As we make our way into John’s first letter we come to the paragraph that begins chapter 2, but I want to provide its context by reading again from v. 5 of chapter 1.
I didn’t take time, last Lord’s Day morning, to deal with the question raised by this statement in v. 9 that if and presumably only if we confess our sins will our sins be forgiven. Does this not create a conflict with Paul’s teaching in Romans of an absolute, entire, and perfect justification? How can Paul say that there is therefore now no condemnation to the one who is in Christ Jesus but John say that we still have to confess our sins or our sins will not be forgiven? It is such an obvious question that it will not surprise you that our theologians have considered it and come up predictably with several different answers. Take, for example, Wilhelmus à Brakel, the beloved Dutch Puritan, whose classic work, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, first published in 1700, went through 20 editions in the 18th century alone! It has recently been translated into English for the first time from the original Dutch and published in the United States by a conservative, reformed publishing house because Brakel is regarded as such a fine representative of the best of Reformed theology and piety. Brakel argued that justification was not a once-for-all declaration by God but a daily occurrence, as our sins are forgiven day by day as we ask God to forgive them. We may be reconciled to God once for all by the Lord Jesus Christ, but we are forgiven or justified day by day. His first proof of his doctrine of what he called “daily justification” was 1 John 1:9. [Vol. II, 385]
As you know, most Reformed theologians don’t take that view; they don’t answer the question that way. They argue instead that what is in view here in I John 1:9 is a different dimension of forgiveness than that Paul describes in Romans 3-5. There the forgiveness of our sins is the once-for-all declaration of God the judge. Here the forgiveness of sins is the loving kindness of God our heavenly father. It is the difference between forgiveness received in the courtroom and forgiveness received in the family. It is not an entirely easy thing to reconcile the two ways of speaking of forgiveness – both of which occur in many places in the Bible – but we are reminded here that even though we have been justified and acquitted by God when we believed in Jesus Christ, we are still obliged to confess our sins and still in need of having them forgiven. Just as being justified and granted once-for-all everlasting peace with God does not mean that we can now live as we please – “without holiness no one shall see the Lord” – in the same way being justified does not mean that we no longer have to confess our sins and no longer need their forgiveness.
That the Lord Jesus is the propitiation of the sins of the whole world obviously does not mean that all the sins of all men have been expunged on the cross. John speaks in this very letter of people who are not saved from their sins. But, as everywhere in the Bible, God from the very beginning had in view a salvation that would be proclaimed to the whole world and would be believed by people of every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth. The cross of Christ is the fulfillment of a promise long before made to Abraham that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
I’m going to deal with vv. 3-6 next time as they contain not only a different thought than we find in vv. 1-2, but amount to a statement of the first of the three great “tests of life” that John will recommend to us in his letter. This morning I want us to consider the wonderful opening verses of chapter 2, full of deep and rich gospel truth for all of us. Indeed, I would say that if you get vv. 1 and 2 of chapter 2 clear in your mind and embrace the truth of them with your heart, you have gone a long way into the heart and center of the Christian faith. And characteristic of the Bible and of Christian thinking based on the Bible the great burden of this text is conveyed especially by a few well chosen and important terms. Christian theology is in many ways the definition of terms. Sometimes the words to be defined are not themselves found in the Bible – think of Trinity or Atonement, for example – but usually the terminology of Christian theology is found in the Bible itself, employed at critical junctures in its teaching, and fundamental to its explanation of the faith. “Sin” is such a term (John will define it for us later in this letter); so is “salvation,” so are “covenant,” “justification,” and many more. It is hard to imagine getting far into an explanation of the Christian faith without having to use and define such terms. T.C. Hammond, the 20th century Irishman and Reformed Christian, offered this simple advice to theology students: “define your terms and verify your references.” Do that and you will understand the Christian faith.
My Uncle Jim Rayburn, my father’s older brother, was, as many of you know, the founder of Young Life, a large and influential ministry of evangelism and discipleship directed primarily to high-schoolers. A few years ago his diaries were published and in a variety of ways they make interesting reading. Jim Rayburn died young; he was only 61 when he died of cancer in December of 1970. At the end of the diaries the editor adds this anecdote.
