Confessing Sin

Dr. Don Garlington

1 John 1

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— 2 the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. 4 And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. 5 This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.       (NKJV)     

As Christians our aim is to have our outer person complement our inner person, rather than have our outer person be a cover for our inner person. What happens when we are inconsistent in that great quest to let the outer person be consistent with the inner person? What happens when we sin? How do we deal with it, how do we prepare ourselves for that great judgment seat of Christ before which we all stand and before which we shall be repaid, everyone for what he has done in the body whether it be a good thing or an evil thing?


There are two basic things that we can say: one I will touch on very briefly and the second deal with in more detail. The first is the matter of resolution. Do you remember how David in Psalm 119:11 was resolved when he said, “Thy Word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against Thee.” At this time of the year people make New Year’s resolutions. So all the smokers say they are going to quit for sure in 1999. Those of us who are “metabolically challenged” say we are going to lose the weight in 1999, the same as we said in 1998 and 1997 and 1996. But even so resolutions will be made. The problem is that with many of those resolutions there is no sense of dependence upon a higher power. The purpose of the resolution really is that I might be better in and of myself, quite apart from glorifying God the Saviour and God the Creator. Hopefully the Christian avoids those pitfalls when he makes a resolution. We find ourselves saying with David that we don’t want to sin against God. We don’t want to sin for several reasons, because we sin against the holiness of God, we sin against the Lordship of Christ and then we sin against love. Against that love which is not unknown, but very much known. Love that seeks us out. The love that daily blesses us and will not let us go. We are resolved, in the words of that old gospel hymn, “No longer to linger charmed by the world’s delight. Things that are higher, things are nobler, these have allured my sight.” That is our great quest.


The second thing we can say, and which we will devote our attention to, is the matter of confession. One of the ways that we deal with our inconsistencies is to confess our sin. We read in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In our day there are many lifestyles that are paraded as God’s way of holiness and there is what you might call the normal Christian life. I propose that the perspective of 1 John 1:9 is indeed the normal Christian life. There was a book written some years ago by Watchman Nee, which is still popular and still has influence, that was called The Normal Christian Life. One of the points that Watchman Nee makes in that book is that it is possible for the Christian to take a sort of flying leap from Roman 6 to Romans 8 and to bypass the perspective of Romans 7 altogether, where Paul speaks of his struggle, and his anguished cry at the end, “Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from the body of this death.” Alexander Whyte, a minister in Edinburgh in the last century, had people in his church who were crying the same thing. They said, “We want to get out of Romans 7 and come into Romans 8.” He looked at them one day over the pulpit and he said, “You will be in the 7th of Romans as long as I am your minister.” I picked up another quote from Whyte as I was preparing for a class on Paul’s theology. He says, “As often as my attentive bookseller sends me, on approval, another new commentary on Romans I immediately turn to the 7th chapter, and if the commentator sets up a man of straw on the 7th chapter, I immediately shut the book. I had once sent the book back and said ‘No. No thank you. This is not the man for my hard earned money.’” And to that I would give a hearty amen. The normal Christian life in a very real sense is predicated upon the assumption of sin.

Of course that is not everything about the Christian life. Romans 7 has to be balanced with Romans 8 and many other passages, but it is important to mention that sin is part of the normal Christian life. We find that very dimension here in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Before we look at the text itself, we must look at a problem with the use of this text, a problem we might call overexposure. Some texts become too familiar in the wrong sense. We can rattle them off by heart and because we know them so well we lose some of their impact and some of their power. When we were in England we took several trips over to the Lake District in the northwest of England. Having once seen the Lake District I used it several times thereafter as an illustration of what heaven must be like. What a beautiful, beautiful place! But if you lived in the Lake District, and saw it everyday, you would still appreciate its beauty, but it wouldn’t have the same impact as if you saw it for the first time. So it is with the text 1 John 1:9.

Overexposure gives rise to another problem, because we can look specifically upon 1 John 1:9 as a kind of fire extinguisher. When we sin we run and grab the fire extinguisher and spray the chemical upon our conscience, which may be screaming at us at the moment. We use it as a kind of emergency hatch, or a ripcord, or a nerve calmer or a kind of day of atonement. We shouldn’t use it that way, but rather 1 John 1:9 ought to be like the bloodstream that runs through our bodies. It should be something constant, it should be something to which we are always resorting, not just in emergency situations, but day by day and moment by moment confessing our sins. We find that we are inconsistent in that great quest of causing the outer person to conform to the inner.

The Meaning Of The Term "Confess"

Let us now consider the words of 1 John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” Firstly the meaning of the term confess. I don’t want to play too much on the etymology of this word because I tell the students in my Hermeneutics class, “Don’t play up the etymology of words too much.” Even so, there is something to be learned from what this word literally means. When you read it in the Greek it literally means “to say the same thing as.” There is a view of the Christian life that a Bible teacher, so called, in the southern part of the U.S. concocted. He called it the theory of rebound. If you sin you just simply quote 1 John 1:9 and you rebound. You bounce right back in the game, and there is no particular need of grieving for sin, or of really being sorry that one has offended the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, and the love of God. But that is not what 1 John 1:9 means, because if we “say the same thing as” when we confess our sins, what we are doing is saying what God says about those sins. God sees sin as being hateful to Himself, as dishonouring Himself, as being hurtful for others, as bringing grief, bringing harm, even sometimes bringing devastation upon the people of God. When we confess our sins we say precisely what God says about that sin. I say that indeed I have been inconsistent, I have blown it again. Indeed I have fallen short of the great norm which Scripture sets for me. I have not done what David did and hidden the Word of God in my heart that I might not sin against Him. The meaning of this word is important: saying what God says about our sin.

