IF WE WALK IN THE LIGHT
T. PIERCE BROWN
I still remember something of the joy I experienced many years ago when I read 1 John 1:7 in the Greek text. It says, “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.” The thing that thrilled me was the awareness that “cleanseth” is from the Greek “katharizei” which is present, active, indicative. Translated literally, it might read, “keeps on constantly cleansing us from all sin.”
Since then I have read a few articles by those who claim to be preachers of the gospel who apparently think they have discovered in that verse something similar to “irresistible grace.” They write as if we can “continue in sin that grace may abound” because the blood of Christ keeps on cleansing. I emphatically deny that. I also want to point out two related dangers of which we need to be aware.
First, those who have a smattering of Greek may assume many things as a result of some little rule they think they have learned. It may be that the thing they think they have learned has some exceptions covered by another rule that they have not learned. What they are assuming to be true may be false, for it is one of those exceptions to the general rule. Second, even those who are Greek scholars and know far more about both the rules and exceptions than most of us will ever know, make some egregious errors, partly as a result of some preconceived theological assumptions.
Let us give two examples of the kind of care we need to exercise as we strive to understand and apply any passage of scripture. First, look at the passage in 1 John 1:7 to which we have alluded. It is a wonderful truth that the blood of Jesus continues to cleanse us from sin. An awareness of the difference in the aorist and present tenses can be a wonderful and thrilling doorway to deeper insights into God’s word. However, if one assumes that the constant cleansing is an automatic process, he has overlooked several points, one of which is the antecedent conditional clause, “if we walk in the light.” That is a present subjunctive, which basically means that as long as we keep on walking in the light, which involves a constant desire to do exactly what the Lord wants, having an attitude of penitent humility when we fail to do that, then we will be continuously cleansed. The reason we will be continuously cleansed, is because we are continuously penitent and submissive. Any time we deliberately sin and are not penitent, we are no longer walking in the light, and the promise of continuous cleansing is not ours.
The thing that brought me joy was the awareness that if I had done some unwitting or inadvertent sin and had not happened to mention it before I died, the blood of Jesus would still cleanse me, for I am penitent even about sins done in ignorance. Before I came to understand that passage, I think I had the feeling that if I died and had not prayed a specific prayer about every specific sin, I might not be forgiven of them. I never taught that, nor do I ever remember anyone else teaching it. However, I feel sure that thousands of Christians are in constant fear that maybe they have left something undone that needs doing, or have inadvertently done something that they should not and their souls are in jeopardy because of it.
This verse should remove that fear, but does not give a person the right to assume that God’s grace covers any sin, even if one is impenitent. There are hundreds of such verses where the tenses are significant and revealing. It is my judgment that in every case where a specific tense is used, or one specific word is used when another might seem as good or better, it is because God wants to emphasize some particular point which might be helpful for us to discover.
Another such passage is Ephesians 2:8 which says, “For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Denominational preachers have misused it for years in trying to prove that salvation is by grace only, or faith only or some other false doctrine. In recent years, many who claim to be preachers of the gospel have fallen into the same error. However, in this article, I want to point out another error that might result from the knowledge that “have ye been saved” is a perfect passive participle. There are two errors that might come in assuming too many things. First, the passive voice indicates that someone else did the saving. It might be assumed that because it was Jesus who saved you, you could have nothing to do with the salvation, for it is totally by His power and grace. This does not follow, either in Greek or English. A drowning man can properly be said to be saved by another man who either throws him a rope, or jumps in the water to save him. That does not negate the fact that the drowning man may need to take the rope, or put his arms around the neck of the one saving him.
The other error results from assuming too much about the use of the perfect participle. Since the perfect tense indicates the present state resulting on some past action, many denominational scholars assume that “you have been saved” means that the danger is behind you, and you stand in a saved condition from which you cannot fall. As is the case with almost all false doctrines, it may be almost true. If a person were in a sinking boat and was rescued from it, “you have been saved” would be appropriate, and the danger of drowning from THAT incident is forever past. You are now standing on the earth, and cannot now drown. Does that mean you cannot fall back into the ocean or river? Anyone can surely see the fallacy of that assumption. If one is saved from sin, such as the Jews who murdered Jesus on the cross, one can never be lost again with reference to that sin. They have been saved from that sin and need never worry about it. Paul could regret his persecution of Christians and his part in the killing of Stephen until he died, but he was never concerned that he would be lost as a result of those things after he became a Christian. Those sins were remembered no more forever.
The primary thought we are trying to emphasize is that even Greek scholars, who know the importance of the tenses and various other fine points of Greek, may come to a wrong conclusion about a text because of a preconceived notion which blinds them to what the text actually says. It is true that the Ephesians had been saved, and still stood in a saved relationship when Paul wrote to them. The perfect passive participle so indicates. It is true that they could never be lost as a result of the sins from which they had been saved, and the tenses of the verbs are important indicators of that. That has nothing whatever to do with whether they could ever sin again, or be lost because of something else. Let us neither be so enthralled with knowledge and scholarship that we accept them uncritically, nor so arrogant that we disregard the conclusions of devout scholarly brethren. Let us bow to no altar but the altar of Truth.