We have not preached the gospel if we tell people only about God’s holiness and fury against sin. Technically, that’s not the gospel at all. That’s the law by which no human being will be justified … since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Ro 3:20). The law exposes our many crimes against God. It can never save us.
Even those who think they’ve kept God’s commandments to a reasonable degree are condemned. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it (Jas 2:10). Maybe you’ve never murdered anyone, but you will still be liable to judgment if you have ever been angry with your brother (Mt 5:22). Maybe you’ve never committed adultery, but everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:28).
Furthermore, the human race is brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did our mothers conceive us (Ps 51:5). Even if we somehow manage to accomplish the impossible, that is, a life which never violates a single demand of God’s law, we are born into this world with a deficit. Sin came into the world through one man, Adam, and death through sin, and that death has spread to all men because all have sinned (Ro 5:12). His trespass led to condemnation for every last one of us (Ro 5:18).
We shouldn’t confuse the law and gospel, but the gospel doesn’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t first understand the law. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Pr 9:10). Until we have known our guilt before God and the divine wrath we deserve, how can the gospel be good news? Why would we need the gospel at all?
During his three-year ministry on this earth, Jesus often practiced a strange form of evangelism, an almost anti-evangelism. Just when potential converts seemed primed and ready to follow him, he would say or do something to discourage them. At one point, thousands of would-be disciples turned back and no longer walked with him, though one day before they were ready to make him king (Jn 6:66; 15). Today, we would label him a failure and question his calling as a missionary, but he knew what he was doing.
For example, a man once ran up and knelt before Christ and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (Mk 10:17). Some of us would tell him to recite a prayer or ask Jesus into his heart. Others might say, “Repent of your sins and be saved.” Perhaps a few in Calvinistic circles would cleverly suggest, “There is nothing you can do. God saves whom he will.” The Son of God took a different approach.
”You know the commandments,” he replied, ”Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (Mk 10:19). To our surprise, he seems to imply the man could essentially save himself by keeping the law. I suppose he could if he could keep the law without failing in even one point of it (Jas 2:10).
”Teacher,” the man proudly announces, ”all these I have kept from my youth” (Mk 10:20). Now is the time a Calvinist would beat him over the head with the doctrine of total depravity. Others may prefer to avoid the topic of original sin and simply suggest he accept Jesus as his Savior. Savior from what? You’ll have to ask them.
With an understanding beyond measure, infinite in scope, the Savior himself chooses to prick the man where he is most sensitive: his wealth (Ps 147:5). ”You lack one thing,” Jesus tells him, ”go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and then and only then come, follow me” (Mk 10:21).
In a way only he could, Christ saw a fundamental problem standing between this man and the hope of eternal life. There was no admission of guilt. There was no sense of shame to be found. While the man did walk away disheartened and sorrowful, he wasn’t mourning his sin (Mk 10:22). He hated the thought of sacrificing his great possessions even for an eternity with God. He wasn’t ready to ask himself, ”For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36).
When John writes the first chapter of his epistle, he has our guilt before the God of light in mind (1Jn 1:5). He implores us to confess our sins and repent of them (1Jn 1:9). “Do not walk in darkness”, he says (1Jn 1:6). “And do not be so ignorant as to claim we have no sin (1Jn 1:8). If we say we have not sinned, as the rich man implied about himself, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us” (1Jn 1:10).
But that is the law of God, and leaving the matter there would send us to our graves as hopeless, utterly forsaken sinners bound for an eternity of hell.
John may seem brash with his uncompromising style of writing, but he knows the love of God as well as anyone. It begins to pour out of him as he refers to his readers as “my little children” (1Jn 2:1). In an effort to give his brothers and sisters, who believe in the name of the Son of God, confidence that they certainly have eternal life, he wants them to be aware, painfully if necessary, that unrepentant sin is a capital offense against God (1Jn 5:13). “I am writing these things to you,” he says in what I imagine to be an earnest yet tender tone, “so that you may not sin.”
The pastor who avoids addressing the sins of either believers or unbelievers is performing a terrible disservice to say the least. He can preach the grace of God all he wants, but it means very little until it’s framed by the reality of our guilt.
Yet the man who stops short at declaring our culpability and demanding our obedience to God’s moral law has utterly failed his calling as an ambassador for Christ (2Co 5:20). He has told only half of the story. He leaves his audience of criminals trembling before the judgment seat of God with shackles on their hands and feet waiting for the inevitable verdict and its subsequent punishment.
