The Word “Abused” 1 John 1:7

By Mike Willis

In the December installment of “The Word Abused,” Leroy Garrett considered 1 Jn. 1:7. As usual, he was trying to disarm another weapon which is used to counteract the influence of false teachers. Apparently, the editor of Restoration Review knows of only one evil which is serious enough to call for all-out war—-that evil being the spirit of opposition to false teachers. Every issue which I have read from his pen has been aimed primarily at those of us who insist that innovations can sever the ties that bind us to God and to each other.

Here is the passage under consideration: “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; 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 Jn. 1:6-7). Here is the abuse of the passage which Garrett criticized:

“This passage is given a very strange twist indeed, all for the purpose of teaching the idea that fellowship is predicated upon doctrinal inerrancy. If one holds a doctrinal error, then he cannot be ‘fellowshipped,’ for he is not walking in the light, which is the basis of fellowship according to this passage. This verse has thus become part of ‘the party line’ in most every sect among us, and it is used to justify the alienating and dividing of God’s people. To `walk in the light’ is made to mean doctrinal purity, especially in reference to the unique interpretation of the particular party.

“If one has what is believed to be a wrong view of prophecy, such as premillennialism, then he is not ‘walking in the light’ and so must be excluded from fellowship. If he supports Herald of Truth or a missionary society, then he walks In darkness rather than light and therefore must be rejected as a faithful brother. If one truly ‘walks in the light’ then he will be right on everything from the way to make music in the assembly and the Sunday School to the use of literature and the method of serving the Supper. Light is thus made to mean ‘truth,’ which is made to refer to all the teaching of the scriptures, including (mainly) the disposition made of the silence of the scriptures.

“The passage therefore might be paraphrased this way, once the bending and twisting is accomplished: We can have fellowship with each other if we believe and practice all of the teaching of the New Testament alike. This becomes even more oppressive when the silence of the scriptures is imposed within this framework. We are told that we must agree on what the Bible says nothing about to start with, whether classes, organs, agencies, colleges. We must see all alike what It doesn’t say as well as what it does say! Otherwise we are not walking in the light!” 1

What Garrett is trying to do is apparent; he is trying to stop the usage of this passage with reference to the issues which have occurred among us. Whether one uses instrumental music in worship or not, whether one participates in church support of missionary societies and benevolent societies or not, and whether one participates in the sponsoring church arrangement or not has no bearing upon whether or not he is walking in the light, according to Garrett. He said,

“We must not turn from such a heritage as this and make light’ refer to being right on the class question and `darkness’ mean sending a missionary through a society rather than by direct support.”2

We need to back up in our consideration of this passage to understand exactly what John had in mind when he warned his brethren not to walk in darkness. Practically every commentator which I have read on 1 John asserts that he was warning the brethren against a form of gnosticism called docetism, particularly as propagated by Cerinthus. The main tenets of gnosticism, which are relevant to this article, are as follows:

1. The relationship of God to the world. According to gnosticism, the world originated by the fulness of Deity flowing through emanations from God=aeons or angels. There was supposed to be an innumerable host of these aeons with gradations from high to low in spirituality. The lowest was practically corporeal; the highest was just a little below God Himself. In this way the gulf between God and the world was bridged.

2. The relationship between matter and evil. As the aeons got further and further removed from God, they manifested proportionately less of His purity. Conversely, as the aeon became more and more corporeal, he became more evil. Thus, matter was seen to be evil and spirit was seen to be good. A dualism was posited by gnosticism.

These two doctrines of gnosticism3 had profound effects when synthesis occurred with Christianity. With reference to the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine taught that Jesus was the highest aeon-an originated being and not God. The gnostic doctrine of the relationship between matter and evil precluded the belief that Christ could assume a truly human form. Thus, the docetism taught by Cerinthus developed. Here is a summary of Cerinthian docetism’s view of Christ:

“Its christology declared that Jesus was son of Joseph and Mary; that at his `baptism’ the Christ, the `Father in the form of a dove, descended upon him, and only then did he begin to prophesy and do mighty works, and preach the hitherto unknown Father (unknown to the Jews), the God over all. That the Christ then left him; and then Jesus suffered, and rose again (that Is, appeared to his followers after death).”4

