1John 1:1-4 This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life –and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us). What we have seen and heard we announce to you too, so that you may have fellowship with us (and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ). Thus we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. [NET Bible]
I appreciate the New English Translation Bible (NET) and their effort for a clear and accurate interpretation. Their notes are extensive and often helpful. They provide Biblical commentary on bible.org where I found a detailed exegesis of 1 John. The following quote from that writing caused me to pause:
In contrast to v. 6, which reflects a claim of the opponents, the present verse introduces the counter-claim of the author of 1 John. However, does the author’s statement the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin refer to initial justification or to ongoing sanctification for the Christian? Since this cleansing from sin is something that follows when we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, it must refer in this context primarily to ongoing sanctification. This means that fellowship with one another is also something shared between believers and is a result of a righteous lifestyle (“walking in the light”). The author is not worried about the initial justification (salvation) of the people to whom he is writing. Rather he is reassuring them about forgiveness of sins committed after having become Christians. (Click here for the full article.)
This argument is repeated and augmented when the commentary approaches verse 9, a much abused verse on sin. 1John 1:9 But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.
The exegesis referred to above promotes the idea that a Christian must keep a short leash on his sins, confessing them on a regular basis in order to prevent sins from diminishing his access to God and disrupting fellowship with fellow believers. 1 John 1:9 is the key verse in this requirement. There cannot be a once-and-done forgiveness of sins, but there is a need for continuous confession of sin is the typical interpretation of this verse. To support this position the commentator requires that John’s epistle be about sanctification, not justification. We are cleansed of sins as we confess them and walk in the light and as we work to reflect Jesus in our lives. This is a saved by grace, sanctified by works understanding of Scripture.
To my mind, the commentator misses the radical demarcation between walking in the Light versus walking in darkness. I would argue that the following key statement is presumptive and not supported by the text: “Since this cleansing from sin is something that follows when we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, it must refer in this context primarily to ongoing sanctification.”
I believe the prologue (verses 1:1-4 above) sets the tone for what is to follow. What happens to the darkness when you turn on the light? Does any darkness remain? Jesus is the light of the world. One comes to Him and finds life, or one stays in the darkness and suffers death, eternal separation from God. John leaves no room for being partly saved, or somewhat in the Kingdom. You are in or you are not. His readers are questioning this reality. Those who have come to the light are being challenged by those who have not come to believe in Christ. The opponents, those in the darkness, distort who Jesus is and what it is to be in fellowship with Him. John paints a picture of what it is to be in the light or to remain in the darkness. The discussion of sin arises because at its essence, Sin is rejection of God. Sin is the free human choice not to accept Jesus, a refusal to come to the Light. John’s joy will be complete when those in opposition come to the light, accept the love of the Father, Son and Spirit, and enter into true Christian fellowship. The epistle turns then on this struggle between light and dark, between the refusal to accept justification in Christ and its consequences, or to accept justification in Him with all its subsequent positive attributes. John is writing about the stark dividing line of justification, not an ongoing progressive sanctification.
I will try to support my thesis by looking at the sin verses from 1 John interspersed with my comments:
1John 1:7 But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
What happens when we walk in the light? We have fellowship and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. When did this cleansing happen? When did we enter into this fellowship, this transition from darkness to light? This clearly occurs when one personally accepts the work of the Cross where Jesus in his death and by His shed blood took away the sins of the world. When we accept Christ, God promises to remember our sins no more. We are cleansed white as snow. Our sins are put as far from us as the east is from the west. Which of our sins are not forgiven? All our sins occur after the Cross and it is there that all our sins are forgiven. Note what we have in the light. We have fellowship and cleansing. We have those things, we do not produce them. We walk in the reality of being cleansed and in fellowship with one another.
1John 1:8 If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
This is what walking in darkness is like. To have the truth is to have Christ. Those who will not come to the light deceive themselves and Christ is not in them. They deny God. Don’t let the use of “we” mislead you. It is the unbeliever who is described here. This is not “we Christians.” It is like saying “If we as human beings say…”
1John 1:9 But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.
Notice the result of this confession; one is cleansed from all unrighteousness? At the Cross we died with Christ and rose with Him. Through our faith in Him we have His righteousness. This is justification language. This is once-and-done language. This is that single moment when a seeker recognizes his sin of rejecting Christ, confesses that sin and accepts Christ into his life.
1John 2:1,2 (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 One, and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.
Even if we sin as Christians we have an advocate with the Father. Notice that we do nothing, Jesus does it for us. If we sin, Jesus tells the Father, my blood is sufficient for that and the Father remembers that sin no more. There is no special pleading on our part. It is Jesus our advocate on view.
