We must Start with the Holiness of God by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John.” It was preached in the 1940’s and re-published as one volume (formerly in five Volumes) in 2002 by Crossway Books.
This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 1 JOHN 1:5
HERE IN THIS VERSE we begin the consideration of the various reasons and causes which John gives his readers for the fact that the fellowship of Christian people with God is not as full as it should be, and is so frequently interrupted. He has announced his great theme, he has reminded them of the great good news, that what is offered to the Christian in this life and world is fellowship with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ, or if you like, through His Son Jesus Christ. The Apostle is not concerned in this particular matter to deal with the person of the Lord as such; he has already done that in his Gospel. Not only that, these people, being members of the Christian Church, have already been taught that; John is rather taking it for granted. What he is concerned about here is to enable them to continue in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is anxious to show them the fullness of this fellowship which is offered and how this fellowship may be maintained in spite of various hindrances and obstacles.
When we gave a general analysis of this letter, we pointed out how that is the scheme on which he works. There are certain things which tend to interfere with the fellowship or to rob us of this true fullness, and immediately he comes to one of them, one of the things which we all so constantly tend to forget. Indeed, here in this verse he holds us face to face with one of the most vital and common things of all. There can be no doubt about that from any standpoint and especially, as I hope to show you, from what can be described as the theological standpoint, there is no more important verse than this one. It immediately concentrates our attention on something that is quite fundamental and primary, and if we neglect it or fail to understand it as we ought, we must of necessity find ourselves overwhelmed with troubles. And therefore we can, perhaps, best consider it together by putting it in the form of a number of propositions.
The first principle is this: we must always start with God. You see how John plunges into this without any introduction; indeed there is something almost surprising about the way in which he does it. He has already said in verse 4, ‘And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.’ Very well, says John, ‘this, then is the message which we have heard of him and declare unto you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.’ The starting point, let me repeat, always must be God Himself.
Now it may sound strange to some that we take the trouble to put that in the form of a principle. ‘Surely,’ someone may feel like arguing, ‘that is something that is self-evident and obvious. Surely the very first and basic thing for Christian people is that they should start with God.’ And yet I want to suggest that half our troubles arise in the Christian life because we do not start at this point. It is because we tend to assume that we know the truth about God, it is because we tend to assume that everything is all right in our ideas about God that many, if not most, of our problems occur, because we constantly start not with God but with ourselves. So many people assume that they believe in God and that therefore they need not be concerned about examining their belief. ‘I have always believed in God,’ says someone, ‘it has never occurred to me not to believe in Him.’ So in all their thought about these things they tend not to start with God, because they assume that; rather, they tend to start with themselves.
This, of course, has been the outstanding source of trouble since roughly 1860. It had started before that, but it has been particularly true since that time. Man has been put in the centre, and all thinking and all philosophising has tended to start with man; he has been placed at the centre of the universe. Man, if you like, has been placed on the throne and everything, God included, has had to be put in terms of man. Man has set himself up as an authority; it is man and his ideas that count; it is always man in his need and condition that seems to be the starting point.
Now that is the very initial error and the source of most misunderstandings. The Bible is constantly reminding us that we must start with God. If ever I start with man, I must ultimately go wrong in all my thinking about truth; because if I start there, everything accommodates itself to my doctrine of man. Yet the doctrine of the Bible is that I can never know man truly unless I look at him in the sight of God and in the teaching concerning God.
So I must always be careful not to start with myself. It is very difficult not to do so; our whole approach to the gospel and to Christianity naturally tends to be from that self-centred and selfish standpoint. We argue like this: Here I am in this world with its troubles and I am ill at ease. I am looking for something I have not got. I am aware of my needs and desires; I am aware of a lack of happiness, and the tendency for most of us is to approach the whole subject of religion, to approach God and Christian truth and everything else, in terms of my desires and my demands. What has He to say to me and to give to me? What can I get out of this Christian faith and religion? Is there something in this that is going to ease my problems and help me in this dark and difficult world?
But that, according to this verse and indeed according to the whole of the Bible, is the root source of error, it is the initial fallacy, it is indeed almost blasphemy against God. The first answer of the gospel can always, in effect, be put in this way: ‘Forget yourself and contemplate God.’ This, then, is ‘the message which we have heard of him’; not that your needs and mine can suddenly be met by the gospel, but rather that ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ Immediately we start with God and not with ourselves.
Furthermore, this is a very valuable test of any teaching or of any doctrine which may confront us. You will find that the great characteristic of the cults and of every religion which is not the true Christian faith is that they tend to come to us in terms of our need. That is why they are always so popular and so successful; they seem to be giving us the thing we want. We have our needs, and they seem to offer us everything just as we want it without any pain or difficulty. There is no more thorough-going test, therefore, of the truth of the faith and of the religion that we may be concerned with than this.
