The life that is real has an enemy and we read about it in 1 John 1:5-2:6. This enemy is sin. Nine times in these verses John mentions sin, so the subject is obviously important. John illustrates his theme by using the contrast between light and darkness: God is light; sin is darkness.
But there is another contrast here too—the contrast between saying and doing. Four times John writes, “If we claim” or “If we say” (1 Jn. 1:6, 8, 10; 2:4). It is clear the life that is real must amount to more than mere “talk”; we must also “walk” or live what we believe. If we are in fellowship with God (“walking in the light”), our lives will back up what our lips are saying. But if we are living in sin (“walking in darkness”), then our lives will contradict what our lips are saying, making us hypocrites.
The New Testament calls the Christian life a “walk.” This walk begins with a step of faith when we trust Christ as our Lord and Savior. But salvation is not the end—it’s only the beginning—of spiritual life. “Walking” involves progress and Christians are supposed to advance in our spiritual life. Just as a child must learn to walk and must overcome many difficulties in doing so, a Christian must learn to “walk in the light.” And the fundamental difficulty involved here is this matter of sin.
Of course, sin is not simply outward disobedience; sin is also inner rebellion or desire. John warns us about the desires of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16), all of which are sinful. Sin is also transgression of the Law (1 Jn. 3:4) or literally “lawlessness.” Sin is refusal to submit to the Law of God. Lawlessness or independence of the Law is the very essence of sin. If a believer decides to live an independent life, how can he possibly walk in fellowship with God? “Can two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” (Amos 3:3)
Neither in the Old Testament nor in the New does the Bible whitewash the sins of the saints. In escaping a famine, Abraham became weak in his faith and went down to Egypt and lied to Pharaoh (Gen. 12). Later, the patriarch tried to “help God” by marrying Hagar and having a son with her (Gen. 16). In both cases, God forgave Abraham for his sin, but Abraham had to reap what he had sowed. God can and will cleanse the record, but He does not change the results. No one can unscramble an egg.
Peter denied the Lord three times and tried to kill a man in the Garden when Jesus was arrested. Satan is a liar and a murderer (Jn. 8:44), and Peter was playing right into his hands! Christ forgave Peter (Jn. 21), but what Peter had done hurt his testimony greatly and hindered the Lord’s work.
The fact Christians sin bothers some people—especially new Christians. They forget receiving the new nature does not eliminate the old nature they are born with. The old nature (that has its origin in our physical birth) fights against the new nature which we receive when we are born-again (Gal. 5:16–26). No amount of self-discipline and no set of man-made rules or regulations can control this old nature. Only the Holy Spirit of God can enable us to “put to death” the old nature (Rom. 8:12–13) and produce the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 5:22–23) in us through the new nature. Sinning saints are not mentioned in the Bible to discourage us, but to warn us.
“Why do you keep preaching to us Christians about sin?” an angry church member said to her pastor. “After all, sin in the life of a Christian is different from sin in the life of an unsaved person!”
“Yes,” replied the pastor, “it is different. It’s much worse!”
All of us, therefore, must deal with our sins if we are to enjoy the life that is real. In this section of John’s letter, he explains three approaches to sin:
“God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5). When we are saved, God calls us out of darkness and into His light (1 Pet. 2:9). We are children of light (1 Thess. 5:5). Light produces life, growth, and beauty, but sin is darkness. Darkness and light cannot exist in the same place. If we are walking in the light, the darkness has to go. If we are holding to sin, then the light goes. There is no middle ground, no vague “gray” area, where sin is concerned. When light shines on us, it reveals our true nature (Eph. 5:8–13). Those who do wrong hate light (Jn. 3:19–21).
How do Christians try to cover up their sins? By telling lies! First, we tell lies to others (1 Jn. 1:6). We want our Christian friends to think we are “spiritual,” so we lie about our lives and try to make a favorable impression on them. We want them to think we are walking in the light, though in reality we are walking in the darkness.
Once a person begins to lie to others, he will sooner or later lie to himself, and our passage deals with this (1 Jn. 1:8). The problem now is not deceiving others, but deceiving ourselves. It is possible for a believer to live in sin, yet convince himself everything is fine in his relationship to the Lord.
