Back in the nineteenth century, the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once attended a conference at which the keynote speaker began to proclaim what was called the doctrine of sinless perfection. This belief has cropped up in Christian history from time to time; basically what it says is that the work of holiness that God does in the life of a Christian can be completed in this life, right now. You and I can be filled with the Holy Spirit to such an extent that all trace of sin is removed from us. We will no longer feel any desire to sin; all we will want to do is love God and love our neighbour. All selfishness, all pride, all self-centredness, all anger and lust and greed and all that other bad stuff will be taken away from us, and we will be made perfect in love and holiness and goodness and truth. This is the idea that this conference speaker was teaching in Charles Spurgeon’s hearing. “Brothers and sisters”, he said, “I can testify that this is true. The Lord has taken away my desire to sin; he has made me perfect in holiness and love, and he can do it for you too, if you ask him”.
Spurgeon’s response to this preacher was typical of him. Years later, telling the story, he said, “The next morning, at breakfast, I happened to be sitting beside this man, and I took a jug of milk and poured it over him. His response, I can confidently say, disproved the doctrine of sinless perfection!” When I read about that incident, I must admit that I couldn’t help feeling some sympathy for the conference speaker; I have no doubt that if Spurgeon had poured a jug of milk over me while I was quietly eating my breakfast, I’d probably have lost my temper too!
But the dilemma that this story illustrates is a very real one for readers of the first letter of John. We don’t know very much about the circumstances in which this letter was written; if it was indeed written by the Apostle John, it was likely when he was a very old man. Over and over again in the letter, he points to love as the centre of the Christian life:
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (4:7-8).
But the trouble is that John doesn’t stop there. In today’s reading he says,
‘Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that (Jesus) was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as (Jesus) is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:4-8).
Now if you’re like me, and if you were listening closely while these verses were being read this morning, I expect you felt some confusion about this. ‘Wait a minute’, you might have thought; ‘What does John mean, “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him”. But John, I sin; I sin every day, in fact! Every day I fail to love God with my whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and I fail to love my neighbour as myself. So according to this passage, does that mean that I’m not a true Christian? Does it mean that I can’t really call myself a Christian – I can’t really claim to know Christ – until I’ve been successful in completely removing sin from my life?’
Today’s passage is not alone in this letter. In chapter two John says,
‘Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him”, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist’ (2:3-5).
In chapter three his words are even stronger:
Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters (3:8-10).
Now at this point we may be tempted to throw up our hands in despair and think, ‘What on earth does he mean, they cannot sin? What sort of universe is he living in?’ If we take these verses literally, the only possible conclusion we can come to is that none of us are true Christians.
The interesting thing is, John appears to be fully aware of this. Earlier on in chapter one he says this:
‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1:8 – 2:2).
So John appears to contradict himself. In chapter three he says that a person who has been born of God does not sin; it’s impossible for them to sin, because they have been born of God. But back in chapter one he says that if we claim we haven’t sinned, we’re deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us, and we’re even making God out to be a liar. At this point we might find ourselves asking if the old guy has started to lose it; can’t he even remember what he himself wrote two chapters before?
No, that’s not what’s going on. I think that John is using exaggerated language to make two very important points. I think he wants to remind us that, in the plan of God, the Church is both ‘a School for Saints’ and ‘a Hospital for Sinners’. Balancing those two callings from God is not easy; in fact, I’d guess that there is no church that does it perfectly.
Because we’re a School for Saints, it’s our responsibility to uphold the high ideals that Jesus taught his followers. He taught us to love our neighbour as ourselves; to love our enemies, bless those who persecute us, and pray for those who despitefully use us. He told us that it’s not enough for us not to murder anyone; we have to root anger and vengeance out of our lives to. It’s not enough for us to be faithful to our marriage vows in body; we have to avoid even looking at another person in lust. We’re not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth because, as Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, no one can be a disciple of Jesus unless they give up all that they have. All that they have!
And so the list goes on, getting higher and higher and higher, until it’s so high that we feel like Jesus is far above the clouds and we’re stuck on the earth, with our boots six inches below ground. But let’s be clear: these aren’t just the words of John, they’re the words of Jesus. He taught these things. He’s the one who said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That’s his goal for us.
So who is it that especially needs to hear this teaching of Jesus and his old apostle John? I’ll tell you: it’s the old, jaded Christian like me, who has made peace with their own selfishness and sin. People like us, who’ve been following Christ for decades, tend to have gotten the stuffing knocked out of us too many times; we’ve lost our youthful idealism, we’ve gotten used to the idea that Jesus forgives us seventy times seven, and maybe we’ve even started to take that for granted. No, not ‘maybe’ – we have certainly taken it for granted; we started doing that a long time ago!
Maybe we used to think that we should live simple lives, uncluttered by luxuries and too many material possessions, but we’ve gotten older and we’ve come to enjoy the good things that life can offer, and now we comfort ourselves by saying, ‘moderation in all things’. Maybe we used to at least make an effort to give to everyone who asks of us, but now we’ve learned how to walk by on the other side, because ‘You’ve got to be sensible about these things’. Maybe there used to be some things we wouldn’t watch on TV, but now a little skin, a little sex, a little brutal murder – we’ve gotten used to it and it doesn’t bother us any more. We used to set the bar pretty high, but now we’ve got it set so low we can step over it with no problem at all. “What do you want from me?” we say to God. “Why can’t you be satisfied if I come to church once or twice a month and drop a little tip into the plate? Lots of people don’t even do that! Why are you asking so much of me?”
