In the last essay we began a study of the letters of John by discussing several introductory matters. And now we are ready to move to the next paragraph of the letter, which is about God, you and sin. In 1:5-10 John sets forth his theological understanding of sin. He does it in terms of the first major theme of the letter–light versus darkness. As we work through these verses we will see that for John, God’s light is a moral way that must be followed.
When John asserts that God is light, he implies several thing s about God. He implies God’s splendor and glory, his purity and holiness, his willingness to guide, and his willingness to reveal himself. That is, he wants us to know him!
But there is another side to God as light. He also reveals the flaws of those of us who are illuminated by his light. Light reveals. The person who invented candlelight dinners (I don’t know if it was a man or woman) may have done it for romantic effect. On the other hand, it could have been to hide the cobwebs in the corners.
Yes, God is light. Darkness, on the other hand, is hostile to the light; it represents the evil, immoral side of life, which is not part of God at all. Sin is part of the darkness. Therefore it is very important to remember what John says here. There is no darkness in God at all–none! If you hear a preacher or teacher expressing a doctrine that ascribes spiritual darkness to God, reject it. There is no darkness in God.
All right that is John’s theological understanding of sin according to the theme of light versus darkness. Next John moves to the necessity of making a moral response to this truth. Learning about God always demands a moral response. Not only is God not the author of immorality, his light provides a moral path that we can follow. Either we walk in the light or in the darkness. As you can see in verses 6-7, John is quite insistent that fellowship with God demands pure living. We are to live good moral lives, walking in the light.
But the other option is there. We can choose to walk in darkness. We can even choose to be hypocrites and say that we have fellowship with God when we know we are walking in darkness. John says that makes us liars.
The consequences of walking in the light or the darkness are clear. Walking in the light results in forgiveness and cleansing from sin. And walking in darkness results in lying and self-deception. Verses 8-10 further develop the point.
Notice in this paragraph as a whole that John has three parallel “If we say” statements in verses 6, 8, and 10. “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie” (v. 6). “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (v. 8). And “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him [God] a liar” (v. 8). It is as if John is refuting statements that certain people actually had made. I believe that was what he was doing; but be that as it may, each one of these “If we say” assertions excuses sin in one way or another.
The first declares that any person who claims to have fellowship with God, while consciously walking in darkness, that is while intentionally sinning, is a liar or we could say a hypocrite. Such persons do not “live according to the truth.”
The second says that any one who claims to have no sin (with the obvious implication that sin actually is evident) is self-deceived. A classic example is that of couples in an adulterous relationship who claim that God approves of their adultery.
The third “If we say” statement declares that any person who claims never to have sinned at all makes God a liar. This is strong talk. But we must not forget what John told us in verses 7 and 9. “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (v. 70. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v.9).
These two statements are crucial. They mean that the hard advice of the passage is beautifully packaged with fantastic good news. The warnings are couched in a context that sets forth great promises for those who walk in the light. We can be free—free from sin, all sin!
Next, I remind you that John told us in his introductory statement that his purpose in writing was that we might have fellowship with God and fullness of joy. Now at the beginning of chapter 2, in verses 1-2, John comes back to his purpose in writing. Here we see that another part of John’s purpose in writing was to enable us not to sin. However, as he just indicated in 1:10, sin is universal. Thus all of us are guilty of committing it, and we all need forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
Therefore, John reminds us that even though he is writing that we may not sin, if we do, we have an advocate, a mediator, a spokesman, on our behalf, “Jesus Christ the righteous.” The NIV doesn’t use the word “advocate.” It translates with a bunch of words: “one who speaks to the Father in our defense.”
This word “advocate” is a translation of a very special Greek word, used in the New Testament only by the apostle John. The Greek term [parakletos] literally means “to call alongside;” and the meaning, as John is using the word here, is to call alongside to help. If we sin, Jesus is the one who is called along side to help us. He becomes our spokesman, our mediator, one who intercedes on our behalf with the heavenly Father.
But Jesus is more than an advocate, a spokesman. Verse two tells us that he also is our atoning sacrifice (NIV, NRSV), expiation (RSV), or propitiation (KJV). The word “propitiation” means the same as “atoning sacrifice.” The idea is that our sin offends God’s justice or honor, and he cannot enter into fellowship with us while we are in our sinful state. Therefore in order for God to have fellowship with us, he must forgive our sins. And the way he chose to do that was to send his son, Jesus Christ, to die on our behalf, to propitiate, that is satisfy, his offended justice.
Judging strictly by justice, we should make the satisfaction, because we are the ones causing the offense. But unfortunately, because of our sinfulness we are incapable of making the satisfaction. So God took the task upon himself through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Jesus, who was God in the flesh, was the only unblemished human being; and therefore he was the only one who could be the unblemished Lamb of God who takes away our sins.
But atoning sacrifice is only part of the story. The death of Jesus also provides forgiveness, or pardon, for our sins. Now “pardon” means that a guilty person is forgiven. A pardon does not declare that a person is innocent. It declares that a guilty person is forgiven. In order to illustrate this, I want to tell you a story,
About the year 1830, a government employee discovered a man named George Wilson robbing the U.S. mails. George had a gun; and when he was surprised in his theft, he instinctively shot and killed the man.
The authorities apprehended George, and he was brought to trial for murder. He was convicted and sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. However the whole matter took a strange turn when the then president of our country, Andrew Jackson, for reasons unknown to me, decided to pardon Wilson. Most men would have received word of that happily, but not George Wilson. Wilson completely confused everyone by refusing the pardon. That had never happened before; a convicted murderer refusing a presidential pardon. No one knew what to do. So the issue was brought to the Supreme Court.
Chief Justice John Marshall, whom some would claim to be the greatest of all Chief Justices in our history, wrote the opinion. In it he wrote; quote, “A pardon is a slip of paper, the value of which is determined by the acceptance of the person to be pardoned. If it is refused, it is no pardon. George Wilson must be hanged.” And he was.
I think we learn two things from George Wilson’s story. The first I already mentioned; namely, the difference between being pardoned and being declared innocent. George Wilson was not innocent. He had killed the mail clerk, pardon or no pardon.
The second thing we learn is that a pardon means nothing if we refuse to accept it. George Wilson’s presidential pardon did him no good, because he refused to accept it. Likewise, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross would have done us no good had we not accepted the pardon offered.
To summarize, God is light. In him there is no darkness at all. Therefore a moral response on our part is unavoidable. The “light” of God becomes a moral pathway, which God expects us to follow. That is, we are to walk in the light rather than in darkness. We must not deny our sin, or make excuses for it. Rather God calls us to confess it and seek forgiveness.
Fortunately, although we clearly are not to sin, if we do, we have a mediator, a spokesman, an advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Jesus died that God’s offended honor and justice might be satisfied, and we might be pardoned. But like George Wilson, we must confess our guilt and accept the pardon for it to be effective.