Perhaps the classic example of this is King David (2 Sam. 11–12). First, David lusted after Bathsheba. Then, he actually committed adultery. Instead of openly admitting what he had done, he tried to cover his sin. He tried to deceive Bathsheba’s husband, made him drunk, and had him killed. He lied to himself and tried to carry on his royal duties in the usual way. When his court chaplain, the Prophet Nathan, confronted him with a similar hypothetical situation, David condemned the other man, though he felt no condemnation at all for himself. Once we begin to lie to others, it may not be long before we actually believe our lie.
Then, the spiritual decline becomes worse: the next step is trying to lie to God (1 Jn. 1:10). We have made ourselves liars; now we try to make God a liar! We contradict His Word, which says “all have sinned” and we maintain we are exceptions to the rule. We apply God’s Word to others, but not to ourselves. We sit through church services or Bible studies and are not touched by the Bible’s teachings. Believers who have reached this low level are usually highly critical of other Christians, but they strongly resist applying the Word to their own lives.
The Holy Spirit’s inspired picture of the human heart is devastating indeed! A misled believer lies about his fellowship (1 Jn. 1:6); about his nature—“I could never do a thing like that!” (1 Jn. 1:8), and about his actions (1 Jn. 1:10). Sin has a deadly way of spreading, doesn’t it?
I must discuss an extremely important factor in my experience of the life that is real. That factor is honesty. We must be honest with ourselves, honest with others, and honest with God. Our passage actually describes a believer who is living a dishonest life: he is a phony. He is playing a role and acting a part, but is not living a genuine life. He is insincere. What are the losses this kind of person experiences?
The first thing he loses is the Word. He stops “doing the truth” (1 Jn. 1:6); then the truth is no longer in him (1 John 1:8), and he turns the truth into lies (1 Jn. 1:10). “God’s Word is truth” (Jn. 17:17), but a person who lives a lie loses the Word. One of the first symptoms of walking in darkness is a loss of blessing from the Bible. We cannot read the Word profitably while we are walking in the dark.
The second thing he loses is his fellowship with God and with God’s people (1 Jn. 1:6–7). Prayer becomes an empty form to him. Worship is dull routine. He becomes critical of other Christians and starts staying away from church: “What do righteousness and wickedness have in common? What fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14)
A backslidden husband, for example, who is walking in spiritual darkness, out of fellowship with God, can never enjoy full fellowship with his Christian wife, who is walking in the light. In a superficial way, the couple can have companionship; but true spiritual fellowship is impossible. This inability to share spiritual experiences causes many personal problems in homes and between members of local churches.
A group of church members were discussing their new pastor. “For some reason,” said one man, “I really don’t feel at ease with him. I believe he’s a good man, all right—but something seems to stand between us.”
Another member replied, “Yes, I think I know what you mean. I used to have that same problem with him, but now I don’t have it anymore. The pastor and I have great fellowship.”
“What did he do to make things better?”
“He didn’t do anything,” said the friend. “I did the changing.”
“You did the changing?”
“Yes, I decided to be open and honest about things, the way our pastor is. You see, there isn’t one stain of hypocrisy in his life and there was so much pretending in my life that we just didn’t make it together. He and I both knew I was a phony. Since I’ve started to live an honest Christian life, everything is better.”
One of the problems with dishonesty is that keeping a record of lies and pretenses is a full-time job! Abraham Lincoln said, “If a man is going to be a liar, he had better have a good memory.” When a person uses up all his energy in pretending, he has nothing left for living; and life becomes shallow and tasteless. A person who pretends not only robs himself of reality, but he keeps himself from growing: his true self is smothered under the false self.
The third thing he loses is really the result of the first two: he loses his character (1 Jn. 2:4). The process starts out with him telling lies and it ends up with him becoming a liar! At first, his insincerity or lack of truthfulness is just a role he plays. But then, it is no longer a role—it has become the very essence of his life. His character has eroded. He is no longer a liar because he tells lies; he now tells lies because he is a confirmed liar.
Is it any wonder God warns, “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Prov. 28:13). David tried to cover his sins and it cost him his health (Ps. 32:3–4), joy (Ps. 51), family, and almost his kingdom. If we want to enjoy the life that is real, we must never cover our sins!
What should we do?
