I John 1:8-10
But of course, nobody wants to think of themselves as being basically bad. We don’t want to take responsibility for our sin – instead we make excuses for it. We say ‘God made me that way,’ or we blame our genes, our parents, or being bullied at school, or whatever.
Or we make it an exercise in comparison. We look at somebody else and think, “Well, I’m better than they are, so I’m all right really!” That was what the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14) was doing, measuring himself against a man who was regarded as the scum of the earth (the tax-collectors worked for the Roman occupiers, so they were traitors as well as cheats). Of course the Pharisee looked good in comparison with someone like that – but if he had looked instead at himself and at God, he’d have seen a very different and much less flattering picture.
Or we treat it as a kind of balancing act. We hope that our good deeds will outweigh our bad ones, or that the good stuff that we do will somehow distract God’s attention from the flaws in our character. Does it really work like that? Was the Pharisee thinking that all his tithing and fasting would ‘make up for’ any faults he might have had? What do you think?
Or we treat sin as if it doesn’t matter very much. We talk about God’s ‘unconditional love’, and tell ourselves that ‘God loves me anyway, just as I am, so I don’t need to change.’
But John won’t let us get away with any of this. He says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8) And sin – any sin – gets in the way of us having a relationship with God. It isn’t something He can just sweep under the carpet and ignore – to Him it’s like a rotting kipper! It actually makes Him angry! He can’t just say, “There, there, don’t worry about it – I forgive you.” That would be like trying to cover up the smell of rotting kipper with air freshener. There’s only one way to deal with a smell like that – get rid of the cause! And in the same way, our sin has to be actually removed and taken away. But we, on our own, can’t do that – because we’re born with it, and it’s part of our very nature.
I John 2:1,2
That was the bad news. The good news is that God has done something about the universal problem of sin. As John says later in his letter, Jesus came “to take away our sins” (I John 3:5). He had no sins of His own, but allowed Himself to be crucified as “the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (I John 2:2) What John means is this: Because we all start out on the side of the devil and are fighting against God, we all deserve to die. But Jesus, having lived the perfect life that we all fail to live, died the death that we deserve on our behalf. Effectively, our sins can be transferred to Jesus, and in His dying He carries them so far away that they are even out of God’s sight – for ever.
But this doesn’t happen automatically. Because Jesus is the Son of God, His death is an event of cosmic significance, big enough to deal with all the sins of everyone in the world; but in order for my sins to be dealt with I have to acknowledge them. The personal element can’t be ignored: I have offended God by my behaviour, and we need to be reconciled one-to-one. I need to change sides in the spiritual war and allow God to take authority over my life. This is what repentance is. And I know if I’ve done that, because my attitude towards sin changes; I don’t enjoy it any more. And so anyone who becomes a child of God “cannot go on sinning.” (I John 3:9) Their life changes – and people should be able to see a difference.
But hang on a minute – when John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8), he’s talking about Christians – and he even includes himself! Doesn’t this contradict what he says in chapter 3, that a Christian can’t go on sinning? Not quite. Although becoming a Christian makes us want to avoid sin, unfortunately we don’t get instant perfection – if only we did! The sad fact is, we do continue to sin, and it’s no good pretending that everything in our lives is sweetness and light when we know full well that it isn’t.
Some people will say that a Christian doesn’t need to keep asking God for forgiveness because all our sins are already forgiven. But this isn’t about our salvation; it’s about our day-to-day relationship with our heavenly Father. Although we know that God loves us, regardless of what we do (because we’re His children), our sins still offend Him. In fact, they offend Him more than the sins of unbelievers do! And so we need to do something about them.
And others will say, “I know I’ve sinned, but God knows that too – because He knows everything – so why do I need to confess my sins?” Well, we don’t confess our sins to God in order to tell Him something He doesn’t already know, but to mend our relationship with Him: we face up to reality, say sorry, and admit once again that we need His mercy. In Jesus’ parable, remember, it was only the man who actually asked for forgiveness who was forgiven.
So, to summarise: we mustn’t be complacent about sin, or take God’s forgiveness for granted. If we’re not yet Christians, we’re enemies of God and the first thing we need to do is get reconciled with Him so that we can enjoy eternal life. If we are Christians, we should be fighting against the sin that is still in our lives and becoming more like Jesus – if we aren’t doing that, there’s something wrong somewhere that needs sorting out. If you’re finding this difficult for some reason, you may need to ask for some help. But on the other hand, we mustn’t be over-sensitive to our consciences and let them condemn us every time we mess up. Jesus died in order to deal with this problem, and “if we confess our sins… He will forgive us our sins.” (I John 1:9)