My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Three Parts of the Text
The text has three parts. I would summarize them like this:
- Don't sin.
- Don't despair when you do sin.
- Don't hog Jesus for yourselves alone.
A Continuation from Last Week
Last week we saw the foundation of John's message in 1:5 (God is light), and the application in 1:6–7 (Walk in the light), and a clarification in 1:8–10 (Don't claim to be perfect; confess your sin).
Today's text continues the application and clarification from last week. The application said, "Walk in the light." This is continued in the first half of 2:1, "My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin." Don't sin; walk in the light.
The clarification said, "Don't say you have no sin; confess your sin." This is continued in the second half of 2:1, "If any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." Don't hide your sin, admit it; you have an all-sufficient advocate.
Then 2:2 describes the basis of Christ's advocacy and in effect says, "Don't hog it." The basis of his advocacy is his expiating (or propitiating) work on the cross. "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." Since his work on the cross is not just for you, don't hog it. Share it. Love the same way you have been loved.
Let's take these three parts of the text one at a time and unpack them.
1. DON'T SIN (2:1a)
"My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin."
Under this heading observe three things:
1.1 Sin is insubordination against God.
1.2 Sin is very serious.
1.3 Scripture overcomes sin.
1.1—Sin is insubordination against God.
John's aim is that they not sin. So we need a definition of sin. What is it? 1 John 3:4 gives the most straightforward definition of sin in this book. "Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness." Sin is lawlessness. In other words sin is man's refusal to submit to God's law, that is, God's Word. It is insubordination.
When God's Word says, "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder," and someone pursues divorce, that's sin. When God's Word says, "Put away all deceit," and you distort your financial picture on your tax forms, that's sin. When God says, "Bring up your children in the instruction of the Lord," and you make no effort to teach your children the Scriptures, that's sin.
Among civilized people sin is usually discreet. It is usually encased in attractive containers of rationalization. And it's not usually considered to be very serious. Not many people weep over their sin these days—even though it stands to reason that nothing in all the world is more wicked or more terrifying than insubordination against our Creator. Which leads us to consider the truth that . . .
1.2—Sin is very serious.
There are at least four reasons given in this book why sin should be taken with tremendous seriousness—with far more seriousness than it is taken today.
1.2.1—Sin is serious because it insults the suffering of Christ.
According to 3:8, "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil." The reason Christ came into the world and suffered was to destroy sin. Paul said that Christ died to purify for himself a bride (Ephesians 5:25–27). "He gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds" (Titus 2:14).
Therefore, whenever we sin, we join those who call the cross foolishness. If the aim of the cross is the purity of the church and the victory over sin, we cannot honestly regard the cross as the wisdom of God when we sin. Sin says to Christ, "I do not regard your suffering as sufficient incentive to keep me back from this act. You may have died to prevent me from doing this, but I'm going to do it anyway." Thus sin insults the suffering of Christ. And that is very serious.
1.2.2—Sin is serious because it suggests that we have the nature of Satan rather than God.
1 John 3:8 is very blunt on this score: "He who commits sin is of the devil." Verse 9 gives the opposite: "No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him." We don't take these verses to imply a perfectionism that would contradict 1:8–10 and 2:1b. The reference seems to be to a life of sin—sinning that is unhated, unassaulted, and too often unconquered.
But the very least that you can say from these verses is that sin is very serious because it is the fruit not of God's nature in us but of Satan's nature. When you sin, you are acting the way Satan does.
There are two songs in the world—the song of Satan and the song of Christ. When you sin, your heart is tuned to the song of Satan and you play it his way. But when you act from faith in obedience to God's Word, your heart is tuned to the song of Christ and you play it his way. And it is a very serious thing when you find your heart again and again whistling the song of Satan.
1.2.3—Sin is serious because it jeopardizes our assurance of salvation.
1 John 2:3–4 says, "And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He who says 'I know him' but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him." Perhaps one of the reasons that sin is taken so lightly today and there is so little brokenness among God's people is that this truth is not taught in the church. Instead people are taught that your assurance of salvation has no relation to whether you obey God or not. We are taught that saving faith is such a weak and powerless thing that it cannot guarantee any changes in life, and therefore to look for those changes as the evidence of saving faith is wrong.
If that is so, the first epistle of John is going to have to come out of the Bible. Because no matter how hard they try, the easy-gospelers cannot make it mean that. Chapter 3, verse 14 says, "We know (i.e., we have assurance) that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death." You cannot have assurance of having passed out of death into life if you are an unloving person. Persistence in sin destroys the assurance of salvation.
A whole branch of "evangelical" theology has come into existence to provide assurance of salvation to lukewarm, disobedient people who call themselves Christians. And this book was written to blow that theology out of the water. Sin is serious because it jeopardizes our assurance. (More on that next week.)
