As we noted last time, we are in the middle of John’s second exposition of what we have called the moral test of true and authentic Christian faith. That is, a true Christian, someone actually in possession of God’s salvation, will live according to the commandments of God. This morning we continue where we left off in the middle of John’s argument.
- No doubt this simple definition of sin, as any and every violation of God’s law, a definition found elsewhere in the Bible and earlier in this letter, as in 2:4, was important to state because the false teachers had taught a quite different view of sin and, accordingly, of righteousness. They thought laws and commandments passé, beneath them. Those people, introduced as they claimed to have been, to the secrets of higher knowledge needn’t worry themselves about such things. John will have nothing of that. Righteousness has always been and will always be heartfelt and love-motivated obedience to God’s commandments, nothing more, nothing less.
- In the previous verses, in 2:28 and 3:2 we were encouraged to seek holiness of life because Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Here and in v.8 our motivation is that it was for the destruction of sin in our lives that Christ entered the world and went to the cross. Look at Christ behind you or before you and you find reasons everywhere to forsake sin and live righteously.
- Righteousness is simply being righteous and living righteously in obedience to God’s commandments. We are also in so living imitating our Savior who was such a man himself.
- And, lest somehow a man, like Frank Sinatra, think that in his disobedience he is being his own man, doing it his way, let him reckon with the fact that no man can serve only himself. He serves either God or the Devil and finds strength in his way of life from the one or from the other. Frank Sinatra didn’t do it his way; he did it the Devil’s way. All sinners do.
- The final phrase “nor is the one who does not love his brother” anticipates the next paragraph, the second rendition of the social test of true Christian faith, the love of the brethren.
This past week we have been treated to a very revealing contrast, the exact reverse, I think, of what we might, even should have expected given the verses we have just read. Dave Niehaus, the long-time Seattle Mariners’ announcer died this past week of a heart attack and thus began a tremendous outpouring of love and appreciation from Seattle Mariner fans and baseball insiders. This was a good man we have been told in a thousand different ways. And, to be sure, Dave Niehaus was a likeable man, a capable man, a friendly man, a family man, by all accounts. I don’t wish to decry those features of his life and character that made him as popular a figure in the Northwest as he was. But I have heard nothing of his being a Christian man and a number of insider accounts of his speech and manner away from the microphone suggest he probably was not a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, not a man determined to live his life for his Savior’s sake and to the glory of God. Faith in Christ and the service of his name and kingdom were not dimensions of his life that anyone thought to mention in describing the man.
On the other hand, through this same week we have been treated to daily accounts of how Cecil Newton, the father of Heisman trophy favorite, Cam Newton, the Auburn University quarterback, sought to exhort money from Southeastern universities in exchange for the services of his talented son. Cecil Newton is not only a professing Christian, he is the pastor of a Georgia church. But as the allegations multiply, as the NCAA and the FBI are now on the trail of evidence of wrongdoing, we are no doubt to hear much more of the allegations of a Georgia pastor’s attempts at extortion.
And, alas, this has become entirely ordinary in our modern American society. Do any of you, sitting in this sanctuary this morning, think or believe that the ordinary American would be likely to distinguish between Christians and non-Christians by the upright behavior of the former in contrast to the sinful behavior of the latter? I don’t. I don’t think most Americans think anything of the kind. They don’t think that you always can tell the Christians because they are the scrupulously honest ones, the always sympathetic and loving ones, the conscientious ones who would waste a half hour to return to a store clerk the extra change inadvertently given, the devout ones whose speech is never marred by the dirty joke or by profanity, the generous ones who can always be counted on to see a need and work to meet it, and the heavenly minded ones who in all of their cheerful and useful earthly lives are always taking seriously the eternal issue of human existence. They may know that Christians are distinguished by a certain set of beliefs, but it is not, I think, widely believed that Christians are distinguished by a distinctly different and better behavior.
No doubt we carry a burden that the Christians of the apostolic age did not, or at least they did not carry it to the extent that we do. Huge numbers of people call themselves Christians in our society who are not, in fact, committed to living a distinctly Christian life and that gives all Christians a bad name. That is one burden we bear. There is another such burden, alas, a more self-inflicted wound. In modern American evangelicalism, that is, Bible-believing Christianity, there is a strongly antinomian element. Antinomian means “against the law” and refers to all views of Christian theology in which, by whatever principle, the importance of an obedient live is either denied or minimized. In our time only some will actually deny the need for obedience to God’s commandments – as the false teachers John was writing against had denied it – but many others will definitely minimize its importance, pay little attention to biblical texts that emphasize its importance, and whenever the issue of obedience comes up will quickly change the subject. They would rather speak of justification by faith and of the grace of God that provides the forgiveness of our sins. Speak of the obedience of a Christian man or woman and they are likely to remind you that we are all sinners, that no one’s obedience is perfect, and that no one can get to heaven by his or her obedience to the law of God. It is a fixed law, of course, in this world always a fixed law: minimize the importance and the necessity of obedience to God’s commandments and you get less of that obedience and more careless and worldly Christians.
