The current discussion on “walking in light” has produced more than its share of ambiguities and contradictions, with some unethical treatment of brethren. These have, however, been thankfully offset by some fair treatment and open study. But the total picture has also revealed our weakness in dealing with basic theological concepts, and that should concern us greatly. We are not theologians -- nor do I fault us for that. For the most part, we have been content to dwell on the surface: seeking practical, simple ways of teaching the commands of the gospel, and giving but cursory attention to more basic concepts. But this does not feed with “meat,” nor prepare us to discuss revealed principles that require critical analysis and exegesis. We trip over our own terminology, and contradict principles we would never violate in another context. I freely acknowledge my own inadequacies in these matters, but ask you to carefully consider this effort to improve our study “tools.”
We must seek common ground for a beginning, and “we hold these truths to be self-evident” among the believing students of the New Testament who will likely read this article.
(1) All have sinned, and do “come short,” i.e. continue to sin (Rom.3:23). The first phrase “gathers up the whole race into one statement (a timeless aorist)”; “and come short. . . “ is “continued action, still fall short” says Robertson (Word Pictures). Aliens sin; and people who have obeyed the gospel also sin; surely there are none who doubt it.
(2) All would be lost save for the grace of God, who forgives sins on the basis of the offering of Jesus Christ (Rom.3:24f). Aliens would be lost without forgiveness; people who have been baptized would be lost without further forgiveness. Does not everyone agree to this? I believe they do.
(3) God has stipulated conditions upon which an alien’s sins will be remitted (faith, repentance, confession, baptism; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38); and He has given conditions whereby His children will be forgiven (repent, confess and pray; Acts 8:22, James 5:16). Obviously, I am giving abbreviated statements and references, but my readers surely understand, and agree with these basics.
(4) I am persuaded most of my readers will also agree that the citing of unusual or hypothetical cases (a crocodile got him as he was about to be baptized, or before he could say “I have sinned”) do not change these basics. We believe our job is to preach the revealed pattern; and leave “what if” contingencies in His hands.
Now, having these basics in common, how can we have such differing concepts about “forgiveness” and “walking in light” of 1 John 1? I believe the “bottom line” is (1) mechanical exegesis, ignoring contextual effects upon words and phrases; and (2) failure to recognize the grammatical and contextual meaning and use of “walking.” These errors get us into doctrinal trouble. Then we speculate or invent new “rules” to get out – and only make matters worse. Here we will consider some errors that get us into this mess.
I.B. Grubbs, in Exegetical Analysis, p. 4, says:
The carnal man, as described in Rom.8:5-8, is the godless man, as standing in full contrast with children of God; but this term is applied with less meaning, of course, to believing “babes in Christ” in 1 Cor.3:1. And the word is still further contracted in force when applied to Paul by himself, Rom.7:14, under a comparison with the faultless law of God. It is one of the chief sources of erroneous exegesis that men adopt a sort of arithmetical method of interpretation, and deal with words as if they were numerals, in overlooking the obvious contextual import which they often acquire.
In Romans 6:23 “the wages of sin” is contrasted with “the gift of God,” and “death” is contrasted with “eternal life.” Paul’s sins, and Peter’s, and those of babes in Corinth (1 Cor.3:3), had not yet reached their eternal conclusion. This does not mean they could not produce such a conclusion. Any sin, unforgiven, will condemn eternally. That is why sinners are warned about all sin. We must “buffet” our body (1 Cor.9:27); repent, confess, and pray for forgiveness, lest our sins produce the final death. But “a sin” is not “apostasy” in any and every context. (Apostasy means “abandonment, total desertion of principles or faith.”) Basic error: the mechanical use of terms.
“Walk” is used of one’s continued course of action and life: i.e., the habitual habit and manner of life” (Bullinger, Figures of Speech, p. 832). “Walk” (peri + patomen) is literally “walk about,” “indicating the habitual course of the life” says Vincent. In 1 John 1 it is present, active, subjunctive -- “keep on walking.” Robertson and Davis’ Greek Grammar says present subjunctive” denotes continued or repeated action, “ and “the idea is always linear with no reference to time,” i.e., it is not punctiliar (point action).
