by Robert Candlish
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."—1 JOHN 1:8–10.
THE gracious assurance that "the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, cleanseth us from all sin," suggests the supposition of our "saying that we have no sin." For if we, "walking in the light as God is in the light," could say that truly, we might dispense with the relief which the assurance is fitted to give. But, alas! we can say it only under the influence of self-deception, and such self-deception as implies the absence of that "truth in the inward parts" which God "desires" (Psalm 51:6). Better far to "confess our sins," believing that God "forgiveth our sins," and that he does so in such a way of "faithfulness and justice" as insures our being "cleansed from all unrighteousness" with regard to them,—all unfair and partial dealing with conscience or with God about them. In this full faith let us "confess our sins." For if, after all, even in our confession, there is reserve and guile, trying to make out that in this or that instance "we have not sinned," or not sinned so much as might appear, we are guilty still of an unbelieving distrust of God; "we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."
Such is the line of the Apostle's argument, in three successive steps or stages.
I. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (ver. 8). It is not deliberate hypocrisy that we are here warned against; but a far more subtle form of falsehood, and one apt more easily to beset us, as believers, even when most seriously and earnestly bent on "walking in the light as God is in the light."
And yet our venturing to say that we have no sin might seem to be a height of presumption scarcely reconcilable with any measure of sincerity. Any such claim put forward by a child of God the world laughs to scorn. For the world itself makes no such profession. The children of the world are wonderfully ready to chime in with the general acknowledgment implied in the prayer: "Have mercy upon us miserable sinners." Others may set up for saints. We are contented to be, and to be accounted, sinners. We do not deny that we have faults, plenty of faults, some of them perhaps rather serious at times; although none of them such as we may not hope that a merciful God and Father will overlook and pardon. They too deceive themselves, these children of the world. But their self-deception is not of the same sort as that which John denounces. This last is not, like the former, a vague reliance on indulgence and impunity. It may be the error of a soul working its way, through intense mortification of lust and crucifixion of self, to an ideal of perfection all but divine.
In its subtlest form, it is a kind of mysticism more akin to the visionary cast of ancient and oriental musing than to the more practical turn of thought and feeling that commonly prevails among us. Look at yonder attenuated and etherealised recluse, who has been grasping in successive philosophic systems, or schools of varied theosophic discipline, the means of extricating himself out of the dark bondage of carnal and worldly pollution, and soaring aloft into the light of pure spiritual freedom and repose. After many trials of other schemes, Christianity is embraced by him; not, however, as a discovery of the way in which God proposes to deal with him, but rather as an instrument by which he may deal with himself; a medicine to be self-administered; a remedy to be self-applied. By the laboured imitation of Christ, or by a kind of forced absorption into Christ, considered simply as the perfect model or ideal, his soul, emancipated from its bodily shackles and its earthly entanglements, is to reach a height of serene illumination which no bodily or earthly stain can dim. From such aspirations, the next step, and it is a short and ready one, is into the monstrous fanaticism which would make spiritual illumination compatible with carnal indulgence and worldly lust, and represent it as quite a possible thing for a man wallowing in outward debauchery to be still inwardly pure and sinless; his inward and sinless purity being so enshrined in a certain divine sublimity and transcendentalism of devotion that outward defilement cannot touch it. Church history, beginning even with the apostle's own day, furnishes more than one instance of men thus deplorably "deceiving themselves, saying they have no sin."
Such instances may not be applicable now. But they indicate the direction in which the danger lies. It lies in the line of our sanctification; our purpose and endeavour to "walk in the light, as God is in the light."
When first we come forth out of our darkness into the broad light in which God dwells; when there is no more any guile in our spirits, no more any keeping of silence; when the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ so shines in us and around us, as to make all clouds and shadows break and fly away, and leave only the bright pellucid atmosphere of God's own nature, which is light, as the medium of vision through which, in and with God, we see ourselves and all things; ah! with such discoveries of indwelling sin as then burst upon our quickened and enlightened consciences, how thankful are we for the assurance that "the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth from all sin." There is nothing then like "saying that we have no sin." On the contrary, we are where Paul was in that deep experience of his, when the law, now loved and delighted in as "holy and just and good," so came home to him by the power of the Spirit as to bring out in terrible conflict its own spirituality and his inherent carnality;—extorting from him the groan—"O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Like him, we "thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord," for the encouragement we have to believe, and to believe just as we are,—with the mind serving the law of God, but with the flesh still, in spite of the mind, serving the law of sin,—that "there is now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus." Believing this, and apprehending all the relief that there is in believing it, we "walk now not after the flesh but after the Spirit" (Rom. 7:8). With enlargement of heart we "walk in the light as God is in the light," and so "we have fellowship one with another,"—he with us and we with him,—the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleansing us from all sin. Our appropriation of that atoning blood, in all its cleansing efficacy, gives us courage to continue still walking in the light, instead of shrinking back, as otherwise we must be tempted to do, into the old darkness in which we used to shroud ourselves. Such walking with God, in such a fellowship of light, is as safe as it is joyous.
