If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 John, chapter 1, verse 5 through chapter 2, verse 11:
“Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. If we say, “We have fellowship with Him,” yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say, “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, “We don’t have any sin,” we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.
This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” yet doesn’t keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly in him the love of God is perfected. This is how we know we are in Him: The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked.
Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old command that you have had from the beginning. The old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
The Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo had a saying that roughly translates into English as, “God is your father, but he’s probably not like your dad.” As a Christian living in Japan in the early 20th century, Endo kept running into the same problem when he would talk to “potential converts.”
The problem was that throughout the Bible, the authors refer to God as “Father.” When Paul is preaching at the Areopagus in Acts 17, he quotes a Greek philosopher who says, “We are all God’s offspring,” and instead of arguing with it, Paul signs off on it. He says “You are God’s offspring – You’re this God’s offspring. The old gods you were brought up hearing about are not your parents, they are not your friends. But this God, the God of Israel, is your Father.”
When Paul was evangelizing, that went a long way. Because in a culture like Rome, everyone was starved for something like “fatherly affection.” Every human being on planet Earth needs more love than any one person can give them, and that extends to your kids, right?
If you have kids you already know that – they need more fatherly love than you have within yourself to give to them, just like you needed more fatherly love than your dad ever had inside him to give you – and it’s not because they were bad, it’s because we need a “Fatherhood” that goes beyond what human fathers are capable of.
Our “human fathers” are a shadow of our “heavenly Father.” And we need the shadow, but we also need “The Thing That Casts The Shadow”: We need “Our Father in Heaven.” And people were starved for that during Paul’s lifetime, so he told them about “Their Father in Heaven,” and then he introduced them through Jesus Christ.
But Shusaku Endo wasn’t evangelizing in first-century Rome, he was evangelizing in early 20th century Japan. They were still recovering from the Second World War, and one of the obstacles that he faced was the rigid “patriarchalism” that still ran through Japanese culture. That’s a big word, and what it means is that in Old Japan, like a lot of places, the father wasn’t just the “head of the household”; he had more or less absolute authority.
According to Shusaku Endo, “Old Japan” was very much an “authoritarian” society: You didn’t “earn” your authority, you just inherited it. You “stepped into” authority based on your “place in society,” and if your place was “father,” you just claimed your authority and then enforced it ruthlessly.
As a result, nobody was particularly interested in hearing about their “Father in Heaven,” because if you had one father you probably didn’t want another one. And so Shusaku Endo would tell people that God was their Father, but that he probably didn’t bear much resemblance to their dads.
Because God’s authority is absolute. It’s not negotiable. But he is not a “fragile patriarch” who would erupt at every “imagined slight.” It’s quite the opposite: If you read through the Old Testament, the thing that will catch your attention is not the violent stuff that everybody likes to talk about, it’s how God patiently walks alongside Israel amidst Israel’s disobedience and insubordination.
He says, “Israel is my son, and I’ll take him by the hand, and train him up in the way that he should go, and mold him as he blossoms into adulthood.” God is our Father, but for some of us he is not like our dads, because John says that “God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in him.”
And because our “Father in heaven” is “light” and “there is no darkness in him,” having “fellowship” with him is going to cause us to stop “walking in darkness.” And if it doesn’t, something’s wrong, because John says that “If we say we have fellowship with him, yet walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth.” And that’s a hard word, but it’s also a necessary word, because if you own a television, or you’ve read a newspaper this year, you know that at least once a month, some Famous Professional Christian gets outed as a scumbag:
The Roman Catholic Church has taken a hit because of the revelations that have come out over the last few years about the horrifying extent of the sex abuse problem that is plaguing their communities. And just a few months ago people were smugly trotting that out and claiming it as points for “Team Protestant.” You know what I’m talking about? There were articles in popular Baptist magazines and periodicals declaring that the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandals were definitive evidence that Evangelicalism was from God while the Roman Catholic Church was from the Devil.
The problem is that we have the same issue. Over the last over the last 40 years, there have been upwards of 700 reported cases of abuse by Southern Baptist ministers, deacons, youth pastors, and so on. And those are just the ones we know about.
So, just a few months ago the lesson that we were trying to take from the Roman Catholic scandal was that there’s something very wrong with Catholicism and that the answer is to become Protestant, but the lesson that we should have been taking was that “If we say we have fellowship with God, yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth.”