“It appears that Cerinthus considered Christ an ordinary man, born in the usual way, and devoid of miraculous powers, but distinguished from the rest of the Jews by possessing superior wisdom, so that He was worthy to be chosen as the Messiah; that he knew nothing of his high dignity till it was revealed to Him in His baptism by John, when He was consecrated to the Messiahship, and furnished with the necessary powers for the fulfillment of His office by the descent of the supreme Logos or Spirit from the heavens, which hung over Him like a dove, and at length entered into His heart; that He was then raised to the dignity of the Son of God, began to perform miracles, and even angels were now taught by His revelations; that redemption could not be effected by His sufferings. Jesus, in union with the mighty Spirit of God, could not suffer, but must triumph over all His.enemies. The very fact of suffering was assumed to be a proof that the Spirit of God, which had been previously united to Him, was now separated from Him, and had returned to the Father. The sufferings were of the man Jesus, now left to himself.”5

You can see how that Cerinthian docetism denied the incarnation of Jesus Christ in the biblical sense. To see that, John is refuting these contemporary ideas, read the following passages:

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life-and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us-” (1:1-2).

Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son” (2:22).

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world” (4:1-3).

For further study, compare 1 Jn. 5:1,5; 2 Jn. 7.

A second major problem which accompanied Cerinthian docetism was its ethics. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) article said, “The nec6ssary consequence of the gnostic theory is an ascetic morality which passed over by sure steps into antinomian license. . . .”6 “But in Gnosticism, sin is something quite different; it is not the act and the disposition of the human will in rebellion against God; it is drily a physical fact or quality inherent in the body and, in matter everywhere.”7Thus, in John’s epistle, he was, concerned to prevent a development of the gnostic concept of sin, as the following passages show:

If you know that He is righteous, you know that every one who practices righteousness is born of Him” (2:29).

“Every one who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is; lawlessness” (3:4).

“No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious; any one who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (3:9-10).

For further study, see 1 Jn. 3:24; 5:17-18.

Having some background into the evil which John is fighting, we are now prepared to consider 1 Jn. 1:6-7. I think that what John had on his mind is now quite obvious. He was militantly opposing docetism in the church. Those who taught that one’s sins did not affect his soul had to be refuted. The man who taught that one could maintain fellowship with God while walking in darkness was a liar. Walking is used to refer to one’s conduct; darkness, as the opposite of light, is anything that is in opposition to God, doctrinally or morally. Some have tried to separate doctrine from morality to assert that John had in mind only moral impurity when he referred to “walking in darkness.” The relationship between doctrine and morality is causal. B. F. Westcott said,

“The teaching of St. John in his Epistle thus turns upon the Person of Christ. Under this aspect it is important to observe that it is intensely practical. St. John everywhere presents moral ideas resting upon facts and realised in life…. Truth is never stated in speculative form, but as a motive and a help for action. . . . The apprehension of the historical manifestation of the Life of Christ is thus pressed as the prevailing and sufficient motive for godlike conduct; and at the same time mere right opinion, apart from conduct is exposed in its nothingness.”8

If a person can see the connection between the doctrine of Christ and Christian morality, he should also be able to see that the same type of relationship existed between the doctrines of gnosticism and its morality. Thus, R. C. H. Lenski wrote,

“To walk in this darkness is to believe and to hold to the lie, to reject and to fight the saving truth, to hate this light (John 3:20), to make God, the light, a liar (v. 10). The walk or conduct shows this clinging to the lie just as does not doing the truth, i.e., what the saving gospel tells.

“Ethics are included, but John has in mind first of all doctrine and faith, here false doctrine as opposed to the true. The whole claim to fellowship with God is a lying. John minces no words. Our modern considerateness toward heresies and heretics is unscriptural and dangerous.” 9

We simply cannot take the position that “walking in darkness” applies only to ethical sins.

Consequently, when we read that fellowship with God and with one another is contingent upon “walking the light,” we must understand that to refer to more than living a morally pure life. Though some of my brethren, such as Garrett, do not consider the issues of mechanical instruments of music in worship, church support of human institutions, and the sponsoring church to have any connection to “walking in the light,’,’ I cannot understand how they can see no connection between brethren running roughshod over the conscientious objections of their brethren in order to promote their pet innovations as having no connection with “walking in the light.” When they apply this passage to moral evils, why do they persistently omit that moral evil?

