STUDY FOUR: CHRISTIANS AND SIN – 1John 1:8 – 10

© Rosemary Bardsley 2022

In 1:7 John stated ‘if we walk in the light ... the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.’

John then appears to interrupt his theme of walking in the light with an explanatory statement about sin (1:8 – 2:2). But this statement about sin is actually a very important aspect of walking in the light. John here teaches us that walking in the light includes having a right understanding of our sin and of the way that God deals with sin.

John refers to two main truths: first, that believers are still sinners who sin, even though we should not sin (1:8, 10 - which we will look at in this study); and second, that when we sin, Jesus Christ is both our Advocate with God and the atoning sacrifice for our sins (2:1, 2 - which we will look at in a later study).

A. WE ARE STILL SINNERS WHO SIN

John stresses that believers are still sinners who sin.

‘If we claim ...’

There are two beliefs about personal sin and sinfulness that are not true, that reveal an ignorance of God’s truth; and, if we believe them, indicate that we are walking in darkness, not in the light.

Read verses 8 and 10. Answer these questions:
What should we not claim about ourselves?
Verse 8:

Verse 10:

If we make such claims, what does John say about us?
Verse 8:

Verse 10:

 

In these two verses John clearly outlaws any claim to sinlessness, whether it is a claim to be without sin, or a claim to have not sinned. Such claims are an expression of darkness, not of light. If we are walking in the light we know that we are sinners who sin, because that is what the light of truth has taught us. Any claims to sinlessness, John says, reveal four truths about us:

We are deceiving ourselves.
The truth is not in us.
We make God out to be a liar.
His word has no place in us.

These are very serious accusations that John has made, and they indicate the seriousness of claiming to have no sin and to have not sinned. Any claims to sinlessness are not simply not true; they also have significant implications.

Check these verses. What do you learn?
Luke 5:27 – 31

Luke 18:9 – 14

Romans 3:19, 20

Romans 4:5

Philippians 3:1 – 9

To claim personal sinlessness is to exclude oneself from God’s offer of forgiveness and acquittal. Jesus came to save sinners. God acquits the guilty. To claim personal sinlessness, to claim not to be a ‘sinner’, puts oneself beyond the need for God’s gift of righteousness. To claim personal sinlessness is to claim that, at that moment, you do not need the cross of Christ, and you do not need the mediation of Christ.

Although John’s first letter is not formally addressed to any individual or group, it is very clear throughout the letter that he is writing to believers. Here in 1:8 and 10 he is warning believers not to make claims to sinlessness – not to deny personal sinfulness.

But down through the history of the church there have been individuals and groups who taught the possibility, and sometimes the necessity, of Christian sinlessness.

B. WHAT SOME PEOPLE HAVE BELIEVED AND TAUGHT

You may have heard or read terms like ‘sinless perfection’, ‘Christian perfection’, ‘eradication’ (of sin), ‘total surrender’, ‘entire sanctification’.

Here are some examples of what people or organizations have taught. As you read them, be on the look-out for words and phrases that state, expect or imply a denial or removal of personal sinfulness.

John Wesley (while rejecting ‘sinless perfection’) still taught:

‘ … as all who believe they are sanctified, declare with one voice, that the change was wrought in a moment, I cannot but believe that sanctification is commonly, if not always, an instantaneous work…

(He followed this with instructions about how to arrive at this state of entire sanctification):

‘First, believe that God has promised to save you from all sin, and to fill you with all holiness. Secondly, believe that he is able thus "to save to the uttermost all that come unto God through him." Thirdly, believe that he is willing, as well as able, to save you to the uttermost; to purify you from all sin, and fill up all your heart with love. Believe, Fourthly, that he is not only able, but willing to do it now. Not when you come to die; not at any distant time; not to-morrow, but to-day. He will then enable you to believe, it is done, according to his word: And then "patience shall have its perfect work; that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing."

‘14. Ye shall then be perfect. The Apostle seems to mean by this expression, teleioi, ye shall be wholly delivered from every evil work; from every evil word; from every sinful thought; yea, from every evil desire, passion, temper; from all inbred corruption, from all remains of the carnal mind, from the body of sin; and ye shall be renewed in the spirit of your mind, in every right temper, after the image of Him that created you, in righteousness and true holiness. Ye shall be entire, holokleroi. (The same word which the Apostle uses to the Christians in Thessalonica: [1 Thes. 5:23]) This seems to refer, not so much to the kind as to the degree of holiness; as if he had said, "Ye shall enjoy as high a degree of holiness as is consistent with your present state of pilgrimage;" - and ye shall want nothing; the Lord being your Shepherd, your Father, your Redeemer, your Sanctifier, your God, and your all, will feed you with the bread of heaven, and give you meat enough. He will lead you forth beside the waters of comfort, and keep you every moment: So that loving him with all your heart, (which is the sum of all perfection,) you will "rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks," till "an abundant entrance is ministered unto you into his everlasting kingdom!’
Wesley’s Sermons: http://www.godrules.net/library/wsermons/wsermons83.htm

