A scarecrow is not real. It is put in the way to distract or frighten away anything that threatens something we treasure. This works the same way with doctrine as it does in the corn fields of the Midwest. Upon close observation, we can see that this item that alarms us is not real. It is full of straw, and once exposed, it can no longer frighten the one that knows its true nature.
I want to introduce you to one of the biggest theological scarecrows of all time. Many attempt to justify their sinful living by hiding behind 1 John 1:8 saying, "The Bible says that we must sin, and if you deny this, you must be a legalist, a proponent of sinless perfection, and thus, you are earning your salvation, and cannot be saved." Anyone that differs with them is discounted as a heretic, and the conversation immediately turns from a dialogue to a monologue. Meaningful conversation is cut off.
To say that this verse proves that we must live hopeless lives of sin as Christians is wrong. This theory is riddled with impossibilities. I will show that this is not the meaning of the Apostle in this instance, nor in any other part of this letter.
The misapplication this verse is greatly due to missing the point of who John is writing to. John is warning believers that some had infiltrated the Church with the false doctrine of Gnosticism. He addresses both genuine Christians, and Gnostics in the same letter.
The Gnostics claimed that a truly enlightened man would have a superior spiritual knowledge. In
fact, the word "gnosis" means "to know.' They taught that an enlightened man would realize that
all matter is evil, and that man is spirit and pure because that which is spirit is not matter. They
argued that Jesus was a phantom, and did not die on the cross since you cannot kill a spirit. John
responds in this letter saying, " That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen, with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, the Word of life." John has made it clear that Jesus was no phantom spirit. He was real, he was flesh, and he died on that cross for our sins.
The Gnostics saw themselves as enlightened and as possessing a superior, higher knowledge. John and other Christians were disdained by this group just as some groups today divide those they feel are "Spirit filled" from those they feel are not.
"Nowhere is the tendency to Gnosticism more clearly or emphatically condemned than in 1 John.... Many claimed "I know God," "I abide in Christ," "I am in the light," even when they did not love their brethren on earth, did not obey Christ, and were destitute of love."(1)
"Gnosticism was distinguished by an unethical, loveless intellectualism."(2)
Let's view the passage again, this time in it's historical context.
In verse six, John exposes the false doctrine of the Gnostic infiltrators. They claimed that truth was that they could walk in darkness and continue to fellowship with God.
John counters the Gnostic heresy in verse seven by stating the true Christian doctrine. He says that only if they walk in the light as God is in the light, then, and only then can the blood of Jesus Christ cleanse them from all sin.
In verse eight, John claims that they are deceived in thinking that they had no sin for the blood of Jesus Christ to cleanse away.
John then states the remedy to their error by telling them that if they confess their sins, God will forgive them. He also continues on to tell them about the removal of sin in their lives by asserting that along with this forgiveness, God will cleanse them from ALL unrighteousness.
Verse ten states that if we do not feel that we have sins to be cleansed of, because we do not believe we ever sinned, then we would be calling God a liar.
John the Apostle is fighting against the error of Gnosticism, and not legalism. Nothing within this context would give us the warrant to contort the Apostles words by applying verses eight and ten to Christians.
One last word about the exegesis of this passage. We must stay consistent with our hermanuetical principles in this case.
If verse eight is applied to Christians because John uses "we", then verse ten must be applied to Christians also. When verse eight is used against those Christians that claim that they have been cleansed from ALL sin as John promises in verse seven, they are declaring that we cannot be free from sin, they are denying what is promised in the preceding verse.
To use this as an application and exhortation to Christians forces us to do the same in verse ten since John wrote, "If we say we have not sinned." What? Are we going to stand by such an absurd interpretation? Are we going to claim that one can be a Christian while they deny the necessity of the atonement in their lives? John could not write such a thing to a saved and regenerate person. They could have never found, or appealed for salvation in Christ if they saw no need because they had never sinned!
We have made too much of an issue over the use of "we" in this whole passage. Any rule of interpretation that leads us to absurdity cannot be true.
These Gnostics were apparently deceiving even the very elect. Even within the early church, many were being led astray by compelling and convincing false doctrine. Leaders within the early church were quick to jump in at the early signs of trouble. This is what John did. He made it clear that there is an undeniable change in the one that truly believes. This change is ethical, and shows that the believer has been transformed from darkness to light. D.A. Hayes wrote(3) that "Nothing could be clearer than that John puts the sinner into one category and the Christian into another. Sin distinguishes the one from the other. The man who sins is a sinner; and the Christian is cleansed from sin and kept from the power of the evil one. It is the normal experience in the Christian life to have constant and complete victory over sin...Purity was no impossibility."
The same dangerous doctrine of John's day has befallen the church of today. Not that many deny that they have sinned, but that they can walk in darkness and somehow enjoy the forgiveness and cleansing from sin at the same time, in spite of the Word of God.
