Sin and Believers
What Would the Apostle John Say?
By Kenneth Schenck | Released: Apr. 6, 2011
Christians today—including many Wesleyans—seem increasingly comfortable with sin. No doubt we could give many reasons for this alarming trend. One factor is the misinterpretation of Scripture, particularly passages from Paul and John’s writings.
Misuses of Scripture
How often have you heard people paraphrase John 8:7 as an argument for the acceptability of sin in a Christian’s life: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!” First John 1:8 is also popular: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” If the apostle John were to hear these uses of his writing, I suspect they would be real sore spots for him. The all-too-common ways Christians apply these verses go directly against what he actually taught!
The Background of John’s Writing
One of the problems we have when we read Scripture is incomplete information. Originally, John’s letters were written to real churches who knew the background of what he was saying. Of course the Spirit helps us to hear what we need to hear, even when we cannot be certain of what a passage meant originally.
However, 1 John gives us some good hints about the situation it first addressed. John’s community had undergone a “church split,” for example (compare 1 John 2:19). The departing group refused to believe Jesus had really become human and taken on flesh (for example,
1 John 4:2–3; compare John 1:14). These divisive individuals apparently were gnostic in belief, an early Christian heresy we know about from other sources. Before they left John’s community, they showed hatred toward their brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 3:10–24; 4:7–21).
Perhaps more to the point, they saw no need for the blood of Christ (1 John 5:6). They, thus, did not see a need for a sacrifice to cleanse their sins. They did not believe they had sins for the blood of Christ to cleanse!
It is in this context that John wrote the verses that Christians use most often to argue for the normality of sin in the life of the believer. But we can see now how out of context these interpretations are. First John 1:10 says, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar.” The departing group had made such claims. The tense John used in this verse implies that everyone has sinned in the past, with the result that everyone has a need for cleansing by Christ. In other words, John was basically saying the same thing as Romans 3:23: “all have sinned.”
Cleansing for Sin
First John 1:8 focuses on the fact that everyone needs the cleansing of Christ as a result of their past sins: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (NASB). The verse does not say that we do sin continually in the present, as many presume. It says that everyone has sin as a result of past sins. The key is that John has in mind someone who claims that he or she has never sinned at all.
Anyone who thinks 1 John 1:8 justifies ongoing sin in the life of the believer will have difficulty dealing with 1 John 3:9, which gives John’s teaching on this subject. That verse reads, “Those who are born of God will not continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God” (TNIV). This verse puts to rest any doubt about what John really thought. To the Jews, “walking” was about living. To walk in the light, thus, meant to live the right lifestyle, a life in which sin was atypical (compare 1 John 1:7).
First John 2:1–2 leaves us with the bottom line on the issue of sin in the life of the believer. These verses capture the whole subject in a nutshell for me. “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. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Ken Schenck is an author, professor, and dean of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.
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