The apostle John has begun his letter to the Christians making a emphatic point that Jesus is God come in the flesh. The apostles saw him, heard him, touched him, and watched him live his life. Jesus is the Word of Life, the Eternal Life, and to have fellowship with the Father and Son one must have fellowship with the apostles. John is setting up the authority of the apostolic message. John is preparing his audience to hear the word of the Lord: “What we have heard” (1:1), “We have seen it and we testify and declare to you” (1:2), “What we have seen and heard we also declare to you” (1:3). Notice how verse 5 begins, “Now this is the message we have heard from him and declare to you.” We are to feel the divine and apostolic weight of the teaching John is about to give. This is the message from the Son of God, the Word of Life, and John now declares this message to us.
God Is Light (1:5)
The statement that God is light is extraordinarily deep concept. If we will think about it we will realize the saying, “God is light” is complex and the implications are vast. There are two concepts that I believe John is trying to emphasize to his readers by declaring that God is light: the holiness of God and the revealing nature of God. God is pure, perfect, and righteous. God is always good and always right. Eastern cultures often depict God as good and bad, yin and yang. But this is not God. God is always good. God cannot do evil and cannot be tempted by evil (James 1:13,17). God stands in contrast to darkness, evil, error, and imperfection. Light carries a moral function, determine what is right and what is sin. This is why John continues, “There is absolutely no darkness in him.” All that is of darkness is excluded from having fellowship with God. Darkness has no place with God.
Further, light has a revealing function. Light unveils our spiritual identity. God’s absolute light shows us to be in darkness. God alone can guide us from the darkness as the light. Jesus said, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” (John 12:46 ESV) It is these two aspects that John teaches concerning our relationship with God.
If We Say We Have Fellowship But Walk In Darkness (1:6)
It does not matter what you say you are. What matters is what you do. You can claim to be in fellowship with God, but if your life does not reflect it, then you are lying and not practicing the truth. Literally, you are not doing the truth. You may think you have the truth, but you are not doing it. There is no such thing as a Christian who lives in habitual sin. Once you know God, there will be a life change. If there is not a life change, then there is not a Christian. Many claim the name of Christ, but do not seem to claim the life of Christ. To call ourselves disciples, believers, and followers of Jesus, our lives must reflect Jesus.
Notice that John is questioning our life pattern. What is the general rule of your life? Since God is light we must put aside our sinful way of living. To say that we belong to Christ but then go out and live how we want is hypocrisy. So we must examine what the general rule of our lives looks like. Do we typically walk in the light, striving to do God’s will? Or do we typically walk in darkness, desiring to obey our own will? It is important to recognize that John is teaching the concept of living in sin. Walking in darkness means that we live our lives in sin. People will try to teach that sin is just doing what is wrong. But this is an incomplete description of sin. Sin is not only breaking God’s law. Sin is not doing what God has commanded. Walking in darkness means that we are not doing what God has told us to do. This goes to the issue often argued concerning divorce and remarriage. Some will try to suggest that the divorce and remarriage is a one time act that can be forgiven and then continue in the adulterous marriage. The problem is that you are walking in darkness and not the light. We can be forgiven of divorce and remarriage but we cannot continue to be in a relationship that is expressly condemned by God. Walking in darkness does not mean that you always do what is wrong. Walking in darkness means that we are not seeking God’s will and striving to obey God’s law. It means that our typical life decisions and actions are for self and not for God.
Walk In The Light (1:7)
However, if we walk in the light just as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another. This verse is often misunderstood to mean that if we walk in the light we Christians have fellowship with one another. There is truth to this, but this is not the point John is making. Remember that the “we” and the “us” in the first four verses of this letter referred to the apostles. John’s point is clear and important. If we walk in the light, then we are in fellowship with the apostles. John taught in verse 3 that when we are in fellowship with the apostles then we have fellowship with the Father and with the Son. Just as walking in darkness does not mean you never do what is right, walking in the light does not mean you never do what is wrong. John is not speaking about living perfectly or sinlessly, which he will point out momentarily. Walking in the light means that the rule of your life is seeking after God and making decisions based on God’s rule not your own will. The practice of our lives is to do the will of God, not to ignore or violate his will.
John teaches that when we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. Saying that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin proves that those who walk in the light are not living perfectly. Otherwise there would be no sins for the blood of Christ to cleanse. God has made the provision to cleanse those who walk in the light through the once for all time sacrifice of Jesus.
It surprises me how much debate and turmoil has occurred over this verse. I believe this is a great illustration of how grace works. One of the difficult concepts many Christians have is how God’s grace works with our obedience. One extreme says that God’s grace works without our obedience. God will forgive us even if we live in darkness. John is very clear that this is not the case. You cannot walk in darkness and expect God’s grace to save you. The other extreme says that our obedience merits God’s grace. Notice the picture that John paints for us. You are striving to walk in the light. It is your life purpose to do the will of God. But there are going to be times when you do not walk in the light. There will be times that we will slip up and sin. When we do, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from these sins. The writer of Hebrews makes the same point.
