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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

1 John 1



Other Authors
Verses 1-4

Verses 5-10

[2. First Half. God is Light (1 John 1:5 to 1 John 2:28).


(2) FIRST INFERENCE: The true fellowship (1 John 1:6-7); the Christian must not sin.

(3) SECOND INFERENCE: Confession of sins (1 John 1:8-10); the Christian must not conceal his sin.

(4) THIRD INFERENCE: Remedy for sins (1 John 2:1-2).





(a) Signs whereby they should know the forerunners of the last time (1 John 2:18-23).

(b) Exhortation to continue in the light (1 John 2:24-28).]

(1) (5) This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you.—What the Son had received from the Father, this the Apostles were to report to the world. The attention is aroused, as by the silence before the thunderstorm, to expect a central and fundamental notion of the utmost importance.

That God is light.—Here is the essence of Christian theology, the truth about the Deity as opposed to all the imperfect conceptions of Him which had embittered the minds of the wise. To the heathen, Deity had meant angry, malevolent beings, worshipped best by the secrecy of outrageous vice; to the Greeks and Romans, forces of nature transformed into superhuman men and women, powerful and impure; to the philosophers, an abstraction either moral or physical; to the Gnostics it was a remote idea, equal and contending forces of good and evil, recognisable only through less and less perfect deputies. All this John, summing up what the Old Testament and our Lord had said about the Almighty Father, sweeps away in one simple declaration of truth. Light was God’s garment in Psalms 104:2; to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:2), the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord was brightness; to Habakkuk (1 John 3:3), His brightness was as the light; Christ had called the sons of God children of the light (John 12:36), and announced Himself as the Light of the World (John 8:12); in the Hebrews (Hebrews 1:3), Christ was the refracted ray of the Father’s glory, “the express image of His person;” to James, the Almighty was the Father of all lights (James 1:17); to Paul, He dwells “in the light that no man can approach unto” (1 Timothy 6:16); to St. Peter, the Christian state is an admission “into His marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). These ideas John comprehends: God is Light. Light physical, because (1) it was He who called everything first out of darkness, and (2) from whom proceeds all health and perfection; light intellectual, because (1) He is the source of all wisdom and knowledge, and (2) in His mind exist the ideals after which all things strive; light moral, because (1) His perfection shows that the difference between good and evil is not merely a question of degree, but fundamental and final, and (2) the life of Christ had exhibited that contrast sharply: once for all. Thus, on this declaration depends the whole doctrine of sin: sin is not merely imperfection; it is enmity to God. There can be no shades of progression, uniting good and evil: in Him is no darkness at all. Good and evil may be mixed in an individual: in themselves they are contrary.

(2) (6) If we say.—A favourite form with John, expressing sympathetic delicacy.

That we have fellowship with him. . . .—Some of the Gnostics (like the Anabaptists) said that on account of their spiritual knowledge they were free to act as they liked, without committing sin. For walking as a description of the spiritual state, compare 1 John 2:6; 2 John 1:6; Romans 6:4; Romans 8:4; Ephesians 4:17; Philippians 3:20.

Darkness would include any conscious habit which was opposed to God’s example of perfection.

We lie.—We are a self-contradiction, and we know it.

And do not the truth.—The truth with St. John is as much a matter of action as of thought and word; that sphere of conduct which is in harmony with God, whose nature is Light.

(7) As he is in the light.—The effulgence of the atmosphere of the perfectly good, the sinlessly loving, the gloriously pure, which, created by God and proceeding from Him, is specially “His throne.” At the same time, wherever such characteristics of Divine Light are found, there He is particularly present.

We have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.—The antithesis to “lying and doing not the truth,” presented under the twofold aspect of (1) the brotherly result of walking with God, (2) its purifying influence. Each human being that comes near us becomes the object of our friendly sympathy; and the sacrifice of Christ has both put away the sin of the world and prevents sin from reigning in our mortal bodies; it obtains forgiveness for us, and by reminding us that it was sin that brought Jesus to the cross, has a continually purifying power over us, through the Spirit of Christ and of the Father. (See 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 1:7; Ephesians 1:19-20; Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19-23.)

(3) (8) If we say that we have no sin.—The preceding words had reminded St. John that even mature Christians, though certainly not “walking in darkness,” yet have sinful tendencies in themselves: sensuous impulses, non-spiritual inclinations, lack of self-knowledge, a lowered standard, principles and views borrowed partly from the world, wavering of will, and hence even graver faults. Not to admit this would be to mislead ourselves, and in us the power and energy of light, searching the very corners of the heart, would not be working. (See Romans 7:18-23; Galatians 5:17.)

(9) If we confess our sins.—An advance in the thought from the general “having sin.” Confession to God must recognise and measure each particular fault. (Psalms 32:5; Psalms 51:3; Proverbs 28:13; Luke 15:21.)

He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.—He, from the context, cannot possibly be any other than God. Here another grand progression of thought meets us: not merely “we are in the truth,” but the actual and glorious result on God’s side; faithful and just on account of Christ’s sacrifice and our repentance. For the double notion of forgiving and cleansing, see Note on 1 John 1:7. The Romish interpreters, in their arbitrary way, limit the cleansing here to purgatory.

(10) If we say that we have not sinned.—The argument of the passage equally excludes the interpretation “freedom from guilt since conversion” as “innocence during the whole life.” St. John is here repeating, in a more emphatic form, the thought of 1 John 1:8.

We make him a liar, and his word is not in us.—Stronger far than “we lie,” or “the truth is not in us.” Our foolish presumption is regarded in its worst aspect: an impiety against God, whose word, revelation, appeal to our conscience, and witness by the Spirit, are thus blasphemously contradicted. Parallel to “we do not the truth” and “the truth is not in us,” the practical result here is that we cannot be regarded as having in any sense received God’s revelation into our hearts.

Verse 7

Fellowship in the Light

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin.—1 John 1:7.

1. It is remarkable that the Apostle does not here repeat what he had just before said of “fellowship with God,” as we might have expected he would do. Indeed, so natural is that expectation, that Dr. Plummer says, “The craving to make this verse the exact antithesis of the preceding one has generated another reading” as old as the second century—“We have fellowship with Him.” The real reason for the altered expression to be found in this verse is to be sought in the fact that fellowship with “one another” in the body of Christ is the human expression and result of all real fellowship with God. The communion of saints is an unmistakable proof that the saints themselves are in communion with God.

2. A second result of this walk in the light now comes to be mentioned. It leads to the discovery of sin, of our own sin, and so St. John adds, “and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” The connexion of these words with what has gone before is not accidental, for our walking in the light first of all discloses to us the reality of our own sin, and then reveals to us the perfect cleansing from sin that God has provided in “the blood of Jesus his Son.”

That blessed text, “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin,” which sometimes comes down on the heart like a whole heaven of peace and joy and glory, will at other times be as meaningless as the darkest sayings of the prophets, or as powerless as the vainest utterances of human folly. And then just as one is bemoaning its darkness, it will suddenly blaze out in astonishing brightness, and almost startle the heart by its revelations of safety and strength.1 [Note: The Life of R. W. Dale, 79.]

