Last Lord’s Day, in introducing this series of sermons on 1 John, I reminded you that the letter was written by the great Apostle with the pastoral purpose of resettling these believers in the grand convictions of their Christian faith. They had recently been unsettled by some false teachers who had undermined their convictions regarding Christ and salvation. In particular, he wanted to assure them both of the truth of the Christian faith – that they were absolutely right to believe it and to believe it without question – and to assure them of their own salvation, which they had, as he puts it, eternal life.
After an introductory paragraph, in many ways similar to the introduction to John’s Gospel, in which John asserts with all of his apostolic authority that what he will remind them about Christ and salvation is based squarely upon what he himself had seen and heard as a disciple of the Lord Jesus, John plunges directly into his argument.
Once again John emphasizes his immediate connection to Jesus. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you…” It is the nature of light to shine and to illuminate. The false teachers had apparently brought what they described as some kind of hidden or secret knowledge, but there is nothing secret about the gospel of Christ: it is a “shout from the housetops” message! But light is also a symbol of purity as darkness is a symbol of evil. Remember how we read in the Gospel of John that when the light came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ – Jesus, remember, is identified as the light in John 1:9 – men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. [John 3:19]
“If we say…” almost certainly indicates that what follows is what the false teachers had said. More on that later.
I mentioned last time that John is going to offer three tests of genuine and saving faith: the moral test, the doctrinal test, and the social test. Holiness of life, right beliefs regarding Jesus Christ, and the love of God and one another mark the true Christian and distinguish him from the counterfeit. In the letter each of these tests of life, as they were called by Robert Law, the 19th century English commentator, is stated in both a positive and a negative form and each is also identified by the use of the word “liar.” This will help you organize the letter in your mind. So, here in v. 6 we read that “if we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie…” And the same point is made in 2:4: “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar.” That is what we called “the moral test.” In 2:22 we read, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” That is what we called “the doctrinal test.” And in 4:20 we read, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar…” That is what we called “the social test” of true Christian faith and salvation.
We would expect John to say that if we walk in the light as he is in the light we have fellowship with God. That is true, but as in v. 3, John goes further: we also have fellowship with other believers who are likewise walking in that same light. To walk with Jesus is to walk with his people, so closely are they associated with him. [Bruce, 44]
Here the “blood of Christ” removes not simply the guilt of our sin – our exposure to punishment for it – but delivers us from its stain, its defilement in our lives. But John will go on to say that it does not do this perfectly in this life by any means. It is a striking juxtaposition: First, Jesus cleanses us from all sin and then, the immediately, following phrase: “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…” It is necessary to keep the two thoughts together so that the promise of forgiveness does not become, in Calvin’s words, “an enticement to sin.” We all know the temptation of thinking that if we sin we can simply confess it later and have it forgiven, as if the reality of forgiveness is simply a method of managing our sins. [Yarbrough, 64] Christ died not to make us comfortable sinners but to make us righteous, people who walk in the light.
Here the claim of the false teachers goes a step further: Christians have no sin. It is not merely that their sins don’t matter, but that they don’t have any sin at all. Probably these teachers were teaching that the spirit had been cleansed of all sin and that being the true self, one was indeed sinless, no matter what he might say with his tongue or do with his hand.
We may be assured of forgiveness from God not because he is easy-going and indulgent, but because he is faithful to his promise and righteous in the application of the sacrifice of his son, as we will read in 2:2. [Bruce, 45]
It is important for us to remember that this verse that teaches that we will be forgiven only if we continue to confess our sins – everything is in the present tense – was written to those who had already believed in the Lord Jesus and already received eternal life!
The claim of these teachers was that their superior enlightenment rendered them incapable of sinning. [Stott, 83]
The first “test of life,” the moral test, is introduced in vv. 6 and 7 but the fact that genuine Christians live holy lives is so much the burden of what follows in the letter, that I’m going to leave the exposition of that statement to a later sermon. Take note for now only of John’s simple point that as God is light those he brings into fellowship with himself will naturally, inevitably, and certainly partake of and reflect that same light, that same moral purity and holiness.
