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The Light of Forgiveness

A person walking in the light does not deny his sin or try to cover it up. He does not blame others for it or make excuses about it. Rather, he confesses it: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). To confess means to agree with God that our sin is sin. It means to accept responsibility for it and to turn from it. God’s wonderful promise is that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive and cleanse us.

Forgiveness and cleansing are somewhat overlapping, except that forgiveness relates to the guilt of sin being pardoned, whereas cleansing points to the defilement of sin being removed. The forgiven person does not need to fear God’s judgment. The cleansed person is free to draw near to God in worship, because the defilement of sin has been taken away.

But this verse creates a difficulty, in that other Scriptures teach that we are forgiven totally at the point of salvation, including all future sins. For example, Romans 8:1 states, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Why, then, do we need to be forgiven again when we sin after salvation?

Some explain this as “family” forgiveness that is necessary for fellowship, not judicial forgiveness that is required to deliver us from God’s judgment. While that explanation may be okay, to me it does not take into account the terms “faithful and righteous to forgive.” God’s faithfulness relates to His new covenant promise to forgive all our sins through faith in Christ, which happens at salvation (Hebrews 8:12). His righteousness (or, justice) relates to His strict demand that the penalty for sin be paid. In the case of the believer, Jesus Christ paid this at the cross.

So I prefer to explain verse 9 differently. In verse 9, “confess” is in the present tense, but “forgive” and “cleanse” are the Greek aorist tense, focusing on an action as a totality or as complete. So confession points to an ongoing action, but the forgiveness and cleansing are completed actions in the past.

Let me use an analogy. John uses the word “believe” in the present tense to refer to the means of how we get saved (John 1:12; 3:16; etc.). When a person first believes, he receives all the benefits of salvation. Does he stop believing then? No, he goes on believing in what Jesus did for him on the cross. As he continues believing, he does not receive the benefits of salvation over and over, but he does experience them repeatedly. So the Christian is characterized by a lifestyle of believing in Christ. As he goes on believing, he repeatedly enjoys the benefits that he received at salvation.

In a similar way, the believer’s life is marked by continual confession of sins. It begins at salvation, when he acknowledges his sin to God and asks for forgiveness and cleansing. He experiences ongoing forgiveness and cleansing as he continues confessing his sins. 1 John 1:7 says, “if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” The Greek word for “cleanses” is in the present tense, indicating that there is an ongoing sense in which the effects of the cleansing of Jesus’ blood are applied to us. Thus when a believer sins, he does not lose the forgiveness and cleansing that took place at salvation. But he does not experience it in his walk until he confesses his sin. Ongoing confession of sin and the experience of forgiveness and cleansing characterize those who walk in the light.

—Steven J. Cole