WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R. Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER ONE (Lesson LXXII) 03/16/21

Augustus Neander (1789-1862), responding to the Apostle’s message about confession, finds the answer for forgiveness starts here: “If we confess our sins.” Of course, it is not an outward confession of sin but an inward act. It cannot be acquired through rites, rituals, regulations, or ceremonies. It is grounded in truth and under our spirit’s direction through the Holy Spirit. And that which is given and received is needed for the inward spiritual nature. 

Therefore, says Neander, it is that inward confession of sin before God —the consciousness of rebellion both in general and acts committed —whereby, in a spiritual sense, God draws people closer to Himself. It is implied that the individual is deeply convicted of inherited sin’s remaining residue. They recognize that sinfulness in all its most minor forms brings a sense of remorse that begs God for forgiveness and cleansing from all lawbreaking tendencies. In all of God’s communications with humanity, God imparts Himself by process of constraint – no more or less than what is required. All as part of His gift of freedom to those who desire to be free. The acceptance of this freedom is conditioned on the individual’s voluntary acceptance, the free surrender of themselves to the Gospel’s message.[1]

Dr. Gottfried Lücke (1791-1855) says that verses 8, 9, and 10 are directed against those who, although Christians do not sense their constant need for redemption atonement in every moment of their earthly life, which is so essential in every Christian. Now, inasmuch as therein always lies a lack of moral, genuine Christian conscientiousness and uprightness, the zeal for sanctification and renunciation of the world will lose its motivation. Thus, redemption’s full effect by the Anointed One is stopped in its tracks. John draws his readers’ attention to this, that, where the perpetual consciousness of sin, ever-present in this earthly life is lacking, there also the feeling of the redemption must be weak and defective. A person must never deceive themselves. Otherwise, the Anointed One’s work seems to be without cause or object.

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645)[2] understands this passage differently, says Lücke. Supported by the words in verse ten, “we have sinned,” which he takes in the sense of a strict perfect tense, he observes in verse eight, that the words: “If we should say that we sin not,” amounts to our saying that we do not need the Anointed One because we have no knowledge of sinning. That can then be taken as our denial that we have missed the mark of God’s expectations for our lives. It does not imply that we cannot be prosecuted if we sin.[3] And in verse nine, he observes that if we confess our sins and live according to what the Gospel says, there is no need for a remedy.

But this Arminianist explanation is false, [4] says Dr. Lücke, for the following reasons: In the first place, John is not writing to people who recently converted to Christianity. It was also not a case of misunderstanding in the manner they converted to the faith. In his epistle to the Romans, Paul dealt with the contention between the Jews and Gentiles over circumcision. Was it necessary for Jews and Gentiles to have genuine salvation? Paul wrote to those who were Christians for a long time. It was a matter of their becoming lax in their moral and spiritual commitment to holiness. They no longer had sufficient zeal and vigor to proceed in the work of sanctification, and rejection of the world, in whom the Christian principle of holy living had not yet attained any significant influence.

For Lücke, Christians, as long as they live in their human flesh, must contend against sin, confess it, and reject it by repentance and faith. – This refers to the paraclesis (seeking comfort) of the epistle in general, and this passage here in particular. The entire context from verse five shows that John, here, only has to do with his readers’ present moral condition and that he wishes to warn them against standing still, against all luck-warmness in sanctification, and in separating Light from darkness. In this respect, even John could make no difference between greater and smaller sins. It certainly goes against what Grotius taught about mortal and venial sins.[5]

Concerning “living without sin,” Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) supposes that if there are any such people in the world who have been able to keep themselves free from sinful contamination, it surely must be those raised in a Christian home under the strict guidance of devoted parents. It allowed them to stay out of worldly pleasures in keeping with the Gospel and dedicated Christian living. However, says Edwards, we need to go back to the original Christian church under the Apostles’ guidance to find them. That was the era of the church’s most excellent purity. That was the age in which the Apostle John wrote his first epistle. Then Edwards asks the qualifying question: If that was the case, and a significant number of them came to the perfect understanding of living sin-free, then why did John write his epistle at all?[6]

Frederic D. Maurice (1805-1872) tells us that these expressions were wonderfully fitting for those terminologies John used. The Ephesians paid special worship to Artemis or Diana. They connected her with the moon, the night-ruler. Their paid adoration was in common with the other Greeks. Apollo, they connected with the sun, which rules the day. They associated them with these beautiful heavenly objects, but they were never satisfied with doing so.

