to depend on the onetime sacrifice as the means to lifelong forgiveness, without any strings attached: "Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (1 Peter 3:18 NIV).
The issue concerning forgiveness becomes crystal clear if we understand God’s economy, which hasn’t changed since the beginning of time. To illustrate, let’s travel back in time as an investigative reporter to interview a Jew as he exits the tabernacle.
"Excuse me, Mr. Jew, you seem very relieved compared with the way you looked when you entered the tabernacle just a short time ago. What’s your secret? What makes you feel so much better about the past year of sinning? Did you promise Yahweh that you’d do better this coming year--that you would turn over a new leaf?"
The Jewish man responds, "No, nothing like that took place."
Slightly confused, you press on to discover the truth. "Well, did you carefully name off each sin and ask Yahweh to cover your sins?"
"Certainly not!" the Jewish man exclaims.
"Well, then, what exactly made you feel relief from guilt for all the sins you’ve committed over the past twelve months?"
At this point, any well-educated Jew would give the same response: "What made me feel better? The blood of bulls and goats that covered my past sins, of course! Yahweh has always demanded a blood sacrifice for sins, and now--because of the animal I bought to offer as a sacrifice--my sins are covered!"
This imaginary interview with a Jew outside the tabernacle illustrates God’s economy. It has always been the case that one thing brings forgiveness of sins, namely, blood--nothing else: "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Hebrews 9:22).
If we accept God’s blood-only economy, it revolutionizes our perspective on how we stand before him. The bottom line is that no amount of dialoguing with God about our sins will bring us more forgiveness. No amount of asking God to forgive us will initiate his cleansing in our lives. Instead, blood sacrifice is the only action that results in forgiveness and cleansing. This was true in the Old Testament, and there’s no exception today.
Because there are no more blood sacrifices being made for sins, we must conclude something about the onetime sacrifice of Jesus Christ: either it was or was not sufficient to bring a lifetime of forgiveness and cleansing. If so, then God is satisfied regarding our sins, both now and in eternity. If not, then we are stuck with no biblical way of dealing with God’s wrath toward us.
Unfortunately, right here is where many Christian authors and teachers take a plunge into the realm of creativity, using terms such as positional truth and heavenly bookkeeping. They say we’re forgiven and cleansed "in God’s eyes." But then they claim that Christ’s death does not translate into "once for all" forgiveness in the here and now.
Why do some hesitate to interpret the forgiveness passages in the most straightforward manner? Perhaps because it just feels too easy: "You mean I don’t have to do anything? That doesn’t sound right." Our human pride won’t allow us to enjoy that kind of grace.
Some exhort believers to do something (confess, ask forgiveness, and the like) to impel God so that he will actually forgive and cleanse them. This certainly satisfies self-centeredness. There’s nothing like a daily list of sins to pore over to relieve us from guilt.
Some claim a procedure is necessary to "appropriate" or "activate" forgiveness. They say we must "keep short accounts" of our sins and ask God to forgive and cleanse us in order to "make it real in our own experience."
But wait a minute. Didn’t God announce that only one thing--blood--brings forgiveness and cleansing? Who are we to add conditions that "activate" the work of the cross?
Without realizing it, we end up believing that Christ’s blood has real effects only for heaven. If we want to maintain a cleansed state before God here on earth, we begin to think it comes through a work that we initiate through remembering, confessing, asking, and claiming. Ultimately, it becomes our responsibility to make the cross carry real benefits in the present.
In adopting this fine-sounding belief system, we fail to recognize that the cross is a historical event. Its effects are already accomplished, no matter what we believe or claim.
We don’t initiate forgiveness, because we cannot. Only blood brings forgiveness. Our acts of remembrance, confession, asking forgiveness, and claiming--whether done with good intentions or not--don’t cause more blood to be shed.
Realistically, we only have two choices: (1) accept as fact the complete, unconditional forgiveness that God purchased through the crushing of his Son, or (2) create some system of our own to feel better about our sins.
Jews actually felt better (yes, in the real world!) because of the blood of bulls and goats that was shed on their behalf. There was no further "activation" needed to appropriate that forgiveness. The act of the high priest’s slaughtering the animal was sufficient to cause the entire nation of Israel to shout from the rooftops with real-world relief from guilt. The only difference between then and now was that sacrifices of Old were continuous, whereas Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all.
What then are we saying about the sacrifice of Jesus when we insist that something further be done to "activate" it? In essence, we’re insulting the work of Calvary. We’re valuing the Son’s sacrifice even less than the people of the Old valued their animal sacrifices.
But what about 1 John 1:9--"If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness"?
