Completely and Forever Forgiven – 1 John 1:8-10
By: Alistair Brown
Gary was not pleased with me. He was one of the elders of the church where I was pastor, and he did not like the sermon I had preached last week. “You got that wrong, pastor.” His words were not gentle. He was angry with me.
I had preached on Romans 7 where Paul describes his struggle with sin, and I had told the congregation this was the life long struggle of every Christian until the day we experience ultimate redemption into a new heavenly life. Gary did not like me talking about a life-long struggle with sin. His view was that believers could reach a state of sinlessness, and live perfectly every day. I knew that view was held by various holiness or second blessing movements, but I had never been persuaded by it.
Apparently I had upset Gary’s son Michael. What I had said was not what his Dad had taught him. Dad didn’t like that and had to put his son straight. “So,” Gary explained to me, “I asked Michael if he could be without sin for five minutes.” “I suppose I could,” Michael had said. “Then, Michael, could you be without sin for another five minutes?” And Michael had said ‘Yes’, he probably could manage another five minutes. “That,” Gary triumphed to me, “is how I showed him we can live without any sin in our lives.”
“Gary,” I answered, “I understand your logic. But, here’s my difficulty with it: I have never yet met anyone who could put all the five minute segments together.”
Gary did not like that answer. He had no reply and just walked away.
The passage we look at in this study is about people claiming they have no sin. Happily it also has the perfect remedy for those of us who know all too well that our lives have fallen short of God’s standard.
1 John 1:8–10
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
These three verses have a sandwich structure. Verses 8 and 10 mostly cover the same ground. Some scholars see differences of meaning – with one verse talking about the sinful nature and the other about sinful actions – but at the core both are describing what it means to claim sinlessness and the implications of that. Between these two lies verse 9 which gloriously says that if we will confess our sins God will deal utterly and completely with them.
First, the outer parts of the sandwich!
Verses 8 and 10 describe deceit, denial, and defamation.
1) The deceit is of ourselves.
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves,” John writes in verse 8. Romans 3: 23 says “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” They have. Anyone who believes they are the exception is deluded.
David Jackman tells a story about C.H. Spurgeon, the immensely popular preacher in London in Victorian times. A man told Spurgeon he was ‘without sin.’ Spurgeon invited the man home for dinner, and listened over the meal as the man repeated his ‘sinless’ claim over and over. Suddenly Spurgeon reached for a glass of water and threw it in the man’s face. It caught the visitor by surprise and he was very angry and expressed his anger in terms no Christian should use. Spurgeon said quietly, “Ah, you see, the old man within you is not dead. He had simply fainted and could be revived with a glass of water!”
Those who say they have no sin deceive themselves.
2) The denial is of the truth.
John says that a claim to sinlessness means “the truth is not in us” (v. 8).
I heard of a college – not one in the United States – which was so concerned to have a high pass rate among its students that, after an exam where most had done badly, the professors were told to regrade papers with a higher score. When those marks were published, did that mean their students were now smart? No. The facts had not changed. Most failed, but the truth was being denied.
The truth about ourselves is not in us if we deny that we still think wrong thoughts, say wrong words, do wrong deeds.
3) The defamation is of God.
John makes a very strong statement: “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (v. 10).
If a witness stands in court and testifies about the accused: “I was there. I know this man well and I saw him pull out a gun and shoot the victim,” and the accused says “I did not do it,” then the accused calls the witness a liar.
God, who sees all things and has perfect knowledge, has said all have fallen short of his standard.
- Some think they are sinless because they have never committed murder or a violent assault. God says all shortcomings are sin.
- Some see themselves as an elite, as if ordinary rules don’t apply to them – perhaps like a top politician believing that because they are special they should not be convicted for drunk driving or speeding – and some of the Gnostics of John’s day believed their spiritual experiences meant anything done in the flesh did not matter. But God says all have sinned.
- Some believe they are never to blame. What they did was because of their heredity, or their upbringing, or peer pressure, or the influence of society. But God allows no such claims to excuse sin.
The argument of sinlessness is a refusal of God’s verdict on their failings; hence, John says, they make God out to be a liar.
So, in these verses there are these three serious failings:
Denying the truth
There is one overwhelmingly serious consequence of that deceit, denial, and defamation: that there is no calling out to God for mercy, no turning to Christ, no change in someone’s life. Believing they are already perfect, they continue on their confident but mistaken way to their doom.
It is a strange truth that getting free from the damage and consequences of sin begins by a person clearly admitting they are guilty of sin. That’s the message John brings.
So, we turn now to the inner part of the sandwich.