Let no one take our crown in preaching and believing in the forgiveness of sins. It is the first great gift God gives to us when we believe in his Son: the forgiveness of our sins. And our need for that forgiveness continues. It is altogether true and a fact of immense importance that we Christians remain sinners; we inexcusably but certainly remain sinners. We need God’s forgiveness every moment of every day. If we are not committing some transgression of God’s law, we are failing to meet some demand of that law, every moment of every single day. All of that is true and fundamental to the right understanding of the Christian faith and life. We are at every moment sinners saved by grace.
But the Bible also repeatedly, emphatically, and relentlessly teaches that Christians will obey and must obey the commandments of God. Obedience may not make us Christians, but it certainly marks us out as Christians. Our obedience to God may not obtain God’s salvation but it is everywhere in the Bible a necessary part and dimension of our salvation.
And perhaps nowhere in the Bible is that truth stated more starkly than here in 1 John 3:6 and 9-10.
“No one who abides in Christ keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous…” [And whoever doesn’t practice righteousness, obviously, is not righteous whatever they may claim regarding the forgiveness of sin.]
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God…”
Indeed, it is some measure of how our thinking is shaped by our spiritual culture that so many Christians react in startled confusion to statements like these made by the Apostle John, the apostle of the love of God and Christ. How can John say that Christians don’t any longer sin? How can he say that you can tell the believers from the unbelievers by their obedience to the commandments of God or the lack of such obedience? Aren’t we all sinners and don’t we Christians remain sinners? We love Christ; we trust him for our salvation. But there can be no doubt that we continue to sin, every day and in every way we continue to sin. We sin by what we do and even more, much more, by what we fail to do. For God’s commands do not only forbid us to lie, to steal, to lust, to envy, and so on; they likewise command us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and our neighbor as much as we love ourselves; and we really love ourselves. How can John say that Christians do not continue to sin?
As you can imagine, there have been a variety of answers given to that question. There have been those – and they can be found in some quarters of the church today – who take John’s words at face value and claim that, as a matter of fact, real Christian do not ever sin. This view comes in various forms but, in one way or another, it is maintained that God has taken away the Christian’s sin and so whatever they do, because they are Christians, cannot be and is not considered by God to be sin. It may look to us like sin – ill-temper or callousness or lust or greed or envy – but, in fact it is not sin because Christians cannot sin.
But this is not John’s view. That was apparently what the false teachers had been saying and he is writing to contradict their teaching. He has already admitted that real Christians continue to sin, indeed he said emphatically at the end of chapter one that anyone who claims to be without sin is a liar. He has taught already the necessity of our continuing to confess our sins as we commit them. He will speak again of the continuing sin of Christian life in 5:16. It is manifestly not his view that Christians never disobey the commandments of God. His language must be taken in another way.
Others have argued that John isn’t speaking of any and every sin but only notorious sins: blasphemy, murder, and the like, what Roman Catholics call “mortal” sins. This was Augustine’s view and Luther’s as well. But while there is, no doubt, some truth to this interpretation, it does not fully answer to the facts either. Real Christians have and do commit notorious sins. We read that in the Bible, we see it in church history. Nor does it answer to what John actually says here. The sin he is talking about is any violation of the law or commandments of God. Sin is lawlessness he said, and then he said Christians don’t sin.
Still others have argued that John must mean that while Christians can sin, as it were, accidentally, they can no longer sin deliberately and intentionally. Christians may be overtaken in a fault but they do not lay plans to sin or commit evil acts with their eyes open. Again, however, that seems hardly right. We know very well that we sin with our eyes open and fully aware of what we are doing. We thought about not doing it and did it anyway. Besides, once again, the issue as John defines it is not our mental state when doing what we do but whether or not we are living in obedience to the commandments of God.
Still others have held that John is speaking of the new nature when he says that believers do not sin. Their new nature, their true, new selves do not sin even if their flesh, the dregs of their old nature continues to sin. You remember Paul’s famous remark in Romans 7:17 to the effect that when he, as a Christian, does what at bottom he does not want to do, when he lives in a way that violates his own deepest wishes – at least when he is thinking clearly – “it is no longer I myself who do it, but the sin living in me.” My true self, Paul says, is sold out to Christ and to a life of holiness, but the remnants of my old nature are continually unmanning me and causing me to betray not only the Lord but my own truest and deepest desires for my life.