This was the text that God blessed to give peace to Hedley Vicars, that dashing young officer who died at Sebastopol leading on his soldiers, and crying out, “This way, men of the 97th!” He had before this been a careless young man; but one day he went to a brother officer’s room, and found him not within. There was a Bible lying on the table, and he took it up just to while away the time. The first verse that his eye lighted on was this: “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” “Cleanseth us from all sin?” said he. “And is there really something that can cleanse away all my sins? If so, by the blessing of God, I’ll have them cleansed away.” And soon he was rejoicing in Jesus, who died for his sins, and who was then alive, and present with him continually. Ever afterwards till he died, this was his favourite verse: “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”2 [Note: W. J. Patton, Pardon and Assurance, 88.]

In 1907 King Oscar of Sweden lay on his death-bed. When the end seemed very near, the Queen bent down over her husband and repeated this verse in his ear. The dying King replied, “Thanks be to Jesus.” These were his last words (from a newspaper report).

We can understand what the sorrowing wife meant by quoting the verse. The outward parting was approaching, yet the fellowship would abide.

O blest communion, fellowship Divine!

We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;

Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

“The blood of Jesus cleanseth” comes last in the verse. We might have thought that it should come first. First the cleansing, and then the walking. But no, just as we walk in the light shall we realize the need of cleansing all the more, up to the very close of life. And so the King’s last words were “Thanks be to Jesus.”3 [Note: John S. Maver.]


Walking in the Light

1. In the light.—There is no greater blessing than light. It is the indispensable condition of our existence. Bereft of light, all life would languish. Every living creature would lose its brightness and activity; every plant would wither; all the material world would lose its charm. How natural was it for men to identify with light the good they felt at work in their hearts, and to mark by darkness the evil with which it had to strive! Even in the Old Testament, light is the chosen figure for purity, truth, and life; darkness for impurity, falsehood, and death. Here, then, we find the most probable explanation of the special form in which the Apostle sets his representation of the nature of God. He is anxious to protect his fellow-disciples against the subtle errors by which he sees them surrounded. He wishes especially to guard them against the superstitious notion that there could be the merest shadow of evil in the nature or life of Him whom they had come to know as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus.

What is suggested by “light” throughout the passage is something absolutely luminous and transparent, in which there is no concealment and no need for any. To say that God is light is to say for one thing that in God there is nothing to hide: if He is dark, it is with excess of light; it is because He dwells in light that is inaccessible, not because there is anything in Him that of its own nature craves obscurity. This is the line on which our thoughts are led by the following verses, where the opposite of walking in the light is evidently hiding sin, or denying that we have sinned. It is some kind of secrecy—which no doubt has its motive in sin—that is meant by darkness, and this gives us the key to walking in the light. To walk in the light means to live a life in which there is nothing hidden, nothing in which we are insincere with ourselves, nothing in which we seek to impose upon others. We may have, and no doubt we will have, both sin and the sense of sin upon us—“if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”—but we may walk in the light nevertheless, if we deal truly with our sin; and it is only as we do so that we enjoy Christian fellowship and are cleansed by the blood of Jesus.

Did you never, in walking the fields, come across a large flat stone, which had lain, nobody knows how long, just where you found it, with the grass forming a little hedge, as it were, all around it, close to its edges?—and have you not, in obedience to a kind of feeling that told you it had been lying there long enough, insinuated your stick or your foot or your fingers under its edge and turned it over as a housewife turns a cake, when she says to herself, “It’s done brown enough by this time”? What an odd revelation, and what an unforeseen and unpleasant surprise to a small community, the very existence of which you had not suspected, until the sudden dismay and scattering among its members produced by your turning the old stone over! Blades of grass flattened down, colourless, matted together, as if they had been bleached and ironed; hideous crawling creatures, some of them coleopterous or horny-shelled—turtle-bugs, one wants to call them; some of them softer, but cunningly spread out and compressed like Lepine watches; black, glossy crickets, with their long filaments sticking out like the whips of four-horse stagecoaches; motionless, slug-like creatures, young larvæ, perhaps more horrible in their pulpy stillness than even in the infernal wriggle of maturity! But no sooner is the stone turned and the wholesome light of day let upon the compressed and blinded community of creeping things, than all of them which enjoy the luxury of legs—and some of them have a good many—rush about wildly, butting each other and everything in their way, and end in a general stampede for underground retreats from the region poisoned by sunshine. Next year you will find the grass growing tall and green where the stone lay; the ground-bird builds her nest where the beetle had its hole; the dandelion and the buttercup are growing there; and the broad fans of insect-angels open and shut over their golden disks, as the rhythmic waves of blissful consciousness pulsate through their glorified being.1 [Note: O. W. Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, ch. v.]

2. Walking in the light.—Life is a walk. It is something to feel that life is a walk; not a game, a pastime, or outburst of passion; not a random flight, or a groping, creeping, grovelling crawl, or a mazy, labyrinthian puzzle; but a walk; a steady walk; an onward march and movement; a business-like, purpose-like, step-by-step advance in front—such a walk as a man girds himself for and shoes himself for, and sets out upon with staff in hand, and firm-set face; and holds on in, amid stormy wind and drifting snow; resolute to have it finished and to reach the goal. Such a walk is real life—life in earnest.

Jowett, I remember, had said shortly before, in one of his quaint and characteristic Balliol sermons, “The search for truth is one thing; fluttering after it is another.” Here was a man whose earnestness rebuked all “fluttering,” who was plainly in honest and urgent search for truth, and who found it in the Word made Flesh.1 [Note: Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, i. 584.]

In the ages when a pilgrimage to Palestine was held in such esteem, there sprang up a set of idle impostors who wandered about everywhere in the country and sought alms at the hands of the inhabitants under the pretext that they were preparing to go à la sainte terre—to the Holy Land. It was soon discovered that they had never left their native shores; and such disgust did their vain professions inspire that a new word was coined to reprobate the shameful practice, and they were called “saunterers.” With equal truth may the term be applied to all who profess to be Christians without moving forward energetically to the heavenly goal.2 [Note: J. P. Lilley, The Pathway of Light, 26.]

As to the character which our work should bear, Browning’s teaching is clear beyond the shadow of a doubt. However menial the work itself may be, it must be done with the utmost possible efficiency. He will not countenance any shuffling, any inferior expedients for completing the task allotted, simply with a view to getting through it.

Our best is bad, nor bears Thy test;

Still, it should be our very best.

If it be not, then not only will that which is wrought be so far defective, but the possibilities of the future will be marred and spoiled. Our life is a unity. One flaw makes its influence felt everywhere, prevents the perfection of the whole—more than that, hinders any true advancement towards perfection:

If one step’s awry, one bulge

Calls for correction by a step we thought

Got over long since, why, till that is wrought,

No progress!3 [Note: J. Flew, Studies in Browning, 193.]

3. Walking in the light, as He is in the light.—What does this mean? How can it be done? First let us remember that the Apostle makes no impossible demand when he speaks of our walking in the light. He does not require of us that we should be perfect in the sense in which God is perfect; but he does demand that we should in all sincerity place ourselves under the influence of the light which is in God, and which streams forth from Him. He does not ask perfect holiness, as God is holy; but he demands concentrated zeal. No hindrance must be offered to the light of truth and holiness with which our life is to be penetrated. When he bids us “walk in the light,” he means, as already said, that our whole life should be influenced thereby, our thoughts and acts, the outer as well as the inner man; our life is to be illuminated through that hallowing and transfiguring light which comes from God, and which illuminates us in Christ Jesus.

