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 1:7
The apostle John is describing the one original event in all of human history. In his love for the undeserving, the eternal God entered time. The invisible God became touchable. The happy God made sad people happy about their lives again by making them happy about himself. It happened 2000 years ago in Christ, the impact continues, and no power on earth can stop it. That is what John is talking about in verses 1-4.
But as he writes this, John is worried. Something is going wrong. John is writing near the end of the first century A.D., and already heresy is polluting the fresh, life-giving spiritual environment Jesus created.
What is heresy? Heresy is more than bad thinking. Heresy is thinking so bad it endangers your soul. If you’re a Presbyterian, your theology might not be perfect, but you can know God. And if you’re a Baptist or an Episcopalian or a Lutheran, your theology might not be perfect either, but you can know God. But the bad thinking John is exposing here, and the practical path it leads to – this heresy will rob you of God. Even if you’re sincere, heresy is bigger than sincerity. Biblical faith is a wide ocean to swim in, with lots of room for personal judgment calls. But there are boundaries. We cannot always say, “You say to-ma-to and I say to-mah-to.” The apostle John is confronting heresy, in verses 5-10.
What is the bad thinking John is calling out? We can piece it together from verses 5-10. Basically, it was the idea that you can become a Christian without changing. You can say you’re a Christian, and stay the same as you ever were, and sin is no big deal, and no one should have a problem with that. Verse 6: “If we say we have fellowship with [God] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” So the heresy is practical in nature, not theoretical. It’s about how we walk, how we live. It’s a practical denial of who God is. And it doesn’t get any more basic than that. How does John respond? Verse 5: “This is the message we have heard from [Christ] and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
What a fascinating summary of the message of Jesus! John is speaking for the original eye-witnesses of Jesus, the people who knew him personally, especially the apostles – that’s the “we” here in verse 5. They knew that Jesus came into the world to tell us something from God. It came down to this: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
What did Jesus mean by that? “God is light” means many things, because light is many things. Light is beautiful and pure and true and life-giving and clear and welcome and cheerful and necessary. There is no such thing as dirty light. There is no such thing as dishonest light. There is no such thing as ugly light. There is no such thing as prejudiced light. Light can only be what it is, and what light is is desirable in every way. And best of all, light spreads. Darkness cannot stop light. Darkness is powerless before light. When a light shines in a dark room with its effortless illumination, the darkness hightails it. And God is like that. God is light, in all these ways plus more. Jesus came to tell us that. The whole Bible tells us that.
The first thing God does, on page one of the Bible, is say, “Let there be light,” and there was light (Genesis 1:3). The Bible says, at a personal level, “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1). The Bible prophesies, at a worldwide level, that our Messiah will be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). But the Bible also says of us, “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). We all understand that. We all have memories of things we’ve done we know are wrong, and we keep them hidden away in the shadows – not just in privacy but even in denial. And that very human impulse to hide, that fear of exposure, the fear of being known – we’re so like Adam and Eve hiding among the trees of the garden. And that feeling inside us all was the seed of this heresy.
That’s why 1 John 1 is relevant today. God hasn’t changed. And we haven’t changed. We want the light, but we fear the light. And in that fear, we make too much room in our lives for sin. We fear that God won’t help us, maybe even that God can’t help us. It’s why this heresy is never far away. And today there is a widespread allowance that Christians can live pretty much the same as non-Christians, and no one should have a problem with that. Ron Sider, in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, reported research about the behavior of Christians in our country today. Here are some findings. In the area of money, the World Bank reports that 1.2 billion people in the world have to live on around one dollar a day. And around one billion people have never heard the gospel. If American Christians – and we are the richest people in human history – if we tithed to our churches, that is, gave ten percent of our gross income, we would have around $143 billion in private money for helping the poor and spreading the gospel. The United Nations estimates that basic provision for the world’s poor would cost around $70-$80 billion. If those numbers are accurate, we American Christians, if we tithed, could ourselves feed the world’s poor and have around $70 billion left over for spreading the gospel. But in fact, only about six percent of Christians tithe. In the area of our sexuality, since 1993 over two million young people have signed the True Love Waits pledge not to have sex before marriage. In 2004 researchers at Columbia and Yale reported a seven-year study of 12,000 teenagers who took the pledge. The study found that 88% had broken it. Another study at the University of Akron finds that 26 percent of traditional Christians do not think premarital sex is wrong, and 13 percent say that adultery is okay. If I were 13 percent open to committing adultery, would you say to me, “No problem, Ray”? If any Christian is open to sex outside marriage, can we say to that person, “No problem”? We shouldn’t shame people. But when Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you,” he also said, “Go, and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). In the area of race, Gallup reported in 1989 that the group most likely to object to a person of another race moving into the neighborhood was people who call themselves Christians. This is heresy.
