“And this is the message which we have heard from him, and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not 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 [Christ]2 his Son cleanseth us from all [or, every] sin. If we say that we have no sin, we mislead ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all [or, every] unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
We have already seen that the opening verses give us the manifestation of God, and here expressly as Father, in His Son the Man Christ Jesus, the Word of life. For the utmost care is taken that while implicitly and supremely acknowledged as God, the all-importance of His taking manhood into union with His person should be distinctly laid down. So indeed it must be to reveal His grace, and to lay the needed and full basis for all that we boast in Christ the Lord. This is really Christianity on its positive side; for as yet we have nothing here said of the necessity for His bearing our sins, and God’s condemning sin in the flesh on our behalf. Indeed the difference is striking.
May one not assume that hardly a Christian in the world, if he were writing on Christianity, would not begin at the starting-point of needy and guilty sinners? How infinitely more blessed to commence with Christ in the fulness of His grace! That is what the Spirit of God does here. He is not writing to let lost sinners know how to be justified in God’s sight. The Epistle is to God’s children, that they maybe filled with joy; and who or what is there that can fill with such joy as God in Christ produces hereby?
Clearly Christ is presented in this astonishing scripture as the manifestation of eternal life, Himself called personally “the eternal life which was with the Father,” as before “the Word of life,” because He expressed it to His own, that they too might have life in Him.
Such is the ground for the wondrous privilege of which He speaks — “fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” This is impossible to be had unless we have Christ as our life. So momentous is the cardinal truth of the present possession of eternal life by faith. It is no doubt in Christ. But it is life now bestowed on us; and to deny or even weaken this is to do the enemy’s work in a subtle and effective manner.
But the grace, however to our joy, is not all. It is of urgent moment for us never to forget, from the very beginning to know, that He who is our Father is God, and that, however the grace may flow, the truth of His nature, His holy nature, is brought into immediate association with our souls; and if it were not so, what are we? At best sounding brass or clanging cymbal. But this is “the message” which cannot be severed from “the manifestation,” the manifestation of God in man in the person of Christ, bringing us into fellowship with the Father and with His Son. Assuredly we cannot have the joy flowing from that fellowship, or the life eternal on which it is grounded, without sharing the moral nature of God. Grace and truth are come through Christ. And the truth is that He is a God who reveals His hatred of sin, incomparably more now when He is known as Father than when He was adored by His people as Jehovah.
For of old He dwelt in the thick darkness; with many results excellent in exercise, as goodness, and righteousness, besides His power in government, pitiful and long-suffering, promises with blessed predictions and glorious hopes which He will assuredly accomplish in due time. For Jehovah is the everlasting God of Israel, and will make good to the children His promises made to the fathers. But before that day dawns on the earth, comes the total ruin of the Jew and all the world from the rejection of Christ. Christianity supposes this. What proof of ruin could be more complete than in the Lord Jesus slain by Jew and Gentile? Then man turned God in the person of Christ out of His own world, and did so with the utmost hatred and contempt, spitting in His face and nailing Him to the tree. Was not this the world, and the world even at its best? Not Rome, nor Babylon, the golden city of Chaldea, primarily; but Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets, now crucifying thine own, Jehovah’s own, Messiah!
Yet (on that overwhelming proof that there is no good in man, and that the most guilty of the race which had the best religious privileges for man in the flesh had but turned them to the worst account through their own unbelief) unto all the nations was to be proclaimed in the name of the Lord Jesus repentance and remission of sins, “beginning at Jerusalem.” What unfathomable grace to those who deserved condign judgment! Grace is not confined within the small and feeble barriers of Israel, but now breaking forth on every side to every nation and land and tongue. For God will have His house on high filled with guests in virtue of the manifestation of life eternal that was thenceforth to be made known. The Life Eternal had been there; but how few then knew it! And those that did, knew it most imperfectly. Nosy it was announced plainly when the church indicated in all ways a ruin, as great for it as the world had already shown, though not at all in the gross way to which it has come now, but in a subtle and yet real way. For even the worst was sprouting then; every evil that was afterwards to be developed was there in germ before the apostles slept. For this reason came this blessed Epistle that the hearts of all the faithful might be established in grace and truth, and know that whatever the failure in responsibility, whatever the declension that had set in, Christ abode the same, unchanged and unchangeable, “What was from the beginning” never to fail for faith, whatever the shame to those that compromised His name, whatever the deadly loss to such as turned away. For it is a strange and perilous thing to trifle with Christ. How sad that any one could be so careless, how deplorable that any Christian should be so misled, as to become an instrument of such evil!
