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. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; 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. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
Last week we saw from verses 3 and 4 that John makes the message of Christ (call it theology, or doctrine) the basis of all significant Christian fellowship. “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you so that you may have fellowship with us.” In order to create and nurture deep Christian fellowship you have to talk about who you think Christ is and what he taught. That’s what John begins to do in verses 5–10.
Let’s try to see the overall structure of this paragraph first, and then go back and unpack its meaning.
Three Parts of John’s Argument
I see three parts to John’s argument in these six verses. First, verse 5 gives the message of Christ that John has heard. Second, verses 6 and 7 describe some practical implications for life that come from this message. Third, verses 8–10 answer a possible misunderstanding of verses 6 and 7, and so clarify their meaning. So verse 5 is the theological foundation. Verses 6–7 are the practical application. And verses 8–10 are a necessary clarification.
Verse 5: The Foundation
“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.”
Verses 6–7: The Application
“(Therefore) if we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth.” That’s the negative implication from the foundational fact that God is light.
“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.” That’s the positive implication from the foundational fact in verse 5 that God is light.
Verses 8–10: The Clarification
It could be that the wonderful promise of verse 7 would play right into the hands of people who have a perfectionistic view of the Christian life. John had said, “The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” Someone might say, “See even the apostle teaches that all sin is totally left behind when you become a Christian.” So John clarifies.
“The claim of sinlessness is not only self-deception, it is also blasphemy.”
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” In other words, the claim of sinlessness is simply self-deception. Instead of denying our sinfulness, we should confess that it is real and ugly. Verse 9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Then to drive home the clarification John repeats the point of verse 8, only with stronger words. Verse 10: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” In other words, the claim of sinlessness is not only self-deception; it is also blasphemy. The sentence, “I am without sin,” amounts to the sentence, “God is a liar.”
These are extraordinarily strong words. If this were not an apostle talking, I can imagine someone today saying, “Do you have to use such inflammatory words when you warn people about error?” John evidently felt that so much was at stake the language, “You make God a liar,” should not be softened into something like, “You displease your heavenly Father.” I’m not sure the Scriptures should be adjusted to our emotionally fragile age. I think we need to get toughened up a bit.
That’s the overall structure of the paragraph:
- Foundation: God is light (verse 5).
- Application: Walk in the Light (verses 6–7).
- Clarification: Don’t claim to be without sin (verses 8–10).
Now let’s go back and unpack some of its meaning.
Foundation: God Is Light
First of all, verse 5: “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” What does John mean that God is light?
One answer would be that God is truth This comes from verse 6: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth.” He might have said, “When we walk in darkness, we do not live according to the light.” But he puts truth in the place of light. So it seems that truth is virtually the same as light. (See also 1 John 5:20.)
In other words, God is light means that God is the source and measure of all that is true. Another way to put it would be that nothing is truly understood until it is understood in the light of God. This is why the Old Testament says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). You don’t even get to first base in true knowledge if you leave God out of account. Which is why secular education is such a mirage of hope in the contemporary wasteland of our culture. God is light. That is, God is truth. He is the source of all that is true and whatever is true is true because it conforms to him.
Truth Full of Joy and Hope
But John chose the word light not truth in verse 5. And I think he chose the word light because it carries a positive connotation that the word truth may not always carry. For some readers the word truth may leave open the possibility that the truth of God is a dark truth — a foreboding truth, a truth that is not inviting. So John chooses the word light because it promises that the truth of God is a truth full of joy and hope. You can see this if you reflect for a moment on the value of light.
What is the main value of light? Negatively, it helps you avoid danger. Positively, it helps you reach what you are after. When you walk in the darkness, you may stumble over a log, or step on a rattlesnake, or fall off a cliff, or hit your head on a low-hanging branch. Darkness is full of threat. It frustrates your ability to attain your goal. But light changes all that. It exposes dangers and frees you from their lurking power. It opens the way to your goal. It is full of hope and promises the glad attainment of your goal.
