1 John: Walking in the Light

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
1 john
Mark Canlis on Becoming Who We Were Created to Become

Although written under greatly different circumstances than James,[1] 1 John also challenges the notion that faith can live without “works,” that is, acts of obedience toward God. In chapter 2, John states that genuine knowledge of God is manifested by transformed character and behavior, epitomized in obedience to God:

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his com­mandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked. (1 John 2:3–6)

Again in keeping with James, 1 John regards caring for those in need as one expression of genuine knowledge of God. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17). First John takes us one step further in understanding the relationship between faith and works or, to use John’s terms, between knowledge of God and obedience.

Using a variety of images, John explains that our obedience to God indicates, and is the result of, a prior reality variously described as pass­ing from darkness to light (1 John 2:8–11), being loved by God (1 John 3:16; 4:7–10, 16, 19–20), being born of God or made children of God (1 John 2:29; 3:1–2, 8–9), or passing from death to life (1 John 3:14). According to John, right living is first and foremost a result and response to God’s love toward us:

Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:7–10)

John describes the result of this process as the ability to “walk in the light as he himself is in the light” (1 John 1:7). God’s love through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice brings us into a qualitatively different kind of existence, whereby we are able to see and walk in keeping with God’s will for our lives. We don’t merely turn on the light once in a while. We walk in the light continually, as a new way of life.

This has immediate significance to workplace ethics. In recent years, there has been increasing attention to “virtue ethics” after a long history of neglect in Protestant thought and practice.[2] Virtue ethics focuses on the long-term formation of moral character, rather than on formulat­ing rules and calculating consequences of immediate decisions. Not that rules or commands are irrelevant—“For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments” (1 John 5:3)—but that long-term moral for­mation underlies obedience to the rules. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this discussion,[3] but John’s concept of walking in the light as a way of life certainly commends the virtue approach. What we do (our “works”) springs inevitably from who we are becoming (our virtues). “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), and we are becoming like him (1 John 3:2).

One specific application of the light metaphor is that we should be open and transparent in our workplace actions. We should welcome scrutiny of our actions, rather than trying to hide our actions from the light of day. We could never defraud investors, falsify quality records, gossip about co-workers, or extort bribes while walking in the light. In this sense, 1 John 1:7 echoes the Gospel of John 3:20–21, “All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”[4]

For example, Rob Smith heads a business-in-mission organiza­tion in Africa that builds boats for use on Lake Victoria. He says he is frequently approached by local officials who want him to pay a bribe. The request is always made in secret. It is not a documented, open payment, as is a tip or an expediting fee for faster service. There are no receipts and the transaction is not recorded anywhere. He has used John 3:20–21 as an inspiration to draw these requests into the light. He will say to the official requesting the bribe, “I don’t know much about these kinds of payments. I would like to bring in the ambassador, or the management, to get this documented.” He has found this to be a helpful strategy to dealing with bribery. Although it is widely believed that brib­ery is an effective—albeit unethical—means of increasing market share and profit, research by George Serafeim at Harvard Business School indicates that paying bribes actually decreases a company’s financial performance in the long term.[5]

In a related manner, 1 John underscores that we don’t need full-time jobs in ministry to do meaningful work in God’s kingdom. While most Christians don’t have jobs in which they get paid to do the so-called “spiritual” tasks of preaching and evangelism, all Christians can walk in the light by obeying God in their actions (1 John 3:18–19, 24). All such actions come from God’s prior love, and therefore are deeply spiritual and meaningful. Thus nonchurch work has value, not only be­cause it is a place where you may get a chance to evangelize, or because the wages you earn can go toward funding missions, but because it is a place where you can embody fellowship with Christ by serving oth­ers around you. Work is a highly practical way of loving your neighbor, because work is where you create products and services that meet the needs of people nearby and far away. Work is a spiritual calling.

In this sense, 1 John brings us full circle back to James. Both stress that acts of obedience are integral to the Christian life, and indicate how this factors into a theology of work. We are able to obey God, at work and elsewhere, because we are becoming like Christ, who laid down his life for the benefit of others in need.