Maurice explains that it was the God of Light they sought to manage states, conduct wars, and make peace. They felt that a higher Light than the light which the eyes could see must proceed from him. They needed help in choosing the right path and avoid the wrong one. Without His help, they could never stay in fellowship with each other. But that which could, they were sure, must be a Light. They could not describe it in any language so well. It must be a better, purer, diviner Light than they perceived with their eyes. It must be a more human light; the other affected men in common with animals and plants; this must have to do with how they were different from animals and plants.

So, this is how these old Greeks thought, says Maurice. And the more one reads of them; the more one perceives how much these thoughts produced all that was great in them and their deeds. Yet, they were perpetually confusing the light which came from the sun and moon—the light which they saw only through their eyes—with that Light which they could not see with their eyes at all—which came directly to them. They were continually exalting the lower light above the higher light, supposing the softer light received its brilliance from the higher.

It was their idol worship, explains Maurice. They revered the visible things from which they thought that the Light proceeded. All the time, they felt that men were better than these things; therefore, if they worshiped these things, they were worshiping the God of Light they couldn’t see. They felt they could imitate the works of nature. They could express the thoughts of their minds in pictures and statues. Why should not these be worshiped too?[7] There is in this a lesson for the Church and Christians today. You cannot pray to or honor the true God by proxy. God does not need a go-between.

Robert Candlish says that our venturing to say that we have no sin might seem to be a height of presumption scarcely reconcilable with any measure of sincerity. Any such claim put forward by a child of God the world laughs to scorn. For the world, itself makes no such profession. The children of the world are wonderfully ready to chime in with the general acknowledgment implied in the prayer: “Have mercy upon us miserable sinners.” Others may set up for saints. We are contented to be, and to be accounted, sinners.

We do not deny that we have faults, plenty of flaws, some of them perhaps rather serious at times, although none of them, such as we may not hope that a merciful God and Father will overlook and pardon. They, too, deceive themselves, these children of the world. But their self-deception is not of the same sort as that which John denounces. This last is not, like the former, a vague reliance on indulgence and impunity. It may be the error of a soul working its way, through intense mortification of lust and crucifixion of self, to an ideal of perfection all but divine.[8]

[1] Augustus Neander, The First Epistle of John, Practically Explained, op. cit., pp. 40–41[2]

[2] Dutch jurist and scholar whose masterpiece De Jure Belli ac Pacis (1625; On the Law of War and Peace) is considered one of the greatest contributions to the development of international law. 

[3] John. 9:41, 15:22, 24. James 4:17

[4] Arminianism has traditionally taught what is known as the governmental theory of atonement. Drawing primarily from the works of Jacobus Arminius and especially Hugo Grotius, the governmental theory teaches that Christ suffered for humankind so that God could forgive humans while still maintaining divine justice. Unlike the traditional Reformed perspective, this view states that Christ was not punished by God the Father in the place of sinners, for true forgiveness would not be possible if humankind’s offenses were already punished. Christ’s suffering was a real and meaningful substitutionary atonement for the punishment humans deserve, but Christ was not punished on behalf of some or all of the human race.

[6] Edwards, Jonathan: The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, Part 2, Ch. 2, Sec. 4, p. 469

[5] Lücke, Gottfried, A Commentary on the Epistles of St. John, Translated by T. G. Repp, Published by Thomas Clark, Edinburgh, 1837, pp. 115–118

[7] Maurice, F. D., The Epistles of St. John, op. cit., pp. 36–37

[8] Candlish, R. S., The First Epistle of John Expounded in a Series of Lectures, op. cit., p. 45


About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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