Following the prologue of John’s epistle (1 John 1:1-4), the first section of the main body of this letter runs from 1 John 1:5 to 1 John 2:6. And, the main emphasis of this section is sanctification – how to cease from sinning and grow in obedience to God’s Law. In the center of this section, John says: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1).
The way in which John works this out is basically to instruct us, as believers in Christ, to examine both ourselves and to examine Christ. Interestingly, this is similar to how John Calvin begins his great work of systematic theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin’s stated purpose in writing the Institutes was so that the reader would be drawn closer to Christ, but look at how Calvin begins his work. These are just the first two sentences:
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. [Calvin’s Institutes, I.1.1]
True and solid Wisdom, says Calvin, consists almost entirely of the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of our selves. But in some Christian circles today, self-examination is almost a dirty word. Some believe that examining one’s self is something that a Christian ought never to do. “Stop looking at yourself,” they say, “only look to Jesus.” Yes, we ought to always look to Jesus, but self-examination is also a critical element in becoming more like Christ. Consider the What amazes me, in our day, is that for many evangelical Christians – they think that self-examination is something that a believer in Christ ought never to do. Writing in the 20th century, Martin Lloyd-Jones made this observation… Consider these words from Martin Lloyd-Jones:
Self-examination is not popular today, especially, strangely enough, amongst evangelical Christians. Indeed, one often finds that evangelical Christians not only object to self-examination, but occasionally regard it as almost sinful. Their argument is that a Christian should look only to the Lord Jesus Christ, that he must not look at himself at all, and they interpret this as meaning that he should not examine himself. They regard examining oneself as looking to oneself. They say that, if you look at yourself, you will find nothing but blackness and darkness; therefore you must look not at yourself, but to the Lord Jesus Christ. So they look away from themselves and refuse to examine themselves.
But that is not scriptural. Scripture constantly exhorts us to examine ourselves, to ‘prove to our own selves whether we are in the faith’ or whether we are ‘reprobate’. And it does so for the very good reason that there is the terrible danger of drifting into antinomianism; that is, into holding that as long as a man believes on the Lord Jesus Christ it does not matter what he does; that if a man is saved it does not matter what kind of a life he lives. Antinomianism holds that the moment you begin to concentrate on behaviour, you are putting yourself back under the law. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, it says, and all is well. But that, again, is surely the very thing against which our Lord is warning us in this paragraph [Matthew 7:15-23]; the fatal danger of trusting only in what we say, and forgetting that the essential thing about Christianity is that it is a life to be lived, that it is ‘the life of God in the soul of man’, that the Christian is a ‘partaker of the divine nature’, and that this must of necessity be manifest in his life.” [D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1960), 276]
Self-examination, as both Calvin and Lloyd-Jones point out, is scriptural; and, self-examination is essential for the process of sanctification and growing in true wisdom. So, what does the Apostle John teach us about self-examination? Well, in this opening section of his letter, he wants us as Christians, to recognize two things as we examine ourselves.
(1) Christians are “in the Light” (1 John 1:5-7)
If you are truly a Christian, the first thing that you should recognize, as you examine yourself, is this: you are in the Light:
5 This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.
6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth;
7 but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
As John makes clear in these verses – God is Light, in Him there is no darkness. Therefore, if you have fellowship with God – if you are “in Christ” – then you are “in the Light.” Now, that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t help us much if we don’t understand the symbolic meaning of “Light” in Scripture. Typically, in the Bible, “light” symbolizes two closely related things: truth and righteousness, or knowledge and holiness. In the Light, there is truth and righteousness, but in the darkness there is ignorance and sin.
Consider the truth and knowledge of God’s Light from verse 6. In verse 6, we learn that if we claim to have fellowship with God and yet walk in darkness, then it proves that we are liars and do not practice the truth – we are ignorant and self-deceived.
And, consider the righteousness and holiness of God’s Light from verse 7. In verse 7, we learn that if we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin. We are washed – our hearts are sprinkled clean.
As a child of God, this is one of the most important concepts for us to get your mind around. If you have been transferred from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, then you need to learn to walk in the Light. You need to learn knowledge and holiness! You must learn to see yourself as you really are – as one who lives in the realm of truth and righteousness. You are in the Light!
Early on in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the main character who is on his pilgrimage to the celestial city falls into a quagmire of quicksand called “the slough of despond.” In Bunyan’s allegory, the slough of despond is “the low ground where the scum and filth of a guilty conscience, caused by conviction of sin, continually gather.” It’s that place that many Christians have experienced and come through, and sometimes get stuck – the place where you continue to mull over the disgusting nature of your sin, even though it has already been forgiven in Christ. It’s the place where you wallow in guilt, even though God has already removed your transgressions from you, as far as the east is from the west.
If you’re a Christian, then you know what I’m talking about. The slough of despond is a pit where Satan continues to accuse you…and you actually listen to him. It’s a horrible place that a person can only be freed from by tasting the true grace and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus.