1.2.4—Sin is serious because it can put you beyond the reach of hope.
Notice 1 John 5:16–17. I am going to translate these verses very literally so we can see more clearly their implications. "If anyone sees his brother sinning sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and [God] will give to him life, namely, to those who are sinning not unto death. There is sin that is unto death. Not concerning that do I say that you should request. All unrighteousness is sin and there is sin not unto death."
These verses are a summary of all the warnings of this book. They help us avoid two errors. One error would be the claim that any sin you commit after conversion rules you out of the kingdom. John avoids this error by saying at the beginning of verse 16 and at the end of verse 17: No, there is sin that is not unto death. Not all sin puts you beyond the reach of hope. This is what 1:8–10 and 2:1 were trying to make clear.
But the other error John avoids is the claim that no amount or kind of sinning can put a professing Christian beyond the hope of salvation. John avoids this error by saying at the end of 5:16, "There is sin unto death." He does not even say we should pray for such sin. There is sin that puts a person beyond hope. There is a habit of insubordination that becomes so strong we can no longer genuinely confess it as sin and repent of it.
Forgiveness is offered in 1:9 to all who confess their sin. But there is a depth and persistence of sin that can put you beyond the ability to confess, that is, beyond the ability to see and feel your sin the way God does, and hate it and flee from it. There does come a point of no return in sinning.
So John, in the great love that he has for his "little children," writes to them so that they will not sin—because sin is very serious. For these four reasons:
- It insults the suffering of Christ.
- It suggests we have the nature of Satan not God.
- It jeopardizes our assurance of salvation.
- It can put us beyond the reach of hope.
1.3—Scripture overcomes sin.
There is one other implication of the first half of 2:1. John says, "My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin." The implication is that John believes his letter can help them keep from sinning.
And if it can help them, it can help us. Look at 4:5–6 for John's astonishing claim about this little book. Concerning those who deny Jesus he says, "They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them. We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error."
Can you think of a more arrogant thing that John could have said?—If people listen to what I say, they are of God; if they don't, they are of the world. What I write to you is the ultimate test of the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. That is the height of arrogance—unless it's true!
Have you ever thought that whenever you read this book, you have to make a choice? You have to decide whether this book is the ultimate test of who is of God and who is of the world, or whether it was written by an arrogant egotist. John won't let us be fence-sitters about his writing. He forces the issue by claiming ultimate authority: "Whoever knows God listens to what I write, and whoever does not know God does not listen to what I write." So either we embrace this book as the word of God, or we chalk it up to the visions of a deranged ego-maniac.
I cannot read this book and conclude that it is the product of a sick and arrogant mind. I believe it is the word of God. And that is all the explanation I need, then, of how John can claim that his writing can help us keep from sinning. The word of God is powerful. The word of God is creative. It is a hammer that crushes the hardness of our insubordination. It is medicine that heals the broken-hearted. And it is light that gives us guidance and hope on our way. This book can conquer sin—if we will read it and meditate on it and memorize it and use it in our fight of faith.
That's John's continuation of the application in 1:6–7. Don't walk in the darkness. Walk in the light as God is in the light. That is, don't live a life of sin. For sin is insubordination against God, sin is very serious, and these very words that I am writing to you can help you overcome sin.
2. DON'T DESPAIR WHEN YOU DO SIN (2:1b)
Then John adds, "But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father." In other words, don't despair when you sin. There is hope.
The first question that might come to mind here is why John would say this if his aim was that they not sin. It's as if he has just succeeded in creating such an impression of the seriousness of sin that we begin to flee from it the way we should, and then he blows it, by giving us an out when we do sin. But instead of calling the wisdom of the apostle into question, we should humble ourselves and learn from him what the church needs in order to stop sinning.
The soft people among us might wish that John had never said in 1:7, "IF we walk in the light . . . the blood of Jesus cleanses from sin." And the severe people among us might wish that John had never said in 2:1, "But if you do sin, we have an advocate with the Father." The soft person may feel that when John makes the ongoing experience of forgiveness dependent on walking in the light, he takes away the gospel and leads us to despair. The severe person may feel that when he stresses the advocacy of Christ to Christians who sin, he cheapens the gospel and turns it into license.
So let the soft learn from John and let the severe learn from John. For this is the way of God. It is not either-or. It is both-and. We must walk in the light if we are to go on experiencing the cleansing of Jesus. And if we sin, we do indeed have an advocate with the Father. There is sin that is unto death and there is sin that is not unto death.
And the reason there can be sin that is not unto death is because we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. But not only that. We need to include the first half of verse 2 in order to understand why we should not despair. "He is the expiation for our sins." More literally: He is the propitiation for our sins. To see clearly the basis of our hope as Christians who sin, we need to ask, What does it mean that Christ is the propitiation for our sins? and How is Christ an advocate for sinners?