The false teachers, apparently purveyors of an early form of ideas that would later coalesce into what would be called Gnosticism, had taught, perhaps by their example as well as by their words, that one could have fellowship with God while living a life the apostles would immediately have described as sinful, a life of darkness. They would not have taught anything so crass as the carnal Christian theory, a view of the Christian life popular still in some circles of American evangelicalism today. According to that theory, if you have received Christ as your Savior, by your bed with your mother or in an evangelistic crusade, if you have ever professed your faith in Jesus Christ, you have eternal life, even if you never honor him as the Lord of your life, even if your life never changes, even if you continue to live entirely as unbelievers do. Such a carnal Christian isn’t the best kind of Christian, to be sure, but he or she is still a Christian, still goes to heaven. That is the carnal Christian theory. That wasn’t the argument of the men who had troubled the Christians to whom John was writing.
These false teachers would have argued rather in terms familiar to the educated society of the Greco-Roman world of that day. They said something like this: the body is simply the container of the spirit, which spirit, once purified by knowledge, cannot be contaminated by the deeds of the flesh, the physical body. Indeed the body, being only a vessel for the spirit, is of little importance and so the deeds of the body are likewise of little importance. The deeds of the flesh, sinful or no, are, therefore, irrelevant. A person’s outward life, his physical and material life, the words he speaks with his mouth and the things he does with his hand, don’t really matter because the spirit is the true and eternal part of man. Perhaps they also taught, as later Gnostics did, that if one became truly spiritual – which the secret knowledge or gnosis would make him – he would have advanced beyond even the possibility of sinful defilement. [Stott, 78]
I want to concentrate our attention this morning on John’s riposte to this sort of teaching in vv. 8-10. And these are an important few verses, for this kind of thinking appears in many forms in the church; always has and does today. He has already said, in vv. 5-7 that real Christians live godly, obedient, and faithful lives. They reflect the character of their heavenly father and their savior in other words. That is John’s positive way of saying that the deeds of the body matter and matter a great deal! They are an important mark of God’s presence in our lives. Light begets light!
The verses which immediately follow, in my judgment, amount to a description of the first way one walks in the light and reflects the light of God’s presence, part of that godliness and obedience that is the mark of the genuine believer and separates him from the counterfeit. He lives or she lives, John says, always facing, always recognizing, always confessing his or her sin. He doesn’t deny it; she doesn’t try to hide it; they confess it to God and receive forgiveness from their heavenly father through Jesus Christ their savior. Their sinful deeds are not ignored as irrelevant, but confessed as unworthy of a Christian so that they can be forgiven.
Here is a wonderful and important paradox: real Christians will live to please God and that entails nothing as much as their ready admission of how often they fail to please Him as they ought to and want to. As in any well-ordered family so in the family of God, the right way, the honest way, the healing way, even, may I say it, the happy way of dealing with the inevitable bad behavior is to acknowledge it and confess it so that it might be forgiven.
But there are powerful forces ranged within us, around us and above us that work against this approach to sin in our lives. There were strong philosophical reasons in the Greco-Roman world for not caring very much about what happened in the life of the body – in one’s speech and behavior. That may not be as true today, though those same ideas lurk near the surface of some forms of even evangelical theology in our time. Who cares what you do with your body if your spirit has been made pure before God?
But the idea of practical sinlessness, of getting to the place where the Christian is above and beyond his or her sin, of having one’s sin no longer be an issue, and no longer having to talk about it especially with God, I say this idea returns relentlessly in Christian thought and life. Views that amount practically to a denial of the real sinfulness of a Christian’s life, or to the minimizing that sinfulness, have made their appearance again and again through the ages since John penned his letter. The great and good John Wesley held that it was possible in this life for a Christian to attain sinless perfection – so that he or she would no longer need to confess sins to God – though, to his credit, he never claimed to have reached such a state himself. We can’t help admiring him for once making this vigorous disclaimer:
“I tell you flat I have not attained the character I draw.”
Later, in the higher-life movement, a Christian movement of spiritual renewal that gathered steam in 19th century Great Britain, it was claimed that the normal Christian life is one of uniform, sustained victory over known sin.
All these views were guilty of some kind of pettifogging about what actually constitutes sin, so that it could still be possible to claim perfection for what any mature Christian observer could immediately tell was an ordinarily imperfect and still sinful life. After all, the facts of even a mature Christian’s life being what they are, it is no surprise that all who have claimed sinlessness have sooner rather than later proved to have been as the woman Charles Spurgeon knew, who claimed to be without sin and past sinning, until someone stepped on her toe, and, Spurgeon says, “her sinless perfection departed her like the morning dew.”