Becoming a Christian means we start changing and becoming more like Jesus. We must say that. We must help each other keep growing, because that beauty entering into our hearts is real Christianity. Our challenge today is not to preserve biblical Christianity but to recover biblical Christianity. What Jesus stood for is that God is light, and his light dispels our darkness. Therefore, calling sin “sin” is not legalistic and petty and nit-picky. It is how we walk out of our darkness into his light. Let’s recover a sense that a Christian – we’re not judging unbelievers but ourselves, and we’re not judging one another, but we’re placing ourselves under the judgment of God’s Word – let’s recover a sense that a Christian obeying sin is treason against the King. Every sin is a betrayal of Jesus. If we say we have fellowship with the God who is light while we walk in darkness, we today lie and do not practice the truth but practice an ancient heresy.
God is light. There is nothing in God we need to be guarded about. There is not one particle in God we need to filter out. We can open up to him entirely, with nothing to lose but our darkness. And that wonderful assurance that Jesus brought, seen supremely in his cross – that God can be welcomed with zero caution – that openness is Christianity. Any other way of thinking about God is not a denominational preference. It is an attack on God, and it robs us of God.
Most of what I’ve said so far is warning. We need to be alarmed at what we’re capable of and how blind we can be to ourselves and how we can deny what we say we believe. We need that warning. But we also need invitation. And that’s here too – a wonderful invitation to come walk in the light, as God is in the light. He is inviting us into a new spiritual adventure. I feel that I’ve begun that adventure at a deeper level than ever before. I am excited about walking in the light. I’m more excited about this than I have been about anything I’ve ever preached about in all my life. I have a conviction about this, and it’s a happy conviction. I believe that walking in the light is not just another sermon series. It is God himself opening a door to us as a church to go further with him than we’ve ever gone before, further than we’ve ever dreamed of going, and finding there not embarrassment but liberation and renewal and joy. I ask you to join me in this journey. Walking in the light is where we find fellowship. We find cleansing by the powerful blood of Jesus. We find peace and joy. We get traction for positive change that right now we don’t even believe is possible. The sins that have held us back for years, maybe all our lives, will weaken in the light. More than anything else, walking in the light is thrilling. Do you remember what the book of Acts says, when the gospel came to Samaria? “There was much joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). It is so happy to get clean again, isn’t it? It is so happy not to be faking it and hiding behind a well-groomed image but to be known and loved and prayed for and to grow. This wonderful walk is apostolic Christianity. It’s what Jesus brought to us. No heresy here! Nothing to fear! We can jump in! And it’s compelling. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his book Spiritual Depression, wrote, “There can be little doubt but that the exuberant joy of the early Christians was one of the most potent factors in the spread of Christianity.” We don’t have to muster up that joy. Real joy is in an honest relationship with God and one another. Our part is to walk out into his light, and stay there, and the Lord will do his wonderful cleansing work by the blood of Jesus there in the light.
Today we begin a new conversation at Immanuel that, God willing, will never end. Today we start learning how to walk in the light. Not that it’s completely new. The elders and deacons have been studying this and praying over it. The men’s community on Tuesday nights is pressing into it. Immanuel Church started this way. But now we’re going to become more intentional. We want this to be our lifestyle together, because it’s what Jesus brought. And I am guessing that all of us are feeling two things right now. One, we’re interested, because we all have a hunger for healing. We long to be known and loved and prayed for. Two, we’re concerned. This is scary. We fear exposure and loss of control. I want you to know, we’re not here to embarrass anyone or corner anyone or put pressure on anyone. And if you want to hold back and watch and see how this goes, fine. You’re in control. But walking in the light isn’t comfortable – not for me, anyway. Friday morning I had breakfast with a trusted friend here in the church and I said to him, “Here’s my mess. Here are the sins and failings I can see.” I don’t think they’re of a scandalous nature. But I want to walk in the light. I want to be known. I don’t want to struggle alone. Nobody needs to stand alone. And my friend graciously served me and helped press the gospel into those very places in my soul where I most need it right now. And he’s praying for me. Is there anyone here that doesn’t need that? So you figure out how it works best for you. You decide. My privilege is to show you the path you can take, according to the gospel, into fellowship and cleansing in Jesus. Here is my dream for Immanuel – that we will be not just the most honest church in town but we’ll be the most honest anything in town, a safe place for sinners to find a new beginning. My dream is that we will have such a real and honest relationship with Jesus and one another that we’re free to grow and grow and grow, without limit. Will you help me create such a church, by God’s grace?
