Last week, we began our study of the first letter of John. We looked at the first four verses, or the prologue. We talked about how John seems to be addressing a particular concern (or concerns) in his audience – the details of which will come to light as we continue in the study. And we discussed how John’s overarching response to that/those concerns was to focus on the person of Jesus. For John, Jesus alone is the foundation for faith, the sole foundation for salvation and righteousness. And relationship with Jesus Christ (as opposed to merely knowing about Jesus or God) is the sole determining factor for entering or taking hold of the eternal life.
So as we continue in the letter, I want to elaborate a little on what’s going on. John’s conviction is that it is only in and through Jesus Christ that we have life. And this seems to be precisely because there are a variety of wrong ideas about Jesus. Now the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a really clear exposition of what those wrong ideas are – we have to do a fair amount of extrapolation from what John does say. Nevertheless, John’s goal in this letter seems to be to focus our attention on Jesus.
Now, before we continue on with the text, I want to say a few words about some introductory matters regarding the letter.
The first thing I want to say is about structure. In short, there doesn’t seem to be any broad agreement as to the structure of John’s letter. There are a variety of hypotheses as to the best way to understand this aspect, and without having enough grasp of the distinctives and differences, I won’t try to examine them here. However, one general approach that has been influential is the notion that 1 John is structured in a cyclical or spiral form. I. Howard Marshall (describing the work by Robert Law) explains:
- Prologue. 1:1–4.
- First Cycle. 1:5–2:28. The Christian Life as fellowship with God (walking in the Light),
- tested by righteousness (1:8–2:6),
- love (2:7–17),
- and belief (2:18–28).
- Second Cycle. 2:29–4:6. Divine sonship
- tested by righteousness (2:29–3:10a),
- love (3:10b–24a),
- and belief (3:24b–4:6).
- Third Cycle. 4:7–5:21. Closer correlation of righteousness, love, and belief.
Now, as I’ve said, there is a lack of any significant agreement on the structure of 1 John, but one of the reasons I’ve pointed out the above is because the cyclical theory has been fairly influential in Johannine thought – but it is worth noting that there are other interesting theories about the structure (including the one that says 1 John has a similar structure to John’s gospel).
But the main reason that I mentioned the above is that it pays particular attention to the repetition of themes or motifs in the letter. Some of those are familiar from our study of John’s gospel. From the gospel, we might remember that John has a particular affinity towards dualities: For example, the world above vs. the world below, flesh vs. the spirit, and light vs. darkness. For John, these dualities don’t seem to be absolute states – i.e. it’s not that a person is exactly one or the other. Rather, John’s interests and concerns seem to be distinctly pastoral. That is, John is concerned with how one enters into and takes hold of the life of Christ; how one enters into and takes hold of eternal life.
So my point is simply that I hope we pay attention to these themes. And more importantly, I hope we pay attention to how John encourages us to enter more deeply into the life of Christ, both as individuals and as a community.
So with that said, let’s take a look at our passage today. Again, it’s a short passage: we’re looking at 1:5-10
5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out 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, purifies us from allsin.
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.1 John 1:5 – 2:2
John begins this short passage with a kind of foundational statement: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. We see here a prime example of one of John’s dualities: Light vs. Darkness, or God vs. that which is not of God.
Then John goes on to describe what, according to commentators, are three deficient qualities in the opponents that he’s speaking against – we mentioned before that there are those that are causing problems and divisions in the community. These deficiencies are:
- They claim to have fellowship with God (yet walk in darkness)
- They claim to be without sin, and
- They claim that they have not sinned.
Now we are not right now going to dig deeper into the nature of the opponents or the false teaching. Suffice it to say, at this point, that John sees their understanding of God, their theology or doctrine, and therefore their ethics – that is, their behaviour – as deficient. They do not truly know God and therefore are prone to living wrongly. John judges that they don’t really know Christ (the revelation of God) and thus they are not walking in the light. Unlike those who have seen, touched, and heard Jesus, they don’t understand (or won’t accept) the fullness of the revelation of Christ. And so John’s exhortation to the readers of the letter is not to be like these, but to listen to the teachings of the apostles and cling to Christ.
So, what John does is contrast the claims or the positions of these opponents with an appropriate posture before God.
- Walk in the light (being purified by the blood of Jesus)
- Confess our sins.
- Appeal to the advocate (2:1-2)
Now there’s a lot more to say about this passage (obviously) – especially in terms of how it fits in with the rest of the letter. However, at this point, I want to suggest that John’s concern in these verses has to do with the acknowledgement of human sinfulness. As we will see, John is concerned about human sinfulness broadly speaking, but he’s also concerned about humans sinning. That is, John is concerned about the pursuit of holiness or righteousness. Now, for John, this seems distinctly to require effort. One must be committed to holiness because God is holy. But at the same time, John is firm in his belief that this is only accomplished or realized through Jesus Christ.
Now many of you are probably aware that my personal theological leanings tend towards the Reformed tradition. The Reformed tradition is sometimes understood as equivalent with Calvinism. But growing up, my primary influences were mostly Arminian. And I want to be careful here because I don’t want to get caught up in labels.
Very broadly speaking, when we talk about Calvinism vs. Arminianism, we tend to think in terms of pre-destination. Over-simplifying, Calvinists accept pre-destination and Arminians reject predestination, emphasizing free-will and personal responsibility. I actually spent a lot of time and energy thinking about this in seminary.