But along with the manifestation of perfect grace comes the inseparable message of holiness. This is alike due to God, and necessary for the saints. What does it convey? “This then is the message which we have heard from him.” They had heard it from Christ Himself; not exactly “of (
περὶ) him,” but “from (
ἀπὸ) him,” — “and report,” for this is the exact word in our tongue — we “report to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” We see the distinctness from the manifestation, This was about or concerning the Word of life, the unmixed grace of God in Christ. Here it is not “concerning” but “from,” not a manifestation of love, but a message against sin. It is also the first occurrence of the apostle’s habit to mix God with Christ, because He is God. So here, after saying so much of Christ, he gives a message from “Him.” This might mean God, but he had just been speaking of Christ. Such a transition perplexes the commentators; but it is a beauty, not a blemish. The message from Him applies God as light (and this too was in Him) to our standing and state.
Natural enough that the heathen should make Chaos the parent of Erebos and Nyx. Darkness essentially characterised some, moral darkness all that they called their gods. They were indeed divinities of gloom, and lust, and lying. But not so is our God: in Him is no darkness at all. And it is Christianity that brings this out distinctively in essence, principle and fact; Judaism but partially. For there He avowedly dwelt in the thick darkness. Thence He menaced with death him that ventured of himself to approach, or otherwise infringed His law. Yet the law made nothing perfect (Heb. 7:19). We can say without reserve that God is light. He has fully proved His love. What can compare with His grace in Christ, as we read in the prefatory verses? But He is light also. We all know how common it is for men to descant on God as love, even to an extreme exaggeration in effect, not merely that God is love, but that love is God. Much less do we hear of the message that He is light. This, no doubt, is the ultimate folly of man’s mind, that makes a mere idol of God. But if it be a truth that God is love, He is a great deal more than love. “Light” is a burning word, expressive of His intrinsic and absolute purity of nature; “love” of its sovereign activity to others as well as in Himself. There is no sacrifice of His light to His love; indeed if it were so conceived, it would entail the greatest loss on His children. But it is as untrue, as it is impossible. “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” Therefore is He intolerant of darkness in His own, who are made free of His presence, and have fellowship with Himself. What could be more contrary to Christ and to Christianity? We are told elsewhere, that we were once darkness who are now children of light. No doubt this did not belong to John; it had been already taught by the apostle Paul.
But what John here says is also of the utmost possible moment, because he proceeds to touch on what is no less than some great inconsistencies of Christendom, and quite opposed to Christianity. There are in verses 6-10 three “if we says,” all of them important in the extreme. First, “If we say that we fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.” Can we name a more evident or flagrant departure from the very nature of Christianity? It is saying, but not doing. This was bad enough in Israel; but how sad when and where, to us begotten by the word of truth, the light and the love have come out so truly and perfectly! “If we say that we have fellowship with him”: in this and the other two cases the word “we” is used in a general manner, whereas in many scriptures it is said of the faithful.
We may learn from this that it is a mistake to found a canon of criticism on the partial use of a word. How many persons, as I have heard many myself, assume it as a matter of fact that “we” must always mean the family of God! So it is often, and we may say generally; but it is not always true. In Him “we” live and move and have our being, the apostle Paul applied to mankind universally, as he said it of heathen Athenians. Again, there is such a thing as God dealing with persons according to their profession; and the apostle John speaks here of these alienations from the truth which had begun then and pervade the Christendom of our day. Even Christianity admits a profession far more widely than Judaism could. For a man must ordinarily be a Jew to be accredited as such, being an outward fact; whereas one who is not a Christian might long pass himself off as one. Without being a deceiver he might deceive himself, and think he was a Christian. Now the message that the apostle here gives was intended even then to put to the proof the spreading profession of Christianity. Therefore, as they named the Lord’s name, the apostle does not drop the word “we,” but the state of not a few was such as to raise the most serious question of their reality before God.
Hence it is that, in order rightly to interpret the word, we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is important too that we take the word with its context, which helps to the meaning that comes out for the most part as satisfactorily as if it were all defined. Thus it is far better for our souls and more to God’s glory than if it were technically determined. Again God deals with us as His sons; for we are now arrived at our majority if we are in the true status of Christians. We are no longer babes at the A B C; we can now not only spell the words, but read them intelligently by grace, when somewhat more advanced in the knowledge of God and of His ways. And He looks for real progress. Is it not then deplorable to find so many Christians content to remain all their life at the elements, quite satisfied with the hope that their sins are or will be forgiven?
But besides this it is to be feared too often that when souls content themselves with the first privilege of God’s grace, they may be gravely self-deceived. The gospel proclaims remission of sins, and faith receives it on God’s word. Life eternal is given and the Holy Spirit, when one rests on Christ’s redemption, in order that there should be enjoyment of our Father’s love to us. And if we live of that life which is Christ, ought there not to be growth in the inner man, shown not only in outward service but in grace and in knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? It is plain that the later Epistles are solemnly occupied with warning against this very danger. But there is no one who takes it up in so profound a manner, as far as I can pretend to judge, as the apostle whose Epistle we are reading, and indeed in this Epistle pre-eminently.
