As you read the biblical texts below, notice the difference from one to the next (marked in italics).
1 John 5:7–8 (AV)
7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
1 John 5:7–8 (ESV)
7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.
Why is the text of the KJV longer in these two verses?
What is propitiation? John states that Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2) and, similarly, that the Father “sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The Greek term for propitiation in these instances is hilasmos, and we can understand it better by examining related words in the NT.
Romans 3:25 uses the noun hilastērion―Christ is He “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” Hebrews 9:5 uses this noun in identifying the mercy-seat in the Holy Place of Israel’s tabernacle: “Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat.”
The verb hilaskomai is instructive as well. Luke 18:13 records the tax collector’s plea, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Speaking of Christ, Hebrews 2:17 states “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
Some conclusions from above: (1) propitiation was possible in the OT through the mercy seat (Heb 9:5) but not completely as it would be in Christ (Rom 3:25); (2) Christ Himself is the propitiation (1 John 2:2; 4:10); (3) propitiation is for our sins (1 John 2:2; 4:10), the sins of the people (Heb 2:17), and the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2); (4) Propitiation was made possible by the blood of Jesus (Rom 3:25); (5) propitiation was made possible by Jesus because He was human (Heb 2:17); (6) propitiation is something Jesus has done in His service to God as our High Priest (Heb 2:17); and (7) propitiation is for those who humbly acknowledge their sin before God (cf. Luke 18:13).
From these conclusions, we can describe propitiation more fully. Being the infinitely holy God that He is, God justly responds to our sins with infinite wrath. Sadly, many experience (and others will come to know) this infinite wrath in hell, a punishment that lasts forever. Others, however, humbly acknowledge their sin before God and place their faith in Jesus who paid the infinite penalty for their sins on their behalf, made possible because Jesus is both God and man. The wrath of God was temporarily satisfied through animal sacrifice in the OT which anticipated the sacrifice of Christ (Heb 9:5; cf. Lev 16), and His wrath is now completely satisfied through Christ’s shed blood (i.e., His death on the cross).
In short, Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, meaning that He is the one who set aside the wrath of God by taking our due penalty for sins upon Himself on the cross. What an amazing Father we have to send His Son to die for us, and what an amazing Son He is to be the propitiation for our sins!
In 1 John 1:5–10, John is speaking to believers, those who “have fellowship with one another” and God (1 John 1:7; cf. 1:3). In 1 John 1:9 it is these believers who “confess” (homologeō) their “sins,” obviously to God. Broken apart, the Greek verb homologeō literally means “to say the same thing,” and its use in context indicates who is agreeing and what the matter of agreement happens to be. The matter of agreement here concerns sins, and the two that should agree about this matter are God and believers. To “confess our sins” is to agree with God about our sins, which is more or less the same as repentance.
Many understand 1 John 1:9 to speak of unbelievers who confess their sins in order to be saved and have fellowship with God. According to this understanding, if the confession of sins is necessary to having fellowship with God, then this fellowship can apparently be lost by engaging in acts of sin after salvation. Stated another way, walking the darkness puts believers out of fellowship with God (1 John 1:6).
From this understanding, the application for the believer is that he can lose his fellowship through sin after the point of salvation. If fellowship with God is equivalent to salvation (i.e., possessing eternal life; cf. 1 John 1:1–4), then those who hold to eternal security (once saved, always saved) must redefine fellowship in order to avoid having a believer lose his salvation through sin. The solution typically involves creating a category of believers who apparently have no fellowship with God and walk in darkness (cf. 1 John 1:6). Fellowship effectively becomes something less than salvation and something only enjoyed by believers who have confessed any sins committed after salvation. Practically, this understanding of confession and fellowship can tend towards methods that pressure Christians for crisis moments of confession in order for them to regain their fellowship with God.
As stated above, however, a correct understanding of 1 John 1:5–10 identifies believers as those who confess their sins in 1 John 1:9. Since fellowship involves sharing God’s eternal life and is thus equivalent to salvation (cf. 1 John 1:1–4), those who hold to eternal security naturally hold that this fellowship cannot be lost. This being the case, the sins to confess in 1 John 1:9 must be occasional and something less than a habitual walking in darkness that is only true of unbelievers who have no fellowship with God (cf. 1 John 1:6).
When we as believers occasionally sin, we hinder our relationship with God but do not lose our fellowship with Him. When we think of these sins as God does, “we confess our sins” to God so He can “forgive us our sins” and “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), something distinct from the once-for-all forgiveness and cleansing given at the initial point of salvation (cf. 1 Cor 6:11).
Pastor David Huffstutler
Pastor Huffstutler regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our pastoral bio page.