This passage from 1 John, chapter 1 through the opening verses of chapter 2, was the first passage I was given to translate in my initial New Testament Greek course. Why? Because the Greek is relatively straightforward. It’s direct, and not overly complicated in sentence structure. So why does it too often seem so hard to follow and put into practice?
St. Augustine particularly loved the book of 1 John, because of its focus on love. “This book is very sweet to every healthy Christian heart that savors the bread of God, and it should constantly be in the mind of God’s holy church,” he wrote. But St. John’s epistle is more than just a treatise on compassion. It’s about more than our emotion, and more than our action as well.
The Gospel of John was written in part to refute heretics like Marcion and Cerinthus, who claimed that Jesus was merely a creature or somehow “less” than God the Father. This letter continues to defend the faith against those who want to deny that Jesus was truly God incarnate. Three times in the first three verses the author stresses that he was among those who can state “we have seen” the truth of Jesus’ for himself. He has experienced the reality of God-with-us. And, in stressing that “we announce to you what existed from the beginning,” he answers critics by saying that this is in fact a very old belief that is older than creation itself. The created order had a beginning. Jesus did not.
Verse 5 marks a shift toward the thrust of the message regarding our goodness and God’s grace: “God is light and there is no darkness in Him at all.” If we want to have fellowship with God, we must walk in the light. This implies that we live a life of goodness and love. As verse 7 says, “If we live in the light in the same way as [Jesus] is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, cleanses us from every sin.”
But we cannot do this on our own. We are able to walk in the light because God, in His mercy, sent His Son to die for our sins, restoring our relationship and allowing us to be the people we were created to be. The Early Church mothers and fathers frequently stressed this, and used this passage to refute heretical teachings about good, evil, and how we live. In the late third century Manichaeism posited that the Prince of Darkness had power in the world. “Nonsense!” the earliest Christians proclaimed. “God is light!” And we are to live in that light. Verse 6 warns, “If we claim, ‘We have fellowship with Him,’ and live in the darkness, we are lying and do not act truthfully.”
Approximately 100 years later Pelagius was claiming it was possible to reach perfection by our own efforts and live in this world without sin. “No,” these early saints declared, citing verse 8. “If we claim, ‘We don’t have any sin,’ we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Rather, we have but to confess our sins, knowing that God does and will forgive us.
Is this license to sin? Of course not. But as chapter 2 begins, “If you do sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one.” Praise God!
Ambrose of Milan, writing at the end of the fourth century, testified to this redemption. “I will not glory because I have been redeemed. I will not glory because I am free of sins but because sins have been forgiven me. I will not glory because I am profitable or because anyone is profitable to me but because Christ is an advocate on my behalf before the Father, because the blood of Christ has been poured out on my behalf.”
Thanks be to God for His amazing gift!