1 John 1:8 & 10
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us… If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
We have linked together these two verses because they are so similar in their substance—giving a separate treatment of verse 9 in the next chapter. Each of them opens with the words “If we say,” which indicates that it is the testing of Christian profession that is in view. In the second half of this chapter John is very discriminating. All through its last five verses and the first two of the following one (which complete this section), we behold the apostle distinguishing sharply between the wheat and the tares, or separating the good fish from the bad ones, (Matt. 13:47-48)—in each instance dealing first with the latter. Those referred to in 1:6, 8, & 10, are guilty of making an empty boast and are expressly charged with falsehood. Over against them are placed genuine Christians, their characteristic marks being described and their peculiar privileges and portions named: they walk in the light, confess their sins, have an Advocate with the Father. The careful reader will observe the absence of the word “say” in 1:7 & 9; and 2:1, because therein he was not exposing a worthless claim, but delineating the features of those who actually enjoyed fellowship with God.
What has been pointed out above at once serves to refute superficial students of this epistle who have complained that the apostle followed not so orderly a method as Paul was wont to do. The structure of his opening chapter contains clear evidence that he wrote according to a definite plan and expressed his thoughts regularly and logically. The above paragraph also illustrates two features which are quite prominent in this epistle. First, John’s habit of drawing sharp contrasts: 1:6 & 7; and 1:8 & 9—seen again in 2:3 & 4; 2:7 & 8; and 3:8 & 9. Second, his fondness for combining triplicates of objects, as the three different classes of graceless professors described in 1:6, 8, & 10. That is the first of several triads. For example, in 2:13, he divides the children of God into three grades—fathers, young men, little children. In 2:16, he makes the world to consist of “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Three references are made to the “antichrist:” 2:18 & 22; and 4:3, and three to “overcoming:” 2:13-14; 4:4; and 5:4. In 5:7, mention is made of the “Three that bear record in heaven,” and in 5:8, of the three “that bear witness in earth.”
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,
and the truth is not in us” (v. 8).
Five things in connection with this verse claim our best attention.
First, its connection.
Second, its comprehensiveness.
Third, its proud boast.
Fourth, its Divine diagnosis.
Fifth, its solemn verdict.
In view of what is affirmed in the verse immediately preceding, the avowal made at the beginning of the present one appears logically and necessarily to follow. If those who walk in the light as God is in the light have fellowship with Him and He with them, and if the blood of Jesus Christ His Son “cleanseth them from all sin,” it is to be expected that they would say “we have no sin.” Had verse 7 stood alone, that is the only conclusion that could be drawn. Let those who are so fond of repeating that “Scripture says what it means and means what it says” give due weight to this consideration—that in those two verses the same term “sin” is used, but with two very different shades of meaning, and that unless the distinction here drawn be clearly apprehended by the Lord’s people they are in real danger of misunderstanding what is so plainly declared at the close of verse 7. By noting the connection between the two verses, we perceive how the Holy Spirit in verse 8 guards us against drawing a wrong inference from verse 7, and how that the latter statement serves to fix the precise signification of the former—that the believer is cleansed from all sin judicially, but not so inherently.
“While the apostle insisted on the necessity of an habitual holy walk, as the effect and evidence of the knowledge of God in Christ Jesus and of communion with Him, he guarded, with equal care, against the opposite error of self-righteousness and pride,” (T. Scott). Therein we have a striking example—and one which every preacher should most diligently heed—of how careful the blessed Spirit ever is to preserve the balance of Truth, and to prevent us drawing a false conclusion from one aspect of it by failing to supplement the same by bringing in its complementary aspect. To acquit the consciences of the saints of all sin and guilt on gospel grounds, and thereby raise up their minds to such conceptions of the virtue and efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ as will encourage them to hold communion with the Father in the clear and full apprehension that the blood of His Son cleanseth the believer from all sin, is one of the most blessed and important works in which His servant can engage. Yet it is also his duty to remind them that the blood of the Lamb has not cleansed their unholy natures or made them pure from sin. Instead, though their hearts are sprinkled from an evil conscience, and they have liberty to enter the holiest by the blood of Christ, nevertheless the inherency of sin is not yet taken away.