“If we say” — how often only saying! — “If we say that we have fellowship with Him,” it is the fruit of receiving Christ and in Him the gift of life. For eternal life is the basis of true fellowship with the Father and with the Son, the enjoyment of which necessarily leads to our souls’ appreciation of its virtues, not only for the Christian walk, but in Christian worship, and in Christian converse with the living God is our Father and with His Son. “If we say we have fellowship with Him” claims that we have entered into the new relationship with God in grace, and that we share His nature, His mind and His affections. This is an immense thing where we need His true grace to stand in the light as well as the love of God. It is “God” here: “the Father” was said where the grace was shown out in fullest volume. But here an utter contradiction to its genuineness appears. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness”: what is this? Walking in darkness is what a man of the world does; it is the description of one who is entirely unrenewed. It means a vast deal more than that a person has fallen into a sin, or got into an unhappy state of soul. Thus it was that the Puritans used to interpret this thing. Though they were truly pious men and worthy of all respect, they were rather narrow-minded, and savoured more of the Old Testament than of the New. They were in spirit under the law, which always dims and deranges spiritual judgment. It is only grace that enlarges the heart and that gives the mind, under the Spirit’s guidance, to enter into God’s heavenly counsels, and His ways for the earth. They were short in these weighty respects, and were led into that self-occupation which is the inevitable effect of the law upon a saint.
Here the class described were not at all so occupied; they had never judged themselves before God. They were no doubt baptised; they had come into the Christian association of the church, and they seem to have thought of little more. The failure was not in the good seed, but in the soil. Even if the word were received at once with joy, “such have no root,” says the Lord, because of no divine operation on the conscience. They may believe in a human way for a time, and in time of trial fall away, or if they linger as here, they are dead while they live. Yet as they confessed in a sort the Lord’s name, they were baptised with water for the remission of sins and joined their Christian associates. Was not all finished? Further exercise of soul was laid to rest, and nothing good could be said about them. Even in John’s day here they were! Even then were persons walking in darkness who claimed nevertheless to have fellowship with God, for this is what the Christian really has. It is the proper confession of a Christian that we are now brought out of sins, and self, and Satan’s power; that we have left the darkness behind; that even here we are called into His marvellous light. In that light we walk. These unrenewed souls claimed to be in fellowship with God. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.” Neither baptism nor eucharist can remedy this in the least. They were entirely unawakened; they had never met God in Christ about their sins; their faith was as fleshly as their repentance. Not even conscience before God had wrought, still less any true sense of their need of His grace which faith gives.
Every relationship involves commensurate responsibility. The sayers, who were not doers, had not only responsibility as men which ends in sin and death and judgment, but the immensely greater one of naming the name of the Lord. They were by their walk in darkness denying really the new responsibility of confessing in deed as well as word the second Man, the last Adam, Christ Himself, and could have no fellowship with God as God, to say nothing of fellowship with the Father and with His Son, the high Christian expression of fellowship. For in truth they were walking in darkness; just as if Christianity was only a creed or a dogma which the mind of man is capable of acknowledging and understanding in an outward and natural way. But what total blindness to the word of God! Was darkness compatible with life eternal? Not in the least. Eternal life is that we should know the Father, the only true God, and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, whom He sent. If you, by God’s teaching, know Him, it is divine love bringing you thus into fellowship with them both, with the Father and the Son.
Here were those that pretended to have it, but without any living effect on their daily walk, their objects, ways and ends here below. Have you ever seen Christians of that sort? Have you not seen a great many? Is not this a serious fact for every professor’s conscience? Have you yourself thoroughly faced the truth? When God’s grace wins the soul, the truth is welcomed, wherever it leads and whatever it costs within and without. Walking in the light, means that you walk henceforward in the presence of God fully revealed; you have so to do with Him in the light at all times. There is undoubtedly danger of inconsistency; and who is not ready to own that we all fail in always walking accordingly. But this is another thing. For be it observed here that it does not say, as many misunderstand, “If we walk according to the light.” There was but One who ever did so, and perfectly. He alone when asked “Who art Thou?” could answer, “Absolutely what I also speak to you” (John 8:25). It was the Saviour, the Son of God, yet Man. He walked according to the light; as indeed He was the light, the True Light, the Eternal Life.
But we too who now believe are brought out of darkness into that marvellous light. Is not this predicated of every real Christian? And if you are brought into that marvellous light, does God deprive you of the light because you fall? In no wise. Therein we walk. Thenceforth we shall have the light of life, and not walk in darkness. Through unwatchfulness you may act unworthily of Him; you may be drawn awhile into some false principle or into wrong conduct; but neither drives into darkness nor takes away the light. if you are real and brought out of darkness, in the light you walk; only you lose the enjoyment of communion for the time, you need also to be restored, as we shortly shall see how. But here were professing Christians, who as a principle claimed to have fellowship with the Father and the Son, with God Himself, and yet were unconcernedly walking in darkness, just like any unconverted man. Yet there might be great differences superficially: some decent and morally respectable; others very much the contrary. Some may claim to be strictly religious, like the Pharisee in the Temple who despised other men, particularly “this publican” (or tax-gatherer). What did God think of the two? What did the Lord pronounce on them? And is not that for us now? We may not be publicans so-called, and we must in faith enter into the holies, if we would approach God; for I do not doubt that an earthly temple is all a mistake, now that Christ is gone up on high, and opened for us the heavenly sanctuary.
