1 John 1:5-10, “5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
In these verses, John introduces one of the great effects of the gospel, namely, the transformation of life that occurs in the genuine gospel-believer. John speaks of this transformation as from “darkness” into “light.” To “walk in darkness” means to pursue a pattern of life apart from God, who is light (vv.5-6). “Walking in the light” means both fellowship with God (v.6) and fellowship with other believers (vs.7). It does not mean that we will never sin. After all, in this very passage John reminds us that when we do sin, God has provided a trustworthy ground of forgiveness: “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (v.7). When we base our confessions of sin on this fact, God is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins” and also to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v.9).
In 1 John 1:6, the apostle teaches that a person claiming closeness with God while walking in darkness has broken fellowship with God, or never had it in the first place. Picture the popular gospel drawing in which God in his holiness is on one side of the chasm and man in his sinfulness is on the other side. The cross is then drawn in the middle to show the only way to get to God. In verse 6, John gives an ironic twist to that image. In the chasm, he draws a man yelling up to God and boasting to the world, “I’m in fellowship with God.” Like Talkative in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, “He talketh of Prayer, of Repentance, of Faith and of the New-birth; but he knows only to talk of them. Religion hath no place in his heart. All he hath lieth in his tongue.”[i] He thinks he is on high moral ground when from God’s viewpoint we languish in some dark pit.
John teaches that we cannot claim to have fellowship with God and still continue to walk in darkness. He tells us that we are not to be hypocrites, pledging allegiance with our lips but trampling on his law with our lives. Those who profess to know God are to be distinguishable from the rest of the world—as distinguishable as light from darkness. We are to be different in both our attitude toward sin and our actions against it. Notice what 1 John 1:7 says, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” To walk in the light is to live a life that reflects the holiness of God. It is to imitate Christ’s lovingly obedient example.
There are two results of walking in the light. The first result is fellowship with other believers. If we are rightly connected to God, then we will be rightly connected to other Christians. Christian koinonia walks upon the communal enmity caused by the fall and walks across the ethical and cultural divides created by human sin. How wonderful it is to think and act upon this truth. Our local churches should celebrate this reality when we gather for worship, share meals, reach out to the lost, provide for the poor, comfort the oppressed, support and encourage missionaries, and join hands with gospel-centered churches in our cities and around the world.
The second result is that “the blood of Jesus.. cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). As Christians, we need the ongoing benefits (cleanses is in the present tense here) of Jesus’ atoning death (“the blood”). We also need to know and remember that “all sin” is continually covered.
Does John mean that the sin of adultery, bearing false witness, coarse joking, deceit, envy, fraud, gossip, holding a grudge, idleness, judgmentalism, killing the innocent, lying malice, not keeping oaths, oppressing the poor, prayerlessness, quarrelling, returning insult for insult, slander, trusting in riches, unlawful divorce, violence, and witchcraft? Yes! Does he mean the sin of loving the world, loving yourself, not loving your neighbor or enemy or fellow Christian or God? Yes! They are all covered. Every single sin that stains us and makes us too defiled to commune with a holy God has been cleansed by Christ’s propitiation. His atoning sacrifice for our sin has made fellowship with God possible. While many people find Jesus’s blood disturbing, we are to find it preserving as Christians. The blood of Christ preserves our fellowship with each other on earth and with our Father in heaven.
Confession of sin can be in public (Luke 18:13) and private (Psalm 32:5), individual (Ezra 10:1) and corporate (Neh. 9:3). We can confess personal sins (Matthew 3:6) and even the sins of others (Dan 9:20). Confession can be made to others (Josh. 7:19-21), to those offended (James 5:16), and always to God (Psalm 51:1-4). The confession that John speaks of here in 1 John 1:9 is to God. Following the biblical pattern for confession, we are to present our “transgressions to the Lord” (Psalm 32:5; Daniel 9:20), knowing that whoever confesses will obtain his mercy (Proverbs 28:13-14).
Throughout the Scriptures, we find warnings about the danger of concealing our sins as well as the blessings of confessing them (“Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confess and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). Indeed, genuine repentance does lead to mercy, or to forgiveness and cleansing, as John words it because God is “faithful and just.” We are often faithless and unjust. We sin against God and others. God is always faithful and just. He keeps his promised punishments for sin and does so through the cross. On the basis of Christ’s blood, God forgives and cleanses. He cancels the debt and brings restoration, and he removes the stain of sin, making us holy and renewing our fellowship with him.
