I John 1:5-2:6
When I grew up, we had a screen door on our house. It had two springs on it. There was a little clip spring on the top of the opening side of the door. This spring created a tension on the door. It was just enough tension that we could still open the door, but strong enough that the wind could not open it and that it would keep the screen door shut so that flies and mosquitoes wouldn’t get in. The other spring was on the hinge side of the door and was a long coil spring. This spring also created a tension. It prevented the door from staying opened. Mom would yell, “don’t slam the door,” but it was too late, we would run out of the house, push the door opened, and keep running without worrying about closing it and the spring would cause it to slam shut. The spring would create tension to close the door, pull it back and catch it in the other latch. That is the function of springs, they keep a positive tension to prevent things from flying off in directions that we don’t want.
There are times when we need springs in our spiritual life.
For example, have you ever felt like this. You know that it is right to obey God and so you become very serious about obedience. Since obedience is right, you begin to apply all kinds of rules to your life. In addition, you wonder about people who do not follow the same rules, because obedience is right. Soon your life is defined by rules and you are critical of others who do not follow them. You see, if you push obedience too far, it can become legalism and it can become judgemental and suddenly you realize that this is not what the Christian life is all about. There needs to be some kind of a spring that creates a tension to pull you back from the danger of legalism and criticism.
On the other hand, perhaps you have felt like this. You discover that you have been saved by the grace of God. You are forgiven because Jesus died on the cross and you are free of the guilt and the consequences of sin. As you rejoice in your freedom in Christ, an opportunity comes up which may not be right, but you don’t worry about it because it isn’t all that serious and besides, you are forgiven by grace, so if it is a little sin, it can always be forgiven. You see, if you push grace too far, you run into the problem of licence, of living in a way that is disobedient to God. There needs to be some kind of a spring that creates a tension to pull you back from the danger of licentious living.
The tension which pulls us back from legalism is grace and the tension that pulls us back from licence is the call to obedience. As we walk the Christian life, we must always keep these two - obedience and grace in tension so that we will walk the kind of Christian life we were intended to live.
This morning, I would like to invite you to look at I John 1:5-2:6, which talks about grace and obedience. As we do, may we learn what God has to say to us. Let us read the passage.
In this passage, John works around this issue in two different ways. In 1:5-10, he seems to make a logical appeal to hear the truth and walk in it. Then in 2:1-6, the appeal comes much more from the heart. He is deeply concerned about their life and their relationship to God.
John begins by giving us the basic truth - “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all.” We must understand this and understand the depth and power of it. How can this truth burn itself on our hearts?
When there is a power failure on a dark night, you may light a candle and it will throw enough light so that you can see what you are doing. It is seen shining brightly by all in the room. When the power comes back on again, the light from the candle is hardly noticed at all. The electric lights are so much brighter, but when the morning sun shines into the room, then even the room light which seemed to be so bright the evening before is not even noticed. When we compare ourselves with each other, it might not be far out to say that some of us shine in our Christian life like candles and some like light bulbs, but both are outshone by God in whom there is no darkness at all. In holiness, in perfection, in sinlessness, there is no comparison. God is absolutely holy, absolutely pure. There is no sin, no wrongdoing, no evil of any kind that can come near to God. God has no wickedness and no unrighteousness in Himself at all. He is holy and pure and we need to know and understand the depth and power of that truth.
What are the implications for us in relationship to such a holy God?
John raises three possible claims which people make regarding their relationship to a holy God.
I have met people who talk about a relationship with God, but when I look at their lives, I wonder about that relationship. There are things in their life - for example, immoral words or hatred towards others - which make such a profession sound hollow. They claim to have fellowship with God, but all the while they are walking in darkness. This is a complete contradiction and John calls us to account for such an attitude. He declares unequivocally that if we think or live like this, “we lie and do not live by the truth.”
What is a lie? There is a movie about a boy whose father always promises that he will be at his son’s game or will play with him, but never shows up. On his birthday, the boy wishes that for one day his father can’t tell a lie. The next day, the wish comes true and when the father begins to realize that he isn’t able to lie, he tests what he suspects by taking a blue pen and trying to write “this pen is red.” The movie is a comedy and the results of trying to say what is not so are quite humorous. The story illustrates for us what a lie is. It is saying what just isn’t so.