But we have to do with the same God, only fully revealed, which was and could not be then, till the veil was rent. But since Christ’s death His love and His light are come out in perfection for the soul’s deliverance, not yet for the world’s, nor even for Israel as a nation, but for the Christian. Here were persons calling themselves Christians, who walked in darkness while they claimed the high and holy privilege of fellowship with God, and yet denied responsibility for the practice of His will. And what does He say about them? He says, if so we do, “we lie, and do not the truth.” The whole life is a lie, because it denies the essential principle and necessary character of a Christian, who not only is the object of divine grace, but walks in the light of God. You can no more get out of that light really than a man who in the hours of day walks where the light of the sun shines. Such is what real Christianity means.
Next we have, on the contrary, the other and blessed side in verse 7. The apostle states the real place of the Christian, and puts it in a striking point of view. As there are three different ways in which professing Christians may belie Christianity (for this is just what he is showing in these latter verses, and what has come out now near the harvest of what was then only being sown by the enemy), here we find three great and essential marks of the true Christian. First of all is walking in the light — “But if we walk in the light.” We may illustrate the truth by the figure here employed. Consider one in an entirely dark room, how he flounders about, fails in what he seeks, and injures himself and the things he knocks against. Let a full light enter, the perplexity ceases, and he walks with ease, comfort and certainty. So it is with the spiritual light which shines on the Christian’s walk, and there in Christ it shines. It is here a question not of “how” but “where.” Every real Christian by grace walks in the light It is therefore of high moment that all such should be aware (far as it is from the mind of many) that they do so. It is a great universal Christian privilege. It is not a mere sentiment or idea, but a conferred reality; and also a practical reality that God would have appropriated and enjoyed by every Christian. There may be, and there is, falling short in detail as already said; and we are responsible to feel our failures, and to acknowledge them all the more because we walk in the light.
“But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light” (meaning as God is in the light), “we have fellowship one with another.” There is the second distinctive mark. Not merely do we walk in the light, but because of this very thing, we have fellowship with one another in the Christian circle. When we meet with a child of light, if we only heard on the street a few words from a man or a woman which revealed the fact that God had shone into that soul, and that it was no mere dream or theory but one walking in the light as a real Christian, our hearts are at once attracted. We are drawn together more by far than to our own brothers or sisters who do not walk in the light. For many know this sorrow too well. The nearest to them may hate the light, and Him who is it, instead of walking there by grace.
Here clearly it is a second distinctively Christian privilege, the mutual fellowship of the saints, and neither fellowship with the Father and with the Son on the one hand, nor, on the other, what may be called church fellowship. One may be the. basis of all, and the other the consequence in order to the last; but we may not force the meaning. We have nothing ecclesiastical in this Epistle; it is all deeply personal yet eternal truth, the grace and truth that came by Jesus Christ. The fellowship here flows from apprehending this in one or another. You may not even know their names perhaps, but you have fellowship. “We have fellowship one with another,” that is, we enjoy exactly the same blessing of grace. In nature if I have a prize, you have it not; and if you have it, it is not mine. But it is wholly different with spiritual privileges as Christians. We all have them fully as our own, yet share them as fully in common; and that you and all other saints have them as much as myself adds only the more to the joy of love which fills all our hearts.
The privileges of an Englishman or a Frenchman, or anything that men talk so much about, are small and for a little while; but here we begin with fellowship with the Father and with His Son. The Holy Ghost alone can sustain us in enjoying that fellowship, is He gives us by faith to make it our own. To that divine person’s work we are not come yet in the Epistle; we shall hear of it abundantly in due course. But here we find the effect of His grace in the believer when he meets ever so casually with a fellow-believer: “We have fellowship one with another.” Is not this a blessed victory over the severing power of self? And is it not true, even in the appalling state through which we are passing now, when greater differences scatter, and are perhaps more keenly felt, than even among the Jews, who were for the most part fleshly men? Yet their contentions and their parties were hardly to be named in comparison with that which we witness every day around us, even in this favoured land, and in its chief city.
O beloved friends, we ought to feel the burden of Christendom’s state. But there is a deeper burden in realising how little Christians, rising above all failure, appreciate the truth that we have fellowship one with another. Who need doubt that every true Christian has a certain sense of it, and according to the measure of his sense of divine grace he answers to it; but it must be in a feeble manner, unless accompanied by entering into spiritual intelligence of the grace and truth made known in Christ for the very purpose of bringing us all into a manifest state of mutual love now. “We have fellowship one with another.” We recognise the Christ that we have in each other to our deep joy.
