This is part 3 of a series. Here are parts 1 and 2. [2:1] My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, 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.  And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.  Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him,  but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him:  whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:1-6 ESV)
So far John has told us that the life of God was manifested in the incarnation of the Son - the one whom the apostles saw and heard and touched. It is this life-giving Son of God with whom John invites his readers to have fellowship (and thereby have fellowship also with the Father and the apostles themselves), and the message that this same Son of God and font of life proclaims through his apostles is the message that God is light. Fellowship with God through the life giving Son brings a life lived in the light, no longer hiding in the shadows, no longer needing to pretend at sinless perfection. Life in the light through fellowship with the Son (which is nothing less than participation in the very life of the Triune God) frees us up to confess our own sins with the assurance that the the Son will cleanse us with the fiery light of his presence.
But John has more to say. He is no encourager of sin. While it is true that to deny our sins is to deceive ourselves and to make God a liar, nevertheless, John has written in order that those who here his message may not sin. St. John’s writings thrive on these tensions.
Here at the beginning of chapter 2 the apostle tells us that his goal in speaking about the light and life and fellowship and forgiveness that has appeared in the manifestation, the incarnation, of the Son of God has been to keep us from sin. But ever mindful of his goal of encouragement he tells us almost in the same breath that if we do sin not only are we forgiven, but we are forgiven because Jesus Christ the righteous, the bringer of life, is our advocate. He stands in heaven not to plead with a harsh and uncompromising Father, but as the bridge between fallen humanity and divinity, the divine-human Son of God who in his death for sins by which he became a propitiation (that is one who bears wrath in our stead) has brought our human lives into the fellowship of the Godhead. And as if that weren’t enough, John then tells us that Jesus propitiatory death was no mere parochialism, it wasn’t the death of one man for a few friends, or a tribal God for a tribal people, but it was the world shaking death of the Son of God which is able to accomplish redemption for the whole world.
And how will we know that we stand covered under such a propitiation? (For we know that while Christ died as a propitiation for the sins of the whole world, there are those in the world who will reject such benevolence and refuse the fellowship offered.) We will know it by our actions. Now at this point we may start to get a little queasy; at times calvinistic Christians can seem almost allergic to talk about good works, righteous actions, or commandment keeping. Unfortunately this makes us allergic to parts of the Bible. While it is absolutely true that we can never put God in our debt by anything we do or don’t do, it is equally true that God cares deeply about our behavior and our behavior manifests the kind of relationship we have with God.
And so John says that we can know that we know this life giving Son, this God of light, this one who has become a propitiation for our sins by noting that we keep his commandments. This means no worm theology. This means it will not do to adopt the modern reformed asceticism that wallows in the mire of total depravity and radical grace, never recognizing that the life of one who has been put into the light is a life transformed and characterized by obedience, which is the harbinger of confidence that we do in fact know God. Knowing God manifests itself in a growing family resemblance. God made us in his image, and as we come to know him and to have fellowship with him that image, which has been marred by sin, begins to shine through brighter and brighter.
But John’s language gets even starker. He says that just as one who denies sin and the need for forgiveness, the need for a propitiation, deceives himself and calls God a liar, so the one who claims to know God but does not keep his commandments is himself a liar. For to know God is to be in the light because God himself is light, and no one who is in the light can continue to walk in darkness. Again, as we’ve said before this is not a call to doubt our standing with God any time we disobey. John has covered that. We have an advocate. Rather, John’s point is that my confidence in that propitiation, and my confidence that it covers my
sins is to be found in my obedience to his command, which is the evidence that I am in the light.
Again, the images swirl back on themselves. If I have life it is because I have heard the proclamation that God is light and been brought into the light and if I am in the light I will not walk as one in the darkness but according to light, just as He who is light walked among us (v.6), and thus I will keep his commandments. It’s a package deal: life, light, forgiveness and obedience. You can’t have any without having all.
This is the second in what I hope to be a series of reflections on 1 John. I don't intend this to be a technical or exhaustive commentary, but rather a series of short meditations working through the book. My experience has been that it is a hard book to work through, especially for those who spend most of their NT time in the Paulines, and that many of the study Bible notes and Bible studies dedicated to it focus on technical questions, apologetic points, and/or alleviating the pressure that some of John's starker claims put on our sense of theological precision. My goal here is to avoid those tendencies, not because it is wrong to ask technical questions, note the apologetic force of John's claims, or ponder over the theological coherence of various NT perspectives, but simply because it seems that above all else what John's letter calls for is theological meditation. This is not first and foremost a dogmatic, or even a polemical work, but a theological one which calls for us to note its symphonic dimensions (stating a theme and then drawing back only to develop it further or differently later on, HT: ESV Study Bible Notes), its use of metaphor and symbol, and it's ethical challenge. Theology is always necessarily ethical. 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.  If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:5-10 ESV)
What we saw in verses 1-4 is that St. John is very interested in speaking to his hearers/readers about the life-- the Word of Life, eternal life. But as we saw, the life itself that he refers to is embodied in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Word of Life and the wellspring of eternal life. Indeed, the life was "made manifest" and was "seen and touched" by John and the apostles in the person of Jesus Christ (v. 2).
