The Proclaimers famously sang that they would walk five hundred miles, and possibly five hundred more, just for the accolade of being “the man who walked a thousand miles to fall down at your door.” But would they walk 13,910 miles?
Late last year, a user on community networking website Reddit posted what is thought to be the longest continuous walk across the planet. The road, which runs from Cape Town, South Africa to Magadan, Russia, spans a whopping 21,212 km. Google Maps estimates a total walk time of 4,492 hours. The trip entails the equivalent of thirteen round trips up and down Mount Everest and the walker would travel through sixteen countries, including some (like South Sudan and Syria) known for civil unrest and unstable governance. Don’t forget to pack your Fitbit charger!
As crazy as it sounds, the record books officially recognise fourteen pedestrian circumnavigators—people who have walked or run around the world. George Matthew Schilling is claimed to have been the first to achieve this feat between 1897 and 1904, but the claim has proven impossible to independently verify. The first independently verified pedestrian circumnavigation was performed by Dave Kunst between 1970 and 1974.
One of the most consistent metaphors in the Bible to describe the Christian life is that of walking. The Christian experience is likened to a long, consistent walk. John Bunyan memorably portrayed the Christian walk in his classic book, The Pilgrim’s Progress. One of the places in the New Testament where we read of the Christian walk is in 1 John 1:5–2:6.
John’s first letter appears to have been written against the backdrop of Gnosticism, which was perhaps the greatest heresy facing the church in the first two centuries of the new covenant era. The theology of the Gnostics was complicated and there were various offshoots. It developed more fully in the second century, but it existed in seed form in the first. Common to all branches of Gnosticism was the teaching that the flesh was inherently evil and the spirit inherently good, so that what was done in the body was irrelevant because the flesh was incapable of good and the spirit, trapped inside the body, incapable of evil. You could do as you pleased with your body and it would have no effect on your spirit, which could not be tainted with evil. At death, the spirit would be released from its prison (the body) and experience eternal salvation.
This theology had deep Christological implications. Since the flesh was considered inherently evil, Gnostics taught that the man Jesus was not God in the flesh. Instead, the spirit of the Christ inhabited the body of the man Jesus at his baptism and left him again at the cross so that the Christ did not die, but only the man Jesus.
The Gnostics claimed to know these things because they possessed special insight that more ordinary believers lacked. It didn’t matter what the Old Testament Scriptures or the oral tradition of the apostles taught. The Gnostics claimed that they had received hidden revelation directly from God and therefore possessed special authority, which even the apostles lacked, to teach truth about God and our relationship with him.
John wrote to counter this heresy. As an eyewitness of the teaching and ministry of Jesus, he wanted his readers to hear the truth about God in Christ from him because, apart from the truth, fellowship with God was impossible (1:1–4).
Contrary to what the Gnostics taught, John wanted his readers to be exposed to the truth that he and his fellow apostles had received from Jesus himself. That truth was more than mere theory, as we will see, but had deep practical implications. The practical implications of the gospel truth form the major emphasis of the text before us in this study. In 1:5–2:6, John argues, contrary to the Gnostic heretics, that the truth of Jesus Christ will have profound implications on the way we walk. We find at least four considerations for our walk in these verses.
The Premise for the Long Walk
The basic premise from which John’s entire argument is drawn is laid down in 1:5: “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.” This was the crucial truth that the Gnostics missed (or, more accurately, misrepresented).
As I have said, the Gnostic heresy taught that the flesh is inherently evil and, therefore, incapable of relating to God. What was done in the flesh was irrelevant because the flesh would ultimately waste away and only the inherently righteous spirit would remain. In Gnostic theology, it was possible for a Christian to consistently walk in darkness and still be considered a child of God. In contrast to this error, John argues that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Light and darkness are incompatible and those who claim to be God’s children cannot walk in darkness.
Some interpreters think that “light” here is a of reference to revelation: God is a God who reveals, and does not hide, himself from his creation. But the fuller context makes it clear that “light” and “darkness” are ethical categories. Stott speaks of “God’s ethical self-revelation as light” and adds, “If God is … light in the sense of possessing an absolute moral perfection, their claim to know him and have fellowship with him despite their indifference to morality is seen to be sheer nonsense.”
“Light” refers to holiness and “darkness” to sin. The big picture in 1:5–2:6 (and, indeed, in 1 John as a whole) is fellowship with God, and John’s point, as we will see, is that light and darkness have no fellowship. If we claim to be in fellowship with God, as the Gnostics did, but our lives are characterised by darkness, as the Gnostics’ lives were, something is amiss. The Gnostics claimed that a person could walk in darkness and still be in fellowship with God. John’s point is that that is impossible. Darkness has no fellowship with the God of light.