Everything depends on whether what we do is done in the darkness or in the light. A manufacturer of carmine, who was aware of the superiority of the French colour, went to Lyons and bargained with the most celebrated manufacturer in that city for the acquisition of his secret. He was shown all the process, and saw a beautiful colour produced; but he found not the least difference between the French mode of fabrication and that which had been constantly adopted by himself. He appealed to his instructor, and insisted that he must have concealed something. The man assured him that he had not, and invited him to see the process a second time. He minutely examined the water and the materials, which were in every respect similar to his own; and then, very much surprised, he said, “I have lost my labour and my money, for the air of England does not permit us to make good carmine.” “Stay,” said the Frenchman; “what kind of weather do you manufacture in? Were I to attempt to manufacture it on a dark cloudy day, my results would be the same as yours. Let me advise you always to make carmine on bright, sunny days.”1 [Note: L. A. Banks, John and his Friends, 21.]



1. Walking in the light produces a genuine fellowship. The light in which God dwells becomes the very element in which His true children breathe and move. A communion ensues, which extends to the whole society of believers, and the members are linked each to each, as all are linked in heaven, by the same golden bands that bind them to the community on high and to their common Head, until the last link of the whole disappears from view, lost in the central light that surrounds the “unapproachable” throne of God.

Redeemed by one sacrifice for sins for ever, they share one life, for Christ is their life; one ambition, for His glory is their highest desire; one food, for His Word and His Table are their sustenance; one faith, for all their hope is built on His Blood and righteousness, not on their own; one task, for the evangelization of the world is the work which He has left His Church to do; one heart, for if one member suffers all the members, so far as membership is real and vital, and not merely mechanical or even ecclesiastical, suffer with it; one in hope, for all are, if things are right with them, “looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ”; and with one rule of life, freely giving what has been freely received.

The Gospel became at once a social message. The preaching which laid hold of the outer man, detaching him from the world, and uniting him to his God, was also a preaching of solidarity and brotherliness. The Gospel, it has been truly said, is at bottom both individualistic and socialistic. Its tendency towards mutual association, so far from being an accidental phenomenon in its history, is inherent in its character. It spiritualizes the irresistible impulse which draws one man to another, and it raises the social connexion of human beings from the sphere of a convention to that of a moral obligation. In this way it serves to heighten the worth of man, and essays to recast contemporary society, to transform the socialism which involves a conflict of interests into the socialism which rests upon the consciousness of a spiritual unity and common goal. This was ever present to the mind of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. In his little churches, where each person bore his neighbour’s burden, St. Paul’s spirit already saw the dawning of a new humanity, and in the Epistle to the Ephesians he has voiced this feeling with a thrill of exultation. Far in the background of these churches, like some unsubstantial semblance, lay the division between Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian, great and small, rich and poor. For a new humanity had now appeared, and the Apostle viewed it as Christ’s body, in which every member served the rest and each was indispensable in his own place.1 [Note: Harnack.]

2. Dependence is, indeed, an inexorable law of natural life. Our faith has anticipated the conclusion and hallowed it. Men must be dependent on one another. For saints this dependence is transfigured into fellowship. The believer recognizes that the power which acts upon him from without is the expression of a spiritual life. He sees that the image of Christ’s Body gives the truest possible view of the relation in which all who are “in Him” stand to one another. The one life, the one Spirit, by which they are united to their Head, united eternally, united them in time to one another. In that Divine vision life appears in the fullest proportions we can yet apprehend. We turn from the living to the dead, and, as we contemplate the splendour of the heritage which they have bequeathed to us, we confess with no unworthy self-disparagement that without them we are incomplete. We turn from the dead to the living, and as we trace the lineaments of a Divine likeness in those about us, we give thanks without presumption that there are saints now.

Sir Henry Havelock used to meet with his soldiers for prayer. His men were called “Havelock’s saints.” “Yes,” said Sir Robert Sale, “and I wish the whole regiment were Havelock’s saints, for I never see a saint in the guardroom, or his name in the defaulter’s book.” On one occasion in Burmah, when an outpost was attacked by night, some of the troops being unfit for duty through drink, the General in command said, “Get the saints, you can depend on them, they are always sober.”1 [Note: Morning Watch, 1894, p. 16.]



1. One of the first evidences and signs of the coming of the Spirit of God—and His coming is the coming of the light in the heart—is a new discovery of the depth and reality of sin. It is the imperfect light, the twilight, in which so many professing Christians live that accounts for that weakened sense of sin which is so marked a feature of the present day.

Some little time ago a tourist who was walking through the Lake District was overtaken at night by a heavy storm of wind and of rain, and soon got soaked to the skin. In the darkness he was glad to see the twinkling of a light by the roadside that proved to be the light of a little inn, in which he at once took shelter from the pitiless rain. The landlord, with a rushlight, showed him to what looked like a fairly clean and comfortable room, and the weary and soaked traveller was glad to get rid of his wet things and to have them dried by the morning.

The morning sun streaming through the window awoke him, and the moment his eyes were opened he was horrified to see the room in which he had been sleeping. The walls and the floor and even the curtains were filthy, and he was glad to escape from the room as quickly as possible. The night before he thought the room was fairly clean, now he saw its foulness; but the room had not changed during the night, it was only the light that had changed. The little rushlight was not light enough to reveal all the dirt of the room, but when the sunlight of heaven came streaming in the revelation was made in a moment.1 [Note: G. S. Barrett, The First Epistle General of St. John, 50.]

2. Now it is a universal law that blood alone can redeem. The Creator of all things accepts the law of suffering in order to save and to bless the race that has sinned. The connexion between this suffering and the remission of sins may be hard to trace; but in the absence of any theory defining that connexion we may recognize the harmony between this revelation of the infinite love of God and the deepest laws of human life. We must suffer greatly to redeem greatly. God also suffered greatly that He might greatly redeem. And apart from theory, when the human heart, agitated by the consciousness of sin, troubled by the guilt of past years, seeing the shadow of that guilt extending over the years that are coming, wondering whether it can ever be possible to escape from it—when the human heart, haunted by the worst fears, discovers that the Eternal Son of God is descending from the heights of eternal glory and is sharing its sufferings, its temptations, its death, the Gospel is out, the secret is disclosed. He has come to suffer instead of to punish. He, the representative of the Eternal Lord of Righteousness, must express in some way His abhorrence and His condemnation of human sin. How shall He express it? By sweeping into eternal darkness the race that had transgressed the Divine commandments? No! but in a sublimer form, by making Himself one of that race, and descending from His eternal glories to shame, to sorrow, and to death. Apart from theory altogether, the discovery that the Eternal Son of God has done that, quietens the conscience, gives the heart courage and peace, and enables the man who had faltered and hesitated as to whether he could accept the assurance of Divine forgiveness to accept it with courage, thankfulness, and hope.

