The early Gnostics in John’s day perverted more than the identity of Christ. They also distorted the rules for godly behavior. “The physical body,” they said, “is inherently evil. Only that which is spiritual can be good.” To them, the human body is little more than a prison for the spirit. But rather than teach Christians to discipline their body and keep it under control, they suggested the body and what we do with it is entirely irrelevant (1Co 9:27).
Do whatever you want with your body. Have an affair, get drunk, start a fight—it doesn’t matter as long as you keep your mind and spirit pure.
John abhors the notion, writing, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. … If we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us” (1Jn 1:8; 10). We can’t separate our actions from our hearts. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil (Lk 6:45). Yet people still invent new ways to call evil good, and good evil (Isa 5:20).
Rather than confess our sins in pursuit of God’s forgiveness, we often prefer to justify ourselves, pretending our sin isn’t that bad and that God is happy to turn a blind eye to our mistakes (1Jn 1:9). After all, God is love (1Jn 4:8). What kind of loving Father wouldn’t readily excuse our trivial shortcomings?
How about the kind who warns each of us, “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when my righteous judgment will be revealed”? (Ro 2:5).
John realizes the New Testament church has a tendency to dilute God’s holy nature. We know he did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (Jn 3:17). In turn, we think of God as gentler, more compassionate than he was in the past. We sometimes mistakenly distinguish between the God of today and the God of the Old Testament.
God is I AM WHO I AM (Ex 3:14). “This is my name forever,” he told Moses (Ex 4:15). YHWH is no different today than he was from the beginning (1Jn 1:1). The same God who sent his Son to save sinners is the God who threatened to destroy Israel and blot their name from under heaven (Dt 9:14). He is the LORD who regretted that he had made man on the earth and vowed to blot out man … from the face of the land, drowning them under a worldwide flood (Ge 6:6-7).
God is certainly gracious, but he is also light, and in him is no darkness at all (1Jn 1:5). The very essence of God is pure. Though he created an environment in which sin could exist, he cannot conceive of committing sin himself. Even the smallest transgression would aggressively violate his nature. Our God is a consuming fire who would destroy every sinner in an instant if not for his merciful patience (Heb 12:29).
When Isaiah stood before the throne of God, his gut impulse was not to express his love and admiration for the Father, but to tremble in fear (Isa 6:1). He shouted, ”Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5). The prophet assumed his life was over because the wages of sin is death, and he was standing in the presence of the righteous judge … who feels indignation at the thought of every sin, not to mention every sinner (Ro 6:23; Ps 7:11).
The word of life, that is, the gospel message, begins with a proclamation of God’s holiness (1Jn 1:1). How else could we understand the severity of our sin from which Christ saves us? How else could we understand why Christ was stricken, smitten by God and afflicted? (Isa 53:4). It is only after we have come to know the perfect righteousness of God that we can grasp the demands of his law as well as our utter failure to keep them.
To know God is light is to recognize his justification for condemning every last one of us, inflicting his wrath on us (1Jn 1:5; Ro 3:5). None is righteous but God, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks after God. All have turned aside; together we have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Ro 3:10-12).
Tragedy is too polite of a word to describe our attempts at diminishing the horrifying nature of our sin. As Arthur Pink writes in his book, The Attributes of God:
We are ever prone to regard sin lightly, to gloss over its hideousness, to make excuses for it. But the more we study and ponder God’s abhorrence of sin and His frightful vengeance upon it, the more likely are we to realize its heinousness.
Before we study the God who is love, we need to meditate on the God who is also light, and in him is no darkness at all (1Jn 4:8; 1:5). Before we read how the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin, we should understand why we need to be forgiven and cleansed from all unrighteousness in the first place (1Jn 1:7; 9). Only then will we have a mind to confess our sins and plead for mercy. Only then can we truly appreciate God’s grace.
If God’s holy wrath against sinners seems contrary to what you know about Jesus, consider John’s source. From whom do you think he learned what he knows about the nature of God and his attitude toward sin? John clarifies, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you” (1Jn 1:5). He knows God is light because he heard and saw it from the Word himself who was God (Jn 1:1).