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10:26–27 ESV)
When we stop striving to live for the Lord, when we disregard the knowledge of the truth, and when we simply choose our way rather than the Lord’s, the sacrifice for sins no longer remains. Then the blood of Jesus does not cleanse us from our sins. So it is a great and precious promise given to those who are faithfully living for the Lord. God is faithful to you and God’s grace covers our sins.
If We Say We Have No Sin (1:8)
John continues to deal with the false teaching of the Gnostics. If we say that we have no sin since becoming Christians, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. The Gnostics claimed to be sinless since Christ had abolished their sins once and for all. The idea was that their higher knowledge lifted them above the realm of sin.
We cannot live as a Christian ignoring the reality of sin and our sinfulness. We cannot say that we are a Christian, therefore we can do whatever we want to do. Too often wearing the name of Christ has led people to believe that they can remain in a sinful life. People claim to be Christians but living with a man or woman who is not their spouse. People claim to be Christians while engaging in affairs and adultery. People act like their sins are acceptable because they are Christians. Jude identified this problem in his letter.
For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. (Jude 4 NIV)
Paul also wrote about this problem with concern about Christian liberties.
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (1 Corinthians 6:12–13 ESV)
Those who use their lives in a way that ignores the reality of our sins and our sinfulness are deceiving themselves if they think they remain in the grace of God. Christianity is not a liberty for disobedience and self-serving. Christianity is the freedom from sin to obey Jesus.
If We Confess Our Sins (1:9)
Christians are people who confess their sins. This confession is to God and this confession is specific, not general. Too often we delude ourselves into thinking that we are confessing sin by saying, “I have sinned.” Tell God what you did. It is not like he does not know what your sins are. Confession is the opening of our hearts to God, expressing sorrow for the sins we have committed. If I am not honest with myself, how can I be honest with God? John is describing confession as the means for maintaining fellowship with God. The light always reveals the hidden things of darkness. Therefore, if I refuse to face my sin, it means that I am avoiding the light, breaking fellowship with God because he is light. Not facing our sins means that we do not like the light. We are to come to God with open hands and hearts, revealing our sins and asking for forgiveness.
This is the mechanism God uses to cleanse his people. A common question is asked, “Once I am a Christian, what do I do when I sin?” John speaks of a repentant, confessing heart which God receives. Notice the promise to us. God is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Walking in the light means admitting our sins and asking for forgiveness. This will tap into God’s faithfulness. God will be faithful toward us and forgive us. All unrighteousness will be cleansed when we come to him.
Unfortunately, some take this passage and turn it into a works system. Some teach that a Christian is only forgiven when he or she confesses the sin. I expressly deny this teaching for many reasons. First, there are many sins we commit that we do not know we have done. I can offend you and not even know it. You can act in a way that can cause stumbling and not know it. You may have not done God’s will when there was opportunity and not know it. The psalmist desired to be cleansed from secret sins (cf. Psalm 90:8). Second, if salvation is dependent upon me confessing every sin, then there is no more grace. Then I am saved by my works, by my memory, and by my precise confessions. No one can perfectly confess every single sin. Grace is removed and we must depend on ourselves for salvation. We cannot ignore what John taught in verse 7. When we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from our sins. Verse 9 cannot be denying that promise. Walking in the light means that we will let the light expose our lives and shine a light in our hearts. When we are aware of sin, we will repent and we will confess those sins to God. God is right to forgive us because the propitiation for our sins has been offered, Jesus on the cross.
If We Say We Have Not Sinned (1:10)
Finally, if we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar. Verse 8 talks about what we are doing to ourselves. If we say we no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. Notice the effect saying we have no sin has on us. Now John moves to what this means toward God. If we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar. Why do we make God a liar? Romans 3 is very clear. God has declared, “There is no one who is righteous, not one.” Further, we learn that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We are saying that God is a liar if we think we have not sinned. Further, his word is not in us. The word of God is not in us and the Word of Life is not in us. We do not have a relationship with the Word of Life if we think we have not sinned. Even after coming to Christ, we still need the blood of Jesus to cleanse us from our daily sins.
The arrogant may ask, “What have I done that I need to confess?” This seems to be the stance of the Gnostics and can be our stance at times also. What do we need to confess? Friends, we have so much to confess. Think about all the things we do not know that we did that were sins. Think about all the things that we should have done for God that we did not do. Consider the sins of omission. What right things have we not done that we should have done? Do not make God a liar. We have many sins that need the continual cleansing of the blood of Jesus.
God is light. Walk in the light to be in fellowship with God. The rule of our lives must be desiring to serve God and striving to follow him. When we are on this path God has given us a precious promise. He is faithful. He will forgive us our sins. He will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.