Foundation for Eternity

The book of 1 John contains some of the simplest language of the Greek New Testament. It is by no means a simplistic book, however, in its thoughts or its importance. John sees embedded within every doctrine life and death, truth and error, light and darkness, sin and righteousness, holiness or corruption, the truth of God or the lie of Satan, heaven and hell. After warning us about every pitfall that the Spirit brings to his mind, and pointing us over and over to the work of the triune God as of infinite value, of infinite importance, coming with infinite power, and providing a loving and just solution to infinite wrath, and all revealed to us with infinitely credible testimony he closed the book  with a disarming confidence in his knowledge of the source of these radical claims: “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John5:19-21). No study of philosophy or assertion of philosopher will ever approach such unperturbed confidence of a clear understanding of the most important questions about life and death, God and man, time and eternity.

Having begun with the revelation of eternal life in the person of the Son of God, who brings from before the very face of the Father this very eternal life of the heavenly state and reveals it—manifests it—in both physical and palpable ways and in internal certainty to the spiritual ears and eyes of these witnesses, John now establishes the irreducible foundation of the message that he has heard and intends to weave into a deeply textured tapestry of revealed truth.

I. The Message – 1:5

A. John reiterates that the source of this message is not his own mind or philosophical musings, but from “Him.” This is a message straight from the darling of heavenly glory and the one in whom all heavenly truth resides—the Son of God. All that God is, He is; all that God knows, He knows; all that God purposes, he too purposes and fulfills. John claims no personal learning or qualifications of intellect that would fit him for expatiating on any of these subjects, but only the qualification that this message was heard from “Him.’

B. In John 15:26 f, Jesus promised that he would send the Spirit from the Father and that the Spirit would bear witness “about me.” In addition, he described the central theme of their own commission, “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” It is this very elongated and personal interaction with Jesus that John speaks to so profoundly and emphatically in the opening verse of this epistle.

C. He follows his commission in proclaiming the message. He was one of the preachers at Pentecost. With Peter he was proclaiming the powerful message of Jesus’ resurrection authority and effectual power when the lame man was healed (Acts 3:3, 4, 11; 4:1). In addition he was a partaker of the defense of their message after imprisonment in speaking before the Jewish authorities (Acts 4:13, 19) The message at that time was a premonition of the opening verses of 1 John and carries the content of this specific announcement, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

D. He doubtless was among those “Apostles” that were arrested because of their immense public drawing (Acts 5:17), were imprisoned, released by an angel and commissioned, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life,” (Acts 5:20), a very Johannine message. When they were arrested again and beaten, after their release, “Every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42).

E. The content John sets forth as pure and simple, an absolute that undergirds everything, and must constitute our driving conviction when we contemplate every fluctuation within which we live our lives. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” There is nothing in his essence, as light, in which darkness can have any existence. Darkness is the antithesis of the Being of God and thus can constitute no part of God’s proper will or actions. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

1. There is no darkness in him in his actions of creation nor in his purpose to create.

Lower forms have no complaint that they were not a higher form. Minerals do not complain that they are not vegetative life, nor does vegetative life complain that it is not biological life. There is massive, virtually endless and as yet undiscovered, variety all up and down the forms of creation that are reflections, pale but true reflections, of the majestic glory of God.

God’s moral image bearers, Mankind, also display an endless variety of gifts—artistic, mental, physical, reflective with discernibly unique gradations under each of these categories—for every person who has ever lived. Like all other beings we are to be dealt with just as the Creator sees fit in the perfect conception he has of how his sovereignly actuated creation will continue the display of his infinite beauty in the immutably holy moral purpose from which flow all his actions. Scripture soundly and clearly rebukes any tendency of the creature to question the moral veracity of God’s eternal purpose (Romans 9:17-21). It is He, also, who creates out of the entirety of mankind the people that he will claim as his own (Psalm 100:3).

2. In his providences there is nothing dark, in the sense of evil, though there are many mysteries and incomprehensible depths. All is designed, however, to give a more sublime manifestation of his perfections. We are not ready to understand the biblical revelation if we seek to find wrong ways in God in his decrees concerning the fall of man, the presence of Satan, or the judicial subjection of this present order to vanity (Romans 8:20-22). We do know that at the conclusion all the acclamations of all living beings will be a manifestation of the glory of God, the supreme goodness of God, the immaculate holiness of God, and the crown rights of the omnisapient creator, whether they are groans from hell or shouts of acclamation from heaven (Revelation 20:11-15; 21:22-27; 22:1-5, 10-15).  The last vision shows that God is light, and in him darkness loses its existence: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun [not even created light of any sort will be present there], for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 22:5).

