Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An exegetical reflection on 1 John 1:9

by Shawn Brace

When speaking about Christ’s “unconditional” forgiveness, especially in light of what He said on Calvary to the soldiers who gambled over His robe (Luke 23:34),[1] many people like to cite 1 John 1:9 as a classic example of conditional forgiveness. And, indeed, this text has been— and continues to be—a bit perplexing to me.

As many of us are well aware, the text reads, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (NKJV). Literally, in Greek, the passage could be translated: “If we would confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous, so that He may forgive us our sins, and He may cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This text is often cited as an example of what is called a “third class conditional clause” in Greek. In other words, it is a classic “if/then” statement and it denotes the condition as “uncertain of fulfillment, but still likely.”[2] As someone has suggested in relation to this passage, “The moment he [the believer] confesses, God will forgive and cleanse. If the believer fulfills the protasis [“if”], then God will fulfill the apodosis [“then”]! If I do my part, God will do His part!”[3]

But I am not sure that this text is that cut-and-dried—and that last explanation seems to place God in the respondent’s chair, and us in the initiator’s chair, which is nothing more than a pagan, merit-based system of salvation. To begin with, what is the apodosis (the “then” part) of the statement? Is it God’s faithfulness/righteousness, or His forgiveness and cleansing? Structurally, it would seem as though God’s faithfulness and righteousness are the “then” part of the statement, with the Greek word eimi (“is”) as the immediately subsequent verb to the conditional “if” statement.

But this interpretation presents clear theological challenges. Are God’s faithfulness and righteousness dependent upon my confession of sin? Is God not faithful and righteous independent of anything I do? Does He not send His rain on the just and the unjust, His sun on the righteous and the unrighteous (see Matt 5:45)? Indeed, the Greek word eimi is not in the future tense; John does not write that if we confess our sins, God “will be faithful.” He writes that God “is” presently and actively faithful.

Of course, many could then suppose that God’s forgiveness and cleansing are the “then” part of the statement. But it seems to me that the Greek word hina—which literally means “so that” or “in order that”—indicates that God’s faithfulness and righteousness make His forgiveness and cleansing possible, not our confession. This passage shows that God’s forgiveness is dependent upon His faithfulness, not ours.

What further muddies the waters is the first verse of the next chapter. After John writes that He wishes none of His readers would sin, he then apparently shares another third class conditional clause when he writes, “And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” You can clearly see the limitations of this passage as well! Certainly, God doesn’t act as an advocate (the Greek word is parakletos, which is often translated as “comforter” when describing the Holy Spirit. It literally means “one who is called alongside”) alongside God, only when we sin! His role as mediator, comforter, and advocate stands independent of our actions. Does it not?

Thus, I’m not sure that the classification of third class conditional clauses is really as easily interpreted as some would like us to believe. And I am convinced that God’s faithfulness, righteousness, forgiveness, comfort, and advocacy are not so much dependent upon what I do, but upon who He is.

[1] Cf. Ellen G. White, The Desires of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1940), 745: “That prayer of Christ for His enemies embraced the world. It took in every sinner that had lived or should live, from the beginning of the world to the end of time. Upon all rests the guilt of crucifying the Son of God. To all, forgiveness is freely offered.”

[2] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 696.

[3] See http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/egreek/egreek07.htm (accessed 4 November 2008).

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