By linking together verses 7 and 8 we perceive that the apostle would have his Christian readers learn how to distinguish sharply between what they were in Christ and what they still were in and of themselves. The blood of Christ is the believer’s everlasting purity in the eyes of Divine justice. By it he is completely cleansed from every spot and stain of sin. His purity in the sight of God’s Law is such as cannot be fully conceived by any of us, for not only was the whole of the Christian’s pollution removed when Christ was made sin for him, but he is made “the righteousness of God in Him,” (2 Cor. 5:21), the perfect obedience of his Surety being reckoned to his account. Nevertheless, neither his guilt being charged to the Lord Jesus nor the imputation unto him of the merits of His finished work has removed the inherency of sin out of him. His old evil nature still remains within him—unchanged, filthy, vile, with “no good thing” dwelling therein. That which we inherited from our first parents, which was a part of us at our birth, still defiles every member of our complex beings, and does so unto the very last moment of our earthly history; yet that in no wise contradicts or even qualifies the blessed fact that “the blood of Jesus Christ God’s Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
As one with Adam, both federally and seminally, we have derived from him the total depravation of our whole persons. In consequence thereof we are “born like a wild ass’s colt,” (Job 11:12)—stupid and intractable. By birth we are “all as an unclean thing,” and consequently “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). His inbred corruptions continue to be the Christian’s plague of heart (1 Kings 8:38) so long as he be left in this world. These are very humiliating facts, the consideration whereof ought at all times to humble us before the Lord. So far as our carnal nature be concerned, we are always one and the same, though indwelling sin is more manifest at some times than others. That should teach us to look outside of ourselves for our present and eternal purity before God. There is no other way of getting above the influences and effects of our natural depravity than by having our spiritual minds engaged in real fellowship with God, and in true apprehension of what is contained in the precious and efficacious remedy which His grace has provided. Nothing will so relieve the heart when oppressed by a sense of our vileness as believing views of what we are in Christ—“complete in Him,” (Col. 2:10), “perfected for ever,” (Heb. 10:14).
It might naturally be supposed that walking in the light and enjoying fellowship with the Holy One will exert a cleansing effect upon our natures. Not so; it leaves “the flesh” unchanged. Yet many cherish the idea that if only they walked more fully in the light, and had closer and more constant fellowship with God, the flesh would cease opposing the spirit. And again we say, Not so; though in such a case they would be more delivered from fulfilling its lusts, (Gal. 5:16). It is obvious, then, that one gracious design of the Holy Spirit in the verse before us is to comfort distressed believers, who are so apt to think that their own grievous case is such as none but themselves have any experience of. The more so if they listen to the glowing “testimonies” of certain ones, for fear is then awakened that they are strangers to the supernatural and saving operations of Divine grace. When beholding the cheerful countenance and exuberant spirit of some of their fellows, they are perhaps ready to conclude that they are yet in the bond of iniquity. But appearances are proverbially deceptive. Many a smiling face conceals a heavy heart. While the heart knows its own bitterness, it is not privy to the groans of others, who, in secret, frequently have occasion to cry, “Oh, wretched man that I am.”
Look now at the comprehensiveness of this statement. It is not “if ye,” but “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” By that word John included himself and his fellow apostles—just as he had all through the foregoing verse. He did so with the design of showing that the predication here made is one which admits of no exception. No matter who be the person that affirms he has no sin, he is utterly deceived. Not even the eleven, who were favored above all other believers; nay, not the very one who was privileged to recline on the Savior’s bosom could truthfully aver that he was all pure within See here the omniscience of God, with His fore view of the future, guiding His servant’s pen to use the pronoun “we” rather than “ye”! Undoubtedly the Holy Spirit was anticipating the fact that there would arise those of apparently exceptional piety and attainments who would lay claim to this very thing, and therefore He here cautions the children of God to give no heed unto their arrogant and absurd assertion, assuring us that all such are deluded souls.