In our day, and especially in the Reformed church, perfectionist ideas are likely to take a “softer” form. There is no denying of the continuing sinfulness of Christians, there is rather simply a minimizing of its importance. Christ’s forgiveness is so emphasized that the impression is often left that, whatever sins may be committed, they can’t affect one’s relationship to God. One PCA man, representing this approach to the Christian life, actually said that it was impossible for a Christian to disappoint God or dishonor him by his or her behavior. His thinking went like this: Christ has made you righteous and God’s beloved child. Nothing you do can undo what Christ has done. You are and will always remain God’s righteous child. You sin can’t change that. There is a sense in which that is true, of course. But there is a sense in which it is not. But put the way that man put it, it is a message that, no doubt, will prove very popular in our day, I think especially for two reasons. One is that modern life has churned up so much moral failure that a great many Christians can’t bear to think about their failures; they have been too great and too many. It discourages and demoralizes them to think about the difference between what their lives have been and what they should have been. The other reason is that breathing the air that we breathe in this culture and hearing the preaching that we hear in the church of our day – sunny, upbeat, encouraging – the very idea of duties and obligations to God that we must fulfill and the very idea of taking our moral failures seriously strike the modern mind as alien, unnatural, and even ungracious and unchristian. We are used to hearing of God’s love and forgiveness but we hear little of God’s holiness and of our need to fear and to obey him. We read John 1:9 but it makes little sense to the modern Christian. If our sins have already been forgiven, why do we still have to confess them? That’s their question. The church’s state of mind being what it is, it is no surprise that the confession of sin has disappeared from most modern evangelical worship and, alas, the need to confess one’s sins and to repent of them is no longer a major theme in preaching as it has been for centuries up to our time.
But it is the loving, warm-hearted, gentle Apostle John who reserves such stern words for any and every form of this claim that Christians have gotten past the sin-issue and the sin-problem in life and that they no longer need to reckon with their sins before God and before the Lord Jesus. He does not hesitate to say that people who make this claim are self-deceived and neither know nor practice the truth. They also make God out to be a liar; for the Lord in his Word leaves no doubt of the continuing sinfulness and struggle with sin which will mark the heart and life of every one of his children in this life. God says we remain sinners and if we deny or ignore that or are indifferent to that truth – either directly or by implication – we are saying that God has not really told us the truth about ourselves! No wonder John thinks the denial of our continuing sin as Christians is such a capital error. As Dostoevsky puts it in The Brothers Karamazov:
“The important thing is to stop lying to yourself. A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone.”
That is John’s point here. The false teachers’ lies about the Christian’s now sinless life led them to embrace another set of falsehoods, damaging, even fatal falsehoods, and opened the door to a complete abandonment of the truth. That is how fundamentally important to all Christian truth is the continuing acknowledgement of our sin and the seriousness of it. Deny this or even ignore or minimize it and you are in a fair way of denying considerably more Christian truth, related as all that truth is in some way to the reality of our sin.
Of course, as we know, the continuing sinfulness of believing people, the seriousness of that sinfulness, the problem of it, the need for us to reckon with it in our dealings with God is a persistent theme of Holy Scripture from its beginning to its end. That continuing sinfulness is illustrated in the lives of the very best and holiest men and women of whom we learn in Scripture. Abraham and Moses and David were men of faith and love to a profound degree, but they were sinners as long as they were pilgrims in this world. The Bible shows them sinning and shows them reaping the consequences of their sin. The Bible shows them confessing their sin to God and being forgiven. The continuing sinfulness of every believer is again and again explicitly taught in the Bible. David, the man of faith, pleads with God in Psalm 143:2: “Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you.” The author of Ecclesiastes says it still more plainly: “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.” James says to his Christian brothers in his letter: “We all stumble in many ways.” And, alongside such texts as these and many others like them, and towering over them all, is Paul’s personal confession of his own still great sinfulness, even as an Apostle of the Lord and even much closer to the end of his Christian life than its beginning, and of the final deliverance from that sin and sinning which will not come until he is in heaven with the Lord; that, of course, in Romans 7 and 8.
