Yesterday we saw that one of the tests John gives for authentic Christianity is that all those who claim to follow the God of light truly follow Him only if they walk in the light (1 John 1:6–7). This affirmation was necessary because the false teachers were claiming to believe in God even though they were walking in deeds of darkness. When someone’s life is characterized primarily by sin, we have good reason to assume that his profession is not genuine.
Of course this immediately raises a problem for us. Is John teaching that unless we are sinless and perfect we do not truly belong to Christ? How righteous do we have to be before we know we are truly in the light?
Today’s passage sheds light on these questions by letting us know that even true Christians will continue to struggle with sin. John tells us in 1:8 that if we claim to have no sin, we have deceived ourselves and the truth is not in us. Though we will grow in holiness, it will not be until after our deaths when we will be completely free from sin.
It appears that the false teachers John has in mind were not only unconcerned with the dark deeds they were performing, they also claimed to be without sin altogether. But such a denial only further evidenced their lack of authentic faith. In this section, John tells us the Christian life is in one sense a life lived in tension. On the one hand, believers will live such good lives that it can be said we walk in the light (vv. 6–7). On the other hand, truly walking in the light will clearly reveal to us the reality of remaining sin, reminding us of our need for repentance and forgiveness (vv. 8, 10).
True Christians will walk in the light of God’s will and avoid sin, though never perfectly. That we still struggle with sin does not mean we lack true faith, for God is always faithful and just to forgive us of our sins if we turn to Him in repentance (v. 9). Walking in the light does not mean we will be free from sin. Rather, it means we are no longer slaves to sin (Rom. 6:17–19). This is evidenced as we, being concerned with conforming to the image of Christ, become distressed whenever we do sin and thus turn to the Savior for cleansing.
First John 1 reminds us that there is tension in the life of the believer, for just as believers will walk in holiness they will also sin. This is not a contradiction, for believers are not slaves to both holiness and sin. Christians are slaves only to holiness who, because of weakness, sometimes forget their true Master and sin. Thankfully, when this occurs, we can turn to Christ for cleansing! If you repent when you sin, know that you are a true believer.