Verse 9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Many years ago I had several sessions with a psychologist, and the experience overall was very helpful even though she did not share my faith. Many times the psychologist heard me say I felt guilty for not doing something or forgetting someone’s need, and she pointed out how strongly I had a sense of my own failings. That was an important insight. But her solution was too simple: “Stop feeling guilty!” she said. I couldn’t. Not like that. Sin cannot just be shrugged off, as if it didn’t matter. I needed to deal with it.
How to deal with sin is what John writes about in verse 9.
First, we confess our sins.
If we don’t recognize our sins and throw ourselves on God’s mercy our lives will never change, so admitting to our sins is the beginning.
The golf course on which I played as a child had no practice range, so I practiced just off to the side of the clubhouse. My mistake one day was hitting balls back towards the clubhouse. To my great horror I watched one shot turn in the air, head straight towards a clubhouse window and with a mighty crash demolish that whole window.
The instinct in me was to run. I didn’t. I went into the clubhouse and there was the clubhouse manageress in a considerable state about the mess. She looked at me very sternly. “And, to think that your father is the golf club captain!” He was. That year my Dad held the top elected position to run everything about the club. How embarrassing.
I went straight home and told my parents what had happened. Dad was not amused – hitting balls back towards the clubhouse was really stupid. But, after the hard words were over, he said: “I’m proud you went in and owned up. Well done.” And as he turned away, I am sure I saw him smiling. The incident was never mentioned again.
Getting right with God begins with confession.
But recognizing sin is never only about words. We can’t just admit faults and stay as we are. Real confession, real repentance is also about actions.
I visited Moscow recently, the city which may have the worst traffic of anywhere in the world apart from some big cities in Africa or Asia. So I was pleased when our local guide in Moscow told my small group that we’d be travelling on a trolley car. The trolley cars ran on rails in the middle of the street, getting power from the cables above, and all the ordinary cars had to get out of the way. “We need number 37,” she said, and in a few minutes number 37 trolley car came along.
On we got, and number 37 made marvelous progress through the traffic. Wonderful. Until my shoulder was tapped and I was told we were getting off. I knew we hadn’t reached our destination yet, so that was strange. The explanation? With great apologies our guide said we had the right trolley number, but we had got on the 37 going in the wrong direction. So, with much laughter, we crossed the road and five minutes later we were on trolley car number 37 but going now in the right direction.
That is a big part of what repentance is like. It’s not just admitting you’re wrong or even being sorry you’re wrong, it’s changing and going the right way.
Second, John says in verse 9, we trust that God is “faithful and just and will forgive us.”
I have met people who seem determined to find fault. I’ve seen it in parents, schoolteachers, police officers, or military personnel. Most are not like that, but some seem to have wanted to condemn and punish.
That is the image many have of God, as if he is ‘out to get us’ all the time. The opposite is true. God is faithful, just, and he will forgive. God has always been like that.
“He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
The Bible has many other statements like that.
God is love, and his promises reflect his heart of love to heal and forgive.
So, third, John says God is “faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
This is language of complete cleansing. All sins gone. God will never again speak to us about the sins he has removed.
My first computer was an Apple IIe. It cost a fortune, and I splashed out on a disk drive as well. It took 5¼ inch floppy disks, and they really were floppy in those days. You had to insert the disk which had the program you wanted before you switched on the computer.
My son, who is also called Alistair, was nine years old back then and fascinated with computers. “Can I play on it?” Alistair asked. “Of course,” I said. “There is nothing you can do to harm it.”
Really? My nine-year-old son found the buried code which erased the whole of my expensive word processing disk. He was experimenting with different commands, and he wiped that disk clean. I took it back to the store and said: “Is the program really gone?” They checked it out. “Yes sir,” they said. “It is utterly and forever gone.”
So are our sins when God erases them. They’re not put to one side, not filed away, not kept in reserve in case God wants to fling them back in our face. God forgives and washes us clean from every sin – every sin. Those sins are gone and they are never coming back.
Through Christ’s death for us, we are forgiven. Completely forgiven. Forever forgiven.
John’s message in these three verses is that we cannot pretend we are sinless, and, amazingly, we don’t need to. Those who will come before God, confess their sins, and trust in his Son will find their sin removed for all eternity.
We have a God who is faithful to all his promises, who longs for his people to be in the right relationship with him, and who has given his Son to make that possible and every day brings forgiveness and healing into our lives. We have an amazing gospel and an amazing God.
 Quoted in David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 36.
 E.g., Jer 31:34; Mic 7:18–20; Rom 3:25; 2 Tim 2:13; Heb 10:23.