1 John 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Resources » Commentaries » 1 John » Chapter 1 » exegesis

The Atonement of Christ

These verses contain six if-clauses. Three of them (vv. 6, 8, 10) are claims that the author views as false deductions to draw from the belief that God is light. These claims may be slogans or summaries of the position of the dissidents who have left the fellowship. Apparently each claim is based on the assumption that if God is perfect light, then those who are God's children are perfect light as well. While the secessionists may echo the author's teaching, they distort it at crucial points.

Although John speaks in the first person plural ("we"), this does not necessarily imply that any of his readers, those who have remained faithful, are actually making such claims. Rather, he is using a rhetorical device to make vivid the danger of adopting this viewpoint: "Now imagine if we were to say. . . ." To each of these false statements, then, John advances a theological counterclaim (1:7, 9; 2:1). Each counterclaim consists of two parts: first, he refutes the secessionists' claim to be with out sin, to be light as God is light; second, he affirms the importance of the atoning work of Christ for the sinner. Indeed, these two are integrally related, for to deny one's sin is ultimately to deny the need for Christ's atonement.The Incompatibility of Light and Darkness (1:6-7)

But let us make no mistake. The Elder will let no one off the hook who thinks that somehow, within the Christian, light and dark may safely and happily coexist. Light and darkness are opposites, and repel each other. One cannot have fellowship with God with one foot in darkness and one in light, since God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. One cannot serve God, who is light, while continuing to dwell in the realm that is hostile to or ignorant of God, which is the realm of darkness, for that is both to deny the very nature of God as pure light and to deny that God's character ought to shape ours as well.

Here it is crucial to take note of what the author does not say. "Darkness" is not simply equivalent to sin or wrongdoing. It is the realm that opposes and is hostile to God. This realm is characterized by disobe dience and lack of relationship to God. Thus John exhorts Christians-- and all people--not to walk in darkness. But notice that he never says "Let there be no darkness in you," as if he were saying, "True Christians are without a trace of sin." Darkness is not a synonym for "indwelling sin." Darkness and light are not realities that are within each of us. Rather, they are realities greater than and external to us. Darkness and light are two opposing forces, each making their competing claims upon us. We are challenged to decide in which circle we will choose to live, and then we endeavor to live within it. This is to live by the truth.

There are many synonyms for the expression live by the truth: "does the will of God" (2:17), "do what pleases [God]" (3:22) and "does what is right" (2:29; 3:7; compare 3:10). Although the phrase aims at concrete moral and practical actions, it means more than "practicing what we preach." It means living in conformity with truth and light, living in accord with the character of God. Those whose allegiance is truly to God will be shaped by that commitment and by God's own character.

The result of committing oneself to God and to walk in the light is twofold. First, we have fellowship with one another. Those in the light are joined together in a fellowship whose primary guiding principle is Jesus' own command of mutual love (2:7-11). Second, those in this fellowship can be assured that the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from every sin ("all sin"). In other words, those in the light do indeed sin-- but they recognize the need to be purified from sin. On the other hand, those who claim they can walk in darkness deny the need for purifica tion. At first glance, this may strike us as an anomaly. Even though sin appears to belong in the realm of darkness, the continued intention to walk in the light and to shape one's life by God's own character will itself lead to a recognition of what is false and impure in us. We understand that impure actions or attitudes cannot simply be tolerated or ignored. We understand the implications of what it means that "God is light." But we also understand that we are not perfect light as God is. And yet we can also be confident that the blood or death of Jesus serves to wash away the impurity so that the believer may continue in fellowship with God (compare 1:3, 6; 2:3). And this acceptance of Jesus' death on our behalf is an ongoing part of our own walking in the light.