3. God’s decree of redemption reveals no darkness in his purpose but serves as the platform for the ongoing display of his pure and holy moral light (2 Thessalonians 2:13, 14 “so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ”; Titus 2:11, 12 “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”; Ephesians 1:12, “so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.”)

4. Certainly the training of the mind to godliness involves letting ourselves lie asoak in the great mysteries that are revealed and seeking as many avenues of coherent explanation within the dictates of divine revelation as possible; but if we are interested truly in grasping these things and growing in grace through reflection and meditation on them, we will make no progress at all in the absence of the fundamental principle, “God is light, and in Him darkness has absolutely no part.” 

II. Immediate implications of the Message in their most Fundamental form – 1:6-10

A. Verse 6 – Given this sweeping premise, any person who claims fellowship with such a being while at the same time walks course of his life in darkness (those things that are not consistent with the truth of God and the holiness of God) clearly lies in his claim and contradicts it in his lifestyle. The claim to fellowship with God and the pursuit of God’s purpose must not arise from the vain imaginations of our own minds or any attempt to justify our perversity with god-talk and spiritual language. The bizarre events of Bruce Jenner’s transition surgery in pursuit of personal emotional comfort, and as a manifestation of his understanding as to how he can serve God’s purpose for his life, is only one of the most extreme illustrations of this omnipresent tendency, but certainly not the only one.

B. Verse 7 – Fellowship with God is not a mere claim, but is evidenced by an actual submission to the most potent truth of divine revelation, that is, ”The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Walking in the light does not mean that we have no consciousness of personal sin or that we are absent of the need for redemption, but its very first response to truth is a deep recognition of the need for cleansing from sin by the sacrificial redemption of Christ. Any attempt at a claim to spirituality or the knowledge of the will of God that has any tendency to omit the necessity of Christ’s substitutionary death as the only path to fellowship with God engenders a false hope and, if exapnded, will set up a destructive system of thought.

C. Verse 8 – the first step on the path to cleansing is a frank admission that sin indwells the most basic moral and emotional fabric of our nature. To say “we have no sin” amounts to a denial that we are by nature children of wrath. It is a failure frankly to confront the destructive and perverse tendency that inhabits our souls. We fail to get at the root of our darkness and step into the light when we repress this singular reality (Psalm 51:5; Psalm 53:1-3). Curtis Vaughn points out that there is both an ascending scale of error with regard to sin in these verses, as well as an ascending flirtation with untruth  First, sin does not affect fellowship with God, we have no indwelling tendency to sin, and we have not actually committed sins. Second, “we lie,” “we deceive ourselves,” and “we make God a liar.”

D. Verse 9 – Thus recognizing that we have a fountain from which pour the volitions of our lives and the words of our mouths (Matthew 15:10, 11; Luke 6:43-45; Galatians 5:19-21), we begin a lifestyle that always involves confession of sins.

1. Initial entrance into justification is found only at the portal of confession of sins with a humble desire to be forgiven by the sheer grace of a divine provision for sinners. (Luke 18:9-14).

2. Forgiveness comes,

not from a sheer manifestation of will on the part of God (although it would not arise apart from his precedent volition), but from a just provision made for forgiveness in accord with his faithfulness to the redemptive covenant established with his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ (John 10:11, 15-17, 26-30; Hebrews 13:20, 21; Romans 3:21-26) In this transaction of forgiveness, therefore, he is both “faithful and just,”

not just to deal with the penalties incurred by all individual sins, but to begin an operation within us that will result in the cleansing from all unrighteousness. With every sin comes the conviction of the heart from which it arose, and the particular haven of darkness from which these arise. The process of forgiveness is built on the assumption of God’s determination to destroy the refuge of sin as well as free his people from the penalty of their sin. “God is light, and in Him darkness will find no refuge but will be obliterated.”

E. Verse 10 – Any attempt to hide the reality of our sins by denying them in the face of the biblical witness to our personal disobedience to divine mandate means we call God a liar and substitute our individual “truth” for his revealed word.

1. We are saying that his entire scheme of redemption is an unjust imposition on the human race. He says, do not lust; we lust, and we lie when we deny the plain fact in our lives. He says, do not hate; we hate, and then we lie when we deny the plain fact. He says do not covet; we covet, and we lie when we deny the plain fact; he says do not commit adultery; we commit adultery, and we lie when we seek to gloss it over with sickening  rationalizations of our behavior. He says, be content; we pout in discontentment about our providential arrangement, and lie when we seek to minimize its sinfulness by pointing to the normalcy of our desires.

2. None that have the word in them can ever say, “I have not sinned.” When the truth of divine revelation also is implanted in the marrow by the Spirit-guided thrust of the two-edged sword, one’s heightened sensibility to sin cannot be sidestepped. It is as much a reality of his existence as the common knowledge derived from universal experience of twenty-four hour days and the harming effects of blunt force.