But I don’t want to get side-tracked (because we’re talking about holiness). Basically, Calvinists (or those of the Reformed tradition) emphasize the absolute sovereignty of God, and the complete fallenness of human beings. That is, there is nothing that human beings can do (of their own effort and ability) to bridge the gap between God and sinful humans. In short, Calvinists emphasize grace.
Arminians wouldn’t reject the sufficiency of grace, but would argue that human beings must and can make effort towards personal holiness. An Arminian would argue that, once saved, one must continue to pursue holiness lest one (in a worst case scenario) lose their salvation (a Calvinist would argue that one can’t lose their salvation because it’s entirely dependent upon God).
Now that’s obviously a very quick and very broad sketch. And, in short, a somewhat popular perspective on these distinctives is that each are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny. In other words, we need to hold onto both perspectives – that we depend entirely and solely on the grace of God, and that we can and must pursue holiness (this may seem like an obvious solution, but there are actually plenty of reasons why this is difficult to do – nevertheless, this is what I’m suggesting).
John’s criticism of his opponents, at least at this point, has to do with an apparent denial of their own sinfulness. The consequence of such a position seems to be two-fold: Firstly, with a denial of sinfulness, there is no need to pursue holiness – there is no need to pursue a life of light-walking; Secondly, with a denial of sinfulness, there is no need to depend on Jesus Christ. As a result, they wildly overestimate their relationship with God – their being in fellowship with the light.
Another way to put this (and this may be closer to what’s going on with John’s opponents) is that one may think, I have achieved enough holiness (or fellowship) with God that I am done now. I have put enough time and energy into, and have acquired enough expertise in this Christianity project that I no longer have to depend on the grace of God (because only the sinful need grace).
Now at this point I want to say something about the cultural moment in which we find ourselves (which is actually far broader than a moment). We live in a society in which it is very difficult to tell someone that they are a sinner. This has actually been one of the criticisms of Christianity – the repeated accusation that people are not good enough, that people need to be forgiven for something. And I’m not going to examine that claim, but I do find that an awful lot of the social momentum is geared towards convincing people that you are good enough, that you are acceptable, or that you shouldn’t let others judge you. I’m not going to examine that either, but I seem to see and hear an awful lot of that kind of sentiment (for better and for worse). This, it seems to me, makes it difficult for people to see their need for God.
However, I want to point out that John here is talking to believers. John is not talking to people who need to meet God for the first time. He’s not speaking to people that need to be “converted.” He’s speaking to people who, ostensibly, have already committed their lives to God.
So why do believers need to be reminded that we are sinners? Why do believers, those who have presumably already confessed a need for forgiveness and for the grace of God, need to be reminded to pursue holiness? Well, and again, there are some who seem to think that they don’t need to hear that message anymore. There those who believe that they are beyond that.
In our contemporary context, there are a lot of examples that I could think of, coming from a variety of different perspectives. But one particular thing that I think about comes out of the church growth movement. And one stream of thought in that movement relates to the idea of retention – that is, in order for the church to grow, in addition to adding members, one needs to lose members at a slower rate. A particular strategy related to that is the notion of establishing a clear discipleship pathway.
Now I don’t want to be critical of anybody (and as always, there are pros and cons to this kind of thing). And because I don’t want to point fingers, I’m not going to examine any particular kind of program. But what I have in mind are those discipleship programs that often consist of, for example, a Discipleship 1, 2, and 3, course; a volunteer program (getting you involved), a leadership training course, and etc.
The idea is simply that one is encouraged to move along the discipleship pathway, increasing in one’s expertise and proficiency in the Christian faith.
Again, there are always both pros and cons to this kind of thing. But the particular con I have in mind is the perception that, at some point, after having finished all of the courses and reached a certain point in the church hierarchy, that one is “done.” The danger is in one believing that he or she has climbed to the pinnacle of Christian discipleship and that there is no more to be done. One can certainly help others to get to the point where they are, but one’s own spiritual journey is more or less complete. One has no more need of Jesus.
So what I want to suggest is that John’s message to his community, and John’s message to us, is that we always need to throw ourselves on the mercy of Christ. On this side of eternity, until Jesus comes again, we will always need to pursue holiness, to seek righteousness. If we ever think that we don’t need to, we lie and do not live out the truth.
Let me be clear – I am not saying that we need to continuously get better at studying and knowing the bible (though we should); I’m not saying that we need to keep getting better at doing ministry (though that’s a good thing); and I’m not saying that we need to be better at praying for long periods of time (but why not). What I’m saying is that we need to consistently and always recognize our sinfulness before God, our sins before God, and our need for the forgiveness of God. We need to always seek to live in and by the grace of God. And we consistently and always need to recognize that we are called children of God only because of the work of Jesus on the cross.
C.S. Lewis has famously said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” In our passage today, John describes God as the light, and I want to apply Lewis’ metaphor in the same way. God is light, and by His light, we can see everything else. I want to encourage us to see ourselves clearly and truly. And by seeing ourselves, knowing more deeply how much we need God. And by knowing how deeply we need God, may we come to know the heights and depths of His love for us, that He would give His only Son, Jesus Christ, that we might enter into true relationship with Him, and that we might have life.