It is obvious from the Apostle's mode of expression, when urging upon Christians this earnest striving for holiness, this shunning of all that is sinful, -- that he must have had cause for it in the adverse influence which some were exerting, and from which there was reason to apprehend a diminution of moral earnestness, a laxity of moral judgment in the church. The Apostle is warning his brethren against certain seducers. These were the promoters of that externalized and formal Christianity, of which we have spoken in the Introduction. Already, at this early period, had such appeared in the churches. Unable to comprehend the full extent of what was included in separation from heathenism, they taught that no more was required, than the abandonment of idol worship with all that pertained to it, and a profession of faith in one God and in Jesus as the Messiah; without recognizing that the Christian life as a whole, in its entire consecration to God, belongs to this separation from heathenism. From the Jews, chiefly, proceeded these superficial and outward tendencies in religion, which rested in a mere external faith, external profession, and external fulfilment of the law. These are the vain words against which Paul warns his Ephesian brethren (Eph. v.6), when declaring that the wrath of God comes upon the children of disobedience, not merely on account of idolatry, but also of all the sins connected with it. Here now the Apostle asserts with special emphasis, that all sin whatever is unrighteousness (as Luther translates it), or as it should be in accordance with the Greek original, contrariety to law, transgression of the divine law. We might naturally infer from this, that the Apostle was dealing with such as did not comprehend the idea of the divine law in its whole dignity and majesty, as embracing all which is requisite to the full realization of the divine will, as being the full revelation of God's holiness in the mirror of its demands on man; such as explained the commands of God in a gross and merely external manner, which rendered it easy to satisfy their demands without coming thereby any nearer to the true nature of holy living. Such a conception of the Law is condemned by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. It was from the stand-point of such a superficial conception of the Law, that the rich young man in the Gospel (Matt. xix.17, ff.) could suppose that from his youth he had fulfilled all its requirements; a conception which has often been reproduced in the church, and with the uniform effect of making obedience to the Law easy, of lowering the requirements of Christianity to each one's life, and thus enabling him the more readily to appease his conscience. In christian self-examination and self-knowledge, all depends upon a right understanding and clear view of the nature of the Law, which must be ever present before the eye of the believer, as the mirror in which to contemplate himself and his life. The careful daily study of that holy interpretation of the Law, contained in our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, will above all else aid us in this duty.
Such, then, had made their appearance in John's sphere of labor, as thus externalized and degraded the conception of the divine Law; lowering the standard of moral judgment, and recognizing only in various outbreaking sins transgressions of that law. It was necessary, therefore, that John should oppose their influence by holding up sin in its character as sin, -- all sin as equally transgression of the divine Law. In judging of the moral character of men, regard should indeed be had to differences of gradation in moral development; and of this the Apostle himself will by and by give us occasion to speak. Yet is it of the greatest importance to a right view of the true nature of sanctification, and for that strict self-examination which is the condition of all progress therein, that we first understand the equal dignity of the divine Law in all its commands; that the obedience it requires is absolute, and embraces the whole life. There is here no distinction between great and small; all sin, as proceeding from the same fountain the depraved creature-will, that which the Scriptures call the flesh in opposition to the spirit, as violation of the divine will, transgression of the divine law, is on the same level. This is the precise point of view established by John in these words.
He then proceeds to show, how irreconcilable is the tendency here rebuked with the nature of faith in Jesus, as the Lord and Saviour; that this faith cannot maintain itself without the earnest striving for sanctification, without the shunning of all sin; what a contradiction in the very nature of things it would be, to desire still to remain in the service of any sin, while professing adherence to Jesus as the Saviour. He takes for his starting-point: Jesus has appeared to take away our sins. It is here represented as the highest aim of the appearing of Christ, to take away all sin from humanity, and (the same idea under the positive form) to found a kingdom of holiness in man. This thought is, in itself, a sufficient demonstration, that its origin is not of earth but of Heaven, the demonstration of its own divinity. It is a thought which could never have arisen in the sin-polluted mind of man. He who could conceive it, would thereby already have demonstrated his superhuman greatness. To be able to express such a thought, in the midst of a sinful race, involves the consciousness not only of its superhuman origin, but also of superhuman powers to achieve its realization. It marks a new era in history; that henceforth, for those who appropriate to themselves the work of Christ and enter into fellowship with him, Evil and Sin are as if they were not, as if wholly and forever taken away. Not only shall sin no longer have dominion over them, but former sin shall be as if it had not been, as if annihilated. In regard to the expression, "to take away our sins," a comparison with the original Greek, and with John's language elsewhere, leads us to refer the conception underlying it to Christ. It is He, who by entering into fellowship with man's sinful nature, and thus acquiring a living sympathy with all the misery brought upon it by sin, became conscious in his sufferings of a connection with the sin of humanity. Through his fellowship with that nature which he had adopted, he bore the guilt by which humanity was burdened, and felt it as his own; as indicated by those words upon the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!" It was thus that he took upon himself and bore the sins of men, and therefore he is said to have taken away our sins. So the sin of the people was, in a symbolical and typical manner, laid as it were upon the sacrificial victim to be borne and expiated by it. But in order that Christ might thus take away the sins of man, it was requisite, as the Apostle subsequently indicates, that in himself there should be no sin. He must be the Sinless, the Holy One, in order as such to suffer for the sins in which he had himself no share; to take them away, and set over against them a life of perfect holiness answering to the divine law; to be able, in the fulfilment of that law, to do for all and in place of all, what all mankind should have done each for himself.