John says that “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
The problem is that you can get away with living in denial for a pretty long time. It’s the easiest thing in the world to tell yourself that your sins are small, that you’re on “the low end of the totem pole”; that other people are the ones committing the sins that actually catch God’s eye. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, too, but folks who are consistently walking in unrepentant sexual sin almost always point to things like “corporate greed,” or “prejudice,” and so on, and say, “Look, that’s what you really need to be worrying about – not my sex life.”
And on the other hand, people who are consumed with the kind of greed that eats away your soul will make hefty donations to Focus On The Family, or they’ll teach a Sunday School class about “The Dangers Of Sexual Immorality,” or they’ll head up a “non-profit” designed to overturn the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage at the federal level, and they’ll point and say, “Those are the people you need to be worrying about.”
– So if you preach a sermon out of James chapter 2, on how “the gospel changes what we do with our money,” he’ll come up to you after church and say, “How could you possibly waste your time talking about something as abstract as ‘greed’ when these people are trying to ‘redefine marriage’ in our country?”
– Or, if you preach a sermon series on Song of Solomon about “What Sexuality Might Look Like When It’s Surrendered To God’s Design,” you’ll get an angry email from a college student about how pointless it is to talk about “sexual sin” when the Walton Family is still decimating local communities by putting all the shops out of business and then siphoning most of the Wal-Mart money back to Bentonville, Arkansas.
And so people will point to The Sins We Don’t Really Struggle With and demand you spend more time preaching about them instead, because those are The Real SinsTM. We never think that The Sins We Struggle With are a “top priority.”
But John says that if that’s our mindset, that “If we say we have no sin,” we are “deceiving ourselves,” and “the truth is not in us.” So when you get an email like that, the only particularly worthwhile response is to say, “I would really like people to repent of their greed and their lust.” You’ll write back and say, “I’m glad you don’t struggle with that particular pattern of sinfulness, but you’re struggling with something, and John says that ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’.” So you’ll say, “I’m glad that you don’t struggle with ‘destroying rural economies for personal gain,’ Derek, but I do still want you to stop viewing pornography.”
And the good news is that we don’t have to lie ourselves anymore. We don’t have to try to convince ourselves that we aren’t every bit as sinful as we’ve always half-suspected that we were. Because John says, “I am writing you these things so that you may not sin.”
That’s pretty straightforward. And it’s weirdly something you don’t hear very often anymore, right? How often have you heard me, or anyone, step up into the pulpit and say, “My sermon this morning is called ‘Don’t Sin’”?
We tend to assume it’s a waste of time to even bring it up. We know that everyone still struggles with their “sin nature,” so we assume that no one’s actually finding freedom from the sinful patterns that they struggle with. We assume that the guy who’s been addicted to pornography since George Bush’s presidency is going to stay that way till he kicks the bucket. You assume that your mom is never going to stop Being Mean To Waitresses. You assume that your uncle is going to continue Narrowly Avoiding Getting Busted For Tax Evasion until the day you preach his funeral.
These things are not autobiographical, by the way.
But John says “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” That’s big. Because among other things, that means that not sinning is an option. When your server hasn’t offered to refill your water in over five minutes, you don’t have to ask for the manager to complain about them. You don’t have to yell at your spouse. You don’t have to under pay your employees, like James ranted about a few weeks back in James chapter 5 – because not sinning is an option for us now, in a way that it wasn’t quite an option beforehand, because Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected to “raise us up” from our “deadness in sin.”
So John says that, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one.” John says, “He himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of whole world.”
Plenty of people spend their whole lives beating themselves up because they can’t purge themselves from all sin, no matter how hard they try. But this is different: When you have been raised up with Jesus, you live in a forgiveness that never runs dry, and that endless supply of mercy sets you free to devote yourself to obeying God’s commands instead of breaking them.
And that’s counterintuitive. Because there’s no “threat of punishment” there. John says that “Jesus is our Advocate with the Father,” and that means that we’re not in danger of “condemnation” when we stumble. Because the righteousness of Jesus is “credited to us,” and his righteousness takes away any threat of punishment from God.
And I’ve had a handful of conversations where this was the hang-up we ran into: Somebody would say, “I don’t think I can worship a god who doesn’t threaten to punish me when I fail him.” They’d say, “I don’t want a God who forgives me preemptively.” People will say, “I have no reason to obey that God.”
In some cults, they teach that it would be “reckless” for God to forgive us “fully,” “freely,” and “forever” on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection for our sins. But the substitutionary death of Jesus in our place is anything but reckless: Because think back to your own life – be honest with yourself, here – how many times has the “fear of punishment” actually changed what you are? Can you think of a single time?
