WALKING IN THE LIGHT
1 John 1:7
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and
the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
Our present verse, especially its closing portion, is probably the best known and most frequently quoted in all the Epistle, yet our familiarity with its language is no proof that we rightly understand its meaning, still less that it calls for no careful study and prayerful pondering. It is only when we come to inquire closely into its terms and the relation of one clause to another that we discover the verse is not quite so obvious and simple as we thought. As it is slowly and thoughtfully examined, the following questions suggest themselves and call for answer:
- Why is this statement made in the hypothetical form—“but if”?
- What is signified by “walking in the light”?
- How are we to understand the amplifying “as He is in the light”?
- Who is the “one with another” between whom there is fellowship?
- Is the “cleansing” here judicial or experimental, or does it include both justification and sanctification?
- Does the present tense “cleanseth” oblige us to regard it as a process?
- What is the exact relation of the final clause to the preceding ones—is the “cleansing” conditional upon our “walking in the light?”
It should be obvious to any careful reader that several of these questions can only be satisfactorily answered by pondering the two verses which immediately precede our text. If it be detached therefrom, we are likely to misapprehend both its force and its terms. We shall, therefore, quote the same:
“This then is the message which we have heard of Him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light,
as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
Those three verses are, in turn, an amplification of “truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ” (v. 3). There the general fact was stated; here details are entered into. First, the essential nature or character of the One with whom fellowship is enjoyed is described. Then we are shown the characters of those who are debarred from such a privilege. Here we are informed who are the ones that have fellowship with God, and how that fellowship is established and maintained
Such is the transcendent excellency of God that none can hold converse or have fellowship with Him save those who are partakers of His nature and are being conformed unto His holy image. “If, therefore, our conversation be in darkness, if we wallow in the mire of untamed, unmortified lust, whatever our evangelical profession may be, or howsoever we may fancy ourselves entered into a fellowship with the Father by the means of the Mediator, it is but a lying imagination; for how can there be communion between two natures so different, between light and darkness, purity and impurity, heaven and hell, God and the Devil? But if our conversation (manner of life) be agreeable to Gospel precepts, we have then fellowship with Him” (Charnock). Here then is the reason why verse 7 opens with the word “but”—because it presents a contrast with those described in the preceding one. Here, too, is the answer to our first question above: both verses are introduced by an “if” because it is the testing of profession which is in view: in the former, it is shown to be worthless, false; in the latter, genuine and valid. By it each reader should honestly measure himself.
The particular characters set over against each other in verses 6 and 7 are the same as those referred to by Christ in John 3:19-21, evil-doers who hate the light; truth-doers who welcome it—with the latter there is a concord between profession and performance, with all its blessed consequences. “In the context the apostle speaketh of communion with God. Now communion with God we cannot have till we be reconciled to Him by Christ, and none can be looked upon as reconciled to Him by Christ but those that endeavor conformity to God in purity and holiness” (Manton). In verse 6 the hypocrite is exposed and condemned; in verse 7 the real Christian is identified and confirmed. He furnishes evidence that he is in fellowship with God and has a saving interest in the cleansing blood of Christ, and that by the character of his walk. Thus the “if” is used in our present verse, as in the foregoing, to substantiate the truth contained in the assertion. So far from weakening the statement or rendering it doubtful, it makes it more positive and unequivocal—that is why instead of saying “ye” the apostle employed “we,” thereby including himself. “There can be no walking with God, who is light, but as we renounce and avoid every false way; and walk in Truth, in the light of it, and under the sacred energy of the same,” (S.E. Pierce).
Coming now to our second question, What is signified by “walking in the light?” There is less need for us to dwell at length upon this, since we entered so fully in our last upon walking in darkness. First, it necessarily presupposes regeneration, for certainly one cannot walk in the light unless he first be in the light, and this none are until they be born again. Then they are effectually called and brought “out of darkness into God’s marvelous light,” (1 Pet. 2:9). Then they are made “light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8), and therefore is it said of them, “Ye are all the children of light and the children of the day: we are not of the night nor of darkness,” (1 Thess. 5:5). But, second, they give proof of this by acting accordingly, just as those who “are darkness” love darkness, walk in darkness, and produce “the unfruitful works of darkness,” (Eph. 5:11). Thus to “walk in the light” imports much more than the sphere in which the believer lives, namely the manner in which he conducts himself there. He is not only in the light positionally, but he walks in it practically. In other words, his external conduct reflects his internal condition. As his character corresponds to the nature of God, so his character is exhibited by his conduct. The tree is known by its fruits.
