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The context of cleansing in 1 John 1:1-2:2 is a matter of establishing and maintaining fellowship with the Father, and with his Son, Jesus Christ. In that text, John employs the word fellowship four times (1:3,6,7). Fellowship is κοινωνία (koinōnia), “communion, joint participation, a sharing in common.” What believers share in common are (1) a persuasion concerning Jesus, the Word of life, and (2) a joint participation in godliness, which derives from God the Father and Jesus the Son. Godly living is the outgrowth of godly thinking. When the Lord is pleased with how a man lives, he's first pleased by how a man thinks. It's why Paul, when speaking of weapons whereby believers wage spiritual war, spoke of “bringing into captivity EVERY THOUGHT to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Believers who want to live right MUST first learn how to think right!
Jesus is the LIVING Word made known to us by the WRITTEN Word. He was the ETERNAL Word long before becoming the HISTORICAL Word. The beginning (1:1) is the time of creation. The verb was is imperfect tense, signifying an ongoing existence with the Father prior to events in Genesis 1:1ff. John began his Gospel in like manner: “In the beginning was [imperfect] the Word, and the Word was [imperfect] with God, and the Word was [imperfect] God. The same was [imperfect] in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). The salient point in John providing these foundational truths is to affirm fellowship with the Father and the Son is joint participation with things eternal while living in a temporal world.
John wrote this first epistle some sixty years after the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. His use of the perfect tense in “having heard” and “having seen” the Word of life is significant. The senses of SIGHT and SOUND are the two primary gateways to the heart. John is telling readers that what he and companions HEARD from Jesus is still ringing in their ears. What they SAW of Jesus is indelibly etched in their minds' eye. It is the things both heard and seen that John is declaring unto us.
In 1:4, John states the purpose of this first epistle: “And these things write we unto you, [in order] that your joy may be full.” The subjunctive mode presents fulness of joy as the POSSIBILITY for every child of God, not necessarily the CERTAINTY of that joy. The verb “be full” is a predicate nominative, perfect passive form. Literal translation: “In order that your joy might be one having been made full with the result that it remains full.” John tells us up front that fellowship [joint participation] with the Father and the Son expresses itself in fulness of joy. The two always go hand-in-hand.
The text of 1 John 1:1-2:2 is a portion of scripture every new believer should master the first three months after they believe in Jesus and are born again by God's grace. It is mandatory they have a mentor to teach them, both by precept and example, the practical truth of these verses as they begin to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. They must learn what fellowship is, how to establish it and how to maintain it. Fellowship with God and its ancillary joy centers around cleansing from sin and unrighteousness.
Cleansing is a major theme in scripture. The verbs cleanseth (1:7) and cleanse (1:9) are καθαρίζω (katharizō), “to make clean, purge, purify.” The work of cleansing takes place with a view to holiness. In 2 Corinthians 7:1, Paul exhorted: “Let us CLEANSE ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting HOLINESS in the fear of God.” God's expressed desire is to sanctify and CLEANSE his Church “by the washing of water by the Word” (Ephesians 5:26).
We see this truth in the life of David. He prayed: “CLEANSE thou me from secret faults” (Psalm 19:12). After his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and subsequent cover-up involving the murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite, David cried: “Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and CLEANSE me from my sin” (51:2). In 119:9, David asked a rhetorical question: “ Wherewithal shall a young man CLEANSE his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word.” These passages speak to David's desire (1) to be CLEANSED from both covert and overt sins, and (2) to CLEANSE his way continually by ensuring his thoughts (thinking) and actions (living) were in agreement with the Word of God. Every believer in Jesus Christ should share David's desire.
Now let's examine the two cleansings identified in 1 John 1:7, 1:9.
I. The Cleansing while Walking in the Light
1 John 1:7 reads: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” The verb walk is present tense, subjunctive mode. The phrase is a third class condition. Literal translation: “If we are in the process of walking in the light (which may or may not be the case).” Walk is literally “walking around” and speaks of lifestyle, going about the business of living. The light in view is the light of God, what we learn of him, as revealed in the scriptures. In contrast to the cleansing in 1:9, which comes from confessing sin, the cleansing that results from walking in the light of biblical truth happens apart from confession. It's absolutely IMPOSSIBLE for ANY child of God to be aware (conscious) of EVERY missing of the mark in his or her life. But the believer CAN do what he KNOWS to do based on his knowledge of scripture (i.e., the light). It matters not whether a man has been saved for one day, one year or one decade. He can DO (thought or act) what he KNOWS (what he's learned since God regenerated him). I believe it was R.A. Torrey who gave this definition: “Walking in the light is the process whereby a believer DISCOVERS the will of God through the study of scripture, and then DOES that will each and every time he finds it.”
The verbs we have fellowship and the blood cleanseth are both present tense. Paraphrase: “If we are walking in the light [of scripture as we understand it], then we are continuously experiencing fellowship with God and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son is continuously cleansing us from EVERY sin [even the missings of the mark of God's righteousness of which we are unaware].” This is GRACE! There are few truths more valuable to a new believer than knowing God is cleansing them from ALL sin while they are walking in obedience to the knowledge of truth they possess, as limited as that knowledge might be.
II. The Cleansing while Confessing Our Sins
1 John 1:9 reads: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The phrase if we confess is a third class condition, meaning it may or may not be the case that a believer, who is aware of missing the mark based on the light he or she possesses, will confess that sin to God. The verb confess is ὁμολογέω (homologeō), “to say the same thing as another, to agree with.” With regard to sin, it means the believer agrees with God that what he's done has missed the mark of Christ's perfection and God's holy character. In modern parlance, it means he gets 'on the same page' with God. The Spirit dwelling within us bears witness with our spirit. When the believer walks in the light, he can sense the Spirit saying: “I'm pleased with HOW you're thinking and with WHAT you're doing!” In concert with the Spirit, he experiences the joy (senses the pleasure) of his Lord. When he knowingly sins (i.e., deviates from the light he possesses), he can sense the Spirit saying: “I'm not pleased with HOW you're thinking or with WHAT you're doing!” This sense of displeasure should result in confession and cleansing. The danger with failure of the believer to confess sin is a progressive dulling of his spiritual senses. When the voice of the Spirit grows fainter, the believer's walk grows darker.