Sometimes, the “threat of punishment” can change your behavior – it can cause you to not do something instead of doing it – but it can’t change your nature. Our problem is not that “Sometimes, We Fail God.” Our problem is that there is something deeply, horrifyingly crooked in us, and that “deep, horrifying crookedness” shows up in every single corner of our lives. Our problem isn’t that we have a flat tire, it’s that we’re hemorrhaging transmission fluid.
You’ve probably met somebody with an old beat-up car who had to open up the hood and shake their engine a little bit get it to start. That was my first car, there towards the end. You can do that for a while. It won’t fix the car, though. The “threat of punishment” can change our behavior, but it can’t change our nature. It can’t fix what’s wrong with us. It won’t “cure what ails us.”
But Jesus changes our nature by forgiving us before we had a chance to “clean up our act,” so we obey him out of gratitude instead of fear. That’s why John says that “The way we can know that we’ve come to know God is by keeping his commands”: When God saves you through faith in Jesus, he gives you the Holy Spirit, and you start to want different things than you wanted when you were “walking in darkness.” You start to “love what God loves.” You start to “want what God wants.” Over the course of your life, you’ll start to “keep God’s commands,” almost on reflex, because that’s the thing the Holy Spirit is training your heart to gravitate towards.
So John says that “Whoever keeps his word, truly in him the love of God is perfected.” Friendship with the “God of Light” will ruin your relationship with the darkness that you used to love. So John says that “The one who says he remains in him should walk just as he walked.”
And none of what John is telling us here is new: “Love thy neighbor” goes back to Moses and beyond, right? But there’s a way in which it is new. Because “the darkness is passing away.”
Since “The Fall,” in Genesis chapter 3, the world’s been filled with “a thick darkness.” And we were part of that darkness. It wasn’t just that “there’s evil in the world.” We were part of the evil that’s in the world. We participated in the darkness and kept it going.
So The Problem Was Us. But Jesus Christ is “cleansing us of all unrighteousness,” so we’re not only forgiven for our part in keeping the world dark, we’re also being healed of all the darkness left in us. So these commands that used to do nothing to keep us from sin are different now that God is “cleansing us from all unrighteousness.”
And if God’s changing us from the inside out, one of the things that’s going to happen is that we’re going to “love our brothers” in a way that we couldn’t when we were “walking in darkness.” Because if we’re “abiding in God,” like John says, it’s kind of like gutting that old car your friend used to drive: He replaces our old “parts” with new “parts.” He replaces our old idols, our old, addictions; whatever it is that keeps you from loving your brother – I don’t know what it is, but you do – God’s coming for it.
Whatever “causes you to stumble,” whatever that thing is that helps you to not love your brother, God’ll purge it from you, because he promised to. When you asked him to “cleanse you of all unrighteousness,” you put your idols on God’s hit-list, and he will heal you in ways you didn’t know you needed to be healed, because like John said at the beginning of the passage, “God is light and there is absolutely no darkness in him,” and when he’s finished with his work in us, we will be “light,” and there will be “absolutely no darkness” in us. And your role in that is just to “turn over the keys” to that process while God opens up your eyes to idols you never knew you had.
And that’s actually a very sweet process. Because the “threat of punishment” can make you guilty in ways that make you scared, but when God is “cleansing you of all unrighteousness,” that’s a different kind of guilt. It makes you “happy” with a kind of happiness you never knew to want, because it purges you of “misery” you never knew was misery. It’s a sweet guilt, not a bitter guilt.
We do something called the “altar call” here. The altar call is never not awkward, but here we are: If you feel like I’ve been talking about you for a half-hour, then, without knowing it, I probably have. “God is light, and there is no darkness in him,” and when we “turn over the keys,” he will heal us from the darkness that we’ve been walking in, that we were “born into.”
And if you’ve been “walking in darkness,” then we’ve been praying for you, that you’d throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus, that you’d “turn over the keys” to be rescued from the “darkness,” since John says that “the darkness is passing away.” So as we start to sing, I’m going to awkwardly stand at the altar for a few minutes, and you can come talk to me.
The altar isn’t magic. What happens when you “come to the altar” is that we have a conversation. I’ll walk you through the process of throwing yourself on God’s mercy, and then we’ll pray together. If you don’t want to come to the altar, that’s okay. You can flag me down after church. We can nail down a time to meet. And we’ll talk through the process of laying your sin and your pride and your brokenness at the feet of Jesus.