There is a light to which the Christian is journeying—the realm of unclouded glory, (Prov. 4:18; Col. 1:12). There is a light by which he walks—that of God’s Word (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 6:23). There is also a light in which he walks—the highway of holiness (John 8:12). To “walk” connotes not an occasional step, but an habitual course. A person’s “walk” is a figurative expression which signifies the general tenor of his life. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,” (Ps. 1:1)—whose ways and works are not regulated by carnal policy and self’s interests. “For we walk by faith, not by sight,” (2 Cor. 5:7)—with our hearts engaged with the perfection of an invisible God and our wills subjected to His. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them,” (Eph. 2:10). Again, to “walk in the light,” is to live in separation from the world, with our affections set upon things above, laying up our treasure there. Darkness is the principle which actuates and governs the world, for it is inveterately opposed to the Father (1 John 2:16), and he who will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God, (Jam. 4:4). Thus it is clear that the fellowship with God estranges its subjects from the world. The Christian belongs to another sphere and manifests it by his deportment.
We must be careful not to restrict the idea of walking in the light unto our external actions. God ever looks first upon the heart, and desires truth “in the inward parts,” (Ps. 51:6). He will not tolerate dishonesty and cannot be imposed upon by any species of deception. The Holy One allows neither insincerity nor concealment from those with whom He communes. Two cannot walk together except they agree, and there is a radical lack of agreement if we distrust God or hide anything from Him. Light is clear and transparent, and to walk in it means that we are open and candid with Him. There must be complete frankness in all of our dealings with God. If I turn a blind eye to something suspicious in myself, or shrink from meeting a brother or fellow creature because I have an uneasy feeling that he has just cause of complaint against me, then I am seeking shelter from the darkness. But if I genuinely desire that my secret sins should be discovered to me, if I daily measure myself by God’s pure truth and judge myself in the light of His holiness, if I sincerely pray “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting,” (Ps. 139:23,24), then do I truly love the light and hate all shams.
“But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light.” The apostle explains what he intends in the first clause by drawing an illustration from the One who is Himself light and dwells in eternal purity and glory. The self-same Model is here presented to us by the apostle as his Master set before him and his fellows: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” (Matt. 5:48). Nothing short of absolute perfection is the standard at which we ever must aim. But does not our present verse speak of something more than aim—even actual realization? Certainly. Yet it is that of likeness and not of sameness; or, rather, not of sameness in degree. As Trapp so well expressed it, “We walk in the light as God is in the light for quality, but not for equality.” We are indeed being conformed to His image, and bear His likeness, yet fall very short of His stature. As Spurgeon pointed out, “I can walk in the light of the sun, though I cannot dwell in it; and I can walk in the light as God is in the light, though I cannot attain to the same measure of excellence, purity, and truth in which the Lord Himself resides.”
“We have fellowship one with another:” It strikes the writer as passing strange that any Christian should have difficulty with those words. In view of the ones immediately preceding, surely their meaning is plain. If we be walking in the light as God is in the light, it follows as a certain fact that we have fellowship with Him and He with us. We are one with Him in nature, in love of the Truth, in delighting in holiness. Those who are born of God are as truly attracted unto Him as the babe is to its mother. If we be walking with God then His secret is with us, (Ps. 25:14) and our secret is with Him. He opens His heart to us, and we open our hearts to Him. He sups with us, and we with Him, (Rev. 3:20). Yet our fellowship with God is neither perfect nor constant in this life, any more than our walk is. A godly walk both fits us for and evidences we are in communion with God. The previous verse, where the opposite is stated, removes all uncertainty: “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie ... But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another:”
“And the blood of Jesus Christ His Son [namely, the Son of Him with whom we have fellowship] cleanseth us from all sin.” Cleansing from sin is a sacrificial term, which can best be understood in the light of the Old Testament types, particularly that of Leviticus 16:30, “For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.” That cleansing was effected by the shedding of blood. It was in nowise subjective, or something wrought within them, but, instead, a work done for them. It was not a matter of purifying their hearts, but of annulling their guilt and putting away their sins judicially from “before the Lord.” The blood of atonement not only propitiated God, it purged the people—freed them from God’s wrath, rendered them meet to worship Him. Again, in Numbers 35:31-33, we read of Israel’s land being “cleansed” by the penalty of the Law being enforced and guilt thereby expiated. The “land” signifies the people who resided there: when the claims of Divine justice and holiness had been met, sin was not imputed or charged to them.