Actually, “walking in the light” refers to both ethical and doctrinal purity. The man who does not believe and teach the right things is not walking in the light; neither is the man who does not live the right kind of life walking in the light. Garrett recognizes that what I have said is true-that “walking in the light” refers to doctrinal as well as ethical matters. He wrote,

“We are of course dealing with an infinite concept that defies exact definition. Light can well represent the whole of the Christian faith, while darkness stands for anything that militates against that faith. But we must always speak of fundamentals and not peripheral issues.” 10

However, the key to understanding this paragraph is “peripheral issues.” Everything which Garrett decides do so label is “fundamental” and anything which we might not like is a “peripheral issue.” Give him the license to define what the peripheral issues are and you have the “unity-in-diversity” dogma which is presently splitting churches.” Frankly, some of the things which Garrett considers peripheral issues are rather fundamental to me. For example, he believes that there are faithful children of God in all denominations, that one may use leavened bread when observing the Lord’s Supper, there is no pattern for the frequency off observing the Lord’s Supper, etc. Too, I suppose one could present a good case for the Old Testament matters of where one got the fire to light the altar of incense and how to move the ark of the covenant as peripheral issues, though God punished with immediate death those who violated His word with reference to them.

Apparently, Garrett does not believe Jas. 2:10-11 which says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For’ He who said, `Do not commit adultery,’ also said, `Do not commit murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become’ a transgressor of the law.” The point which James is establishing is that the same authority resides behind every commandment. The man who disobeys God in one point has resisted and rebelled against God regardless of what that point may be. We recognize this principle with reference to the discipline of our children. There have been a number of occasions when I have disciplined my daughter for matters which were really quite insignificant simply because the incident manifested a spirit of rebellion. Similarly, the matters over which we have divided might appear insignificant, but they manifest a spirit of rebellion against God. If a person considers mechanical instruments of music in worship and the missionary society as peripheral issues, he needs to open his eyes to see that more was involved than arguing over peripheral issues; the whole approach to Bible authority by the two groups was significantly different, as reputable historians recognize. 12 Post division developments show how divergent their concepts of authority actually were. The same might be said for the recent divisions among the Lord’s churches; recent developments (denial of the authority of apostolic examples, involvement in the social gospel, recreation, etc.) have shown that our concepts regarding authority are significantly different. The violation of God’s word at the one point (e.g. instrumental music in worship, sponsoring churches) manifested this spirit of rebellion. Garrett’s comments regarding “peripheral issues” does not take these facts into consideration.

We who hold to the truth with reference to the issues just mentioned must be careful not to equate soundness with being right on these issues. One might be right on these issues and yet be an unfaithful child of God. (I do not see how a person can be a faithful child of God while opposing what God has said on these, or any other, subjects.) We must be careful to measure soundness by the sum total of what the Bible says and not by one or two issues.

Garrett’s comments on 1 Jn. 1:7 do not adequately consider the context in which the book was written. Consequently, he refuses to apply this passage to contemporary forms of darkness which exist among us, with the exception of sins of immorality and “sectarianism.” Sectarianism, according to Garrett’s definition, is opposition to unscriptural innovations. One can be guilty of walking in darkness if he opposes mechanical instruments of music in worship, sponsoring churches, and church support of human institutions, although he cannot be guilty of walking in darkness by supporting them! God’s grace will somehow cover every sin except opposing unscriptural innovations!

Again, the editor of Restoration Review has aimed his big guns at us who are in the churches of Christ who oppose any tampering with God’s pattern. About the only ones who escape Garrett’s assault are the liberals who bring in the innovations. They are the Only ones who stand guiltless before the mighty throne of Garrett. Garrett is trying to disarm every passage we use against false teachers. If we give in at this point, we will eventually be left without an arsenal to stop the innovations that invariably creep in among God’s people. The Lord’s word is the only defense we have to ward off the assaults of Satan. Consequently, we must not capitulate anytime someone questions an application of a passage. So long as we are within the.limits of sound exegesis, as we are with 1 Jn. 1:6-7, let us use it against the enemies of God.


1 Leroy Garrett, “The Word Abused . . . ‘Walking in the Light,’ ” Restoration Review, XVII: 10, p. 182.

2 Ibid., p. 184.

3 See the article on “Gnosticism” in the ISBE for further study.

4 G. R. S. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten (New Hyde Park: University Books, 1960), p. 238.

5 John McClintock and James Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Eccesiastical Literature, Vol. II, p. 191.

6 ISBE, Vol. II, p. 1245.

7 Ibid., p. 1244.

8 B. F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John (London: Macmillan and Co., 1883), p. xxxvii.

9 R C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1966), p. 387.

10 Garrett, op. cit., p. 185.

11 Garrett listed two more churches which have split over this in his November paper-one in Cleburne, Texas and the other in Hutchinson, Kansas. Naturally, these splits did not bring down the wrath of the apostles of unity! These were holy splits!

12 See David E. Harrell, The Social Sources of Division in the Disciples of Christ 1865-1900, p. 7; A.W. Fortune, The Disciples in Kentucky, pp. 364-365, etc.

Truth Magazine, XX:17, p. 9-12
April 22, 1976