1 John: Dealing With Sin

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on September 21, 2003

1 John 1:8-2:2

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 John 1. We’ll begin looking at the eighth verse today. For a couple of weeks now, we've been looking at the book of 1 John as part of a series on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John; and we've already said that 1 John is a book which deals with the Christian life. And it helps us to ask and answer questions like what does a true Christian look like? How do you tell the difference between somebody who claims to be a Christian but isn't, and somebody who professes to be a Christian and is? What are the marks? What are the signs? What are the evidences of grace in a person's heart? How does that show up? How does a person change? How does a person look different?

John begins this book in 1 John 1:5 running onto 2:2 treating the issue of sin. There were people in this local congregation that were teaching against Jesus and the apostle about the issue of sin in the Christian life. These people-we came to know them as Gnostics in the second century-taught, on the one hand, that how you lived didn't matter because Christianity was not about the flesh; it was about the spirit. And since we've been made perfect in our spirits, and so how we live in the flesh doesn't matter. The flesh is of this world; the spirit is of the upper world. Christianity is about things of the spirit in the upper world, and, therefore, you can live like you will, and it doesn't matter. And so they taught basically that you could have fellowship with God and live immorally because the flesh is not of the spirit.

On the other hand, some of them taught that because of the higher knowledge that is revealed through their secret teaching-that is why they were called “Gnostics” from the Greek word gnosis which refers to knowledge-they said, “If you have this higher knowledge which we possess and which even the apostles didn't possess, but it's been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit in our own day; if you have this higher knowledge, you can be perfect, without sin.”

Now they said that in different ways, but the point that John wants to make is this: These men are not teaching biblically about the issue of sin and the Christian life. To deny that it matters how one lives, John says, is wrong. We saw that when we studied 1 John 1:5-7 last week. If you look at verse 6, he begins the first of three phrases that begin with “if we say.” Now when he begins that phrase “if we say” in verse 6, he follows it with this word: “We have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness.” He is giving you a summarizing quote of the false teaching of these false prophets, and you will have already noticed that he does it in verse 6; he does it in verse 8; and he does it in verse 10. And then having done it in verse 6, he gives the true Christian position in verse 5 and 7. And then having introduced a second false teaching in verse 8, he gives the true Christian teaching in verse9. And then having introduced a third false teaching in verse 10, he gives the true Christian response in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 2. And so this whole section deals with the issue of sin and the Christian life. And John thinks it vital for Christians to understand properly the issue of sin and the Christian life and how we're to deal with that sin, and how we're to think about that sin, and how we are to respond when we sin. With that as a word of introduction, let's pray and ask God's spirit to illumine our hearts and minds as we hear His word read and proclaimed. Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, Your word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. It is Your own self-revelation of who You are and what You have done and how You have redeemed us. And it is also a revelation for how we are to live and walk with you in this life. By your Spirit open our eyes to understand this crucial issue of sin and the Christian life. And we ask, O God, that we would not only understand it and believe it and embrace this truth, but that we would also by the grace of Your Holy Spirit live the truth of Your word. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word:

“If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

John is dealing here with three errors about sin in the Christian life. The first error says it doesn't matter. The second error, which is divided into two parts, says it doesn't exist. In other words, the first error is to say, “Well, yes, we still go on sinning in our flesh, but it doesn't matter because we are spiritual beings now. And Christianity has to do with our spirit and not with the flesh, and so what we do in the flesh doesn't matter.” So we can sin, we can–to use the language of verse 6–we can “walk in darkness and still have fellowship with the God of light” because it's the flesh that's walking in darkness, not the spirit.

The second error, which John divides into two parts, is that we are freed entirely from sin in the Christian life. And it will be that second error that we will deal with today. You see it spoken of in two different ways in verse 8 and in verse 10. Now, as we've already seen in outlining the passage, in verse 8, John tells us the second error. In verse 9, he gives the Christian antidote to that error. In verse 10, he tells us the third error of the false teachers, that is the second part of that main category of saying that we can be perfect in the Christian life. So in verse 10, he gives us the third error, and then in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 2, he gives us the Christian antidote to that third error.

And so we can easily see a four-part outline to this passage: in verse 8, the error; in verse 9, the Christian answer; in verse 10, another error; and in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 2, the Christian answer. So there are four parts to this passage.

