Walking in the Light, Lesson 3

Originally posted at Women of Purpose.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:5-10)

In last week’s lesson we learned that John’s prologue (1:1-4), once untangled, reveals that he and his fellow apostles are commissioned with a message; a message not of their own devising, but one which they have heard from God through his Son Jesus Christ; a message that “is rooted in both the historical facts about Jesus and his true significance.”[1] He begins now (v. 5) to unveil this message more clearly with a proclamation of the nature of God.

John tells us plainly in verse 5 that the message they heard from Jesus is the “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

God is not a light among many other lights; he is not a light-bearer; God does not have light as one of his characteristics; but he is light; and although he created light (Gen. 1:3), he himself is uncreated light.[2]

Throughout Scripture, God uses light to reveal himself and his character. Through his Word he illuminates the way we are to live and imparts understanding to the simple (Ps. 119:105, 130); God shines favor upon us in blessing and grace, revealing himself and the way of salvation (Ps. 67:1-2); because he is light, there is no shadow or variation in his character due to change, and his goodness is therefore immutable (James 1:17). By his light and his truth he leads his people (Ps. 43:3), and darkness hides nothing from him—neither our own sin when we hide from him nor ourselves when circumstances overshadow and threaten to drown us (Ps. 139:11-12). God’s justice shines as a light for all people and his holiness burns brightly, bringing judgement and exposing wickedness (Isaiah 51:4; 10:17; Jn. 3:19-20).

While this message (that God is light) is not a complete summary of Jesus’ earthly teachings, it certainly is an excellent summary of the divine nature, the starting point of the gospel, and the antidote for the community John addresses that is “beset by darkness of a doctrinal, ethical, and relational nature.[3]

Just as light is used in Scripture to symbolize goodness, truth, purity, joy, and blessedness, so darkness is used to symbolize the opposite virtues and God’s curse. The last plague before the LORD struck down the firstborn of Egypt was the plague of darkness for three days, “a darkness to be felt” (Ex. 10:21-22); Jesus spoke of final judgement for those who reject him in terms of “outer darkness,” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mat. 8:11-12); Paul wrote of the darkness of the hearts, minds, and deeds of the lost (Ro. 1:21; Eph. 4:17-18, 5:11-12); and Peter warned of the “gloom of utter darkness” which has been reserved for fallen angels and false teachers alike (2 Peter 2:4, 17).

The doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ are foundational to Christianity, and both were under fire from false teachers from the early days of the church. The Nicene Creed offers a corrective to these concerns by affirming that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father…”[4]

Jesus does indeed share in his being the same “substance,” or “essential nature” with God the Father, including the light spoken of in 1 John 1:5. Isaiah foretold him as the dawning light upon those who live in darkness (Is. 9:2, 6-7); Jesus revealed the light of his glory in his transfiguration (Mat. 17:1-2); John wrote in his gospel that his life is the light of men and that he is the true light which enlightens everyone come into the world (Jn. 1:4, 9); Jesus called himself the “light of the world” who gives the light of life to all who follow him (Jn. 8:12); and Paul wrote of the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4).

Indeed, our Jesus shines with the same life-giving light as God the Father, as the hymnwriter reminds us in the beautiful lyrics of Fairest Lord Jesus:

Fair is the sunshine, fair is the moonlight,

    And all the twinkling, starry host;

Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer,

    Than all the angels heav’n can boast.[5]

While light is used in Scripture to symbolize many things, our passage in 1 John 1:5-10 is concerned primarily with morality; with light representing purity and holiness of character. The holiness of our God is emblazoned across the Scriptures from beginning to end. When the question is hypothetically raised, asking, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Ex. 15:11) we must answer with a resounding, “There is none holy like the Lord: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God!” (1 Sam. 2:2). Isaiah was undone by the sight of our thrice-holy God seated high upon his royal throne, with the heavenly temple shaken by the worship of the holy angels (Is. 6:1-5), because he understood with Habakkuk that the LORD is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1:13). Paul ascribed this same holy majesty to our Lord Jesus Christ, describing him as “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see,” and is therefore worthy of “honor and eternal dominion” (1 Tim. 6:15-16).