Now, going a step further John tells us what it is that this Word
of Life made manifest has spoken and has given them to proclaim. For the one who is to have fellowship with God and with those who have been brought into the divine life of the Trinity, those who have seen and touched the life incarnate, namely Jesus, must hear the message that this incarnate Word
of life proclaims and live by it. That is, they must live the life that they receive. And what is that message?
Here we must recognize that John is not going to scratch our modern itch for simple, 'straightforward' answers. He has not spoken metaphorically in order to pique our interest so that now he can give us the straight dope. Rather, John speaks in the language of Scripture (which is the language of symbol
) to a greater degree than perhaps any other New Testament author. And so the message that he speaks of is yet again a picture. Jesus has been pictured as a Word and as Life itself, indeed as the Word of Life
, and now the message of this one who is the Word of Life comes to us: God is light, and in him is no darkness at all! The Word made visible speaks a visible word.
But this is no cryptic puzzle. This is not a Delphic oracle (a mysterious saying from one of the hidden ‘gods’ of the ancients). In this case, a picture truly is worth a thousand words. Indeed how could John have said this apart from using such pictorial language? God is light!
This brings us back to the Word of Life made manifest. Jesus Christ is the Word and the Life and having been made manifest to John and the holy apostles he is made manifest to us (by this proclamation) as we are brought into his life, because his life is light. It is by his life, which we share in if we have fellowship with Him and His Father and His children, that we see, because his life is light. Notice how these images swirl back upon themselves. The Word of Life (Jesus Christ) was manifested because the Word of Life is
the Word and Life of God, and the Word and the Life are visible precisely because God is light.
Thus to have fellowship with God is to walk in the light; that is, to see clearly and to see things as they are, illuminated by the life of God and his Word with which we have fellowship. Perhaps that is why later John will tell us that we “have no need that anyone should teach [us]” (2.27)
But there is a flip-side to this good news. Namely that if we walk in darkness, if we walk as those who do not see, or who turn their eyes away from the light of God’s good will and walk in darkness, it is only through lies and deception that we claim fellowship with him. At this point it is important for us to remember one of the chief burdens of John’s letter. He is writing to give assurance to believers that they are, in fact, children of God (1.12-14, 3.1-3, etc.). Indeed, we see in the next few verses that John is quick to remind us of the forgiveness that we have when we sin. Thus, his point is not that if we dabble in darkness we do not have fellowship with God; for indeed we all do dabble, but “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (v. 7b). In fact, John will tell us almost immediately that if we deny that we have sin, that is if we deny dabbling in darkness at times, we are deceiving ourselves. This is no contradiction, and in fact it is a tension that we will need to hang on to in order to navigate the rest of John’s letter.
Further, if we are well schooled in our Old Testament we will not be surprised by such a distinction. In the law (contrary to some popular modern reformed authors) there are many provisions for dealing with ‘sins of wandering,’ or what is sometimes translated ‘accidental’ or ‘inadvertent’ sin. However, it is clear that these are not just sins done by mistake, but sins done apart from high-handed rebellion. These are the sins committed by all faithful Christians in the course of life which the blood of Christ covers. However, to walk in darkness, and thus give the lie to one’s fellowship with God, is akin to sinning with a high hand in the language of the Law, for which there was no forgiveness, and for which one was cut off from one's people (i.e. excommunicated). It is the sin of one in rebellion against God; it is sin that does not seek forgiveness
. Indeed the one who commits it lies and says it is no sin, or worse, that he has no sin at all. To put it simply, John’s warning, just as the Old Covenant Law’s is against apostasy, or false faith. If one claims to trust in God but has no repentance he lies: to God, to others, and perhaps even to himself if he persist such that he hardens his heart. That is what it is to walk in darkness while claiming to be in the light. On the other hand, if we walk in the light of faith and repentance
“we have fellowship with one another, and rthe blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (v. 7b).
So walk in the light!
Below I've cited a number of verses, which are not cherry picked after much searching, but simply came out of my devotional reading today. Granted, I don't always read an entire epistle (I don't always read anything!), but tonight I did as well as a few other things. As I was reading I just started noting verses that stood out in light of a lot of the recent back and forth over grace, sanctification, the role of good works, etc. And I couldn't help but be struck by how far our discussions have moved from Biblical language. I dare say that many of the statements posted below would be sent up on reformed blogs in record time if they were spoken or written by a PCA/OPC pastor rather than being the words of Asaph or St. John. This is a problem. If we so fear the specter of "works righteousness" that we recoil at the thought that we can please God by keeping his commandments (1 John 3.22), or that a condidtional if can be placed before statements of God's blessing (1 John 4.12), both notions I've seen lambasted by contemporary reformed writers, we have swung the pendulum too far. God is our Father, as John is at pains to make clear, and just as a good earthly Father is gracious and forgiving, yet pleased by the intentional obedience of his children and willing to chastise disobedience (indeed to prevent complete dissolution of the familial relationship if rebellion is allowed to go unchecked), so our heavenly Father accepts and even demands our obedience as his godly (i.e. following in his footsteps) children.