No Hidden Agenda, No Small Print
The first picture of God that John wants to put before us is this picture of God as light. “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” It means that if you draw near to God, you do not find a dark and foreboding truth. You find freedom and hope and joy. In God the stumbling logs and rattlesnakes and cliffs and low-hanging branches are all exposed and we are made safe from them. Our goal of ultimate and eternal joy is secured in God because there is no darkness in God. That is, there are no lurking shadows in God. There is no hidden agenda, no small print. He is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
Coming to God is not like buying an IBM Personal Computer. When you see the ad in the Tribune that a computer store is having a sale on the IBM PC for under $2,000, that may sound very bright. It may sound like stumbling blocks are being removed and the way is opening to new goals of word processing to be achieved. It may sound like light has dawned. But when you go to the store and check it out, you discover there is some darkness in it: that price doesn’t include any monitor — there’s nothing but darkness until you have a screen with your computer!
God is not like that. He is light and in him is no darkness at all. There is no small print qualifying the brightness of his glory. No missing boards or monitors or operating systems. There are absolutely no regrets for those who come to God with all their hearts. He is all light. He is the pathway to perfect and eternal joy with no disappointments. In the light of God you will not be destroyed by the rattlesnake of sin; you will not fall over the cliff into hell.
Light is the promise of hope and joy. Darkness is the threat of despair and misery. And God is light and in him is no darkness at all. This is the message that John heard from Jesus. Jesus came into the world to reveal it. It’s the foundational message of this book.
Application: Walk in the Light
Verses 6 and 7 draw out the practical application from this truth about God. Verse 6 gives the negative side of the application: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth.”
Walking in Darkness
What does it mean to walk in the darkness? First John 2:8–11 give some real clear indications. It says that he who hates his brother is in the darkness and he who loves his brother abides in the light. Walking in the light means being a loving person and walking in the darkness means being a person of hate. But there is something more basic than that.
“The claim of sinlessness is not only self-deception, it is also blasphemy.”
First John 2:8 (at the end), “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” What is this darkness that is passing away? Notice that the same word for passing away is used in 1 John 2:17, “The world is passing away and the desire of it.” From this I would conclude that walking in darkness means being controlled by desires for this world instead of desires for God.
The reason this is called walking in darkness is that the only way people can desire things more than God is if they are blind to the light of God. To choose gravel over diamonds you have to be blind. Remember the picture of the man in a dark room. He feels a warm, soft fur with one hand and a cold sharp edge with the other, and draws in close to the warmth and softness of the fur.
But when the light goes on, he sees that the warm, soft fur is the underbelly of a horrid, man-eating monster; and the hard, cold edge is the sword of the majestic Christ ready to save. The reason he was controlled by his desire for the man-eating monster is that he was in the dark. Everyone who loves the world more than God is in the dark. Only it’s a willful darkness, because, as John said in John 3:19, “The light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
When you walk in darkness, you are controlled by the desires for the soft, warm underbellies of prestige and power and two-second pleasures (see James 4:14). This is the very opposite of what it means to have fellowship with God. Fellowship with God means that you see things the way he sees them and have the same desires he has. If we are controlled by desires for the world instead of desires for God, it doesn’t matter whether we say we have fellowship with God or not; we don’t have it. Instead we walk in darkness. “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness we lie and do not live according to the truth.”
Walking in the Light
Now verse 7 gives the positive side of the application of verse 5. “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.”
Walking in the light is the opposite of walking in darkness. It means seeing reality for what it is and being controlled by desires that accord with God’s light. If God is light, and in him is no darkness at all, then he is the bright pathway to the fulfillment of all our deepest longings. He is the deliverer from all dark dangers and obstacles to joy. He is the infinitely desirable One.
If in his own light he shines forth as a Being of infinite worth, then he is the star of glory that we were made to admire and cherish. If God opens the eyes of our hearts to see all that, then our desires are captured by the surpassing glory of God over everything that the world has to offer, and we walk in the light as he is in the light.
There is a walk, there is a lifestyle, that necessarily results from the miracle of new birth when we are given eyes to see the surpassing worth of the light of God. 1 John is written to describe what that lifestyle looks like and how it results from the God’s light and our new birth. According to verse 7 two things accompany walking in the light: “If we walk in the light”
- “we have fellowship with one another,” and
- “the blood of Jesus God’s Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Having Fellowship with One Another
Who is the “one another”? Verse 6 would suggest that it is God and the believer. “If we say we have fellowship with God while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another,” i.e., between God and ourselves. Verse 6 shows what destroys fellowship with God — walking in darkness. And verse 7 shows what preserves fellowship with God — walking in the light.