I was speaking to a young man once who had started reading the Bible for the first time. He had come to the conclusion that anyone who believes in the Lord Jesus … will be saved (Ac 16:31). I didn’t anticipate his follow-up question, but I was thankful for it. He simply asked, “Why?”
I’ve since wondered how many apparent conversions have taken place in the church while the proselytes themselves don’t know why they have turned to Christ. Perhaps they think of him as a magic genie who grants the wish of eternal life to anyone who asks. Without understanding the holiness of God or the vile nature of our sin, suggesting they don’t know the meaning of Christ’s death, some Christian tells them to believe … and … be saved (Ac 16:31).
Saved from what? And why Jesus?
John begins his message with two indisputable facts. First, God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1Jn 1:5). He is majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds (Ex 15:11). He is always just and perfectly righteous. Second, we are far from it. As depraved lawbreakers, rebels, and enemies of God, we are in desperate need of forgiveness, something we can’t possibly obtain apart from the blood of Jesus (Ro 5:10; 1Jn 1:7).
Being just, God must punish criminals. He cannot merely ignore our crimes forever. Being merciful, though, he can punish Jesus Christ the righteous in our place (1Jn 2:1). His Son, who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets and was tempted as we are, yet without sin, proved himself to be a qualified propitiation for our sins (Mt 5:17; Heb 4:15; 1Jn 2:2). For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Co 5:21).
Suffice it to say, any effort to deny, redefine, or even minimize our sin is an offense to the gospel as well as Christ himself. Today, we want to claim that people are essentially good. We don’t sin; we make mistakes. We are not spiritually dead; we are slightly ill, sometimes. What difference does it make? God loves us anyhow.
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Ro 5:8). It was the will of the LORD to crush him and put him to grief as an offering for our guilt (Isa 53:10). The God who is light despises our sin with such incredible hatred that he would not and could not pardon us until he had expended every last ounce of his wrath on someone (1Jn 1:5). Praise Christ for his willingness to lay his own life down for our sake (Jn 10:18).
Despite God’s grace, salvation through Christ does not change the Father’s abhorrence of sin nor does it mean we cease to be sinners. If we say we have fellowship with God while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth (1Jn 1:6). Or if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1Jn 1:8).
Evidently, the Gnostics succeeded in convincing some Christians that either they could continue in sin with no harm done or they were no longer sinners at all (Ro 6:1). “By no means!” Paul seems to shout when addressing the same issue. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Ro 6:2).
If eternal life is to have fellowship … with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ, and if God is light, and in him is no darkness at all, we cannot possibly claim to have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness (1Jn 1:2-3; 5-6).
True Christians were buried with Christ by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Ro 6:4). For by grace we have been saved through faith … created in Christ Jesus for good works, not to continue behaving like children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Eph 2:8; 10; 3).
John wants us to be confident that we have eternal life, but we never will if we make a practice of sinning as though God doesn’t mind (1Jn 5:13; 3:9). John passionately refutes that terrible notion when he writes, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil, that is, the practice of sinning, not to allow us to sin all we want. The Christian cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1Jn 3:8-9).
The Bible teaches those who are saved have been set free from sin to become slaves of God and righteousness (Ro 6:22; 19). Though it acknowledges the sin that still dwells within us, it doesn’t permit anyone to assume he is born again if he doesn’t share God’s hatred of sin (Ro 7:20). It won’t allow us to be comfortable with our supposed salvation until we have confirmed our calling and election through faith and godliness (2Pe 1:10; 5-6). Paul advises we examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith (2Co 13:5).
Only if we walk in the light, as God is in the light, can we have fellowship with one another, that is, other believers (1Jn 1:7). Only if we walk in the light, can we assume the blood of Jesus … cleanses us from all sin. After all, Christ saves us to be conformed to his image (Ro 8:29). If we show no interest or evidence that Jesus has set us free … from the law of sin and death, what legitimate claim do we have to the benefits of his atonement? (Ro 8:2).
It is just as bad, probably worse for us to deny our sin altogether. Granted, the Gnostics invented a remarkably clever way to do it, claiming only the body sins, not the spirit, and that the body doesn’t matter anyhow. Once the body dies, they thought, it becomes worm food for all eternity. Do what you want with your flesh.