Before we move on, it is important to note that John’s words here are about a “walk” (1:6–7; 2:6). The language of walking speaks of consistency over an extended period. Consistency is the key. If our lives are consistently dark, we cannot claim to be walking in the light. The expectation is consistency, not perfection. This is an important qualifier for what follows.
The Problem with the Long Walk
The teaching that God is light and there is no darkness in him at all raised a problem for those who had bought into the Gnostic heresy. If God is light, his people cannot claim fellowship with him while they walk in darkness. In 1:6–10, John moves from the premise that God is absolute light and shows that, on at least three counts, the Gnostic heresy fell spectacularly short of biblical Christianity. In fact, in very strong terms, he argues that the Gnostics were deceiving his readers with three overt lies.
Three times in these verses, John writes, “If we say” (1:6, 8, 10). These three “if we say” statements appear to be picking up on three particular teachings of the Gnostics. John attacks each of these teachings head on.
The Lie of Relationship
First, the Gnostics lied about their relationship with God. “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” (1:6–7).
The Gnostics claimed to have fellowship with God, even as they walked in darkness. They taught John’s “little children” (2:1) that they could do the same. The Gnostic lie held that there were not consistent ethical expectations to Christianity. It was a form of easy-believism: simply pray a prayer and your eternal security is guaranteed, regardless of how you live. In Gnostic thought, a person’s faith was not evidenced by their works. Godless living was entirely compatible with faith in God.
John pulls no punches. This was not their truth, which John’s readers must respect. Instead, he says, that those who embraced the Gnostic teaching “lie and do not practice the truth.” Walking in darkness is incompatible with biblical Christianity.
Again, remember the theme of walking, which implies consistency. John is not saying that a momentary stumbling into the darkness invalidates the claim of fellowship with God, but that a consistent lifestyle (“walk”) characterised by darkness is incompatible with a claim fellowship with God.
But how do we know if we are walking in darkness? What is the “darkness” that John has in mind? What was the “darkness” in which the Gnostics walked and to which his readers were being drawn?
In 1:7, he answers this question by means of contrast. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light,” two things will be true. The implication is that, if these two things are not true, we are walking in darkness.
First, if we walk in the light “we have fellowship with one another.” Christian fellowship is one sign of walking in the light. By contrast, if you have no desire for fellowship with other Christians, you have good reason to question whether you are actually walking in darkness. Christian fellowship, of course, takes place primarily within the context of the local church. What is your relationship to the local church? Are you a member of a church? Are you pursuing membership? Do you desire membership? If you have no time for the church, and therefore no time for the people of God, you may well be walking in darkness.
Second, if we walk in the light “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.” That is, walking in the light results in a changed attitude toward sin. Those who walk in the light do not persist in sin. They understand God’s call to holiness and submit to it. Religion without submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ is simply not Christianity. As Stott says, “The proof of verbal claims to be orthodox in our beliefs and truly to know God is a holy life, and for that there can be no substitute.” Again, what is your relationship to sin? Are you comfortable living with sin? Does it bother you? Does your conscience prick you when you sin? If not, you have good reason to examine whether you are, in fact, walking in darkness.
The Lie of Righteousness
The second and third errors of the Gnostics are closely related. John highlights these false claims in 1:8 and 1:10 and then sandwiches the freeing truth between them. Both these lies have to do with claims to absolute righteousness.
The second lie was a rejection of the sin nature: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). The third lie was a rejection of sinful behaviour: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us” (1:10). The liberating truth was to be found in confession: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9).
The Bible teaches both original sin and ongoing sin. That is, the Bible teaches that we all inherit a sin nature from Adam. That sin nature is what drives us to actually sin. We sin because we are sinners.
In Reformed circles, we often speak of “total (or radical) depravity.” This is the biblical teaching that sin is so engrained in us that there is no part of our being that is untouched by sin. Our heart, mind, will, and emotions are all tainted by sin. Romans 3:10–18 highlights this truth most powerfully:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Joe Thorn puts it bluntly: “Our sin goes so deep and our hearts are so corrupt that we are incapable of doing anything spiritually good and thus pleasing to God.” The Gnostics denied this teaching. They claimed that, while the flesh was inherently evil, the spirit—the real you—was essentially good. John argues that there are two major consequences of embracing this lie.
First, to embrace the lie that we have no sin is to “deceive ourselves.” This is not something that we can agree to disagree on. It is a basic and undebatable truth that we are sinners. Rejecting the biblical teaching on human sinfulness does not mean that you are not a sinner; it simply means that you are a self-deceived sinner. You are lying to yourself.