I. The false claim of being free from sin.
But John is teaching us now how we are to deal with sin as Christians, and, very importantly, how we are not to deal with sin as Christians. Let's look then at what he has to say beginning in verse 8. Here John meets a claim to sinless. In verse 8 we see him describe the claim of the false teachers to sinlessness. Look at what he says: “If we say that we have no sin.” That's his summarization of what these false teachers are saying: they are claiming to have no inherent sin in their nature. Perhaps they’re claiming that all of their followers once they are enlightened with the secret knowledge that only they have-that all of their followers don't have a sin nature anymore. And John is saying, in verse 8, that claiming to be without sin, far from being a sign of spiritual superiority, is, in fact, a definitive evidence of self-delusion. And it's a definitive evidence of a false profession of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The first claim of the false teachers was that one could fellowship with God while living with sin. Do you remember how he states that in verse 6? That “we have fellowship with God even though we walk in the darkness.” That was the first claim.

Now the second claim here in verse 8 is the claim of a sinless nature. The false teachers say we have no sin: that is, they and their followers claim to have no inherent sin nature. Perhaps they argue like this: “We are united to Christ, and Christ is in us, and we are in Christ, and therefore we no longer have sin. We are inherently new creations, and therefore the old creation is so completely passed away that there is no sin left in us.” And John says about that claim: it is self-deceptive; it's delusional. He says if you can say that, you’re living in ‘la-la land.’ And worse, John says, it's an evidence of hypocrisy. “The truth is not in them,” John says. You know, some of us in this very room have heard people teach this: “Oh, I'm in Christ, and Christ is in me, and I'm a new creation. I have no sin anymore.” And the Apostle John is saying, “That is false teaching.” Sin can't be dealt with by denial. To deal with it by denial is self-deceptive: it's delusional. And those who take this route of dealing with sin, claiming that we no longer have that problem once we're Christians, show that they just don't know and understand the truth. That's what John is saying in verse 8.

II. The Christian response to the false teaching of sinlessness.
Now in verse 9 he gives his antidote to this particular problem. How is the Christian to think about sin and about one's sin nature if we're not to deny that we have one anymore? If we are not to deny that we have a struggle with sin or that there is an aspect of sin in our nature, how are we to think about ourselves? Well, John tells us. Look at verse 9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” John is stressing that the proper Christian response to sin in the Christian life is confession.

Confession, you see, is the expression of our ongoing repentance. And John is saying, here's how Christians deal with sin and the sin nature: they confess their sins, and they’re comforted even in their repentance and confession by the truth of the faithfulness and righteousness of God to forgive. John makes it clear in verse 9 that repentance and confession of sin are part of a normal, ongoing aspect of the Christian life. It's not some exception to the rule, but repentance and confession of sin are part of the ongoing, normal Christian life. And so the proper attitude of the Christian to sin is not to deny that we have a sin problem anymore, but instead to realize the ongoing reality of sin and then to be ready to confess it to God. So the Christian far from claiming to be perfected is going to say, “Yes, Lord, I recognize I still struggle with sin, and so I confess that sin.”

Repentance and confession are not something that we do once at the beginning of the Christian life, and we're done with it; but faith and repentance inaugurate the Christian life, and they continue to characterize it throughout. We believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved. We continue to trust in Him as we grow in the Christian life. We repent of our sins, and we turn to Him, and we continue to repent of our sins turning to Him over and over in the Christian life. And John is saying here, that's the proper attitude of the Christian to sin: not to say that it's not a problem anymore, but to confess our sins freely.

How are we to do that and not be overwhelmed when we realize the seriousness of sin? Well, again, John gives you the clue in the second half of verse 9: “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins.”

Now that may not be what you were expecting him to say. What would encourage you to confess your sins to the Lord? Perhaps it would be if John said, “Confess your sins to Him because He's gracious to forgive.” But you know what? John couldn't have given you better news than to say, “He is faithful and righteous to forgive.” You might have been expecting him to say, “He's gracious and merciful to forgive,” but when he says, “He is faithful and righteous,” he is giving you the best news that you could possibly hear. Let me explain how.