It is a lie to say that we have fellowship with God when in fact we ourselves are living a life of sin.
So what is the alternative? As we read on in verse 7, we see the truth that if we walk in obedience, or walk in the light, the same holy, righteous, sinless light that describes who God is, then and only then can we claim to have fellowship with God.
What is interesting about this passage, however, is that it does not say this. It does not say, “if we walk in the light, we have fellowship with God” which is what we would expect it to say. Instead, it says “if we walk in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Now isn’t that interesting? Why this change from what we expect it to say? What it tells us is that walking in holiness, the fellowship we have with God, the fellowship we have with one another and the reality of Christ’s purifying work in our lives are very closely related.
It means that if we are sinning by being bitter against a brother or sister, we cannot claim to have fellowship with God. If we desire another persons property or if we lust after another person and claim to have fellowship with God, we are not telling the truth. On the other hand, if we forgive one another, honor one another, love one another and so obey God, we have fellowship with one another and, by implication, we also have fellowship with God.
Furthermore, if we walk in holiness, the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin. What this means is that obedience must follow upon salvation so that Jesus can continue to cleanse us from all sin. His cleansing work extends beyond the moment of salvation into our whole life.
A faithful Christian life involves obedience.
But what happens if a person is convinced about obedience and is pretty good at it? Perhaps sometimes we are like those described by John in verse 8 who consider themselves “…to be without sin…” What are they thinking? If we compare ourselves with others we may consider ourselves to have arrived. We know that we have never killed anyone, we don’t hate people and we avoid all manner of evil acting and thinking. Our lives, by the standards of Al Qaida, Hells Angels and even our own neighbours are righteous lives. So we may think that we are walking in the light. We agree wholeheartedly with what John has said in verses 5-7. We would agree that it is a lie to say that a person can claim to have fellowship with God and walk in darkness at the same time. We, certainly do not do that. We believe we have fellowship with God and that the fellowship is demonstrated by the fact that we walk in the light.
But if we think like that, John says, we are self deceived. If we think that we are always obeying and always doing everything right, we are just fooling ourselves. The reason we deceive ourselves is that if we think that we do not sin, we don’t understand the holiness of God nor the kind of obedience required of us. Remember, we may be like a light bulb and are much brighter than the person who is like a candle, but God is like the sun and outshines us in holiness so much that we can never measure up. If that is the case, what hope is there for us?
What is necessary when we begin to think that we are good in ourselves is to always recognize the grace and forgiveness of God. We are called to obedience, but we can never obey perfectly and always need to be aware of forgiveness. So we read in I John 1:9, that if we do sin, we are always invited to confess our sins and receive the forgiveness provided by God in Jesus Christ.
A recognition of the gift of forgiveness through confession provides us with the tension that leads us to think that somehow we are good enough and we do not sin. We must always rely on that grace.
The third claim, or wrong thinking, which sometimes happens especially to people who have grown up in the church, is to say, “we have not sinned.” This is different than claiming to “be without sin.” Here the claim is that there has never been sin in our life.
Sometimes we hear testimonies of people who grow up in the church. They talk about the way that they have always obeyed their parents and have never gotten in trouble. They accept Christ as a way of obeying what they know, but they never have a sense of needing Christ. Their life becomes a life of continuing to do their good deeds in their own strength because they have always been able to do so. They don’t really agree with God about their lost condition and so make God a liar. All who have such thinking put themselves outside of the grace of God because they think they don’t need God’s grace, they are good in themselves. And they are exactly the ones who fall quickly into legalism and need to be reminded of God’s grace.
The statement that they make God a liar is an interesting point. It does not say that they lie, as the person who claims to have fellowship with God, but doesn’t live it. It doesn’t say that they are self deceived like the person who says they do not sin, it says they make God a liar, because they disagree with God about the verdict about themselves. Such a distortion of truth is serious and once again raises the importance of recognizing the amazing grace of God who sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Such a sacrifice was not provided because people were just a little bit bad. It was provided because we were without hope, utterly in need of a Saviour - who by the grace of God has been provided.
