“Walking in the light” is a common phrase in Christian circles. It can allude to several passages in the Bible, as the metaphor shows up in Psalms, Isaiah, the Gospel of John, 1 John, and Revelation. In the Church of Christ traditions in which I was raised, the phrase usually referred to 1 John:
But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.1 John 1:7, NRSV
As my understanding has changed about who God is and what God does through Jesus, so has my understanding of what it means to walk in the light. I think it’s critical and timely for American Christians (and probably Christians in other parts of the world) to examine our expectations of this phrase, and that’s what I want to do now.
What John Declared
The author of 1 John opens with a general statement of what his readers received.
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.1 John 1:1-4, NRSV
The writer calls Jesus the Word of life, and he says that what was proclaimed to the audience is the eternal life, which “was with the Father and was revealed to us.” This eternal life is not a thing; it’s not a reward or a goal. It’s a person. The author attaches it to the person of Jesus, who he identifies as the Christ (a.k.a. the Messiah). He says their fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ, and that is what they write — the eternal life revealed in the Word of life that leads to fellowship with God and each other.
That’s what the author opens with: a relational understanding of what the Word of life is. It’s a person in relation to us — one who they have seen, one that they have touched with their hands, one that they claim is the Word of life incarnate in creation from God.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.1 John 1:5, NRSV
It’s the same message we see in the gospel of John: in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God, all things came into being through the Word, what came into being was life, and that life was the light of all people. God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all.
Light and Purity
In many conservative, Christian circles, the absence of darkness and the contrast of darkness with light is the basis for purity culture. There’s an assumption from the metaphor: light and darkness can’t occupy the same space. God is light, therefore in God there is no darkness. The author’s claim that God does not contain any darkness becomes “God cannot contain any darkness.”
The writer seems to confirm this as he continues:
If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.1 John 1:6-7, NRSV
The introduction of sin alongside the light/darkness metaphor makes for a pretty easy movement from “in God there is no darkness” to “darkness is sin,” which is a big part of the basis for Christian purity cultures. However, notice that he doesn’t say, “If you walk in the light but you have darkness…” (I.e. have sin) Nor does he say, “If you walk in the light but you are darkness…” (I.e. are sinful) Nor does he say, “If you walk in the light but there is darkness in your life…” (I.e. associations with sin) He says if you say you walk in the light but actually walk in the darkness, then you are not walking with God.
This is not about impurity within us. It’s not about darkness within us. The author’s position is about allegiance. It’s about where we walk and how we walk as related to with whom we walk. If we claim to walk in the light but we actually walk in the darkness, then we’re not walking with God, because in God there is no darkness. God is light.
He’s essentially saying, “If you’re in the light, then you’re in the light, but if you’re standing in the darkness and you say you’re in the light, then you’re a liar, because you’re in the darkness.” This is an obvious fact to anybody who’s been in darkness and light. If you’re standing in a dark room, and you tell somebody the room is filled with light, you’re a liar. If the room is filled with light, then it’s not filled with darkness, and everybody knows this.
The writer hasn’t made any claims about a people, and the only claim he’s made about God is that God is light. You walk in the light, or you walk in the darkness, but God is light, therefore if you want to walk with God, you should be in the light. No claims about a person’s sinfulness or purity or their compatibility with God or the presence of God.
Do Not Sin
What, then, do we do with this:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.1 John 2:1a, NRSV
A lot of times in Christian purity culture, the reasoning is as follows: if you say you walk in the light but you walk in the darkness, then you’re a liar, because God is light, but if you walk in the light then you’re walking with God, and God purifies you. Therefore, don’t sin, because sin is walking in darkness and not walking in light.
That’s the jump that people make, but that’s not what the author says. He hasn’t made a claim about our sin, what it is to be in the darkness, or what it is to be in the light. So far, from what we’ve read, he only said that if you walk in the light, you’re walking with God, and if you walk in the darkness, you’re not walking with God, but people often jump to the conclusion that the writer not wanting people to sin is his definition of walking in the light.
This jump is easier to make if a person already believes that what we read in chapter one is about purity. When we go in with that assumption, it’s easy to skip over some things and get straight to “don’t sin.”
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.1 John 1:8-10, NRSV
Sin, for John, is not darkness. Darkness is a place apart from God. That is, if God is light and we’re in the darkness, then we’re not walking with God. It’s a metaphor for whether or not we walk with God or don’t walk with God, but sin is not the determining factor for whether or not we walk with God. Remember:
If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.1 John 1:7, NRSV
Not “you don’t have sin.” Not “you didn’t sin.” Rather, if we’re walking with God, Jesus’s blood purifies us of sin. Then he wrote:
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.1 John 1:9, NRSV
Again, it’s not that we don’t have sin. In fact, he says if we claim to be without sin (verse 8) and if we claim we have not sinned (verse 10), then we deceive ourselves and we make God out to be a liar.
Sin and the Light
Whether we have sin has nothing to do with whether or not we walk in the light. Whether or not our sins are counted against us has to do with whether or not we walk in the light. The jump from 1:7 down to 2:1 that leaps over these things — the jump that says the way you walk in the light is to be sinless and pure — that kind of purity culture twists what the writer is doing.
He’s not concerned with whether or not we’ve sinned or “have sin.” He knows we’ve sinned and have sin, and more than that, he says we have to acknowledge that we have sin. Otherwise, we miss the whole point of everything that’s going on. We make God out to be a liar, we deceive ourselves, and I believe that then we are walking in the darkness. Instead, we admit that we have sinned, we accept that we have sin, and we choose to walk with God anyway in the light, and God makes us righteous.