In light of God’s holiness, Scripture tells us that holiness in the lives of believers is very important. We are to make no provision for our fleshly desires but instead avoid sin with all the effort we can summon (Rom. 13:12-14). While we will never be equally holy as our God, our lives are to reflect the quality of his holiness as we bear his image in this fallen world. Having been made new by a holy God, we are called out from the unholy world to be his people, chosen, royal, and holy—his own possession—for a purpose: to proclaim his excellencies (1 Peter 1:14-16, 2:9). How can we proclaim his holy excellencies if we refuse to leave behind the unholy patterns of living from which we have been sovereignly saved?

If holy living were dependent upon our own efforts, we would be lost. But, praise be the Lord, he works in us to reform our lives from the inside out, bearing us, as it were on wings of eagles, to bring us to himself (Ex. 19:4-6), cleansing us with the washing of the water of the word that he might present us to himself in splendor, without spot of blemish (Eph. 5:25-27), beginning and bringing to completion his good work and working in us to will and to do all his good pleasure (Phil. 1:6, 2:13), and granting to us by his divine power all things we need for life and godliness, making us partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4). Only because he works in us can we live in the way which he has commanded is right, and therefore have true fellowship with him.

It is only God himself, the creator and sustainer of all life, who can authoritatively define moral truth. To know God is therefore to know truth about how to live in the way that he intends. It is only within a life of obedience to God’s moral truth that a relationship with God, what John calls fellowship, can be sustained.[6]

If We Say…

In the rest of our passage John will unpack the implications of verse 5. We find in verses 6-10 several conditional statements—false claims which are refuted and then (with the exception of v. 10), corrected with the divine remedy. John sets these before us as general principles, using an “if we say ___ / we (then do) ___” formula. He uses a hypothetical “we” as an example, not to exclude the reader entirely from the suggested action, but rather to have us figuratively enter into the given action to better understand the implications for our own testimony of faith and fellowship with God.

In verse 6 we read the claim that one can have fellowship with God while still walking in darkness. John states plainly that those who believe this are liars who do not practice the truth. In verse 7 we find the divine remedy for walking in darkness to be the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, which frees us to walk in the light and have fellowship with one another. Verse 8 presents us with the self-deception that we have no sin, the remedy for which is to honestly confess our sins to our faithful and just God who will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (v. 9). Finally, in verse 10 John describes those who deny that they sin at all, which is so patently false as to make God out to be a liar, which is proof of a heart lacking the word of God—scriptural “code” for an unregenerate person.

Having identified the false claims, let’s look more closely at each. While these may or may not have been actual quotes from the false teachers, they certainly were and are temptations to wrong thinking and wrong living that plagued the Church then and now. We don’t need a false teacher to lead our hearts astray—our hearts are capable of straying all on their own if we aren’t watchful (Jer. 17:9). These claims are deceitful, and John wants his readers to be aware of and avoid the false teachers and their diabolical doctrines. One’s profession of belief “must be tested in itself, in its relation to the fundamental truth that God is light, and in its bearing upon [one’s] behavior. . . . The supreme question is whether their teaching and behavior are consistent with each other and with the apostolic proclamation that God is light. This affirmation is still the test of the truth and reality of our Christian profession.”[7]

Verse 6 exposes the hypocrisy of blatant anti-nomianism:

“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”

John here addresses the lie that one can be a Christian while still living like the rest of the world. The false teachers had been indulging in sinful lifestyles while declaring that their higher lever of spiritual enlightenment exempted them from the requirement to obey the Lord’s commandments. John uses the imagery of darkness and light in order to show the foolishness of their claims. Jesus himself taught that light has no fellowship with darkness (John 3:19-20), and John echoes that in his epistle when he writes that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (5). To live in fellowship with God is to live in his light, the light which banishes all darkness, and, eventually, all desire for the darkness as well.