But verse 3 would suggest that the “fellowship with one another” in verse 7 refers to fellowship with fellow believers. John says that his desire is to proclaim Christ so that his readers might have fellowship with him. So I would conclude that probably the “one another” in verse 7 refers both to God and to fellow believers. Walking in the light is the condition of fellowship not only with God but also with other believers.
You know what this is like. You have a precious friend — perhaps even a spouse — you have in common the same desires for God. You are both living in the light of his surpassing value. You’re both devoted to his cause. You both hope in his promises, and avoid sin by the light of his word. Then something happens.
You discover one day that your friend seems strangely fascinated by some trend, strangely preoccupied with a book or a movie or a fashion or a singer or a career or a piece of lake property. Then you notice that the topic of God is avoided. Prayer is missing or perfunctory. There are no more comments about the sweet hour in the word of God. Church and Christian people seem to be on the butt-end of periodic sarcasm. The wartime zeal for the global cause of Christ has shriveled up to a me-centered pursuit of two-second pleasures. And the old fellowship is over. Not because you want it to be, but because it is impossible unless we both walk in the light.
So verse 7 teaches that the only way to preserve the precious jewel of deep unity with God and with other believers is to walk in the light — to see things in the light of God, to let God be your bright pathway to joy.
Cleansing from Sin
The other thing that accompanies walking in the light in verse 7 is cleansing from sin. “If we walk in the light as he is in the light . . . the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Three Important Questions
John makes a connection here between the way we walk and the effectiveness of the blood of Christ to cleanse us of sin. So we must ask three questions:
- What is this walk?
- What does it mean to be cleansed from all sin by the blood of Jesus?
- What is the connection between the two?
1. What is this walk?
We have already answered the first question: walking in the light means living under the controlling desire for God instead of the world — the kind of life you live if you see things the way God sees them and share his values. Walk means life.
2. What does it mean to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus from all our sin?
Does it mean that as we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus keeps us from sinning? Or does it mean that as we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus covers and nullifies our sinning? In other words, does it refer to progressive sanctification or to the on-going experience of justification?
“Walking in darkness means being controlled by desires for this world instead of desires for God.”
It seems to me that there is good reason for saying it refers to both. (1) It refers to the justifying effect of Christ’s shed blood blotting out all our sins and giving us acquittal and eternal acceptance with God. (2) And it refers to the moral power of the blood of Jesus to help us conquer temptation so that in the end all of our sin will actually be overcome and we will stand really pure and sinless before God (Philippians 1:6).
The reason I think it refers to progressive sanctification is the very strong emphasis in 3:8–9 on Christ’s purpose to destroy sin out of our lives. “He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God.”
In other words, the reason Christ came was not merely to cover sin but to conquer sin. He came not only to justify but also to sanctify. Not only to acquit but also to reform. And if he shed his blood in order to accomplish his purpose, then his blood cleanses not only in that it covers but also in that it conquers sin. The ongoing effect of Christ’s blood is to cleanse our hearts in such a way that we cannot be content to go on sinning.
As Hebrews 9:14 says, “The blood of Christ . . . will cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” This is the moral effect of the blood of Christ. It is a progressive work in the believer’s heart and, as Philippians 1:6 says, God “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” All sin really will be cleansed away in the end if we walk in the light.
But I also think that the cleansing mentioned in verse 7 refers to the ongoing effects of justification. That is, it refers to the fact that all our sins are already covered and forgiven by God because of the death of Jesus, if we walk in the light.
The nearest piece of evidence for this is verse 9. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Notice that in verse 7 sin is cleansed. In verse 9 sins are forgiven. The condition for cleansing in verse 7 is walking in the light. The condition for forgiveness in verse 9 is confessing our sins.
I think the implication is that one essential part of walking in the light is confessing known sin. Walking in the light does not mean perfection, for then verse 7 would make no sense at all — “if we walk in the light, we are cleansed from sin!” If walking in the light meant perfection, there would be no need for cleansing. Besides, verse 8 warns against claiming to be sinless while you walk in the light.