But the risk lies here. It is a sort of walking with God, which, if we persevere in it faithfully, may become irksome, and be felt to be humiliating. For the old uneasy nature in us, with the rankling suspicious of our old relationship to God, is apt to come in again to mar the childlike simplicity of our faith. For a time the new insight we have got, under that light in which we walk, into the spiritual law of God and into our own carnal selves, keeps us shut up into Christ; and into that continual sprinkling of his blood upon us, without which we cannot have a moment's peace, or a moment's sense of being cleansed from sin. But gradually we come to be more at ease. We cannot be altogether insensible to the growing satisfaction of our new standing with God and our new feelings towards him. Before the fervour of our first fresh love, inward struggles are hushed. The evil that but yesterday seemed to be so unconquerable ceases to make itself so acutely felt. The crisis is past; the war, as a war to the knife, is ended; grace prevails; iniquity, as ashamed, hides its face.
Ah! then begins the secret lurking inclination to cherish within myself some thought equivalent to "saying that I have no sin." It may not so express itself. It may not be self-acknowledged, or even self-conscious. It comes insidiously as a thief to steal away my integrity before I am aware of it. Remaining corruption in me ceases gradually to give trouble or distress. A certain lethargic proneness to acquiesce in things as they are creeps over me. I am not conscious of anything very far amiss in my spiritual experience or in my practical behaviour. I begin to "say that I have no sin."
But "I deceive myself, and the truth is not in me." I am fast sinking into my old natural habit of evasion and equivocation, of self-excuse and self-justification. "Guile" is taking the place of "truth," the truth of God, "in my spirit," "in my inward parts." I cease to be as sensitively alive as I once was to whatever in me or about me cannot stand the light. I am thus incurring a serious hazard; the hazard of being again found walking in darkness, and so disqualifying myself for fellowship with him who is light. And I am apt to lose a very precious privilege: the privilege of continual and constant confession, in order to continual and constant forgiveness. For—
II. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (ver. 9). This, I say, is a privilege. It will appear to be so if we consider the sort of confession meant, as well as the sort of forgiveness connected with it.
As to the confession, it is the confession of men "walking in the light, as God is in the light;" having the same medium of vision that God has; it is the continual confession of men continually so walking, and so seeing. Such confession is very different from the sort of confession in which the natural conscience seeks at intervals a lightening of its guilty burden, and a lessening of its guilty fears. That is the mere emptying of the foul stomach, that it may be filled anew with the vile stuff for which its diseased appetite and corrupt taste continue as keen as ever. This, again, is the laying bare always of the whole inner man to the kind and wise physician who can always thoroughly heal it all.
For the forgiveness, on the faith of which and with a view to which we are thus always to be confessing our sins, will always be found to be a very complete treatment of our case. What is the treatment?
The sins we confess are so forgiven, that we are cleansed from all unrighteousness with regard to them. This means much more than that we are let off from the punishment which they deserve, and have to answer for them no longer. That is all the absolution for which the church-penitent, at whatever confessional, naturally cares. But that is not what is here held out to us. Our sins are so forgiven as to ensure that in the very forgiveness of them we are cleansed from all unrighteousness,—all unfair, deceitful, and dishonest dealing about them; all such unrighteous dealing about them, either with our own conscience or with our God. The forgiveness is so free, so frank, so full, so unreserved, that it purges our bosom of all reserve, all reticence, all guile; in a word, "of all unrighteousness." And it is so because it is dispensed in faithfulness and righteousness; "he is faithful and just in forgiving our sins." He to whom, as always thus dealing with us, we always thus submit ourselves, is true and righteous in all his ways, and specially in his way of meeting the confidence we place in him when we confess our sins.
