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Theological Commentary: 1 John 1:5-10

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Following the introductory declaration, the elder gets straight to the point of the treatise: God. At the center of everything in First John is the reality of God and who God is. There are two things to note about the elder’s description of God in this verse. First, this message about the identity of God is what “we have heard” from Christ himself. Christ and Christ alone is the soured of the elder’s knowledge about God that he is seeking to impress on the church (cf. John 1:18; 2 John 9). Second, the message about God that we have learned from Christ is that God is light; there is no darkness in God. There is no ambiguity in God according to the elder. God has no inner dark side, no secret agenda; God is simply light, the fullness of purity and goodness.

“If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;” Herein lies one of the major linchpins of First John, namely that we cannot participate in God’s life while living in sin. The elder is not esoteric; he proclaims no mysticism that could be separated from ethics. Union with God through Christ is ethical through and through. We cannot become a partaker of the divine nature (cf. 2 Pet 1:4) except under the form of discipleship; our participation in God can only take the form of a cruciform life, a life devoted to embodying in our own practices the singular love that God has revealed to us in Christ. For the elder our union with God, our communion with the fullness of divinity is utterly and completely earthly—it is nothing more or less than a call to live in the self-abandoning love of Jesus, walking in that love, and practicing it in all things. Deification means discipleship.

Moreover, what is ultimately at stake in our call to truly have fellowship with God is the issue of truth. Any claim to being union with God while living a life not shaped by Christ’s agape is a life under the bondage of the lie. Truth, for the elder is the reality of God and what God has accomplished. We “do” the truth in being conformed to God’s love. Any claim to union with God outside of this conformity to love is to live in futility and bondage to falsehood.

“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.” Here the elder states the antithesis of the life bound over to falsehood: the life of mutual fellowship among the forgiven. For the elder here, the opposite of lying and failing to “do what is true” is to live a life of fellowship with one another. The opposite of falsehood is the community of the forgiven. Truth is inseparable from our life together as the forgiven ones of Christ.

The life lived in the light is a life to be walked, it is a road, a pilgrimage of discipleship. And the first thing to be said about this path is that to walk it is to be bound up with one another. The elder mentions first that we have fellowship with one another, and only then goes on to mention that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin. The experience of forgiveness and sanctification cannot be described except in light of mutual fellowship.

Note also that the passage here does not say that the blood of Christ cleanses us from “our sins”, but from “all sin” (cf. John 1:9). Though this certainly includes any sins we have committed, as verse 9 below makes quite clear, the communal note on which this verse opens seems to be the focus here. We are cleansed, not simply of our own guilt, but of all the ways in which the powers of sin and death have marked and debilitated our lives. The point of the elder is that all the power of sin is broken and that in following after Christ we are freed from the tyranny of its powers. To be sure this includes the erasure of our guilt, but that is but a sliver of the fullness of liberation that the elder is trying to communicate. We are freed from all sin, from the control of all powers, from the debilitation of all ideologies, from the reign of death itself (cf. 1 John 3:14). For the community of the forgiven, the power of sin itself is broken, and this reality of liberation is precisely what grounds the Johannine call to mutual love, the practice of which is the very reality of life itself, life in God.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” In further elaboration of the nature of salvation, the elder goes on here to make clear that our salvation cannot consist in any sort of self-deceived notion of our own righteousness. The vision of salvation articulated here is centered in truthfulness. The only way for us to have fellowship with God, to participate in the divine life is through the truthful acknowledgment of our condition. The great enemy of salvation is self-deception. Participation in God only comes through the agony of truth; only in facing the reality of our shattered and sinful lives do we find liberation and union with God.

“If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Confession. Confession is the key to life, the key to living within the reality of salvation. The essence of confession of sin is truthfulness. Confession is not public humiliation, or even personal acts of confiding in another. Rather confession is the truthful naming of ourselves and our action. Confession is how we are called to speak ourselves truthfully. It is the supremely painful and horrifyingly personal act of saying our ugliness, of proclaiming our corruption, and doing so without any qualifying remarks. Confession is our practice of truthing ourselves.

The supreme theological point though, is that for the Christian, confession can be borne. The truth can be faced. The truth can be acknowledged without fear. It can be so because the truth is Christ himself (cf. John 14:6). Christ who is at once our judge and our redeemer, from him we can bear the truth about ourselves. The truth about us, and our sinfulness consigns us to death. The reality of our fallenness and our brokenness is beyond fixing. Outside of Christ the truth about ourselves must be avoided at all costs, for the only end of it is death. In Christ however, the fear of death lies broken. In Christ alone full truthfulness is finally possible without despair unto death. Or rather, despair unto death can be borne in light of the resurrection. The one who is faithful and righteous forgives, cleanses, and resurrects us in Christ. And for this reason, and only this reason, we are able to bear the truth, and indeed to find the true and only freedom therein. In Christ, confession is the very life of freedom itself.