Second, however, when we reject the biblical truth of human sinfulness “the truth is not in us.” In other words, the gospel becomes meaningless when we reject the truth of human depravity. The gospel is the good news of salvation from sin through Jesus Christ. The gospel is the power of God to salvation. If we claim that we are without sin, we strip the gospel of its power.
Stated plainly, those who reject the notion of human sinfulness are not Christian. I remember sitting in a funeral service years ago in a church in Germiston. As the pastor tried to offer comfort to the grieving family, he said, “Let’s be clear: There is no such thing as original sin.” He wanted the family to believe that their daughter and sister was with God because she was not a sinner. If the family thought that she was a sinner, they might be tempted to doubt that she was with God. The pastor professed belief in God and in the afterlife, but he stripped the gospel of its power, and therefore robbed the grieving family of any real hope, when he denied the reality of sin.
If the gospel is going to have any effect for you, you have to believe that you are sinner. The gospel is for sinners. Christianity has nothing to offer non-sinners.
But not only does the Bible teach original sin; it also teaches ongoing, actual sin. Because we have inherited a sin nature from Adam, we sin. Our actions flow from our nature. Those who are sinners by nature sin in action. The Gnostics denied this also: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1:10).
To deny the biblical teaching on sin is to deceive ourselves but, worse still, it is to call God a liar. You see, God testifies from cover to cover in Scripture that human beings are sinners who sin. If we do not take responsibility for our sin, we make God a liar. When we make God a liar, his word has nothing to offer us.
The Gnostics claimed that they had special knowledge that ordinary Christians lacked. They therefore had authority to teach God’s truth and should be listened to on the basis of this special knowledge. John argues quite bluntly that they had no real insight into God’s truth. By their denial of sin, they invalidated any truth claims that they might make. There was no cause to believe the Gnostics because their professed secret knowledge openly conflicted with the revealed truth of God in Scripture.
These lies had serious consequences. To believe the teaching of the Gnostics on sin was to self-deceive, to strip the gospel of its power, and to call God a liar. There was a very simple way to avoid those pitfalls: “If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9).
The Provision for the Long Walk
John’s premise, as we have seen, is that God is light and there is no darkness in him. Fellowship with him requires perfect light. That creates a problem, because we are all sinners. Are we, then, without hope? John will not allow us to believe that:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
(1 John 2:1–2)
John makes it clear, once again, that he does not want his readers to believe the lie of the Gnostics: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” Remember his emphasis on the “walk”? He is not suggesting that Christians never sin but that Christians are not characterised by sin. The Gnostics were teaching that John’s “little children” could sin without consequence; John reminds them that they cannot and must do believe that. “It is the mark of a Christian that he or she increasingly hates sin, loves righteousness and longs to be more like Christ” (Ian Hamilton).
At the same time, John does not want his readers to believe that if they do sin they are without hope. There is hope for sinners because “we have an advocate with the father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” The word translated “advocate” literally means “one who draws alongside” and again has walking overtones. The “advocate” comes alongside you on your journey to help you. He helps by securing your forgiveness, by cleansing you from all unrighteousness, and by providing you with the ability to live righteously.
John says that this “advocate” is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” “Propitiation” is not a word we use every day. It means to appease someone by means of an offering and to thereby turn away their wrath. The writer to the Hebrews used the same word to describe “the mercy seat” on the ark of the covenant (9:5). Under the old covenant, the high priest would enter the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement and pour the blood of the sacrifice onto the mercy seat. By this act, God’s wrath against sin was appeased and his forgiveness secured. John tells us that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of this old covenant ritual. It is through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that forgiveness is ultimately secured and God’s wrath ultimately appeased.
“Propitiation,” of course, was a very Hebrew concept. This suggests that John’s primary audience was largely Jewish. But he did not want his Jewish Christian readers to think that they were somehow privileged above non-Jewish Christians by virtue of their connection to Abraham. Jesus Christ “is the propitiation for our [i.e. Jewish] sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world [i.e. non Jewish].” Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to secure the forgiveness of Jewish and Gentile Christians alike. This theme is found elsewhere in John’s writings. During the plot to kill Jesus, Caiaphas the high priest inadvertently prophesied the same truth. John writes that Caiaphas “did not say this of his own accord, but being the high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51–52).
These two verses are incredibly rich. John Calvin suggests that these verses contain “the sum of almost all the gospel.” Hamilton adds, “In contrast with the false prophets who were saying that sin does not really matter, John tells us the lengths to which God has gone to set us free from the guilt, stain, power and curse of sin.”