“During his last months some of Jim’s old Young Life friends would stop by the Rayburn home. … On one [occasion] [Bob Mitchell who had been a kid in one of Jim’s early Young Life groups and had become a Christian through that ministry and later took Jim Rayburn’s place as the head of the Young Life Ministry] and Jim were talking about the great tenets of the Christian faith. Bedfast, Rayburn reached over to the bedside table and grabbed an envelope and began writing on it. Mitchell didn’t know what Jim was up to. When Rayburn finished he handed his former club kid the envelope. On it he had written ‘The Finished Work of Christ,” and underneath were the words “forgiveness,” “redemption,” “propitiation,” “sanctification,” “justification,” and a few other theological terms… He handed the envelope to Mitchell with a smile and said, ‘That’s what we’re about!” [The Diaries of Jim Rayburn, 523]
Well, exactly right. Those words, properly understood and taken to heart: that’s what we’re about; what every Christian ought to be about. Words! Some extraordinarily important words. Add them up and understand them correctly and you have the Christian faith in all its wonder and glory as a message of love, hope, joy, and eternal life. Words! Commentaries on books of the Bible are taken up with the accurate definition of the important terms used by the biblical writer. There are dictionaries, enormous multi-volume works, that are devoted to the more important theological terms employed in the Bible, including the two we will consider this morning. I have some six feet of such dictionaries on my office shelves. Systematic theologies and doctrinal studies are often largely an examination of the meaning of biblical words and a history of the disputes over the meaning of particular words that have occupied Christian thinkers through the ages. Words carry the freight and so we need to know what they mean and understand how they are used.
But not infrequently the words in Holy Scripture are archaic terms; words we do not use any longer. We are not familiar with them from their usage elsewhere in life. In some cases we don’t use them at all, in others use them only rarely or only some of us use them. Words and their meaning change. I noticed this in my study of the Westminster Standards over my summer vacation. These documents were written long ago, in the middle of the 17th century, and some of their words are unknown to us today. Young ministers in our church are rightly required at their examination for ordination to state the specific instances in which they might differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements. But I suspect few of them even notice the statement in the Larger Catechism that among the sins forbidden in the 7th commandment are “the keeping of stews and resorting to them.” What on earth is a “stew?” We think we know what stew is; it’s a kind of meat soup. It contains pot roast and potatoes and vegetables. Right? But what then is the moral problem with stew and why is it forbidden by the 7th commandment, the commandment forbidding adultery? You have to look it up. A stew in the 18th century was a brothel, a house of prostitution, and, by extension, the prostitute herself. We don’t use the word “stew” in that sense any longer. We have to resort to a dictionary to learn its meaning.
Well, to some degree such is the case with both of the two very important words that John employs in the first two verses of chapter 2. These are words that take some explaining nowadays. The first of these two words is paraklētos, which you have perhaps sometimes heard or read transliterated as “paraclete” and which the ESV translates as “advocate,” and the King James as “comforter.” The NIV offers a paraphrase rather than a translation: “one who speaks to the Father in our defense.” The word itself, by its etymology, the literal meaning of its parts, means “someone called alongside.” The idea is of someone who comes alongside to help you. From there it came to mean generally a helper and more specifically a legal advocate, someone we might liken to a defense attorney; someone who pleads our case before someone else. If you remember, Jesus told his disciples in the Upper Room, the night of his betrayal, that he would send them another paraklētos, another helper or advocate, indicating that he had been that for them and that the Holy Spirit would serve them in a similar role, coming along side to help them by advocating for them before God and man. Now I have been involved in a legal action – as the clerk of our Presbytery I was involved in the proceedings when the Presbytery was sued – and we hired an advocate, someone to speak for us. And our attorney did a very good job and we were dismissed from the case. She knew the sorts of things that had to be said on our behalf and said them and her arguments prevailed with the court. Of course, Jesus is not, in fact, a defense attorney. But the idea of a legal advocate helps us to understand how he helps us, even if we are not in court any longer and God is now our father, not our judge. The Holy Spirit is our paraclete when he prays with us and for us and alongside of us as Paul says he does in Romans 8.
