The recognition of what is impure and false in us ought to lead us to confess our sins. A few years ago an article entitled "Pick-and-Choose Christianity" appeared in a ma jor national magazine. This article summarized the results of a three-year study of Christians of all denominations in a midwestern state, pointing out that most church members "pick and choose" which of the teachings of Christianity they will accept and which they will leave behind. One of the least popular teachings was that regarding sin. The article stated,
What many have left behind is a pervasive sense of sin. Although 98% said they believe in personal sin, only 57% accepted the traditional notion that all people are sinful and fully one-third allowed that they "make many mistakes but are not sinful themselves." Said one typical respondent: "The day I die, I should only have to look up at my Maker and say, `Take me.' Not `Forgive me.' "
No doubt there are many reasons for the loss of a consciousness of sin, but the phenomenon is scarcely new or endemic to the United States in the twentieth century. First John reflects a similar situation, for appar ently some people in the church were claiming to be without sin. How could such a claim have arisen? It seems that some people had taken the belief that God is light and therefore irrevocably set against darkness and drawn an extreme conclusion: If God is indeed light—and here they would agree with the Elder—it follows that those who are God's children (3:1-2) are children of light and, hence, are pure and righteous, reflecting the character of God. They share God's state of purity. After all, they were "born of God" (2:29; 3:9). What more did they need? As children of God, they had entered into a state that Christians have and cannot lose and that therefore required nothing further of them.
Their claims to sinlessness were strikingly similar to—and probably no less sincere than—those of that American Christian who said, "The day I die, I should only have to look up at my Maker and say, `Take me.' Not `Forgive me.' " No one, whether in the first or twentieth century, relishes the thought of labeling one's actions as "sin." Today, in fact, we study the psychology of human actions so that we may better understand their causes and so help to change destructive behaviors. But failure to act with love and justice toward others is still sinful, even if it can be ac counted for by our upbringing, some event in our past or an unhappy relationship or experience. However much we can provide explanations or rationalizations for sin, they do not excuse it.
The author answers his opponents' claim to be sinless by asserting that they are self-deceived. They are not merely confused, but deceived by the greatest lie of all, the lie of the antichrist who opposes Jesus (com pare 4:6; 2 Jn 7). Jesus' death would have been pointless were their claims to be sinless true, since his death forgives and purifies believers from their sin and unrighteousness. Although sin appears to put one into darkness, it is actually the claim to be without sin that does so. Confession of sin comes from the truth; denial of sin comes from error. In fact, the very claim to be sinless shows that a lie, and not the truth, is at work within those who make it (compare 1:10, his word has no place in our lives). God's truth is not served if we simply cover up the truth about ourselves. God's truth must be manifested in an accurate understanding of God and of ourselves.
Having sent Jesus to cleanse us from sin (v. 7), God remains "faithful and righteous" (NASB; faithful and just, NIV) and forgives those who acknowledge their sin. We might have expected to read that God forgives out of love or mercy and punishes due to justice. But John calls on the Old Testament concept of God's steadfastness to the covenant that has been established by using familiar descriptions of God as one who does what is faithful and just (compare Deut 32:4; Jer 42:5). Despite our unrighteousness (adikia), God is righteous (dikaios) and sends one to us who is also righteous (2:1). By depending upon the work of Jesus, who is righteous, we are able to continue to walk in fellowship with one who is light.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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