If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
I John 1:8-9
This is the message!
John has a message, tidings.
For he has heard, his eyes have seen, he has looked upon, and his hands have handled that which was from the beginning, the Word of life, the Life, the eternal Life which was with the Father and is now revealed.
Therefore he has tidings.
He must speak.
And the heart of the matter, the center of the message that he with the other apostles declares to the church in the world about Him, the Life that they have seen and with their hands have touched, is that God is light and that in Him there is no darkness at all. That is what it is about. Everything is concentrated in that. From this follows everything that John has to declare. God is the eternal Good, the perfect, overflowing Fountain of all good, the True One, the Righteous One, the Holy One, the Faithful One, the Gracious One, and in Him is no wickedness, unrighteousness, or lie. There is no darkness in Him at all. He is the only Wise One, who knows and loves Himself in the light!
Therefore we must go to Him!
To the light!
Only in that light do we have fellowship with Him, and in that fellowship we share in life. For if we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie. But walking in the light, we have fellowship with Him and with each other.
Walking in the light!
Also now. Also in this world. Even now while we still have only a small principle of this obedience, and in us, that is, in our flesh, dwells no good thing.
Walking in the light, also with our sins!
For if we walk with our sins in the darkness, then we say that we have no sin.
But if we walk in the light, we confess our sins.
And there in the light we find forgiveness! For He is faithful and just! With Him there is always forgiveness!
This is the message!
Confessing our sins!
Difficult—for the flesh, impossible—a demand contrary to our sinful nature!
It means first of all, that we “say that we have sin!” Exactly the opposite of what we do when we walk in darkness. Then we say: We have no sin!
Confessing is “saying that we have sin,” not as a part of our dogmatics but as an acknowledgment of the heart. Oh, in a doctrinal sense we know it very well, and we say it easily enough: We have sin. We oppose the proponents of perfectionism who teach that the regenerated, converted, sanctified child of God is able to live without sin in this life. As Reformed believers, we find such a saying much too superficial. He who judges this way does not see deeply enough, does not know his own heart, is satisfied with the superficiality of life, does not see the evil of his corrupt flesh, and does not take sin seriously enough. He is in danger of falling into all kinds of sin. And in order to maintain the truth, we should readily call upon this text, for it plainly teaches that whoever says that he has no sin deceives himself and the truth is not in him. And we strongly oppose such a superficial saying, because even the holiest, so long as he is in this life, has but a small principle of this obedience.
No, no, we must have nothing of that superficial perfectionism!
In a doctrinal sense we say it heartily: We have sin! But oh, how completely different it so often is when this truth must be applied to us personally, when it applies to very specific sins committed by us that are pointed out with the finger, and when we come before the demand to acknowledge them, to say that we indeed have committed those concrete sins. Perhaps we have lied and slandered, or made ourselves guilty of backbiting; we have cheated and disadvantaged the neighbor; we are at variance with the brother and we do not want to yield. And God’s Word comes to us with the demand of confession. We are reminded of our sin. We are admonished. We are reminded of this word of the Scripture: If we confess our sins, but only then, do we taste the faithful God who forgives our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. And we immediately set ourselves to prove that we have no sin! Or we seek to explain away our sin. Or we call attention to the brother and how he also has guilt. And so we seek all kinds of excuses to escape the trap of the truth regarding the concrete, while we so readily confess the abstract.
Our flesh never says it: I have sin!
And yet this, and nothing else, is the meaning in the word of the text. It is not just about the confession of the truth, but about the acknowledgment of personal guilt.
And in this sense confession of sin is saying that we have sin.
Saying it with God!
Confession of sin is not just a saying, a mere acknowledgment, a consent that we have sinned. Even the world can still do that. Even in the tents of wickedness you can sometimes hear the language of those who loudly proclaim their iniquities, who take pleasure in all kinds of filth, and who openly boast of things that are even shameful to speak about. One gives an open testimony to all the iniquities he commits while in fellowship with the devil!
That is the meaning of the word in the original, a word generally used in Holy Scripture, and also here for “confession.” It means: to testify with someone; to say the same thing as someone else; in this case, to say the same thing about our sins as God says.
We are in God’s covenant! We are of God’s party. We walk in the light! And so standing in God’s covenant, being in God’s party, and walking in the light, we see our sins, we acknowledge our sins, we say about our sins what God says!
Then we hate our sins as God hates them.
Then we condemn our sins as God condemns them.
Then we find ourselves damnworthy before God, as God, on account of our sins, finds us damnworthy outside of Christ. Then we long for forgiveness, as God wills to forgive our sins in Him who has loved us. Then we humble ourselves in dust and ashes.
And we cry out, “Have mercy on me, the sinner!”
We confess our sins.
Wonderful power of the truth!
For only if the truth is in us do we ever come to the deed of confession.
We are ruled either by the truth, or by the lie.
But not by a truth or by a lie; but by the truth and by the lie.
