Monday, September 03, 2007

A Text without a Context, Pt. 2 - Dr. Bob Payne

The hymn writer wrote:

"Sing it o'er and o'er again:
Christ receiveth sinful men;
Make the message clear and plain:
Christ receiveth sinful men."

It is vitally important for us as Bible believers to make sure that we "make the message clear and plain" as we seek to present the gospel to a lost world. Some well-meaning, genuinely zealous Christians, have fallen into the trap of carelessly using out-of-context passages to present the "good news" about Jesus Christ. Passages torn from their context definitely do not "make the message clear and plain!" In fact, applying passages incorrectly only makes the gospel message seem confusing; and ultimately, serves to destroy the credibility of the entire plan of salvation.

Although there are seemingly an endless number of passages which are incorrectly interpreted as salvation passages, our study for the next two articles will center on only two verses: 1 John 1: 9; and Revelation 3:20. I hope to demonstrate that the contexts in which these verses are found are referring to those who are redeemed, not to those who are unsaved. As a result of this, it will become obvious that to use these two passages in our gospel presentation is inaccurate and potentially dangerous. The passages within the Word of God that speak of man's sinfulness, the penalty for sin, and the remedy for sin are numerous. There is no excuse for using inaccurately applied passages to point people to Christ! May God use this study to drive each one of us to "dig" into God's Word so that we might "rightly divide (handle accurately) the word of truth."

PASSAGE #1: "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)

This verse from John's first epistle is sometimes applied in this way: "God wants those who don't know Him as Savior to confess their sins to Him. Only then can He forgive a person of his sins and cleanse him from all unrighteousness." At first glance the statement may seem harmless, but it not only presents a verse out of context, it also teaches doctrine that is patently false and unbiblical. Should those who have never received Christ as Savior be urged to confess individual sins in order to be saved? Our answer must be an emphatic and resounding "no!" Those who do not know the Lord are never commanded to confess their individual sins, but are only to acknowledge their sinfulness (Rom. 3:23).

To understand the context, and ultimately the correct teaching of this verse, we need to understand the identity of "we" in 1:9 (obviously the author is including himself). There are four possibilities: 1) the word "we" is referring to humanity in general (of whom John is a part); 2) the word "we" is referring to all unbelievers (of whom John is a part); 3) the word "we" is referring to all those who profess to know Christ as Savior (some are saved and some are not. . . of whom John is a part); or 4) the word "we" is referring to all believers (of whom John is a part).

With very little difficulty we should be able to immediately exclude #2 from our consideration. It would be impossible for the "we" to be referring to those who are unsaved, since John would have to be including himself in this group. Would it not be more than a bit absurd to say that John considered himself to be a lost man?

Nevertheless, could 1 John 1:9 be speaking of mankind in general (#1), or perhaps just professing Christians (#3)? Our answer must be an emphatic “no.” The context of the book makes this clear. Chapter one, verse three tells us that "truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ." This would not be an appropriate designation for either mankind in general, or for those who just professed Christ and didn't actually know Him. Also, notice the following statements found in chapter two, verses one and two: "My little children," and "we have an advocate with the Father," as well as "he is the propitiation for our sins." Once again, these statements would not be appropriate descriptions of either #1 or #3. The only way to sensibly interpret the "we" of verse nine is as a reference to all believers (#4).

As we read further in John's first epistle, we will also notice that in chapter two, verses 12-14, John tells us directly that he is addressing believers. Just a few verses later, he indicates yet again that he is writing to those who know the truth: "I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth" (2:21). No, John is not writing to humanity in general, or to the unsaved, or to merely professing Christians, but to genuine believers.

Keeping the context in mind, how then do we understand "confession" as it relates to a believer? First, it is important to understand the meaning of the word. The Friberg Greek Lexicon defines the Greek word homologeo, which is translated in 1 John 1:9 as "confess": "fr. a basic mng. of saying the same thing. . . as confessing that someth. is true admit, agree (HE 11.13); of an acknowledgment of sins confess (1J 1.9)." God wants us as believers, when we sin, to immediately confess/admit/agree with Him about our sin. Continual confession of known sin is an important part of the Christian life. Dr. Hall Harris writes in his internet commentary: "John points out that if as Christians we confess the sins we are aware of, we may be sure that God will forgive our sins and cleanse us not only from those sins we confess but from all unrighteousness."

So then, the meaning of the word isn't difficult, but just what is the purpose of this confession? Does it help "keep us saved?" J. Dwight Pentecost writes concerning 1:9:

"When the believer sins, the blood of Christ is instantaneously, automatically applied to the believer (v. 7), maintaining his sonship with the Father, but sin has broken fellowship. My child may strain our relationship by disobeying, but he is still my child. Disobedience does not affect position, it affects fellowship. To be restored to fellowship with God we must confess our sin" (The Joy of Fellowship, pp. 30-31).

Donald Burdick agrees,

"It must be remembered that this epistle was written to those who already are forgiven (2:12). John is not here speaking of the initial forgiveness of sin which occurs at the point of salvation. At that time the guilt of all one's sins--past, present and future--is forgiven. The forgiveness of this verse, however, is an experience which comes after salvation. Its function is to remove that which has disturbed the believer's fellowship with God. Whereas the former is a legal remission of guilt, the latter is the Father's forgiveness of His child to restore undisturbed communion" (The Epistles of John, pp. 26-28).

Zane Hodges also concurs with Pentecost's and Burdick's view on confession:

"What is considered in 1 John 1:9 may be described as ‘familial' forgiveness. It is perfectly understandable how a son may need to ask his father to forgive him for his faults while at the same time his position within the family is not in jeopardy. A Christian who never asks his heavenly Father for forgiveness for his sins can hardly have much sensitivity to the ways in which he grieves his Father. . . . The teaching that a Christian should not ask God for daily forgiveness is an aberration" (1 John from the Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament volume, p. 886).


How careful we need to be with our interpretation of 1 John 1:9! To the unsaved man, sin is a matter between a lawbreaker and the Judge; but to the believer, sin is a matter between a son and his Father. Confession of sin does not maintain the believer's salvation, but it maintains the son's (small "s") close fellowship with his Heavenly Father. 1 John 1:9 encourages believers to daily and regularly confess known sin as the Holy Spirit brings it to our minds. To use this passage as an encouragement for people to receive Christ as Savior is not accurate. 1 John 1:9 is clearly a passage directed to Christians. Zane Hodges' comments are appropriate to conclude our study:

". . . confession of sin is never connected by John with the acquisition of eternal life, which is always conditioned on faith. First John 1:9 is not spoken to the unsaved, and the effort to turn it into a soteriological affirmation is misguided" (1 John from the Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament volume, p. 886).