The essential part of every sin offering was the blood, because the blood is the life. It was, further, a principle of the Mosaic sacrifices that anything placed upon the altar became the property of God, and was, therefore, invested with a peculiar sanctity. The blood of a sacrificed animal was thus first a thing of excellent worth in itself, being the life; and next a thing endowed with highest sanctity, because it now belonged to God. It was the most holy thing with which even the high priest himself had to do. Once more, the law said that nothing less sacred than this consecrated blood might be used in the expiation of sin. For certain ceremonial defilements water was the purifying element; but in a majority of instances even these defilements exacted a mingling of blood with the water. The statement of the writer to the Hebrews is strictly accurate,—“almost all things are by the law purged with blood” (Hebrews 9:22). For the removal of moral defilement, however—for the purposes of an atonement—nothing but the consecrated blood was efficacious. Without shedding of blood is no remission.1 [Note: W. J. Woods.]

3. Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture; died the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God. And, whatever the ineffable mystery of the atonement may conceal, this at least is clear, that our sins did, in some way, make part of the terrible necessity that He must die if He would save us. These phases of the sacrificed life of our Lord—its wondrous revelation of His own deathless purpose to save us; its exhibition of the great heart of God not willing that we should perish; and its connexion, its real and dread connexion, with our sins—these are the elements that constitute the cleansing power of that sacrificed life. For these mighty forces excite within the bosom of every man who vividly contemplates the cross of Christ the two emotions which, far more than any others, are the redeeming, saving, purifying energies of our hearts. They excite gratitude and love.

Of such supreme importance in the Christian revelation is this idea, or rather this fact, of redemption by His blood, that our Lord Jesus Christ Himself instituted a solemn service to express it, and to be the perpetual memorial and monument of it, Other great truths Christ trusted to the oral and written teaching of Apostles; but that He is the bread of life and that His blood was shed for the remission of sins are truths of a unique kind; they belong to the very substance of the Christian revelation; they are the germs and the roots of everything besides. To lose them would be to lose what is most characteristic and what is most essential in all that He has revealed to mankind. While they are preserved everything is saved. He therefore did not choose to trust them to the written Gospels, which would preserve the memory of His life and His ministry; He did not choose to trust them to the oral teachings of the Apostles or to the Epistles which they were to write; He instituted a pathetic service, a visible ceremonial, to enshrine, to protect them, to perpetuate them through all generations.1 [Note: R. W. Dale.]

(1) The Blood cleanses: it does not merely cloak.—The high priest was to take an aspersory of hyssop and dip it in the blood of the victim and sprinkle the doors and the holy place, typifying thereby that the sprinkling of the Blood of Christ is that which sanctifies the universe, of which the tabernacle was the symbol. It is a direct allusion to the Passion of Christ that we find in the Fifty-first Psalm, where David says, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean”; that is, sprinkle me as the high priest sprinkled the victim, with the Blood of Christ, and I shall be clean—clean from the defilement and pollution of sin and its consequences.

When Butler in his dying moments had expressed his awe at appearing face to face before the Moral Governor of the world, his Chaplain, we are told, spoke to him of “the blood which cleanseth from all sin.” “Ah, that is comfortable,” he replied; and with these words on his lips he gave up his soul to God.2 [Note: Bishop Lightfoot, Northern Leaders, 169.]

(2) It is not mere remission.—It is not mere averting of the punishment. It is not mere pronouncing man just when he is in fact unjust. It is not mere annulling of pains and penalties. It is all this and more. By cleansing we mean making that pure which before was foul, and this is what we attribute to the Blood of Christ. We believe that in that Blood there is such a virtue as to be able to transform the sinful nature of man into an imperfect but real image of the holiness of God; that before its might, all that is base and unclean fades away, and that, like the chemist’s potent elixir, it transmutes the baser elements with which it comes in contact into a new and more perfect substance.

Pardon is not enough. Pardon seems merely to restore us to a kind of negative condition. Pardon may mean, in some cases, where not fully understood and realized, mere innocence. There was a stain upon the heart: that stain has been removed by a powerful detergent, and now the heart is pretty much as it was in years gone by. That may be some people’s notion of pardon. But when God pardons there is another step involved, and another element enters into consideration. Man becomes not only pardoned, he becomes also holy. Holiness is more than innocence. Holiness denotes vitality of sympathy as between the soul and God. Holiness is the comprehensive word which includes the whole discipline of life, the whole trust of the heart in God, and the continuous aspiration of the spirit after the perfectness of God’s own beauty.1 [Note: J. Parker.]

(3) The Blood cleanses continuously.—It cleanses when we first come to Jesus, but it continues to cleanse every day we live.

No feature in the growing saintliness of an earnest Christian is more marked than his desire to make continued use of the blood of the Lamb. Said a Scottish minister of the older days: “New spots call for new washing, so that this must be our very life and exercise to be daily and continually running to the fountain with our souls and giving Christ the great Purger much to do.” “The saint’s preparation for the duties of each day,” wrote Dr. Bonar, “is a fresh application to the blood, in which he bathes his conscience anew each morning as he rises.” So Robert McCheyne also wrote: “I ought to go to Christ for the forgiveness of each sin. In washing my body, I go over every spot and wash it out. Should I be less careful in washing my soul? This is God’s way of peace and holiness. It is folly to the world and the beclouded heart; but it is the way. I must never think a sin too small to need immediate application to the blood of Christ.”

(4) The Blood cleanses completely—“from all sin.”—Fellowship with God and walking in the light can never take sin away. No emotion, no feeling, no attainment, no height of spirituality, can remove our guilt. Our guilt was taken away by the great Propitiation, when He suffered without the gate, and knew the withdrawings of God. We have our peace not from the reigning Saviour, but from the bleeding Saviour, not from the King in His glory, but from the Redeemer in His shame. For this text speaks of a complete cleansing. We are cleansed from all sin. Even though the body of sin crucified within us is dying its slow, difficult death, there is a great sense in which we are even now delivered from all evil. Through the blood-shedding of Christ we have remission of sins now, and are as truly forgiven as we shall be when the light of the glory of God falls on the resurrection face. So far as sin is a matter of guilt before God, it is taken away even to the last relic of evil, and we walk with God in the light, having our conversation above the skies.

Soon after I was converted I bought a cyclostyle so that I could make many copies of my own Gospel messages and bills. In my enthusiasm I forgot the effect of the special ink on linen. My wristbands, collars, and handkerchiefs got woefully stained with what my mother called “that nasty black stuff.” One hot summer day I had been very busy. My fingers became unusually black with ink, and, forgetting this, I pushed up my wristbands, pulled my collar to ease my neck, and finally pulled out my handkerchief to wipe my perspiring face. Turning them out for the washing, my mother brought them to me to show me how I had stained them, saying mortal hands could never wash them white again. She threatened to burn my cyclostyle, and this made me think soberly how could these black stains be removed. On the morning of the washing day a bill was passed into our door. I looked at it and to my surprise and joy I read in capital letters: “Warranted to take out all stains and make the linen pure and white.” I soon purchased this cleanser and said to my mother, “I am sorry for what I have done, but here is something that will take the stains out. Just try it.” She looked at it, a little suspicious, but said nothing. When I returned in the evening I was glad to see my mother looking quite pleased. I said, “Did you try that cleanser?” “Yes, I did.” “How did it act?” “Act! Why, Tom, there’s not a stain left and I never saw your linen look so white, it is as white as the driven snow.”1 [Note: Thomas Calder.]