Though the blessings of justification and sanctification ever accompany each other, yet they must not be confounded, but considered distinctly. Justification has to do wholly with the legal side of our salvation. It consists of absolution from our sins, and being declared righteous by God on account of the perfect obedience of Christ being reckoned to the believer. Sanctification has to do more with the experiential and practical side, the fitting or rendering us meet for God’s presence, and where that is in view the operations of the Spirit and the water of the Word are mentioned. That, too, is equally a fruit of the redemptive work of Christ, which procured for His people the gift of the Spirit. But what we have here in our text is judicial only. First, because as a fact no believer is cleansed from all sin in this life in any other way. Second, because the cleansing is by blood, and that always respects the objective side of things: (see Romans 5:9; Eph. 1:7; Rev. 1:5).
“When He had by Himself purged [or “made a cleansing of”] our sins,” (Heb 1:3, and cf. 9:26). It is the blood which gives us title to enter into the holiest (Heb 10:19)—“sanctified” by blood occurs only in Hebrews 10:10; 13:12, in its sacrificial sense, of setting us apart before God in all the acceptableness of Christ’s perfect oblation.
If the cleansing be a judicial one, relating to our justification, why is it spoken of in the present tense?
First, to set forth the eternal efficacy of Christ’s blood, which may be considered distinctly as shed, as pleaded, and as applied or sprinkled (1 Pet. 1:2). As Charnock so well put it, “The blood of Christ cleanseth, not hath cleansed or shall cleanse. This denotes a continued act. There is a perpetual pleading of it for us, a continual flowing of it to us. It is a fountain set open for sin (Zech. 13:1). There is a perpetual stream of virtue from this blood, as there is of corruption from our nature. It was shed but once, but it is applied often, and the virtue of it is as durable as the person whose blood it is.” We do not immediately enter into the whole good of Christ’s redemption at the hour of conversion, (Rom 8:23). As there are blessings procured for us by Christ that await us in the future, so there are others which are received by us gradually in this life. Our cleansing is one of them. Sin ever defiles, no matter who commits it. Some say, Though God sees sin in His children He no longer sees sin on them. But He does, and deals with them accordingly. He no longer imputes it to their eternal condemnation, but He notices it to their temporal chastisement, (Ps. 89:30-33).
Second, our cleansing, even judicially, is, in fact, continual. This is denied by some, on the ground that it is dishonoring to the sacrifice of Christ, bringing it down to those offered under the Law, which produced only a temporary remission. But such an objection is pointless. It is true that at conversion all our previous iniquities are blotted out, but to speak of God’s forgiving us our future sins before they are committed is senseless; “having forgiven you all trespasses,” (Col. 2:13) is quoted by these Antinomians, but that refers to all pre-conversion ones, or, as 2 Peter 1:9, styles them, “purged from his old sins.” Until fresh sins are committed, further guilt accrues not, and therefore cannot be removed until it is there. We will say nothing further upon this point now, as it will come before us again (Deo Volenti [as God wills]) when considering the ninth verse. Rather let us thank God that the cleansing blood is ever available for sinful creatures, and plead it in all our approaches unto Him. Christ’s blood is called “a new way” in Hebrews 10:20, and the word signifies “newly slain”—as suited to us today as when shed on the cross.
When taking up the second half of our verse, honest Spurgeon said, “I have been driven to this text, and yet I have been afraid of it.” After pointing out that it had very often been handled out of its connection, he added the following.