At first glance, this well-known verse appears to muddy the waters concerning once-for-all forgiveness. In many books and articles on the topic of forgiveness, this verse often serves as the foundation on which the author’s belief system is constructed.
Theologians and Christian authors will often agree with John that "your sins have been forgiven on account of [Jesus’] name" (1 John 2:12). But later you find them essentially saying that confession is needed to cause God to forgive you. The problem is that both statements can’t be true at the same time. Either we’ve been forgiven, or there’s a condition for us to be forgiven.
To resolve this dilemma, some Christian thinkers have proposed the following: Christians are forgiven eternally in God’s heavenly record books. However, unless Christians keep short accounts with God through daily confession of sins, they can’t experience God’s cleansing during life on earth. Hence, they claim that 1 John 1:9 is the believer’s "bar of soap" to maintain daily fellowship with God. And they use terms such as judicial, patriarchal, and forensic as they delicately dance around the reality of once-for-all forgiveness and push the idea of a two-tiered forgiveness system in which eternally God is satisfied, but right now we somehow maintain our own daily cleansing through a confession ritual.
This line of thinking is nothing short of rampant today in Christian teaching, and 1 John 1:9 is their one and only hallmark verse. Note that if verse 9 were not to mean what they claim it means (a daily "bar of soap" for Christians), the entire theology they have crafted would fall to pieces. Seminaries around the world warn us not to develop theologies based principally around one verse, but this has been an unfortunate exception among scholars and pastor-teachers alike.
First, it’s important to recognize that this verse stands as the only one of its kind. No other verse in the epistles appears to place a conditional "if" on forgiveness and cleansing. So if there was a method for maintaining daily cleansing, the Romans were unaware of it. If there was a prescription for keeping short accounts with God, the Galatians had no exposure to it. If there was a need to ask God for forgiveness, the Ephesians weren’t privy to it. Similarly, the Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians also missed this teaching.
If there were a daily method to maintain good status (fellowship) with God through ongoing confession of sins or pleas for forgiveness, wouldn’t you think it’d be mentioned in at least one epistle? Did God accidentally leave it out? Certainly not! The fact is that we must take a closer look at 1 John 1:9 to understand John’s intended audience and the context of this peculiar verse.
From the beginning of John’s first chapter, we see him addressing prominent heresies in the early church. John begins his letter with words such as heard, seen, looked at, and touched to describe his interactions with Jesus. He does this to emphasize the physicality of Jesus.
Today, we take for granted that Jesus was physical. Of course he was! No argument there. But two millennia ago early forms of Gnostic thought infiltrated the church and popularized the idea that Jesus was only spirit. Early Gnostics claimed that God would never stoop so low as to take on human flesh. So the apostle John purposely uses physical words in his opening statement to challenge this Gnostic heresy. Later, he says that anyone who doesn’t believe that Jesus came in human flesh is not from God (1 John 4:3).
If that’s the case, then who was John’s audience in his first chapter? True believers don’t claim that Jesus lacked a physical body. So John is not correcting believers in his opening statement. He’s addressing Gnostics who had infiltrated the early church and were teaching false doctrines. After establishing the physicality of Jesus, John then writes, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).
Why is John now concerned about those who claim they’re sinless? Do you know any true believers today who say they’ve never sinned? Of course not! What’s the first step to becoming a believer in Christ? The first step is to admit you’re a sinner. Someone who claims that they have never sinned is not a Christian. So here John is concerned for unbelievers.
Interestingly, early Gnostic philosophers didn’t just deny the physicality of Jesus; they also denied the reality of sin. Gnostics claimed that sin wasn’t real or didn’t matter, since it took place in the physical world. So John opens his letter by attacking two Gnostic heresies: (1) Jesus as nonphysical, and (2) sin as a nonreality.
Understanding John’s purpose in opening his letter this way is crucial. A poor interpretation of verse 9 leads many Christians astray. Again, verse 9 declares, "If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
Some claim that this verse must refer to Christians, since John uses the word we. If that were true, one should hold that all preceding and following verses using we also refer to Christians. But this isn’t the case.
John uses we to politely combat Gnostic heresy. We see this technique in the following:
* If we claim to be without sin ... (1 John 1:8)
* If we claim we have not sinned ... (1 John 1:10)
Similarly, John uses the word us to draw conclusions such as these:
* the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8)
* [God’s] word is not in us (1 John 1:10 NASB)
Is John referring to believers here? When referring to people who don’t have the truth in them or God’s word in them, does he include himself and the church in that group? Certainly not! John is politely saying that if we humans claim we have no sin, we’re liars and don’t have Christ (the Word and the Truth) in us. Clearly, John is talking about unbelievers.