And so we see in verse 7 the remedy for walking in darkness:

“But if we walk in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

Walking in the light of God results in true fellowship with one another—meaning the covenant community, the church—and is possible only because he has provided the cleansing blood of Jesus his Son. John is not setting out an ordo saludis here; these are not given to us as a sequence of causality. Make no mistake, the testimony of the Scriptures is that God saves us by the blood of Christ before we can walk in a way that is pleasing to him—walking in the light does not earn us our place in the fellowship or the privilege of the cleansing blood. John is addressing the observable results of true salvation which the false teachers made mockery of: living obediently in the light instead of living sinfully in darkness, genuine fellowship among believers, and seeking cleansing of sin rather than denying its influence and effects in our lives.

“Right conduct, not just clear vision, is the benefit which light bestows. . . . Truth, like light, in Scripture has a moral content. We are not just to know the truth, but to do it, just as we are not only to see the light, but to walk in it.”[8]

The lie in verse 8 is very common in the world and in the church today.

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

This devilish doctrine declares that we have no sin nature to begin with. People are ‘basically good.’ This argument rationalizes away our sin by re-labeling it as a symptom of some other problem. Our problem isn’t that we are dead in our trespasses and sins—no, our problem is ignorance, poverty, oppression, or fill-in-the-blank. The solution, therefore, is better education, more money (in any number of schemes), liberation from oppressors, or fill-in-the-blank. According to this view, we don’t need a life-giving Savior, we simply need a better method of overcoming our obstacles, a better band-aid.

John recognizes that anyone who has done any honest self-examination can’t come to this conclusion without a heavy dose of denial. For someone to deny that there is sin in one’s heart requires self-deception. Of course, we are very capable of deceiving ourselves, as the Lord reminds us through the prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). Scripture teaches very clearly that we do indeed “have sin” and where that sin came from:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, . . . . Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:12-14)

Because of the sin of Adam we are all born into death. It’s part of our spiritual-genetic code, if you will, this sin-nature inherited from our first parents and handed down to every single descendant—the ultimate dominant trait which we all share.

But wait: there’s good news! God has given his children a divine remedy by which we may deal with our sins!

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (9)

There is good reason for 1 John 1:9 often being used in our worship service as the Assurance of Pardon after our Collective Confession. How comforting to you is it to know that forgiveness rests not on your ability but on God’s rock-solid, unwavering faithfulness? [Lamentations 3:19-26]

“Cleansing” is mentioned in our passage twice (7 & 9) in similar, but not identical, contexts. Paul wrote more systematically than John, giving us words for the two doctrines which are here described:

… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . . . It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:23, 26)

… Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:25-27)

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23)

The two cleansings which we need are provided by grace—the one-time cleansing of justification: which deals with our fundamental bondage to sin, freeing us from the darkness to walk in the light with Christ; and the continual cleansing of sanctification: which we need repeatedly to be cleansed from the sins which we continue to commit until the moment we enter into glory.

Knowing the difference is so important so we don’t become discouraged by our sins to the point we believe that we must not be saved, or that we have lost our salvation. Some believers, children of God who have been justified and brought into the light by the cleansing blood of Christ, fear condemnation because they continue to sin. But Scripture is clear that for the believer, there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1). A redeemed child of God cannot lose her salvation. She may experience discipline from her loving Father, or the sanctification of difficult circumstances, but she will never lose the salvation in Christ that our good, wise, and unchanging Father has given (James 1:17).

The final erroneous belief addressed in our passage is found in verse 10, and, like the other two, is alive and well today:

“If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

This lie whispers in echoes of Eden that we are capable of living sinless lives and it relies upon an inflated sense of our selves coupled with an accusation that God has lied to us. If one has silenced the voice of conscience so effectively that one’s internal witness of sin no longer speaks there is still the word of God which testifies that there is none who does good, no not one, only a fool believes otherwise; there is no man on earth who never sins; and all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Psalm 14:1-3; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:23). To believe this lie is sacrilege and John plainly states that only an unbeliever can go this far in his denial of sin, for one who doesn’t have the word of God in him is unregenerate.