There is the third privilege, without which there could be no good permanently possessed, nor anything of power to vanquish and take away the difficulties. For sins are the otherwise insuperable difficulties, “and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” — from every sin, if you will have the exactness of the phrase, which makes it particularly pointed. It is an error to lower its force by reducing it to a question of time. The apostle presents the truth in that abstract form which characterises his writings. He tells us here of the great abiding comfort of the Christian. None could or did know the efficacy of that blood until after the cross. But you have it there and thence. And as the light in all its power of manifesting it shines the brighter, the more it shows the cleansing power. Walking in the light (and there we are brought when we receive Christ), we have mutual fellowship and know the value of Christ’s sacrifice. He is the light; and, in consequence of having eternal life, we enjoy fellowship with the Father and the Son; and further we have fellowship one with another. There can be no true fellowship above or below without Christ thus possessed and known. There may be gracious association in a religious society, kindly association in a worldly one; but Christ establishes us in what is not only real but divine, even now on the earth, and in face of ecclesiastical confusion.
The great thing that hinders fellowship is self, the sinful egotism which. pervades every man, woman and child in the world, since, all these are fallen. Do not men instinctively grasp what, as they hope, will meet desires for themselves, for their likings and alas! their dislikings? This is not fellowship, but its reverse in sinful nature. Yet into this guilty world, this unhappy dying world of sin awaiting judgment, comes He that created it, whose love was before creation, and whose love was made the more manifest when all creation rose up against Him and cast Him out. His love, God’s love, has brought us to share all that He has, except what is absolutely divine, and therefore incommunicable. But in unjealous love, He shares with the Christian everything that He can communicate; and as He has all things with the Father, no difference is there too. If we have fellowship with them, we have fellowship one with another. Life eternal was manifested in Christ, who also gave us the same life to be our life. This was the supreme blessing that fitted us for fellowship, guarded and maintained as it is by His death that effaces every sin. Not that Christian responsibility is not maintained here on earth in those who are thus blessed. And for this there is the need of continual dependence: that if living in the Spirit, we may walk in the Spirit; for the Spirit is now given to glorify Christ in all things, as this particularly does. Here is therefore our new responsibility. “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”
But here we have our standing in grace; here is presented the three-fold Christian blessing. This triple cord that cannot be broken is walking in the light, fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanseth from all sin.3 From other parts of Scripture we know that for the Christian there is but one offering, but one sacrifice, but one shedding of blood, but one application of blood. Where people err is in not seeing the washing by water as well as by blood. Now the washing of water needs repetition indefinitely — the blood of Christ was once and for all. Take that perpetuity away from it, and you get into uncertainty. Never otherwise can you have the solid peace of knowing that your sins are completely blotted out before God.
The greatest pains are taken, particularly for the Hebrew saints, to bring out this great truth: the unity of the offering and of the sacrifice, in contrast with the religion of the Jews, who always had the priest standing to present a fresh oblation, etc., day after day. But for us He has taken His seat, not only for ever but without a break. The word that is translated “for ever” (Heb. 10:12, as also in 1 and 14) means continuously.” This is much stronger than merely saying for ever”; because “for ever” might mean in the main, and admit of His being up and down every now and then, though the mercy might last for ever. The word here however means without interruption. Do you think that this is generally believed by the mass of God’s children? The consequence of not knowing it is that they take upon themselves to interpret this verse in a faulty manner. They interpret it to mean that His blood goes on to cleanse as we have fresh recourse to Him. This is not the doctrine of Scripture. In their sense of its cleansing always, in order to meet our fresh need, Christ’s blood is reduced very much to the Levitical sacrifice when the Jew sinned.
The apostle speaks of our privileges in an absolute way. John more than any other was led to put truth in an abstract manner and with an absolute force. Hence, if we apply this to the verse, walking in the light is an abiding reality to the Christian, even if we be here or there inconsistent. “We have fellowship one with another” no less remains absolutely true, though we may fall now and then; but this is the real abiding principle which we are called to practise. Are we not prepared for it by our common share, not in worldly circumstances, but in eternal blessings? It is just the same thing with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Cleansing from every sin is what it does. It is not saying when He did it, still less that He is going to do it, or least of all that He is always doing it. Revelation never speaks thus, rather of its complete effect; for by one offering He hath perfected in perpetuity the sanctified. But as to the washing of the water by the word, we need it whenever we fail, and how often, alas, we do fail! This is the feet-washing by the Lord in John 13, which answers to what there will be occasion to consider presently. So we need not enter on it now, as it comes in its own place for a full inquiry. It is only referred to here to clear away positive error and misinterpretation of the word of God.
We may observe too that ecclesiastical fellowship, important as it may be, is in no way meant here. In the declension of the outward profession the apostle speaks of the spiritual fellowship of real Christians, one with another, which ought to survive all failure, and which does as a fact in the measure of our walk in communion with God. Here again it is an abstract truth, which we are bound to reduce to practice.