The truth is that God is an eternally good God; that He is my God and my eternal good, that He is light and in Him is no darkness at all; that He is to be desired above all; that to love Him with all my heart and with all my soul, and with all my mind, and with all my strength is life; that His favor is better than the choicest foods, and His kindness than life; that He is to be served and thanked and praised forevermore, that only in the light can I behold light, and walking in the light can have fellowship with Him.
And the lie is diametrically opposed to this.
It is the evil, willful, spiritual- ethical denial of God as God, the refusal to say my God and my good; the attempt to say: I shall be as God; self-exaltation, enmity, rebellion against Him, the seeking of wealth far from Him; the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, the love of darkness.
By nature we are governed by that lie. It is in us, in our heart, and from our heart in our thinking and willing and desiring. It is a spiritual-ethical power that governs us from the inside out, and in a spiritual-moral sense always causes us to say: We have no sin!
And if we say that, then we deceive ourselves.
Unspeakably great folly of lies!
We deceive ourselves! Not God, against whom we think we can exalt ourselves; not the neighbor, against whom we have maintained our lies, saying that we have not sinned; also not ourselves in the sense that we do not know that we have sinned. The wicked shall never succeed in this. God will rise up in justice. He testifies of Himself, that He is a good God, He witnesses also in the conscience of the sinner: you have sin, you are guilty and damnworthy. But he deceives himself, because he does not want and does not seek God, and while he intends to maintain and exalt himself against God, and seeks wealth, happiness, honor, and greatness outside of God, he turns himself to the darkness, he seeks the outermost darkness, he moves himself down the road to eternal damnation, he rushes to destruction!
So it is in the absolute sense with the natural man, in whom there is no truth.
He is always governed by the lie and he deceives himself.
He always seeks his own destruction!
And so it is in a relative sense with us, with God’s regenerated children; so often they walk after the flesh.
Then they subject themselves to the power of the lie. Then they do not confess their sins. Then they say that they have no sin. Then they turn themselves unto darkness. Then they flee from the face of God. Then they seek wealth far from Him. Then they eschew the light. Then they do not find the cross; then they taste no forgiveness; then it becomes dark in the soul….
While I kept guilty silence, My strength was spent with grief, Thy hand was heavy on me, My soul found no relief.1
Yet, wonder of God’s grace! The truth is in us!
It is in our heart, a power, a spiritual propulsive-force. It controls us from within. It enlightens our minds; it converts the soul; it changes the will; it causes us to long for the light, for God, for His favor, His kindness, His righteousness; it fills us with the desire to please Him, with godly sorrow, with heartfelt repentance for our sins….
And we say that we have sin!
And we confess our sins!
And we no longer deceive ourselves, but turn to the light!
And in that light we find the faithful God, the cross, the resurrection, forgiveness, salvation, eternal peace….
But when I owned my trespass, My sin hid not from Thee, When I confessed transgression, Then Thou forgavest me.
Wonderful power of truth!
Thou dost graciously take it away!
Completely away! For, if we confess our sins, God is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness!
Forgiveness and cleansing! The guilt is completely taken away—that is forgiveness! The stain of unrighteousness is completely taken away—that is cleansing! I am damnworthy and God does not damn me, for He does not impute sin to me—that is forgiveness! I am defiled and under the dominion of sin, and God liberates me—that is cleansing! I am an object of wrath, and God grants me His favor—that is forgiveness! I am in bonds of sin and death, and God breaks the bonds and gives me life—that is cleansing!
Forgiveness and cleansing—inseparably connected together!
Connected in God, for without forgiveness we have no right to His cleansing; He sanctifies us because He has justified us. And also connected in our own consciousness. For without an inner longing for sanctification, we have no desire for forgiveness. Whoever says, “Forgive!” must also say, “Cleanse me!”
Forgiveness and cleansing—never to be separated in the confession of our sins!
No, not as if we by the confession of our sins make ourselves worthy of the forgiving and cleansing grace of God. God does not forgive and cleanse us because we confess, that is, on the ground of our confession. No, only because He is faithful and just does He forgive the confessor and cleanse him of unrighteousness. He is the Faithful One, that is, He does what He says; He gives what He promises; He keeps the covenant; He fulfills His eternal Word! And He is the Just One, that is, His will is always in accord with His perfect being, and His doing with His righteous will. And His eternal Word is: I forgive the confessor, My child, his sins. And His justice is that He has blotted out our sins in the blood of the cross.
But only in the way of confession can we receive that forgiveness and cleansing!2
Then we hunger and thirst and are satisfied!
Then we seek and we find!
Then we see God’s friendly face in the light!
1 Here and in the next quotation below, Hoeksema quotes from Psalm 32, stanza 2 in the Dutch Psalmen book. I give the English
from number 83 in our Psalter rather than a translation of the Dutch, because in going from Dutch to English the rhyming is lost.
2 Emphasis is Hoeksema’s.