John presumes his audience already believes in the name of the Son of God (1Jn 5:13). He is writing to professing Christians who, sadly, lack clarity concerning the word of life and perhaps the degree of confidence we should have toward him, that is, our Lord and Savior (1Jn 1:1; 5:14). Those first-century churches watched fellow members fall away, abandoning the faith and denying that Jesus is the Christ (1Jn 2:22). Confusion and uncertainty are prevalent among them.
Having established the holiness of God—God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1Jn 1:5)—as well as the reality of our sinfulness, John also wants his Christian readers to rest in the wonderful grace of God through Christ. Though the wages of sin is death … the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro 6:23).
Genuine fellowship … with the Father, not to mention his forgiveness is possible, but we must first be willing to confess our sins and stop walking in the darkness of unrepentant evil (1Jn 1:3; 9; 6). We need to quit minimizing our sin and, consequently, selling God’s glory short of its full awesome majesty by suggesting he doesn’t mind what we casually refer to as human fumbles (Job 37:22).
I haven’t personally known anyone in the church who altogether denies sin, though they do exist. They claim we can outgrow sin at the very least. I have known many, however, who attempt to reduce the severity of sin and even more who think the believer’s need for God’s cleansing and forgiveness has expired. They’ve grown indifferent to the moral law, touting, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who … indeed is interceding for us” (Ro 8:33-34).
Perhaps they’ve forgotten the Lord’s prayer. ”When you pray,” Jesus taught his disciples, ”say, ‘Forgive us our sins’” (Lk 11:2; 4). Maybe they haven’t read the psalms of David such Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
And take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:1-12)
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn John read that very psalm just before writing the first chapter of his epistle. It contains all of the same themes: fellowship with God, forgiveness, cleansing, confession, and repentance.
To be clear, the blood of Jesus does cleanse us from all sin, but that’s not the issue here (1Jn 1:7). John has the practical, experiential implications in mind. How can we have assurance of salvation, a salvation from the consequences of our sin, when we’ve lost any burden for continual penitence as though our sin has become inconsequential to God?
We think, Once saved, always saved. But John says, “If”—this statement is conditional—“we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1:9).
On the one hand, John expects God’s redeemed people to bear fruit of eternal life in the form of humble, repentant hearts. On the other hand, he also knows, just as David discovered, even a child of God can experience the torment of broken fellowship with the Father when he refuses to seek the Lord’s continual, sanctifying forgiveness and cleansing.
As Jesus spent his final night with John and the other apostles, he:
rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” (John 13:4-11)
Using a vivid illustration of physical washing, the Lord makes a distinction between total cleansing and an ongoing partial cleansing of those who have already been ultimately cleansed. Perhaps we’ve been justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, but that does not mean we are exempt from needing our feet washed (Ro 3:24). We are sinners, albeit redeemed sinners, who will step in the mud of our sinful passions day after day as long as we are living in the flesh (Ro 7:5).
In other words, even a child of God should confess his sins and seek forgiveness (1Jn 1:9). If we don’t, our confidence as God’s children will be in short supply. Gratifying the desires of the flesh stands in direct opposition to the Spirit (Gal 5:17). Unrepentant sin left unmourned and unconfessed will shatter our intimacy with our Heavenly Father. Though we have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, who can call out, ”Abba! Father!” while walking in blatant disregard for his moral law? (Ro 8:15).
“Do not continue in sin. Do not deny your sin. Do not hide your sin,” John pleads. “Instead, confess your sins. Acknowledge them, hate them, and hand them over to God. He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1:9).