As we have discussed what the Bible calls “walking by faith” or “living by faith” over the past weeks, I have emphasized that these familiar, much-used phrases actually represent a little-experienced way to live. Deciding to be a Christian by believing that Jesus died for our sins does not mean that we are “walking by faith,” also called in the Bible, “walking in the Spirit” or “living in the Spirit.”
Nor do these biblical terms refer to me, now that I am a Christian, in any way “getting my life together”—in any way changing what I do, say or think.
No, living by faith involves God opening the eyes of my heart to understand basic grammar, to wit, understanding the grammatical distinction between the subject and the object. Living by faith means God is always the subject; I am always the object. God is always the actor; I am always the one acted upon. God is always the cause; I am always the effect. God is always the initiator; I am always the responder. God is always the hand; I am always the glove. That is living by faith.
However, because of our inherited appetite for the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we come out of the womb naturally with this divine order reversed in our DNA. We see ourselves as the subject of our lives, trying ourselves to be good and not evil, i.e., to obey the law of God ourselves.
For example, the traditional approach to interpreting 1 John 1:9 demonstrates those efforts. The verse says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
This verse has become something of a Protestant rosary, establishing a formula for believers to follow that guarantees restoration back into the good graces of God after a sin has been committed. My sin causes my fellowship with God to be broken, this teaching goes, and confession and repentance are necessary to assuage His displeasure with me and restore me again to His good graces.
In other words, my temporal relationship with God, or my “fellowship” with Him, depends on my ability to not sin, and then quickly to confess each sin as I become aware of it. My willful confession is the cause, God’s forgiveness is the effect. I, therefore, become the active subject, a mollified God is the object.
This approach to the verse reinforces that great heresy taught by the Judaizers and confronted by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. It is a classic example of reading the Bible through the lens of the law, i.e., we must do something ourselves to maintain our relationship with God, an obvious reversal of subject and object.
Does this verse really mean that if I don’t confess every sin, I am somehow not forgiven? Is there some aspect to God’s forgiveness that is dependent on something I do, namely confession? If so, confession becomes some sort of penance, a work that I must perform to obtain forgiveness, trying again to be the subject and not the object in my Christian life.
We know that cannot be true. His forgiveness is a free gift, bestowed upon those He chose in eternity past. “But Andrews,” you say, “how can this verse be teaching that God is the subject and I am the object? It seems to say just the opposite. How can I read this verse ‘by faith?’”
Here’s how: If I do not really understand, by faith, that God is already, with no effort on my part, “faithful and just to forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness,” I cannot readily confess and repent of them. I must hide them, deny them, and defend myself when accused of them. “It’s not my fault” is continually in my heart, if not on my lips. This is evidence, John says, I am not living by faith.
On the other hand, if I willingly and eagerly confess and repent for my sins, it is only because I know that sin is no longer an issue with God. It was dealt with at the cross. I know that only real, live, wicked sinners get to heaven, sinners who have been fully forgiven by the grace of God. Therefore, I can unreservedly embrace both—1.) my sin and 2.) God’s grace to freely forgive that sin!
Confession, then, is the effect, the evidence that one is forgiven, not the cause for forgiveness, and God remains the cause, the One who forgives. Here is an example that is very helpful in assisting us in understanding an “if-then” sentence from a faith rather than from a works perspective, as is our natural inclination.
Imagine your optometrist telling you, “If you can read the bottom line of the eye chart, then your vision is 20-20.”
Is reading the bottom line of the eye chart the cause of your vision being 20-20? Of course not, it is the effect, or the evidence, of your 20-20 vision. In like manner, does my confession of my sin cause God to forgive me? Of course not, it is evidence that I am forgiven.
Another example: “If she speaks with a Southern accent, then she is from the South.” Did speaking with a Southern accent cause her to be from the south? No, a Southern accent is good evidence that she is from the South.
It is a part of our fallen nature to want to do something to gain standing with God, to be acceptable to Him, to be the subject of my life, and confession of our sins seems to be something we can do to be right with God. But our standing with God is always only dependent on what Jesus did at the cross, never on what we do. The “If” clause (our confession of sin) must be evidence the “Then” clause is a reality.
This is hard to see until our thought process is rectified. Even as Christians, we continue to think with a performance mindset. We are either discouraged because we fall short of what we know God demands, or proud because we can perform so admirably. Both are based on our achievement–a comparison of our efforts to God’s standard.
We see ourselves as falling short or measuring up, but either way we think our relationship with God depends on our accomplishments, something we can do, making us the subjects, the “prime-movers” in our lives. Therefore, in each case, unlike our forgiven sinner, we see our sin as still the issue, and it is very natural for us to want to deny our sin rather than confess it, because we don’t want to be failures. After all, we subconsciously reason, our relationship with God we are desperately trying to maintain depends on the absence of sin.
John says that this attitude toward sin is evidence, not conclusive in itself, but evidence, that we are not walking by faith in God’s forgiveness, but by the law. The truth of the gospel of the grace of God has not yet exploded in our minds.