You sometimes hear preachers say, 'It's not good people who get to heaven, but forgiven people.' What do you think of that one-liner?
What's good about it is that it says God won't accept you by you being good enough, but by forgiving you for how you're not good. The trouble with it is that people might think you're saying that being forgiven is the only difference between a Christian and someone who's not a Christian – that Christians don't change at all – they're just forgiven. Whereas the New Testament says loud and clear that God doesn't just forgive us – he gets to work on changing us. But once you say that, sensitive Christians start thinking, 'But sometimes I feel I haven't changed at all. I still sin the same sins. I might sin them less, but I'm miles from sinless. So am I really a Christian?'
Well, earlier in this series on 1 John, John has already said we'll never be sinless this side of heaven. He said:
"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins."
In other words, this side of heaven, we'll never be able to say we're sinless, and we'll always have new sins to confess. So if this is a picture of you or me living for Jesus, we live within two lines:
On the one hand, there's the line that says, 'We're never sinless in this life.' But now turn back in the Bibles to 1 John chapter 3.6 – which says:
"No one who abides in him [i.e., Jesus] keeps on sinning"
Then skip to verse 9:
"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"
So the other line we live within says, 'We don't and can't keep sinning.' And that might leave you wanting to say to John, 'Hold on, which of those is it – surely it's either/or?' To which John says, 'No, it's both. Those are the lines within which you live for Jesus. And for your spiritual good, you mustn't deny either of them.'
So to help us understand that more tonight, I'm going to use a picture which I need to explain. So this first picture shows what we're all like by nature, without Jesus:
So we were made to live for God – living left-to-right, if I can put it like that – relating to God and aiming for what God wants. But instead, by nature, without Jesus, we live right-to-left, ignoring God and ruling ourselves.
But then our stickperson hears the gospel – which says that Jesus died on the cross so we could be forgiven for doing that; and that he rose again; and that he's calling us to trust him for forgiveness, and turn to him and let him run our lives from now on. So here is a picture of someone who has responded to the gospel:
And that left-to-right life is what John calls "abiding in Jesus" – which just means 'continuing'. So I need to continue to trust in Jesus for the forgiveness I need every day. And I need to continue to try to love and obey him. And when I fail I need to continue to trust him for the forgiveness I need every day. And so on and so on and so on.
OK, now look down to the start of this week's passage – chapter 2, verse 28:
"And now, little children, abide in him [Jesus]"
In other words, continue in Jesus, rather than swapping to some new belief. And last week we saw that John had to say that because there was a group trying to sell his readers a new belief. So look back to verse 19:
"[This group] went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us."
So for a while, these people were part of the church, looking and sounding Christian. But then they left and started denying parts of the gospel. So then look on to chapter 2, verse 26:
"I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you."
So the leavers, as I'm going to call them, didn't just leave. They started telling the remainers that their trust in Jesus was a mistake. (Pardon the Brexit lingo – I know that's the last thing you want to be reminded of.) So the leavers – like the cults and liberal Christianity today – were saying, 'You're mistaken about Jesus. So you won't lose anything by moving away from believing in Jesus. After all it's believing in God that matters.'
And in this week's passage, John's first point is that the leavers couldn't be more wrong – because if you lose your belief in Jesus, you lose everything that matters. So John's first point in this part of the letter is:
1. Continue In Jesus Because of Everything You Have In Him (2.28-3.3)
Look down to chapter 2, verse 28:
"And now, little children, abide in [Jesus], so that when he appears [that's talking about his second coming at the end of time] we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming."
So look again at my picture of continuing in Jesus (Picture 3 above). And, remember, continuing in Jesus means continuing to trust him for the forgiveness I need every day, and continuing to try to love and obey him. And John says: continuing in those two things is a double source of confidence.
So for one thing, if I continue to trust in Jesus' death for my forgiveness, that gives me confidence for when I finally meet him. Because although I'll be very aware of all my sinfulness that he should turn me away for, my confidence will be in the cross as the reason he'll welcome me, instead.
But the other thing is that if I continue to try to love and obey him, that will also give me confidence. Because look on to verse 29:
"If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practises righteousness [in other words, tries to do what's right in his eyes] has been born of him."
Now remember Picture 1. We're never sinless in this life. That's one of the lines we live within. So verse 29 cannot mean
everyone who practises righteousness [perfectly] has been born of him.
But, back to Picture 3, it does mean: everyone who is trying to live the left-to-right life – the top arrow life – has been born of him. In other words, God has worked in them a spiritual new start, which has changed what they want, and changed the basic direction of their lives. And if I can see some evidence of that change in myself, it'll also give me confidence for when I finally meet Jesus. Because it shows that I really have come back into relationship with him, and that I'm not just kidding myself about that.
And John says: lose Jesus, and you lose all that confidence.