Primarily, the initial test, the characteristic of the revelation of the Bible, the first crucible, in a sense, of the Christian faith, is that it starts with God. We are silenced, we are put into the background, we are not considering man first and foremost. It is God, it all starts with Him—‘In the beginning, God’—and He is at the centre. The very term theology should remind us of that. Theology does not mean knowledge concerning man; primarily it is knowledge of God.
So this is of supreme importance to us as we come to consider the whole question of fellowship and walking with God and of enjoying the life of God. Most of our troubles are due to our self-centredness and concern for ourselves. The psychologists are aware of that and they have their own way of dealing with it, but they do not really meet the situation and the problem. They are only temporarily successful, because the whole time they are pandering to this self within us. No, the way to be delivered from self-centredness is to stand in the presence of God.
According to the Bible the initial cause of man’s ills is that, having been created in the likeness and image of God, instead of living a life in subservience to God, man, alas, suddenly exalted himself and claimed a kind of equality with God; and it is his own self-assertion that has led to all his perplexities. Is not the position in which we find ourselves the same situation as that of the people who have gone before us in all ages and at all times? We begin to see that our fallacy is to exaggerate our own twentieth century with its problems. We see we are paying too much attention to our environment and conditions, and we suddenly come back and face this ultimate, absolute truth—that we are all ultimately in the presence of God.
The starting point, then, always must be God and not ourselves and our needs, our desires and our happiness. Before the Bible begins to talk to us about our particular needs, it would have us see ourselves in the sight of God. Its approach to the whole situation is quite unique and entirely different. It does not say it can aid and help us; it confronts us with its own truth, its message from God which comes down to us.
Let me elaborate that a little more. Having reminded us that we must start with God, our text reminds us in the second place that we must accept the revelation concerning God which we have in the Bible and primarily in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ It is not enough, in other words, for us to say that we must always start with God. The vital question is:what is the truth concerning God; who is God; what is God; what do we know about Him?
Here again I think we see at once that we are face to face with another of those primary, fundamental questions, and it is tragic to have to remind ourselves of how it is always with regard to these very things that we go astray. ‘Oh yes,’ people say, ‘I have always believed in God.’ There are only a very few who actually say they do not believe in God. The average man says, ‘Yes, of course I do’, and then if you ask him what his ideas of God are—or indeed you need not ask him because he is so fond of expressing his opinions!—he says, ‘If God is a God of love, I cannot understand why He should allow conditions like these present ones to exist. Why does God allow wars, why does God. . . ?’ Immediately, you see, he is telling you what he thinks of God.
That again, according to the Bible, is one of the first fallacies. To believe in God we must accept the revelation concerning Him, and that revelation is only to he found in the Bible. Now that is a dogmatic assertion, and so is the verse which we are considering. ‘This then is the message,’ says John, ‘which we have heard of him, and declare—announce, proclaim—unto you.’ John does not say, ‘This is the sort of picture I have of God’; he does not say, ‘As the result of much thought and meditation and reading, and as the result of my study of the Greek philosophies and contemporary thought, this is the idea I have now arrived at concerning God.’ Not at all! He goes out of his way to say the exact opposite.
John says, ‘What I am telling you is what my fellow Apostles and I heard from Him and heard about Him.’ He has already referred to the Lord Jesus Christ as ‘that which was from the beginning, which we have heard and seen and looked upon.’ He had to start with Him, ‘because,’ he says in effect, ‘in fact I did not know God and my ideas concerning Him were false until I met Him, until I heard Him and companied with Him for three years. I heard His words; He said on one occasion, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father. You have been with me and have you not known me, have you not seen and heard me?” He is my authority,’ says John; ‘He told us certain things and I am just repeating what He said.’
That is the biblical position; so in other words we come to what we may call the watershed in this matter. There are only two ultimate positions; we either regard the Bible as authoritative, or else we trust to human ideas, to what is called philosophy. The whole case of the Bible is that this is the unique revelation of God and that finally I am shut up and shut into this particular revelation.
This again has been a matter which has often engaged the minds and the attention of God’s people. What are the so-called proofs or the philosophical arguments for the being and existence of God? Now, according to the Bible I think we must look at it like this: these things have their place and yet they are not ultimately the final source of truth. Reason can take me to a certain point, and it is quite right to use it up to that point, but that will never bring me to a true knowledge of God. I can argue about the being of God in a purely philosophical manner; I can say that every effect has a cause, and that cause in its turn is but the effect of another cause, and I can go back and back until I come to the ultimate cause and that must be God. Well, that is all right as far as it goes, but to believe that is not to know God.
Again, I can use a moral argument; I can say that I observe in life that there is bad, good and better; does that not imply that there must be a best somewhere? Moral arguments lead to arguments about the absolute, and that is God. This too is all right as far as it goes, it is quite sound, it is perfectly cogent, and yet when I have worked out that argument and accepted it, I do not know God in the sense that John means here. What John tells us is that we can have fellowship with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ.
