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First John

Sin and the Work of Christ

1 John 3:4-9

No word grates on the modern ear like "sin." We are so sure that it is obsolete, useless to talk about - and yet we cannot escape it. Or can we? John gives us the answer in this short passage:

(1 John 3:4-9 NIV) Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. {5} But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. {6} No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. {7} Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. {8} He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work. {9} No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.

The nature of sin

Original definition

John talks much about deception and deceivers in this work; it is fitting, therefore that we identify the deceptions about the nature of sin. To do this, we must understand the correct definition of the concept.

It begins with the idea of "law." This is not necessarily the Law of the Old Testament (though that is its greatest example). By law we mean moral law, the law of right and wrong which God has written into the universe. Except in the worst of times, men acknowledge the universe to be a moral place, with laws of right and wrong.

To sin is to disobey this law. The original word in the Greek is hamartia, which means "to miss the target." It means therefore that we understand what the target is - and missed it.

We may miss it because we failed to shoot at it - the sins of omission. For example, we may see the poor and cold and pass them by without helping.

We may miss it by shooting amiss - the sins of commission. A man may commit adultery or robbery, for example.

Counterfeit definitions

Satan is a liar, the father of such, and it is his tactic to confuse us with false definitions of "sin." We hear much of this these days. Here are some of the common ones:

Sin only applies when "someone else is hurt." It's OK to pollute my mind with pornography because it affects no one but me. It's OK to steal from the company since "nobody is really hurt by that."

Sin only applies when you can cite "chapter and verse." This is legalism. If I can't find a Bible passage explicitly forbidding it, it's OK. (So drunk driving must be OK, right?)

It's only sin if it "feels bad." Often stated in the reverse, "If it feels good, do it." Usually used sexually with, "How could God condemn something that is so beautiful?" (the "beautiful" being the adultery).

Sin must be defined for each situation - situational ethics. (Form a committee; if a rationalization can be found, it's OK).

They are all frauds; we must remember that God is holy - and he alone is truly righteous. He alone, therefore, knows the full extent of sin. His definition is the one that counts.

Denial of the existence of sin

The more modern tendency - alas, even in the church - is to deny the existence of sin. How often have you heard someone speak of "wrong choices?" It sounds like a much more palatable word than "sin." But consider these modern denials of sin, and see if you've heard them before:

"It's just a feeling of guilt. You need to deal with your guilt feelings." If you have feelings of guilt when you have no guilt, you are mentally ill. If you sin and think you have nothing but "feelings of guilt," you are lying to yourself.

The modern tendency is to see "sin" as something man defines - "it's all cultural, you know." And if we define it, we can redefine it.

The most common one today is to simply ignore the possibility. This is most often expressed in the phrase, "They just need a little counseling." (I've heard this applied so often to situations in which sin was so obvious).

The Work of Christ

One of the great surprises to new Christians is that Jesus came, purposefully, to take away our sins. Christ is often presented as a great teacher, or the path to God, but seldom as the atoning sacrifice. So it is useful to deal with the subject of sin in terms of its cure: Jesus Christ.

First, it is clear and obvious - and has been for two thousand years now - that the entire purpose of Christ's coming was "to seek and save the lost." All the other aspects of the Bible - the Old Testament entirely, the miracles, the teachings, everything - are ancillary to that mission.

He did this at the cross. It is his atonement for us that did this, and nothing else. The implications in grace alone are immense.

In Him there is no sin

The death at the cross would have had no effect if Jesus had not been sinless, for only the pure and perfect sacrifice would satisfy the pure and holy righteousness of God. That too leads us to some important conclusions:

How can a human being be sinless? It is absurd - unless that human being is also divine. So we must see that Jesus is both God and man, completely.

His divinity permits the atonement; his humanity means that he understands our sinfulness. He knows our temptations ("been there, done that") and therefore stands before God as our advocate. He knows our trials - none better - and stands with us.

Therefore, as he has partaken of our nature, we should partake of his - so that we will rise to be like him. We must be "in him."

We cannot keep on sinning

Considering that John has just told us that we are all sinners, this passage may seem contradictory. But it is not so. Students of foreign languages will understand that many languages - Greek among them - have two kinds of past tense. One is the snapshot tense - "I went to the market (meaning, yesterday)." The other is continuous - "I went to the market (meaning, I used to go there all the time.)" The former is used in the earlier passages; the continuous is used here. John is not saying that we will be perfect. He is saying that we cannot be in Christ and go on sinning habitually. Why is this?

The sacrifice of Christ - like the washing of the disciples' feet - provides for our continuous purification. We therefore do not need to be trapped by our prior sins; we can repent and move on.

The guidance of the Holy Spirit is there for all who are a part of Christ.

There is also the support of the church; the prayers of the saints and the discipline of the church.

Finally, there is the reward of "not sinning" - the continuous fruit of Christ in your life.

--- side note ---

The minister's duty in this, as part of the discipline of the church, is quite clear. Paul gives us a great example of this in 2 Corinthians 13:1-5.

Do Not Be Led Astray

We come back to our original idea - that Satan will do everything possible to lead us astray in this. What should we do about this?

Testing ourselves

Diagnosis is the first step in solving a problem. John gives us the clear method of diagnosis - and other warnings as well:

The diagnosis is simple: by their fruits you will know them. Does your life shine with good deeds, or is it empty of them?

If those good deeds are real in your life, then God will reward you for them. You cannot deceive him; the fraud will be rewarded as a fraud should be.

Good deeds alone are not sufficient. We are talking about those who have accepted Christ, not those who are standing outside.

The most terrible of fates, however, awaits the "hearer only." We know that God judges on the basis of what you know. If you sit in my class, week after week, and it has no effect on your life, you would be better of if you'd spent the time on the golf course.

Paul sums it up very nicely:

(Gal 6:3-5 NIV) If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. {4} Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, {5} for each one should carry his own load.

The character of our accuser

It is not wise to spend too much time trying to get in touch with Satan - the attempt can be all too successful. But it is necessary to see the negative here. If you are not a child of God, you will be a child of Satan. See if these things are in your life, as they are in his:

He is a murderer - and remember that the Scripture tells us that he who hates his brother is a murderer. Is there hatred in your heart?

He is a liar. Do you spend your Sunday morning in church and the rest of the week in sin? You may deceive all of us, but you will not deceive God - and you are a liar, and child to the father of lies.

He is disobedient - lawless is another word. Do you relish being defiant to those in authority? Are you sure of your own righteousness, rather than God's righteousness?

Ultimately, he is condemned - and short on time too. And so are you, if you are his child.

The inoculation of God

How do we prevent such things from overcoming us? Only the work of Christ will prevail. It is simple:

The cause: the work of Christ on the Cross brings about our atonement and purification, bringing the Holy Spirit to the world.

The effect: the Spirit, working in us with our active cooperation, aiding us through the church, produces the fruits of righteousness in our lives. We do not go on sinning, but turn from it.

The test: the result of this can be clearly seen in the works of your life. Do you care for the hungry, the cold, the prisoner? Do you heal or wound? Do you walk in pride or humility?

John wrote these words almost two thousand years ago. There seems no need of alteration today.

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