2. WE CAN CONFESS OUR SINS (1:9)
John gives two interesting titles to Jesus Christ: Advocate and Propitiation (1 Jn. 2:1–2). It’s important we understand these titles because they stand for two ministries only the Lord Himself performs.
Let’s begin with Propitiation. If you look this word up in the dictionary, you may get the wrong idea of its meaning. The dictionary tells us “to propitiate” means “to appease someone who is angry.” If you apply this to Christ, you get the horrible picture of an angry God, about to destroy the world, and a loving Savior giving Himself to appease the irate God—and this is not the Bible picture of salvation! Certainly God is angry at sin; after all, He is infinitely holy. But the Bible reassures us that “God so loved [not hated] the world” (Jn. 3:16).
No, the word “propitiation” does not mean the appeasing of an angry God. Rather, it means the satisfying of God’s holy law. “God is light” (1 Jn. 1:5) and, therefore, He cannot close His eyes to sin. But “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8) too and wants to save sinners.
How, then, can a holy God uphold His own justice and still forgive sinners? The answer is in the sacrifice of Christ. At the cross, God in His holiness judged sin. God in His love offers Jesus Christ to the world as Savior. God was just in that He punished sin, but He is also loving in that He offers free forgiveness through what Jesus did at Calvary (1 Jn. 4:10; Rom. 3:23–26).
Christ is the Sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, but He is Advocate only for believers: we [Christians] have an Advocate with the Father. The word “advocate” used to be applied to lawyers. The word John uses is the very same word Jesus used when He was talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16, 26, 15:26). It means, literally, “one called alongside.” When a man was summoned to court, he took an advocate (lawyer) with him to stand at his side and plead his case.
Jesus Christ is our “Advocate.” He represents believers before God’s throne and the merits of His sacrifice make possible the forgiveness of our sin. Because Christ died for His people, He satisfied the justice of God. Because He lives for us at God’s right hand, He can apply His sacrifice to our needs day-by-day. All He asks is that when we have failed, we confess our sins to Him.
What does it mean to confess? To confess sins means much more than simply to “admit” them. The word confess actually means “to say the same thing [about].” To confess sin, then, means to say the same thing about it that God says about it.
A counselor was trying to help a man who had come forward during an evangelistic meeting. “I’m a Christian,” the man said, “but there’s sin in my life and I need help.” The counselor showed him 1 John 1:9 and suggested the man confess his sins to God.
“O Father,” the man began, “if we have done anything wrong—”
“Wait a minute!” the counselor interrupted. “Don’t drag me into your sin! My brother, it’s not ‘if’ or ‘we’—you’d better get down to business with God!” The counselor was right.
Confession is not praying a lovely prayer, or making pious excuses, or trying to impress God and other Christians. True confession is naming sin—calling it by name what God calls it: envy, hatred, lust, deceit, or whatever it may be. Confessions simply means being honest with ourselves and with God, and if others are involved, being honest with them too. It is more than admitting sin. It means judging sin and facing it squarely.
When should we confess our sin? Immediately when we discover it! “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Prov. 28:13). By walking in the light, we are able to see the “dirt” in our lives and deal with it immediately.
This leads to a third way to deal with sins.
John makes it clear Christians do not have to sin. “I write this to you so that you will not sin” (1 Jn. 2:1). The secret of victory over sin is found in the phrase “walk in the light” (1 Jn. 1:7). To walk in the light means to be open and honest, to be sincere.
It is unfortunate churches and Bible classes have been invaded by insincere people, people whose lives cannot stand to be tested by God’s light. “God is light” and when we walk in the light, there is nothing we can hide. It is refreshing to meet a Christian who is open and sincere, and is not trying to masquerade!
To walk in the light means to be honest with God, with ourselves, and with others. It means that when the light reveals our sin to us, we immediately confess it to God and claim His forgiveness. And if our sin injures another person, we ask his forgiveness too. Walking in the light means obeying God’s Word (1 Jn. 2:3–4). “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). To walk in the light means to spend time daily in God’s Word, discovering His will; and then obeying what He has told us.
Obedience to God’s Word is proof of our love for Him. There are three motives for obedience. We can obey because (1) we have to, (2) we need to, or (3) we want to. A slave obeys because he has to. If he doesn’t obey, he will be punished. An employee obeys because he needs to. He may not enjoy his work, but he does enjoy getting his paycheck! He needs to obey because he has a family to feed and clothe. But a Christian is to obey his Heavenly Father because he wants to—for the relationship between him and God is one of love: “If you love Me, you will keep My commands” (Jn. 14:15).
