Verse 8: The Inward Deception
8 If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
This verse unfolds the second antithetical statement that runs contrary to verse five; the claim to “have no sin” is in direct and unequivocal opposition to the claim that “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all”. In view of God’s nature, it is impossible for fallen mortals to claim to be without sin. To make this claim requires deceiving ourselves about both our own nature and the divine nature of God’s love.
“ἐὰν εἴπωμεν ὅτι ἁμαρτίαν οὐκ ἔχομεν”: “We have no sin” specifically indicates the state or condition of sin, not simply the act of committing sin.
Unfortunately, a little grammar is necessary to dispel the inevitable objections that this verse refers to past sin:
The verb “ἔχομεν” (to have) is present, active, indicative, first person, plural. This means that the action this verb describes (“ἁμαρτίαν” – i.e. “sin”) is presently true and not a statement about past action; it is an active condition and not something that has ceased; indicative means that this action is provable; it is personally true of each person; and in this case, it refers to a condition or state of being and not to a singular act (the reason this verb is “plural” is because the noun it refers to is a non-count noun, which indicates a condition or state of being rather than specific occurrences).
The point is not saying that denying individual cases of sin is self-deception, but that denying your condition as sinner is provable self-deception.
John uses this grammatical construction 14x in his first epistle, and they illustrate the point:
1st John 1:3 (CSB) so that you may also have fellowship with us
1st John 1:6 (CSB) If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” and yet we walk in darkness…
1st John 1:7 (CSB) If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another
1st John 2:28 (CSB) remain in him so that when he appears we may have confidence
1st John 3:3 (CSB) everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself
1st John 3:15 (CSB) you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
1st John 3:21 (CSB) if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have confidence before God
1st John 4:16 (CSB) And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us
1st John 4:17 (CSB) love is made complete with us so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment
1st John 5:12-13 (CSB) The one who has the Son has life. The one who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
The construction “to have” + “abstract noun” is unique to John in the New Testament, and he uses it to describe human conditions of “fellowship”, “sin”, “confidence”, “eternal life”, “knowledge”, and “having the Son of God”.
If John is not describing our state as sinners here, then elsewhere he is not describing our state of being in fellowship with God, of having confidence towards him, of having eternal life, of knowing God’s love, and of having the Son of God abiding in us either.
We do terrible violence to the hope and joy of the gospel just to escape the pride-shattering truth that we are accountable to God as sinners and utterly and wholly dependent on his loving grace to stand before God in the Day of Judgment.
As Caesarius of Arles (c. 470-543), who was bishop of Arles known for his pastoral care, commented on this verse:
Let no one deceive you, brothers. Not to know your sin is the worst kind of sin (Sermons 144.4).
No one can be walking in the light of God’s love if they do not understand the severity of their own sin. To deny the severity of our own sin is to deny the greatness of God’s love!
One of my favorite commentaries on this verse comes again from Bede (c. 672 -735):
This verse refutes the teachings of the Pelagians, who say that babies are born without sin and that the elect can make such progress in this life that it becomes possible for them to attain perfection. We cannot live in the world without guilt, since we brought it with us when we came into the world. As David said: “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” But the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin, so that our guilt does not keep us in the power of the enemy, because the man Jesus Christ, the Mediator between God and man, has freely paid the price on our behalf, even though he did not owe anything himself. He surrendered himself to the death of the flesh, which he did not deserve, in order to deliver us from the richly deserved death of our souls. On 1 John 93.88
Another point that must be brought to light is John’s target audience: there is no indication that John has changed target audience since the prologue:
1st John 1:3 (CSB) so that you may also have fellowship with us
His audience stays consistent throughout the epistle:
1st John 2:1 (CSB) My little children, I am writing you these things
1st John 2:12-13 (CSB) I am writing to you, little children… I am writing to you, fathers… I am writing to you, young men…
1st John 2:18 (CSB) Children, it is the last hour.
1st John 2:20 (CSB) But you have an anointing from the Holy One
I won’t belabor the point any further; it is sufficient to say that John is writing these things to transformed Christians who have overcome the world by faith and have received an anointing from the Holy One.
“We are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us”: the final and most poignant point John makes here is that this claim is made and believed by those who are deceiving themselves and who do not have the truth in them. What a spectacularly terrifying condemnation!
How are they self-deceived? They are blind to their own nature that must be continually crucified on the cross of Christ by daily walking in the Holy Spirit:
Galatians 5:16-17 (CSB) I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want.
They cannot see the fierce war being waged by their flesh against the Spirit of God, and they consciously determine to blind themselves to sin’s raging battle within them.
Why do they not have truth in them? They do not have the truth in them because their self-deception has blinded them to the great love that God has shown to them in Christ. This great love is the crescendo of John’s apostolic epistle in chapters 4 and 5, and whoever refuses to acknowledge their present state of sin likewise refuses to acknowledge the amazing grace of God’s present state of love for the redeemed!
2nd Corinthians 5:19 (CSB) That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed the message of reconciliation to us.
Hebrews 8:12 (NIV) For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.