When John says that “God is faithful to forgive,” he is saying that God, since He has promised in His word to forgive all those who trust in Jesus Christ, He can be held to His word and trusted. He will be faithful to forgive those who come to Him trusting in Jesus Christ confessing their sins, because He's a God of trustworthiness. He's faithful to His word, and He's promised to forgive those who trust in His sons. And so “He is faithful to forgive” is one of the best pieces of news we could ever hear because God's own veracity is on the line. He has promised to forgive those who trust in His son, and so John says go to him boldly seeking forgiveness because He has promised to forgive, as you trust in His name.

Secondly, he says He's righteous to forgive. Now that's a strange thing to say. You might expect him to say, “He's righteous to judge,” and of course He is. He is a just judge, and He judges in righteousness, but He is righteous to forgive. Why? Because Paul says in Romans 3 that God's gospel is a gospel of righteousness. Why? Because God hasn't just swept our sins under the carpet. He has dealt with our sins by meting out the punishment for our sins on the Lord Jesus Christ so that for all those who trust in Jesus Christ, their sins are forgiven and covered through the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus Christ. And if God has forgiven our sins through visiting the penalty of those sins on His Son Jesus Christ, it would be wrong for Him to revisit the penalty of our sins upon us.

Do you see how blessedly glorious that is? That it is absolutely character-illogically impossible for God to visit His wrath, His punishment for sin, upon us if we are in Christ, because He has already paid for the penalty of sin in Jesus Christ. He hasn't swept our sins under the carpet. He hasn't canceled our debts. He's liquidated them in Jesus Christ. And therefore, when we go to Him to confess our sins, which continue to be an ongoing reality in our Christian experience, we go to Him in humble confidence-not presumption but confidence-because He has promised to forgive those who trust in Christ, and He has liquidated our debt for sin in Jesus Christ. And, therefore, though we know our sins are serious and though we tremble in our hearts that we have sinned against a Holy God, yet we know that that Holy God, in the greatness of His love, has dealt with our sins in Jesus Christ. And so we go to Him, and we cry, “Abba, Father, forgive me because of Your promise and because of Your Son.”

You see, this is what John says: that's the realistic way to deal with sin in Christian life. Not to pretend like it's not a problem for you. You know, some people feel their sin so acutely that they will do anything to deal with it other than admit it and confess it and repent of it and put it right before the Holy God whose eyes are too pure to look upon evil. They’re so ashamed of their sin that they don't believe the promises of His mercy, and they try to deal with their sins in some other way. They try and pretend that they’re not there; they try to hide them; they try not to let anyone else see them, but God sees that sin. And if we do not deal with sin the way God says it needs to be dealt with, it will not be dealt with; it will keep coming back. It will keep coming back, and there is no place that we can bury it to get away from it. It can only be dealt with in Jesus Christ. And John is saying the Christian attitude towards sin realistically looks at sin in our own lives and deals with it by accepting the way that God has dealt with it in Christ.

So in contrast to denial, “Oh, I have no sin nature,” John says, “No, we confess our sin. We confess our sinfulness, and we lay it before the throne of grace realizing that God has dealt with it in Jesus Christ.”

Many Christians respond to this and say, “But I'm confused. The Bible says when we trust on Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. Why in the world would I need to go on confessing sins? I'm already forgiven.” Well, that's a very good question. And there are five biblical answers to it. Let me just run through those really quickly.

The first biblical answer to that question–the question, “If I'm already forgiven why do I confess sin?” Why does the pastor lead us in a confession of sin Sunday after Sunday? Isn't that a little morbid? I mean, we're Christians after all. We've been redeemed; we've been forgiven. Shouldn't we celebrate that and stop sort of cowering before God about our sins? Well the point, of course, is not cowering before God: it's recognizing God's holiness and the reality of our sins.