Fellowship with God is not mystical communion with a vague divine entity but a commitment to a righteous God, a commitment that in turn lays the demand upon us to walk in the light. Against the secessionists, then, the author asserts that not every experience which is claimed as an experience of God is in fact fellowship with God. Fellowship with God will always be characterized by walking in the light, doing the truth, living as God desires.The Necessity of Confession (1:8-9)

The recognition of what is impure and false in us ought to lead us to confess our sins. A few years ago an article entitled "Pick-and-Choose Christianity" appeared in a ma jor national magazine. This article summarized the results of a three-year study of Christians of all denominations in a midwestern state, pointing out that most church members "pick and choose" which of the teachings of Christianity they will accept and which they will leave behind. One of the least popular teachings was that regarding sin. The article stated,

What many have left behind is a pervasive sense of sin. Although 98% said they believe in personal sin, only 57% accepted the traditional notion that all people are sinful and fully one-third allowed that they "make many mistakes but are not sinful themselves." Said one typical respondent: "The day I die, I should only have to look up at my Maker and say, `Take me.' Not `Forgive me.' "

No doubt there are many reasons for the loss of a consciousness of sin, but the phenomenon is scarcely new or endemic to the United States in the twentieth century. First John reflects a similar situation, for appar ently some people in the church were claiming to be without sin. How could such a claim have arisen? It seems that some people had taken the belief that God is light and therefore irrevocably set against darkness and drawn an extreme conclusion: If God is indeed light--and here they would agree with the Elder--it follows that those who are God's children (3:1-2) are children of light and, hence, are pure and righteous, reflecting the character of God. They share God's state of purity. After all, they were "born of God" (2:29; 3:9). What more did they need? As children of God, they had entered into a state that Christians have and cannot lose and that therefore required nothing further of them.

Their claims to sinlessness were strikingly similar to--and probably no less sincere than--those of that American Christian who said, "The day I die, I should only have to look up at my Maker and say, `Take me.' Not `Forgive me.' " No one, whether in the first or twentieth century, relishes the thought of labeling one's actions as "sin." Today, in fact, we study the psychology of human actions so that we may better understand their causes and so help to change destructive behaviors. But failure to act with love and justice toward others is still sinful, even if it can be ac counted for by our upbringing, some event in our past or an unhappy relationship or experience. However much we can provide explanations or rationalizations for sin, they do not excuse it.

The author answers his opponents' claim to be sinless by asserting that they are self-deceived. They are not merely confused, but deceived by the greatest lie of all, the lie of the antichrist who opposes Jesus (com pare 4:6; 2 Jn 7). Jesus' death would have been pointless were their claims to be sinless true, since his death forgives and purifies believers from their sin and unrighteousness. Although sin appears to put one into darkness, it is actually the claim to be without sin that does so. Confession of sin comes from the truth; denial of sin comes from error. In fact, the very claim to be sinless shows that a lie, and not the truth, is at work within those who make it (compare 1:10, his word has no place in our lives). God's truth is not served if we simply cover up the truth about ourselves. God's truth must be manifested in an accurate understanding of God and of ourselves.

Having sent Jesus to cleanse us from sin (v. 7), God remains "faithful and righteous" (NASB; faithful and just, NIV) and forgives those who acknowledge their sin. We might have expected to read that God forgives out of love or mercy and punishes due to justice. But John calls on the Old Testament concept of God's steadfastness to the covenant that has been established by using familiar descriptions of God as one who does what is faithful and just (compare Deut 32:4; Jer 42:5). Despite our unrighteousness (adikia), God is righteous (dikaios) and sends one to us who is also righteous (2:1). By depending upon the work of Jesus, who is righteous, we are able to continue to walk in fellowship with one who is light.The Intercession of Jesus Christ (1:10--2:2)

Once again we read the claim to be without sin. This time the author levels his most serious charge yet: those who claim to be without sin make [God] out to be a liar. In fact their claim shows that it is not God's word or God's message (logos; 1:1, 5) that they have received, but quite another mes sage. We have then a crescendo of charges: "It is one thing knowingly to tell an untruth or lie; it is worse to deceive oneself to the point where there is no truth; it is still worse to make God a liar" (Brown 1982:231). The denial of sin makes God a liar because it rejects God's provision for sin, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Although John's purpose in writing is to exhort his readers so that you will not sin, he recognizes that people do sin, and that God has estab lished a means of dealing with that sin. Here he introduces the idea of Jesus as an intercessor. Although we are unrighteous, we have an inter cessor (parakletos) who is "in the Father's presence" (Brown 1982:216) and who is righteous. A paraclete was an advocate, representative or friend at court who could intercede on one's behalf with the judge. And where the judge is righteous, it is appropriate and to our advantage that the paraclete is righteous as well. Jesus, the righteous one, intercedes with the righteous Father for unrighteous sinners.

