How can we confess our sins as John tells us to in I John 1:9? Let me make four suggestions: First, know God’s Word; second, know our lives; third, know our sins; fourth, confess our sins. When I am self-righteous in an argument with my wife, I need first to know God’s Word. Then, I must move on to number 2: I must know my life. I must have some way that I can stop and reflect and take account of what I am doing. I personally take time when I get up in the morning and when I go to bed at night to survey the day and what I hope to do, or have done, and lift it to the Lord in prayer.
But this isn’t enough. It needs to move on to knowing my sin, the third movement. Whether this comes through other people that I’m in committed relationships with (like my wife, or my fellow church members) or through me just being honest with myself, somehow I need to be able to identify and articulate not excuses, and not explanations for why I reacted this way or that way, but to see it as God sees it—as sin. And then I can go to confess my sins, fundamentally to God, but in the example I used, to my wife, and to others who may have been involved. As we see our own sin, we come to love Christ more, because we understand more and more our need for Him.
Many people look at the cross and don’t understand it, and they don’t understand the cross because they don’t understand their own sin. Sin darkens our minds and our hearts. I know in my own life that when I’ve sinned, it effects my judgment. And I’ve seen it in others’ lives as well. The effects in our lives are terrible.
But sin’s effects are not limited to those things people experience now. John is clear that sin also darkens our future.
Look at the first two verses in chapter 2: “My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin.” [And some of you may feel you can stop reading here. If that’s you, let me encourage you to re-read the verses right before. The rest of us, however, need to keep reading!] “And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”
Perhaps some of John’s early readers had misunderstood—or even denied—Jesus’ role. Perhaps some thought it was limited only to them. Throughout the New Testament period, the great question before the church was “are we just for the Jews, or are we for the whole world?” Whether John’s speaking of the “whole world” here was primarily over against this false Jewish exclusivism, or some other, it was clearly intended to tell them that Jesus Christ was no advocate of a small or private enclave, but rather that He is the one and the only such advocate that “we have,” as he put it in verse 1.
As to the theological question about who Jesus was the propitiation for, I think we’ll get further in understanding that by considering the nature of a propitiation—it is by its very nature, effective. To propitiate is to turn away wrath. It is the action by which guilt is removed and our relationship to God is restored. This is what the atoning sacrifice accomplishes.
So is Jesus Christ your advocate? Will He stand and defend you on the last day? He certainly can’t honestly claim that you have been without sin. How then would He defend you when God rightly begins to lay out the sentence you’ve deserved? Only by telling His Father that it has been met already and paid in full. That’s what Christ did as a propitiation for all who will confess their sins, repent of them, and turn to Him. Without that turning to Christ, and trusting in Him, you and I have only God’s wrath to expect.
But Jesus has come particularly to save sinners! So in 1:7 John wrote that “the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” And in verse 9, we read that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Later on in 2:12, John says that “your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.”
This is what it means to have Jesus Christ as your advocate and atoning sacrifice. Our sins are forgiven because of Him. This Gospel is where we live as Christians! Because being a Christian doesn’t mean being perfect; rather, it’s being forgiven. A Christian church is a community of people who realize their pitiful future was one they deserved, while they share in a future of grace.
That gracious future doesn’t come because of our righteousness, but because of Christ’s! Self-righteousness is like the penny over the eye that blocks out the sun. Because of our conceits of our own puny righteousness, we do not see the righteousness of Christ provided for us by faith. Christ’s righteousness is our glory! He is our hope!
Our sins provoke God’s wrath. To answer that wrath, should we rely upon ourselves, or upon Christ? We should rely upon Christ.
Do you think you’ve found another way to have your sins forgiven? I promise you, on the last day you will need help. And Christ is that help.