So if an unbeliever has bought into the heresy of sinless perfection, what’s the only sensible solution? Let’s reread verse 9 to see if we can get John’s intent: "If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
Verse 9 is a remedy for unbelievers who have been influenced by Gnostic peer pressure and are now claiming sinless perfection. John is essentially asking, "Instead of claiming that you have no sin, will you consider changing your mind? Instead of claiming you’ve never sinned, how about agreeing with God?" He’s inviting Gnostic heretics to rethink their point of view. If they’ll admit their sinfulness, then God can do a saving work in their lives.
So 1 John 1:9 is an invitation to become a Christian. And it certainly holds relevance today. If anyone claims to be without sin, they’re wrong. But there’s a solution to their misguided thinking. If they’re willing to change their mind and confess the opposite (that they do have sins), then there’s hope.
Did you notice that this verse declares they’d be purified from all unrighteousness? The phrase all unrighteousness is reminiscent of forgiveness passages elsewhere in the epistles. Here, John isn’t asking for a one-by-one tallying of our sins in order for Christians to stay forgiven and cleansed. That would be ludicrous, given the impossibility for any human to truly comply!
Think about it. You’ve already committed thousands of sins that you’ve forgotten about. You can’t possibly remember them in order to confess them and become forgiven for them. That’s why Christians have to be purified from all unrighteousness--once and for all!
This contextualized interpretation of verse 9 may be new to some who have viewed the passage as a prescription for Christians who just committed an individual sin. First John 1:9 has been their "bar of soap" routine to stay cleansed and in fellowship with God.
What a tragedy! In adopting this view, we fail to acknowledge that only blood (not words) brings forgiveness. We miss the fact that Jesus’ once-for-all blood sacrifice brought lifelong cleansing. So we dialogue with God to feel forgiven and cleansed. This feeling serves as our confirmation that God just forgave us. But some aren’t able to conjure up this feeling. And as a result they end up doubting their forgiveness!
Let’s clarify an important point. The meaning of confess is "to say the same as" or "to agree." Believers should agree with God on all counts--not just about sins but about everything. Although we don’t confess our sins in order to receive new portions of forgiveness and cleansing, we should still agree with God concerning the folly of sin. We’re his children, and it is only his ways that fulfill. We’re designed from the ground up to agree with him, depend on him, and live from him.
But it’s equally important to recognize that we don’t impel God or put him into motion through our confession. He’s not waiting to dole out forgiveness or cleansing. We don’t need to keep "short accounts" with God, since he has destroyed the record book!
God has taken away our sins. He remembers them no more. As believers, our forgiveness and cleansing aren’t dependent on our memory, our confession, or our asking. Our forgiveness and cleansing are solely because of the finished work of Jesus Christ.
Sure, James talks about confessing our sins to each other and praying for each other (James 5:16). But he’s saying we should listen to each other’s struggles, offer counsel where appropriate, and pray for each other. The context of James’s exhortation to confess our sins to each other has nothing to do with God’s forgiving or cleansing us.
Confession to trusted friends and to God is healthy. It’s normal and natural to talk about your struggles with people who care about you. The indispensable truth to grasp, however, is that confession does not initiate cleansing in your life. We’ve already been cleansed "once for all" through the onetime blood sacrifice that needs no repeating.
Let’s be honest about our struggles, but let’s also be clear about what the cross accomplished.
Protestants may claim they’re more biblical than their Catholic peers, since the epistles contain no grounds for confessing sins to a priest in order to be forgiven. Some Protestants may even laugh at the idea of a confession booth or the ritual of going to Mass in order to obtain forgiveness. But these same Protestants may ritualistically apply 1 John 1:9 as their spiritual bar of soap. Is one view of forgiveness really any better than the other?
The Catholic goes to a priest, and the Protestant thinks he does better by appealing directly to God. But any system that doesn’t factor in once-for-all forgiveness is intrinsically flawed.
God doesn’t want us to think that human priests apportion forgiveness to us. Nor does he want us to envision his doling out forgiveness from heaven on a "first come, first serve" basis! Instead, he wants us to ascribe real meaning to Jesus’ declaration, "It is finished."
Only then will we turn from sins for the right reason. Our motivation shouldn’t be to obtain forgiveness in return. We’re already forgiven and cleansed children of the living God. Our motivation should be the fulfillment that comes from truly being ourselves.
This sermon is from The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear in Church (Zondervan, 2009). For more, visit www.TheNakedGospel.com