1 John 1:5-10

1john_title1 John 1

5 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. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 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. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Characters who do not believe in the existence of sin turn up time and again in literature. For instance, in The Grapes of Wrath, Preacher Casey tells Tom Joad how he came to deny the existence of sin after battling with guilt over his promiscuous and hypocritical life.

I says, “Maybe it ain’t a sin. Maybe it’s just the way folks is…” Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud…”There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.”[1]

In Flannery O’Connor’s story “Wise Blood,” Hazel Motes expresses a similar sentiment, though in his own unique way.

            Haze ducked down a step but the blind man’s hand shot out and clamped him around the arm. He said in a fast whisper, “Repent! Go to the head of the stairs and renounce your sins and distribute these tracts to the people!” and he thrust a stack of pamphlets into Haze’s hand.

            Haze jerked his arm away but he only pulled the blind man nearer. “Listen,” he said, “I’m as clean as you are.”

            “Fornication and blasphemy and what else?” the blind man said.

            “They ain’t nothing but words,” Haze said. “If I was in sin I was in it before I ever committed any. There’s no change come in me.” He was trying to pry the fingers off from around his arm but the blind man kept wrapping them tighter. “I don’t believe in sin,” Haze said, “take your hand off me.”[2]

And in one of the most famous short stories in American literature, “The Old Man and the Sea,” the old man wonders if sin might not really exist.

“It is silly not to hope, he thought. Besides I believe it is a sin. Do not think about sin, he thought. There are enough problems now without sin. Also I have no understanding of it.

            I have no understanding of it and I am not sure that I believe in it. Perhaps it was a sin to kill the fish. I suppose it was even though I did it to keep me alive and feed many people. But then everything is a sin. Do not think about sin. It is much too late for that and there are people who are paid to do it. Let them think about it. You were born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish.”[3]

You can feel the old man struggling with the very concept of sin.

These are all fictional examples, however there are also far too many examples in real life of people who do not believe in sin. For instance, here are the words of a pastor in Chicago:

I believe the story of Adam and Eve is one of the most theologically and psychologically destructive stories ever written…Humans became God’s scapegoat. Rather than blame our Maker we decided to blame ourselves. A tremendous burden of guilt and shame has overshadowed us since. . . . What a tremendous guilt trip we have undertaken! Rather than risk an imperfect Creator, we have fashioned ourselves as perpetually rebellious ingrates. . . . I believe we are the way we are precisely because God wanted us to be this way. . . . We have never ‘fallen’ from perfection. We have never been banned from paradise. We have never been exiled east of Eden.[4]

Again, this is a minister preaching before a congregation in a major American city. Not only does he not believe we are sinners in need of grace, he finds the idea outlandish and harmful. More than that, he suggests that the real sinner is God!

This rejection of sin is profoundly at odds with what the Bible says. Furthermore, it is the rejection of the idea of sin, not its embrace, that is truly dangerous and harmful! For these reasons and others, 1 John 1:5-10 is especially relevant today, for in it we find a clear biblical theology of sin.

Sin is incompatible with peace with God.

Any theology of sin must begin with the holiness of God and the incompatibility of His holiness with sin. Here is how John put it:

5 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. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.

Marianne Thompson has observed that “in the phrase no darkness at all the words rendered no and at all translate two Greek negatives (ouk…oudemia), an emphatic negation, with the emphasis on the last part of the sentence.”[5] This is telling. One can almost envision John pounding the table emphatically while shouting, “in him is no darkness…atALL!”

This truth is asserted in the strongest possible terms throughout the New Testament. In Romans 5, Paul put it like this:

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

“We were enemies.” Here Paul makes the seriousness of sin jarringly clear. He does so again in Romans 8.

5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

“Hostile to God.” What a tragic image! Even so, this is what sin does to us. We are “hostile to God” so long as we are in our sins! Then this, from Colossians 1:

21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him

“Alienated and hostile in mind.” And then James in James 4 writes:

4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

“Enmity with God.” These images employ terminology of conflict and possibly even warfare. We are at war with God in our sins. John prefers the images of light and dark, but the contrast makes the point just as clearly.

5 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. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.

You are not at peace with God so long as you are in your sins. It is impossible to walk in darkness and claim to be at peace with the light.

Forgiveness is necessary for having peace with God and His people, and this is what the blood of Christ secures for us.

Darkness can have no fellowship with light and we are mired with darkness. Even so, God, who is the light, desires for us to walk in the light. To that end, He made a way for us.

7 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.

