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Walking in the Light
The Foundation of Fellowship Is Repentance (1 John 1:5–2:2)
SUPPORTING IDEA: Because God is light, his children must walk in light. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves; but if we confess our sins, we will be forgiven and purified.
1 John 1:5. The message John declared is that God is light and there is no darkness in him at all. The word pictures light and darkness are common in John’s writings. John 1:4–5 mentions Jesus as light: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” In a number of places, Jesus referred to himself as light (John 9:5; 12:35–36, 46). John 8:12 gives his most direct statement: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Light is a picture of truth, knowledge, and righteousness, while darkness is a picture of falsehood, ignorance, and sin. John declared that God is light (truth, knowledge, and righteousness) and in him there is no darkness (falsehood, ignorance, and sin).
1 John 1:6. Since God is light and there is no darkness in him, no person can claim that he is living in full fellowship with God while walking in sin at the same time. If anyone makes that claim, he lies and is not living according to the truth.
1 John 1:7. On the other hand, when we walk in the light (live in light of truth, knowledge, and righteousness), two things happen. First, we have fellowship with one another. Some commentators teach that the fellowship is with other Christians. If so, the sense would be, “If we walk in truth, knowledge, and righteousness, we have full fellowship with other Christians who do the same.” On the other hand, other commentators reject that interpretation for grammatical reasons. The Greek pronoun for “one another” (allelon), they say, would normally refer to the two parties named in the first part of the statement (God and the Christian). If so, the sense would be, “If we walk in truth, knowledge, and righteousness, we have fellowship with God who is light and has no darkness.”
The second thing that happens when we live in the light is that the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. This strengthens the interpretation that the fellowship is between God and the Christian. It seems less connected to suggest that when we walk in the light, we have fellowship with Christians and the blood of Jesus purifies us from sin. It seems more natural to suggest that when we walk in the light, we have fellowship with God and are cleansed by God from every sin. It would certainly also be true that if we are walking in the light, we would have fellowship with other Christians, so no great doctrinal truth is lost regardless of which way this verse is interpreted.
To be “purified from all sin” does not suggest that if a believer does not walk in the light, his sins are not forgiven in the judicial sense. Nor does it mean that all believers are completely freed from all sin. Rather, the verb is in the present tense, suggesting a continuous and progressive action. It might include the forgiveness and purification from all past sin at the moment of salvation. But because of the present tense, it goes further to suggest that those who are walking in the light have sin’s defilement removed and that they experience a progressive sanctification—a progressive character transformation into the image of Jesus.
All sin means every kind of sin and shows there is no limit to the categories of sin that Christ is willing to forgive. His sacrificial death made every type of sin forgivable.
1 John 1:8. We do not know if the false teachers were suggesting that the Ephesian believers were without sin, or if that is an error the Ephesian believers fell into by themselves. Either way, it needs to be corrected. A person might not be conscious of sin, but this does not mean he or she is free from it.
There are two kinds of sin—doing those things we ought not to do and not doing those things we should do. The longer we walk with Christ, the more likely it is that we will put aside more and more of the things we ought not to do. If we came to Christ as adults, we might be successful in putting away many of the overt sins we committed during our non-Christian days. We might no longer smoke and get drunk and curse and treat others abusively. We might go through a day or more in which we are not aware of committing an obvious sin.
On the other hand, when we grasp that we are to do all the things that Jesus would do if he were in our shoes, we fail continually. None of us loves perfectly as Jesus did. Therefore, we sin, because a failure to love perfectly is a sin. If we think we are without sin altogether, we are deceived and we live a lie.
1 John 1:9. John comforts us, however, with the truth that even though we have sin in our lives, we can still be purified from this sin and maintain our fellowship with God (and resultant fellowship with other believers).
Scholars offer two major interpretations of this verse. The first possible meaning is that this confession refers to the confession of sin at salvation. It is a once-for-all confession that solves the problem of eternal judgment for sin. The reasoning is that if it referred to sins we commit after salvation, we might die after we commit a sin but before we confess it. Therefore, that sin would be unforgiven, since this verse teaches that we are not forgiven until we confess. If so, we would go to hell. Since the Bible doesn’t seem to allow a person to lose his or her salvation, the reasoning goes, it must be referring to confession at salvation.
Others take this interpretation a step further and teach that a Christian does not have to confess his sins and ask forgiveness from God after he has become a Christian because a believer already has forgiveness in Christ (Eph. 1:7). Many Christians, according to this understanding, spend too much time in morbid introspection. They wonder if they have confessed all their sins and if they are in fellowship with God or not. They never experience freedom in Christ. This is needless, since Christ has already granted us forgiveness. We do not have to keep track of our sins and confess them. We just have to live under the realization that our sins are already forgiven, enjoying our freedom in Christ.