III.  Transformational results invested in the message – 2:1-6

A. Chapter 2, verse 1a – As he does often in this epistle (7 times), John addresses these believers in very tender tone (“My little children”), though he is giving absolute and uncompromising truth. The truest test of tender love and concern is the willingness to remove everything that deceives from the mental operation of the one loved. Since sin is the very antithesis of the character of God, the message ultimately implies that those who believe it will not sin. The hard, cold fact of sin in the human experience is not intended to make a person to capitulate to its apparent inevitability, but reach down to find greater resolve to resist its corrosive and mortal effects.  John lets us know that the reason he is writing is that he might point all forgiven sinners to the goal of utter cleansing from all sin and every tendency to sin. That is the implication of the fundamental principle established. So we should expect no less in the demands of discipleship, the operations of the Holy Spirit, and the difficult task of mortification of the flesh (Romans 8:4, 12-13; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Hebrews 12:3-6).

B. Verses 1 b-2 – Before launching into the discussion of the goal of sinlessness for the redeemed person, John gives another reminder of the present condition and the source of confidence in our unchanging stance of justification before God.

1. If any one sin – He is speaking of the occasional, individual acts of sin committed by Christians. Though sins still arise from an indwelling and pervasive principle to be mortified and put to flight, we also are better able to identify many particular sins that arise from this in the effort at mortification. When these surface in our consciousness and conscience, we must not fail to recognize that God has provided the ongoing remedy, not only in the battle for holiness, but in the continuous forgiveness of sins.

2. We who have come to Christ for forgiveness presently possess an ongoing and everflowing source of forgiving grace.

3. This source is an advocate. Jesus calls the Holy Spirit our advocate on earth (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7) As He comforts us with the assurance on earth that Christ in his protective promises (John 10:28-30) is with us by His Spirit, so in heaven Christ presently is an advocate standing, not with words of argument necessarily, but with his own just presence before the Father.

4. His advocacy for us is directly to the Father, and as equal to the Father in all the concerns of holiness and righteousness.

5. Jesus Christ, – This reminds the believer that this advocate equal to the Father also brings before him our nature in his human name Jesus, and our cause in his completed messianic labors (Christ) as prophet, priest, and king.

6. The righteous – His advocacy is not built on any tendency to disregard the immutable cause of righteousness but completely accords with it, for one of the works completed in his substitutionary labors for the people given him by the Father, was his role of complete obedience to the law by which he obtained the righteousness that leads to eternal life.

7. Propitiation – Also our advocate has met the demands of the laws for death. Divine wrath demanded the removal of the offence of sin by the death of the sinner. Christ has expiated sin, that is, removed its offensive stench from before the nostrils of God, by a covenantal embracing of our nature and our punishment and holds the effectiveness of his advocacy for us in his propitiation as well as his righteousness.

8. Our sins- He refers to those sins that “if any man commit.” The question in heaven is not “What sin?” as if both Father and Son can forget that he has died on that account, but rather there is a standing affirmation that those sins are forgiven in the form of a seated saviour whose continuing ministry is based on his completed work of purification from sins (Hebrews 1:3b). “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

9. The whole world – This same confidence holds true for all the people of God throughout the entire world and from age to age until Christ returns (John 11:51, 52; Revelation 5:9, 10)

C. Verses 3-6 – The second evidence of having seen with Spiritual eyes the truth that “God is light” and having truly received the forgiveness that flows from that knowledge is a right regard for the law of God, as ministered to us through the life of Christ.

1. Verses 3, 4 –  We now delight after the law in the inner man and confess with Paul, who embraced the attitude of the Psalmist: “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being . . .I myself serve the law of God with my mind” (Romans 7:22, 25). Christ has shown us the mere, undiluted joy of living in the condition of loving God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength, and has died in order that such a law might not be dishonored. He now communicates the essence of that law to us by his own commandments of love and holiness, and self-forgetfulness, and discipleship unto death.  He has not allowed the law to condemn us but has shown us its path to pure living before God in a corrupt world that does not seek God. If we cannot obey the laws of God as mediated to us through the hands of Christ, our profession to know him is a lie.

2. Verse 5, 6 – All of God’s revelation arises from his truthful manifestation of his character. When we keep his word—both its doctrinal propositions and its standards of righteousness and holiness—we give evidence that we have felt the true manifestation of love to God and love to neighbor as revealed in the law. When we keep his word, we follow in the strict and joyful path laid down by our savior (Hebrews 12:1, 2). The joyful pursuit of such a word-keeping comes because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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