“The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

The cross is the means by which we pass from darkness to light and from hostility to fellowship. What this means is that we cannot begin to understand the beauty of the cross until we understand the heinousness of our own sin. We approach the cross only when we see our great need for salvation and forgiveness! Without preaching on sin there can be no preaching on the cross for it was on the cross that Christ saves us from our sin!

Dallas Willard has given an example from American revivalism of one who understood that conviction over sin was necessary for one to approach the cross rightly.

Conviction of sin is no longer a popular topic among evangelicals. It has disappeared for the most part, but that is a quite recent development. Mordecai Ham, the evangelist under whose influence Billy Graham was converted, would preach for weeks in a given location before giving people an opportunity to receive Christ. That was a common practice. Often the mental suffering would become very great and spread to believers. In Savannah, Georgia, the tension drove Christians to become so burdened that they went downtown and rented empty store building in order to hold meetings on their own, where they could publicly invite people to receive Christ by giving an “invitation.”

            Wesley’s famous statement, “I must preach law before I preach grace,” was the standard. Now it is largely disregarded, if it is known at all. No one would think of actually following it, as used to be the case.

Can “having a need” play the same role in piety as conviction of sin? “Sin” has totally disappeared as a category of analysis and understanding in contemporary culture. Still, without sin, evangelical religion makes no sense, and the emphasis of that religion upon sin has always been a matter of reproach to it.[6]

Perhaps Mordecai Ham went too far in his delay to invite people to the cross. The gospel, after all, is good news! That being said, he understood something that we have forgotten: the cross of Jesus Christ makes sense only when we have a clear and deep awareness of our own need for salvation. Willard is correct when he writes, “without sin, evangelical religion makes no sense.” Indeed it does not. Even so, do evangelical Christians still believe in sin?

Marianne Meye Thompson pointed to a “three-year study of Christians of all denominations in a Midwestern state, pointing out that most church members ‘pick and choose’ which of the teachings of Christianity they will accept and which they will leave behind.” The study found that one of the doctrines these Christians oftentimes rejected was the doctrine of sin.

What many have left behind is a pervasive sense of sin. Although 98% said they believe in personal sin, only 57% accepted the traditional notion that all people are sinful and fully one-third allowed that they “make many mistakes but are not sinful themselves.” Said one typical respondent: “The day I die, I should only have to look up at my Maker and say, ‘Take me.’ Not ‘Forgive me.’”[7]

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if one-third of self-professed Christians across all denominational lines in a given state believe that they “make many mistakes but are not sinful themselves,” do we not have good reasons to believe that sitting in the pews or on the chairs in any Christian church in America today are people who are convinced they are born again but who could not tell you why they needed to be born again at all? Only those who believe they are dead in their sins and trespasses will see the need to be born again.

When John writes, “and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin,” he is telling us that Christ came not only to save us to something but also to save us from something. The disappearance of sin from the theological hearts and minds of many in the Church today cannot help but have the unintended consequence of lessening our view and understanding of the cross.

When sin goes out the window, the cross goes with it. We may keep the symbols but we have lost the meaning.

Let us not, however, miss the good news: “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

There is nothing you have done that Christ cannot and will not forgive! He will forgive and cleanse you! It is unpleasant to look our sin directly in the face, but it is only in doing so that we can truly fall at the feet of Jesus or even see the need to do so. But once we fall at the feet of Jesus, we have God’s assurance that we are forgiven.

But all sin, so a posture of confession and repentance is necessary to our walks with Christ.

For this reason, we need to maintain a posture of confession and repentance.

8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Our text presents us with two truths:

7c The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

What are we to make of this? The picture is of a completed work and a victory won that we “grow into,” so to speak, by continuously returning to the fount of blessing. Christ has forgiven us our sin, yet we return time and again to confess that we are sinners in need of forgiveness.

It has been pointed out that the phrase “if we say we have no sin” in verse 8 appears to be referring to our sin nature and the phrase “if we say have not sinned” in verse 10 appears to be referring to our individual acts of rebellion. The two go hand in hand. We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. Our corrupt nature produces bad fruit. Christ has come to forgive us, to redeem us, and to help us grow up into His image so that we can truly live life now and so that we can truly begin to understand the life that is to come.

Confession is part of our sanctification, our growing up into Jesus. A.T. Robertson observes that verb “confess” in verse 9 is a present active subjunctive and carries the sense, “if we keep on confessing.”[8] It is a continuous act. We return time and again to Jesus to lay bare our hearts and to plead the blood. Even so, the blood of Christ is greater than even our confessions. Our salvation is not dependent upon our exhaustive knowledge of all of our sins. We may be sure that all of us will die with some sin unknown and unconfessed. Confession is not a salvific work. The only salvific work ever accomplished is the once-for-all work of Christ on the cross. He has accomplished salvation for us. Confession is how we continue to exalt, to understand, and to grow up in Jesus.

