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Volume 13, Issue 3: Exegetica

That Ye Sin Not / John 1:8-2:6

Jim Nance

"God is light, and in him is no darkness at all." John has declared that we live under this same divide: we either walk in darkness apart from God, or we walk in the light, as He is in the light. In this section John presents three false claims and their corresponding conditions of darkness, each one contrasted against walking in the light. As you consider these words, keep in mind the original audience: John is warning the Church about false prophets in the world (1 Jn. 4:1), who believed themselves free of sin, men to whom "all things are lawful." It is this false teaching which John refutes first.

"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 Jn. 1:8). He who makes this claim lies to himself about his own condition. All men, being descended from Adam, are under original sin. God in His grace has made this condition known to our consciences, having written the work of the law on our hearts (Rom. 2:15). To deny this condition is thus to harden oneself against what God has revealed. Such self-deception prevents Adam's children from acknowledging their error and seeking its only solution: confession of sin and consequent forgiveness.
"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn. 1:9). Confession of sin is the honest acknowledgment that what God has spoken is true; it is to agree with God concerning our sin. Such confession is founded in God's faithfulness and justice: His faithfulness, because we trust that the Lord will do as He has promised, "He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy" (Prov. 28:13); His justice, because Christ as our substitute has paid for that sin on the cross, and God will not punish us for it again unjustly. Rather, when we confess our unrighteousness, He will remember that sacrifice and wash it all away.
"If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and His word is not in us" (1 Jn. 1:10). He who makes this claim lies about his own actions. God testifies in His word that we all stumble in many ways, "for there is no man that sinneth not" (1 Kings 8:46). To contradict this testimony is to call God a liar, and to further compound one's unacknowledged sins.
Here we must be careful, for admitting that everybody sins does nothing to excuse those sins. God is not a distracted parent; He does not misplace your sins amidst the multitude of others. John does not admit the universality of sin to give us an out. Rather, he writes this so that we may take the way out provided by God: "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 Jn. 2:1_2). The only way of escape is the death of God's Son, who as our propitiation took upon Himself the sins of His people throughout the world, enduring the punishment due them that it might not fall upon us.
When we as God's children consider His free forgiveness, we must be careful not to let down our guard. Do not think to yourself, "If I sin, what does it matter? I'll just confess that too, and be forgiven." That may be, for the Father is abundantly gracious and may overlook even this hypocrisy at the pleading of your advocate, Jesus Christ. But one price He always exacts for such folly if left unrepentant: your assurance. The Father is good and wise; He does not allow His children to keep their confidence while savoring their sin. On the contrary, "hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep his commandments" (1 Jn. 2:3). Read that carefully. John does not say that we have come to know Him if we keep His commandments. Rather, John says that we who keep His commandments know that we have come to know Him. We neither gain Christ through our obeying nor lose Christ through our disobeying. But we do lose our assurance, that this loss may drive us back to the arms of the Father, like the prodigal son: still knowing we are sons, but knowing equally well that we do not deserve it.
"He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in Him. He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked" (1 Jn. 2:4_5). Love is perfected in obedience. Those who claim to have no sin deceive themselves; those who wittingly disobey God while claiming to know Him lie to others. Each of these errors effectively displaces God's truth from within, so that the sinner knows neither God's truth nor his own heart. But those who express their love for God by walking in His ways and keeping His word, abide in Him, experiencing His fatherly compassion, proclaiming His true nature, and knowing their own souls. They dwell in the light of His goodness and see all things in that light, while those who trespass into the shadow of sin stumble around in the darkness of doubt and despair.
The sinner gains no assurance of salvation by looking into the darkness of his own heart. He gains that assurance only by walking in the light imperfectly, and when the light reveals his imperfections he looks away from himself to the righteousness of Christ our Savior.

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