Teaching series from 1 John

Walking in the Light

1 John 1:5-2:2

Teaching t10381


John wrote this letter to Christians who had been infiltrated by pseudo-Christian teachers.  They claimed that the real Jesus was just a human who had been enlightened by “the Christ.”  They claimed to have this same “Christ spirit” and to have fellowship with God, and that that only those who learned their secret knowledge could share this fellowship with God.

John denied all of this.  He insisted that Jesus was God-incarnate, and that he has heard Jesus’ claims to be God, seen his miracles that substantiated his claims, and handled his resurrected body.  John claimed that he still had fellowship with the real Jesus, and that all who receive the real Jesus can share the same kind of fellowship with God that John had.

This conflict left John’s audience confused about what spirituality was.  What does fellowship with God look like?  And how can we evaluate others’ claims to have fellowship with God?  Many of us have this same kind of spiritual confusion today.  John begins to clear up this confusion in 1:5-10 (read).  He introduces a basic principle of true Christian spirituality: walking in the light.

The main point

God is light.  Therefore, fellowship with God requires walking in the light.  Anyone who claims to have fellowship with God—but doesn’t walk in the light—is either lying or self-deceived.  The false teachers may have been saying the same thing—meaning by “light” their secret knowledge.  But John defines “light” in a different way that forges a vital connection between spirituality and morality.  Let’s take another look.

What does John mean when he says that “God is light?”

Here, he is emphasizing that God reveals himself as absolutely morally righteous, and that his moral instruction for our lives is authoritative.  God has revealed his moral character objectively through his Word (not only what he says about his character, but how he calls us to live—see 10 Commandments; Matt. 5; epistles’ ethical instruction).  God also reveals his moral will to us subjectively through our consciences.

John calls attitudes or actions that are contrary to God’s moral will “sin”—and sin is anti-spiritual because it is revolt against God’s leadership, it results in true moral guilt before God, and it damages our lives and others because it violates God’s design for us.

What does John mean by “walking in the light?”

This does not require living absolutely righteous lives (thank God!). But it does mean being responsive to God’s moral guidance, and (especially in this passage) being honest with him about our sins and receiving his remedy for our sins—Jesus’ atoning death.

To claim that righteousness is not important, or that sin is not contrary to spirituality, or that you don’t sin—is false spirituality, “walking in darkness.”  It makes God a liar (because he says that you do sin and that sin is serious) and it proves that you are spiritually deceived.

The false teachers simultaneously lived in sin (see especially 3:4-9) while claiming that they had no sin/didn’t/couldn’t sin.  Extra-biblical writings help us to understand how they could claim this.  They taught that the real “you” is your spirit—and that your spirit is altogether good.  On the other hand, your body is simply the container of the real you.  As long as your spirit receives spiritual knowledge and has spiritual experiences, it doesn’t matter what your body does.  So let your body do whatever it wants—including sexual immorality. 

You can see why this teaching was so popular!  And it should sound familiar to you, because much of American spirituality (including so-called Christianity) is similar to this teaching.  Americans have largely rejected any real connection between spirituality and morality (CONVERSATION AT O’REILLY’S).  Christian Smith summarizes Americans’ spiritual perspective as “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (explain each term).1  Americans prefer pantheistic spirituality because (as C. S. Lewis observed 50 years ago) it leaves us without moral accountability.2

But John is telling us that God is a moral Being—so if we want spiritual reality, we must come to grips with his righteousness and our sin.  It’s not that God is the cosmic sin-police, looking for any excuse to bust you and rub your nose in your guilt.  He loves you more than you can imagine.  And he wants you to experience his love so much that he sent his Son to die for your sins so you can become his child—no matter how much or how badly you have sinned against him (read 2:1,2).  But like the doctor who has the love and competence to heal our sickness, we must be willing to admit we’re sick and come to him for healing before he can help us.  This is why spiritual reality requires confessing (homolego: saying the same thing; agreeing) your sin to God.

Applying this passage

This passage (especially 1:9) is understood in two different ways by biblical scholars and godly Bible teachers.  Some think John is telling us how to become a Christian; others think John is telling us how to grow as a Christian.  I’m not sure which is the “correct” interpretation (maybe John didn’t mean for us to choose)—but both are true and important according to many other passages.  And we need to apply it in both ways to have spiritual reality with God.