The Necessity Of Confession

Secondly there is the necessity of confession. What are the constituent elements of holiness? By constituent elements, I mean to say that if you leave one of them out you don’t have the desired product. For example if you are making a cake you don’t want to leave the milk out because the flour and sugar and all the rest won’t hold together. The same is true with the eggs. You don’t want to leave out the sugar or the flour because if you leave out any of those things what you have is not a cake. So by the constituent elements of holiness we mean to say those things that constitute our holiness properly speaking. If you ask the question, “What are the elements of holiness?” frequently you get the answer that Bible reading, church attendance, witnessing, prayer, avoiding certain things, those, more or less, constitute our holiness. From a certain point of view that is an understandable answer, but there is a problem with it. All of these things can be present: going to church, saying your prayers, witnessing, reading your Bible and yet there is not true holiness. The other problem is that there can be times when all of these things are absent, when we don’t read, we don’t study, we don’t pray, we don’t witness. Maybe we indulge in things we shouldn’t we indulging in. All of that can be so, and yet we are still holy in the Biblical sense of the term because we are in covenant relationship with Christ. It is very conspicuous that John, at least in this first chapter, does not present us with a list of duties. What John does is to speak in terms of principle. If you were to ask the Apostle John, “What are the constituent elements of Biblical holiness?” he would answer, and he has answered from the first chapter, there are things like fellowship, joy and walking in the light. Fellowship, joy, and walking in the light. It is my thesis that it is precisely these constituent elements of holiness which are ensured by confession. So confession ministers to fellowship, joy and walking in the light.


We will look at these in turn; fellowship, joy and walking in the light. Here we have to consider the context of 1 John 1:9. In verse 3, John speaks specifically about fellowship: “that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” Fellowship is a word that we can use rather loosely and rather glibly at times. We can talk about having fellowship together, meaning to say that we are going to drink tea and eat scones together, talk for a little while and then go home. Frequently that is the way fellowship gets defined, and that’s all right as long as you understand you are using it in a secondary and non-Biblical sense. But the word fellowship (koinonia) in the New Testament really is the idea of community. It is the idea of a household, of people who have something in common, who share a life, who share the same desires, who share the same goals, the same ambitions, and so it is that John says, “I am writing these things to you.” When John writes the whole of this letter he puts together what someone has called “the test of life.” In answer to the question, “How can I know that I have eternal life? How can I know that I belong to Christ and that Christ is in me?” John says, “I am going to give you a series of tests, whereby you can understand that.” One of those tests is this: fellowship, holding things in common. I would say that fellowship cannot exist on any meaningful level apart from confession of wrong doing, because we are talking about people who live in the same household so to speak. Some of you men, for example, you come home and you may be tired because you have worked all day and then fought the rush hour traffic on the highway. So you get home and your wife puts the meal in front of you and you sniff it and say, “Where did you get that meat? And these potatoes are underdone. This bread is stale.” And you go through the whole meal complaining about one thing or the other. Later she is out in the kitchen washing up and you decide to go and put your arm round her. And you wonder why it is that the arctic cold has suddenly come down and deposited itself in your kitchen! It is because you have broken fellowship and you have to confess. There were good reasons for your bad mood, you were tired or irritated or frustrated but you must confess in order to put things right. So it is with the fellowship that we have with God our Father. Because He is indeed a Father, He is grieved, grieved to the heart when we treat Him with less than the love and respect that He is due as Father. We know that on the horizontal level as well. If we fall out with one another, then we must get on the phone, or we must go to see that person, and we must say, “I was wrong.” By the grace of God we accept that confession and fellowship is restored. Fellowship is one of the constituent elements of holiness. Without fellowship there is no holiness and without confession there is no sustenance of fellowship.


Secondly, the factor of joy. In verse 4 John says, “We are writing this that your joy may be full (complete.)” When you compare that with the Gospel of John, chapter 4, you come to understand that our life in Christ has an artesian quality about it, it springs up, it bubbles up, it wells up, it overflows. So Jesus can say that we have been granted the Spirit as the water of life, the living water and it flows over unto eternal life. Our joy in Christ is meant to have this artesian quality about it. I don’t think that joy is to be reduced to other elements, in other words, other concepts. Now there are good words, like the word resignation, that is submitting to the providence of God, even though it may hurt at the moment. Perseverance, which means that we “keep on keeping on” in the spite of adversity. There is chastisement, and there are many other words that we could mention, but joy is not to be identified with any of those. Joy is what the disciples experienced when they came to recognize that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Joy is what the apostles experienced when they had been beaten, of all things, and they went out rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer for the name. Jesus told them, “Rejoice. Not because you cast out demons, but because your names have been written in the Book of Life.” The fact that they suffered as they did was the proof that they were in the Book of Life. It has been said that Christ died to make us holy and not happy. From a certain point of view that is the case. We are not happy in the sense of expecting that every day there is going to be a smile on our face and a spring in our step, and we will just bounce along as though there are no problems in life. But it can be an oversimplification. It can become an effective half-truth, because Christ did die to make us holy and yet our holiness, at least in some measure, depends upon our happiness, depends upon our contentment. It depends upon our experiencing the resurrection of Christ in daily existence. That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and with joy anticipate the time when He comes again to make me His own.

