The letter of 1 John was written to encourage believers. We get that through the whole letter. John is probably old at the time of writing and his primary concern is the unity of the believers. My favorite passage is in the fourth chapter, where he writes about the love God has for us and how we can therefore love each other. One of the legends about John is that when he was in his last days and could no longer walk, friends would carry him into the assembly and John would simply say, “Little children, love one another.” Apparently that unity was important in his heart.
He begins the letter by reminding his readers of their fellowship in the Lord. He reminds them of the foundation of their faith, that he was an eye-witness to the truth of the life of Jesus Christ, and that the life of Jesus Christ brought eternal life to those who believe.
Remember that this was a time of challenge for the church. Already by Paul’s time there were false prophets, infiltrators who tried to force Jewish standards on the new believers, and there was persecution of believers. John had suffered from this persecution himself. He was not saying that everyone was to be considered part of this great fellowship. In fact, he was telling his readers that they had been taken out of the world by their unity with Jesus and had been brought into the light. Those who remained outside of the faith, remained in the darkness. This distinction was important.
So, in John’s mind, there are two groups of people: those in the light and those in the darkness. John wants those who are in the light to have assurance and fellowship. Some people walk in darkness; they have never trusted Christ and have never been saved by His blood. When those people come into the church assembly, we should not accept them as those who walk in the light. And they should not be fooled into thinking that their presence in the assembly is the same as fellowship in Christ.
There are two things to understand in this first chapter of the letter, and it is good to have in our understanding as we read much of the rest of Scripture. First, for John, the “we” is hypothetical. He is simply being inclusive in his writing. He is not suggesting that the same people can walk both in the light and in the darkness. It would be very difficult to get any sense from what he writes if that were the case.
Also, the “if” is positional, rather than conditional. Think of it as “since,” rather than our normal use of “if.” So when John says, “If we walk in the light,” read “Since we walk in the light.” What follows is not conditional. “But since we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” This does not change the meaning of the verse in any way, but it does help us to stay on track as we try to understand what John is saying.
So, let’s make this clear: for those who walk in the light (ie: those who are saved) “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” That is statement of fact. The next verse states fact as well. Those who say that they have no sin are liars. I have met unbelievers who assert that they have no sin. They simply don’t accept God’s authority in determining sin. That, or they believe they have compensated for their sin by their good acts.
I once encountered this many years ago when on an evangelistic call. The husband claimed that he had never sinned. The submissive wife agreed with him. I suppose that made them both liars. In any case, they had no need of a Savior. No repentance, no confession, no salvation. Not interested in what I offered.
The only ones who will receive forgiveness and salvation are those who admit their need. Those who do, well—let’s let John say it: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But, again, this is not written to unbelievers. It is written to believers about unbelievers. So, John is telling his readers that those who have come to Jesus for salvation, for forgiveness of sin, have received it! Jesus is faithful and just to forgive us. He did what He said He did. The only ones who have to worry about their salvation are those who refuse to confess their need for a Savior.
Yes, it really is that simple. John is not telling believers that they have to continually confess their “many and grievous sins.” He is telling us that, since we have confessed our sins, Jesus is faithful and has forgiven us and has cleansed us from all unrighteousness.
Now that’s good news! …and that’s grace for my heart!