Were the sad tablets of our hearts alone

A dreary blank, for Thee the task were slight,

To draw fair letters there and lines of light:

But while far other spectacle is shown

By them, with dismal traceries overdrawn,

Oh! task it seems, transcending highest might,

Ever again to make them clean and white,

Effacing the sad secrets they have known.

And then what heaven were better than a name,

If there must haunt and cling unto us there

Abiding memories of sin and shame?

Dread doubt! which finds no answer anywhere

Except in Him, who with Him power did bring

To make us feel our sin an alien thing.1 [Note: R. C. Trench, Poems, 143.]

Fellowship in the Light


Arnot (W.), The Anchor of the Soul, 244.

Banks (L. A.), John and his Friends, 21.

Butler (A.), Sermons, i. 326.

Campbell (R. J.), New Theology Sermons, 217.

Cope (F. L.), A North Country Preacher, 1.

Dewhurst (E. M.), The King and His Servants, 191.

Ellis (R.), Sin and its Remedy, 49.

Farrar (F. W.), Truths to Live by, 74.

Forbes (A. P.), Sermons on the Grace of God, 75.

Griffiths (W.), Onward and Upward, 17.

Hoare (E.), Great Principles of Divine Truth, 162.

Hodge (C.), Princeton Sermons, 42.

Hopkins (E. H.), The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life, 121.

Joynt (R. C.), Liturgy and Life, 218.

Lilley (J. P.), The Pathway of Light, 49–111.

Macgregor (G. H. C.), A Holy Life, 33.

MacNeil (J.), The Spirit-Filled Life, 11.

Matheson (G.), Moments on the Mount, 137.

Meyer (F. B.), Present Tenses, 19.

Nicoll (W. R.), Sunday Evenings, 305.

Patton (W. J.), Pardon and Assurance, 71.

Talbot (E. S.), The Fulness of Christ, 103.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), iv. (1865) 506.

Westcott (B. F.), The Historic Faith, 236.

Verse 8-9

Righteous Forgiveness

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 righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.—1 John 1:8-9.

1. These words sum up the great characteristic aim which distinguishes Christianity from every other system and institution on earth. The object of education is to get rid of ignorance. The object of medicine is to get rid of disease. The object of Socialism (at least, according to many of its advocates) is to get rid of poverty. But the object of Christianity is to get rid of sin. The Gospel lays its finger on moral evil as the real mischief and misery of the world. Compared with the supreme curse of human selfishness, nothing else seriously matters. And accordingly the Gospel proposes to cure this inward malady of the soul. Herein, it stands apart from other religions. As Amiel said, “The prayer of the Buddhist is, ‘Deliver us from existence’; the prayer of the Christian is, ‘Deliver us from evil.’”


Contradicting God

1. If we say that we have no sin, we not only deceive ourselves, but we make God a liar. St. John warns us against three false views which a man is tempted to take of his condition: He may deny the reality of sin, or his responsibility for sin, or the fact of sin in his own case.

For the history of Christian faith shows how Christian enthusiasts have been found to maintain, in a strange and perverse way, that Divine communion had lifted them above the common distinctions of right and wrong. And in our own day, when people are persuading themselves, in the name of religion, that pain and disease are illusions, we need not wonder if they persuade themselves that duty is an illusion too. The Apostle confronts such men with a strong, blunt declaration. They lie: they are false to their own knowledge of right and wrong.

And experience of our own hearts, and of our own friends, explains how religious men can yet excuse themselves for wrongdoing by saying, “We have no sin”—that is to say, we are not responsible, we cannot be blamed. But to argue thus is to deceive ourselves, to confuse and corrupt our own consciences, to pervert our moral sense.

Again, it is still possible for men who recognize the reality and the ruin of moral evil to deny that they themselves are personally guilty. The Apostle confutes these men by appealing to God’s estimate of their condition, as shown in His redemption: to deny that we need to be redeemed is to make God a liar.

When asked whether he “had made his peace with God,” Thoreau quietly replied that “he had never quarrelled with him.” He was invited by another acquaintance to enter into a religious conversation concerning the next world. “One world at a time,” was the prompt retort.1 [Note: H. S. Salt, Henry David Thoreau, 210.]

Mr. D. L. Moody says that once he visited a prison in New York to hold a service with the prisoners. Afterwards he spoke to each of the prisoners privately. He said, “I never found such an innocent lot of men in my life as in that place. Each man explained that somebody else was to blame.”2 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks about the Tempter, 127.]

2. Already in the days of John there were Christians for whom the word “sin” was beginning to lose its meaning.

(1) It would seem that some thought it must be unworthy of God to vex Himself about the right or wrong doings of men. They pictured Him as so great and comprehensive that He contained within Himself darkness as well as light, and looked with equal complacency on the evil and on the good, so that what men call wrong-doing was not sin against Him, and therefore on a large view of creation deserved no condemnation. St. John knew that such a being had nothing in common with the Father of his Lord Jesus Christ, who had suffered and died to put away the sins of the world. On the strength of his fellowship with the very life of God, which had made itself known in his own spirit through the Person of Jesus, he declares that God is light without any mixture of darkness, and that men can be partakers of His life only by refusing to do the works of darkness.

(2) It was said by others that fellowship between men and God is impossible till men are sinless, for there is always darkness mixed with their light. Not so, the Apostle says; these spots of darkness on the human spirit are not indelible; the blood of God’s own Son has power to wash them out. In the virtue of that sacrifice lies the only possible abolition of sin. But do not imagine, he adds, that you have yet got clear of sin. That were self-deception. We must not only refuse to say that we have no sin, we must press forward to confess our sins, to carry them with shame before God for Him to abolish. And that He will surely do, both towards Himself and towards us. As sins in the proper sense of the word, offences against a loving Father and Maker, He will send them away, forgive them, allow them to make no breach between Him and us. As unrighteousness, as stains and injuries to our own natures, which He created for righteousness, He will cleanse them away and enable us to go forth in newness of life. Let us have no fears about His will to do this; it rests upon His very faithfulness and righteousness; in doing it He is not indulgently breaking in upon the strict law of His nature, but is acting as His external nature requires Him to act; He is but perfecting what He began, refusing to despise the work of His own hands, carrying out the purpose for which He sent His Son to die. And if, after all, in spite of the revelation of God as the destroyer of sin, we say that for our part we have committed no sin, we do more than deceive ourselves, more than refuse to receive the truth within us; we set ourselves directly against God in person, making Him a liar, smothering His voice within us.


Confessing Sin

1. What is confession? To confess sins is to own up to them before God, to say to ourselves and to Him that, however dark the way has been and however stiff the fight, however heavy the handicap has been, nevertheless, in the inner secret of our being, we know that at the last resort and the final analysis those sins would never have darkened the face of God’s heaven had we not chosen so to live.