Now we are come to the second “if we say” of Christian profession. “If we say that we have no sin” is a very astonishing position for a Christian; yet there are those that appear to say it, of whom one should be sorry to think that they are not Christians. In this particular it is not implied that they may not be. It is said that “If we say that we have no sin, we mislead ourselves.” All! this is easily done We mislead ourselves easily. So thinking we do indeed err. How can those who have life eternal in Christ delude themselves so as to say that they have no sin? If they said that Christ had borne away their sins, it is true; if they said that the old man was crucified, it is also true; if they said that God condemned sin in the flesh, on their behalf, it would be true beyond doubt. But to say they have no sin, to look into their hearts first, and to raise their eyes to heaven afterward, and then say, “Having examined myself, I say that I have no sin,” is strange delusion in a saint of God. In a Pantheist it is intelligible, because he and his god are equally blind. Low thoughts of Christ go with high thoughts of our state. The Pelagians at a later day seem guilty of this error.
Let us weigh the verse. It is not here sin carried out, but inherent sin, which ought to be felt as a constant tendency ever prone to break out; and, when one is unwatchful, sure to appear. For though we have a new life in Christ, we have also our old and evil nature, whose shoots we are bound vigilantly to nip in the bud. We have the blessed basis of comfort that our old man was crucified with Christ, that the body of sin might be annulled, that we should no longer serve sin. Yet are we called to mortify by the Spirit the deeds of the body. And God will be with us to strengthen, as He always does when there is dependence and subjection of heart. But to say that we have no sin! It is a self-righteous theory; and the theory can only have an appearance of force by making sin to be something very vague, through self-deceit and ignorance of the truth, into saying that we have no sin. It has been the delusion of many a dear soul; and as they are much to be pitied, so ought we to prove that it must be an extremely low standard of sin, as well as of truth, for such a theory to get empire over the mind.
There was One indeed of whom it could be said truly: “In Him is no sin;” in every other there is, not excepting one saint that ever lived. For there is still the old nature; and this nature is sure to break out where we do not keep it thoroughly under the power of Christ’s death by the Spirit of God. But here it was a fleshly and false boast. All these “if we says” describe the growing evil among professing Christians. They suppose systematic error in speculative men. “If we say that we have no sin, we mislead ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” This is so strong a statement as to make it doubtful whether those so deluded could be Christians indeed. But “the truth is not in us” appears to be a somewhat different thing from the truth not at all known by us. No doubt every Christian is presumed to know the truth by God’s teaching. At any rate here attention is drawn to the peculiarity of the phrase; for the self-deception is imputed to the truth not being ours inwardly. The truth should be “in us,” not merely believed and owned by us. Who doubts that there are persons not a few who hold these theories, of whom it would be wrong to think that they were not Christians? They mean probably that they never yield to sin: even this however is a bold thing for them to say. At best it evinces a very good opinion of themselves, which is far from what the more spiritual saints have ever felt or uttered.
In verse 9 the apostle puts the believer on wholly different ground, as led by the Spirit of God. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” “If we say we have no sin,” how can we expect self-judgment and confession? There is no need or place for it. A perfectionist dream has a blighting influence on the soul. Here on the contrary we have no “If we say.” To confess sins indicated a living reality, just as walking in the light, having fellowship one with another, with the blood that cleanses from every sin. It was not a question of If we say.” Those who are real do not parade their portion they enjoy it. Christ lives in them, and as they were begotten by the word of truth, they do the truth. The truth is in them. Is not this what we are all called to, who really have Him as our light and life and the truth?
Here the Christian is characterised by a spirit wholly different from first to last. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from every unrighteousness.” If we have been betrayed into sin, what do we do then? It is so at conversion; it remains so throughout when the need arises. For our God cannot bear sins. We do not hide them; we confess them to God, and, where it is necessary or edifying, to man too. Thus the pride of will is broken; and by grace one renounces his own poor reputation. We care for Christ’s character whom we bear. It is His name henceforth; and what is ours compared with it? If we confess our sins therefore, He is faithful and righteous to forgive. What an encouraging word this is, and true from the very time of first turning to God! Here again it is in principle true; and there is no limit to particular time here as in other cases. It is a first principle, and a standing one, for the Christian; it is meant to govern his new walk from the start to the end, a living fact always in the Christian.
To go to God about our evil when all was evil became us when in the dust as lost ones. He is the God of all grace, whatever the need, right through. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us,” not merely from every sin, but “from every unrighteousness.” For defilement is the unhappy result from sin; it is the rule apt to make a soul dishonest, and sure to work out if he hides it like Adam. Concealing sin in his own bosom, one gets away farther and farther from God. The only right thing is to cast oneself on Him, and confess the sins at His feet. This remains abidingly true, after we know Him as our Father. For the government of our Father is as true and reliable for the saint as His mercy when we first knew the remission of our sins. And this is the bearing of the petition in the Lord’s prayer, as it is called. It does not properly refer to the ungodly man in conversion; it looks rather at the daily want of the disciple, like the rest that our Lord taught on the Mount. It is important to know that He was in no sense then preaching the gospel to win sinners to God’s grace. But if the believer should sin (John 15:1-10; 1 Peter 1:14-17), it is a matter with which our Father deals in His moral government of our souls. He takes notice of everything because we are His children and Christ’s disciples. His love and honour, His grace and truth are all concerned in it. The word cleansed and cleanses us. But not only does this cleansing mean from sins but from the consequence of sin — from every unrighteousness, from the lack of integrity which sin naturally entails.