God is faithful and just to forgive us when we confess our sins. In being faithful, he is dependable, consistent. In being just, forgiveness is always a righteous act on God's part because of the blood of Jesus. In his death, Jesus satisfied the justice of God concerning every sin we've committed or ever will commit. When the devil whispers in the ear of a believer, “You've gone too far to be forgiven!”, the believer can respond confidently, “There is no sin I can commit for which the justice of God has not been satisfied in the blood of Christ!”
The verb forgive is ἀφίημι (aphiēmi), “to send away, let go, give up a debt.” It signifies a release from liability. In the NT, there are two types of forgiveness. The first is forensic forgiveness, the legal aspect of our justification by faith in Christ. God releases the believer, who was already condemned and abiding under the wrath of God in unbelief (John 3:18,36), from ALL liability he incurred because of his sin. This happens one time for all time as a result of justification as the believer establishes a relationship with God. The second is familial forgiveness, a restoration of fellowship between the believer and his heavenly Father. It's a family affair that can repeat itself a million or more times during one's spiritual sojourn. The forgiveness of 1 John 1:9 is familial. The matter of our sanctification is in view, not our justification.
In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter presented Jesus with a question about familial forgiveness. He asked: “Lord, how oft shall MY BROTHER sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” Jesus responded: “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” That's four-hundred ninety acts of forgiveness. In Luke 17:3-4, our Lord made this familial pronouncement: “If THY BROTHER trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” If Jesus gave these gracious guidelines for familial forgiveness between brethren, how much more does the Father extend the same abundance of forgiveness to his children?
John juxtaposes our sins with all unrighteousness. God knows we are dust (Psalm 103:14). We are of the dust and will return to the dust again (Ecclesiastes 3:20). All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). The Lord Jesus (our treasure) dwells within earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). Apart from the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us by faith, we basically have no righteousness except that which is produced in us by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:4). For every sin we commit of which we're aware—an awareness that becomes more acute as we assimilate more light—there are many shortcomings of which we are unaware. With regard to sins, God the Father FORGIVES them as we confess them. Regarding unrighteousness, God the Father CLEANSES us from ALL that is unrighteous about us as we confess what we know to be unrighteous. Brethren, this is what GRACE is all about! It is grace that saves us. It is grace that keeps us. When it comes to his kids, God the Father has their backs!
In the matter of cleansing, the passage in Mark 1:40-42 is both encouraging and profound. A leper came to Jesus, knelt down, and said: “If thou wilt, thou canst make me CLEAN” (1:40). Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, touched him and said: “I will; be thou CLEAN” (1:41). Mark tells us: “As soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was CLEANSED” (1:42). Scripture teaches us that: (1) our uncleanness stirs the compassion of Jesus, (2) cleanliness is always agreeable to the will of God, and (3) the sinner who petitions God for cleansing will NEVER encounter reluctance on God's part to make it happen! Brethren, if the Lord Jesus was willing to cleanse the unclean leper, how much more willing is he to administer cleansing to one of his children who walks in the light and confesses his sins as he becomes aware of them?
There is a redemptive reason why cleansing is possible. John tells readers (i.e., believers) that, in the event of sin, they have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous (1 John 2:1). Advocate is παράκλητος (paraklētos), “one called to the side of another to plead their cause before a judge, an intercessor, a helper.” It's used five times in the NT. In four instances, it's translated “Comforter” in reference to the Holy Spirit (John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7). It's translated “Advocate” in relation to Jesus. When a believer sins, his Advocate, the Lord Jesus, argues his case before the Father.
At the risk of oversimplification, the interaction between Father and Son might go something like this: “Father, my client [you the believer] has entered a 'Guilty' plea. Let the record show, my precious blood atoned for all his sins. The penalty due him fell on me. Justice has been served. I died his death, and ask the court not only reckon his debt to me as paid, but release him from all liability.” The Father responds: “The court finds in favor of the defendant [you the believer]. Justice has indeed been served on the defendant's behalf. Let it be done as you my Son, his Advocate, have requested!”
Jesus is the propitiation for our sins (2:2). Propitiation is ἱλασμός (hilasmos), “a satisfaction, an appeasing, an expiation.” The companion noun ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion) is translated “mercy seat” in Hebrews 9:5, which pictures the lid on the Ark of the Covenant where the high priest sprinkled the blood of atonement once a year for the sins of the people. Jesus became the mercy seat that foreshadowed him. The PLACE of divine satisfaction became the PERSON of divine satisfaction. His blood shed one-time-for-all-time on behalf of sinners is an eternal satisfaction. As long as the Father is satisfied WITH the Son, the believer is safe IN the Son—a safety that forms the basis our cleansing. As a motive for evangelism, John adds: “And not for ours only, but also for [the sins of] the whole world” (2:2). There's NO sinner, no matter how sinful, who is beyond the reach of the blood of Christ!
There is no doubt God (1) wants his children to be clean, and (2) is willing to cleanse them day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, moment-by-moment! All that God expects from his children is to walk in obedience to the light he provides and confess the sins his light exposes. If the child of God meets these two criteria, he can be assured of fellowship with his Lord, cleansing from ALL unrighteousness and fulness of joy! The truths revealed in 1 John 1:1-2:2, and the understanding of them, are absolutely essential for growth in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.