That is confession in its first aspect—“These deeds are mine.” But there is a deeper aspect. We have to remember that these sins of ours, these separate and individual acts, come from a fountain which John calls “sin.” These sins, transgressions, are all of them the result of that in us which is a root and a source of evil. They are the result of that sin which is part of our character, part of our “make-up.” They have not come uncaused; they have not come out of nothing, but out of our own being; and because of the strain of bad blood, because of the strain of evil, because of the open source of wrong that there is in us, in our own choice and will, they have come forth to poison earth’s atmosphere. They are ours. That is confession.

(1) It is not confessing sin to admit the fact that you are a sinner; it is not confessing sin to admit the fact that it is an evil state; it is not confessing sin to admit that it is a base thing; it is not confessing sin to admit, when you contrast a holy state with an evil state, that the holy state is the better state. To confess sin is to come to the conclusion in your heart, and freely, with your lips, to make this admission, that your breach of God’s law, and your not loving God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your not loving every human being as yourself, is an awful thing, justly charged against you as your guilt, and in respect of which, neither the force of example, nor the influence of education, nor circumstances, nor a corrupted nature, furnish any apology whatever. The Bible says expressly, “The lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world”; and everywhere God is at great pains to separate between Himself and man’s sin, and to exonerate Himself from all responsibility for man’s sins. To confess sin is to take God’s word in the matter; it is to stand upon God’s side in the question; it is joining God against myself; and it is to feel that the fact that this sin is my sin, that this corruption is my corruption, does in no respect interfere with the sternness with which I recognize that this sin is a thing in which the guilty person is righteously held guilty.

I wish to call to remembrance my past vileness, and the corruptions of my soul; not because I love them, but that I may love Thee, O my God! I do this for the love of Thy love, calling to mind my most evil ways, that when I feel the bitterness of my own sin, then I may also feel how sweet Thou art.1 [Note: Augustine, Confessions.]

(2) What St. John insists on is that we be candid: that we be willing to be reproved and convicted, to have the cancer of evil excised by that Word of God, which is sharper than any two-edged sword. If we will not submit to this, is it not evident that the cancer will spread? If, however, there is candour, there will be confession to God. There will be confession also to man. St. John would not be unmindful of his Master’s teaching on confession, and his words here, “If we confess,” are wide enough to include confession to man as well as to God. Let there, then, be confession to the fellow-man we have wronged, if our sin has specially wronged any. No other confession to man is enjoined in Scripture. But this is enjoined, and is too seldom practised. When we have sinned against our fellow-man, let us measure the reality of our confession to God by our confession to man. If pride keeps us from this latter, of what worth is the former? “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” Such confession to man has its place as a means of deliverance from sin.

Suppose any one ill in body, in pain and distress, lying awake at night, refusing his nourishment or finding that it does him no good, his spirits low, his heart full of anguish, feeling as if all his good days were gone, and not knowing what to do, what medicine to take, how to live in order to obtain health and strength again. What are men used to do when such trouble as this comes upon them? Finding they cannot cure themselves, they go to some one whom they think more likely to cure them. They go to the physician: and having come to him, do they leave him to find out what is the matter by merely looking at them, or do they tell him their case themselves, and answer all his questions? Of course they tell him: it is their only chance to be cured; for how else is he to know what is the matter with them? And if he does not know, how can he prescribe for them? As, then, the way of bodily cure is to tell one’s ease fully to the physician, so the way of spiritual cure is to confess our sins to the physician of our souls: that is, to Almighty God, for He alone can heal the soul.1 [Note: J. Keble.]

2. Confession implies the reconstruction of the principles of our life. A good deal of so-called repentance is only sorrow at being punished. That is not repentance at all. And in such a state of mind no man can partake of Christ’s atonement. We cannot share in our Lord’s atonement until we copy His penitential character. Christ felt sin for all humanity. Christ confessed sin for all humanity. We, like Him, have to realize that the worst thing in sin is not its punishment, physical, mental, moral, but the alienation from God which it brings. It was that which broke the heart of the Sinless upon the cross. Christ has made atonement by His sinless life of obedience, leading, just because it was sinless, to the cross. But that atonement is of no use to us, we cannot subjectively participate in it, till we repent of sin and hate it, as the accursed thing which nailed the Sinless to the Holy Rood.

Among the hard-working Labrador fishermen was a rich man who had oppressed them, but whom they believed to be strong enough to defy them. Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, the medical missionary, who is also a magistrate, went to the offender and told him that he must confess his sin and pay back to the fishermen a thousand dollars. He cursed the missionary. At the next church service the doctor announced that a sinful man would confess his sin that night. They couldn’t believe that the rich sinner would yield. At the evening service, Dr. Grenfell asked them to keep their seats while he went after the sinner. He found the man at a brother’s house on his knees in prayer, with all the family.

“Prayer,” said Grenfell, “is a good thing in its place, but it doesn’t ‘go’ here. Come with me.”

He meekly went, and was led up the aisle, where all could see him, and, after the doctor had described the great sin of which he was guilty, he asked, “Did you do this thing?” “I did.” “You are an evil man of whom the people should beware?” “I am.” “You deserve the punishment of man and God.” “I do.”

At the end of it all the doctor told the man that the good God would forgive him if he should ask in true faith and repentance, but that the people, being human, could not. For a whole year, he charged the people, they must not speak to that man; but if, at the end of that time, he had shown an honest disposition to mend his ways, they might take him to their hearts.

In the inland territories of Arabia there are orchards and fruit trees, green tablelands and springing fountains of water; it is indeed one of the richest and most beautiful countries in the world. But it is difficult to believe that, as we watch its sterile, forbidding coasts. The port of Aden, touched at by most travellers to the East, gives an idea of what Tartarus itself must be like. The normal temperature is torment, even to those inured to the great heat of the tropics. Not a blade of grass is to be seen upon the hillsides, rain falls perhaps once in three or four years, verdureless rocks tower towards the molten heavens like pitiless rivals. And yet these sterile, forbidding, fire-scathed rocks are the gateway into a country fair as Eden and flowing with milk and honey. So is it with this hard, inexorable, repugnant duty of confession. It is the grim gateway leading on to green pastures and still waters, to sabbatic rest and abounding blessedness. The more specific and outspoken our confession the better for our health of soul and for the rapidity and completeness of our spiritual restoration.1 [Note: T. G. Selby, The God of the Frail, 102.]

3. Why should we confess, if God already knows our sin? The answer is that confession is not meant to inform God, but to train us into a personal relation with Him. Think of any human relationship, the relation of a father or a mother to their children. Supposing the child, the son we will say, has done something wrong, has outraged and done violence to his home. He has set out upon a bad career. The father or mother would wish for, pray for, seek for, his amendment; but yet we know that, they could not, ought not to be satisfied by any mere amendment in the outward routine of life. It would be felt by all right-minded people to be superficial. We shall say if his heart is changed then there must be sorrow too, there must be regret, and the expression of regret and sorrow and penitence for the hearts he has wounded, for the lives that he has outraged, for the love so freely lavished upon him that he has scouted.