Lastly comes the third and closing case of these “if we says.” “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” Here is the most daring form of all. It appears to describe a class debased to this extreme rising against God by a no less extravagant theory. Nowhere are these strange doctrines so rampant as among professing Christians. For the corruption of the best is the worst corruption. It was not so much found even among the Jews, though they abounded in noxious traditions which profoundly defiled them and dishonoured God. But Christendom is a thoroughfare filled with fables piled upon fables, ever rising and provoking God’s wrath.
This last “If we say” was one of the filthy dreams which issued in gnosticism, alluded to throughout the Epistle, and not merely so, but by Paul before our apostle. It was only beginning its evil course; and it developed rapidly and more when the apostles were gone. But these unfounded and unhallowed reasonings of man’s mind in the things of God trifle with the great foundations of morality; there it is that they betray themselves, and thither all false doctrine tends to work. Not only does it weaken the spring of Christian responsibility, but denies or destroys it altogether.
Here we may notice that the ethics of philosophy, modern and ancient, cannot find a stable footing. They fail to seize the truth that duties flow from relations, and above all from relationship to God. In this irreparable defect they blindly follow the heathen, who, knowing not God, ignored relations with Him and His Son. Here all was still more guiltily wrong with those nominal Christians who even denied their past faith. This in effect left no ground for His grace in Christ. “If we say that we have not sinned.” Oh what complete darkness must have enveloped their souls! Oh how the light that was in them had become darkness! And what darkness can be deeper or more hopeless? So it is still, and in many instances — too many.
The very worst, you must remember, the antichrists, had once their place in the church, and were recognised, while an apostle lived, in the family of God. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us, but that they might be manifested that none are of us.” If these, in verse 10, were not antichrists, they were adversaries of the truth, even the self-deceivers. But the worst of them are the last; because it is the defiant rejection of God’s word to say that we have not sinned. It was bad enough to say that we have no sin, now that we are Christians; but that we never sinned is flat contradiction of every testimony of God in the Old Testament as well as the New. This is what is denounced here. It is shamelessly to give God the lie. And such persons in Christendom are met with every now and then (thank God but rarely); but such there are who deny there is any such thing as sin, as all Pantheists do as a matter of course. They claim to be part of God, as they say; and accordingly, if so, how could God sin?
This is no doubt spurious and mad philosophy; but the awful thing to the Christian heart, the awful thing in God’s eyes, is that those who began with His Son, the Saviour, and the remission of sins through His blood, should have sunk into, such an abyss as totally to deny their having sinned. “If we, say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” Had they forgotten their confession, when they first took the place of turning from effete Judaism or the no-gods of Gentilism? But this was not the worst. Oh think of making God a liar! To “mislead ourselves” was bad in presence of the light that ought to make us manifest; yet it was a trifle compared with making God a liar. There you dare to blaspheme; there you assail God wantonly in the nicest point of His honour. For what is more to God than His veracity or His holiness? “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”
It is not only the “truth,” which is, one may suppose, the same thing more generally expressed. But here it is a direct rejection of His plain “word,” which could scarcely have found lodgement in such souls. Where His word is in us, how gladly as well as humbly we acknowledge that we have sinned. This will Israel say in the future day, “all Israel that shall be saved” in the day that hastens to the joy of all the earth. And we that, if anything, belong to Christ on high, what do we say? What did we say in emerging from darkness into light? Did not we begin with that? Yes, we began with what we never forget. All truly converted souls say, “We have sinned.” But here the apostle, writing this Epistle very many years after grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, and when the Christian confession was witnessed so long, solemnly tells us of this egregious evil. It is not the Jew nor Gentile, but professing Christians of that day or of any other; certainly unreal, if not yet apostate. “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”
Here let me correct the error of the Puritans in applying Isa. 1:10 as they did to the Christian. For this directly clashes with what we have had in the first of the apostle’s “If we says,” in vers. 6, 7. The error is still rampant among those called Hyper-Calvinists, not to name others. It is expressed plainly in the “Child of light walking in darkness” of an old and eminent divine. But in no way is it implied that this divine used the one to contradict the other; nor do I remember that he refers to the apostle at all: he may not have seen that the application involves confusion and error. The fact is that the Puritan had in view cases common enough among souls in the long degenerate state of Christendom, where even real Christians do not possess settled peace, and lose whatever measure they once had through a variety of causes, the most prevalent of which is looking within for that rest which is found only in Christ and His work for us. It is this painful lack of assurance to which that school refer as “a child of light walking in darkness.” But this is a third use of the terms “light” and “darkness,” quite distinct from either the prophet’s or the apostle’s. Neither the one nor the other bears on the case, which is the strange fact now and lone, so common, of a believer’s yielding to unbelief, instead of judging it as sin against the Spirit’s witness, the Saviour’s work, and the Father’s will. Such souls never duly received the word of truth, the gospel, and need to begin there, whatever else they may have to judge themselves for. If they get before God in the truth of their sins, they will find Him meeting them in the truth of His grace to their deliverance.