John says that though he wants us not to sin, he is well aware that, even as Christians, we continue to sin and will continue to do so. And our natural fear is that God would tire of our ingratitude and our rebellious ways and cast off children as ungrateful and unworthy as we are. But, says John, we have no need to fear being cast away from our heavenly Father because we have an advocate pleading our case before our Father, no one less that the Son of God himself.
I have a friend in Scotland who began practicing law in Aberdeen while Florence and I were living there. His first case – I remember this distinctly – was the kind of case rookie lawyers are assigned in big firms. It required his defense of a man accused of beating up his neighbor. The defense had pictures of the neighbor’s face, badly bruised and bloody. But my friend’s client insisted on pleading innocent and the burden of his defense – the argument my friend was obliged to make in court – was that the neighbor had beaten himself up. He had hit himself again and again in the face until it was reduced to bloody pulp; all this to get back at my friend’s client. Well, it won’t surprise you to learn that my friend lost his first case. However competent an advocate he may have been, he had no case. But Jesus is not a rookie lawyer without a case!
Or take another example. My father loved to tell the story of a young man who came to Covenant College in the early years from the prairies of South Dakota. He was a personable fellow, everyone liked him, and he had many admirable features, but he had one bad habit. He smoked, which, of course, was against the rules. Time after time he was caught smoking and time after time he would make his appearance in my father’s office. Finally, after the umpteenth time, much as he liked this fellow and much as it pained him to do it, Dad felt he had no choice but to expel him. That very day another student, an Irishman, who is now an honorably retired PCA minister, came to Dad and pled with him to give his friend one more chance and promised that he would stand good for him and see to it that he didn’t break the rules again. Dad felt that kind of advocacy and commitment to another student needed to be rewarded and so he rescinded the expulsion. The young man thus spared eventually graduated from Covenant College and then Covenant Theological Seminary and went on to have a distinguished career as a Chaplain in the U.S. Army. He was Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s chief of chaplains in the first Iraq war. And all because he had an advocate, one who came alongside to plead his cause. That is closer to the idea: a friend who cares for our welfare and can speak in our defense and plead for us. But Jesus is much more than that, of course.
Though our sins are much more serious than smoking a forbidden cigarette, though they amount to callous ingratitude to God for his great goodness to us, our advocate is not some rookie attorney, nor is he offering simply to keep us from smoking another cigarette. He is the Son of God, and, what is more, he not only pleads our case, he has an irrefutable argument to make with our heavenly father.
That leads us to the second important theological term John uses here. It is the Greek work hilasmos (ιλασμός), translated here by the ESV as “propitiation.” The NIV is “sacrifice of atonement.” That is another word you rarely if ever hear nowadays; a word many of us need to look up in a dictionary to learn its meaning. Propitiation means the turning away of wrath, of anger. When John says that Jesus Christ is the “propitiation” for our sins he means that he has turned God’s wrath away from us, the divine anger that was directed toward us because of our sins.
Now propitiation is not only a rare word, it is in many circles, including many Christian circles, a highly unpopular word. There is something about the very idea of propitiation, when used with reference to God, that offends people. If you don’t think so, tell your non-Christian neighbor that God is angry with him or her. See what response you get. The problem people have with propitiation is two-fold: its idea reflects very badly on us (that God should be angry with us) and, so it is argued, it also reflects badly on God (that he should be angry). Over the past century in biblical scholarship there has been a running battle over this word and its meaning, with many arguing that the idea of propitiation is neither taught in the Bible nor worthy of the Christian faith. Under the influence of such thinking in several important modern English translations of the Bible “propitiation” was removed and some weaker word, like expiation (meaning simply “forgiveness”), is substituted for it, some word that suggests that while God takes away our sins turning away his anger had nothing to do with that.