And the Bible gives us five reasons why we go on confessing our sins though we are forgiven in Jesus Christ. The first reason is this: It is an experiential fact that is attested in Scripture that without confessing our sins to God we will never attain a divine sense of God's forgiveness. David talks about that in Psalm 32. Do you remember when he says, “When I was silent about my sins my bones waxed old.” He felt the displeasure of God upon him because he was walking not in the way of truth, but he wasn't confessing it. And then he tells us in Psalm 32, “But when I confessed my sins, the Lord restored me.” And we know that. When we attempt to cover our sins in relationships with one another, we know what a wedge that drives in between us and our friends. But when we confess them and we repent of them, the relationship is restored. And so also in the Christian life when we refuse to deal with our sins through repentance and confession, we are burdened and dogged by unresolved guilt. But when we confess ourselves to God, it is as healing to the bones. It's like a fracture being set and healed.

Secondly, the Bible teaches that believers, though united to Christ, still sin. John makes that clear here in 1 John 1:8, but Paul makes it clear in Romans 6:12. Even though we are united to Christ-that's what that chapter is about-he says, “Don't let sin be a master over you.” Now look, a preacher doesn't tell you to do something unless you’re in danger of not doing it or doing it. And so he says, “don't let sin be master over you,” because he's telling the congregation that they’re in danger of letting sin have a mastery over them, and he's saying that to Christians who are united to Christ. And so the Bible from beginning to end, recognizes that even believers in the Almighty God, even believers who have been forgiven by His mercy, still struggle with sin. Look at Abraham; look at David; look at Peter. We don't doubt that Peter believed it when he said to the Lord Jesus “I’ll die for you,” and we should never forget that one day he did. Peter laid his life down for the honor and the name and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, but, you know what? Along the way Peter messed up a lot. There was that time before the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, that Peter wouldn't even admit that he knew Jesus. And then even after Pentecost, when he had become the great leader and spokesman and preacher amongst the apostles, Peter one day is gathered with some Jewish Christians in Damascus, and he won't even eat with Gentile Christians because he's afraid of what the Jewish Christians might think of him. And Paul rebukes him to his face. Ah, even Peter, Peter who loved the Lord Jesus Christ, and one day lay down his life for the name and the honor of the gospel of Christ, he was a sinner in need of grace. We are united to Christ -yes, it's true- but we still sin, and so to be realistic, we need to acknowledge it to God. That's why we confess our sins.

Thirdly, repentance is not a one time, past action in the Christian life; it's an ongoing project. In 1 John 1:9, John is talking to believers not to unbelievers. He's not saying to pagans, “Confess your sins for the first time, and you’ll be forgiven.” He's saying to Christians, “If we confess our sins.” He's speaking to ones that he calls “children,” little children, brothers and sisters in Christ, “If we confess our sins.” Repentance is an ongoing project. Jesus makes this clear in Revelation 2:5.

Fourthly, we confess our sins in our prayers because sin is essentially displeasing to God. When we are forgiven in Jesus Christ by God's mercy, as we trust on Him for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, the penalty for sin is spared to us. What we deserve is Hell, and God spares us of that penalty. And furthermore, as God deals with us, He never pours His wrath out on us as the punishment for sin. Now, He pours his wrath out on us as the discipline of children. But it is never to satisfy His justice that He pours out His wrath on us because He's done this on the Lord Jesus Christ in our place. But the sin that we commit is still displeasing to Him, and that displeasure will exist as long as sin exists. And so the Bible tells us that there will be a day when God not only has removed the penalty of sin from us, as He already has as we trust in Jesus Christ, but in glory He will remove the sin from us so that we will be like His Son. And until the day that He does that, He will continue to be displeased when there is sin in us because it is not what He made us to be. And, therefore, we confess our sin.

And finally and in connection with this point, the fifth reason we confess our sin is that the end, the goal, of our salvation is not “rescue from Hell”; the goal of our salvation is holiness in the glory of God. God intends to make us morally like his Son. What does John call Jesus in this passage? “Jesus the Righteous.” And one day God intends us to have a clean conscience, not only because of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, but because He has transformed us from the inside out so that we are morally like His Son. We are perfected. That's what the Bible calls glorification. And one day by His grace we will all stand glorified without sin before Him, and we’ll never ever sin again. But until that day, we confess our sins. For all those reasons the Bible tells us to confess our sins. That's why we confess our sins even though we are already forgiven.