Listen attentively, my sin-harassed and distressed brother, to the language which John here employs, as he (by necessary implication) declares that I myself, and my fellow apostles, have sin within us. Mark how he is pointing out that your sad case is far from being unique; as he indirectly affirms, we too are but sinners saved by grace, and still have the root and seeds of all evil within us. Yet, on the other hand, observe well that he did not say they were under sin or that sin reigned in and over them. He could not say that of any of the regenerate, though to their senses there are times when such seems to be the case. No, sin is in them, and is ever more or less active, yet it does not have complete dominion over them: such a thing would be utterly incompatible with the state into which the saints are brought by the new birth, when, being made new creatures in Christ, they are freed from their former slavery and fitted to walk in newness of life, though, alas, they often fail to live up to their privileges.
It is indeed the sincere desire and endeavor of every real child of God to walk worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing and be fruitful in every good work (Col 1:10), but to eradicate his carnal nature is altogether beyond him: “Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?” (Prov. 20:9). But cannot the grace of God effect sinless perfection? “There is no channel for such a grace to run in, no promise in all the Word of God to bottom such a persuasion upon. There is a promise for the subduing of iniquity, but not for the annihilating of it; a promise that sin shall not reign in us, but none that it shall not be. Therefore, the believer would not seek for that in himself which is found only in Christ, nor for that on earth which is reserved for heaven,” (E. Polhill, 1675). God leaves sin in His people to wean them from self-love and self-righteousness, and to develop in them the grace of perseverance, through oppositions and temptations from within and without. His power is rendered the more evident in preserving the plant of holiness in a heart so filled with noxious weeds. He would conform them to Christ’s sufferings: as He endured the contradiction of sinners against Himself, so they endure the contradiction of sin against themselves. The compassion of our great High Priest is demonstrated in bearing with our infirmities.
“If we say that we have no sin.” Such an arrogant assertion goes much farther than saying we commit no sin. It is a declaration that they are without the root from which all evil fruits proceed: that their very nature is undefiled, clean. It seems almost incredible, yet there are those who make the audacious boast of moral perfection, that their hearts are holy, and that all their desires are regular. They are so puffed up with the conceit of their own attainments as to declare themselves to be as immaculate in heart and holy in life as the Law of God requires. They aver themselves to be so “entirely sanctified” that their “old man” has been wholly purged and purified. So imbued are they by a spirit of vainglory that such people profess to be without sin internally or externally, spotless in thought, word and deed, faultless before God and man. That such a preposterous boast should be made by the heathen Gnostics is, in measure, understandable, but that it is made by any professing Christians only shows the awful deceitfulness of sin and the blinding power of pride.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” or “err ourselves”—not in the doctrinal but the ethical sense, for their state is far more serious than if only intellectual ignorance were involved, being like unto that of those of whom it was said “they do always err in their hearts,” (Heb 3:10). They have so imposed on themselves as to be utterly led astray, regarding darkness as light. Such is the Divine diagnosis here made of their condition: the omniscient Physician declares them to be most awfully deluded. Imagining themselves to be the excellent of the earth, they are in reality a stench in God’s nostrils, for nothing is so abhorrent to Him as pride. So far from being holier than the rank and file of believers, they are in total spiritual darkness, for they have never seen themselves in God’s light or had an experiential discovery made to them of the depravity of their hearts. What is here in view is not deliberate hypocrisy, but a species of self-imposition, and such a state is well-nigh hopeless, for this is the most fatal of all forms of deception.
“And the truth is not in us” is the Divine verdict. It is contrary to Scripture, to universal experience, to the confession of every saint recorded in the Word, for one and all acknowledged they were the subjects of sin, inwardly defiled and all their actions affected with it. Neither, Abraham, Job, Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel, nor Paul could maintain any such thing. Thus it is such self-deception as proves these braggarts to be destitute of a saving acquaintance with the Gospel. Instead of having received what they term “the second blessing,” they were never the subjects of the first. Instead of occupying the highest rank in Christ’s army, they are not members of it at all. Had the Word of God been in them as a principle of life and light, they could never have made so gross a mistake as proves them to be completely ignorant of God and His holy Law and their own hearts. If they were not so, they would be painfully conscious of the evil which is ever at work within them, and would cry, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse Thou me from secret faults.” Herein we are shown, from another angle, what a terrible thing sin is: it not only defiles us and renders us obnoxious to God, but it fatally deceives the natural man.