I do feel that it is essential to the Christian ministry not to pick passages out of God’s Word and rend them away from the context, but to take them as they stand. God’s Word must be taken as God speaks it: we have no right to divide the living child of Divine Truth and detach the second half of our verse from the first half, or wrest it to make it mean other than it does. According to the text, special pardon of sin is the peculiar privilege of those who walk in the light as God is in the light; but it is not the privilege of anyone else. Only those who have been brought by Divine grace from a state of nature into a state of grace, and walk in the light, may claim the possession of perfect cleansing through the blood of Christ.
Manton, too, wavered in determining whether our walk in the light is an evidence of a saving interest in Christ’s blood or necessary thereunto, and declared, “It is best to say, It is both a sign and a condition without which we cannot have benefit by Christ’s death; but the first condition is faith; next, love and holiness to continue our interest in this privilege.”
In the first three verses John testified that the apostles had fellowship with the Father and His Son, and declared this in order that “ye also may have fellowship with us.” But who are the “ye?” The children of God, those redeemed by Christ. But how are such to be identified? In verses 6 and 7 he tells us: not everyone who professes to participate in this privilege, but those whose practice accords with their profession. Thus, in the clear light of the whole context, the first design of John in here linking together walking in the light and cleansing by the blood is to assure the hearts of believers: they may know their interest in the latter by their sincere endeavors after a more constant subjection to the Truth and a closer fellowship with God. As Charnock said, mutual fellowship between God and us “is a certain proof that we are interested in the expiatory virtue of the blood of Christ.”
Second, it is intended to humble us. Our walking in separation from the world and enjoying fellowship with God is no ground for boasting, for they are impossible apart from Christ’s sacrifice—we owe them to His blood, and are here reminded of our complete dependence upon it.
But, third, the second half of the verse is brought in for our instruction. “Nothing is said about Christian experience as a means of cleansing. What, says one, do not the first sentences of the verse imply that? Assuredly not. If I walk in the light as God is in the light, what then? Does my walking in the light take away my sins? Not at all. I am as much a sinner in the light as in the darkness, if it were possible for me to be in the light without first being washed in the blood. Well, but we have fellowship with God, and does not that take away sin? Beloved, do not misunderstand me. No man can have fellowship with God unless sin be taken away; but his fellowship with God does not take away his sin—not at all. The whole process of the removal of sin is here: the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth us from all sin. I beg to repeat: neither our walking in the light, nor having fellowship with God, cleanses us from sin: these go with the cleansing, but they have no connection as cause and results.” (Spurgeon).
Fourth, the closing words of our text are designed for the comfort of the Christian. The more he walks in the light, the more are the hidden things of darkness (the corruption of his heart) revealed and exposed. The greater the sinner he comes to perceive himself, the more highly he prizes the atoning and cleansing blood of Christ, and the more completely does he rest his soul on its sufficiency and plead its virtues before God. Likewise, the closer he be admitted into fellowship with God, the more conscious does he become of those things in his heart and life which are out of harmony therewith, and beg Him for Christ’s sake to enable him to mortify and put them away. And when painfully aware that sinful conduct has broken his fellowship, he mourns over the same, acknowledges it to God, and betakes himself again to that fountain which has been opened for sin and for uncleanness, that the hindering cause may be removed and communion restored. The farther a Christian proceeds on the path of holiness, the viler he becomes in his own eyes and the deeper his appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice.
Our present verse emphasizes the enormity of sin: so exceedingly sinful is it that the blood of God’s Son must be shed in order for its removal. It teaches us the defiling effects of sin: it pollutes and renders us filthy. Then let us never think lightly of it, for naught but the blood of Christ can remove its horrible stains. Here too we behold the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement: it has made satisfaction unto God both for our original and personal sins. No sin a Christian ever commits is too black or crimson for it to be blotted out. The precious blood of Christ is of enduring virtue and perpetual efficacy—ever available for the befouled believer. But faith must lay hold of it, and there must be a return to walking in the light, in order to be sprinkled from an evil conscience. “Walk in the light because we are cleansed from our sin; but we are also cleansed from our sin because we walk in the light” (Levi Palmer).
Our title for a sermon on verse 7 would be: Walking in the light, washed by the blood. 1. A definite contrast (with verse 6)—pointed by the “But.” 2. A spiritual performance: walking in the light. 3. A blessed privilege: mutual fellowship between God and us. 4. A gracious provision for failures: the cleansing blood.