2.1—What does it mean that Christ is the propitiation for our sins?
Propitiation is the removal of the wrath of God against sinners by the death of Jesus. The ultimate problem that all human beings face is that God's omnipotent wrath is against them. The ultimate good news is that there is a way to have the wrath of God averted—and that God himself has made the way.
John said in his gospel (3:36), "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him." In other words apart from obedience to the Son of God, the wrath of God remains the biggest problem a person will ever have. According to John's last book it will mean eternal torment (Revelation 14:9–11). That's how serious sin is to a holy God.
But there is good news for the world. 1 John 4:10 says that God has made a way to propitiate (or remove) his own wrath against sinners. "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." God is not content to leave all people under his wrath. Nor can he simply sweep sin under the rug of the universe. Therefore his love and his justice conspire to make a way for sinners to be saved and God's justice to be vindicated. The answer is the death of Jesus Christ.
Notice in 1:7 that it is the "blood of Jesus his Son [that] cleanses from all sin." Jesus removed the wrath of God from us by dying for us. He became a curse for us, as Paul says (Galatians 3:13). "God put him forward as a propitiation by his blood" (Romans 3:25). There is no more wonderful news in all the world than that Christ has endured the wrath of God in our place so that our sins are no longer counted against us. That is what it means that Christ is the propitiation for ours sins.
2.2—How is Christ an advocate for sinners?
Verse 1b says, "And if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." But someone may ask, "If in the death of Christ our sins have all been covered, why do we need an advocate before God? If God's wrath has been averted in Christ, why do we need the Son of God to be an attorney for us in heaven?"
Ah, but that is the wrong way to ask the question. We should ask, "Since Christ has died for us, and has propitiated the wrath of God, and has been raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, and now stands before God in heaven, what has he become for us?" Not: Why does he need to be there? But since he is there, how shall we understand his present work for us in heaven?
And if you put together verses 1 and 2, surely the answer is that Christ is our attorney and his portfolio is his propitiation. He stands before his Father in heaven, and every time we sin, he doesn't make a new propitiation. He doesn't die again and again. Instead he opens his portfolio and lays the exhibits of Good Friday on the bench before the Judge. Photographs of the crown of thorns, the lashing, the mocking soldiers, the agonies of the cross, and the final cry of victory: It is finished.
The advocacy of Christ and the propitiation of Christ are part of one saving work, because the portfolio of Christ the advocate is Christ the propitiator. What he pleads on our behalf in heaven is the ongoing effects of his own death.
And John means for this double role of Christ to keep us from despairing when we fall into sin. We dare not say that we have no sin (1:8). But if we cannot claim to live sinless lives, then the only thing that can keep us from despairing before a holy God is that we have an advocate in heaven and he pleads our case not on the basis of our perfection but of his propitiation.
John's aim is that we not sin. His strategy to free us from sin is that unique biblical combination of warning and consolation, threat and promise, caution and encouragement. Tough and tender—just like his Master. We need to hear about the ominous danger of living in sin. And we need to hear the unspeakable good news that Christ our advocate has removed the wrath of God from those who trust in him. The warning guards us against presumption and instills vigiliance in the Christian walk. The consolation guards us against despair and instills the courage of hope. And vigilant hope in God is the power that overcomes sin.
3. DON'T HOG JESUS (2:2b)
The final word of the text is that we must not keep this consolation for ourselves alone. "And he is not the propitiation for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world."
John does not mean that all God's wrath against the sins of every person in the world has been propitiated, because then every person in the world would be saved. "He who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him" (John 3:36). The wrath of God is propitiated only for those who obey the Son of God. (Cf. Romans 3:25.)
What John means can best be seen when we compare the closest parallel to this verse in his writings, namely, John 11:52. Caiaphas predicts the death of Jesus like this: "He prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad." Or as Jesus says in John 10:15–16, "I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have that are not of this fold; I must bring them also."
In other words there are children of God, or sheep, scattered through the whole world. As John says in Revelation 5:9, Christ was slain and by his blood didst ransom men for God from every tongue and tribe and people and nation." He did not ransom everybody. He gave his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He did not propitiate the wrath of God against everybody. But he laid down his life for the sheep. They are scattered throughout the world in every tongue and tribe and people and nation.
No one who enjoys the forgiveness of Jesus can be content to hog it for himself. He is not the propitiation for our sins only. There are other sheep that are scattered throughout the whole world. Their sins, too, are covered. And the last commandment of Jesus was, "Go make disciples out of them from every people."
In summary, John's message to us today is: Don't sin! It is tremendously and terribly serious. But if you do sin, don't despair because your attorney is the Son of the Judge. He is righteous and he makes his case for you not on the basis of your perfection but his propitiation. Be of good courage, don't hog Jesus for yourself alone, go and make disciples.