We open our heart to him; we are always opening it. We spread out our case before him; concealing nothing; palliating nothing. We tell him of all that is sad and distressing in our conflict with indwelling corruption, as well as of all our failures and shortcomings in our strivings after conformity to his law. We speak to him of sloth and selfishness, of worldliness and carnality, damping our zeal, quenching our love, making us miserably indifferent to the good work going on around us, and shamefully tolerant of abounding evil. On the subject of such experiences as these we are coming always to confer with our God, in the light in which he is, and in which it is our aim to walk. We find him always "faithful and just;"—not indulgent merely, kind and complaisant, bidding us take good heart and not be so much cast down;—but "faithful and just." God is true; true to himself, and true to us; so true to himself and to us that all untruth in us becomes impossible.
Ah, brother! you may well trust him with all the secrets of your soul, for well does he requite your trust. He is "faithful;" keeping covenant and mercy; never saying to the seed of Jacob, Seek ye my face in vain. He is "just." He will not, in seeming pity, do you a real injustice. He will not heal your hurt slightly. He will not prophesy smooth things. "He will set your iniquities before him, your secret sins in the light of his countenance." He will keep you in his hand, and under his hand, until all partial dealing—"all unrighteousness" as to any of your sins,—is cleansed out of you. With the charm of true love he will work truth and uprightness in you; so that, as to your whole walk, inner and outer alike, all shall be clear light—light, clear as crystal—between him and you.
That is the sort of intercourse which it is my Father's good pleasure that I should keep up with him continually. It is very different from a mere endless alternation on my part of sin and confession; of confession and sin. It is not on his part a mere capricious oscillation between passion and pity,—between violent wrath and facile fondness;—like what is felt or fancied when I, a slave, offend and ask pardon, and offend again, reckoning on the placability of a weak master, who, however he may be moved to sudden rage, is sure to relent when he sees me prostrate at his feet. In such dealing with me there is neither faithfulness nor justice. Nor is it such dealing with me that will work faithfulness and justice in me. If that is the footing on which I am living with my God and Father, it may be consistent with my saying, in a sense, that "I have no sin;" no sin that need disturb my quiet or distress my conscience. But "I deceive myself, and the truth is not in me." I cast myself off from all that is real and genuine, all that is clear and open, in the fellowship of light that there must ever be between a trusting child and a loving father; especially when that loving father has made such full provision, in so marvellous a way, for the removal of whatever element of dark estrangement my contracted guilt or his violated law might interpose. I refuse to submit myself continually anew to that faithful and just searching of my heart and reins which, if I would but suffer it, must issue continually anew in my being forgiven all my sins, and so forgiven as to be cleansed from all unrighteousness with regard to any of them. Surely such clear, bright, open, confidential fellowship between him who is light and his little child trying to walk in his light, far transcends any poor measure of accommodation which a hollow truce between us might purpose to effect. Let us have that fellowship evermore. All the rather because—
III. If, in the face of such a faithful manner of forgiveness on the part of God, we continue to shrink from that open dealing and guileless confession which our walking in the light as God is in the light implies,—we not only wrong ourselves, and do violence to our own consciousness and our own conscience; but, "saying that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us" (ver. 10).
This is a stronger statement than that in the eighth verse. It is not "we deceive ourselves," but "we make God a liar;" not generally, "the truth is not in us," but very pointedly and particularly, "his word is not in us." The difference is explained by the assurance given in the intermediate verse;—"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
For that assurance, as has been shown, opens the way to a very confidential intercourse of confession on the one hand, and just and faithful treatment of our case on the other, between us and our Father in heaven. If we think at any moment that we do not need this sort of intercourse, that we can dispense with it and do without it, we labour under a grievous delusion; we deceive ourselves; some self-excusing or self-justifying lie is expelling from within our souls the bright clear light of the truth. If again, after all the encouragement which he himself gives, we still at any moment hang back and hesitate, as if we could not venture on the sort of intercourse to which he invites us, surely that is inexcusable unbelief; refusing to trust God; giving the lie, not merely to his promises, but to his very character and nature; not suffering his word to have entrance into our hearts. To prefer now, even for a single instant, or with reference to a single sin, the miserable comfort of wrapping ourselves in fig-leaves and hiding among the trees of the garden, to the unspeakable joy of coming forth naked into the light in which God is, casting ourselves into his open arms and asking him to deal with us according to his own loving faithfulness and righteousness and truth;—that surely is a high affront to him and to his word, as well as a fond and foolish mistake for ourselves. There can be no fellowship of light between us and him if such unworthy sentiments of dark suspicion and reserve as this implies are again, at any time and in any measure, insinuating themselves into our bosoms.