“If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar,
and His word is not in us” (v. 10).
Since sin indwells us it cannot but follow that we must, more or less, have the evidence of the same in our experience. This is the ordination of Him who is too wise to err and too loving unto His own people to be unkind to them. But why? Would He not be more glorified had indwelling sin been destroyed and they lived sinless lives in this world? No, or He had so ordered it. Some of the reasons for His not doing so have been intimated above. In addition, we may perceive that, as things are, the saints obtain a much fuller realization of their total depravity and marvel the more at God’s amazing grace unto them. Thereby too they come to perceive more clearly their dire need of and to value more highly that Fountain which has been opened for sin and for uncleanness. Sometimes God permits their iniquities to prevail against them (Ps. 65:3), that they may be humbled and made to loathe and wholly renounce themselves, and wonder at His infinite patience and forbearance with them.
Those known as “sinless perfectionists” are not the only ones to say they have not sinned, for this preposterous and wicked assertion is made by several other classes. It is the implicit if not the explicit avowal of those Satan-blinded people who call themselves “Christian Scientists,” for they emphatically deny that there is any such thing as sin, declaring it to be a delusion of mortal minds: and thus they are neither Christians or scientists—those who “know.” Some extreme Antinomians have taught that they are “in Christ” in such a way, so one with Him, that they not only do not but cannot sin, wresting such words as “dead indeed unto sin,” (Rom. 6:11), as they also do “dead to the law,” (Rom. 7:4). It is also the doctrine of the infatuated papists that a man may, all his lifetime, eschew every mortal sin, and do all that the Law of God requires of him; yea, that he can do more than he is obligated unto, and supererogate and merit for others who fall short of perfection.
“If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar,” for we flatly contradict the Word of Truth. In verse 6 it is the hypocrite who is exposed as a liar; in verse 8, those who so believe their own lie as to become fatally self-deceived; in verse 10, those whose consciences are so calloused and hearts hardened by unbelief that they blasphemously assert that which makes God a liar. He has expressly stated that “there is no man that sinneth not,” (1 Kings 8:46), that “there is not a just man on earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not,” (Eccl. 7:20). It is not pre-conversion sins which are in view in our verse, but those committed after, as verse 9 clearly shows. No matter how strict he be over his outward walk, or what he appears in the eyes of his fellows, the most godly and favored Christian cannot truthfully aver that he is without sin in thought and word and deed; nay, he has to acknowledge himself to be included in the Divine declaration, “in many things we all offend,” (Jam. 3:2)—even when those things wear a religious garb—and therefore does he make daily use of that petition in the family prayer, “Forgive us our sins.”
It is highly important that we should understand what sin is, in its vile nature and exceeding sinfulness. Yet sin as it really is can be seen only in the light of God’s Word and Spirit. None but the regenerate have a true concept of that “abominable thing” which God hates, (Jer. 44:4). Inherent sin is a self-acting principle and is always at work, whether we perceive it or not, defiling our whole being and all that we do. Some sin most in thought, others in words—the boiling over of a hot temper; others in deeds. Rightly did S.E. Pierce point out, “None of us are saved from sin so much as we conceive. We are saved from a state of sin and sinfulness; we are also saved from a gross way of sin and sinfulness; yet we are not always saved from cursed and carnal affections, nor from dispositions and expressions of our sinfulness;” and every regenerate person is taught of God honestly to acknowledge the same. I cannot say I have not sinned while reading the Scriptures, or when upon my knees, or in the pulpit. Atonement has to be made for our “holy things,” (Lev. 5:15)! The closer we walk with God, the more conscious are we of our sins.