Usually, as so often in such cases, the doctrine wanted to be got rid of is caricatured. The wrath of God, his anger toward sin and sinners is described as if God were some sort of ANE deity, prone to temper, and needing to be mollified by gifts and sacrifices. Or, to use another image, it was argued that the very idea of propitiation tended to make God seem like some sort of “hanging judge,” always ready to send offenders to the gallows, no matter how minor their crimes. But such crude depictions of God are utterly unworthy of him and completely contrary to the Bible’s depiction of his wrath, which is not a pique or fit of temper, but simply another way of speaking of his holiness and his justice in action and his absolutely proper determination to punish sin. The wrath of God in the Bible is always a moral idea – in the Old Testament and New Testament alike – it has nothing to do with the unpredictable passions or vengefulness of the so-called gods of the ancient world, who were thought to be so capricious and so arbitrary that even the bribes paid to them wouldn’t necessarily guarantee their favor or good will. The God of the Bible, the Living God, is nothing like this. He is rather a God of wonderful and terrible holiness and justice, whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity.
The argument against propitiation – which, by the way, has been demonstrated in any number of linguistic studies to be the proper translation of the term, that is, propitiation is the actual meaning of the word in its normal usage in that place and time – rests upon the disquieting suspicion that the idea of God as wrathful or angry with sin and sinners is somehow unworthy of him. To many, including many biblical scholars and a number of evangelicals among them, anger or wrath suggests a loss of self-control, an unworthy and possibly irrational tendency to fly off the handle. We think of anger as often cruel because it is in our experience; a self-indulgent irritability that resents what others say and do not because it is wrong but because in so speaking or acting they have ignored me or made life in some way inconvenient for me. But “wrath” and “anger” when used of God are anthropomorphic terms, a way of speaking about God in human terms because they are the only terms we have.
When the Bible uses a word like wrath or anger in respect to God we must be careful never to attach to that word the imperfections or the limitations or the sinful, low, and base associations that attach to human anger. Who can deny that there are times when even we ought to be angry, times when we should feel what we refer to as righteous anger: anger at injustice, anger at betrayal, anger at disreputable human behavior, anger at those who cause misery, loss and sadness for others? But our anger is virtually never pure; never completely an expression of our love of goodness and justice and our hatred of what is genuinely evil. But in God’s case that is what his anger is and only what his anger is. It is always righteous anger. He is angry at what he ought to be angry at; his wrath is nothing neither more nor less than his perfect goodness and justice offended.
Indeed, in the Bible, God’s wrath is always moral, always judicial, the wrath of a judge administering justice. Cruelty is always immoral, but just judgment is certainly not. It is the foundation of everything we require and hope for in human life. Imagine a world in which criminals were never caught, never condemned, and never punished. How horrible that world would be! God’s wrath is that quality of his moral perfection according to which everyone will get what he or she deserves, nothing more, nothing less; that quality that requires him to judge the wicked. We said last week, remember, that it is John who reminds us that when light came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, men rejected that light; men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. In Romans 1:18 we are reminded that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven not willy-nilly, as if God’s wrath were unpredictable; no, the wrath of God, Paul says, is revealed from heavenagainst all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth…”
And if you remember, once again Paul makes this point about the judicial nature of divine wrath in Romans 3 where he points out that the reason Jesus had to die, the reason we needed him to propitiate God and had to turn his wrath away from our sins, is precisely because God is just. Our sins deserve punishment. They deserve to be looked upon by a holy God as an offense against what is good and right. And the very interesting thing is that when a man or woman comes to see his or her sin for what it is, it is immediately clear to them that God must be offended, must be angry with them, or he would not be the just and good God we know him to be. I told you last Sunday that I have been reading a new biography of John Newton. That is precisely how Newton came to faith in Christ. The first thing he felt when he thought he was going to lose his life in that storm at sea was that he really was a disreputable person. He was! Everybody else thought he was! He had lost all his friends because of the disgusting nature of his behavior. The Spirit of God made him face his sins; those sins made him realize that God was offended by his life and ready to judge him. No one told him that; he figured it out for himself. He knew it instinctively. God’s wrath, God being God, was the inevitable consequence of John Newton’s sins; that the first thing that he realized.
It is this reality that lies beneath and behind the human experience of shame which all of us have had. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, “Human beings are the only creatures that blush or need to.” When a person has been exposed, he or she was doing something unworthy, unlawful, selfish, unkind, or cruel, his own conscience accuses him of the evil he has done. He feels that accusation and condemnation inside. He knows he is unworthy. She knows she deserves punishment. Remember how Adam hid from God after he had sinned. He was ashamed. He knew he was unworthy of God’s approval. God drove him out of the Garden, to be sure, but Adam had already declared by his actions that he knew full well he did not deserve to remain in that wonderful place God had made for him.
