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Sin Isn't What It Used to Be (1 John 1:5-2:2)

Sin Isn’t What It Used to Be
1 John 1:5—2:2

Minister’s Summary:
Because of our participation in the community of light, sin looks, feels, and influences us differently. In the light, it is less attractive. In the incarnational community, we battle it confessionally. By virtue of Christ’s blood, it cannot defeat us.

Exegetical Notes:

God is Light (1 John 1:5). The fundamental theological premise for this text (and for the whole of 1 John 1:5-3:) is that “God is Light” (1 John 1:5). This is the tradition that the author has heard and proclaims. The “message” is what we “proclaim” and it is what as “proclaimed” from the beginning (all the words in “quotes” come from the same Greek root). We pass on the continuity of the message. The term "message" some understand as John's equivalent to Paul's use of the term "gospel" (cf. Brown). I think this is correct. This is John's "gospel"--it is the message that God has revealed through the incarnation.

The Truth is that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. This is the content of the message (the second point comes in 3:11). In the incarnation, God is revealed as "light." This certainly refers to the ethical quality of God's life. There is no evil in his life; there is no darkness. This was not a new idea. It is found in the Old Testament. God is pure, holy, and righteous.

The Johannine tradition identifies "light" with Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the light (John 1:4-5; 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35, 46). The God of light is revealed in Jesus who is also light. Jesus is God's light to the world because he reveals God's light in the world. Jesus reveals God.

Walking in the Light (1 John 1:6-2:2). This text has a series of balancing clauses which the below charts represent. Carefully read and compare the charts.

"If (ean) Clauses (adapted from Burge, pp. 67-68)
"If we say...""But if we..."
1:6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness....1:7 but if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship....
1:8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves...1:9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins...
1:10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar...2:1 But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father

The Disapproved Conditions (Adapted from Brown, p. 231)
The "If" ClauseThe Result Clause
1:6ab If we boast, "We are in communion with Him," while continuing to walk in darkness1:6cd we are liars and we do not act in truth.
1:8a If we boast, "We are free from the guilt of sin," 1:8bc we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
1:10a If we boast, "We have not sinned,"1:10bc we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.

The Approved Conditions (adapted from Brown, p. 237)
The "If" ClauseThe Result Clause
1:7ab But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light1:7cde we are joined in communion with one another and the blood of Jesus, His Son, cleanses us from all sin
1:9a But if we confess our sins1:9bcd He who is reliable and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all wrongdoing
2:1b But if anyone does sin2:1cd-2:2abc we have a Paraclete in the Father's presence, Jesus Christ, the one who is just, and he himself is an atonement for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.

Fellowship with God in the Light (1:6-7). “Walk” is a metaphor for life, the way we live life. It is analogous to “living by the truth” (or, literally “doing the truth”). The contrast between light and darkness is the contrast between a way of life fellowshipping with the darkness or with the light—it is about our orientation in life. Whoever is oriented toward the light understands that God is light, but whoever is oriented toward the darkness does not understanding the light of God and does not understand (know) God. Of course, no one who walks in the light is sinless, and thus the cleansing atonement (“blood”) is necessary for life in the light. This is a walk we share with others and thus commune with others in it. Our fellowship is dependent upon the cleansing blood but conditioned upon walking in (or, being oriented toward, or living out the values of) the light.

Confessing Sin (1:8-9). The statement denies that sin exists in us as a quality or "active principle" (Brooke). Brown, Smalley and Burge defend the idea that the point here is qualitative (much like Paul's "sinful nature" or "flesh") rather than quantitative (specific sins). Not only does this provide a contrast with verse 10, but it also makes better sense of the verb "have" as it is used in Johannine literature. John's use seems to indicate a general quality, a state of being (thus, having joy, fellowship, hope, confidence and life). Thus, we cannot deny that we live within the framework of the fallen world and there is something that actively engages us that is hostile to God. We "have sin," that is, we are sinners who struggle against the very fabric of the fallen universe. We are "sinners" and we will always be such as long as we live in the flesh. All other sin arises out of this condition.

The response to that recognition is God's gracious forgiveness. God intends to cleanse and purify. God does not deny the sinfulness of his creatures, but he forgives it. This is a function of both God's faithfulness and his righteousness. Faithfulness reflects God's unswerving desire to redeem his people and that he will always be true to his promise of redemption. But righteousness seems out of place. How does the righteous God cleanse us from unrighteousness? There is an assumed testimony of the community here, but it will show itself in at least two places in 1 John (2:2; 4:10).