The root meaning of “confess” is “to same the same word as.” That is, when we confess we “say the same word” about our sin that God says. We do not avoid or evade or obfuscate. We look at our sin and say, “Yes, I did that. I sinned. I have failed. I need your mercy oh God! Forgive me!”

Confession is a beautiful component of the Christian life, and no small one at that. Even so, many balk at it and some detest it. Richard John Neuhaus points to A.N. Wilson as an example of this.

Wilson…was an atheist, was converted, became something of a Christian apologist, wrote a curious biography of C. S. Lewis, and then went back to being an atheist, except this time of the very noisy variety. In his column he deplores the number of public figures-cabinet ministers, bishops, and now the Prince of Wales-who are going in for rather ostentatious public confessions. The whole thing reminds Wilson of “what it would be like to attend one of those Buchmanite meetings of the Oxford Groupers in the 1930s. (A friend of mine once attended a meeting of theirs at the Randolph Hotel and slipped out of the back having heard a burly Rhodes Scholar tearfully acknowledge that he was in the habit of blowing his nose on his bath towel.) Much as I admire the daring of all those seized with the confessional urge, I find it baffling. ‘I do not recall committing a single blameworthy act,’ Ivy Compton-Burnett once said. I could not quite echo this, but it is closer to my position than that of the new breast-beating school. Surely if one is a well-balanced person one simply does not do things one considers to be wrong.” Imagine that. No sin, no confession, no need for forgiveness.[9]

This is tragic. Perhaps the example Wilson gives of the “burly Rhodes Scholar” shows how confession can go awry and can become a bizarre exercise in morbid introspection. That is so, but let us be clear that all of us have enough actual sins (as opposed to imagined offenses) to keep confession going and, truth be told, the tendency of the modern church is not overconfession but underconfession.

Why do we need to confess? Because though Christ has set us free our sins and old life are stubborn barnacles that attach themselves to us and continue to exert influence over us. Consider this helpful illustration from David Seamands.

Do you remember the story about bazaar day in an Indian village? Everybody brought his wares to trade and sell. One farmer brought in a whole covey of quail. And he had tied a string around one foot of each bird. The other ends of all the strings were tied to a ring on a central stick. The quail were dolefully walking in a circle, around and around, like mules at a sorghum mill. Nobody seemed interested in buying any quail, until along came a devout Brahman. He believed in the Hindu idea of respect for all life and his heart of compassion went out to these poor little creatures. The Brahman inquired the price of the quail and then said to the merchant, “I want to buy them all.” The merchant was elated. After he received his money, he was surprised to hear the Brahman say, “Now I want to set them all free.” “What’s that, sir?” “You heard me. Cut the strings off their feet and turn them loose. Set them all free.” “Well, all right, sir. If that will please you.” With his knife the farmer cut the strings off the legs of the quail and set them free. What happened? The quail simply continued marching around and around in a circle. Finally, he had to shoo them off. Even when they landed some distance away, they resumed marching. Free, unbound, released, yet going around in circles as if still tied. Are you in that picture?[10]

Christ has cut us free, yet we continue to walk in circles. We are saved by the blood of Christ, yet we have much to unlearn! That is a work of grace, however, and one to which we must submit. We must learn to sit at the feet of Jesus and be discipled in His way. Furthermore, we must not resent or resist the loving rebuke and correction of friends who want to help free us from walking in the circles of our own sin.

Christ has freed you to fly. He has freed you to live! Is sin not exhausting? These circles we walk in take us no further down the road. They are soul-crushing and exhausting. But Christ wants to set us free!

Recognize the terrible truth of the tragedy of sin so that you can receive the beautiful truth of the love and mercy of God in Christ! Bring your sin and fall at the foot of the cross. Confess that you are a sinner and repent of your wickedness. When you do so, you will find in Christ a Savior, a friend, and a liberator.

“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).


[1] John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath. (Pleasantville, NY: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1991), p.29.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, “Wise Blood.” Collected Works (New York, NY: The Library of America, 1988), p.29.

[3] Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (New York, NY: Scribner, 1980), 79-80.

[4] Richard John Neuhaus. “While We’re At It.” First Things. November 2000.

[5] Marianne Meye Thompson, p.40.

[6] Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), 162-163.

[7] Marianne Meye Thompson, 1-3 John. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ), p.46.

[8] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. VI (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1960), p.208.

[9] RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. March 1995.

[10] Seamands, David A. (2010-11-01). Healing for Damaged Emotions (Kindle Locations 890-905). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.


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