Now the prophet spoke, not of the Christian, but of the future godly remnant, in contrast with the apostate mass to perish described in verse 11. “Who is among you that feareth Jehovah, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of Jehovah and stay upon his God.” It ought to be self-evident that the Jewish prophet and the Christian apostle do not employ “darkness” and “light” in the same sense.
The prophet uses the words in reference to the appalling circumstances of that exceptional hour to come, the chastening of their national sins, not only idolatry but their still worse rejection of Messiah. Herein the godly, whether martyred or preserved, suffer extremely, have no light, but await their Deliverer who destroys their adversaries within and without. But the apostle treats of Christian truth, answering to God’s eternal nature in His children, and rises far above a prophetic crisis or dispensational peculiarities. The Christian walks, not necessarily according to the light, but always in the light is God, is in the light revealed by Christ. It is the moral character proper to the new nature, God’s nature, who is light, and in whom is no darkness at all. True, the Christian has the old nature still, but is set free, as having died with Christ, never more by grace to indulge it, but to condemn what God condemned in Christ’s cross at all cost to Himself. For indeed we have a full salvation not only from sins but from sin, justified from the bad fruit (Rom. 5:1), justified from the bad tree (Rom. 6:7).
It was for the apostle Paul to treat of this two-sided justification, unknown to theologians of every school; but our apostle, more thoroughly than any, speaks of life eternal, our new and divine nature, and contrasts its reality in true Christians with its falsity in those whose walk denies that life and the truth. To talk of fellowship with God, while walking In the unremoved darkness of fallen nature, is a living lie or rather the lie of death. The Christian from his start leaves darkness and walks in the light. There is no presumption in this, but faith. “I am the light of the world” [Israel never did or could say so]: he that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John, 8:12). He may slip by negligence, he may yield to self-will, or be carried away by lusts of the flesh or of the mind: all sinful and inconsistent with the light. But serious as this is, divine love in Christ that forgave him when an enemy, and saved him when lost, provides restoring grace, as we shall see in next chapter, and never calls any such sad inconsistency “walking in darkness.” The relationship abides with our erring children: how much more with God’s? Those who walk in darkness, according to our apostle, lie and do not the truth. They have neither life nor light and need to be awakened and quickened. The fallen Christian needs only to repent and have the fellowship restored which was interrupted. Instead of forfeiting the light, it is in the light that he thoroughly humbles himself for his offence.
Ver. 7 is clear as to all this, for therein we are given a grand view of the new ground on which grace sets every real Christian. “If we walk in the light as He is in the light” is what begins and goes on with every one called out of the dark. With the true apprehension of God’s nature, whereof such partake, we also “have fellowship one with another,” the action of divine life toward our brethren, as the former is toward our God. Then comes the precious basis and support for both in its most necessary privilege, “the blood of Jesus His Son cleanseth us from every sin,” without which we could neither receive nor be kept in the wondrous portion of Christians. But it is, as a whole, the status of all such.
To regard the last clause, as is too generally done, as provisional for failure is to ignore its substantive place and real connection, to divorce it from its fundamental object, and to substitute it for the divinely-given provision of 1 John 2:1, 2. Such a misuse is every way mischievous. The verse (7) is a summary of the general estate of the Christian and, when taken as it stands, is adverse to the end desired. For in order to suit this end, surely it ought rather to run: If we do not walk in the light, etc., and have not fellowship one with another, the blood of Jesus will cleanse us from our particular sin. If this fairly expresses, as I think it does, the provisional notion, it is in manifest opposition to the general and abstract statement of Christian privilege which is the genuine and intended meaning. This sense alone suits its contextual position, the contrast of that bright and full roll of essential Christian privileges with the varied forms of evil profession which dishonour the name of the Lord, depart from the truth, and lead to everlasting ruin. Provision for failure requires, as it has, a wholly different place and treatment.
2 Testimony of weight casts doubt on reading “Christ” here; the usage of John rather favours it.
3 It is sad ignorance of Greek, or English, to think that this tense only expresses historically present time. It has, where required, its abstract sense independently of time. This is what the apostle means in all the three clauses of ver. 7, and in this, the last as well as the rest; it is what Christ’s blood does. It cleanses from every sin. It is no question here of the time when.