Creative or not, if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1Jn 1:8). God’s word is not in us, and we make a liar out of God (1Jn 1:10).
The character of God, the first coming of Christ, the Bible, the Old Testament law and prophecies, the gospel itself—all of it is worthless to anyone who fools himself into believing he has not sinned. Why turn to Christ at all? Why follow a Savior whom you don’t need? You may as well walk away from this thing we call Christianity because it’s meaningless for someone like you.
You’ll still be a sinner held accountable to God, of course, but you can’t expect to be justified until you have beat on your breast, crying out to God, ”Be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Ro 3:19; Lk 18:13-14).
John presumes his audience already believes in the name of the Son of God (1Jn 5:13). He is writing to professing Christians who, sadly, lack clarity concerning the word of life and perhaps the degree of confidence we should have toward him, that is, our Lord and Savior (1Jn 1:1; 5:14). Those first-century churches watched fellow members fall away, abandoning the faith and denying that Jesus is the Christ (1Jn 2:22). Confusion and uncertainty are prevalent among them.
Having established the holiness of God—God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1Jn 1:5)—as well as the reality of our sinfulness, John also wants his Christian readers to rest in the wonderful grace of God through Christ. Though the wages of sin is death … the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro 6:23).
Genuine fellowship … with the Father, not to mention his forgiveness is possible, but we must first be willing to confess our sins and stop walking in the darkness of unrepentant evil (1Jn 1:3; 9; 6). We need to quit minimizing our sin and, consequently, selling God’s glory short of its full awesome majesty by suggesting he doesn’t mind what we casually refer to as human fumbles (Job 37:22).
I haven’t personally known anyone in the church who altogether denies sin, though they do exist. They claim we can outgrow sin at the very least. I have known many, however, who attempt to reduce the severity of sin and even more who think the believer’s need for God’s cleansing and forgiveness has expired. They’ve grown indifferent to the moral law, touting, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who … indeed is interceding for us” (Ro 8:33-34).
Perhaps they’ve forgotten the Lord’s prayer. ”When you pray,” Jesus taught his disciples, ”say, ‘Forgive us our sins’” (Lk 11:2; 4). Maybe they haven’t read the psalms of David such Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
And take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:1-12)
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn John read that very psalm just before writing the first chapter of his epistle. It contains all of the same themes: fellowship with God, forgiveness, cleansing, confession, and repentance.
To be clear, the blood of Jesus does cleanse us from all sin, but that’s not the issue here (1Jn 1:7). John has the practical, experiential implications in mind. How can we have assurance of salvation, a salvation from the consequences of our sin, when we’ve lost any burden for continual penitence as though our sin has become inconsequential to God?
We think, Once saved, always saved. But John says, “If”—this statement is conditional—“we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1:9).
On the one hand, John expects God’s redeemed people to bear fruit of eternal life in the form of humble, repentant hearts. On the other hand, he also knows, just as David discovered, even a child of God can experience the torment of broken fellowship with the Father when he refuses to seek the Lord’s continual, sanctifying forgiveness and cleansing.
As Jesus spent his final night with John and the other apostles, he:
rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” (John 13:4-11)
Using a vivid illustration of physical washing, the Lord makes a distinction between total cleansing and an ongoing partial cleansing of those who have already been ultimately cleansed. Perhaps we’ve been justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, but that does not mean we are exempt from needing our feet washed (Ro 3:24). We are sinners, albeit redeemed sinners, who will step in the mud of our sinful passions day after day as long as we are living in the flesh (Ro 7:5).
In other words, even a child of God should confess his sins and seek forgiveness (1Jn 1:9). If we don’t, our confidence as God’s children will be in short supply. Gratifying the desires of the flesh stands in direct opposition to the Spirit (Gal 5:17). Unrepentant sin left unmourned and unconfessed will shatter our intimacy with our Heavenly Father. Though we have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, who can call out, ”Abba! Father!” while walking in blatant disregard for his moral law? (Ro 8:15).
“Do not continue in sin. Do not deny your sin. Do not hide your sin,” John pleads. “Instead, confess your sins. Acknowledge them, hate them, and hand them over to God. He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1:9).