In a previous post I looked at how 1 John shows that Trinitarian joy is made complete in the Christian community. In this post we look at a case study of this in action.
Perhaps the main thing that robs our joy is our awareness of sin. Our sin makes us wonder whether we really know God. And that’s especially the case when other Christians claim to be more godly. And this was what was going on among John’s readers. Three times in 1:5-10 John says, ‘If we claim’. Each time he’s talking about people who claimed to have conquered sin. But against each claim John says: they lie, they deceive, they make God a liar.
I suspect John’s readers would have been relieved to read this. And so should we. Remember people have left the church claiming that sin is not a problem for them or that they have victory over sin. That’s going to make you feel threatened and fearful. Every time you sin you’re going to feel that confusion.
A couple of years ago I realised I’d been a Christian for more than forty years. Do you know how I felt? I was grieved that I had made such little progress! So I started to wonder: Maybe I’m deceived. Maybe I don’t really know God. And then I hear John’s words: ‘No. It’s the people who claim to be without sin who are deceived.’
In washing powder adverts they always hold clothes up to the light. It’s in the light that you really see the dirt. John says God is light (1:5). The more you know God, the more you see yourself in the light – the clearer your sin appears. In the half-light you can think of yourself as a good person. But the more you step into the light, the more you see the stains of sin.
But the good news is that each of these false claims has a corresponding promise:
1:7 ‘If we walk in the light … the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin.’
1:9 ‘If we confess our sins … [God] will forgive us our sins and purify us.’
2:2 Jesus ‘is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’
Yes, we still sin. But Jesus purifies, forgives, atones.
There’s nothing like hearing the words, ‘You’re forgiven.’ Maybe had the experience of letting down a good friend. And it made you miserable until they said, ‘You’re forgiven.’ We’ve let God down. But we don’t need to feel miserable. Because, if we confess our sins, God says, ‘You’re forgiven.’
Here’s my point. You don’t need the Christian community to know you’re forgiven by God – but it helps! Sometimes our hearts condemn us. And the word of Christ spoken by a brother or sister cut through the confusion.
Often when the church meets we an opportunity to confess our sins together. It’s not that God is holding us at a distance until we make up with him. Quite the opposite. We’re the ones who are holding him at distance. Confession is an opportunity to come back to God. It restores our assurance because we hear his word of forgiveness by faith in the promises of the Bible. It doesn’t change God. God doesn’t love us any less before that act of confession. But it can change us. It can make the objective reality of God’s grace a subjective reality for us.
I often look forward to this act of confession. And I can tell you exactly when and where the anticipation begins. I usually pray on my walk to work. I start by confessing my sin as I walk down our road. And then I turn the corner and walk up the hill through the trees. And that’s moment when I begin to look forward to our time of corporate confession. I know God has forgiven me. But I still enjoy hearing his word of assurance and forgiveness in the Christian community.
In the film The Mission, set in eighteenth-century Latin America, the repentant slave-trader Mendoza (played by Robert De Niro) climbs a waterfall as an act of penance with his armour – the symbol of his past life – roped to his back. The film powerfully portrays his struggle to reach the top. Release only comes when one of the indigenous people, whom he had formerly terrorised, cuts the rope so that his burden falls away. The objective reality of acceptance with God becomes a liberating experience through the acceptance of others.
In a future post I’ll look at how Trinitarian love is made complete in the Christian community.