In that moment of shame, of self-awareness, a man or woman is feeling and thinking about himself as God must think about him or her. In such moments we see what God sees when he beholds the selfishness, pettiness, cruelty, indifference toward and disregard for others, the violence, and the impurity and dishonesty of my life and yours. It offends him as it should. My goodness, once we are Christians it offends us! Like it or not, this is fundamental to the Christian faith: this conviction that God is right to be disgusted with and angry at our behavior so much of the time. So it is no surprise that in the Bible salvation comes to pass by the turning away of God’s wrath, disgust, and offense at our sin. God is angry and that anger must be propitiated if you or I hope to stand before him, to become his children, to find peace with him, to be accepted by him.
But there is another part of the defense of propitiation as a biblical idea that is even more important. There is another way to distinguish biblical propitiation from its crude and vulgar caricatures. What is even more important, the initiative to placate God’s holy wrath, to satisfy his justice offended by our sin, did not come from us. It came from God himself. The origin of propitiation, the turning away of God’s wrath from us lies in God himself, in his uncaused, eternal, and almighty love for us. The sacrifice that was offered to propitiate God was God’s own idea; the punishment Jesus bore on the cross in our place for our sins was God’s own provision; and, still more, it was God himself, the Son, who offered that terrible sacrifice to the justice of the Almighty. God satisfying God’s justice; God turning away God’s wrath. Who can doubt that this had to be done when it was God himself who did it! And who can possibly compare this to the action of some irate, irascible, and unworthy supernatural being, when it was a mighty love that motivated this propitiation and when it was accomplished at terrible cost to him by God himself?
As our Dr. Buswell used to say, Jesus Christ is not a third party! Jesus Christ did not intervene to persuade God to do something he was reluctant to do – viz. forgive our sins. Christ was sent into the world to die by the Father in order to die for our sins and he was assisted in his life and work every step of the way by the Holy Spirit. It was the Father’s plan that Jesus suffer and die for our sins. As John will memorably put it later in this same letter:
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” [4:10]
The turning away of God’s wrath is the work of God himself. God satisfied his own justice with the suffering and death of his own son to turn his anger away from us and to save us from our sins. This mystery of love stands at the center of our faith and it is very important for Christians to remember that there is nothing remotely like this in any of the other religions and philosophies of the world. It was propitiation, to be sure, but propitiation like nothing the world had ever seen before!
Now combine these two terms, these two realities: an advocate and propitiation. Our advocate, the one who comes alongside us to plead our case when we sin, when we fail, is not some rookie attorney; not even some well-intentioned college friend. This advocate is the very one whom the Father sent into the world to turn away the divine wrath that was directed at us and had to be on account of our sin. God’s wrath is just and so only the satisfaction of his justice could turn that wrath away. But only God could satisfy his justice on our behalf. Only the Son of God could suffer so terribly to deliver us from the guilt of our sin and from the judgment of God on account of that guilt. He is our advocate. He is the one pleading on our behalf before God. Augustus Toplady put John’s two thoughts together beautifully in a verse:
“Be mindful of Jesus and me!
My pardon he suffered to buy;
And what he procured on the tree,
For me he demands in the sky!”
But doesn’t demand it from someone reluctant to give it; Jesus demands it from someone whose very idea it was to provide it.
Many, alas, never rejoice in having such an advocate because they will not admit that they need one. They will not admit that they stand under the specter of God’s wrath. But what compensation for a willingness to face the hard facts about one’s sinful and unworthy life. Never a fear that I might not be forgiven when I come to God confessing my sins. Never a worry that I might wear God out or try his patience beyond what he is willing to endure.
I have an advocate who will plead nothing less than a perfect propitiation that he himself, the Father’s dearest Son, has already undertaken for all my sins.
You and I should be striving every day not to sin, but to live to the glory of our God and Savior. But when we sin, as we do and will, remember who stands right beside you and remember why!