Charles Finney: (who taught that sinlessness is necessary for salvation)

“But ... can man be justified while sin remains in him? Surely he cannot, either upon legal or gospel principles, unless the law be repealed. That he cannot be justified by the law, while there is a particle of sin in him, is too plain to need proof. But can he be pardoned and accepted, and then justified, in the gospel sense, while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him? Certainly not.” Finney: Systematic Theology, p 121.(Eerdman’s reprint of 1878 revision).

“Present evangelical faith implies a state of present sinlessness. Observe, faith is the yielding and committal of the whole will, and of the whole being to Christ. This, and nothing short of this, is evangelical faith. But this comprehends and implies the whole of present, true obedience to Christ. This is the reason why faith is spoken of as the condition, and as it were, the only condition, of salvation. It really implies all virtue ....its existence in the heart must be inconsistent with present sin there.” Ibid, 377.

“We have seen that repentance, as well as faith, is a condition of justification. We shall see that perseverance in obedience to the end of life is also a condition of justification. Faith is often spoken of in scripture as if it were the sole condition of salvation, because ... from its very nature it implies repentance and every virtue.” Ibid, p390.

“...nothing is acceptable to God, as a condition of justification, and of consequent salvation, but a repentance that implies a return to full obedience to the moral law.” Ibid 402.

Wesleyan Methodist:
Our mission: (4) Guiding believers to experience entire sanctification so that they are enabled to live whole and holy lives. Our mission: https://wesleyan.org.au/about/

The holiness movement: (The Holiness Movement was strongly influenced by Wesley and Finney.)
There are many respected names associated with the ‘holiness movement’. They hold in common the belief that a Christian may/should come to a point in their lives where they have a spiritual encounter that lifts them out of a life of on-going struggle with sin and onto a higher spiritual plane where sin is no longer an on-going pressure. Living on this plane is variously termed ‘absolute surrender’, ‘the victorious life’, ‘the abiding life’, ‘perfect love’. The point of transition is understood as the ‘second blessing’, when a person is baptised by the Holy Spirit, and thereby empowered to live a life of victory over sin (‘sanctification’).

It is confusing that in order to receive this ‘second blessing’ that results in ‘sanctification’, there are conditions to be fulfilled. For example:

RA Torrey: ‘God gives the Holy Ghost to them that obey Him. Obedience means absolute surrender’ (What the Bible Teaches, pp279-80). ‘The second step of the path that leads into the blessing of being baptized with the Holy Spirit is renunciation of sin ...A controversy with God about the smallest thing is sufficient to shut one out of the blessing’ (The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit’, p213).

Andrew Murray: ‘...the Holy Spirit claims nothing less than an absolute and entire surrender, for the life of heaven to take complete possession and exercise full mastery’ (Back to Pentecost, p13.)

FB Meyer: ‘Before God can come into your soul there will have to be a setting right of things which are not as they should be’ (Back to Bethel: Separation from Sin and Fellowship with God, p97ff).

Note: In order to receive this ‘second blessing’ of a life free from sin, one has to somehow achieve sinlessness first, without the benefit of the baptism of the Spirit. Which seems to make the ‘baptism of the Spirit’ (as taught in this view) redundant, since one has achieved sinlessness without it.

Church of the Nazarene:

“God, who is holy, calls us to a life of holiness. We believe that the Holy Spirit seeks to do in us a
second work of grace, called by various terms including “entire sanctification” and “baptism with the
Holy Spirit”—cleansing us from all sin, renewing us in the image of God, empowering us to love God
with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, and producing in us
the character of Christ. Holiness in the life of believers is most clearly understood as Christlikeness.
Because we are called by Scripture and drawn by grace to worship God and to love Him with
our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, we commit ourselves
fully and completely to God, believing that we can be “sanctified wholly,” as a second crisis
experience. We believe that the Holy Spirit convicts, cleanses, fills, and empowers us as the grace
of God transforms us day by day into a people of love, spiritual discipline, ethical and moral purity,
compassion, and justice. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that restores us in the image of God and
produces in us the character of Christ.” https://nazarene.org/core-values .