All I want to do today is explain this wonderful verse. Let’s think it through, phrase by phrase. God will give us this, if we ask him for it.
But if we walk in the light…
We don’t have to run. We just walk, one step at a time. But we do have to be in motion, going somewhere. We can’t sit around. We can’t be passive. Wherever you are right now, get up and start walking in the light.
But what does that mean? It doesn’t mean living a sinless life. The light is where we find cleansing from sin. It’s sinners who walk in the light. It’s messy people, like us. What then is this walking in the light? It’s an honest relationship with Jesus and one another, so that we’re free to grow. Something that’s become important to me is this. I don’t want to appear to be better than I really am. Well, in a way, I do want that. I want you to think I’m amazing. But that isn’t real. So one thing I’ve decided is that in every sermon, in a small way, I will reveal weakness and need. Not that a sermon is about me. It’s about Jesus. But my weakness is one way Jesus becomes more obviously wonderful. Walking in the light is an honest relationship with Jesus and one another, so that we’re free to grow.
When God the Holy Spirit convicts our hearts of sin, walking in the light means at that very moment we don’t suppress it. But we say, “Thank you, Lord, for showing me myself. It’s painful to see. But the darkness is in me, not in you. I won’t be defensive with you. I ask you to forgive me now and cleanse me right now by the blood of Jesus.” And he does. It’s in that honesty that we find continual cleansing and refreshing.
Sometimes we lie to God. We say, “But Lord, this is my personality.” We say, “But Lord, look what my wife did.” We say, “But Lord, you can’t expect me literally to obey the Bible. I can’t change.” That’s walking in the darkness. The truth is, “I can’t” really means “I won’t.” It is unbelief and rebellion. And it is soul-killing. Paul Tournier, the Swiss psychiatrist, wrote, “A diffuse and vague guilt feeling kills the personality, whereas the conviction of sin gives life to it.” It is so freeing to call sin “sin,” as God the Holy Spirit shows it to us. We no longer need to look better than we really are. By his cross, Jesus opened the way for us to have an honest relationship with him and one another, so that we’re free to grow. That’s walking in the light.
As he is in the light…
It isn’t about rules. It isn’t about therapy. It’s about God – who he is, where he is. It’s about how we experience God by stepping out from the shadows into the light where he is. He isn’t hiding from us. He isn’t being tricky. He isn’t playing “Catch me if you can.” God is not hard to find. He is standing right out in the obvious place of honesty, where we can find him and be helped, and his arms are open to you today.
When we walk in the light, as he is in the light, two things happen. We experience two outcomes. Here they are:
We have fellowship with one another…
It’s so wonderful when the walls fall down and, in every appropriate way, we discover one another and connect at a deeper level. We talk about how we’re really doing and how the Lord is helping us. No one is playing church; we enter into fellowship. This is uniquely Christian. The world isn’t like this. The world is harsh and critical. Again, Paul Tournier, in his book Guilt and Grace, wrote this:
In everyday life we are continually soaked in this unhealthy atmosphere of mutual criticism, so much so that we are not always aware of it and we find ourselves drawn unwittingly into an implacable vicious circle: every reproach evokes a feeling of guilt in the critic as much as in the one criticized, and each one gains relief from his guilt in any way he can, by criticizing other people and in self-justification.
Jesus breaks that cycle by his cross, where he took our real guilt on himself. In this place of shared forgiveness, we find out how much we have in common, both in our sins and in our Savior. And the sympathy flows back and forth with beautiful power.
And the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin
A healthy church is more than a human support group. The sacred blood of Jesus is here. And we bring out into the light no sin which his blood cannot cleanse away: “. . . all sin.” That sin that makes you the most sad, that you most regret, that haunts you and damns you and weighs you down – that is the sin Jesus bled to cleanse away from you. Take a step out into the light, then another step, then another, by confessing that sin to the Lord and to a trusted friend who will pray for you. You don’t have to bear that any longer. Jesus died for that sin. You don’t have to conquer it. You do need to confess it, and keep confessing it until it is cleansed away. We don’t conquer our sins by heroic will-power. We confess our sins to death. Every confession deprives a sin of oxygen. Confession is the kryptonite of our super-sins, because when we confess Jesus puts it under his own blood.
This is Christianity. This is original, apostolic, non-heretical, liberating Christianity, as Jesus meant it to be. Let’s build it. Let’s embrace it. Let’s enjoy it. Let’s spread it. And there will be no end to the Lord’s blessing on us.