May 11, 2017: Verse of the day

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Cleansed

but 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. (1:7)

Walk is used throughout the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters, to describe the effect, not of justification, but of sanctification. Salvation is not only a change in one’s legal status as divine righteousness is credited to one’s account, but a change in behavior as actual righteousness is given to believers by the very indwelling presence of God’s Spirit. Daily living of the Christian life is a Spirit-enabled walk (John 8:12; 12:35; Rom. 6:4; 8:4; 1 Cor. 7:17; 2 Cor. 5:7; Gal. 5:16, 25; Eph. 2:10; 4:1; 5:8; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 4:1). The verb is a present subjunctive, expressing continuous action that is nevertheless hypothetical because it applies only to some people.

Those who walk in the Light do so because the power of God has regenerated them. As “new creature[s]” for whom “new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17), they will behave in a way that reflects the power of God’s righteous life in them, just as God Himself is in the Light (see the discussion of 1:5 in the previous chapter of this volume). The general pattern of their day-to-day actions and attitudes will be godlike. Such walkers will experience fellowship with one another (1:3, 7; Acts 2:42; cf. Col. 1:12; Phil. 2:17–18), which derives from their union with the triune God (1:6; 1 Cor. 1:9; 6:17; 12:6, 13). All true Christians live and walk in the Light (i.e., the life of God) and the communion of the saints.

To all who walk in the Light, God grants His grace so that throughout their lives the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses them from all sin. This is not to say that Christians no longer struggle with sin, for no one will ever be totally free in this life from the unredeemed humanness of their flesh (Matt. 26:41; Rom. 7:18–24; Gal. 5:17; cf. Rom. 13:14). However, because the blood of Jesus Christ continually cleanses away every impurity, sin can never change a believer’s standing before God (cf. Rom. 8:33–39). The term blood is often used in the New Testament as a dramatic and graphic way to represent Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross (cf. Acts 20:28; Rom. 3:25; 5:9; Eph. 1:7; Heb. 9:12; 10:19), by which He “released us from our sins by His blood” (Rev. 1:5; cf. Col. 1:20–22; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 2:17; Rev. 5:9).

The salvation cleansing John described encompasses all the sinner’s transgressions, past and future, and depends on no condition but God’s sovereign grace in response to saving faith. John is unmistakably in agreement with the Spirit-inspired teaching of Paul that the redeemed enjoy complete, unalterable, and unrepeatable forgiveness (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Cor. 5:18–19; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Heb. 10:10).[1]


The First Denial (vv. 6–7)

John’s definition of God as light is followed by a denial of three false claims in which the reader is probably right in hearing an echo of the erroneous teachings of the Gnostics. These men claimed to have entered into a higher fellowship with God than was known by most other Christians. They professed great things, but there was a flaw in their profession. They claimed to know God; but even as they made their claims, they showed by their actions that they failed to take sin, which is opposed to the nature of God, seriously. Their religion consisted from the ethical standpoint of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “easy grace.” They claimed fellowship with God, but the fellowship was not costly. They separated religion and ethics. Consequently, they claimed the highest privileges while living precisely as they pleased. In answering their views John denies three of their claims, while on each occasion also pointing to the divine remedy for sin for all who will avail themselves of it.

The outline for this section is apparent from John’s threefold repetition of the phrase “If we claim” in verses 6, 8, and 10. In each case it introduces one of the false claims. This is followed by John’s denial of the teaching (“we lie,” “we deceive ourselves,” “we make him out to be a liar” ) and, finally, by a correct affirmation. In the third case the affirmation takes a different and slightly expanded form as a result of which it has been set apart at the beginning of chapter 2. It will be considered by itself in the next section of the present study.

The first false claim is a common one; namely, that a person can have fellowship with God at the same time that his life is characterized by unrighteousness. John expresses it as the claim to have “fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness.” Here, to “walk in the darkness” means to sin habitually, the contrast being, not a sinless life (for John teaches that everyone sins, v. 8), but a progressive growth in godliness. The present tense indicates a continual practice of that which is opposed to God. Naturally the Gnostic teaching is in view as John denies this erroneous assertion. But we must not miss the fact that his rebuke applies to anyone who claims to know God while at the same time treats either sin or the need for establishing and maintaining a moral life lightly. As Bruce says,

It may well be that the false teachers against whom John puts his readers on their guard were wide open to criticism in this respect, but it is equally necessary for those who adhere to the apostolic teaching and fellowship to be reminded that orthodoxy of doctrine is no substitute for righteousness of life. “Truth in the inward being” (Ps. 51:6) is what God desires in his people, and where that is present, it will manifest itself in all the ways of life.

The contrast to a claim to fellowship with God while actually walking in darkness is an actual walking in the light, which is of necessity accompanied by the reality of Christian fellowship and continual and repeated cleansing from present sin. The fact that John speaks of cleansing from sin, using the present tense of the verb, indicates that he does not understand “walking in the light” to mean perfection. Rather, he means a genuine and continuous pursuit of holiness out of which increased fellowship with other Christians and confession of sin will come. It is this that must characterize all who know God.

The two results of walking in the light deserve special notice. First, since John has already said that one who claims fellowship with God while actually walking in darkness lies, we might, in verse 7, expect John to reply that the one who walks in the light has fellowship with God. This would be true, of course. But John, in a somewhat condensed form of writing, skips over this to show that it also means that he will have fellowship with other believers. Indeed, it is in fellowship with one another on the horizontal dimension that our fellowship with God on the vertical dimension is demonstrated. Did the Gnostics claim fellowship with God? Then how did they see their way clear to separate from other believers, as they had done? Why did they not maintain the fellowship? The same critique applies to those who in the name of a better or purer fellowship with God break Christian fellowship today.