But that the risen Christ is an "intercessor with the Father," or, as the NIV renders it, one who speaks to the Father in our defense, does not mean that Jesus must plead with an indifferent, reluctant or hardhearted Father on our behalf. Instead, the image of Jesus as intercessor gives us confidence because the penitent believer has as an intercessor the one who has the most intimate relationship with and access to God. Jesus is "with the Father." A vivid example of his intercession is found in John 17, the so-called high priestly prayer in which he prays for the unity and faith of his disciples. Here there is no sense of Jesus trying to persuade God to do something that he requests but that God is reluctant to grant. Such a unity of will exists between Jesus and the Father that Jesus is aware that what he asks will indeed be granted to him. And what he asks for us is forgiveness. It will be granted.

The imagery changes from that of the court to the cultic realm of sacrifice (Balz 1973:169) when John reminds his readers that Christ is also an atonement for sins (NIV, atoning sacrifice). Just as Jesus' death has effected purification, cleansing and forgiveness of sin, so now, the Elder asserts, it atones for our sin. It removes sin so that we may continue in fellowship with God. Sin is a blot on the light, and it must be removed. All the images used to speak of Jesus' death remind the readers of this letter that they have fellowship with God on the basis of Christ's work on their behalf. Otherwise they remain in the realm of darkness, impurity and sin. But Christ's death removes the guilt and washes away the im purity that comes from sin.

The imagery of this passage--walking, confessing, purifying--leaves us with a picture of true allegiance to God that is not static but dynamic. John does not picture a plateau that one attains; rather, he envisions a pathway along which we walk. We walk in the light and toward the light. Within that light we know ourselves to be sinners and God to be all righteousness and truth. To know these truths about ourselves and God is the essence of what confession is.

It is said that confession is good for the soul. This is certainly true for the author of our epistle. Here we may conclude by summarizing what confession is and how it is "good for the soul." Confession is, first, the acknowledgment of sin--not the acknowledgment that there is sin, or that sin is wrong, but that "we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed." Second, then, confession means that we know God as light, as the measure of truth and righteousness by which we fall short. Third, when we confess our sin, we adopt a stance of dependence toward God. Precisely the refusal to confess their sin branded the secessionists as those who scorned the saving work of God on their behalf. Fourth, confession implies a turning to God, a desire to conform ourselves to God's character. Confession does not mean that we say, "I did it again; that's just the way I am." Confession means that we say, "Forgive me, for I have done it again; but I don't want to do it again. Please help me to live within the light of God's truth." Confession is a resource to bring our whole life into conformity with God's will.

Finally, we must always remember that confession is both personal and corporate. In confessing our sins, we acknowledge our place in the company of confessed sinners. Together we stand, on common ground, before God who accepts and forgives all of us. Confession can never be something by which we gain the upper hand over another brother or sister. It certainly is no mark of superiority to confess our sins. It is, rather, simply an acknowledgment of who we are. What God wants of us, then, is sincere commitment to walking in the light and honest confession of our sin.

Previous commentary:
The Character of God

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

Bible Gateway Recommendations

A Method for Prayer
Retail: $14.99
Our Price: $13.49
Save: $1.50 (10%)
The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, One-Volume Edition
Retail: $24.99
Our Price: $16.49
Save: $8.50 (34%)
New Testament Commentary Survey, Sixth Edition
Retail: $14.99
Our Price: $9.99
Save: $5.00 (33%)
View more titles