For, as one indispensable condition of that fellowship,—and indeed the primary and fundamental condition of it,—is that "we walk in the light as he is in the light;" so another condition of it, arising out of the first, is that "we confess our sins." The two indeed are one; the last is only a particular application of the former. Walking in the light as God is in the light, we must be continually learning to see more clearly as he sees. Our medium of vision being the same as his, our vision itself must be growing more and more nearly the same. Insight and sympathy are ever brightening and deepening. Things come to be more and more in our eyes exactly what they are in his. We ourselves, and our works and ways, are more and more seen by us as they are seen by God.
Can this go on, honestly and really, without ever fresh discoveries and ever new experiences of such a sort as must always make confession, to the earnest and believing soul, a most welcome privilege indeed? It is not merely that I come to perceive in old sins a heinousness and an amount of aggravation that makes me feel as if I had never adequately acknowledged them in time past, but must be ever repenting of them anew, and getting them anew disposed of by their being laid anew on him who is the sin-bearer and the cross-bearer. Nor is it merely that new forms and phases of the ungodliness and selfishness and carnality of my heart,—new shifts and windings of its deceitfulness and desperate wickedness,—must be ever coming up and coming out to vex my quickened spiritual sensibility and damp the ardour of my faith and love. Both these sources of disquietude are, alas! too common. But above and beyond all that,—in my very walking, as God's fellow; being the fellow of his Son Jesus Christ; his fellow-servant, fellow-worker, fellow-sufferer, fellow-heir in his kingdom; as the Holy Spirit gives me an increasing sense and taste of what it is to walk with God in his own light; as I seek to carry that light, and him with whom I walk in fellowship in that light, into all the scenes and circumstances of my outer walk of faith, and all the fluctuations of my inner life of faith; how is my heart troubled! How many fountains of bitterness are ever freshly flowing! And then in the world, with its manifold calls that cannot be put aside, and its troublesome questions of lawfulness and expediency, I am too often at a loss and almost at a stand.
I may try to set aside all such annoyances, as not entering properly into my spiritual experience, and to keep that, as it were, isolated and pure. I may think that when I go to commune with my God and Father; when I enter into my closet and shut the door; when I seek his face and wait for his salvation;—I am to leave all my cares and troubles behind me on the threshold, and meet him in some lofty region of spiritual peace, where sorrow and sin are to find no place. But I am deceiving myself. And I am refusing to trust my God and Father, and so I am giving him the lie. From such sin as that may he himself evermore deliver me!
Let me rather, taking him at his word, try the more excellent way of carrying with me always, in the full confidence of loving fellowship, into the secret place of my God, all that is upon my mind, my conscience, my heart; all that is harassing, or burdening, or tempting me; my present matter of care or subject of thought, whatever that may be. Let me unbosom all my grief. Let me freely and unreservedly speak to him of what is uppermost in my thoughts. There may be sin in it, or about it. There may be something wrong; some wound to be probed; some root of bitterness to be searched out; some offending right hand or right eye. Be it so. Still, let me open up all; let me confess all. Let me spread out my whole case. Let me empty and lay bare my whole soul. Let me put myself, and be ever putting myself, thoroughly, nakedly, unreservedly, into his hands. Surely I may rely on his dealing faithfully and righteously with me. Nor would I wish him to deal with me otherwise. He may "chasten me sore, but he will not give me over to death." He may rebuke and convince; he may even smite and slay. But "though he slay me, I will trust in him." I know that he requireth truth in the inward parts. I ask him therefore to lead me into all truth; into all the truth concerning myself as well as concerning him; however painful the knowledge of it may be to my self-righteous feelings, and however deadly to my self-righteous hopes. I am for no half-measures now, no compromise, no concealment. I would keep back nothing from my God. I will not deceive myself by keeping silence about my sin. I will not make my God a liar,—I will not do my God and Father so great a wrong as to give him the lie,—by refusing entrance into my soul to that word of his which gives light, even the light of life. I will confess my sins, knowing and believing that as "the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin," so "he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me; and lead me in the way everlasting."
From Robert Candlish,(1877). Commentary on the First Epistle of John