Walking in the light means seeing things the way God sees them and responding the way he does. We walk in the light when we hate the sin we fall into and name it for the ugly thing it is and agree with God about it and turn from it. So confessing sin is a crucial part of walking in the light. And verse 9 makes forgiveness of sin dependent on walking in the light. Therefore we are warranted in taking the cleansing of verse 7 to refer to forgiveness and not just to sanctification.
In sum, then, the on-going cleansing of the blood of Jesus in our lives refers to two things. First, it refers to the experience of having all our sins forgiven, so that God does not hold any of them against us. It is the experience of being acquitted or justified, as Paul says in Romans 5:9, “Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” And Ephesians 1:7: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.” To be cleansed by the blood of Jesus means, first, to have all our sins forgiven (past, present, and future)!
Second, the cleansing refers to the ongoing moral effect of the blood of Christ on our conscience, weaning us away from sin, giving us freedom from its power, and enslaving us more and more to the joy of righteousness. Someday when Jesus returns, this process of sanctification will be completed and we will at last have been cleansed of all sin if we walk in the light!
3. What is the connection between the two?
Now we have asked two of our three questions of verse 7. What is walking in the light? And what is cleansing by the blood of Jesus? Now the third question that we must answer is: What is the connection between the two? John connects them with an “if . . . then” construction. “If we walk in the light . . . then the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” What does this mean?
John does not spell out at this point how walking in the light and being cleansed from sin are related in reality. He is content, for now, to say that there is no cleansing of sin for the person who does not walk in the light. This does not answer the question, which comes first? Or, which causes the other? What it does establish is that there is a way of life in which the cleansing effect of Christ’s blood operates, and there is a way of life in which the cleansing effect of Christ’s blood does not operate.
If we are not walking in the light, we have no warrant for believing that our sins are covered. There is no assurance of salvation while you are living in disobedience. “God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7–8). “Why do you call me `Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you” (Luke 6:46)?
“To be cleansed by the blood of Jesus means to have all our sins forgiven.”
How is such teaching good news? Some people think that the only way to make the gospel really good news is to deny that changes are necessary in our lives. They say that takes away the possibility of assurance of salvation. They say the way we live after putting our faith in Christ has nothing to do with our salvation.
I answer that a powerless gospel is not good news. A gospel that only wins lip service is not different than all the other philosophies of the world. Such a gospel produces a Christianity that is a game of words. It encourages lukewarm church-goers that they are safe from God’s wrath because of some inherited mental assent to the love of God.
Such a gospel accounts for how 40 million people can claim to be born again in America at the same time that our moral condition is an all-time low of corruption inside and outside the church.
The message of 1 John — that walking in the light is not optional, but necessary for salvation — is good news because it creates the moral atmosphere of urgency in which serious business is done with God. It gives the flavor of eternity to all we say and do. It militates against religious gamesmanship. It honors the purpose of God in Christ to destroy the works of the devil. It takes seriously the necessity of glorifying God in our bodies. It leads people to real faith instead of encouraging them to be content with a lip service that cannot change and cannot save.
But in the end it simply is not up to us to decide whether the gospel is the kind of good news we would like it to be. Ours is simply to listen and submit to the word of God. And the word of God says that “if we walk in the light as he is in the light . . . the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” If we walk in darkness, we cut ourselves off from the cleansing effects of Christ’s blood. And if we cut ourselves off from Christ’s blood, where will hope be found!
Clarification: Don’t Claim to Be Without Sin
Now we have seen the foundation in verse 5 — that God is light and in him is no darkness. And we have seen the application in verses 6–7 — that we must, therefore, walk in the light of God in order to go on being cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Now we must look at the clarification in verses 8–10.
John has just said in verse 7 that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin if we walk in the light. That could be misused to teach that Christians don’t sin anymore. John knows that some of what he says could play right into the hands of the perfectionistic false teachers. See especially 1 John 3:9.
As usual, the truth is a razor’s edge between two errors — the error that says your conduct after conversion has nothing to do with your salvation; and the error that says your conduct after conversion must be perfect. John shoots down the first error in verses 6 and 7, and then shoots down the second error in verses 8–10.