That is true, to be sure – indeed it is a very important truth – but I don’t think it fully explains John here. It is not a nature that sins but a person. Even Paul in Romans 7 does not excuse himself, as if because it was the sin within him that did it the sin was not his own responsibility. Paul was making a different point than John does here. Here in v. 9 we read that the seed of God resides in us but we also read that as a result of that we that is, we Christian persons, do not sin. John does not say and cannot be taken to mean that part of us is sinning but another part is not. In fact, that is very like the teaching the false teachers had brought. They taught, apparently, that while the enlightened might continue to do things that were violations of the commandments of God that was not their spiritual but their physical nature at work and only the spiritual nature and its works counted any more. Their true nature was spiritual and remained untouched by the deeds of the body. But John says that sin is violating God’s law and if you break one of God’s commandments you sin, not one of your natures, but you!
So what are we to make of John’s statement that the real Christian does not sin? Well this kind of categorical, absolute, and unqualified speech is very common in the Bible. We need to get used to it and appreciate it for what it is. The Bible is always distinguishing between believers and unbelievers with terms that reflect the same absolute distinction as we find here. If a man is to be cast out of the church, Jesus said, he is to be treated as we would treat a sinner. Even our savior used “sinner” to stand for an unbeliever just as “saint” or “holy one” is often used as a title for Christians. David was definitely a sinner. He confesses his sins to us in the psalms he wrote but in those same sorts of psalms he also refers to himself as a blameless and righteous man, using that typical biblical fashion of categorical or absolute description. What two kinds of people are there in the world? Over and over again the Bible tells us that there are but these two: the wicked and the righteous; those who do evil and those who do good. John’s wording here is, in fact, very typical of the Bible’s manner of speaking.
In other places, to be sure, the Bible makes no bones of the continuing sinfulness of the saints, the unholiness of the holy ones, and the unrighteous thinking and behavior of the righteous. But in these places, such as here in 1 John 3, the issue is a different one and the manner of speaking different accordingly.
John’s absolute language, his uncompromising and unqualified assertions of the righteousness and obedience of a true Christian’s life, or, as one commentator puts it, “the whole artillery of these startling statements” [Candlish] is meant to force us to recognize and face up to the fact that in the most definite, profound, practical, and absolute way, the power and the grip and the authority of sin have been broken by the grace of God and the work of Christ and his Spirit in a Christian’s life. Had John spoken otherwise, had he admitted that Christians are righteous to some degree but unrighteous as well, the great fact, the living truth would not have hit home as it needs to. He rocks us back on our heels with it here in 1 John 3. There is a very real sense in which Christians, real Christian do not sin, and that is why the obedience of their lives is a reliable indication of their true and authentic Christian faith, faith in Christ and relationship to him.
- Christians are not sinners because sin is no longer the drift, the fundamental feature or characteristic of their lives. It is not what they live for, hope for. They do not aspire to be sinners but to be righteous and, in many ways, they are. They work at obedience, they want it, they pray for it, and when they fail at it, they know it and it bothers them. Paul was right, when they sin they not only betray the Lord to their dismay, but they betray themselves, their standards, and their own deepest convictions. Sin is not who they are. Righteousness is who they are as the children of God as those in whom the seed of God has been planted. There is a true self in every human being, the authentic self, the real self. In some cases that true self belongs to the Lord Jesus and in others it does not. In the former case the man is righteous at the core, in his heart and in his deepest nature, and because of that—“out of the heart flow the issues of life” we read in Holy Scripture—he will become more and more righteous until at last he will be perfectly so. In the latter case, the true self also expresses itself more and more until at last, unencumbered by other forces, the man is perfectly evil. If at one time he was evil in his heart, in the principle of his life, he is now evil all the way out to the fingertips. The worst thing about hell will be your fellowship with people who, like yourself, are completely sold out to what is evil. It was God, after all, who decided that the difference at bottom was so great that one person could be called righteous – even though there was still much sin in his or her life – and the other unrighteous, even though he or she might do some good things. But here is the great practical, immediate difference. The unbeliever can be happy in his sin because it’s his true self, the Christian never, because sin is an alien element in his soul.
Remember David. After he sinned, we read in Psalm 32 that
“My bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.”
He was capable of sinning as a believing man, but he was no longer a sinner and so he was not capable of sinning with a clear conscience, he was not able to sin without regret and remorse. I know a man who was led to faith in Christ by my father. This man became a minister in due time but some years later fell into serious sin and was properly deposed from his office. This man’s sorrow for what he had done, and his shame at what he, a Christian and a Christian minister, had made of his life was so great that after he came to himself he literally could not make it through the night without vomiting. He drove by himself most of the way across the United States just because he felt that he had to make a personal apology to the man who had brought him to Christ. He knew what he had done was something terrible. But it was not the sin, it was the shame that was the true man, the nightly sickness over sin, the long trip to make an apology. Real Christians do not sin.