1 John 3:4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; indeed, sin is lawlessness.
Jesus came to fulfill the law, because mankind could not keep it. The standard of the law is far too great for our human effort to achieve. Apart from Christ we can do nothing. No amount of contrition can atone for our sin. No amount of self effort will sanctify us.
1John 3:5 And you know that Jesus was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.
Jesus did not come to judge us. He came to set us free. He takes away the sins of the world. He takes them away. He does the work we cannot do. On the Cross, Jesus has done all that is needed to deal with the issue of sin.
1John 3:6 Everyone who resides in him does not sin; everyone who sins has neither seen him nor known him.
A very strong statement that describes being in the light or remaining in darkness. And here we have the crowning statement on sin. Jesus who has no sin has made it possible for us to be His temple, His dwelling place, pure and holy as He is. In our death and resurrection in Christ we have been circumcised from the sin that dwells in our flesh. We are no longer a part of the old, and we have been made new. This is the gospel John is preaching. Let me emphasize, this is an “in the light or in the darkness” statement. It is one or the other, no mixture of the two is possible. We are born from above and are in Christ. We do not sin. We do not oscillate in and out of Christ. Our actions do not change who we are in Christ. We are born of Him and that is an eternal reality that will never change. Christians reside in Christ and according to John they do not sin, period.
1John 3:7 Little children, let no one deceive you: The one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as Jesus is righteous.
Is righteousness something we practice? Righteousness is right standing with God. It is not something we produce, it is a standing granted to us by God in Christ. We practice, or do righteousness by walking in its reality. We abide in the righteousness that Christ has provided to us. We are righteous just as Jesus is righteous. That is startling. Our standing before the Father is just as pure and holy as that of Jesus. You are as righteous as God’s Son is righteous. What deception are we vulnerable to? We can be robbed of the truth that we have the same standing before the Father that Christ has. It is not a matter of sanctification, our producing righteousness by our concerted effort to please God, it is a matter of who indwells you, the righteous One who assures your right standing before the Father. Don’t be deceived that that is not a reality in your life.
1John 3:8 The one who practices sin is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was revealed: to destroy the works of the devil.
If you are in the light you practice righteousness. The presence of God is reflected in the way you walk in this life. If you reside in the darkness you practice sinful things. What we do depends on who’s influence we are under. The source of sin is Satan, not man and certainly not God. God’s wrath rests on Satan not on believers. Remain in the darkness and you remain under Satan’s influence. Come to the light and you are guided and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit.
1John 3:9 Everyone who has been fathered by God does not practice sin, because God’s seed resides in him, and thus he is not able to sin, because he has been fathered by God.
Adam’s seed has been replaced by the Father’s seed. Adam sinned. The Father cannot sin. Our true selves, our new nature, does not practice sin because God’s seed dwells in us. We are born of Him. Our new nature is who we truly are. We are no longer identified with the flesh. This is a once-and-done event. As soon as we exercise faith in Christ we are born from above and the Father’s seed is implanted in us. The moment we are justified that seed is implanted and we no long practice sin. We cannot sin, we no longer have the sin nature in us. We have God’s love nature in us.
Conclusion: John is very clear about sin. God dealt with sin on the Cross. It is no longer an issue that stands between the believer and his relationship with God. We are new creatures in Christ made for the indwelling of God with the same standing of righteousness held by the Son. We are His holy temple. John does not hold to a weak view of the Cross and all it has accomplished for us. The Cross dealt with the problem of sin completely. It is surely once-and-done. Placing our faith in Jesus brings to us all the benefits of Christ’s shed blood. Any suggestion, in my view, that our sanctification requires our continual confession of sin diminishes the work of the Cross and distorts what John is saying. The good news really is GOOD NEWS! By faith in Christ we have stepped from darkness into Light and that ends our relationship with sin and sin’s standing in the way of our fellowship with the Father. We have the seed of the Father in us, we no longer practice sin, and we are not the source of sin. We walk in the righteousness that Jesus provides to us. John warns us not to be deceived. God has done a mighty work, walk in His light, don’t even imagine that the darkness has not been dealt with. In Him there is no darkness at all and He dwells in you.
The commentators get it wrong when they promote a progressive sanctification that depends upon our ability to continually recognize and confess our sins. They fail to recognize how completely Jesus dealt with sin when he shed His blood on the Cross. Walking in the light is not a progressive growth in Christ. It is the absolute quality of life that begins when we are born again of the Spirit and the Fathers seed, His very nature, is placed in us. Walking in the light is an eternal truth for the believer because he has turned from rejecting Christ to walking in faith with Him. These turning points are associated with justification not sanctification. John warns us not to be deceived.