“Mark this, then, you who forget God,
lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!
The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me;
to one who orders his way rightly
I will show the salvation of God!”(Psalm 50:22-23 ESV)
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.(1 John 2:3-6 ESV)
If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.(1 John 2:29 ESV)
Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.(1 John 3:7-11 ESV)
...and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.(1 John 3:22 ESV)
Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.(1 John 3:15 ESV)
...if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:12b ESV)
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.(1 John 5:3 ESV)
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
-The First Epistle of St. John, chapter 3 verses 16-18
This is the first in what I hope to be a series of reflections on 1 John. I don't intend this to be a technical or exhaustive commentary, but rather a series of short meditations working through the book. My experience has been that it is a hard book to work through, especially for those who spend most of their NT time in the Paulines, and that many of the study Bible notes and Bible studies dedicated to it focus on technical questions, apologetic points, and/or alleviating the pressure that some of John's starker claims put on our sense of theological precision. My goal here is to avoid those tendencies, not because it is wrong to ask technical questions, note the apologetic force of John's claims, or ponder over the theological coherence of various NT perspectives, but simply because it seems that above all else what John's letter calls for is theological meditation. This is not first and foremost a dogmatic, or even a polemical work, but a theological one which calls for us to note its symphonic dimensions (stating a theme and then drawing back only to develop it further or differently later on, HT: ESV Study Bible Notes), its use of metaphor and symbol, and it's ethical challenge. Theology is always necessarily ethical.
[1:1] That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  And we are writing these things so that our (or your) joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4 ESV)
In this opening paragraph St. John clues us in to several key themes of his epistle, but the special burden seems to be that of life. And at this early point it is wise to consider what it is that John has in mind when he speaks of life, and particularly eternal life, as he will a number of times throughout his letter. His first reference is to the Word of Life, which is a clue. Jesus Christ is himself the eternal Word who came offering life (John 1.1), and life abundantly. Immediately in verse 2 we are told that the Life was made manifest, confirming our suspicion that the Life/Word of Life referred to is in fact Jesus himself and the life that spills out of him like living water. It is Jesus and his overflow of life (in contrast to the spreading death that has been with us since the fall) that John and his compatriots have heard, seen and touched.
But this leads us to the more specific issue of "eternal life," (v. 2b) a term which will turn up numerous times in John's epistle. It deserves some reflection at the outset. My guess, based on my own experience, is that most Christians tend to kind of read over this quickly assuming that it basically refers to something like living forever with God after we die. However, I think we need to slow down a little and consider what John may have meant. In the first place there is the general problem with the common conception of salvation in evangelical circles which tends to say something like this: when we die we go up to heaven and take on an ethereal life of disembodied worship of God for eternity. Suffice it to say that while there is no time to refute such a view here, that is not a Biblical picture. Eternal life is embodied life, resurrected life after the pattern of our savior and elder brother, Jesus Christ who was raised bodily and ascended into heaven bodily, and sits at the right hand of the Father bodily to this day and forevermore. (There is a man in heaven.) But I believe there is an even more specific nuance here. As John uses and develops the notion of eternal life it seems to me that he is hinting at quality as much or more than he is at quantity; that is, his point is as much about the inheritance of a fulness of life as it is about unending life simpliciter. And this is very much within the lexical/semantic range of the word we typically render 'eternal' in English.
I don't want to be too pedantic here, but what I am suggesting is that John's primary point when he talks about eternal life is that as the Word of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, came into the world he brought with him the very life of God, the life of the Trinity, which is itself eternal; that is, both everlasting in a temporal sense, and full and complete in a qualitative sense. It is this full and rich and abiding life that John and his fellow apostles have experienced right here in this embodied life (heard, seen, and touched) and that they now proclaim, and in doing so share with their hearers. And the motive for such proclamation is to bring his readers/hearers in. By having experienced this fullness of life, the very life of God manifested in the incarnate Son, John and his co-laborers have been taken up into the life of the Triune God and indeed function as extensions of that life. Thus, to bring others into fellowship with themselves is to bring those same into the divine life of the Trinity. (Wonder of wonders this is true for us too, and ought to serve as a prime motivator for evangelism: we are united to Christ and thus bound up in the wellspring of life, the life of God, and as we share the gospel we invite other into that very life.)
It is this conviction: that because of our acceptance and love for the living, loving, incarnate Son of God we are bound up in the everlasting life and love of the Holy Trinity, that I think shapes the whole of St. John's first epistle.