Very few people I know are deluded enough to say they never sin. We all know better. We betray even our own sense of right and wrong often enough to leave us convinced we have a problem.
But as much as possible we don’t want others to know better. The thought of owning our faults scares us. We think we would lose credibility if we told the truth about our struggles. Transparency would expose us for the highly flawed people we know we are. So we downplay our sin and puff up our righteousness. We admit that are not perfect but rarely identify specific sins. We tacitly believe that by hiding our sin we maintain our integrity. We prefer the story of our obedience even if it is pure fiction. We play spiritual charades to maintain a façade of goodness. We move the lines; “Flee sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18) becomes “don’t have extra-marital sex.” Voilà, I’m not so bad! We compare ourselves with others or our past selves; nothing like a worse sinner to make me seem okay. We skew the facts. I view pornography without lusting. I simply find the pictures beautiful. We make up (and stringently obey) rules that our community respects but which God might care nothing about.
But God warns us: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Walking in the light (1:7) is not a show of morality in which we exaggerate our holiness. Puffed up piety never made a person close to God. The more we cultivate a religion based on maintaining appearances the more the façade of godliness becomes our comfort instead of Christ.
There is an alternative: “If we confess our sins…” (1:9). In the gospels it was the people who couldn’t pretend credibility who were first to admit their brokenness. The “sinners” couldn’t play the game of keeping up appearances. So they surrendered to Jesus and found salvation. The Scribes and Pharisees bluffed righteousness; they had a persona to maintain. They couldn’t disappoint their audience. So they minimized their sin and failed to walk with God. We practice liberating confession when we are open enough with God to get specific about our moral failures and the innate faults that lead to those failures.
After warning against faux godliness John names four fruits of confession. Here’s why faking spirituality isn’t worth it.
Jesus “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1:9). Forgiveness concerns the claims that sin has on our lives. Sin is like a debt collector. Forgiveness is like receiving a letter saying that the debt has been cancelled; you will never receive another threatening letter about it. Like driving out of a terrible snowstorm into a clear day, the debt no longer covers your windshield but begins to fade in your rear-view mirror. If you confess your sin Jesus will forgive you. God will no longer hold your sin against you. Sin will no longer define you. The debt is cancelled.
“The blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1:7). Sin stains us. It makes us feel ugly and dirty. Christ’s blood washes us. Baptism teaches that God showers us with the purity of Jesus so that guilt and shame of sin is purged from our souls. When John Bunyan’s Christian came to the cross his sins were forgiven. But he wasn’t simply relieved of his burden. An angel “stript him of his rags, and cloathed him with Change of Raiment.” To those who confess the worst sins they can imagine God says, “You were washed” (1 Cor. 6:11).
“If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1) An advocate is a legal counselor, one who speaks for a person who has no voice or whose reputation might make his testimony seem inconsequential. If you are a believer you have an advocate with the Father. Christ took your case even though he already knew you to be fearful, selfish, lazy, and proud. He knew you would weigh your responsibilities, know the right choice, and still choose wrong. God respects the righteousness of our advocate as if it were our very own.
Christ “is the propitiation for our sins” (2:2). This strange, old-fashioned-sounding word means to appease; to make peace by meeting demands. In case we see visions of child sacrifices meant to pacify vicious and capricious deities John assures us: Jesus didn’t offer himself to appease the temper of a hateful God. John says later that God “loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (4:10). In love God provided Jesus as a sacrifice to cancel the debt of righteousness that we owed according to the law and to pay the penalty that justice demanded because of our sin. God didn’t give his Son merely for uniquely qualified people, people from of a certain ethnicity, location, or temperament. Jesus is for every penitent person in the world (2:2).
There is no reason to keep faking. Instead of telling a phony story about our integrity our story of sin can be rewritten by God’s Son. Through confession we can taunt our accusers: What can you charge me with that I haven’t already admitted? By owning the holes in our holiness confession guards us from finding comfort in our performance. The God who is light (1 John 1:5) invites us to walk in the light. His light doesn’t flatter our flesh. It reveals the character flaws that didn’t seem so bad in the shadows. But God’s light also reveals the perfection of Jesus. We can be honest with our failures because God gives us his perfect Son. He gives us a new start, plants in us new desires, and invites us to walk with him in new obedience.