1 John is, in some ways, a difficult letter. John’s style of writing is deceptively simple. The words and sentences are easy, but the thoughts are some of the most profound in the New Testament. Furthermore, we aren’t quite sure of the historical context of the letter. It is clear that 1 John was written to address some kind of problem (or problems). Our disadvantage is that we are reading someone else’s mail, as it were, or listening to half of a telephone conversation. We have to guess what the other party was saying, or what the questions were (to which 1 John supplies the answers). We can get a sense of the problem, but not the finer details of it. See Tim Jennings’ excellent introduction here.
What seems clear is that some people, who claimed to be brethren, had come to John’s readers and had upset their faith with teachings that were different from what they originally knew. The teachers themselves had abandoned the true faith of Jesus Christ, and now they wanted to take others with them.
However we understand the original problem, John takes his readers back to some fundamental truths that should guide our thinking whenever things become unclear to us. The first truth is revealed plainly and boldly in 1.5: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” Now it is true that God’s presence, to those who got a glimpse of Him, is consistently described in the Bible in terms of light. In 1 Timothy 6.16 Paul says that He “dwells in light unapproachable.” As true as that is, however, John is not talking about the light of God’s presence. He is talking about God’s nature, and that is best described symbolically as “light.”
Light (and think about the light of the sun when you envision this) is a pure thing. It is unblemished, and it is uniform. This is how God is. He is absolutely pure, holy, good, righteous, faithful, and truthful in all His ways. He cannot do or say anything that is contrary in any way to these qualities. This is the basis for everything we are to think and understand about God and Jesus, and it becomes the rule by which we may measure anything that claims to be connected with God or Jesus. It also becomes the rule by which we are to measure whether we ourselves are right with God. Whatever (or whoever) fails the “light test” cannot be “of God.”
Given this simple truth, John proceeds to unpack some practical applications. First (1.6), a person cannot “walk in darkness” – that is, behave sinfully – and still go around saying “I have fellowship with God.” Light and darkness do not mix, and so the person who practices sin cannot be in a right fellowship with God. Any such claim is, John says, a lie and such a person is not participating in God’s own holiness and righteousness (see Barry Kercheville’s good point on this here). The person who can rightly say he has fellowship with God is the one who walks in the light, where God Himself is (1.7).
It is important to understand how John is depicting the Christian life here. John is not so much speaking of individual actions as he is speaking of a direction, an orientation, and a person’s usual, habitual mode of living. “Walking in darkness” and walking “in the light” are not actions, they are lifestyles. They are not things you do on occasion, they are directions or paths down which a person walks normally and usually. It is only when two people are walking down the same basic road in life that they can claim to have fellowship with each other. Otherwise, “what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor 6.15). So John says that if brethren are walking in the light, then a fellowship exists between them (1.7). Of course, we all realize that none of us walks in the light perfectly. We all, at times, make wrong steps. But the person whose life is pointed toward the light, and whose normal walk is in the way of light has the blood of Jesus constantly available so that a misstep does not destroy his relationship with God or his brethren (1.7; the book of Hebrews has much to say about this as well).
Second, a person cannot claim that they have reached the point of sinless perfection in life. As long as we live in this fleshly body we are going to have to fight with its lusts and urges, and sometimes we will lose the fight. Any honest person knows that, but some people actually think they have surpassed everyone else on the moral scale and they are now sinless. They see themselves as a kind of spiritual elite. Johns says that such an idea is self-deception and untruthful (1.8). Even more importantly, it is a special kind of arrogance that is yet another manifestation of darkness, and so the person who thinks this way about himself is really in the darkness (although he thinks he is in the purest light of all). No, the only way to be right with God is to come to Him in humility, acknowledging that we are sinners in desperate need of God’s grace. This is what John means by “confess our sins.” This is not something that is only done in a church building. Again, John is talking about a character trait, he is talking about something that such a person does regularly as part of his normal mode of living. He acknowledges his failures (to God and to his brethren). These people are offered forgiveness (1.9) and are the ones who are actually in fellowship with God.
Thirdly, the person who says “I have not sinned” (ever!) is likewise in a sad spiritual condition. Note the progression here: a person walks in darkness (1.6), a person denies that he has a problem with sin (1.8), and then a person denies he has ever sinned (1.10). Sin’s effect upon us is to deceive us completely to the point that we think we can sin with impunity (1.6), that we don’t need God (1.8) and that we never have needed Him (1.10)! But God Himself says that we have sinned, so that the person who denies this thereby says that God is a liar. Friends, does it make any sense to think that a person can contradict something God has plainly said, and effectively call God a liar, and then think that he is right in the sight of God?
By the way, just exactly when and where did God say we are all sinners? Well, we might think of passages such as Romans 3.23 (and note the long list of supporting evidence Paul cites in Romans 3.10-18). However, I think we could make a good case that John is thinking about the “statement” about human sin that God “made” in the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus “says” to the world that we are all sinners in need of His atoning sacrifice. Only a fool can look at the cross of Jesus as say “I don’t need that.”
We cannot go around denying that sin is, or ever has been, a problem for us. The facts are otherwise. It surely is one of the great paradoxes of the gospel that only people who acknowledge their un-fitness to be with God are the people who can be with God, and the people who claim to be free of sin are the people who are in the worst kind of sinfulness and the farthest from God.
This does not mean, however, that we may simply resign ourselves to sinning, or that sinning is somehow “good.” That is not the life God wants for us. So John said “I write these things to you that you may not sin” (2.1). For those occasions when we do sin, Jesus stands at the ready to plead our case before God for forgiveness. And not only does Jesus advocate for us, He is the one who has provided the sacrifice that cleanses us (2.2)! The means to rightness is there for the person with humility, but John says nothing about any such avenues for the person who denies his own sin.
Of course, this avenue of forgiveness could not exist in a system of belief where the death of Jesus was not real – and John will discuss this part of the problem later in the letter. For now, however, John is trying to show his readers that only those who are walking in the light can make any claim to being in truth or “in Him.” And this appears to be exactly the point at which the false teachers had failed. Their wicked lifestyles, their hateful ways, their arrogant talk, and their untrue doctrines prove that they are not to be given any attention by the true seeker of God. “By their fruits you will know them.”