What happens next in that divine courtroom is both surprising and spectacular.
I’m ashamed to admit that I once stood before a judge to plead guilty and hear my sentence. It was a tense moment, the kind that makes your bowels do backflips. I secretly hoped the judge could empathize with a lowly criminal like myself. Maybe she’d been in my shoes before and think, His crime is minor enough. I’ll just let it slide.
A friend of mine, however, did experience the miraculous in a similar situation. The police charged him with a crime that should have meant jail time. They had him dead to rights as they say. But through some clerical error or perhaps the judge’s benevolence, they unexpectedly dismissed the case against him. An officer escorted him into the courtroom, he waited his turn, and the judge said, “You’re free to go.” Decades have passed, and he still doesn’t know why or how it happened, but it always makes him think of the gospel.
The Bible often uses legal jargon and imagery when relating the details of our salvation. We are encouraged to think of God as a judge presiding over our case. We, of course, are the defendants. The prosecution’s evidence against us is overwhelming. Beyond the faintest shadow of a reasonable doubt, we are guilty as charged. We know it. The judge knows it, and he’ll slam his gavel against the bench any moment now to make it official.
Only something else happens.
We assume all hope is lost. We can’t imagine our court-appointed public defender will be much help to us. Not only is he working for free—we can’t afford to pay him anyhow—but he also happens to be the judge’s son. He’s the squeaky clean type who has likely never even jaywalked. How can he relate to us? Why would he go out of his way to help?
So we wait, heads down and hands cuffed, when our lawyer interrupts the proceedings. “Your honor,” he asks, “may I approach the bench?” The judge nods. We don’t pay much attention. Why bother? Daddy and his boy are probably making lunch plans.
Minutes later, though, our lawyer returns to our side. He places a hand on our shoulder, looks deep into our eyes, and asks, “Do you believe in me?” Strangely enough, we do believe in him. His touch and disposition are suddenly compelling as though someone has flipped a switch in our brains. He is much more than we thought. He’s our paraklētos, our Helper and advocate (Jn 14:16; 1Jn 2:1). We trust that he is on our side, genuinely defending us, though he and everyone else knows we’re guilty.
“Yes, I believe in you,” we manage to say despite our surprise and confusion.
“Okay then,” he says. “I will set you free” (Jn 8:32). With that, he turns back to the judge as his face falls. He now appears terribly troubled. “I’m ready, your honor.”
The judge gives a quiet signal to the bailiff who approaches us and removes our restraints. The officer, then, places the handcuffs on our lawyer, escorting him out of the courtroom.
While we are still trying to process what’s happening, the judge says to us, “I’m well aware you have committed these crimes, but your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1Jn 2:12). He points toward the exit through which our lawyer just walked.
“I am letting you go because my son has agreed to accept the consequences for what you’ve done. And I’m allowing it because he, unlike yourself, is perfectly righteous (1Jn 2:2). He’s never committed a single crime. If he had, I’d have to punish him for his own crimes. He wouldn’t be qualified to bear yours. But he is wholly innocent.
“When you leave here today, you’ll probably feel extremely grateful. You may vow to never break the law again, but chances are, you will. And frankly, I’ll have to discipline you from time to time when the need arises, but it’ll be nothing compared to what you deserve (Heb 12:6). You are leaving here with complete freedom. Who shall bring any charge against you? (Ro 8:33). No one.
“Even so, I am instructing you to start living like a decent citizen of society. Stop breaking the law. But when you slip up as I know you will, come to me immediately and confess your sins (1Jn 1:9). I promise to forgive you.
“To be clear, you are a criminal, and I’m not giving you a free pass to commit all the crimes you want. But what good is your freedom if you spend the rest of your life always looking over your shoulder, crippled by a fear that you could be arrested and charged all over again. Double jeopardy applies here. Not only do you have an advocate with me, you also have a propitiation, an atoning sacrifice for your sins through my son (1Jn 2:1-2). He is covering your past crimes and every crime you will ever commit. And I can’t punish him, then punish you for the same crimes. It wouldn’t be fair.
“I am telling you these things … so that you may not sin. But if you do, you have an advocate, and he is the propitiation for your sins always and forever” (1Jn 2:1-2).
Perhaps my courtroom analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough to illustrate John’s point.
