6. Still Sinners

Meditations in 1 John : 6 :  Still Sinners

1 John  1:8   If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

Commentators often struggle at this point in John’s letter. In fact a whole big part of the Church struggles with this verse because it seems to say something that many don’t like – we’re still sinners. There are those who claim perfection when we come to Christ. Did not Jesus say, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”? (Mt 5:48) After all, they say, when we came to Christ he dealt with all my sins and the power of sin over me is broken and I am free from sin’s domination – all of which are true! The Matthew verse would be better explained as, “Aim for the perfection that you see in your heavenly Father.” Also you have to be a very unknowing person to believe that you are perfect and you never think, say or do anything wrong, anything that is contrary to God’s will for us.

There are also those who say this verse is a verse for application to unbelievers, before they come to Christ but the verses before it clearly indicate John is speaking to Christian believers. Is this an important issue? Yes, it is very important because the person who denies it fails to recognise their own vulnerability. Why would Jesus – and indeed the whole New Testament – warn us to be on our guard against temptation and failure if it wasn’t a real possibility for the disciple? We’ll examine some of those warnings in a moment.

But a bigger argument in favour of what we have been saying comes through the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 7. Again there are those who say he speaks about the past, but that is not how it reads and he concludes that chapter with, So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” (Rom 7:25) When he moves in to the next chapter the force of his argument is that it is only in Christ and submitted to the Spirit are we free from sin. Are we always submitted to the Spirit? Again, it is a very unknowing person who claims to be so.

But an even stronger argument comes from Paul’s reference to what is clearly one of the ‘sayings’ of the early Church: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” (1 Tim 1:15)  Was that something that seekers had to declare on the path to salvation or was it something the believers recognized about themselves. I have to say that the older I get – and my confidence in Christ gets stronger – the more I am aware of this truth in this early Church saying – applied and applies to me!

A little later in his letter John brings the balance that we need to hold: “My dear children, 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 defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1) His desire is that we will not sin BUT he recognizes that there IS the possibility for us believers and he tells us Christ’s response to us when that happens. (In our next verses in this present chapter he tells us how we are to deal with it when it happens – see the next meditation). No, John is a realistic pastor and he knows the vulnerability of his flock.

But we said there are warnings in the New Testament that would be meaningless if we are perfect and cannot fall. Jesus himself taught, “Watch out that no one deceives you.” (Mark 13:5) and deception is about wrong thinking that leads into wrong behaviour. He concluded in that talk, “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back ….. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.” (Mk 13:35,36) He is clearly warning against wrong behaviour. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is speaking to disciples and there we find much practical teaching and warnings against wrong attitudes and wrong behaviour – all of which we as disciples are still prone to!

The apostle Paul’s letters are littered with practical teaching, warning against wrong ways of thinking and wrong ways of behaving – to which all believers are vulnerable. Probably the letter that reveals most practical teaching is that of James, full of instructions to do this or not do that. The fact is that we can get it wrong and that is why all this teaching is there for us. In the meantime we need to be aware of our vulnerability and with the help, guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, seek to avoid those things. May that be so!

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