This is the way we learned obedience when we were children. First, we obeyed because we had to. If we didn’t obey, we were spanked! But as we grew up, we discovered obedience meant enjoyment and reward, so we started obeying because it met certain needs in our lives. And it was a mark of real maturity when we started obeying because of love. “Baby Christians” must constantly be warned or rewarded, but mature Christians listen to God’s Word and obey it simply because they love Him.
Walking in the light involves honesty, obedience, and love; it also involves following the example of Christ and walking as He walked: “Whoever claims to live in Him must live as Jesus did” (1 Jn. 2:6). Of course, nobody ever becomes a Christian by following Christ’s example; but after we come into God’s family, we are to look to Jesus Christ as the one great Example of the kind of life we should live. This means “abiding in Christ.” Christ is not only the Propitiation (or sacrifice) for our sins (1 Jn. 2:2) and the Advocate who represents us before God (1 Jn. 2:1), but He is also the perfect Pattern for our daily life.
Jesus Himself taught His disciples what it means to abide in Him. He explains it in His illustration of the vine and its branches (Jn. 15). Just as the branch gets its life by remaining in contact with the vine, so believers receive their strength by maintaining fellowship with Christ. To abide in Christ means to depend completely on Him for all we need in order to live for Him and serve Him. It is a living relationship. As He lives out His life through us, we are able to follow His example and walk as He walked. Paul expresses this experience perfectly: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
This is a reference to the work of the Holy Spirit. Christ is our Advocate in heaven (1 Jn. 2:1), to represent us before God when we sin and the Holy Spirit is God’s Advocate for us here on earth. Christ is making intercession for us (Rom. 8:34) and the Holy Spirit is also making intercession for us (Rom. 8:26–27). Christ lives out His life through us by the power of the Spirit, who lives within our bodies. It is not by means of imitation that we abide in Christ and walk as He walked. No, it is through incarnation: through His Spirit, “Christ lives in me.” To walk in the light is to walk in the Spirit and not gratify the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).
God has made provisions for us in these ways to conquer sin. While we can never lose or change the sin nature we are born with (1 Jn. 1:8), we need not obey its desires. As we walk in the light and see sin as it actually is, we will hate it and turn from it. And if we sin, we immediately confess it to God and claim His cleansing. By depending on the power of the indwelling Spirit, we abide in Christ and “walk as He walked.”
But all this begins with openness and honesty before God and men. The minute we start to act a part, to pretend, to impress others, we step out of the light and into shadows. The life that is real cannot be built on things that are deceptive. Before we can walk in the light, we must know ourselves, accept ourselves, and yield ourselves to God. It is foolish to try to deceive others because God already knows what we really are!
All this helps to explain why walking in the light makes life so much easier and happier. When we walk in the light, we live to please only one Person—God. This really simplifies things! “I always do those things that please Him,” Jesus said (Jn. 8:29). But if we live to please ourselves and God, we are trying to serve two masters, and this never works. If we live to please men, we will always be in trouble because no two men will agree and we will find ourselves caught in the middle. Walking in the light—living to please God—simplifies our goals, unifies our lives, and gives us a sense of peace and poise.
John makes it clear the life that is real has no love for sin. Instead of trying to cover sin, a true believer confesses sin and tries to conquer it by walking in the light of God’s Word. He is not content simply to know he is going to heaven. He wants to enjoy that heavenly life right here and now. He is careful to match his walk and his talk. He does not try to impress himself, God, or other Christians with a lot of “pious talk.”
A congregation was singing the hymn, “For You I Am Praying.” The pastor turned to a man on the platform and asked quietly, “For whom are you praying?”
The man was stunned. “I guess I’m not praying for anybody. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I just heard you say, ‘For you I am praying,’ and I thought you meant it,” the pastor replied.
“Oh, no,” said the man. “I’m just singing.”
Pious talk! A religion of words! Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (Jas. 1:22). We should be doers of the Word as well as talkers of the Word. We must walk what we talk. It is not enough to know the language; we must also live the life. “If we say—” then we ought also to do!