The Foundation of “Continual Cleansing”
The idea of continual cleansing comes from 1 John 1:5-10. Continual cleansing comes from verse 7, “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” The word “cleanses” is in the present tense, thus meaning “always cleansing, constantly cleansing, or continually cleansing.” So this is the passage where the phrase continual cleansing comes from. The question now to ask is what is meant when people generally speak of continual cleansing.
The Two Extremes on the Issue
The first extreme
Let us identify the two main extremes on this topic. The first side basically argues that God is continually cleansing you regardless of your acknowledgement of sin or almost regardless of what you do. Thus it is argued, once someone becomes a Christian, the blood of Jesus is continually cleansing the person from all sins, regardless of what is done. This extreme view argues that I can go over to the local convenience store, shoot up the place, and still expect to go to heaven. The classic argument that is used is a suppose a man sees a woman, lusts after her, and immediately is run over by a car. Will God forgive him though he did not have a chance to repent?
The problems with this extreme: As I see it, there are a few problems with this viewpoint. First, there is a problem with hypothetical examples. We always want to use hypothetical examples to prove our points on religious topics, but these hypothetical situations always get us in a big mess trying to explain. So the first thing I would say is to keep things in the real world with examples that we have had to deal with. The second problem is that this hypothetical involves something that God with have to judge upon on that day. He is the one who must decide on these things, especially if we are going to use these hypothetical examples. We can ask all sorts of questions of what God will do and what he will not do, but if the Bible does not give us a plain answer, then we must leave that up to God. As Robert Turner said, “do not whittle on God’s end of the stick.” Our end of the stick is to not get ourselves in those kind of situations. Third, this extreme view of continual cleansing forgets what John said previously in the verse. What is the condition of this continual cleansing? “If we walk in the light.” We have to walk in the light to receive continual cleansing. Suggesting that once we are a Christian we can do whatever we want is not walking in the light of God. Shooting up a store is not walking in the light. We are going to have to live as God has told us to live and we are going to have to obey him for us to receive this cleansing. Remember, John is talking to Christians in this text. Yet John still says “if we walk in the light.” We have a condition that we must fulfill.
Fourth, notice 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” If we suggest that we are continually cleansed and can therefore do as we please, we are essentially saying that we have no sin. Whatever we do is now no longer a sin. I can shoot up a mini mart and say that I have no sin. John quickly takes care of that idea, and says that we deceive ourselves if we think we have no sin. So this extreme view of continual cleansing violates this verse. Fifth, this extreme view of continual cleansing ignores the rest of the context. What must we do to receive this continual cleansing? Read verse 9: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Our continual cleansing is not only dependent upon walking in the light as He is in the light, but it is also dependent upon us confessing our sins to God. Once again notice the conditional word “if.” If we confess our sins, then he will forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. So we cannot go do whatever we want to do once we are a Christian. The word “confess” is also in the present tense, just like the word “cleanses” in verse 7. John literally is writing, “if we keep confessing our sins.” We must be confessing our sins to God and then we will be continually cleansed. So we see the problem of taking a phrase out of its context and making a whole argument out of it. We must understand continual cleansing in its context.
The other extreme
The other extreme says that we must then, based upon these verses, confess every single sin specifically. If you do not confess every single sin specifically to God, you cannot be forgiven of it. So you need to write down every sin you commit and make sure you specifically confess those sins to God, otherwise you are lost. There are some problems with this extreme thinking also.
The problems with this extreme: First, this extreme view conflicts with the words of David in Psalm 19. Notice verses 11-13, “Moreover by them Your servant is warned, And in keeping them there is great reward. Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; Let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, And I shall be innocent of great transgression.” There is a contrast here between these sins that he is aware of and the sins he is unaware of. David was not required to list all of his sins. He did not need to know what his secret sins were. He did not name them off one by one. Second, this extreme view is a problem because requiring a perfect remembrance of sins is no longer a reliance on God, but a reliance upon myself. I must rely on myself to perfectly remember sins. I have to rely on myself to mention everything I have done to get forgiveness. I reject this because we cannot rely on ourselves for salvation. Where is the grace of God if I must remember everything I have done? Even in the Old Testament the people of God did not have to remember every sin they committed. Yet they were asked to live perfect lives. They relied upon God to take care of their sins. The Bible proves that people cannot live perfectly (Romans 3:23). So why would we think that we can remember our sins perfectly? We are just going back to the system of law, a system of perfection if we require perfect sin recollection. Third, can we always know if we have sinned? Suppose last week I did something that offended you, that caused you to stumble. I sinned by causing you to stumble. Did I know that I made you stumble? No. Then how can I confess of that sin? Do you see the point? There are many instances where we can sin and not know that we sinned. That is what David is saying when he says cleanses me of my hidden faults. There are sins that we commit that will remain hidden from us.
A misunderstanding of confession
I think where some of the problem comes is a misunderstanding of confession. The meaning of confess is, “to confess, i.e. to admit or declare one’s self guilty of what one is accused of; to profess; to declare openly.” What God is asking us to do is to admit that we are guilty of sinning. We are to openly declare that we are sinners and that we in violation of his law and his commands. This is what confession means in this verse, not perfect remembrance of all sins, but admitting openly to God that we commit sins. Again, David is a good example of this. Look at Psalm 51:3, where we see an example of confession: “For I acknowledge my transgressions and my sin is always before me.” This is what we are to do. To acknowledge that we are sinners, that we cannot live perfectly, and so we admit that we are guilty.
Is there continual cleansing? Yes, but not the way the world will define it. But we do have continual cleansing in this way: when we are trying to do God’s will to the best of our ability, understanding that we cannot live perfectly, but we are trying our best to live it perfectly, then the blood of Jesus is continually cleansing us. Because if we are walking in the light, doing God’s will to the best of our ability, then we will be confessing our sins to God, acknowledging the sins we have committed, admitting to God that we are sinful and needing his mercy and grace. When we ask for forgiveness of our sins and set our minds to do his will, then he forgives us and cleanses us. Thus, we have comfort and peace with God. We do not have to remember everything perfectly. We try our hardest, giving our heart and soul and strength to God, and we will mess up. We will stumble and we will sin. But as long as we keep striving to do what is right and keep admitting our sins to God, then we will be cleansed.