After a recent service a man came to speak to me; he said that godliness was out of reach for him, it was too high a standard, but what he wanted to know was whether or not he had made it over the line, whether or not he was part of God’s kingdom. [Article]
I find many Christians are worried about their standing before God rather than experiencing the confidence the New Testament says we can experience (1 John 5:13-15; Hebrews 10:19). What ever the first causes of this guilt and profound sense of shame many of uscarry, the end result is we question our value to ourselves, our families and friends as well as our creator. There are too many voices in our life experience, in the terrifying legalisms of our confused culture, our tormented consciences and our churches which accuse us who are called to live holding faith together with failure. Meanwhile, the usual solution offered by our shallow times of denying guilt or shame as a form of therapy or defiance has proven to be a greater burden than all the rest.
Which is why I’m thankful for John’s first letter; because it is a letter which holds together two themes we struggle to see meet in our lives; Grace and Obedience. There are at least four ways in which John answers the question that was put to me.
(i) The people in the biggest trouble are those who deny they are. In chapter 1 those deny they have any sin end in making God a liar for sending his Son to deal with sin. It is not those who are troubled by their sin God shuts out; for a sign of knowing God is that we confess our sins (1:9).
John’s teaching echoes the gospels where time and time again it is the proud Pharisee who boasts in his righteousness who has the real problem. Such a person may sleep well at night but they leave the temple unjustified before God (Luke 18:10-14). It is the sinner who won’t draw near, the woman who weeps much because she has been forgiven much (Luke 7:36-50), the people who have felt most keenly both the attraction and the deadly cost of sin who draw near to be healed. In Jesus’ words: “Those who know they are sick seek a Doctor.” (Mark 2:17).
It is those who are not grieved over what grieves God, those who, according to John, live a lifestyle of unrepentant sin (which is the meaning of 3:4-10, and the distinction between mortal and not mortal sin in 5:16 & 17) who have most to be concerned about, even though they will be blind to their condition (1:9,11).
(ii) We have hope. Hope is more powerful to change us than either guilt or duty. Hope pleases God and opens our lives to his grace filled help because hope is faith’s child. We can persist through the most challenging things in life, including dealing with the practise and consequences of the sins done by us and to us if we know, that at the end, we will win. Our hope is that we are now children of God and one day we will see Christ and be made pure like him (3:1-3).
John expects our purity to be a process (he, Jesus, is pure, we purify ourselves; we are God’s children now and what we will be has not yet been revealed. When he is revealed .. we will be like him). So, says John, don’t give up the struggle for purity now for purity is our inheritance and the struggle for purity is our task and it is not in vain.
(iii) A warning. We must flee from sin because Christ came to destroy the devil’s work which is sin in us (3:8,9). Jesus used many urgent metaphors about this: cut off the hand, blind the eye, throw away the temptation, any situation that threatens to drag us into deliberate, unrepentant sinfulness (the high handed sin of Leviticus 6:1-7) and therefore make us a child of the devil.
(iv) An encouragement. The possibility of not sinning now exists. Purity is something we can grow in regardless of our moral starting point or natural moral gifts. We can flee from sin into grace and learn to grow in obedience, in the strength that God gives. We can learn again and again to keep grace and obedience together.
One of the joy filled surprises of 1 John is that the apostle wants Christians to be encouraged by the signs of God at work in them, he wants them to enjoy, celebrate and take heart in what they get right even while they acknowledge their sin .1 John 2:8, 12-14, 19, 24; 3:1, 2, 18-22, 24; 4:4-6, 11-17; 5:1-4, 13, 14, 19, 20.
While we, with trust in God and his Spirit enabling us, battle the power of sin in us I find it is easy to grow despondent because we focus on our failures. John asks us not compound any wrongs we stumble in by forgetting to thank God for his stronger work that is going on in us at the same time. Some days the victories may feel small but they are to be celebrated and used to encourage our hearts that God is at work in our lives. In Christ Jesus obedience is joined to grace.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;1 John 2:1
A prayer: Father of light, be pleased to reveal those parts of our lives as individuals and as your people gathered that need to be purified. In your mercy destroy the devil’s work there; by your Spirit continually interrupt our sin, these addictions that, in truth, are poisonous comforts to our souls. We ask this in the name of your Son, our saviour, understanding mediator and brother, Jesus Christ – for the worth of his atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Amen.
Praise: Father, we rejoice that we are children of God, that you are at work in us. Thank you for the signs we see that you love us because by your Spirit you wrestle with us, discipline us and continue the task of making us pure. Thank you for not giving up on us even when we at times give up on ourselves. Thank you for your great acceptance of us in Christ Jesus. May we learn to accept ourselves in you and rejoice in your work in us as you continue to fulfil our desire to make us like your Son. Amen.