Since then it is as the Holy One that Jesus has taken away the sins of men, the Apostle infers that none can stand in fellowship with him, who perseveres henceforward in the way of sin. He declares, in the most absolute manner, that he who abides in fellowship with him sinneth not. To sin, and to abide in fellowship with the Holy One, who appeared for the very purpose of taking away sin, are things irreconcilable. To belong to him, is to be separated from all sin. The life which exists in fellowship with him excludes all sin. This assertion is subsequently repeated by the Apostle, in order to enforce it with the strongest emphasis, in the negative form: "Whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known Him." This seeing indicates, as we have before noticed, not bodily sight which cannot here be meant, but inward vision, a seeing with the eye of the spirit. From the distinction here made between seeing and knowing, it is evident that something more is meant by seeing Christ than by knowing him; as indeed elsewhere John is accustomed to represent by sight a higher stage of knowledge, that immediate spiritual perception which rises above mediate knowledge. If through the preaching of the Gospel the knowledge of Christ has been attained, there will follow that higher spiritual intuition of Him, as manifested in his divine-human life, as He was and is. Such a living image of Christ, enchaining the soul, must be ever present to the spiritual gaze of the believer. But this can only be the case with him, whose life-walk is in harmony with this holy model. He who continues in sin, though he may outwardly have confessed Christ, can never truly have beheld this image; nay, he is still far even from knowing him as the Holy One who appeared to take away the sins of man. Such an one, in place of the true and living Christ, has devised for himself another and fictitious one.
Accordingly, John adds a protest against the vain words of those who lower the demands of the Gospel upon the christian life, representing a mere outward profession as that whereby christians are separated from the sinful heathen world, and entitled to contrast themselves as righteous with the sinners of Heathenism. He asserts, on the contrary, that it is only through the practice of righteousness, through a life-walk conformed thereto, that one can prove himself a righteous man. This, however, by no means harmonizes with the doctrine, that only through the fulfilment of righteousness, only through a course of action, one can become righteous. In all that is here said, there is presupposed that righteousness which has its root in fellowship with Christ, the new life proceeding from him and formed after his holy image. What he would enforce is this: that this inward righteousness, -- originating in fellowship with Christ, and distinguishing the new stand-point of life from the former one, -- can not be present without revealing itself in the outward life; that as the image of Christ the Righteous, the Holy, is transferred to the inner life of the believer, no one can stand in fellowship with him without showing himself, in his life-walk, to be righteous even as Christ is righteous.
It may appear strange, that the Apostle should so absolutely and unconditionally exclude all sin from the christian life; should seem to assert that it must correspond, in entire and unspotted righteousness, to the holy image of Christ. And yet, in what precedes he has given his readers to understand, that the christian life is one which still needs a purifying process. But it was here the Apostle's first object, in opposition to that laxness of moral views, that compromise with sin, to bring before the mind the full scope of what is involved in the essential nature and idea of Sin and of Righteousness; to exhibit, in its whole strictness and majesty, the claim upon the christian life arising from fellowship with Christ, from faith in him as the Redeemer. This is the same point of view which Christ takes in the Sermon on the Mount. The christian life, as such, in its essential nature and idea as a life of righteousness after the image of Christ, is in itself the opposite to all sin; and in this view, no difference of moral gradation can be made, although in the actual life such gradations are found to exist. It was the first object to bring out clearly, in the full import and extent of their contrariety, the stand-point of the old and that of the new man. From such a view it will always follow, that the determining tendency of the christian life, of the will in the christian, can be no other than holy and averse to sin; that only the after-workings of the former relation of sin, of the old man, oppose themselves to what is now his determining and controlling tendency.