As we will see in our study of this great epistle, John will continue some of these same themes that I outlined in the first paragraph of this article. But before he gets there, he adds one final thought in 1 John 1:10, “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
Once a woman confided in the hymn-writer Charles Wesley, “I am a great sinner. I am a Christian, but I sometimes fail so dreadfully. Please pray for me.” Wesley looked at her rather sternly and replied, Yes, Madam, I will pray for you; for truly you are a great sinner.” Taken aback by Wesley’s demeanor and straightforward reply, she answered, “What do you mean? I have never done anything very wrong.”[ii]
In 1 John 1:10, John is dealing with someone similar to this woman, namely, a person who acknowledge original sin but fails to see the depth of her depravity—or, worse, someone, who thinks she has become perfectly sanctified. And while we might chuckle upon hearing that Wesley story, this attitude toward sin is no laughing matter.
In Proverbs 30:20 we find one of those poignant Proverbs, “This is the way of an adulteress: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, “I have done no wrong.” That is not just the ancient adulteress’s mentality. From the Oval Office to death row, we have become experts in eating from the forbidden tree, wiping our mouths, and then turning to the world and saying, “I have not sinned. I have done nothing wrong. What do I need to confess?” But God’s Word tells us here that God hates such denial. He hates it because to say that we have not sinned is to call God a liar. To lump God is who is light in with the dark world’s darkest characters—the devil, and false teachers is a grave offense.
This claim of sinlessness stemming from whatever it might be called today “a complete surrender,” “second blessing, “double portion of the spirit”—makes God a liar because God makes the opposite claim. He claims that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23). He makes the claim, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl 7:20). He says that we are in need of ongoing forgiveness because we continue to sin (1 John 2:1).
It is said that a man who claimed to be without sin once confronted Charles Spurgeon the great Baptist preacher. Intrigued, the preacher invited this man home for dinner. After hearing the claims through, Spurgeon arose from his chair, picked up his glass of water, and threw it across the man’s face. Immediately and understandably, this “perfect” man showed his imperfections, causing quite a scene, allowing his anger and language to cross the line of courtesy. To which Spurgeon replied, “Ah, you see, the old man within is not as dead as you claim. He had simply fainted and I have revived him but with a glass of water!”[iii] That story might or might not be true. But it does help illustrate the point: there may be a few “perfect” people who need a perfectly good splash of water to awaken their imperfections. For, you see, no one in the kingdom on earth” has been so transformed by God that they have reached a level of spiritual maturity that excluded the need for ongoing forgiveness”[iv] We are all still sinners in need of God’s constant cleansing.
At almost the exactly the center of the Sermon on the Mount (with 116 lines before and 114 after it) is a perfect masterpiece on prayer—the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). It is perfect in both structure and substance. Structurally, Jesus gives six petitions in two symmetrical parts. The first part, with its three petitions, focuses on God, and thus all the petitions contain the word you (referring to God)—“hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come,” “your will be done.” These are what we might call divine petitions.
The second part, with its three petitions, focused on human needs; hence our and us in the petitions—“give us this day our daily bread,” and “forgive us our debts,” and “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” These are human petitions. These final three petitions focus, in some way or another, on our struggle with sin. We live “in the land of debts,” and “we are up to our ears” in debt.[v] We war against daily temptations. We fight against the cosmic evil forces without and common evil forces within. And yet we pray to our holy, heavenly God—“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matt. 6:9).
“God is light” is the message of 1 John 1:5-10. If we are to walk in the light, as we are called to do, our first step is to recognize the darkness within. A proper assessment of self and sin—in which we say neither “we have no sin” nor “we have not sinned” but rather ”we have sin” and “we still sin”—should lead to a life of consistent contrite confessions whereby the Father’s forgiveness is given and our fellowship with God and others, through the blood of Christ is renewed. It should also lead to a life that reflects the light of God- a theme that we will explore further in the rest of this epistle.
[i] The Pilgrim’s Progress, World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 1984) 63-65
[ii] James Montgomery Boice, The Epistles of John: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 39.
[iii] The Spurgeon Illustration with slight changes was taken from David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Drove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 36.)
[iv] Gary M. Burge, Letters of John, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 92.)
[v] Martin Luther quoted in Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, 2nd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004), 308.