The link between our sinfulness and God's forgiveness is our confession. We must recognize our condition; we must face reality and throw ourselves on the mercy of God's forgiveness. Acknowledgment is critical to forgiveness. We must recognize our sin, admit it and seek God's gracious redemption.

The power of self-deception is tremendous. Sin blinds us. Here is a boundary marker that illuminates self-deception. If we say that we have no sin -- if we say that we do not wrestle with sin or we say that we no longer have a problem with sin -- then we are self-deceived. Then, the truth is not in us, that is, the reality of God's revelation in Jesus Christ is not in us because he came to destroy sin and deal with sin (as the next section notes).

Dealing with Sin (1:10-2:2). We do sin. In distinction from verse 8, here John uses the verb "to sin," that is, we commit acts of sin. The contrast between verses 8 and 10, then, is the contrast between being and act; between sinful nature and acts of sin. We cannot deny that we sin because to do so is to make God a liar. God's whole redemptive plan is to save sinners. The atonement ("blood") is God's forgiveness, and if we have no need of forgiveness, then we make God a liar. To deny that we have sinned is to make God the Devil (the liar) and to confuse darkness and light. Thus, his word is not in us.

But we have an intercessor: Jesus is our advocate (parakletos). The Gospel of John applies this term to the Spirit (John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7), but also associates Jesus with the title by the phrase "another Comforter" (John 14:16). Jesus is the righteous one who stands in the presence of the God who is light, and Jesus is the one who laid down his life in love who stands in the presence of the God who is love. The righteous one pleads the case of the unrighteous. Believers have someone who defends them rather than accusing them before the Father. We have an advocate in the heavenly court.

There is atonement: Jesus is our propitiation. But how can the righteous plead the case of the unrighteous? The raises the question of atonement and the function of "propitiation" in 1 John is to provide the rationale for the righteous one (2:1) to intercede before the righteous God (1:9) for unrighteous people. We also have a high priest in the heavenly temple. I think it is best to retain a strong sense of propitiation (averting wrath) in this term, though it is highly debated. But the focus in 1 John seems to be expiation (the removal of sin). The sacrificial context ("blood" in 1:7) ties us to the Old Testament rituals where the removal of sin is paramount (Brown) but also includes the idea of averting God's wrath. Whatever the exact meaning, this phrase "atoning sacrifice for sin" is the reason the just one can plead the case of the unjust.

Theological Perspectives

How does 1:6-2:2 elaborate the message that "God is Light"? God is righteous (1:9), Jesus is righteous (2:1) and God cleanses us from all unrighteousness (1:9). God cleanses us from sin by the blood of Jesus (1:7) and atones for sin through Jesus (2:2). God is just and Jesus is just to cleanse us from unrighteousness so that we may dwell in the light with God.

To say that "God is Light" means that God deals with sin righteously. God does not deny sin or sweep sin under the rug (that is the human tendency). Rather, God acts in accordance with the light to forgive, cleanse and atone. God acts out of love (1 John 4:10), but he acts righteously. God recognizes sin and atones for it in order to create a community.

Since the God who is Light dealt with sin righteously, we are called to avoid sin and walk in the light where this righteous forgiveness is graciously applied. The call for the ethical handling of sin (acknowledgment and confession) is rooted in God's own righteous dealing with sin.

Teaching Particulars

This text is full of potential applications and discussion. Here are several possibilities. First, all Christians struggle with assurance. If God is light, how can we who sin experience the fellowship of God? This assurance is not rooted in our actions, but in the act of God in Jesus. The righteous God deals with sin through the righteous blood of his Son and thus cleanses us from sin. Further, the Son continues as an advocate for us. He continually intercedes and defends us. Thus, assurance is grounded in the objective work of God for us in Jesus. It is not grounded in our abilities or actions. Rather, God is faithful and just—forgiveness arises out of the character of God, not out of our character.

Nevertheless, this assurance is experienced as we “walk in the light.” It is at this point that assurance becomes a problem. How do we know that we are “walking in the light”? Does this mean some kind of perfectionism? Does this mean that we obey God perfectly? Does walking in the light mean we never sin? No—otherwise what sins would need cleansing by the blood of Christ for those who walk in the light? What sins would those who walk in the light confess if walking in the light means that we do not sin or that we perfectly obey his commandments?