It is recorded of Leonardo da Vinci that while painting his famous picture representing the “Last Supper,” he quarrelled violently with a former friend. In order to injure this man in a lasting manner he painted for the face of Judas the face of his old friend with whom he had quarrelled. But when endeavouring to portray the face of the Saviour, Da Vinci utterly failed to do justice to the ideal face, and arose from every attempt with feelings of despair. When some time had passed by, Da Vinci relented in his harsh treatment of his friend and wiped out the face of Judas. And it is recorded that on the night following the day on which he did this outward act of forgiveness, he saw in vision Christ standing before him. Da Vinci saw the face of Christ more vividly than he ever saw it in his supreme moments of exalted inspiration, and so lasting was the impression that he was able on the next day to transfer to the picture that face of Christ which we see in the picture to-day.

4. Confession of sins, as distinct from the vague acknowledgment of sin, is a partial security against the further spreading of sin within the soul. There are some poisonous fungi which grow only in the dark, and sin is such a growth. The contagion, to use another illustration, is lessened the moment you open the windows of the soul and let in the fresh air of heaven. If you shut the soul up within itself, you will only harbour fresh seeds of transgression within the heart. No one can have gone to God in penitent confession and prayer without being conscious that the act of confession has made it harder, and not easier, to sin again.

In all literature there can hardly be a nobler instance of confession, and the glorious results which follow, than that which Dante made of his own sinfulness, by the terrific condemnation which he puts into the mouth of Beatrice when she comes to him on the top of the mountain of Purgatory. It seems as though in the “Convivio” he tried to explain away the moral confusion and delinquency into which he fell after the death of Beatrice. But he found it could not be done. No skill in allegorizing, no subtlety of philosophy, would make it any other than moral failure. So Dante decided on a nobler course. He left the “Convivio” unfinished, and took the way of open confession, by making Beatrice condemn him in the most scathing language when he meets her on the mount, and by admitting that to her stinging reproofs he had no reply. Overwhelmed with shame he swooned away; but in that moment of uttermost exposure and disgrace he was set free. When he awoke he had been washed in Lethe, with the remembrance of the sin gone for ever. Then, and only then, was he ready for the blessed companionship of Beatrice and the ascent to heaven. There in the heart of his immortal Comedy he has set his own confession, telling all who read it that there is but one way to get free from sin—the humiliating way of confession; telling us also that without confession there can be no fellowship with the pure and good, or any heaven in the presence of God.


Commanding Forgiveness

1. Forgiveness is a free gift.—That is, it affords the same revelation of love as we find in a child’s or a friend’s or a lover’s pardon, and indeed in all self-sacrifice. It does not spring from any merit, anything done. Like all the beauties and graces of life, it is not based on necessity or justice but is an unbought gift of that heart of the Eternal which is “most wonderfully kind.” For the world of spirits lives on the rich generosity of God. And of all its instances none is comparable to that of pardon; none so dear and wonderful as that grace of forgiveness for which His Son once died upon the Cross, that men, the worst and the weakest, might live unto Him for ever.

Guizot once wrote in an album, “I have learned in my long life two rules of prudence: the first is to forgive much, and the second is never to forget.” Under this Thiers wrote, “A little forgetting would not detract from the sincerity of the forgiveness.” Then Bismarck added the words, “As for me, I have learned to forget much, and to ask to be forgiven much.”1 [Note: J. R. Miller, Devotional Hours with the Bible.]

It is said that only once in his career did Napoleon give way to pity. It was in October 1806. Three weeks before, in the battle of Jena, he had laid Prussia submissive at his feet. He was now busy with the spoliation of Berlin. But the Prince of Hatzfeld had proved a traitor to him. He was arrested. The death warrant had been signed. For two days he had languished in prison, awaiting the execution of the decree. His wife believed him innocent. For five hours she had stood without in the street, waiting for an audience with the Emperor. At last he came. With tears and entreaties she pleaded that her husband might be spared, for “she knew that he was innocent.” Napoleon gazed with those terrible grey-blue eyes upon her tear-stained face—and said nothing. The suspense was awful. At last he turned to Talleyrand and held out his hand. Talleyrand placed in his hand a letter. He handed it to the kneeling princess. “Whose writing is that, Madame?” The princess eagerly scanned the lines, and as her eyes recognized the signature, she let the paper fall with a pitiful cry. “Is that your husband’s writing, Madame?” But sobs were the only answer. Then for once Napoleon softened into pity as he said, “Talleyrand.” “Sire.” “What other evidence have we of the Prince of Hatzfeld’s treachery?” “None other, sire.” “Princess,” said Napoleon tenderly, “put that letter in the fire yonder, and then we shall have none.” The tell-tale sheet fluttered into the fire, and the last bit of evidence against the prince had perished for ever.

2. Forgiveness is founded on the nature of God: it is the outcome of His justice. “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins.”

(1) In forgiving us God is faithful to Himself. The supreme truth about God is that He is our Father, and if God is to be faithful He must be faithful as a Father; and when one who is meant to be His child in likeness and in truth places himself in the position of penitent, and stands in the light of true confession, God would be untrue to His Fatherhood did He not forgive. God’s forgiveness is the ever-present breath of His Fatherhood. God is a living God, Fatherhood His very inner life, and it flames all through this universe. It is no cold and merely stately thing; it is the burning breath of His life; and that breath comes to us first and last on this earth as the play of His Spirit in that pardon which takes us, imperfect as we are, and gives us room to live, in His presence and in His love.

(2) In forgiving our sins God is also righteous. When a man confesses his sins in the genuine sense, he has the right to be forgiven. Confession makes him another man. He is not the man he was before. Before, he was one with his sin, and his sin was the truth about him; but now that he has used that strange power of repentance which God has made part of our being—the repentance which means changing your mind and turning right round—he has put his sin from him, and it is, in the sight of the perfect truth, his no longer. God would not be righteous did He not recognize the truth about that man. “And this is the message which we have heard from him, and announce unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Therefore no one on earth can gauge or recognize the truth about the penitent as God does; and, if we confess our sins, God is righteous to forgive us.

Take the case of some human act of forgiveness. A man does me a wrong. The act being once done is irremediable, and the loss or injury of it must be borne by some one. If he makes me amends, though the evil originally done is not annihilated, yet the sentiment of justice is satisfied. In some cases of wrongdoing, however, he cannot make amends, or he may entirely refuse even to try to make amends. Thereupon I forgive him, that is to say, I virtually take upon myself the penalty which he ought to have suffered. We see clearly that this is what forgiveness means in the case of a money debt: where the creditor forgives the debt, he suffers the loss himself. And so it is with forgiveness of other kinds of injury. By freely forgiving the wrong-doer I do not undo his act, but I consent to suffer the injury and waive my right to compensation. If I go beyond this and refuse all his offers of satisfaction, I voluntarily take upon myself the wrong-doer’s burden, and set him free from every obligation except that of gratitude.

