The apostle John continues explaining to his readers the true nature of Christian fellowship. So far in his letter he has stated that such fellowship requires two features: it is Christ-centred and it involves consecration and cleansing by the blood of Christ. The third essential element of true fellowship that he mentions is confession of sin.
The immediate target of John’s remarks were heretics who had infiltrated the church with false teaching that dismissed the reality of human sin. Their notions were connected to an estimation that was common in the Roman world and which stated that the body was irrelevant and any actions done by it were unimportant. In passing we can note that the Christian faith affirms the value of the human body and many Christians have been involved in bringing about political changes and medical discoveries that have resulted in better bodily health for millions of people.
No doubt the immediate opinion that John was correcting has disappeared and we are not likely to bump into one of its advocates when we walk along the road. Yet we have to realise that those false teachers were mainly passing on a notion that did not rise within their own minds initially. Instead they were spokespersons for an idea that was conceived in the kingdom of darkness. The devil has many ploys that he can use in one way or another, and one of these ploys is to downgrade the seriousness of sin in people’s estimations, and even get them to accept as legitimate many practices that are sinful.
We see examples of such an attempt in our own society where practices are advocated that once were regarded as sinful. It is not only in society that we observe such changes. Even within the church we have extended the limits of what practices can be described as suitable for followers of Christ and today professing believers engage in activities that previous generations of Christians would not have done. It could be that their attitudes were too strict; on the other hand, the change of opinion may indicate that the devil has blinded us regarding what is sinful.
The obvious question we have to ask is, ‘What is sin?’ The term used by John means to fall short of a standard or mark, and the illustration that is often used is of an archer firing at a target. In a sense it does not matter if he falls short by twenty inches or by twenty yards, he has missed the target and does not get the prize. We may say that the one who got closer was stronger, but all he may be is more self-righteous that the person who was further away.
Confession of sin is important because it reveals what we are like inside. I don’t mean that it reveals we are sinners, but that it reveals we have the truth indwelling us. Remember that John is writing about fellowship, and the issue arises as to what he means by ‘truth indwelling us’. It is a person that can be described as living or dwelling in a location. The Bible makes it clear that the Holy Spirit indwells every Christian, but his presence within also means that in a way far beyond human explanation a believer has fellowship with the Father and the Son. And one evidence of ongoing fellowship is confession of sin.
Sometimes when we say a wrong word or think an inappropriate thought, a gentle voice within says to us, ‘You should not have said those words or thought in that manner.’ That gentle voice is the Holy Spirit pointing out our sins to us in order that our fellowship with the Father and the Son will continue. If we are wise, we will respond to that gentle voice and immediately confess our sins. One of the wise pieces of advice I was given at conversion was to keep short accounts with God. In other words, I was informed that I should not let unconfessed sins accumulate.