It is true that all our sins are forgiven at the moment of salvation in the sense that none of our sins after salvation will keep us out of heaven. In that sense, all of our sins are forgiven, and we will never have to pay the penalty for those sins. This is the teaching of Ephesians 1:7.
This does not mean, however, that if a person sins after salvation he will go to hell. Verse 7 says that if we walk in the light—if we are saved, if we are children of light—then the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.
This does not mean we no longer have to ask for forgiveness from God for our sins. This interpretation seems to miss the point given to us by our Lord in the disciple’s prayer (Matt. 6:11–12). Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts” (trespasses). This is a needless instruction if we need not ask for forgiveness after our salvation.
This interpretation is contrary to our human experience. Yes, in a loving relationship we often get forgiveness before we ask for it, or without asking for it. But the healthy, sensitive, intimate relationships tend to be those in which the guilty person readily asks forgiveness from the offended party, not because forgiveness must be given or else the relationship will be broken, but because it is the loving and sensitive thing to do. It is careless and insensitive not to ask forgiveness for our sin against someone else, even though we may feel assured of receiving it.
The forgiveness John talks about in 1:9 can be understood as parental or familial forgiveness, not judicial forgiveness. That is, we all receive judicial forgiveness one time when we receive Jesus as our personal Savior (Eph. 1:7; Rom. 5:6–11). We were, at that time, saved from the penalty of our sins. It is called judicial forgiveness because it is granted by God acting as a judge. After our salvation, we still sin (Phil. 3:12; Jas. 3:2, 8; 4:17). This sin does not cause us to lose our salvation (Rom. 8:37–39), but it does break the fellowship between us and God, just as the sin of a child or a spouse breaks the fellowship with parents or a mate.
We confess our sin out of respect and love for the person we have sinned against. God forgives our sin, purifies us from all unrighteousness, and restores us to his fellowship. We need judicial forgiveness only once. We need parental or familial forgiveness whenever we sin.
The NIV translation, will forgive us our sins, is a valid translation, but the word our is not in the Greek text. Literally, it reads, “will forgive us the sins.” It is possible to translate this as an article of previous reference, which contrasts “forgive us the sins” with all unrighteousness, which follows it. According to Hodges,
John’s thought might be paraphrased, “If we confess our sins, he … will forgive the sins we confess and moreover will even cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Naturally, only God knows at any moment the full extent of a person’s unrighteousness. Each Christian, however, is responsible to acknowledge (the meaning of “confess,” homologomen; compare 2:23; 4:3) whatever the light makes him aware of, and when he does so, a complete and perfect cleansing is granted him. There is thus no need to agonize over sins of which one is unaware (Zane C. Hodges, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, 886).
God’s forgiveness of our sin under these conditions is based on his justice. He is just and will forgive our sins. We might expect that forgiveness in this instance is based on God’s mercy, but it is based on his justice. God is just because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin when he died on the cross. God has promised to forgive our sins in Christ (2:2) when we confess them, and he will abide by his promises.
1 John 1:10. A number of verses in the Bible tell us that we will sin after conversion (Phil. 3:12; Jas. 2:10; 3:2, 8; 4:17). Because a Christian will sin after salvation, he should not deny his sin. If he does, he makes God out to be a liar. When a Christian realizes, through the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit, that he has sinned, he should agree with God about his sin, confess it, and receive the restoration to fellowship that is promised in the previous verse.
1 John 2:1–2. Most Bible teachers agree that the first two verses of chapter 2 conclude the discussion of chapter 1. John does not change subjects until verse 3. Therefore, we will deal with those verses in this chapter.
We see in this chapter a delicate balancing act between feeling forgiven and feeling free to sin. The apostle John says in 1:9 that if we confess our sins, we will be forgiven. We have no reason to be buried with guilt because of our inability to eradicate sin in our lives. Just because Jesus is willing to forgive our sins doesn’t mean we can feel free to keep on sinning. This Scripture is written so we won’t sin. “Do your best not to sin,” we might paraphrase, “but if you do, you have help.”
Dear children signifies a fond affection for the people to whom John wrote this letter. The exhortation to walk in the light encourages us not to sin. But we will. All is not lost when we do sin. Jesus is our advocate, one who speaks to the Father in our behalf, as a defense attorney would argue our case before a judge.
The advocate speaks with extraordinary authority before the judge, however, because his defense for us is that he, the defense attorney, has already paid any price the judge could impose. The willingness of the judge to forego judgment is not based on the life of the one on trial (us), but rather on the merits of Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus sacrificed his life in our place. He paid the price for our sin with his death. He is our atoning sacrifice (sacrifice that pays the price and allows forgiveness).
Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is sufficient not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. Does this mean that everyone is saved? No, the Bible makes it clear that not everyone will be saved (Matt. 7:14; 1 Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:21). But anyone who hears the gospel can be saved if he or she wants to be (Rev. 22:17).