Let me give you another illustration. When we were living in Georgia, one day, I finally took on a task on my home-repair list that I had been putting off for some time. I really, really, didn’t like going down into the crawl-space under our house. It’s dark. It’s cramped. It’s just not a place where I wanted to hang out. But, I finally decided that I needed to go down there and remove the old insulation from under the house. And, in order to do so, I had to crawl the length of the house – probably about seventy feet – along the crawl space and remove what ended up being eighteen garbage bags of insulation.
Now, in order to remove these garbage bags – I didn’t want to have to make eighteen trips under there – so I brought a rope with me. In the first load, I tied twelve full garbage bags together, and then I tied the end of the rope to my ankle. So, I would crawl about ten feet, and then grab the rope and pull the twelve bags. Then, I would crawl another ten feet, then turn around and pull the bags. At one point there was a narrow, two-foot wide space that I had to get the bags through, so – because they were tied to my ankle – I had to lie at the opening and grab each bag and shove it through, one by one.
That’s a picture of your sin. You’re crawling around in the cramped, dark crawl-space of your life – trying to get rid of it. It’s miserable. It’s Bunyan’s slough of despond. But, what’s really sad about the slough of despond – about the cramped, dark crawl-space where you’ve got bags of garbage still tied to your ankles – is that there are actually some well-meaning Christians who think that it is the place that you are supposed to stay and hang out – always turning over the hideousness of your sin. As if clinging to your own depravity is actually a virtue that God rewards.
I say that it is well-meaning Christians that do this, because usually the motivation is that they want to see Jesus Christ and His righteousness more clearly. And so they think, “Well, if I concentrate on what a worm I am – if I keep these bags of sin (though they be forgiven) tied to my ankles, always there to remind me of what a miserable sinner I am – then, it will only point me to (and give me a clearer picture of) Jesus, His righteousness, and His sacrifice for me.”
But, listen, if you want a clearer picture of Jesus and His righteousness, then let go of those sins that God has already forgiven. If you have confessed and repented of those sins, then they have been forgiven in Christ. Now, step out into the Light of truth and holiness, where Christ actually lives. You see, if you accept the forgiveness that Christ has granted, and then walk in the Light – that is, walk in righteousness – then, you’ll actually get a much clearer picture of Jesus. Out in the Light, you don’t have to strain so much to Him. Down in the darkness, in the slough of despond, you have to work; you have to work really hard to see Him. You see, one of the lessons of 1 John is that Christ has brought you into the Light, so you ought to act like it!
(2) Christians have “sin in them” (1 John 1:8-10)
The second thing that John wants us to see when we examine ourselves, though, is that while Christians are “in the Light,” sin is in us:
8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
The fact that Christians are “in the Light” and that “sin is in us” seems contradictory, doesn’t it? But, God’s Word teaches both. And, these two truths – when taken side by side – reach us that wallowing in your sin is not an option.
According to verse 7 – even as God is Light, you ought to get out of the slough of despond or quagmire of misery, and walk in the Light – seek to live a holy life. And, according to verse 9 – you ought to confess your sins, knowing that Jesus Christ – the propitiation and your Advocate before the Father – is faithful and righteous to forgive you your sins and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness.
The promise of 1 John 1:9 is a wonderful statement which every Christian would be well-served to memorize and meditate upon. Notice the words that are used verse 9 to describe how God acts in forgiving us when we confess our sins. It does not say that God is “forgetful and merciful” to forgive our sins. No, it says that is “faithful and righteous” to forgive us our sins. He is faithful to His covenant promises and righteous (or just) to forgive us our sins.
Think about that for a moment? Doesn’t the justice of God demand that our sins be paid for. How then is possible for God to be just while forgiving us our sins? How is He just? Here’s the beauty of the gospel! For those who have confessed and repented of their and trusted in Christ, God has already punished our sins by pouring out His wrath on the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, to punish those who are ‘in Christ’ (who belong to Him) would by unjust. There is no more punishment for those who trust in Christ.
Instead, for believers – those who have been justified by faith in Christ – we will never be punished for our sins! Praise God! There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)! Because justice has been served on the cross of Calvary wherein God punished our sins in His only begotten Son, God does not punish us. In fact, it would be unjust for God to both punish Christ and us for our sins. So, since He has already punished Christ for our sin, when we confess our sins, the just thing for Him to do – the faithful and righteous thing for Him to do – is to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Well, that’s a lot to take in in just a few short verses. So, I’ll just briefly recap. This first section of the main body of this letter (1 John 1:5-2:6) is written so that believers might not sin. And, the way towards this goal of not sinning is to first examine yourself. Do some self-examination and reflection to see that you are “in the Light.” If you have been redeemed by the precious blood of the Lamb, truth and righteousness are those things that define you. Second, remember also that “sin is still in you.” Therefore, as you walk in the Light, confess your sins – knowing that God is faithful and righteous to forgive you your sins and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness.