John writes his first epistle to combat false teaching in his parish. It seems some are saying that knowing God is what matters, not how holy you are. As is always the case, a half truth told as a whole truth is one of the most dangerous lies in the devil’s arsenal. For in a sense, knowing God is what matters most. It is perhaps the bedrock condition of spiritual life, and none of us qualify for this privilege by our own personal holiness. And furthermore, even those enjoying the most intimate communion with God, invariably find themselves awash with contradictions and inconsistencies. The best of believers never graduate beyond the gospel, and Luther’s apt tagline for the Christian: simul justus et peccator (at the same time both just and sinful). No arguments here. But what seems to have been happening in John’s congregation was that teachers had emerged who claimed intimate knowledge of God while pursuing a lifestyle characterized by spiritual darkness.
John deals with such inconsistency head on, with breathtaking pastoral wisdom and sanity. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5–7).
How can you claim to be walking with God, if your life trajectory is constantly moving away from Him? God is light. There is no darkness in Him, none at all. He is infinitely pure, blazingly holy, an endless, shoreless expanse of absolute perfection. This shining light reveals His glory, but it also reveals our sin. Standing before such incandescent glory is never a comfortable experience for any of us. But for the unbeliever and the hypocrite, it is downright unbearable. John puts it this way in chapter 3 of his gospel:
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:19–21).
To walk in the darkness, John seems to be saying, is to close your eyes to God’s piercing, sin hating, eye. It is to hold Him (or to attempt to hold Him) at a “safe distance.” Such efforts, of course, are no more successful than tiny children playing hide and go seek. They hide in plain sight, closing their eyes, “secure” in the conviction that because they can’t see us, we can’t see them!
The true Christian, by contrast, exposes himself before God. All the doors of his soul are open. He keeps nothing back. His sins are exposed, at times painfully, but they are also forgiven. Each of them. All of them. What is more, he receives strength from God to get up and do better in the future. His best deeds, John says, are all done in God/by God.
So, if I can liken the Christian to a traveller passing through customs at the airport, and God to the custom’s officer. Which kind of traveller are you? The smuggler, walking quickly through the “NOTHING TO DECLARE” lane, hoping for a speedy, uneventful exit, or are you a good citizen of God’s gracious kingdom, happy to unzip all your luggage, to open all your baggage? At times, to be sure, the contents are embarrassing. But God is our friend. He is not at peace with your sin, but He paid a very great price to be at peace with you. As the contraband within us is exposed, rather than condemn us, His Son is there with the blood, the fair price of a just mercy, to wash and cleanse us from every spot. There is nothing to be feared from this examination; only the stupidity of avoiding it!