God’s people are not saved because we lack sin. In fact, we are the only people in this world who readily confess our sins (1Jn 1:9). In turn, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness time and time again.
We possess a paraklētos both within us and another who is with God, continually interceding for us (Ro 8:34). The Helper, the Holy Spirit moves us from within to practice the truth while an advocate, that is, Jesus Christ the righteous, acts as a mediator between God and men (Jn 14:26; 1Jn 1:6; 1Ti 2:5). The born-again Christian has a penitent heart, desiring to leave his sin in the past thanks to the Helper.
Thanks to our advocate … Jesus Christ we can pursue righteousness without fear of future condemnation, though we surely deserve it.
The beginning of John’s second chapter is the apostle’s first dose of theological certainty, and he offers it straight. This doctrine is best served without sugar because it’s sweet enough on its own. John seems to realize how his readers might misinterpret what he’s written. Are you suggesting a Christian cannot sin? Are you implying a Christian can sin all he wants?
“No,” John says. “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin (1Jn 2:1). As redeemed people, you are no longer … enslaved to sin (Ro 6:6). You have been set free (Ro 6:7). But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins (1Jn 2:1-2).”
Moving beyond the law, John now articulates the gospel. He has stressed the purity of God and the reality of our sin, implicitly preaching our need for salvation. There is nothing implicit, however, in these verses.
First of all, he doesn’t want any believer to assume we should be indifferent to sin. Instead, the message he received from Jesus himself is that those who have fellowship with him will confess their trespasses and stop walking in darkness (1Jn 1:5-6; 9). Second, he wants us to know that Christians will not altogether avoid sin, yet our moments of weakness cannot undo what Christ has accomplished and is accomplishing on our behalf.
God is both just and merciful. He proved his mercy by giving his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16). He simultaneously confirmed his just nature by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemning sin in the flesh by condemning his Son, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us (Ro 8:3-4).
Our Heavenly Father is just because he satisfied his wrath against sin by punishing Christ. He is also merciful because he accepted Jesus as our propitiation, allowing him to suffer in our place (1Jn 2:2). In this way, the God who is light shows he is no less the God who is love (1Jn 1:5; 4:8).
The most common complaint I hear from people reading 1 John is that the book presents challenging if not contradictory concepts. “In one passage,” they say, “John rattles my confidence by suggesting a child of God will obey the commandments with little to no stumbling. But, then, he reassures me with a promise that Jesus is our unfailing advocate when I sin.”
Welcome to the Christian life where faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen rather than some form of tangible evidence (Heb 11:1). I’m afraid God’s elect aren’t stamped with an unmistakable “E” on their foreheads. Instead, we are simply told to trust. We are instructed to:
lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and … run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
As the justifier of the one who has faith in him, Jesus is the sole provider of assurance to those who believe (Ro 3:26). If we are to know that we have eternal life, we must trust him as our continual advocate with the Father and the propitiation for our sins (1Jn 5:13; 2:1-2). What other choice do we have? We are hopelessly guilty without him.
Inevitably, though not perfectly, John believes the one who trusts Christ for salvation will also learn to deny himself and take up his cross and follow his Lord and Savior (Mt 16:24). That is why he feels no apprehension as he moves back and forth between matters of theology and morality. What we do is just as important as what we believe, and vice versa. One flows into the next, and both merit self-examination.
How can you rest in the grace of God if you willingly keep every weight of sin on your back? (Heb 12:1). Meanwhile, how will you ever know eternal security unless you earnestly look to Jesus as the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world? (Heb 12:2; 1Jn 2:2). The atoning work of Christ is sufficient to save countless individuals from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9). Suffice it to say, I t is more than enough to cover your crimes against God.
John doesn’t propose any contradictions. The word of life is simple enough (1Jn 1:1). You are a sinner, and there’s no use denying it. You are guilty, but the blood of Jesus … cleanses us from all sin (1Jn 1:7). If you truly believe that, John expects your life to reflect it. Why shouldn’t he?
Read this passage again and pay close attention to your heart’s response: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1Jn 2:1-2).
Does that statement smell more like life or death to you? (2Co 2:16). Among those who are being saved, the aroma of Christ will be the sweetest fragrance that ever touched your nostrils (2Co 2:15). Your heart will leap with joy while your soul relaxes. You’ll want to shed your sins for what they did to your Savior, and you’ll cling to him with all of your might. By this it is evident who are the children of God (1Jn 3:10).