There are many enemies that seek to eradicate our joy. Our enemies may be the same as David’s in Psalm 3, where David is fleeing from Absalom his son. His enemies are crying out to him that there is no help for him in God. It is a dramatic scene because David is literally quite surrounded and these people are shouting into the camp, and saying, “You might as well give it up. You might as well allow us to come in and hand your head back to you because you deserve everything that has come upon you.” David sensed that of course and it went straight to his heart, which is why he began Psalm 3 with that lament, “Oh Lord how many are my enemies. How many who rise up and say of me, ‘There is no help for him in God.’” Now we don’t have precisely those enemies but we do have the enemy within. We have the enemy of indwelling sin, as Paul calls it in Romans 7. That enemy is bound and determined to eradicate our joy in Christ, and we must not let that happen. We must not let that joy be wiped out because our holiness to a large degree depends upon it. The way we fight back is by confession. We come into the presence of our Father and say that we have sinned, sinned against light, sinned against grace, sinned against the holy law and when we do, as in the case of David, you know what He does? He comes and He puts His hand under our chin and lifts our head back up again, so that He is the lifter up of our head. Then we continue, then we get on with it because the things that really matter haven’t changed.

Walking In The Light

Finally, in these elements of holiness you have walking in the light. Verses 6-7. “If we say we have fellowship while we walk in the darkness we lie and do not do the truth. But 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 goes on cleansing us from all sin.” The words light and darkness in the Bible are not just simply good and evil in the broad philosophical sense but rather it all goes back to the creation. The ideas of good and evil go back to the Garden of Eden, the good of serving the Creator as opposed to the evil of rejecting Him and serving the creature. In the same way, light and darkness go all the way back to the opening verses of the Bible. It is there that you have the darkness of chaos, and into that darkness of chaos comes streaming the shekinah glory of God to bring order out of the chaos. That imagery continues all the way through the Bible. In 1 John 1 if we walk in the darkness we walk in the path of chaos, but if we walk in the light then we are walking according to the principles of this new creation which has been manifested in Christ. Christ is our light and it is in Him we walk. It is one of the constituent elements of holiness. There are no hidden recesses. Proverbs 28:13 says that “whoever covers his sin will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes shall obtain mercy.” In the Garden of Eden Adam tried to cover his sin, and David repeated that mistake later on when he attempted to cover his sin. We are driven to the place of confession, so that there will be no hidden recesses, so again that the outward person will be the complement of the inward person and not the cover up for it. Because on that final day all the covers are going to be blown, so why not now have them blown in these little acts of judgment whereby we confess our sin and resume our walk in the light.

There is a cycle of confession as it restores fellowship and joy and walking in the light. The more we experience fellowship, the more intense is that personal relationship with the God of heaven, and it drives us to confess because we want nothing to disrupt and disturb that fellowship. It is the same with joy. We don’t want the joy to be eradicated so we go and confess, and when we confess that joy is restored. So with walking in the light there are no hidden recesses, no covering up but rather we are driven to confession so that the light may shine within us.


In conclusion, what we have here is the normal Christian life. Every time a new area of sin is opened up we go and confess it, because this is the God appointed way of strengthening the bond with Christ. A bond is just a covenant. Scholars and theologians have spilt a great deal of ink trying to define what a covenant is, but at heart a covenant is very simple. It just means a family relationship. It means a husband and a wife, it means parents and children. In the gospel Christ has become our lover, and some of the language that is used of Christ being our lover in a sense could be embarrassing, because it uses conjugal images of intimacy and personal fellowship shared between two people. Christ is the bridegroom of His people. He is our lover, the lover of our souls and He invites us to come and to confess, and in the very act of coming and confessing it becomes evident in our life and our experience that here is the One Who means us good. Here is the One who has called us out of darkness into His marvellous light and He intends to maintain that marriage relationship. As Dr. Adams has said before, “He doesn’t write out a bill of divorcement and put it in your hands.” He doesn’t say, ‘Hit the road and don’t come back,’ but rather through and in the act of confession, Jesus the lover of our soul comes and by His spirit takes up His abode with us. So if we sin, and you know we are going to, and we confess our sin then because He is faithful and He is righteous, every sin is cleansed and every blot is removed and everything which was scarlet now becomes as white as snow.

This is a sermon preached to Jarvis Street Baptist Church by Dr. Don Garlington.