When a person becomes a Christian, his guilt is utterly swept away, “There is therefore now no condemnation to the man who is in Christ Jesus;” his sins are forgiven entirely, everlastingly, and unqualifiedly. But his sins are not immediately removed from his heart, his life, his attitudes and behavior. That takes place over time and never nearly completely until we see Jesus face to face and become like him, because we see him as he is. This is the standard, self-evident, emphatic teaching of the Bible and it is the consistent confession of the Christian Church through all of the ages of her life. It is the experience of all devout men and women. It is also clearly the settled conviction of the Apostle John.
Indeed, John says here that one way to tell the difference between a genuine and a counterfeit Christian is precisely that the real believer in Christ faces the reality of his sin and his continual sinning, he mourns over it, he confesses it to God that it might be forgiven so that he might be cleansed from it and rise above it. The real Christian is one who wants to be rid of his or her sin; really wants that as much as anything, and can’t wait for the day! For the real Christian his or her sin is always an issue!
Now to many in our day, as I said, all of this acknowledgement of sin and confession of sin seems negative and depressing. And many voices in the church are raised against it; if not actually denying our still great sinfulness as Christian people, at least either actively urging us not to think or speak much about it or simply ignoring it and, by example, encouraging other believers to do the same.
But, says John by the Holy Spirit, this is a great mistake! It is trading in falsehood and no one can build a true Christian life on falsehood. No one can obtain the blessings of the truth by ignoring the truth or denying it. One of the demonstrations of the Christian faith is its truthful and honest account of the dismal moral quality of human life. Facing our sin and confessing it, in any case, are not negative activities. However discouraging our sinfulness and our sins may be to us – and they should be discouraging, as they were to Paul, as they were to David, as they have been to the godly through the ages – facing these unhappy facts about ourselves and dealing with them before God is a very positive part of any healthy Christian life and produces the most happy and holy consequences. Honest admission of wrong, the confessing of it, is the only way to keep relationships – whether with one another or with our heavenly Father – sweet and close. The only other way to do that is never to sin, but that is not a possibility for you or me in this world.
Some of the holiest people the church has ever known have given pointed expression to this fact and to the great benefit a sense of sin and the practice of confessing it to God produce in Christian lives. Samuel Rutherford wrote: “A sense of sin is a close friend to a spiritual man.” John Fox, the author of the famous Book of Martyrs, put it still more strikingly: “My sins have in a manner done me more good than my graces.” James Fraser, the Scottish covenanter could even say, “I find advantages of my sins…” They are not encouraging you to sin for the benefit of it, but they are saying the honest reckoning of sin is a door on the other side of which many, many happy things are to be found.
Well, so it will he for every genuine believer, for every one who makes the acknowledgement and confession of his sin to God an important part of his days and nights. This is not to deny one’s full and free justification before God when first you believed in Jesus. Every true Christian has been forgiven all his or her sins. But it is to say that the believer’s continuing relationship with God must be faithfully cared for, nurtured, maintained and served. And if the truth is that you are sinning against that relationship all the time, as you are, then obviously there must be a reckoning, an acknowledgment; there must be confession and forgiveness. You children, when you have sinned against your parents, you know they aren’t going to cast you out of the family because you have misbehaved, but you also know that you need to confess your sin to them in order to put matters right. You also know that when you do confess, they will forgive you. Nothing serves relationships better than honest reckoning with misbehavior. It is what good people, humble people, faithful people always do! And because we do sin against God, nothing short of the acknowledgement of our sin and of the confession of it to God will keep our relationship with our heavenly Father close and happy. This works out in many practical ways.
It is the confession of sin that leads to forgiveness as we read in v. 9. Nothing is more valuable to a Christian, nothing more empowers his or her life than a sense of forgiveness kept on the soul. But that sense can only endure if a Christian continues to face his or her sins and continues to confess them. Otherwise sin is minimized and, by a fixed law of the universe, if sin is minimized, salvation is minimized, forgiveness is minimized and Christ himself is minimized, for, more than anything else, Christ is our Savior from sin. It was our sin that brought him into this world to die on the cross; absent our sin he would not have come and there never would have been a cross of Calvary. If sin is not much to be saved from, Christ must not be much of a Savior. It is our continuing struggle with the reality of our sin – especially as Christians – that keeps us realizing that he is a very great Savior and must have been motivated by a very great love. And confessing our sins and receiving their forgiveness is what keeps us feeling that in our hearts! That is precisely what happened here. The false teachers minimized sin and, as a result, as we shall see as we get further into the letter, they minimized Jesus too. They brought him down. Jesus Christ will be as great and as important to any believer as he or she senses the burden of his or her sins – even the sins already forgiven in Christ – and wants to be free of that burden.