Second, John says that the one walking in the light will find the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ available to him for continued cleansing. At first glance this seems a contradiction. For why does the one who already walks in the light need cleansing? Is he not already cleansed? Or, on the other hand, if he is being cleansed from sin, does this not imply that he was walking in the darkness previously? The contradiction is only superficial, for John is merely saying that one who walks in fellowship with God will find forgiveness for any sin that might enter his life. In fact, such forgiveness is already provided for by the sacrifice of Christ. This is not said to encourage sin, as some might think (“Let us do evil that good may result,” Rom. 3:8), but to encourage holiness.[2]


6–7 The first test in the first series of tests builds directly on the statement that “God is light.” The Greek word koinōnia (“fellowship”) is used again, suggesting that two parties “have something in common” (Marshall, 105). This being the case, if anyone walks in darkness, then that person cannot be in fellowship with the God in whom “there is no darkness at all” (1:5). Those who claim to have fellowship with God but “walk in darkness” are therefore liars who cannot be members of John’s group because they do not enjoy the same fellowship with God that John does (1:3). The positive converse is stated as a second test at verse 7: If someone “walks in the light,” then that person has fellowship with God and John because, again, God is “in the light.”

These two tests follow a pattern that will continue throughout 1 John. First, all the tests John offers are objective and observable, designed to reveal a person’s true intentions apart from verbal claims. Deeds are the test for words, and while words can be false John seems to believe that a person’s actions reveal his or her true nature. Second, many of John’s tests follow the “if … [but] … then” pattern evident here, giving them an absolute quality consistent with his dualistic stance. This presentation effectively eliminates any gray area, for a single premise (“if”) always leads to a single conclusion (“then”), irrespective of any contingent circumstances (“but”). Here, “if” one claims to have fellowship with God “but” walks in the darkness, “then” he is a liar; on the other hand, “if” one walks in the light, “then” her sins are forgiven, granting fellowship with God. There are no exceptions.

What does it mean, then, to “walk in the light” or to “walk in the darkness”? Since vv. 8–10 stress the need to acknowledge sin, it is reasonable to understand vv. 6–7 in ethical terms. Marshall, 110, observes that “to live in the darkness means to live without the benefit of divine illumination and guidance and so to live in sin.” Similarly, Brown, 230–31, is surprised that “the first overt attack on dangerous ideas [in 1 John] is in the moral sphere. One might have expected the author to begin with the Christological errors that are so much on his mind.” It may be, however, that Brown’s expectation is more accurate than his conclusion. While vv. 8–10 clearly address the problem of sin, “walking in the darkness” is not typically used in this way in the fourth gospel. In John 8:12, for example, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” During his final public appeal in Jerusalem, Jesus urges the Jews to believe in him and “walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going” (Jn 12:35; cf. 11:9–10). Each time Jesus refers to “walking in darkness,” he does so in the context of a claim that God’s “light” is available, and 1 John 1:5–7 also explicitly contrasts “walking in the darkness” with the claim that “God is light.” These texts suggest that “walking in the darkness” refers to a failure to accept the revelation of God through Jesus. To “walk in the light” presumably means to accept John’s teaching about Jesus, which is why he and such people “have fellowship with one another.” This fellowship is based on a common experience of forgiveness of sins, which in John’s view only true Christians enjoy.

The question remains as to whom John wishes to distinguish with this first set of tests (1 Jn 1:5–10). Many scholars believe that his remarks are aimed at the Antichrists, whose life and doctrines indicate that they “walk in the darkness.” Most who hold this position detect echoes of the Antichrists’ teaching in the tests John offers, suggesting that they used slogans, such as “we have communion with him” (v. 6) and “we do not have sin” (v. 8), which John wishes to refute (so Marshall, 110–13; Brown, 231–32; Culpepper, 16–18; Johnson, 29–32; Rensberger, 49–50). While this is certainly the case later on in the letter (2:22; 4:1–3), there is no way to tell whether or not the Antichrists advocated the doctrines mentioned here. It is clear that they did not share John’s view of the human nature of Jesus, but this belief would not inherently lead to the conclusion that Christians have no sin or that people who “walk in the darkness” can have communion with God.

On the other hand, John states on numerous occasions that “the world” is guilty of unrepentant sin and that those who are of the world, particularly the Jews, have serious misconceptions about their relationship with God. The world does not recognize Jesus (Jn 1:10; 12:47–49; 14:31; 17:25) and rejects him because his “light” exposes their evil deeds (Jn 3:19–20; 7:7; 16:8–11), and the Jews, who “do not have the love of God in [their] hearts” (Jn 5:42), have misunderstood Jesus and thereby rejected God (cf. Jn 1:5, 11; 5:39–47; 6:26, 36; 7:28–29; 8:14–15; 10:25–26, 34–38). The Jews, in fact, continue to cling to the false notion that salvation may be found in the Scriptures, Moses, and their lineage from Abraham, even after witnessing Jesus’ signs (Jn 5:39, 45–46; 6:32–33; 8:31–44). It seems more likely that John is speaking of these people rather than the Antichrists when he refers to those who “walk in the darkness.” Christians can easily distinguish themselves from such people on the basis of their faith in Jesus. Those who do not have faith—the world and the Jews—cannot be in good fellowship with God because their sins are not cleansed by Jesus’ blood.[3]


[1] MacArthur, J. (2007). 1, 2, 3 John (pp. 36–37). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] Boice, J. M. (2004). The Epistles of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 30–32). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[3] Thatcher, T. (2006). 1 John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, pp. 430–432). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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