This is a familiar passage for many of us because it is often a go-to text for prayers of confession (see, for example, Rejoice & Sing no.3). We are all sinners, and if we claim not to be we are lying to ourselves – being Christians doesn’t stop us being as flawed as any other group of people. And yet God loves us all, and so if we confess our sins we will be forgiven, because God is faithful and just. Which is of course wonderful good news and a magnificent statement of God’s all-encompassing grace.
The only problem is that a little later in the same book the author ‘John’ – whoever that might have been – writes that those who abide in Christ do not commit sins, and in fact anyone who commits sin has not really known him. (1 John 3.6) So which is it? Are we sinners who are forgiven, but carrying on making mistakes, or does becoming a true disciple mean leaving sin behind?
There are arguments worth exploring about whether these statements can be reconciled or not, but on the face of it this seems to be a huge contradiction. Should this bother us? Perhaps. On one level, it’s a reminder of the dangers of taking any one verse from scripture out of context and without considering how it fits into the bigger picture. But going further, wouldn’t it be more surprising if, in explaining the wonders of God’s revelation, none of the writers of scripture ever got confused or contradicted themselves? Accused of inconsistency, the American poet wrote “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” That’s true of all of us, and is certainly true of Scripture.