Avoiding Sin

Understanding What First John Teaches about Sin

“My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:1–2

Notice very carefully what John is saying to us (born-again Christians addressed as “little children”) in the First Epistle of John, chapter 2, in the first two verses. He is telling us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit how we should deal with sin. But take note of what he actually says to us. Let us understand what he means by the context.

The first great issue men must settle in their dealings with God is the issue of sin. It is the first great issue of our salvation and also the first great issue in revival. And the Apostle John tells us plainly how to deal with it.

1. Everybody Has Sinned

The last verse of 1 John 1 makes this very clear: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” Let nobody claim innocence. Later on, this small book gives us the clearest definition of sin in the Bible. Chapter 3, verse 4 says, “Sin is the transgression of the law.”

To sin is to break God’s law, and we have all done it. Deliberately and repeatedly we have done what God told us not to do, and have failed to do what He said we should do. The Bible contains many divine laws throughout, but the places where men usually look for them are in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7). A thoughtful study of these chapters will bring anyone to the conclusion that he has broken God’s law and is justly condemned. If we all got what we deserved when we die, it would be Hell.

2. Sin Ruins Happiness

John was the youngest of the twelve apostles, and he did his inspired writing when he was an old man. He tells us at the beginning why he wrote the circular letter called First John: “That ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” The apostles told people about the coming of God’s Son so that they could experience with them the fellowship Christians can have with the Persons of the Trinity!

Salvation is a wonderful thing! By the Spirit, we can have fellowship with the Father and the Son. This fact is not only wonderful, but also very important. John writes, “These things write we unto you that your joy may be full.” Fellowship with God is the source of joy. We cannot be happy, really happy, unless we are walking in fellowship with God. Now “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.”

Nobody can have fellowship with a perfectly holy God while he is engaging in sin. When “we walk in the light, as he is in the light” we can enjoy fellowship with Him. In other words, obedience to the law of God allows fellowship with God, who is Light. Disobedience to His law (sin) prohibits such fellowship and ruins our chances of real happiness.

3. Everybody Sins

The sad truth is that everybody sins, even after they become Christians. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Salvation does some wonderful things for us, but it does not prevent us from sinning.

Twice, the sixth chapter of Romans says that believers in Christ are “free from sin” (verses 18 and 22), but it does not say that we are free of sin. Jesus said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:34–37). The chains of sin are broken when a sinner turns to Christ for his salvation, but in fact he does still sin. He is emancipated from bondage to sin, but he can still sin voluntarily. We still have our sinful human nature even after we have been saved, and we all do sin.

4. Everybody Must Deal with His Sins

Since sin ruins happiness and we all sin, we all must deal with our sins in the right way in order to find happiness. Sinners must get forgiveness from God, which is available only through Jesus Christ.

First, we must gain legal forgiveness so that we don’t go to Hell. This is the once-for-all cancellation of all our sins (past, present, and future) that happens when a sinner turns to Christ for the salvation of his soul. Read about this forgiveness in Ephesians 1:7–14. It is also promised in other Scriptures, such as John 3:14–18 and Romans 3:10–26.

When you trust in Christ for your salvation, the penalty for your sins is cancelled by Jesus through His sacrifice on the Cross, and the justice of God no longer has anything against you. You are justified in His sight. It is absolute and total legal forgiveness.

After you have legal forgiveness, you will need practical forgiveness regularly. When you sin after you are saved, you do not need to be saved again. There is no more condemnation for believers in Jesus Christ (John 5:24). But they still have a problem with the fact that God is holy, and they still sin.

A holy God, even though He is now our Father and will not condemn us to Hell for our sins, cannot have anything to do with us in a practical way as long as we are persisting in deliberate disobedience. That is why we must get practical forgiveness. This is promised to us if we confess our sins. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The night before He died at Calvary, the Lord Jesus used His washing of the disciples’ feet to teach them the necessity of being cleansed regularly from sins. “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me,” He told Peter when he objected to the Lord washing his feet. Peter then responded by saying, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” The Lord answered that those who have bathed do not need a bath when they enter the house, just a foot-washing. “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit” (John 13:1–11).

When we have had the bath of salvation we still need the regular cleansing only Jesus can give. When we have confessed our sins, He will “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” so that we are “clean every whit.” To enjoy full and free fellowship with God, we must be saved, and then we must be diligent about confessing our sins. A good example of thorough contrition for thorough cleansing is found in Psalm 51.

5. Christians Ought Not to Sin

What does 1 John 2:1–2 say to believers in Christ about sin? It says that we should not sin. “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not.” Then he says, “And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” The message is that we ought not to sin, with the fact of Christ’s advocacy before the Father assuring us of our salvation even when we do sin.

The message is not that a Christian should not be concerned about his sins because his salvation is secure. The message is that we ought not to sin, even with the confidence that when we do sin, we will not be lost. Like insurance, our security is presented as important in an emergency, but it does not encourage us to create the emergency!

The intention of the believer should be not to sin. This message is taught again throughout the First Epistle of John, beginning in the second chapter. In verse 6 we read, “He that sayeth he abideth in him [Christ] ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.” We are told here, and again in 3:16 and 4:11, that we “ought” to live righteous lives as Christians.

Now the word ought is an interesting word, and an important word in First John. It does not mean “will.” Those who interpret First John to say that real Christians will live righteous lives and that those who fail to do so are not really saved, misunderstand the whole book.

The theme of this epistle is how to maintain fellowship with God (1 John 1:1–7). God is light (1 John 1:5) and God is love (1 John 4:8). Those who walk with God must walk in the light (1 John 1:6–7) and walk in love (1 John 2:10). But believers will not do this automatically. They “ought” to live this way, but the word ought carries with it some doubt as to whether the person “will” do what he “ought” to do.

First John was not written to give us the secret for determining whether or not a person is “really saved.” The apostle uses drastic contrasts to prove and demonstrate that fellowship with God is impossible without harmony with His light and love (1 John 2:15, and 1 John 3:9), but he does not question the salvation of his readers (see 1 John 2:12–14).

The concept in the word ought is that of moral obligation but not of certain action. Although “ought” does not mean “will,” it does imply “can.” We never say that someone “ought” to do something he cannot do. And First John does teach (as does the entire New Testament) that Christians can live lives of love and light. The power to do it is wrapped up in the phrase “abide in Him” (see 1 John 2:6, 2:27, 2:28, and 3:6). The phrase comes from John 15, where Jesus instructs His disciples in living the abundant Christian life with the metaphor of a vine and the branches. If we will abide in Him, we will live lives of victory, understanding, peace, effective prayer, and fruitfulness, according to the Lord Jesus.

The life of abiding in Christ is the life of faith and absolute submission. Since we can overcome our flesh and sin by faith, we ought to do it. Sin is harmful and we ought not do it.

The mindset that Christianity amounts to a system for living in sin contradicts the Bible in many places. Although we will not be sinless this side of Heaven, we should be sinning less. May believers in Jesus Christ reckon themselves dead to sin, renounce sin as an option, and look to God for victory over its power.

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