by Ethan R. Longhenry
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us" (I John 1:8-10).
After John confirms the authenticity of his message, he puts forward His message that in God is light, and there is no darkness in Him (I John 1:5). If we walk in that light, we have an association with God and the blood of His Son cleanses us from sin (I John 1:7).
Yet we, as humans, are not perfect creatures. As Paul indicates in Romans 3:23, we have all sinned, and we all fall short of God’s glory. John recognizes this, and thus after he establishes that we are to walk in the light, he addresses the difficulty of our sins in I John 1:8-10.
Verses 8 and 10 speak directly regarding our sin. Unfortunately, these verses are often misunderstood or intentionally under-emphasized. In these verses, John confesses our previous and current sin; some would rather believe that John is just speaking of our past sin. Verse 10 is rendered in the perfect tense in Greek, indicating that we have sinned in the past; to deny this is to make God a liar, and proves that His Word is not in us. Verse 8 is rendered in the present tense and therefore indicates that we still do continually and/or repeatedly sin. If we deny this, we are deceived, and God’s truth is not in us!
The issue of our present sin is a very thorny problem; after all, Jesus died so that we would be set free from sin, and Paul indicates that we should no longer be bound to sin (Romans 6). Yet even Paul recognizes our constant struggle: he uses the present tense when saying that we all “fall short of the glory of God” in Romans 3:23. We continually do not live up to our ideal. We still struggle against the will of the flesh, and we still fail at times (cf. Galatians 5:17-24). Some try to deny this, and attempt to emphasize passages that speak of becoming “perfect” (cf. Matthew 5:48; the word may be better translated as “mature”). They then think that we can somehow get to the point of not sinning. Yet John says that this is not the case, not even of himself. We must remember that the sum of God’s Word is truth (Psalms 119:160). When John says that we deceive ourselves if we say that we have no sin, we must accept it. We must continue to strive to be like Christ, yet recognize that we will never live up to the ideal.
Why, then, does John feel compelled to include these verses in his discussion? After all, if one fact is clear from the Scriptures, it is that mankind is sinful. In all likelihood, some of the Gnostic groups of the day denied the idea of sin and the idea that we have sinned. This is completely false, as John asserts, and to believe it is to be deceived, to fall into a lie, and a demonstration that God’s Word is not in us. John affirms that there is such a thing as sin, and we have been guilty of it and are still guilty of it.
Yet what is to be done regarding our sin? Sin represents darkness, and we are told that there is no darkness in God (I John 1:5)! As John established in I John 1:7, the blood of Jesus, the Son of God, is able to cleanse us from all sin. John does not mention how our past sins are cleansed; Peter and Paul make it clear that baptism accomplishes this (Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-7, I Peter 3:21).
While baptism cleanses us from our past sins, what can cleanse us from our sins since baptism? John answers this question in I John 1:9: if we confess our sins, God will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. This verse is also rendered in the present tense: as we continually sin, we must continually confess our sin, and God is continually faithful to cleanse us continually. Confession is the Greek word homologeo, “to speak the same thing.” Confession is not some generic statement declaring that we have sinned but represents a sinner declaring his sinful deeds before God and requesting forgiveness from them. This can only be accomplished when there is repentance for those sins (cf. Luke 13:3), the attempt to overcome those sins.
As Christians, we strive to walk in the light. Unfortunately, there are times when we stumble into the darkness. As opposed to denying this, or trying to justify it, we must instead freely admit it to God and strive to do better at walking in that light. When we do so, we are cleansed of our sins, and maintain our association with God. Let us not be lost to the darkness, but instead, walk in the light!