READ : 1 John 1:5-10
1 John 2:1-6
God is light but we prefer darkness, and that’s a problem. To have genuine fellowship with God, we must realize our self-deception and confess our sins every day.
Most people today, if they think about God at all, make easy assumptions about what he’s like. But they often stress just one part of his character – usually the part that’s most agreeable to them. God, however, is more complex than we often think. God is great and good, holy and gracious, loving and wrathful, infinitely far above us and yet infinitely close to us, a merciful Father and a terrible Judge, all at the same time. That’s why the Bible keeps reminding us about all of God’s attributes; left to ourselves, we tend to develop a lopsided image of him.
The apostle John begins his first epistle a little differently than perhaps we would have. You or I might have tried to start off on the right foot with a positive and appealing statement about God – “God is love,” for example. Now, that certainly is true. God does say literally those words in 1 John 4:8, “God is love.” But that isn’t the place where he starts. Instead, John begins with this point in verse 5 of chapter 1:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
Not “God is love,” but “God is light.” To say that God is light is first to affirm his absolute truthfulness. There is no darkness of lying or falsehood or deception in him. “God is not a man that he should lie,” says the Bible (Numbers 23:19). “I am the truth,” declared Jesus (John 14:6). To say that God is light is further to affirm that God is absolute moral purity.
“In him is no darkness at all”; in other words, God is utterly holy, completely free of any taint of evil or corruption of sin. In the Gospel of John the image of light and darkness is used primarily in an ethical sense.
The light has come into the world [John wrote speaking of Jesus’ Incarnation], and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light
God Is Light
If you think for a moment, you’ll see how important it is that God begins by telling us this truth about himself because God is light, but we prefer darkness, and there’s the problem. God is truthful and pure; we are sinful and deceptive. Remember, the whole purpose of the gospel is that we might have fellowship with God (v. 4). But when we realize how holy God is, and then consider how unholy we are, we see immediately that our sin is the great obstacle between us.
This is the part of the gospel that most non-Christians have trouble with. They just don’t get it. “What’s the big deal?” they think. “We’re not such a bad people, and God loves everybody, right? So we can all go to heaven when we die, except for maybe Hitler or serial killers or people like that.” That pretty much sums up the common attitude of the man or woman in the street. But the Bible says that God is light, and, as it adds in another context: what fellowship can light have with darkness? (See 2 Corinthians 6:14).
The good news of the gospel is that God has acted once for all to deal with our sin in the atoning death of Jesus Christ. If anyone sins, John writes in 1 John 2:1 and 2, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (vv. 1-2).
Romans 3:25 says that God has put Christ forward “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” A propitiation is a sacrifice or an offering that atones for guilt. Sin is an offense against God, and must be atoned for. We can’t do it ourselves, so God undertakes to do it for us. This is the gospel message. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice whom we receive by faith. That’s the heart of the whole thing. We have a helper, John says, an advocate, someone who takes our part, who pays our penalty and pleads our cause, and he is Jesus Christ the righteous.
But even with this propitiation, this great helper, our fellowship with God is still affected by the fact that we sin every day, and because of this our relationship with God is damaged. John’s main purpose in his opening chapter is to tell us that our life of fellowship with God can only be maintained by daily confessing our sins, trusting Christ’s death as the means of our forgiveness, and resolving to live in holiness and purity.
The message that we need daily confession is one that most people don’t want to hear. Sinners just don’t like the idea of frankly acknowledging what they are and what they do. It hurts our pride. In 1 John 1, verses 6-10 the apostle mentions three separate lies we tell to ourselves and to others in order to minimize our sin and downplay its seriousness. These lies are the illusions of those who want a relationship with God on easy terms, who want fellowship with the light without leaving the darkness.
Here’s the first lie. It’s to claim a close relationship with God while we habitually are living in sin. John writes,
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie . . . (v. 6)
To walk in the darkness means to live contrary to the light of God’s Law, to break his commandments with impunity. This lie consists in saying with our words that we know and love the Lord, while our actions send a very different message. It’s to think that our behavior has no affect on our relationship with God, which is a little like saying that adultery has no real affect on our relationship with our spouse. A man who loudly protests how much he loves his wife while he’s all the while involved with another woman is just a liar, and we all know it.
The second lie is to claim to be without sin.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (v. 8)
That’s sin, John says, not sins, at this point. To claim to be without sin means to deny the inherent sinfulness of our nature. The Bible makes a distinction between sin – the basic crookedness of human nature that causes us to put self rather that God at the center of our lives – and sins – the various acts that are expressions of our crookedness. Sin is to sins as disease is to symptoms.
So the second lie is that we aren’t really fallen or sinful in our very nature. If we think that, says John, we’re deceiving ourselves. We’re not simply lying; we’re no longer able to even see that we’re lying. We have been blinded by our own falsehood into thinking that we are other than we are, that we are better than we are, and the truth is nowhere near us. But though we may deceive ourselves, I don’t think we’re deceiving either God or others.
The third lie is to say that we have not sinned, that is, to deny that our actions are sinful, to contradict God’s law when it condemns the things that we like to do. And the results of this lie are worse than any of the others, because when we claim this, we are making God out to be a liar.
If we say we have not sinned [writes John], we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (v. 10).
For example, just think of the Bible’s commandments against sexual infidelity or impurity and how many people today have denied that these things are wrong at all. To persuade ourselves that actions God’s Word identifies as sinful are not really so bad is to set ourselves up over God, and that is the pinnacle of folly. In doing so we show that his word – his word both of judgment and of salvation and life – is not in us.
The Way to Fellowship
The fundamental thing we must do to enjoy genuine fellowship with God is to acknowledge and confess our sins every day. Listen to John once more,
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (v. 9)
Confession of sin needs to be a regular part of both our public worship and our private devotions. Martin Luther once said that repentance begins by agreeing with God. So we agree with God about ourselves and what we are, about his Word and what it says, about our actions and what we have done. And then we tell him all this in sincere prayer and ask him from the heart for his mercy for Jesus’ sake; and express an honest desire to turn from our sins and walk in his light. That is confession and repentance.
The Orthodox tradition has a wonderful devotional practice involving the Jesus Prayer. That’s a very simple prayer that goes like this:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
You can pray this prayer anytime, anywhere – while waiting for a stoplight to change, when you’re doing chores around the house, during the middle of a meeting, in moments of stress or temptation, whenever you remember something you shouldn’t have said, or thought, or done. The goal is to make this prayer so much a part of your everyday life that praying it becomes a part of you, like breathing in and breathing out. Try it sometime, and see what it can do for your relationship with the God of light.