B.F. Westcott (on 1 John 1) says, “The whole description refers to the general character and tendency of life, and not to the absolute fulfillment of the character in detail.” Westcott further comments on “walking” when discussing the walk in darkness: saying it means to “choose and use the darkness as our sphere of action. The question is not directly of the specific acts, but of the whole region of life outward and inward. . . . To choose this as our sphere of movement is necessarily to shun fellowship with God.”
To maintain the metonymy, we could call “a sin” on the part of a Christian a “step” in darkness. It is incompatible with God’s nature. Unrepented of and unfortunate, it can condemn to Hell. But a “step” is not walking – whether It is a right or wrong step, It is not “walking.” And if we are to clearly establish the proper meaning and use of 1 John 1:6-7, we must refrain from reading into the passage something that is not there. According to our text, we neither maintain fellowship with God by “a step,” nor do we break fellowship with God by “a step.” We do it by “walking” in light or darkness. Can we not leave this teaching as God put it?
But someone says, “How could even a ‘step’ in darkness be acceptable to our God who is light?” It is not acceptable. That is why we are told we must confess our sins (repentance and prayer are understood) to be forgiven. God loved us, and gave His Son to die for us, “while we were sinners” (Rom.5:8). Does that mean God approved of the alien’s sin? Of course not. Neither does He approve of His child’s sin, but calls on the child to use the blood of Christ for further forgiveness. In 1 John 1 access to the blood of Christ, and His advocacy, are stated benefits of “walking. in the light.” If our brethren could look at the above, free of prejudices and reactions gendered by real or imagined “errors” they have heard, it is difficult to believe they would deny any thing written here.
“Walking in the light” is the equivalent of “fellowship with God,” being “in grace,” “in Christ” “in His body,” “knowing, and being known” of God, “begotten of God,” “children of God,” and many like phrases. All of these states or conditions hinge upon our doing God’s will, but I know of no passage of Scripture that teaches such people achieve sinless perfection. Many of these descriptive phrases vary in their application from context to context, and all of them must be understood in the light of grammar and context (cf. 1 John 3:9). God is absolute light, “in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). But He is also absolute love (4:16), purity (3:3), holiness (1 Pet.1:16), and mercy (Luke 6:36); and in all these passages we are called upon to be like God. Surely it is clear that we can but poorly and relatively measure up to this ideal. Even in seemingly overt service (singing, etc.) the heart as well as the deed is involved, and only God knows if our heart is acceptable (cf. 1 John 3:20f). That is why we must seek mercy in Jesus Christ.
But someone gets the idea that God forgives those who “walk in light” even as they sin. That is not in the text. And another counters with the idea that one who “walks in light” does not sin. The very opposite is in the text. Another says only certain kinds of sins are “in the light.” (The plot is thickening!) And he is countered by one who says “a sin” of any kind takes us out of the light. (Out of grace, Christ, etc.? How can a wholesale apostate get back? [Isa.59:2; Heb.6:4-6; 10:26]) It seems once we have gone beyond the limits of the writer’s purpose, there is no stopping.
Prayerfully, fearfully, we suggest: (1) Quit the use of “continuous” or “do continual cleansing,” and say instead, “continually available.” (2) Cease to speculate on hypothetical cases – to usurp God’s place as final judge. (3) Learn that grace was expressed in Christ “before the world began” (1 Tim.1:9), and profits us only through the gospel. It is not a “Watkins liniment” to be sprayed on in emergencies. (4) Avoid mechanical interpretation of Scriptures, knowing words and phrases vary according to context. And, (5) Become aware that 1 John 1:6-7 is not discussing “a sin” on the part of a Christian. It is contrasting two conflicting ethical realms – the regions of darkness and light.
By by Robert Turner Guardian of Truth - September 19, 1985
Return to the General Articles page
Home / Bible studies / Bible Survey / Special Studies / General Articles / Non-Bible Articles / Sermons / Sermon Outlines / Links / Questions and Answers / What Saith The Scriptures /Daily Devotional / Correspondence Courses / What is the Church of Christ / Book: Christian Growth / Website Policy / E-mail / About Me /