So the first section gives us a logical presentation of the struggle we are looking at. We see the importance of the tension. On the one hand the awareness of God’s grace keeps us from saying - I don’t sin or I have never sinned. On the other hand, the call to obedience keeps us from presuming on grace and walking in darkness while all the while claiming to have fellowship with God. We need grace and we need to obey.
But let us go on to the next chapter in which the tone changes, but the theme remains the same.
In 1:5-10, we have had an appeal to truth and to walk in the truth, but now we have an appeal written to “My dear children.” John is making the same strong appeal, but now he makes it from the heart. He dearly loves the people to whom he is writing and he wants them to know how much he loves them and cares that they walk in a way that fits with being a child of God.
What is this strong desire he has for them? He says, “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence.” In this verse, this tension is presented in balance. John says to them, “I have said a lot of words to you and clarified some important theological truths about grace and obedience, but let me get to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is that if you really want life, you need to walk obediently.” But he also reminds them of grace when goes on to say, “I know that you will not be able to do so at all times, that your goodness is not sufficient for the demands of a holy Father. So when you realize your sin, remember that Jesus is always there to speak to the Father on your behalf and offer forgiveness on the basis of His sacrifice.”
As John encourages them to walk in the light, he knows that they will not be able to do so perfectly. Although he says, “if anyone does sin” we could just as well say, “since everyone does sin.” To that reality he once again points to the grace of God and the basis of that grace which is the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. He reminds them of the position of Jesus who is in the presence of the Father speaking on behalf of all who come to Him and defending their right standing with His righteousness. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. We can rest in the assurance of sins forgiven because we rest in Christ. How wonderful to realize that “Our advocate does not plead our innocence; He acknowledges our guilt and presents His vicarious sacrifice as the ground of our acquittal.”
But lest we think that we alone share that privilege, we notice that He says, “and not only for ours, but for the sins of the whole world.” When we read that, we become a little concerned. Was John a universalist? Was he saying that Jesus forgives everyone’s sin? As we read on, we realize that there must be a response, because it once again repeats what was spoken in previous verses in which John indicates that only those who walk in obedience to him can say that they know Him. The tension comes into play once again. We can’t take grace to the extreme of universalism and we can’t take obedience to the point of legalism. We need to obey, but we live by grace.
Finally, John explains the evidence of grace by which those who belong to God are known. It is a test of faithfulness. There are several statements here that demonstrate how obedience, walking with God must characterize a follower of Jesus.
In verse 3 John says, “we know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.” So the first statement is once again a call to obedience.
Verse 4 repeats 1:6. There is a clear way of knowing who belongs to God and who does not. The person who does not belong to God, does not obey Him. The one who truly does walk with God is quick to obey Him.
A third statement with a similar theme is found in verse 5. The consequence of such a knowledge of God is that God’s love becomes evident in that life. It is interesting once again the response is different than we might have expected. It does not parallel because it brings in a new aspect, the evidence of obedience is love acted in a life.
The last statement says the same thing in a different way. John points to the life of Jesus and says that living in God means following the example of Jesus.
Both the appeal to reason in 1:5-10 and the appeal to the heart in 2:1-6 communicate the same message. We need the grace of God and we need to obey every day.
I began by talking about how a spring prevents a door from staying opened. It provides a tension to prevent the door from going too far.
The passage we have examined presents us with the pull in our life that will prevent us from going too far. If we think that we are pretty good in our obedience, the reminder of God’s grace and our need for that grace pulls us back to reliance on God’s forgiveness through the blood of Christ. If we go too far with grace and begin to think that we can do as we please and still find favour with God, the call to obedience pulls us back to following Christ in every day life.
There have been previous generations which were strong on obedience, but often lost sight of grace and needed the reminder of what Christ has done. My generation might be more guilty of being careless about obedience and needs to hear the call to obedience. In reaction to my generation, some have told me that the next generation might be strong on rules again and needs to know from the beginning about grace. The pendulum seems to swing from grace to obedience and we all need to be reminded about the importance of the tension to keep us obedient and relying on grace.
God hasn’t left us to wander about aimlessly on our own, he has provided His Word to give us His truth. God has not given us a clear and fully developed set of rules which we follow to get to Him. He has invited us to experience His forgiving grace. As we walk in Him, may we learn to walk always aware of grace and always committed to obedience.