Light Reveals Remaining Darkness
Verse 8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” The claim to be without sin is self-deception. And the reason we are so deceived is that the truth has found no place in us. When a person is converted, the truth takes up residence in the heart. Or we could say the light of God comes into the heart. And what John says here is not that it immediately drives out all falsehood and sin. That is a battle that lasts a lifetime. What he says is that when the truth enters in, its light reveals sin! The mark of the saint is not sinlessness but sin-consciousness! The evidence of indwelling truth is the exposure of error. The dawning of God’s light in the heart is the revelation of remaining darkness. In this life we never get beyond the awareness of remaining sin. Therefore one of the great signs of maturity in Christ is a deep and abiding brokenness for sin.
There is much talk today about esteeming ourselves as new creatures in Christ. And so we are. But our newness consists in this: that the true light is shining in our hearts revealing the dreadfulness of our remaining sin and the abundance of God’s grace. Our great joy is that our sin is forgiven in Christ. And our great grief is that so much of this very sin remains and defiles.
The mark of the new creature in Christ is not a rosy self-concept. It is brokenness for remaining sin mingled with a joyful confidence in the super-abounding grace of God in Christ.
Edwards on the Heart of the True Saint
Oh, how I wish I could get every person to read the sixth sign of grace in Jonathan Edwards’s Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections entitled “Gracious Affections Are Attended with Evangelical Humiliation.” These thirty pages of profound biblical and psychological probing of the heart of the true saint turn most contemporary talk about Christian self-esteem into the cotton candy chatter that it is. Here is one of the most beautiful paragraphs I have ever read outside the Bible.
All gracious affections, which are a sweet odour to Christ, filling the soul of a Christian with a heavenly sweetness and fragrancy, are broken-hearted affections. A truly Christian love, either to God or men, is an humble broken-hearted love. The desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires; their hope is an humble hope; and their joy, even when it is unspeakable and full of glory, is an humble, broken-hearted joy, leaving the Christian more poor in spirit, more like a little child, and more disposed to an universal lowliness of behaviour. (Yale edition, 339)
As long as we can’t say, “We are without sin,” we cannot be glib about our corruption.
Confession and Forgiveness
Verse 9 we have already discussed in connection with verse 7. But let’s review its meaning. We can see it best when we put verses 6–7 and verses 8–9 in parallel columns to show their similarity.
|Verses 6–7||Verses 8–9|
|If we say that||If we say that|
|we have fellowship with him and we walk in darkness||we do not have sin|
|we lie||we deceive ourselves|
|and we do not do the truth.||and the truth is not in us.|
|If we walk in the light as he is in the light||If we confess our sins|
|we have fellowship with one another||he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins|
|and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin||and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.|
One of the many insights we get from these parallels is that denying our sin is part of what it means to walk in darkness, and confessing our sin is part of what it means to walk in the light. Which implies further that denying our sinfulness cuts us off from fellowship with God (just the opposite of what we are prone to feel); and confessing our sin opens the channel of forgiveness and cleansing.
“If we walk in darkness, we cut ourselves off from the cleansing effects of Christ’s blood.”
Some people say that a Christian should never pray for forgiveness because his sins are all forgiven in Christ. It is finished in the cross and no more forgiveness is possible. There is truth in this. But to me it smacks of artificiality. At least we should say, “Father, I have sinned and am not worthy to be called your child. Please apply the blood of Christ to this my sin and count it among those which you forgave when he died for me on the cross.”
But if that is too complex, I am sure the Father would gladly receive the words, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Calling God a Liar
Finally, verse 10 repeats verse 8 with a stronger warning: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” The claim to sinlessness is not only self-deception, but blasphemy. It amounts to calling God a liar.
This means that God’s assessment of us is not positive. He calls us evil. If we deny our evil, we call him a liar. John uses strong words so we will be strong people.
Let these simple, straightforward, weighty truths sink into your mind and you will have a great ballast to keep your boat from capsizing in the winds of contemporary fads and fashions and trends.
Verse 5: foundation — God is light and in him is no darkness at all. His truth is bright and hopeful for all who come to him.
Verses 6–7: application — therefore, let us walk in the light of God so that we can enjoy his fellowship and experience the cleansing of Christ’s blood.
Verses 8–10: clarification — nevertheless, do not presume to claim sinlessness as you walk in the light, but confess your sins to God.