What Does "Cleansing" Mean?
1- Forgiveness vs. Atonement
In our study of victory over sin so far, we have come across this wonderful verse, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1John 1:9) This might lead to a very important question: "What does it mean that He will ‘cleanse us from all unrighteousness?'" Different religions might give different answers to this question, but none of them will give the true answer except for the one that is actually following Christ.
For many versions of Christianity, the Gospel's most important message is forgiveness. They may teach something like this: "Because we commit sins, we must accept the sacrifice of Jesus, and we are then forgiven for those sins. Because our sins, which result in death, are forgiven, we therefore receive everlasting life."
There is, however, a major problem of that incomplete Gospel message. Why were the sins committed in the first place? We read, "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not." (Romans 7:18) Another verse reads, "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world." (1John 2:16) Those who are not (yet) converted to the Way of Christ are said to "walk after the flesh," (2Peter 2:10) and not to follow the Spirit of God.
It is clear, then, that the temptations that lead to evil in the sinner come from the "flesh," from this earthly body with its senses and its desires. This does not mean that the body desires only evil things. Our body desires things that are necessary and good, like air, water, and food. It is when the things we want are not balanced, and when they are for things that would harm us or other people, that sin appears.
To be forgiven means that our Father no longer considers us guilty of a particular sin. But what is it that changes the cause of the temptations? Is anything different about the flesh? Not the slightest thing.
Paul tells us that when Christ returns, "this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.'" (1Corinthians 15:54) What this means is that when this earthly experience is over, the body is transformed into an immortal one, and even temptation becomes a thing of the past. But as long as we are in this world there is temptation, and therefore sin is possible. Forgiveness, even though it is very important to the Gospel message, is not the thing that actually prevents sin from happening again.
Atonement is what prevents sin from occurring in the life of the believer. This word means to become joined to someone or something. It means to remove the distance between two things, or two people, so that they become as "one." Forgiveness is the way that atonement can be received, because we must first be forgiven of sin in order to be united with God, but the two ideas are not the same. Forgiveness opens the door to atonement.
God has said, "My glory will I not give to another," (Isaiah 42:8) and yet Christ said during a prayer for His disciples, "And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was." (John 17: 5)
What an amazing statement! But while some might think that there is a contradiction here, those verses mean exctly what they say. Our Father does not give His glory to "another," but Christ has shared in that glory, and other verses tell us that He has also given it to us, to His people. How? Because through Christ we are not "another." We do not become God, of course, but we become "like Him" so that we are "made perfect in one" with the Father and Son as another verse from John 17 tells us.
This is atonement, and when one is atoned to God and Jesus, so that He says of us, "I am in them, and they are in me," then sin can no longer exist in a life like that. It is the presence of Christ in us that makes this verse true about the born-again believer: "His Seed remaineth in him, and he cannot sin." (1John 3:9) Forgiveness makes it possible, allowing us to draw near to the Father and Son. Atonement binds us to together, so that we "sin no more."
2- The Promise of Cleansing
So what does cleansing mean, based upon all that? Let us look at our first verse again: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1John 1:9)
Of course, the divine purity of God cannot be joined with anything that is not spiritually clean. When our sins are forgiven, if we have truly confessed and we show sincere repentance, (this is a word that means to turn away from sin completely, and we will study it very soon in another article) then our Father in Heaven also cleanses us. He makes us clean from that sin, not only the actions we have already done, but also the desire to do it in the future. This is what it means to be properly clean. He does so because that is how we can be atoned to Him, united forever in Spirit, and sharing in His glory just like Christ does. This should not be a strange statement - we are told that we are given "exceeding great and precious promises, that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust." (2Peter 1:4) We can take part in the divine nature: the love, and the light, and the power to overcome all obstacles.
We are given promises of cleansing. We are given promises of unity with the Father and Son. We are given promises that this unity is real in every sense. God has said that we were formed in His very own image. (Genesis 1:26) Being cleansed allows us to return to that image, to that "picture" of God in our lives.
When John says that we experience a cleansing, he means that we are washed from "all filthiness of the flesh and spirit," (2Corinthians 7:1) and invited into unity with our Father through our Savior and Redeemer. When our Father lives in us, and we in Him, through our faithful acceptance of His promises, then victory over sin is the only possible result. "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us." (Psalm 103:12) This is the cleansing that takes place in the life of the born-again believer when sin is truly cleansed - it is forever put away, and it occurs in our lives just as it one day will in all the universe. The prophet Nahum says about sin and sorrow that they "shall not rise up the second time." (Nahum 1:9)
3 - Summary
While most Churches teach that the forgiveness of God is our "ticket" into Heaven, the Scriptures present a more complete, and much more wonderful, description of the Gospel message.
While forgiveness is an important and necessary gift from our merciful Father, it is not forgiveness itself that leads to everlasting life. When we are made "one" with the Father through the sacrifice and work of the Son, when we are "one" with the Father by sharing a pure Spirit, then death has no power over us. Then, as Paul says, we "put on" immortality.
Atonement with God, who is perfectly holy and pure, cannot come while there is anything unclean about humanity, for sin and holiness cannot exist at the same time in the same place. (1Corinthians 6:15, 10:21; 2Corinthians 6:14) Atonement can only come when we are cleansed "from all unrighteousness," and as John says, this happens - not when we die and are resurrected, not when we are transformed upon the return of Christ, but - when we confess our sins and receive that cleansing.
When a believer finds a sin in his life, and confesses it, repenting of it completely, our Father not only forgives us for that sin, but He also transforms us, by His perfect power, more and more into His image. Those sins that we confess are not only forgiven. They are removed from us, removed an infinite distance, and therefore "shall not rise up a second time."
This is true Christian growth. It is not up-and-down like a roller-coaster. It is not a series of mountain-tops and valleys. It is upwards, always upwards, by the power of the Spirit of the Almighty. As Paul states the concept, "We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord." (2Corinthians 3:18)