Christian, do you have a Gnostic-like attitude toward sin? Have you grown so calloused to sin that you behave as if it does not really matter? Douglas Groothuis observes, “Jesus was not indifferent to sin. He died to atone for sin. Those who confess to belong to him and to have their sins forgiven, must never be indifferent or complacent about sin.”
Most Christians have little problem expressing their anger at sins—so long as those sins are the sins of others. We are far more tolerant of our own sins. We boldly call out the sin of homosexuality but are somehow comfortable with no-fault divorce, sex before marriage, and pornography. We call out corruption in the government but cheat on our personal income tax. We get angry when others gossip about us but we are perfectly comfortable gossiping about others. We need to be reminded of the truth that John is teaching here. Sin is no laughing matter. Jesus Christ gave his life because of our sins. He died to secure our forgiveness. Sin was serious enough to God that only the death of his Son could atone for it. We had better be careful of treating sin lightly.
The good news is that there is forgiveness for sin. Those who feel the weight of their sin can come to Jesus Christ, God’s provided advocate, for cleansing and forgiveness. Sin brings about death, but Jesus died so that our sins could be forgiven and our eternal life secured. All who repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for sin, have the promise of forgiveness and eternal life. Will you embrace the forgiveness that Christ offers today?
The Proof of the Long Walk
Finally, John writes of the proof of the long walk. The section opened in 1:6 with reference to our walk and it closes in 2:6 with the same concept:
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
(1 John 2:3–6)
Having just described the atonement, John goes on to talk about the unmistakable results of the atonement. “The event of our atonement is so important that nothing can be the same for us again” (Palmer).
The key concept in 1 John is knowledge. The most frequently found word in the letter is “know.” John writes so that his readers will know God, know Jesus Christ, and know that they are in fellowship with God. In 2:3–6, he introduces this theme of assurance and develops it in the remainder of the letter. He assumes that assurance is possible and writes to tell his readers of how they can have assurance. In these verses, he offers two proofs that the reader knows God.
The Proof of Compliance
First, we know that we know God if we comply with what he commands. Obedience is, indeed, the very best way to show that you believe. “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.”
When the Philippian jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas told him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30–31). Salvation is a matter of submission. We do not believe in Jesus, but in “the Lord Jesus.” When we come to faith in Christ, we acknowledge Christ’s authority. Christianity is displayed in obedience. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Elsewhere, he said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Again, he asked, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). A life that is devoid of obedience is a life that is disconnected from God.
Does your life match your profession? Is your life characterised by obedience? The Christian faith is more than a list of dos and donts but it does include those things. Christians are people who obey the Ten Commandments. Christians are people who submit to the ethical injunctions of the Old and New Testaments. To the Ephesians Christians who were guilty of lying, Paul said, “Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak to truth with his neighbour.” To those guilty of sinful anger, he wrote, “Be angry and do not sin.” To those guilty of theft, he wrote, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” To those who were guilty of gossip and slander, he wrote, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up.” To those who were bitter, he wrote, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice.” To those who were unkind and unforgiving, he wrote, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:25–32).
The point is simply this: The Christian life comes with ethical obligations. If our lives are not marked by obedience, we have little reason to think that we are Christian.
The Proof of Conformity
But there is a second, related proof in this text: conformity to Jesus Christ. “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Christians are people who grow in Christlikeness.
As you study the life of Jesus in the Gospels, are you walking like him? Is your life characterised by gentleness and lowliness? Are you growing in compassion, sympathy, patience, and lovingkindness?
In her biography of Eric Liddell, Sally Magnusson tells the story of interviewing somebody who had known Liddell. She asked this person about the most significant thing he could remember about Liddell. After a moment’s thought, the man replied, “He was the most Christlike person I’ve ever met.” What a wonderful testimony!
John introduced this section by highlighting the errors of the Gnostics. Their claim to fellowship with God was empty. But he did not leave his readers wondering what true fellowship with God looks like. He wanted his readers to have assurance and so told them what to look for in their lives to gain assurance. Assurance was not to be found in a mystical experience but in the consistent conduct of their lives. He did not tell them to think back to a time when they had prayed a prayer or spoken in tongues or experienced a particular feeling but to examine their lives right now to see if their conduct and their walk were in keeping with gospel convictions. “These things are not matters to be argued about; we just face the facts. You cannot be receiving the life of Christ without becoming like him. You cannot walk with God without keeping his commandments…. Love always manifests itself by doing what the object of its love desires” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones).
God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. Are you living in fellowship with God? I do not mean, are you perfect? I mean, have you embraced the forgiveness for your sins that is available in Jesus Christ? Are you keeping his commandments? Are you becoming more like him? If you are, rejoice that you are a child of God. If not, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.