III. The false claim that Christians can no longer sin.
Now Here's the third problem that John sees in this congregation: there are some there that are claiming not to have actually sinned. They are denying in practice that they have sinned. Look at verse 10: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” John is saying in verse 10 that claiming not to sin is an assault on God's truthfulness, and it's a definitive evidence of rejection of His word. In some ways, you see, this is the most blatant of the three denials. The first claim was a claim that you could fellowship with God and live like a pagan. The second claim was that once you’re a Christian, you don't have any sin in your nature anymore. The third claim is that you have actually stopped sinning. And it is a denial so great, John says, as to assault the truth of God in order to vindicate ourselves. And any claim to this kind of perfection, John says, makes God to be the One who is in error instead of ourselves. And it shows that the word is not dwelling in us richly.

In the first couple of years that I was a professor at Reformed Seminary, a young couple came to me. They were in one of my classes, and after class they came to me and made an appointment, and they met me in my office. And they were deeply burdened by something. They were both godly and committed Christians from everything that I could tell about them, and they both wanted to serve the Lord on the mission field. They had both been to a Bible college, and in the course of our conversation it was clear to me that they were struggling greatly with their assurance. In fact, both of them were so struggling with their assurance that they were not sure at all that they were believers. They longed to serve the Lord Jesus Christ on the field of missions, but their assurance was profoundly challenged. In the course of our conversation, they explained that a man who taught at their Bible college, who was actually a Presbyterian minister, had stood up in the pulpit and announced in chapel that he had not sinned in three years. And he was exhorting all the young people to follow in his way and become perfect in Christ. I must confess that I muttered to myself as they said that, that he had said that he had not sinned in three years, “Yep, well you just did.” But, you see, the affect of that teaching on them was this: they figured, “Well, if he loves Jesus, maybe we're not Christians because we are continuing to struggle with sin.” I want to stress this was not a couple that was living in a very shallow, superficial way the Christian life; they were committed; they wanted to serve the Lord on the mission field, and they were deeply unsettled. Why? Because this person had claimed to be perfect! You know what John says about that? You make God out to be a liar when you make that claim, because God's word from beginning to end says that sin is a present experience even for the believer.

In fact, the Bible tells us four important truths about ourselves that we must always bear in mind. Let me just share them with you quickly. One, believers are still sinners. Don't believe me? Go look at Paul in Romans 7:14-25. When he says, “Lord, I do the things that I don't want to do, and I don't do the things that I do want to do. What a wretched man that I am!” That's a mature apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ saying that I still struggle with sin. Believers are still sinners.

Believers, secondly, must by the Spirit strive against sin. “The Christian life is,” J.C. Ryle says, “a holy violence, a conflict, a warfare, a fight, a soldier's life, a wrestling against sin.” That's the characteristic of the true Christian life: it's a fight against sin.

Thirdly, believers are no longer under the domination or the dominion or the mastery of sin. Jesus has liberated us from the bondage of sin. There was a once upon a time when we were under darkness and night, and we could do no right. But now in the mercy of God, we have been brought into saving relationship with Jesus Christ, and we are no longer bent in our wills towards sin. Our desires have been changed so that our desire is for the glory of Christ, for the love of Christ, for the honor of Christ, to live for Christ, though we do not do it perfectly. Our desires have been changed, and we are no longer under the dominion of sin.

And fourth and finally, the Christian life is characterized by growth and holiness, but not perfection. As Augustine said to Palagius, “No, the church is not the place for perfect Christians; it's a hospital where sick sinners get well.” Yes, there's growth; yes, there's sanctification, but there's never perfection. We grow in holiness, and holiness is serious business, but sin will always dog us here. In this world, we fight against sin, but sin will not have the last word. And at the last day, God will liberate us from sin. John wants us to understand that reality about the Christian life over against all false teaching which either says, “Sin doesn't matter,” and, “so who cares?” on the one hand; and that teaching which says, “In the Christian life, there's no need to war against sin anymore. You already have received the victory over sin; you don't need to war against it any more.” John says both of those are wrong. Both of those are errors, and they cause a defection in Christian experience. And he’ll tell us how we definitively deal with that in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 2, which we’ll get to next week. Let's go to the Lord in prayer.

Heavenly Father, help us to think biblically about sin and about grace and about the gospel and about salvation, and cease to try and cover our own sins and instead rest in Your covering and provision of sin in Jesus Christ. We ask this in His name. Amen.


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