“If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” The lie above all lies, that we have not sinned. Indeed, the denial of sin is the very opposite of confession, and it has the opposite effect. Confession breaks through the bonds of slavery and self-deception, freeing us into the life of the community of the forgiven. Denial of sin however boxes us into ourselves and closes us forever off from the Word of life. Denial of sin is the absolute insistence on our own capacity, our own ability, our own integrity. Denial of sin, the declaration of innocence, like the declaration of accomplishment is utter and total slavery. To deny our sin is the see the truth about ourselves and refuse to believe that it can be borne in Christ. It is the only alterative to the freedom of confession; it is the visceral insistence that we cannot be false, therefore everyone else must be. Even God must be made a liar so that we can insist on our own truthfulness. The declaration of innocence is thus the ultimate slavery. The call of the elder is that we abandon such false and contrived innocences and be drawn into the true and only freedom, the life of agonizing, liberating truthfulness. The life of confession and forgiveness, of death and resurrection.

6 Comments

  1. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden,

    thank you for your reflections here . . . this is a very edifying exercise; and I want to encourage you to keep posting your “theological” interactions with I John.

    You mean “accountability groups” aren’t the “essence” of confession? ;-)

    Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden. Since I figure some of the readers of this blog comes from a pietistic free church tradition, I guess it´s necessary to explain what you think the author refers to when talking about “confession”. Can this “truthful naming of ourselves and our action” happen in a private, inner way, or should confession be made in the context of a church and/or another fellow believer? Does forgiveness need to be given to us through the church, or can we handle the matter in private?

    Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 1:32 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Well, I think 1 John presupposes that confession has an irreducibly social element to it, though I don’t think it speaks specifically to the kind of evangelical preoccupation with wondering if we “have” to confess things publicly to be forgiven.

    I think the point here is that confessing our sins means to not lie about who we are as sinners in contrast to the false teachers who were insisting they were sinless. I don’t see the elder here laying down a full-on description of what the practice of confession looks like in an ongoing way, merely that our lives must be shaped by a truthful understand of who we are as saved people, namely that we are saved only insofar as we truthfully name ourselves as sinners.

    Clearly that is a corporate, communal event, since what it involves is our confession of Christ’s lordship which is public and political. However, I don’t think this answers the question of whether we “must” in some pietistic sense confess every little screw up we make to someone personally.

    Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  4. Chris Donato wrote:

    Halden, thanks for this good reflection. A few scattered thoughts below:

    Regarding the first pericope, surely “purity and goodness” are aspects of what John the elder is getting at when he writes that God is light. But far and away the TNK puts this in the category of YHWH’s kabod, his glory, which has everything to do with God being a blazing and all-consuming fire/glory. I think this needs to be the controlling symbol with “no darkness” supplementing that.

    Regarding the second point, truth entails certainly more but certainly not less than propositional truth. It’d be nice to see that recognized as well, since it figures prominently in this letter (with regard to the truths about who Jesus is contra any kind of proto-docetism).

    Great thoughts on confession—both in the post and in the subsequent response. I’d only note the importance of adding a more intentional rendering of this great passage: “But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing.” In other words, it’s covenantal (hesed) through and through.

    On a different but related point, not being much of an evangelical, I’ve still always understood the elder’s words here to be very much wrapped up in the corporate confession of sins (just as the assembly of the brothers and sisters serves, in a sense, as covenant renewal).

    By the way, what exactly do you mean by “theological” commentary. Have you posted on this elsewhere? Is it something akin to the stated purpose of the Brazos Theological Commentary series?

    Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  5. bobby grow wrote:

    And Halden, I agree with the “public/political” aspect you just underscored; but I think as you note, I was getting at the pietistic “holy huddles” that we are so used to at our school (at least when I was there in the undergrad, it was like that).

    But I really like the way you highlight what “confession” is about, contextually, within I Jn. Like Paul, “the chief of all sinners,” without recognizing we are “sick” (thank you Holy Spirit) we would not need a “doctor.”

    Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  6. Mark wrote:

    Hi there,

    Since you’re up to some theological exegesis of John, I thought you might be interested to hear Rowan Williams doing something similar on the gospel of John. The lecture is available here:

    http://sptc.htb.org.uk/files/sptc/17_01_09_Rowan_Williams.mp3

    Cheers!

    Mark

    Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 4:39 am | Permalink

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