As we begin looking at the second chapter of this book, I want to start by noting that this is one of those places where the chapter division is probably much more confusing than helpful. Look at the last two verses of chapter one and the first two verses of chapter two taken together:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (NIV)
Perhap you can immediately see that there is no break in thought here. So try to make it a point to understand these verses in light of the end of chapter one as you study them.
v1. John refers to this church affectionately as his “little children,” reminding them both of their need for his guidance as well as his love for them. He then reminds them that he writes “this . . . so that you will not sin.” The “this” refers to the previous few verses. In telling the church that Jesus had paid the price for their sins, far from giving them a license to do whatever they want, he tells them that this should encourage them not to sin! But how could that be? If we follow the logic of the apostle so far, the answer is fairly straightforward. If we walk in sin, then we are liars. We are deceived. We are living in darkness. Therefore, we have no fellowship with God or with one another. In other words, sin has serious consequences!
But still, the fact is that we do sin. Johh, then, points to our “advocate.” Interestingly, this is the same word used by Jesus to refer to the Holy Spirit: parakletos (“the Paraclete”). This is sometimes taken to mean “the one who comes along beside us.” That’s a fitting description of Jesus’ ministry. When we fail, Jesus is there to forgive and pick us up, to tell the Father that we are still loved, still in grace, still in Him. After all, He is “the Righteous One.” Indeed, the only reason He can be our advocate with the Father is because He truly is righteous. This ties in closely with 1:9 and “confessing” our sins. We noted before that means to see our sins the way God does, but here we see more deeply why. Only Jesus, who is truly just, can see our sins for what they truly are. Since He is the advocate, it is His testimony that matters. Therefore, we are submit to His judgment of us. It is in that process that He “purges us from all unrighteousness” (1:9).
v2. Not only is Jesus our advocate, He is also our “atoning sacrifice.” Now, there has been a lot of ink spilled over that word and the exact limits of its meaning. Let me try to get to the heart of the matter: Jesus’ death on the cross took away our sins. Whatever else it means, it means at least that. And that is part of Jesus’ righteousness. It is part of the reason He is our advocate. It is part of the reason that confession is so important. For to confess is not only to allow ourselves to live in fellowship with Him, but it requires us to live at the foot of the cross, which is just where grace most richly abounds!
As rich as that is, though, John doesn’t stop there. Not only, he says, is Jesus “our atoning sacrifice,” but he He is also the atoning sacrifice “for the sins of the whole world.” I think at this point a lot of people gloss over what John is saying. Jesus is not the potential sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. The verse doesn’t say that the sacrifice only “counts” if the world confesses Him. Jesus really is the sacrifice for their sins. Even the sins of unbelievers have been atoned for. And this is not some unimportant theological nuance. It has real, practical ramifications for how we read this book and how we live our lives. If we say that Jesus’ sacrifice only becomes effective when we confess, then how would any of us be able to live without spending all of every minute of every day in confession? The fact is, Jesus’ sacrifice has accomplished something astounding: all of our sins–past, present, and future–have been atoned for. Confession, then, does not lead to atonement and therefore salvation. Confession leads to fellowship and therefore spiritual growth. I am not saying, by the way, that the unbelieving world is saved. I’m saying that their sins have been as atoned for as mine and yours, and that their condemnation has less to do with their sins than it does with their being dead in those sins (that is, they do not have eternal life; cf. Rev. 20:15). And such a view ought to give us confidence before God. We who have believed can approach Him knowing that we are saved even if our fellowship is broken and seek to have that fellowship restored by confession and living in the light, “just as He is in the light” (1:7).
v3. One might be tempted to look at verse three as starting a new paragraph, somehow disconnected from the last two verses. That would be a regrettable mistake. The grammar suggets to me that John is extending his comments about Jesus. First he told us that Christ is our advocate. Then he told us that Christ is just. Then he told us that Christ is the atoning sacrifice both for Christians as well as for the entire world. And how John moves to tell us something else: We can be sure we “know him” if we “keep His commandments.”
First, we should know that “knowing” Jesus probably doesn’t refer to eternal salvation. It is a word suggesting deep and intimate fellowship. It suggests relationship. I really know Jesus, this Righteous Advocate and Perfect Sacrifice, when I keep His commandments. Such a reading is beautifully consistent with all we have seen so far. Second, we should take seriously the idea of “keeping” Jesus’ commandments. This certainly includes the idea of obedience, but let’s not limit it to that, as if Jesus were just giving us another law to guide our behavior. Rather, the idea of “keep” here suggests paying close attention to something. In other words, having fellowship with Christ and walking in the light is less about moral perfectionism and more about loving our Savior.
v4. John now gives the obvious corollary to his previous point. The person who says he does have that deep, intimate relationship with Christ and yet pays no attention to His commands “is a liar.” Indeed, “the truth is not in him.” It is helpful to note the truth/liar theme that has been running through these last few verses. In particular, note that in 1:10, the one who claims he has never sinned makes Christ the “liar.” In short, either Christ is a liar or we are sinners in need of His salvation. If we say or imply, then, that we aren’t really sinners or that we don’t really need salvation, then we’ve sided against Jesus and claimed that He is the liar. Once again, this has dramatic implications for the whole idea of fellowship with God and with one another, for there can be no fellowship between liars.
v5. Now John begins to summarize this entire line of thought. Far from being a liar, the one who does pay careful attention to “His word” has his love for God perfected, completed, or brought to maturity. Once again we see language of fellowship and spiritual growth. We will expand on that idea in some detail in next section (v7ff.). But for now, note that there does not seem to be a lot of room left for any sort of lukewarm, cultural Christianity. Either we are in a deep, intimate fellowship with Christ and therefore our love for God is matured, or else we are not in that fellowship and we walk in darkness. Those in the second category who insist that they really are in a deep relationship with God, that they deeply love Him, are lying to and deceiving themselves.
v6. At the end of verse five, John says, “By this we know that we we are in Him.” I’m treating that here in verse six, because I agree with most translations that suggest the “this” is the content of verse six. If we’re going to say that we “remain in Him” (i.e., in intimate fellowship with Him*), then we are obligated “to walk as He walked.” The word “remain” here is important. It is often translated “abide.” When I read this, I’m reminded of Old Testament verses like Gen. 5:24, that says “Enoch walked with God.” This isn’t at all referring to a simple profession of faith or walking an aisle! It’s talking about a way of life. If we want to truly be able to say that we are living in Christ, if we want our love for Him to mature and grow, if we want to really pay close attention to our Savior, then we must live as He lived.
* It’s important not to read John as if we were reading Paul. For Paul, the phrase “in Him” is salvific, insofar as it usually refers to our positional justification in Christ. One is either in Christ or in Adam. Yet that does not seem to be the way John is using the phrase. The context from beginning to end has been about fellowship with Christ, an understanding that should be adopted here as well all the more given that John is talking about “abiding” in Christ.