If that’s me, then I need to hear what John is saying; I need to recover the high ideals that Jesus sets out for us in the gospels, and that John testifies to so faithfully in his letter. The Christian life has a goal, and the goal isn’t just that I would keep a pew warm on Sunday mornings. The goal is that the world would be filled with people who live like Christ, and in this way, it would be healed of hatred and selfishness and greed and fear, and become a place of love and compassion and justice and truth. And this is accomplished as Christians become more and more like Jesus, in their words and in their actions. As we heard in today’s reading,
‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when (Jesus) is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in them purify themselves, just as he is pure’ (3:2-3).
So let me ask you, if the Christian life is a road that we walk toward the goal of greater Christlikeness, is it possible that you have sat down on the road and said, “This is far enough”? Have you said to yourself, “Surely God can’t ask any more of me than this. Being just a little Christlike is enough, isn’t it? After all, it’s better than nothing!”
If that’s me, then John’s letter is encouraging me this morning to get up, dust myself off, and start walking toward the goal again. John is encouraging me to think and pray and ask God the question, “What’s the next step for me? What’s the next piece of my character that I need to work on? What habit, what practice of mine, is the next one I need to ask the Holy Spirit to transform? What’s that you say, God? It’s my greed for nicer and nicer guitars, is it? Gulp. I rather like that one! Okay, okay, I can understand how it’s a never ending treadmill, and it’s best to get off it right now, but it’s hard, it’s really hard. Yes, I know, you’ll help me if I try. Okay, God, you win; let’s make a plan for change here. What’s the first step?”
How long has it been since you’ve had a conversation like that with God? If you can’t remember, then maybe John is speaking to you this morning, reminding you of our goal: ‘Whoever says, “I abide in (Jesus)”, ought to walk just as he walked’ (2:6). Set the bar a little higher, Tim, and exert yourself a little more, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to get to it.
That’s what it means for the church to be a ‘School for Saints’. But now we need to turn to the second point John is making; we need to think briefly about what it means to be a ‘Hospital for Sinners’.
Maybe we’re in a different situation. Maybe we’ve heard the hard teachings of Jesus loud and clear. Maybe we’ve tried and tried and tried to live our lives like Christ. We’ve read the words of Jesus and meditated on them; we’ve tried to root out anger and vengeance, hatred and contempt, lust and selfishness and lying and laziness and all those other sins that spoil the life that is God’s dream for us. We’ve tried hard, we really have, and we know that sometimes the Holy Spirit has helped us, but overall, what we’re most conscious of is our failures. We know how far we’ve fallen short of God’s standards for us. And maybe, just maybe, deep down inside, we’ve been tempted to despair. “How many times can God forgive?” we ask ourselves. “I’ve confessed these sins so many times, and told him I’m done with them, but then I’ve turned around and gone right back to them again. It’s like they’ve worn a deep rut in my life, and I just can’t seem to get out of that rut. Is there no hope for me? Or am I just showing conclusively that I’m not a child of God, that I’ve never been born again of God, because if I was, I’d be able to get the victory over this stuff?”
If that’s me, then I need to go back to the gospels again for the other side of the story. Because of course, the same Jesus who taught these very high ideals for his disciples was also the Jesus who loved hanging around with sinners. When the religious leaders brought him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery, he didn’t join in the universal judgement and condemnation. “Neither do I condemn you”, he said; “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). The whole of Jericho condemned Zacchaeus the tax collector as a sinner, but Jesus went to his house for a meal, with the result that Zacchaeus turned back to God and changed his whole way of life. He loved people who were honest enough to admit that they had messed up their lives in a big way; the people he had a hard time with were the hypocrites who pretended to be spiritual giants when really they were far from it.
C.S. Lewis says somewhere that real Christianity is both hard and gentle; it’s not either/or, but both/and. That rings true when we read about Jesus in the gospels, and it rings true in John’s first letter as well. The same John who sets out those impossibly high standards for us also says this:
‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 2:1-2a).
‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9).
Truly, grace and love are at the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel shows us a God who loves his enemies, who forgives those who are conscious of their failures, and only rejects those who are so sure of their own goodness that they refuse to admit their need of him. So we can trust his promise: if we have tried and failed, and tried and failed again, to the point that we’re sure that there’s a particularly toasty corner of hell specially reserved for us, God would say to us, “Not so! You are my child, and I know how hard you’ve tried, and even though you feel like you’ve failed, you’ve kept on trying and you haven’t given up, and I’m pleased with you. So go in peace, be healed of your guilt and freed of your burden. Your sins are forgiven, seventy times seven. Now go and love others in the same way you have been loved, because that, of course, is what the gospel is all about”.
A School for Saints, and a Hospital for Sinners: that’s what Gospel Christianity is all about. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the call to be saints and the high ideals that involves. Sometimes, when we’re discouraged by our failure, we need to be reminded of the gospel medicine of forgiveness for sinners. Wherever you are in your own spiritual journey this morning, this letter from John has a message to speak to your heart and soul. And it’s not a long letter; it’s only four or five pages! So later on today, why not get alone, read the whole thing through, and ask the Holy Spirit to highlight for you the message that you particularly need to hear at this point in your Christian journey? That’s a prayer he will be very glad to answer!
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.