It is unalterably true! You show me a person, a man or a woman, whom you admire for his or her devotion to Christ, and I will show you a person in whom the reality of his or her own sin still darkens the mind and heart. Your Augustines and Luthers and Bunyans and Rutherfords, were Christians whose sin was always before them as David says his sin was, always a burden to their renewed and sanctified hearts, and, for that very reason, Jesus Christ was always before them and always terribly precious to them because he and he alone could deliver them from both the guilt and the power of that sin.
If you stop confessing your sins – John says – soon you will stop turning to Christ, and soon after you will stop thinking highly of Christ. So it was with the false teachers, but not, says the great Apostle, with a genuine Christian whose eyes have been opened to see himself, and therefore to treasure Jesus Christ as the One who alone can save him from himself.
You know that one of my heroes was the Scottish pastor Alexander Whyte who died in 1921. Whyte was a great preacher of Christ, I think, perhaps the most powerful of his day, because he was a great preacher of sin and the continuing reality and burden of sin. It actually was somewhat controversial, his concentration on sin, and more so as the years passed. The spirit of the age was changing and Whyte did not change with it in this particular. He was a man of real humility and of the virtues that stem from humility, such as kindness, modesty, and reverence. You do not have to do much reading in Whyte to discover where that characteristic state of mind came from. Here was a man who refused to ignore the truth about himself and about his sin. His sin was always before him, his private sins as well as his public sins, and he was always confessing those sins to God and to others. And all of that confessing of sin had its perfect fruit in his life. Whyte’s congregation was in the west end of Edinburgh, it included the judges, the political officers of the city, men of business and so on. It was a wealthy congregation full of powerful people. A minister colleague of Whyte’s reports:
“On one occasion, when a prominent citizen of Edinburgh had been imprisoned, [this would have been someone of their class, someone they would have known and known about.] and the whole city was aghast at the scandal, as Dr. Whyte came into the vestry on Sunday morning the bells were ringing for church. He turned to me and said, ‘Do you hear those bells? He hears them in his prison cell this morning. Man, it might have been me!’”
Whyte once complained about the theology and preaching of another influential Scot preacher and writer of the time, Henry Drummond, who in keeping with the spirit of his age, preached only on happy themes, never the darker truths of human life and the Christian life. For Drummond, Christ was more a teacher than a Savior. Of Drummond Whyte said, “The problem with Hen-a-ry is that he doesna ken onything aboot sin!” [Gammie, Preachers I have Heard, 12] The problem with that, Whyte thought, was that a failure to reckon with the reality of sin cuts a man off from the true appreciation of so much else in the gospel and in life because.
Here was Whyte – by all accounts of very happy man, a man of deep and dear friendships, a man who knew how to enjoy life and how to love others and to receive their love in turn – who knew his own sinful heart, had searched out the height and the depth of his own sin. He was always confessing it to God and always receiving forgiveness from his heavenly Father. And that made him not a gloomy man, not a defeated man, not morose or depressed, but a man whose heart was full of the glory of Christ his Savior, a man who did not think himself better than others, whose eyes were too low to look down on another but rather who rejoiced that anyone, most of all the Lord himself, should love and care for him. No wonder that we should read here both about confessing our sins to God and about our fellowship with one another. The latter is the happy consequence of the former.
The gospel, John says, trades in the truth. And the truth is there is still a lot wrong with your life and mine. Admit it. Others can see it. It’s no secret. And why not admit it when there is full and free forgiveness with God for those who come in the name of his Son and when confessing and being forgiven have such wonderful effects upon our characters, our relationships, and our appreciation of the love of God and Christ. Jesus said, you remember, that the person who has been forgiven much, loves much. Well then seek more and more forgiveness that you might love more and more!