And chapter 3 says more about what we have in Jesus but would lose if we followed the leavers. So look on to chapter 3, verse 1:
"See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are."
I was saying goodnight to one of my daughters the other day, and unselfconsciously I said, 'I love you, Ellie.' And she looked straight at me and said, 'But why do you?' And part of me thought, 'Oh, no, is she old enough already to be worrying about why she's lovable?' And part of me thought, 'Oh no, is she going to overthink everything like her father?' But why do I love her? Because I do. Because I'm her father and she's my daughter.
I don't know if you remember Timothy McVeigh. He was the Oklahoma bomber in America. And I still recall an interview with his father just before McVeigh was executed for his crime. And his father said, "I'm as appalled as you by what he's done. And he deserves his punishment. But as my son, I still can't stop loving him."
And our heavenly Father can say something even more amazing. He can say: 'I'm appalled by your sin. And you deserve punishment. But my Son has taken it for you on the cross – for all your sins, past and future – so I can now commit myself to forgiving you whenever you need it, and I'll never stop loving you.'
And you won't find confidence like that anywhere else in the world – in any world religion, or cult, or liberal version of Christianity. In fact you'll find people are offended by that sort of confidence – because they don't see that it comes from the cross; they just think it's arrogance. It's like the second half of verse 1 says:
"The reason why the world does not know us [in other words, doesn't recognise our relationship to God] is that it did not know him [it didn't recognise Jesus' unique relationship with his Father, and how he can therefore bring us into relationship with him as well]."
Look on into verse 2:
"Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is."
In other words, right now, even though believers are God's children, that's not unmistakably obvious. So when you walk into the office or the supermarket or back to your non-Christian family, people don't go, 'Wow! You must be a child of God! You're so absolutely different!' Because we're not absolutely different, are we? Because we still sin – we're not as good as we should be. And non-Christian people still do good – they're not as bad as they could be. So it's not that clear-cut, is it? But, second half of verse 2:
"we know that when he appears [i.e., when Jesus comes again to wrap up history and bring us into his finished kingdom], we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is,"
So right now I can't see Jesus. Which means I can doubt him, and tell myself he's not watching or even that he's not there. And then I'm a sucker for temptation and sin. But when I see him as he is, what goes on inside me to make sinning possible now will never go on again – and sinning will be impossible. And if that isn't something to look forward to, I don't know what it. After all, how fed up of sinning are you? (I hope you are.) And look at verse 3, where John adds:
"And everyone who thus hopes in [Jesus] [in other words, who looks forward to being finally sinless in heaven] purifies himself as [Jesus] is pure."
It's like if you know you're going to live in a foreign country, you start learning the language and culture now. And if we know we're going to live finally and sinlessly in heaven, we'll start imperfectly trying to live like they live in heaven, here and now.
So that's John's first point: continue in Jesus because of everything you have in him. But his other point to help us deal with the leavers is:
2. Discern the Fundamental Difference Between Children of God and Children of the Devil (3.4-10)
Which, I hasten to add, is his blunt language, not mine. Look down to verse 7 first of all:
"Little children, let no one deceive you."
So that's talking about the leavers, who've denied essential beliefs about Jesus and the cross and Christian behaviour. And yet they'd still have been saying, 'We're as spiritual as you are. We're as Christian as you are.' That's what liberal Christians and ministers and bishops are saying in all the denominations. That's what they have to say, to win a following. To which John says, 'No they're not, and you have to be discerning.'
At which point, sensitive Christians think of Jesus saying,
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged." (Matthew 7.1)
But that's saying: 'Don't pass judgment and condemn someone as if you were God and not a fellow-sinner with them.' That's saying, 'Don't play God.' It's not saying: 'Don't make any judgements at all… be totally undiscerning.' And here, John is saying: we need to discern the fundamental difference between two groups of people.
So look down to chapter 3, verse 4, where he describes one of those two groups:
"Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practises lawlessness; sin is lawlessness."
So look at Picture 3 again. And on the bottom arrow you've got the group in verse 4, who are described as those who 'make a practise of sin', which he also defines as 'lawlessness'. And the crucial thing to get is that he's not talking about the sins a Christian commits while trying to love and obey Jesus on the top arrow. He's using the word 'sin' in a more fundamental way to describe people who are 'practising lawlessness' – we would say, who are 'being a law unto themselves', in other words rejecting all authority but themselves and saying, 'Please don't tell me how to live – especially if your name happens to be God.'
And that's what the leavers were doing – and what we all do naturally, without Jesus. Because they denied that Jesus is God and had the right to run their lives. And so they also denied the standards of behaviour which Jesus taught. So look at verse 4 again:
"Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practises lawlessness; sin is lawlessness."
So that's the bottom arrow group – which is everyone outside of Jesus. By contrast, read on in verse 5,
"You [if you're believers in Jesus] know that he appeared [at his first coming] to take away sins, and in him there is no sin."