If we have no sin barring our path to heaven, then we need no atonement to remove the obstacle; if we merely need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and lead good lives, then there is no need for the cross. To believe this is to believe that Christ died for nothing.

John adds no remedy to this sacrilegious claim, not because there is none, but likely because he will spend much of his ink dealing with it in the rest of this epistle (and so, therefore, will we). However, I don’t want to end on a cliffhanger. Jesus gave us the remedy for unbelief, didn’t he?

… the disciples were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25-26)

The only hope for salvation for sinners—liars—who are bereft of God’s word is Jesus! There is nowhere else we may go to find salvation, for only Jesus has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). It is God who saves! From the lowest sinner to the most pious saint, none can save themselves. God saves everyone who comes to Jesus.

The Covenant Thread

The thread of the covenant woven throughout Scripture is marked by growing understanding as the Lord sheds more and more light to reveal the truth and reality of His gracious plan of salvation. This shedding of light was gradual throughout most of the Old Testament, occasionally there were brilliant bursts of revelation spotlighting the coming Savior and pointing toward the ultimate goal. In the following passages, note the precious promises of the person of Christ, the presence of God with his people, and how these promises result in the practice of God’s people. In these passages, who is doing the saving?

I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations (Isaiah 42:6, italics mine)

The sun shall be no more
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give you light;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory
Your sun shall no more go down,
nor your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended.
Your people shall all be righteous;
they shall possess the land forever,
the branch of my planting, the work of my hands,
that I might be glorified
The least one shall become a clan,
and the smallest one a mighty nation;
I am the Lord;
in its time I will hasten it. (Isaiah 60:19-22, italics mine)

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”  (Ezekiel 36:22-27, italics mine)

These were all promised in the Old Covenant, and God’s people looked forward to the day when they would be fulfilled in the coming of the Christ. We now stand in the New Covenant era, looking back at the cross and the fulfillment of those promises in the person of Jesus Christ, our Savior. But we still await a yet-unrealized fulfillment, promised to us in the words of Scripture:

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. (Revelation 21:22-25, italics mine)

From the beginning of creation, mankind has known many sources of light, from the sun, moon, and stars created by God to manmade fire and electricity. There is, however, an uncreated Light promised throughout Scripture that awaits God’s covenant people in the new heavens and earth. This uncreated Light is also the source of the righteousness of God’s people, all to God’s glory and praise.

God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. Of His own sovereign initiative God has made us His people. As his covenant people, we are to walk and live in the light of his presence. We do not do this perfectly, we stumble and fall, and at times we prefer the darkness. But our covenant-keeping Father promised that the work he began in us would be carried through to the end, and he has promised us the power of Christ’s resurrection to keep us safe in his grip until we reach our eternal inheritance. We may arrive battered, bruised, and weary, but He has promised that we will get there, and so we shall. There, in the sin-free splendor of holiness we will worship Him together with our covenant family gathered from every tribe and nation and tongue.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. —1 Thess. 5:23-24

[1] Karen H. Jobes, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1, 2, & 3 John, (Grand Rapids, MI: 2014), 62.

[2] Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of The Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986), 242.

[3] Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Reformed Expository Commentary, 1-3 John, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015), 19.

[4] The Nicene Creed, created in order to clarify the key tenets of the Christian faith by the First Council of Nicea (in present-day Turkey) in 325 A. D., in answer to the Arian heresy.

[5] Fairest Lord Jesus, 1677, from the Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1990),170.

[6] Karen H. Jobes, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1, 2, & 3 John, (Grand Rapids, MI: 2014), 65.

[7] John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary, (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, first pub. 1964, reprinted 2009), 77.

[8] Stott, 76.

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