I can use the cosmological argument; I can assert an intellectual argument as to my existence and my being and show that yet there must be some ultimate source of this being. Again, all this is quite sound philosophically, but that is not to know God. No, these arguments, these so-called proofs of the being and existence of God are all right as far as they go, but they do not bring me to an ultimate knowledge, to a communion, to the fellowship which is offered me in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here I am left ultimately in this position of relying upon the revelation, and this is the challenging effect of faith; faith calls upon us to come to this truth as little children, acknowledging our failure, acknowledging our incompetence and impotence, and it confronts us by these declarations, these announcements, and it asks us to accept this truth. I cannot know God ultimately apart from the revelation that He has been pleased to give me of Himself; I cannot know God ultimately in the sense of truly having fellowship with Him except in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Lord said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me’ (John 14:6). Now I wonder what happens exactly when we test ourselves by that particular statement. Have we found the Lord Jesus Christ absolutely essential in that way, or have we held some view of God which has made us believe we can find God whenever we seek for Him or that we can arrive at God by our own efforts? Our Lord put it like that, and that is the Christian position: ‘No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.’ He is essential, and we cannot know God truly except we believe this revelation concerning Him. And that is exactly what John says: ‘This is the message which we have heard of him and which we declare unto you.’ ‘I believed things about God,’ says John, ‘before I met Him. I had ideas concerning God, but when I met Him and listened to Him and knew Him, it was only then I really came to know God.’ As Martin Luther put it in his own blunt and striking manner, ‘I know no God but Jesus Christ.’
Now there is something, surely, we all must confess, that tends to come to us in rather a startling way. Our tendency is to say that we are all right in our belief of God, but the trouble is our belief in Jesus Christ. But the question is, what has the Christian faith to offer us by way of salvation; and the answer is that it is our thoughts of God that are ultimately wrong; it is in our approach to Him that we go astray; we must start with Him, and we are confined entirely to the revelation which has been given to us. He gave it to the patriarchs of old; He gave it in the Ten Commandments and the moral law and He gave it in the prophets whom He raised up one after another. All these were intended to give us knowledge and understanding of God, but it is only in the incarnate Son that we really come to know Him; it is only there that we can possibly know Him as Father and truly have fellowship with Him.
Then the next proposition is that we must start with the holiness of God. There again, surely this fifth verse must come to us as rather a surprise. Surely our first reaction when we read it is to feel it is almost a contradiction. John has just been saying, ‘These things write we unto you, that your joy may be full’; so, how is it to be full? Well, ‘This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is . . .‘ What would you have expected there? I suggest that most of us would have expected, ‘God is love, God is mercy, God is compassion’; but the startling and astonishing thing is that he says, ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ And we want to say to John, ‘Have you forgotten what you have been saying? You have been saying that we are to be given an amazing joy, and then you confront us with that.’
But that is precisely what he does say. In other words, we must not start with the power of God or with the greatness of God, though they are perfectly true. We must not start with the knowledge of God, though that is absolutely essential. Nor must we start with God as a source of philosophy. We must not even start with God as love.
Now we can see at once how by putting it like this we just give an utter contradiction to what has been so popular especially, again, since 1860; the great message that has been preached for a hundred years is ‘God is love’. That is the thing that has been emphasised, and we have been told that our fathers, and especially the Puritans with their preaching about justice and righteousness and repentance and sin and punishment and death, had been entirely contradicting and denying the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have been told that God is love—that is what we wanted and there He was to meet us; yet what an utter travesty of the gospel that is! This is the message: ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’
I say it with reverence that before I begin to think and consider the love of God and the mercy and compassion of God, I must start with the holiness of God. I go further; unless I start with the holiness of God, my whole conception of the love of God is going to be false, and this of course is what we have been witnessing. We have had the flabby, sentimental notions of God as a God of love, always smiling upon us, and then when wars and calamities come we are baffled and we turn our backs upon religion—this is what millions have been doing since the great wars of this century. And the trouble has actually been due to the fact that they did not start the way the Scriptures start, with the holiness of God. God is utter, absolute righteousness and justice; ‘holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord’ (Hebrew 12:14); ‘God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrew 12:29); sharing in the light that is unapproachable, everlasting and eternal in the brightness and the perfection of His absolute qualities. Light! And light must not be interpreted as knowledge; light is knowledge, but light essentially stands here for holiness—utter absolute holiness and purity. And John makes certain that we shall not go astray in our interpretation, by adding this negative: ‘And in him is no darkness at all.’
Now it is interesting to observe how the commentators, and even some of the best of them, during the last hundred years, as the result of a modern philosophical approach, are so anxious to interpret this term ‘light’ in terms of knowledge and truth and enlightenment and understanding. But that is not it; it includes that, but essentially it is the character of God, and the character of God is His holiness.