This meshes with other things we read in the New Testament on how our righteousness and unrighteousness are based on a relationship with God and the way that we live. Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6) The Way is to walk with Jesus, to walk with God, to walk in the power of the Spirit, and by that, we share in the righteousness of Jesus. It has nothing to do with whether we sin or don’t sin. Or, as Paul said, everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
We’re not God. We’re not supposed to be God. We were never asked to be God. We were only asked to walk in the light with God.
The Lamb of God Who Takes Away the Sin of the World
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.1 John 2:1-2, NRSV
Our sin has nothing to do with whether we walk in the light or don’t walk in the light. Our sin is a given reality of being human. Our sin is a given reality of being part of this creation as we attempt to make our way through this creation. The reality of sin is there. The question is whether or not we are going to let that define us or whether we’re going to let God overcome that sin and death through righteousness.
Here, we run into another assumption. Purity culture often says that our sinlessness (i.e. our ability to live without “sinning”) is the evidence that God has overcome sin and death in our lives. The writer of 1 John disagrees.
Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.1 John 2:3-6, NRSV
If we come to this passage and we have accepted that to walk in the light with God is to be pure and sinless, then obeying the commands of God becomes a legalistic expectation.
- What’s the evidence that we know Jesus? Do what he commanded.
- How do you live like Jesus? Do what he commanded.
We go to other passages, like in the gospel of John where he says you call me your friend if you do what I command, and it becomes a list of legalistic expectations. Do this; don’t do this; do that; don’t do that; and if you do all these things and check all these boxes and follow all these rules then you can walk in the light with God.
However, that reasoning assumes that “obey his commandments” defines “walk as he walked.” Instead, it’s the other way around: “walk as he walked” determines what it looks like to “obey his commandments.”
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.1 John 2:7-11, NRSV
What’s the command? Love our brothers and sisters. Or, as Paul said, every command is summed up in this: love your neighbor as yourself. (Romans 13:9) It’s not about rules. It’s not about regulations. It’s not about a checklist of things that we do that make us pure so that we can be in the light with God. It’s not about purity of God that separates him from the “impure” darkness of the world. That’s not what 1 John is talking about.
The author says, “You have sin. I have sin. We all have sin, but if we walk with God, God erases all of that.” God makes us into righteous people, and how do we know that we’re with God? How do we know that we live as Jesus did? We love our brother and sister. We love our neighbor. We love our enemy. We love God.
Love Is the Standard
Love is the standard, not sin, purity, power, or violence. I say this is significant for our time and place, right now, here in the United States, because there is another standard that’s being put out as Christianity — put out as Gospel and the Way — and it’s the opposite of what the writer of 1 John is arguing for. It’s a standard that says we don’t have to love people in order to walk with God, we just have to claim God and say that we love people and love God. The writer says that if we do that — if we only make the claim, but we don’t actually walk with God in and through love — then we’re liars, and we’ve deceived ourselves. The way that we overcome that is by loving our brother and sister, and those people who claim a Christian expression that doesn’t love brothers and sisters — those people are not walking in the light with God.
When we come to the world and we say we believe that Jesus was the Christ, the position in 1 John is that that claim sets us up for one thing: love your neighbor as yourself — love your brother and sister.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.1 John 4:7-21, NRSV
We call 1 Corinthians 13 the love chapter, but I don’t think it mentions love nearly as often as 1 John 4. Perhaps most pertinently: the one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
It really is that simple. Whatever we believe love is and looks like, Christians need to understand at least this one thing: we do have to have others in order to walk in the light. For the author of 1 John, that much is non-negotiable.
We can argue about what love is all day long, and I think we should. I think we should debate what love is — what love looks like — in every given time and place, in every context. What manifestations of love are appropriate for what communities? I think we should debate those things, because that’s how we learn to love each other appropriately in every context, but that discussion should be rooted in the idea that love is important to begin with, because if we don’t love one another, then we don’t know God. Anyone who’s going to claim to be a disciple of Christ has to root themselves in love. If we don’t start there, then we lose out on everything else that Jesus is doing.
For the author of 1 John, the sin is not what’s important. What’s important is the way that we love each other in Christ, because it is through that way of love that the sins are forgotten, forgiven, washed clean. If we want to be “pure” — if we want to walk in the light and be justified and be clothed in righteousness and be forgiven — then he says all we have to do is love each other. Our relationship with God is based on our love for our brother and sister — is based on our love for our neighbor. All of this grasping and chasing after purity through rules, expectations, and conformity is all for nothing if it’s not rooted in love, and isn’t that what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13?
You want to give away everything you have? You want to speak in the tongues of men and of angels? You want to have all the spiritual gifts and the power to move mountains? If you don’t have love, it means nothing.
The claim to be a Christian means nothing if we can’t live as Christ lived: out of love. Our understanding of who Christ is means nothing if it doesn’t lead us into the kind of love that expresses itself in love for others. In Jesus is revealed the love of God, and we love because he loved us enough to reveal that love to us. That’s the claim that we make as Christians, and if we get nothing else right in life — if we get literally everything else wrong about everything that we know — it won’t matter anywhere near as much as getting this one thing right.
If we live our lives out of love for each other, nobody’s going to look at our lives at the end and say, “But he was wrong about everything else,” because what else is there to be wrong about? If you live and you love your community and your neighbors and your brothers and sisters and even your enemies, what can anyone hold against you in the end? But, if we claim to love and in reality we walk in the darkness, they will turn and trample over our claims and tear us to pieces.
If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work with a donation. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.