- But Christians are not sinners also because, as a matter of fact, they live lives of comprehensive obedience to the commandments of God and more and more so as time goes on. We cannot miss the force of John’s plain speaking here. He is not simply saying that Christians are different from non-Christians in that when they sin they are sorry for it. He is saying that in a defining way Christians don’t sin and do keep the commandments of God and if somehow you could remove from the Christian church and all Christian profession everyone who claimed to be a Christian, but was not committed to living in obedience to the commandments of God for the sake of Jesus Christ, his or her Savior, the whole world could see the difference between the behavior of unbelievers and the behaviors of the followers of Christ. The one group would be sinners and the other group would be the righteous.
F.F. Bruce is one of the commentators I consult when writing these sermons on 1 John. He has an excellent commentary on the letter and it is short; a great virtue in commentary writing: brevity, compression. Bruce was a very influential New Testament scholar in the latter half of the 20th century. He happens to be the man who read and approved my doctoral thesis as my external examiner – we are both alumni of the University of Aberdeen – and so I have always had a warm spot in my heart for him. He was a very significant figure in Biblical scholarship, a world renown scholar everyone had to take notice of and yet a staunch evangelical at the same time. Indeed, I came to appreciate him even more when he justified his disagreement with the fundamental conclusion of my thesis by saying that I demanded of the Apostle Paul a greater measure of logical consistency than Paul was capable of. I have always taken that to be proof of the accuracy of my conclusions!
Anyway, back to Professor Bruce. He grew up in northeastern Scotland and was educated, from the 7th grade through high school, at Elgin Academy. These were the 1920s. Unlike your high school or our Covenant High School, Elgin Academy had tradition, tradition with a capital “T.” After all, it was founded in the year 1224. It is two and a half centuries older than the nearby University of Aberdeen which wasn’t founded until 1494, virtually yesterday! At Elgin Academy Bruce’s subjects were principally the classics – for a time he thought he would be a professional classicist, a teacher of Latin and Greek, but he also studied English, history, French, and Mathematics. In his autobiography he speaks with reverence of the great learning of his several masters at what was, in effect, a high school. Many students went on from Elgin Academy to academic stardom in the British University as did F.F. Bruce himself. Again it was a school with Tradition! Robes were worn by master and pupil alike. The ancient manners of the academy were scrupulously observed even as teachers took a warm, personal interest in their charges. Tradition. Now all of that to set the stage for this. In Bruce’s commentary on 1 John 3 he explains John’s statement to the effect that Christians don’t sin in this interesting way, a way, I’m sure, that sprung to his mind out of his own experience as a schoolboy at Elgin Academy.
“What [John] does assert is that a sinful life does not mark a child of God, so that anyone who leads such a life is shown thereby not to be a child of God. When a boy goes to a new school, he may inadvertently do something out of keeping with the school’s tradition or good name, to be told immediately, ‘That isn’t done here’. A literalist might reply, ‘But obviously it is done; this boy has just done it’ – but he would be deliberately missing the point of the rebuke. The point of the rebuke is that such conduct is disapproved of in this school, so anyone who practises it can normally be assumed not to belong to the school. There may be odd exceptions, but that is the general rule, which has been verified by experience. Fellowship with the sinless One and indulgence in sin are a contradiction in terms.” 
There is a great deal of behavior that is not done here, not in the Christian church, not in the Christian home and family, not in the Christian life, not in the Christian brotherhood. It is just not done here. And one learns this to be true by observation as well as by reading the Bible. We cannot help the fact that many people who call themselves Christians don’t live a Christian life and, in that way, give all serious Christians a bad name. We can’t even help the fact that there are far, far too many real Christians whose theology manages to obscure the difference in behavior that must always mark the boundary between faith and unbelief.
There is little we can do about those things. But those of us who are out and out Christians should not hesitate to demand of ourselves or our children or our brothers and sisters in the church that way of life, that speech and behavior, that obedience to the commandments of God that distinguish the follower of Jesus Christ from any one and everyone who is not. Everyone should understand, shouldn’t take long to notice: that this thing, that thing isn’t done here. We are Christians. We are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ and we obey his commandments. If the world find that distinction impossibly blurred, it is our calling, if we love the Lord and revere his name, to make it as sharp again as we possibly can! The Lord will help us do that because it is what he treasures in his children and in our lives: that love, that our elder brother said, would keep God’s commandments.