But why is all this so essential? ‘Why,’ asks someone, ‘is it so vital that we must start with God and not ourselves; why do we start with God and not with our opinions? Why must I be so attuned to this revelation? Why must I start with the holiness of God rather than with His love?’
Let me give you some answers. I suggest that if you do not start with the holiness of God you will never understand God’s plan of salvation, which is that salvation is only possible to us through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross on Calvary’s hill. But the question arises; why is that cross essential, why is that the only way whereby man can be saved? If God is only love and compassion and mercy, then the cross is surely meaningless, for if God is love alone, then all He needs to do when man sins is to forgive him. But the whole message is that the cross is at the centre, and without that death God, I say with reverence, cannot forgive.
So what is the trouble? And here is the answer—‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ And that means that He is just and righteous; it means that He is of such pure countenance that He cannot behold and look upon iniquity (Habakkuk 1:13); it is the holiness of God that demands the cross, so without starting with holiness there is no meaning in the cross. It is not surprising that the cross has been discounted by modern theologians; it is because they have started with the love of God without His holiness. It is because they have forgotten the life of God, His holy life, that everything in Him is holy; with God love and forgiveness are not things of weakness or compromise. He can only forgive sin as He has dealt with it in His own holy manner, and that is what He did upon the cross.
Therefore it is essential to start with the holiness of God; otherwise the plan of redemption, the scheme of salvation, becomes meaningless and we can see no point or purpose in some of the central doctrines of the Christian faith. But if I start with the holiness of God I see that the incarnation must take place; the cross is absolutely essential, and the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit and every other part of the great plan as well. How important it is that we should start at the right place; how vital it is that we should be led by truth and not by our own ideas.
Let me give you another answer. If we start with the holiness of God we shall find that all the false claims of fellowship with God are immediately exposed. We saw earlier how prone we are to try to have fellowship with God in false ways and that they will not last. John is going to elaborate on that great theme. There is nothing that exposes the false so much as standing face to face with a holy God. Yes, by your own efforts you can have a kind of fellowship in your imagination with that false God whom you construct for yourself. You can practise a kind of hypnotism, but it is not fellowship with God, and in your times of need you will discover that. No, God is light, and any fellowship I may have with Him is in terms of that—it exposes the false. Not only that, it delivers me at once from attempting in a false way to try to find fellowship with Him. If I start with this conception of His holiness, then I see at once that certain things I am prone to do are ultimately going to fail.
But it saves us also from another thing; it saves us from the terrible danger of tending to blame God and to criticise Him in times of trouble and in times of need, and that is one of our greatest dangers—to misunderstand God, to argue and to question, ‘Why does God do this; did I deserve this?’ But if I start with the holiness of God I will never speak like that. I know at once that whatever may be happening to me is not the result of anything unworthy in God. ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all’, so that whatever may be happening to me is not in any way due to any imperfections in God; it silences me, I put my hand upon my mouth and prevent myself from speaking foolishly and whiningly.
And lastly, it is right and essential that we should start with the holiness of God because actually, in practice and as a matter of fact, it is the only way that leads to true joy. There are false joys, there is a false way of finding peace. You know those great, profound psychologists of the soul, the much maligned Puritans, used to write at great length on what they called a ‘false peace’; there was nothing they were more afraid of than having a false peace with God. The most dangerous thing is for people to persuade themselves that all is right with God and then not to find Him in the moment of agony. There is such a thing as a false spirit; that is why the Bible tells us to ‘try the spirits’ (1 John 4:1), to examine ourselves, whether we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). There is only one way to true and lasting joy, and that is to start with the holiness of God. If I start there, I shall be delivered from every false peace, from every false joy. I shall be humbled to the dust, I shall see my true unworthiness and that I deserve nothing at the hands of God. I shall come to the only One, who can deliver me, the Lord Jesus Christ, and anything I may receive from Him is true; if I receive joy from Christ, it is a true joy, a real and lasting joy.
So you see after all John is not contradicting himself, he is not playing with us and mocking us. ‘These things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.’ How is my joy to be full? ‘The first thing,’ says John, in effect, ‘is this: if you want that blessing in your life, if you want to be filled, clear out all the rubbish that is in it. If your life is to be full of joy, get rid of everything that is false; then, when it is truly emptied, it can be filled to overflowing with the true joy of the Lord in the Lord Jesus Christ.’
Thank God for the thoroughness of the gospel! Thank God for the heavenly way which starts by holding us face to face with a holy, absolute God and then driving us, leading us to the only Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘This then is the message that we have received of him and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ We can do nothing better, every time we go on our knees to pray, than just to say that, and when we feel like rushing into our own desires and complaints, just to pause and, like the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, approach him with reverence and godly fear, ‘for our God is a consuming fire.’ (93-103)