Walking in the light should be read in the context of the whole epistle. To walk in the light is to confess that Jesus has come in the flesh and to love the brothers. It is an orientation toward God, a way of life. It is the ethical orientation toward being God’s light in the world through faith in Jesus. It is not perfection, but direction. It is not sinlessness, but an orientation. Walking in the light is a mode of existence—a mode of life that seeks God and yearns to be like him.

On the ground of what God has done in Christ, we live in the light (fellowship) as we are oriented toward the light (seeking God). This means we demonstrate an ethical life and thus obedience to divine commands. But it does not mean we are perfect. On the contrary, we confess our sins even as we walk in the light. Part of walking in the light is the confession of sin, not the absence of sin.

Second, confession is a significant dimension of this text. It is a confession of our fallenness, of our human predicament. We, as fallen human beings, are sinners, and thus we confess our utter failure to be like God. We are darkness, and we confess the darkness. As a result, we seek the light, are grateful for the light and yearn to be in the light. But in order to enjoy the light, we must confess the darkness.

Honesty with ourselves is part of our honesty with God. We must recognize our predicament. We recognize that without the divine light we are fully in the dark. Thus, we are totally dependent upon God for the light—the light of knowledge, the power of holiness, and the sense of goodness in life. We confess that we are utterly without light when God is not the light in our life. Otherwise, we deceive ourselves.

Third, the work of Christ is the ground of our salvation. The righteous God purifies us from all unrighteousness through the righteous acts of Jesus who is our advocate and atonement. We should not interpret this as Jesus somehow trying to convince the Father that he should redeem or forgive us. The Father does not have to be convinced to love us. Rather, the Son and Father deal with sin—its unrighteousness, injustice and darkness—through a redeeming act which involves the blood (death) of Jesus. The death of Jesus in some sense averted the wrath (justice) of God so that God could be just and justifier (cf. Romans 3:25-26). God’s act in Jesus was a self-sacrifice and a self-propitiation whereby the righteously God dealt righteously with sin through the righteous Son so that he might cleanse his people from all unrighteousness.

The intent of the divine work in Christ is for the sake of the whole world. God intends to atone for all sin, not just for the sins of the community of believers. The mission of God is toward the world, not just the church. God’s love for the world (John 3:16) means that Jesus is for the world, not just for the church. The act of God in Jesus is missiological and arises out of his love. Thus, the church should also be missiological and act for the world out of love.

Function of Text: Because God is light, he deals with sin righteously and will not tolerate a flippant attitude toward sin.

Theology: Our communion with God is not based on our righteousness but on the atonement and advocacy of the righteous one, Jesus Christ.

Application: We trust in the faithful righteousness of God that forgives our sins even as we acknowledge the reality and depth of our sin.

Teaching Outline: Dirty, but Clean

1. We tend to choose self-deception rather than self-humiliation. We make excuses rather than make confession. We are victims rather than sinners.

2. But we can't say: "There is no darkness in me," or "I have conquered sin in my life," or "I don't sin anymore." That would make the revelation of God in Jesus Christ a lie. Yet, if this is true, then were is the joy of eternal life? How can we commune with the God who is light?

3. Our confidence is found in Jesus Christ who is our advocate and our atonement. God does not lightly pass by sin, but he deals with sin--the righteous God cleanses us by the blood of the righteous one. God atoned for sin so that we might have fellowship in his light.

4. Consequently, we live with assurance and we trust the work of God in Christ for us.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What were some saying in the community about their relationship with God and sin? (Note the “if we say…” statements). What claims were they making? What do you think they meant by those claims?

2. Practically, what does it mean to “walk in the light”? How do we know we are walking in the light? (Perhaps we need to read the whole epistle to know the answer to that question.)

3. Is it possible to have a flippant attitude toward sin in the light of divine forgiveness? How so? What does that look like? How have you had a flippant attitude toward sin at times? What counsel would you give someone who says “God will forgive” when their life does not reflect the light?

4. Does our understanding and joy over grace sometimes weaken our understanding of the depth of sin? How should grace shape our understanding of sin?

5. When we sense the darkness in our lives, what hope does this text offer us? How do we apply this text when we feel unforgiven or unworthy of forgiveness?


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