There is much ado over the Apostles use of the term "we." It is claimed that when John stated that "if we say we have no sin" that John included himself, and thus, all Christians. We must understand that John used "we" in a way that does not always include himself and others. Concerning the antithesis between "we" and "you" in 1 John 1:3, F.F. Bruce wrote(4) "John tells his fellow-Christians to whom he writes of what he and his contemporaries had seen and heard, because his readers had not seen and heard it. We must sometimes distinguish between the inclusive'we' (meaning 'you and I' or 'you and we') and the exclusive'we' (meaning we and not you.)" Bruce does not tackle the use of "we" in verse 1:8, but there are options in light of it's context. First, these hearers were mixed in with the visible Church. So, John includes himself as a matter of softening the blow as we can imagine the one called the Apostle of love would do. It is common when one talks to a group to use the third person to make a point while avoiding direct attacks long enough to have the listener hear you out.
It is assumed that these verses say that we as Christians continue to sin, and this somehow frees us from the responsibility of abstaining from sin. The point under present consideration is not whether we have or have not sinned heretofore; and neither of these verses asserts that we do sin or commit sin now.(5) 1 John 1:8 does not say that Christians do sin, as many suppose. But, say some of those against whom John's polemic is directed. What is it to us if the blood of Jesus is not available to cleanse us from sin? We have no sin!....If people claim.....to have got beyond good and evil, to have reached a stage of spiritual development where moral principles are no longer relevant, they are self-deceived.(6) John was in no more danger of falling into this erroneous doctrine than any Christian would be. He was talking to the Gnostics.
Scripture never contradicts Scripture. This is the basic law of hermeneutics. This principle must
be even more so if we compare the work of one writer.
This lonely verse has been used to obscure every other reference to sin that John had to say.
What class of people does 1 John 1:8 have in mind? When he says "we" does he mean all Christians, including himself, as some expositors say, Christians just described as walking in the light, and by the blood of Christ cleansed from all sin? Is St. John writing to persons whose sins have been forgiven? I do not think so, because when it says "If we say we have no sin", this implies that we have sins that we have not committed, but are only liable to commit. Verse seven already substantiates that the believer is cleansed from all sin. This would imply that we are not cleansed. This saying that we are guilty of the sins that we are liable to commit accuses every angel in heaven while keeping his first probationary state, and Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, before their first sinful volition, of having sin, because they were liable to sin. It asserts a palpable contradiction, that a persons cleansed from sin still "have sin." " To have sin" includes the idea of personal guilt.
"If we say we have no sin," he means not Christians walking in the light of purity and perfect love, but any unregenerate man who declares that he has no sin to be forgiven, no guilt to wash away in the blood of Christ's atonement.(7)
To help understand the meaning in these verses , I will enclose the following fictional dialogue:
To get the true meaning of the verse in question, let us suppose a conversation between a Christian depending, as all must, on the blood of Christ for salvation, and a self-righteous sinner, who thinks he is good enough and has no sin, consequently no need of the cleansing blood.
Christian:My friend, did you know that "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? I have proved this to be true, and if you will come to Him as I did, you may prove it for yourself, and be cleansed from all sin.
Self-Righteous: But I have no sin to be cleansed away; I have no need for the blood of Jesus.
Christian:What? You say you have no sin? "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Surely you are wrong and self-deceived. You should repent, confess your sins, and be saved, for we read in 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Self-Righteous: But I have never sinned, and do not feel that I have anything to confess or repent of. I pay my honest debts, and treat my neighbors well, and support my family, and I believe I am just as good as anyone. I am not a sinner, and have never done anything wrong.
Christian:Surely, you are making God a liar, for in 1 John 1:10 it says: "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us." Thus we get at the meaning of the last four verses of 1 John 1.(8)
This scarecrow can no longer frighten us, or defeat us from holy living. This scarecrow has a name, and his name is devil, the father of lies. Those who hide behind this teaching do not see the front side of the scarecrow. What they see is the backside, and it is disguised as the Bible. What could be more contradictory than to hide behind the Bible to justify sinful living?
1. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, General Editor. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. 1982, Vol 2:487. "Gnosticism," by W.L. Walker, D.D.
2. IBID.Vol 2:487
3. John and His Writings, D.A. Hayes, Methodist Book Concern, 1917. Pages 192-193.
5. Wesley's Works,John Wesley, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. Peabody, MA. 1986. Vol.6:14, 15.
6. The Epistles of John,F.F.Bruce, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. 1970, Page 44
7. Half Hours with St. John, Dr. Daniel Steele, Schmul Publishers, Salem, OH. 1901 Pages 128-129.
8. Wrested Scriptures made Plain, W.E.Shepard, Evangelist, Pentecostal Publishing Company, Louisville, KY. 1900. Pages 10, 11.
This article was written by Mr. Jeff Paton. Mr. Paton has read and studied many of the classic Methodist and Wesleyan theological writings. He is a supporter of Bible Believing Methodism and IMARC. We thank God for his insight and ministry. If you would like to contact Mr. Paton, you may feel free to do so.