In other words, if you're a believer in Jesus, you know that he came to deal with the sin-problem on the cross – so we could be forgiven now, and so we could be finally sinless like him. So if you trust that, you end up as the person described in verse 6:
"No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him."
Literally, it's even more blunt. Literally, it says:
"No one who abides in him sins. No one who sins has either seen him or known him."
Which I guess leaves all of us thinking, 'Then I can't be a Christian.' But the answer to that is: 'Context, context, context.' Because how has John just defined sin in verse 4? He has defined sin as lawlessness, as being a law unto yourself, as rejecting all authority but yourself, as saying, 'Please don't tell me how to live – especially if your name happens to be God.' That's how he's using the word 'sin' in this context. So in verse 6 he's saying, 'No one who lives in relationship with Jesus does that. No one who does that has either seen him or known him.'
By contrast, people living in relationship with Jesus do the top arrow in Picture 3. So they trust in Jesus for forgiveness because they do recognise God's authority, and how they go against it and need forgivness for that every day. And they try to love and obey Jesus because they do recognise his authority, and don't want to live their own way any more. And so they fight sin and resist sin, and when they fail in the fight they regret sin and confess sin. And that's a totally different attitude to God – which you don't have by nature. You only have it by turning to Jesus and being born again – in other words, being forgiven, and having God come into your life by his Spirit to change what you want at the very heart of you.
And the rest of the passage just drums home the same point. Verse 7:
"Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practises righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous."
So that's talking about the top arrow person in Picture 3. By contrast, verse 8:
"Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning."
And that's talking about the bottom arrow person in Picture 3. Verse 8 is just describing the bottom-arrow sin of verse 4 in another way. Because being a law unto yourself and rejecting all authority but yourself is devil-like-sin. It's what the devil has been doing (and tempting us to do) from the beginning – do you remember what he said in Genesis 3? 'You will be like god, making up the rules for yourself.' But, read on:
"The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil."
So no-one who is in relationship with the Son of God is going to live on the bottom arrow – which is what Jesus came to destroy. Verse 9:
"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."
And again you're probably wanting to say, 'But that's just the problem. I can sin. Just watch me. I do it every day.' So how do we make sense of that 'cannot' in verse 9?
Well, we were at Cragside, the National Trust house, the other day. And instead of having signs on sofas saying, 'Do not sit', they have judiciously placed fir cones, that are meant to give the same message. Only I didn't know that. I don't speak fir cone. So I sat down next to this mystery fir cone. And in a nanosecond a National Trust volunteer had materialised from somewhere and was saying, 'Excuse me sir, you can't sit there.'
And it was tempting to say, 'Well, actually, I can – look I'm doing it right now.' But that's not what she meant, is it? She didn't mean it was impossible to sit there. She meant, 'Sitting there is not done. In that sense, you can't do that.'
And John is not saying sin is impossible if you've been born again. He's saying, 'It's not done.' He's saying, 'You can't sin in the way I've described in verse 4 and verse 8. He's saying, 'I know you can be appallingly inconsistent, I know you can fail badly to live out your identity as God's children. I know you can drift from Jesus for a while. But if you're born again, you can't live like someone on the bottom arrow (in Picture 3). And however bad your failings and driftings, conviction of sin and a sense of who you really are in Jesus will always bring you back to him.
So look at verse 10 for John's conclusion. Remember: he's trying to help us discern the fundamental difference between two groups of people. And he sums it up very bluntly in verse 10:
"By this it is evident who are the children of God [in other words, who is in God's family through trusting in Jesus], and who are the children of the devil [in other words, who is still on his side, where we all start out by nature]: whoever does not practise righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother."
So in his day, John wanted his readers to be discerning about the leavers, who were trying to lead them away from Jesus. Today he'd want us to be discerning about the fact that every denomination – not just the Anglican one we're in – is full of people professing to be Christian, and even working as church leaders and bishops and archbishops, but who are actually on the bottom arrow of my Picture 3. Because they're denying that Jesus is God and has the right to run our lives – in particular, today, our sex lives. And so they're also denying the standards of behaviour that Jesus taught – both in person, and through the writing of his apostles in the New Testament.
But, above all, John would want us to apply these things to ourselves, and for each of us to double-check: 'Which of those two arrows am I really on?'
So 1 John isn't easy to hear, is it? It can feel quite disturbing. But God meant it to disturb us if we're not taking sin seriously and turning away from it. But at the same time, he meant it to comfort us – as he tells us that he's not expecting us to be sinless, and that there's always forgiveness when we need it. Which is why, as someone put it, 'God gave us 1 John to disturb those who are comfortable with their sin, and to comfort those who are disturbed by their sin.' And I wonder which of those you are, tonight?