To maintain this perception of removal of sin the definition of ‘sin’ is limited to actions in which we deliberately, knowingly disobey a command of God. So, for example, John Wesley said:

‘The best of men still need Christ, in His priestly office, to atone for their omissions, their shortcomings... their mistakes in judgement and practice, and their defects of various kinds, for these are all deviations from the perfect law, and consequently need an atonement. Yet ... they are not properly sins ... are no way ... in the Scripture sense, sin.’ (Plain Account of Christian Perfection, p44).

But if Christ has to atone for these ‘shortcomings’, ‘mistakes’ and ‘defects’, as Wesley says he does, then surely they also, are not only acts of deliberate disobedience, but are sins. What Christ died to make atonement for was our sins, as the New Testament repeatedly affirms. But Wesley’s argument is quite strange: if we have somehow become ‘perfect’, we only need Christ’s atonement for these ‘sins’ that are not really ‘sins’ because we have personally already stopped doing the things that are really ‘sins’ in the biblical sense!

Discussion points:
Underline or circle words and phrases in the above quotes that indicate that Christians can be and should be personally sinless.

Have you ever heard or read similar perspectives on sinlessness?

How do these perspectives of sinlessness make you feel?

 

Does the fact that respected Christians and denominations teach entire sanctification bother you? Explain why or why not.

 

Suggest Bible verses that contradict these perspectives.

 

Suggest any Bible verses that might seem to support these perspectives.

 

C. WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?

The Bible does not seem to know anything about either ‘instant’ or ‘entire’ sanctification. Rather, it recognizes that we are sinners who at any and every moment would incur God’s condemnation if he had not provided us with forgiveness through the death of his Son.

As we will see in a later study, the death of Christ erases God’s legal record of our sins. God, as a free gift, credits us with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The result is that God, by his will and pleasure, deems us, in Christ, as perfect as Jesus Christ. But what he reckons us to be legally because of our union with Jesus Christ, is quite different from what we are in ourselves.

From the time of our acceptance/acknowledgement of Jesus Christ the Spirit of God is engaged in the on-going work of transforming us, bit by bit, so that we are continually becoming more and more like Jesus. Because this is always a work in progress the Gospels and New Testament letters are filled with commands about how to live and how not to live. The New Testament also refers to the Christian life as a ‘fight’ or a ‘race’ or a ‘struggle’, even using the imagery of warfare, because temptation and sin are on-going issues.

Check these verses.
What do they say or infer about our present sinfulness?
Psalm 130:3

Psalm 51:3 – 5

Romans 7:14 - 25

1Timothy 1:15

What do they say about the Holy Spirit’s on-going transforming work?
2Corinthians 3:18

Colossians 3:10

What images do they use to refer to the on-going struggle against sin and temptation?
1Corinthians 9:24 – 27

Ephesians 6:10 – 17

 

1Timothy 6:11 – 12

2Timothy 4:7

Hebrews 12:1

Hebrews 12:4

 

D. JOHN’S VERDICT

In the few verses of John’s letter that we have looked at so far, John has identified a few characteristics of those who have fellowship with God. Because ‘God is light’ and ‘in him there is no darkness at all’ (verse 5b), then those who have fellowship with him (that is, those who have received the message proclaimed by the apostles – verses 1 – 5b), will ‘walk in the light’ (verse 7).The opposite of ‘walking in the light’ is ‘walking in the darkness’.

John has already stated:

‘If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth’ (v 6).

Now in verses 8 and 10 he has added two more conclusions, two more verdicts:

‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’
‘If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be liar and his word has no place in our lives.’

Just as walking in the light and having fellowship with God go hand in hand, so also walking in the light goes hand in hand with knowing we are sinners by nature and sinners by action. John’s verdict is that if we deny both our sinful nature and our sinful actions we are deceiving ourselves and demonstrating that we do not have God’s truth, we do not have his word.

Why is this? David Jackman, referring back to ‘God is light’, explains that to have fellowship with God, who is light, makes us continually, and even increasingly, aware of our sinfulness and our sins:

‘Walking with God in the light means that our lives are continually being searched by his truth so that we begin to realize how many marks of sin we have within us. ... God’s light ... shines in the Scriptures and we see how far short of God’s standards we fall, how far we have strayed from the pathway, how frequently we have transgressed his commandments. It shines supremely in Jesus, the light of the world, whose perfect life shows us our own shabby, grubby lives by comparison. Walking in the light is not always a comfortable experience. As we walk in it, we become more conscious of our sin, not less.’ (p34, David Jackman: The Message of John’s Letters, IVP, 1988.)

In the presence of God, in the presence of his truth, we have no option but to admit we are sinners who sin: sinners by nature, and sinners by action. If we deny our sinfulness and our sin, John says, we make God a liar.