Essay / Theology

On True Repentance

Some time ago, I was having coffee with a friend when our conversation turned to the topic of repentance. Neither one of us could really remember a time in our Christian lives when we were so sorry for our sins that we threw ourselves at God’s mercy, repented of our sins, and begged for God’s forgiveness. So the question both of us asked was, why?

Since becoming Christians we had both sinned and asked forgiveness for those sins but neither one of us could remember a time when we were so repentant that it moved us to ask for God’s forgiveness like David asked for forgiveness, especially in Psalm 51. I am desirous to understand repentance better, particularly as we enter into the Lenten season this week, and I think that the answer may lie in 1 John 1:5-2:1:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by 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, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.

It is clear from the internal evidence of 1 John that a developing schism within the Christian community led to its writing. The difficulties had already reached a point where some members, including teachers, had separated themselves from the others and were in the process of setting up their own community (2:19). Although the separation was complete, the dissidents continued to keep in touch with the rest of the membership and were actively trying to entice them to join the new group (2:26). Thus, John composed this letter in an attempt to correct these dissidents and to heal the schism.

Regarding its organization, in some places 1 John seems intricately structured; in other places it seems rambling and disconnected. Yet, it appears that the book is making three main points: (1) God is light; (2) God is righteousness; and (3) God is love. And under the section of God is light, John discusses communion with God and confession of sin.

I think that I have, for the most part, greatly misunderstood the meaning of 1 John 1:9. In a sense, I have simplified these verses to such an extent that they lack much of the force that John intended them to have. As a Christian, I normally think something along these lines: “I am a sinner but God has offered me his gift of salvation. As a believer, I continue to sin but God tells me that ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.'” Thus, though I sin, my understanding of 1 John 1:9 has made it nearly impossible for me to enter into the deepest sort of repentance for my sins. This is, of course, not good and I am now coming to see where I likely have under-appreciated John’s message.

Within the structure of the 1 John, 1:5-2:1 appears under the section where John is discussing the believer’s spiritual life. Thus, 1 John 1:9 is concerned with our spiritual life. In verses 5-7 John is stating one of the truths that he is trying to teach those who are being divisive—God is light. The message that “God is light” needs to be compared with the declarations elsewhere by John that “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). All three stress the immateriality of God and the “Godness” of God, that is, God in his essence. Light emphasizes especially the splendor and glory of God, the truthfulness of God and his purity.

If we say that we have fellowship with God, if we participate in God’s Godness as believers yet we walk in the darkness, that is, do those things that are contrary to God’s Godness, then we are not practicing the truth. In fact, we are lying. The example, says John, is Jesus who himself was in the light. John is telling us that as Christians we need to be like Jesus himself. We need to have the light of God’s Godness shining in our lives just as Jesus Christ had the light of God. In turn, if we walk in the light of God then we have two things: (1) we have fellowship with one another; and (2) the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.

God is light. If we claim to be believers yet we do not live in this light of God, then we are lying. However, if we walk in the light of God’s Godness then we have fellowship with other believers and we are cleansed from our sin. So what these verses are actually saying, I think, is that forgiveness of sin is based on how we live our lives. We cannot live how we want and then simply come before God asking for forgiveness and expect to be forgiven “just like that.” That is not what John is saying in verses 5-7.

John begins 8-10 in the same way that he began verses 5-7, with a warning that if we say one thing but do something else then we are lying both to ourselves, to others and to God. In verse 5, John says that if we say that God is light and then we live in the darkness then we are liars. Here in verse 8 John is much more blunt! He says that if we claim to have no sin at all then we are deceiving ourselves and lying. It should also be noticed that verse 10 repeats the same truth as verse 8. It is obvious that John is writing to the Christians to correct improper thinking about a person’s sinful nature.

In verses 5-7 forgiveness of sins depends on how we live. In fact, John went so far as to say that if we do not live a life in the truth of God’s Godness then there is no forgiveness of sins. He surrounds verse 9 with two warnings that if someone says he has no sin then he is simply lying. Thus, in verse 9 John says that to receive forgiveness of sins we need to confess our sins and God will honor our confession by forgiving us of our sins. The context here is about Christians lying that they, in fact, have no sin. Therefore, it appears that what verse nine is really saying is this: if you believe that you do not sin, then you are a liar; but if you confess this to God then he will forgive you for this lie. Confessing our sins is part of the Christian life and, without question, God forgives us of our sins whenever when we ask for his forgiveness. Yet here in 1 John 1:9, the context seems to indicate that the specific sin is that of untruthfulness. Moreover, John has already said that we must also live our lives properly in order to receive forgiveness of sins.

John says in verse 2:1 that “I write this to you so that you will not sin.” Thus, John’s purpose or goal in this section of 1 John is to help us not to sin. He is not trying to tell us what to do after we have already sinned. Verses 5-10 are instructions on how to avoid sinning, not directions on what to do once we have sinned. Yet often times we sin freely and reassure ourselves that if we simply go to God and confess our sins then he has obligated himself to forgive us of our sins. However, in context this is not what God is saying to us. John is, in fact, saying two things: (1) as Christians we are to live in God’s light, and by living in God’s light, that is God’s Godness, we have fellowship with other believers and are cleansed from our sin; and (2) if we say that we do not sin then we are lying and we need to confess this sin of lying to God and he will forgive us.

John connects the forgiveness of sin to both oral confession but just as significantly, he also connects it to proper living. Thus, as Christians, how we live is just as important as what we say when it comes to receiving God’s forgiveness. Without ranting about how “worldly” or “materialistic” today’s church is, may I simply offer a word of encouragement: during Lent, may we strive to live a life worthy of the title Christian, knowing that God is more pleased when we do not sin than when we willfully sin and ask forgiveness. Our daily experience of the gospel needs to strive towards sinlessness, not a greater reliance on God’s mercy towards me as I willfully sin: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” Of course not. May this season of Lent be one of greater sinlessness in our lives as we look forward to the day when we will live fully in God’s light.

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