From human forgiveness to Divine forgiveness is a long step, but they both seem to be regarded as on the same footing in the Lord’s Prayer, where we are taught to say, “Forgive us, as we forgive.” May we not therefore believe that up to a certain point the analogy holds, and that Divine like human forgiveness involves vicarious suffering? Man has duties towards God which he has not fulfilled. God forgives him. God thus willingly takes the loss upon Himself. Without this there can be no forgiveness, for even God, so far as our finite intelligence is able to conceive the matter, cannot annihilate the past. God has been despised and rejected by His creatures. How can they be forgiven? Only by God’s consenting to be despised and rejected. That they may escape—sooner than that they should suffer—God foregoes His right. Men deny His existence: He consents to be denied, in order that He may forgive. Men do all kinds of evil against Him: He submits to them, not because He must, but of His own will. He endures everything because He forgives. It is only by enduring that He can forgive. His last prayer is for the forgiveness of His murderers.1 [Note: H. G. Woods, At the Temple Church, 226.]

When a few years ago, a Mohammedan convert at Calcutta came to Lal Behouri Sing for baptism, the missionary asked him what was the vital point in which he found Mohammedanism most defective, and which he found that Christianity satisfactorily supplied. His prompt reply was, “Mohammedanism is full of the mercy of God; and while I felt no real consciousness of guilt as the breaker of God’s law this satisfied me; but when I felt my guilt I felt that it was not with God’s mercy, but with His justice, that I had first to do. Now to meet the claims of God’s justice Mohammedanism had made no provision, but this is the very thing that I have found fully accomplished by the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross; and, therefore, Christianity is now the only adequate religion for me, a guilty sinner.”1 [Note: C. Stanford, Symbols of Christ, 301.]

Weigh all my faults and follies righteously,

Omissions and commissions, sin on sin;

Make deep the scale, O Lord, to weigh them in;

Yea, set the Accuser vulture-eyed to see

All loads ingathered which belong to me;

That so in life the judgment may begin,

And Angels learn how hard it is to win

One solitary sinful soul to Thee.

I have no merits for a counterpoise:

Oh vanity my work and hastening day,

What can I answer to the accusing voice?

Lord, drop Thou in the counterscale alone

One Drop from Thine own Heart, and overweigh

My guilt, my folly, even my heart of stone.2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]


Ensuring Cleansing

1. God is faithful and just, not merely to forgive us our sins but to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We need something else besides forgiveness. Forgiveness of sins is much, but cleansing from the defilement of sin is more. Yet this spring of evil in the heart may be dried up, and what was once the sepulchre of living death transformed into a sanctuary of Divine life. The essence of the Gospel is not the remittance of condemnation, but the sanctification of the soul.

The germs of disease may lurk in our system and necessitate care, yet be so controlled by a healthy constitution as not to overcome us, just as an enemy who has invaded a country may be practically dispossessed, though he may retain a stronghold here and there, and make destructive sallies into the surrounding districts. So, sin may be in us, though it may not have dominion over us; and though it have no dominion it may yet enfeeble, obstruct, and distract us. In fact, not to struggle against sin is the direct evidence of our being completely under its subjection, as there is no slavery so abject as that which tamely acquiesces in its servitude. To struggle against it, but unsuccessfully, betokens an awakened conscience, but a heart not yet strengthened by the grace of Christ. To struggle against it successfully, though with a certain measure of loss and damage—like an army which conquers though at the cost of many wounded and slain—is the case of the Christian who knows sin is always present with him, to be watched and fought against, and imposing the constant necessity of confession and prayer for forgiveness and cleansing.1 [Note: C. Moinet, The Great Alternative, 172.]

Since succour to the feeblest of the wise

Is charge of nobler weight

Than the security

Of many and many a foolish soul’s estate,

This I affirm,

Though fools will fools more confidently be:

Whom God doth once with heart to heart befriend,

He does so till the end;

And having planted life’s miraculous germ,

One sweet pulsation of responsive love,

He sets him sheer above,

Not sin and bitter shame

And wreck of fame,

But Hell’s insidious and more black attempt,

The envy, malice and pride,

Which men who share so easily condone

That few even list such ills as these to hide.

From these unalterably exempt

Through the remember’d grace

Of that divine embrace,

Of his sad errors none,

Though gross to blame,

Shall cast him lower than the cleansing flame,

Nor make him quite depart

From the small flock named “after God’s own heart,”

And to themselves unknown.

Nor can he quail

In faith, nor flush nor pale

When all the other idiot people spell

How this or that new prophet’s word belies

Their last high oracle;

But constantly his soul

Points to its pole,

Even as the needle points and knows not why

And, under the ever-changing clouds of doubt,

When others cry,

“The stars, if stars there were,

Are quenched and out!”

To him, uplooking t’ward the hills for aid,

Appear, at need display’d,

Gaps in the low-hung gloom, and, bright in air,

Orion or the Bear.1 [Note: Coventry Patmore.]

2. The Divine faithfulness and justice are pledged to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The discovery of ineffaceable spots on the soul would be a fatal reflection on the spiritual perception and sanctifying power of the Divine Redeemer. We are told that a New York lapidary submitted a diamond to the grinding machine for the space of three months. At the end of that time the stone was found to be absolutely unaffected by the ordeal, and the lapidary gave up the task in despair. But the revolutions of the wheels of redemption will never fail to polish and perfect the believer’s soul. God can heal, not only the putrifying sores of flagrant vice, but also the unrealized wounds of the deadly bacilli of evil that secrete themselves in the deepest inwardness of our being. The electric beams of His righteousness reveal the hidden blights that taint the motive and pollute the springs of thought. Sin knows no “law of protective colouring” by means of which it can escape the detection of God. God discerns iniquity in its microscopic inception, and cleanses the soul from the faintest stains.

O Foolish Soul! to make thy count

For languid falls and much forgiven,

When like a flame thou mightest mount

To storm and carry heaven.

A life so faint,—is this to live?

A goal so mean,—is this a goal?

Christ love thee, remedy, forgive,

Save thee, O foolish Soul!2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]

Righteous Forgiveness


Barrett (G. S.), Musings for Quiet Hours, 19.

Campbell (J. M.), Responsibility for the Gift of Eternal Life, 56.

Challacombe (W. A.), The Soul’s Wardrobe, 26.

Darlow (T. H.), The Upward Calling, 62.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, vi. 324.

DuBose (W. P.), The Reason of Life, 169.

Farrar (F. W.), Truths to Live By, 47.

Figgis (J. N.), The Gospel and Human Needs, 92.

Goulburn (E. M.), Occasional Sermons, i. 1.

Hort (F. J. A.), Cambridge Sermons, 98.

Ingram (A. F. W.), The Love of the Trinity, 162.

Jones (T.), The Divine Order, 206.

Jones (W. B.), The Peace of God, 311.

Joynt (R. C.), Liturgy and Life, 16.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Lent to Passiontide, 63, 73.

Lewis (F. W.), The Work of Christ, 122.

MacNeil (J.), The Spirit-Filled Life, 11.

Martineau (J.), Hours of Thought, i. 102.

Maurice (F. D.), Sermons in Country Churches, 206.

Moinet (C.), The Great Alternative, 170.

Neale (J. M.), Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, ii. 308.

Newton (J.), The Problem of Personality, 253.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, iii. 393.

Selby (T. G.), The God of the Frail, 90.

Skrine (J. H.), Sermons to Pastors and Masters, 1.

Sowter (G. A.), Trial and Triumph, 34.

Waugh (T.), Mount and Multitude, 149.

Woods (H. G.), At the Temple Church, 213, 222.


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 John 1:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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