John may be saying: In order to establish fellowship with God, you must humbly admit that you are guilty before him.  In other words, he may be speaking to people who do not yet belong to Christ about how to begin a relationship with God.

This cannot be just mental assent to an abstraction (“no one is perfect;” “everybody makes mistakes”) or merely sociological (“I’ve let people down”).  It is personally agreeing with God that you have rejected his moral instruction, that you have broken his moral laws, that you are truly guilty before him and that you deserve his judgment.  It means personally casting yourself on him for mercy. 

Illustrate this response from Luke 18:9-14.  The Pharisee illustrates a self-righteous, horizontally comparative, prideful response.  The tax-collector illustrates a vertically comparative, humble response (18:13).  Note the amazing conclusion (18:14)!

When you do this, God “justifies” you—he permanently acquits you of all moral guilt through Jesus’ substitutionary death.  John says God “forgives your sin and cleanses you of all unrighteousness” through Jesus’ blood.  No matter how wicked you have been, no matter how great you guilt is—Jesus’ death has paid the price in full!  You are forever delivered from God’s condemnation (Rom. 8:1)!

Do you want to go home justified?  Take your place with the tax-collector, and call out humbly to God for his mercy—and you will be exalted in this way!

On the other hand, John may be saying: In order to grow in fellowship with God, you must humbly agree with God when he corrects you morally.  In other words, he may be speaking to people who already belong to Christ about how to restore fellowship with God after we sin.

God does not want you to engage in morbid introspection or legalistic perfectionism—he wants you to live secure in his love.  But because he loves you, he will correct you when you turn away from his moral guidance.  It may be WRONG ACTIONS (pornography incident; hurtful comment; lying at work; boasting; manipulating); it may WRONG INACTION: selfish laziness; failure to help someone in need); it may WRONG ATTITUDES: ingratitude; bitterness; sexual lust).  He will convict you through your conscience, and if you resist his correction you will lose your peace and closeness with him.  He has not rejected you; you are not now under his judgment.  But your intimacy with God has been broken because you have chosen to reject his loving leadership.

What is the way of restoration when (not if) this happens?  To confess your sin to God, which simply means:

To agree with him that this specific thing is wrong, and to say you are sorry.  To rationalize, blame-shift, minimize, or be flippant is not the way of restoration in any relationship—including our relationship with God.

To embrace his way on this issue, and agree to do what he shows you to do.  Perhaps this means simply thanking him for his forgiveness and moving forward with him.  Perhaps it means turning away from the situation that tempts you.  Perhaps it means to apologize to the person you wronged.  Perhaps it means to tell other Christian friends about your sin so they can help you.  He will show you what it means.  To insist on your terms is not the way of restoration.

As you do this, God will apply Christ’s death for you in a personal way. He will cleanse your conscience, and restore your peace with him, and renew the intimacy of your relationship with him, and empower you to serve him once again (Heb. 9:14).  It is so wonderful to know that this way of restoration is always open to me!

It is also wonderful to live this way with other Christian friends.  Instead of hiding and posturing with one another, we can be honest with one another about our sins and problems.  This produces close fellowship and further spiritual transformation (1:7).

Do you need to confess your sin to God?  Is there something you deal with in this way?  Don’t hide it from the darkness and go on being alienated from God and your brothers and sisters.  Bring it out into the light!


Walking in the light is key—but it must be tempered with walking in love (NEXT WEEK).

1 See Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford Press, 2005).  See also the interview on Mars Hill Audio Journal, volume 75.

2 "Speak about beauty, truth and goodness, or about a God who is simply the indwelling principle of these three, speak about a great spiritual force pervading all things, a common mind of which we are all parts, a pool of generalized spirituality to which we can all flow, and you will command friendly interest. But the temperature drops as soon as you mention a God who has purposes and performs particular actions, who does one thing and not another, a concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God with a determinate character.  (Then) people become embarrassed or angry.”  C. S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics," cited in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1994), p.306.