Scripture: 1 John 1:1-2:2
I told you before about my two mission trips to Kenya seven or eight years ago. Before I left, I had to get some shots and prescriptions to help me avoid diseases like malaria, yellow fever, cholera, typhoid… But I’ve told you before that I’m a hypochondriac. I worry about getting sick. And my doctor probably sensed that about me—so for extra safety—he recommended that I go to a camping store before I left and buy what’s called a “Steripen”: it’s an ultraviolet water purifier. It’s almost like a flashlight, except it has long, narrow wand in place of a bulb. Whenever you have to drink water that isn’t from a sealed bottle, you turn the Steripen on and place the wand in the cup. After a minute the ultraviolet light kills all the bacteria inside… so you won’t get sick!
“When in doubt,” the doctor said, “use the Steripen.”
So I happily bought one… And I’m sure I didn’t need it. All the water we drank, if it didn’t come from a bottle, was filtered… supposedly… But how would I know? I didn’t see it being filtered… and even if it was filtered, how do I know the filter worked properly?
This is how my mind works, I apologize.
So on those few occasions when I was handed a cup of drinking water, rather than a sealed bottle, I got out my Steripen out and sterilized the water—under the table… so that my host didn’t see me do it. I didn’t want to be rude! I’m like, “Pay no attention to what I’m doing under the table. It’s just that I’m worried that the water you’re serving me right now will make me sick! It’s nothing personal!”
My problem was one of trust… I had a hard time trusting that this water was clean. I had no assurance that it was clean… So how did I know I would be safe?
And in a way, this connects nicely to an important theme of today’s scripture—indeed, an important theme of the letter of 1 John: assurance… The Christians to whom the apostle John were writing had a hard time trusting that they were saved… that their sins were truly forgiven… that they were already a part of God’s family through faith in Christ. And as a result, they weren’t experiencing all the joy that they should be experiencing.
In so many words, that’s what John is getting at in his letter’s “purpose statement,” which we find in verses 3 and 4: He writes, “that which we have seen and heard”—and by “that” he means Jesus Christ and his gospel of salvation—“that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
Four times in this passage John refers to “fellowship.” “Fellowship” is a word that has gotten watered down over the years. For us, fellowship seems to happen whenever Christians eat together, or enjoy any activity that isn’t very churchy. Right? “If it’s not worship, and it’s not Bible study, and it’s not Sunday school, and it’s not prayer… it must be fellowship.” Right? If it’s potluck or covered dish, it must be fellowship. If it’s four-square it must be fellowship.
And all that’s perfectly good… But that’s not how John uses the word “fellowship” here.
“Fellowship,” the way John uses it, is practically another word for “salvation.” But in case you don’t believe me, he restates the purpose of the letter later, in 1 John 5:13. Listen to what he says there: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”
So he’s writing to people who are already true believers in Christ, but these believers, unlike John and his fellow apostles and church leaders, don’t know for sure that they have eternal life. They doubt their salvation. They worry that they’re not forgiven by God… or if they were forgiven at one time, maybe they’re not anymore. Maybe they’re not saved.
So John is writing this letter, in part, to reassure them… and God, of course, has included this letter in the Bible to reassure us, as well.
Why were these Christians worried about their salvation? Well, we’ll find out more later in this letter. But for now, let’s just say that there had been people in the church—false teachers—who were teaching that the gospel John preached got it all wrong. That the Jesus Christ that John proclaims isn’t the “real” Jesus, and if the people in John’s churches placed their faith in John’s Jesus, their sins would not be forgiven.
That’s why John, in the first few verses, emphasizes that the Jesus he proclaims is the same Jesus that he saw with his own eyes, the same Jesus he heard with his own ears, the same Jesus he touched with his own hands—the same Jesus who was raised from the dead, and of whom John was himself an eyewitness. None of these false teachers could make such a claim—and they knew it!
So John reassures these Christians with troubled consciences, “This gospel that we apostles proclaimed to you… came directly from Jesus himself! You can trust us!”
By contrast, these false teachers were telling members of John’s churches, “If you really want to be saved, forget about John, leave that church, and come and join us.”
And John is saying, “No… stay here… stay here with us! Because”—getting back to the purpose statement of verses 3 and 4—“because if you’re in fellowship with apostles like me—and churches associated with the apostolic teaching that is found in the New Testament—that is one way you can know that you’re also in fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. And if you have this fellowship, then of course you should experience the joy of salvation.
So for John, fellowship with Christians who hold fast to apostolic teaching as found in the New Testament is an absolutely necessary component of salvation… But notice I say “apostolic teaching as found in the New Testament”… To say the least, John is not arguing that we should be in “fellowship” with everyone at all costs—regardless what they do or teach or preach or believe!
On the contrary! If we do fellowship with everybody, we risk walking in darkness, as John warns in verse 6.
Unfortunately, many United Methodists, I’m afraid, disagree with this biblical truth…
Just last Monday, for instance, our bishop and her cabinet hosted a Zoom conference call with the laity of the North Georgia Conference, and they talked about how we United Methodists should welcome “everyone to the table,” no matter what. They kept referring to “the table,” the table, the table… What they meant was this: “We United Methodists should be in fellowship with one another… even if we disagree with one another over important doctrinal issues, even if we disagree over what exactly constitutes sin, even if we disagree over what kind of behavior does or doesn’t potentially exclude someone from God’s kingdom.
If our bishops and clergy act in ways that are contrary to the doctrines in our Book of Discipline, it is no big deal, they say. Granted, most people said it was a big deal as recently as seven or eight years ago, but we were wrong.
(And if you ask them why they were wrong, they’ll cite surveys and statistics and opinions of experts outside the church. And they’ll cite personal experience. And they’ll cite the law. But they won’t cite anything from this book. While I am not exactly “open-minded,” I am Bible-minded, so before we change 2000-year-old doctrines that literally every Christian believed prior to about 1985, you better show me the evidence from scripture!)
So churches in North Georgia should change, our cabinet says. And most people interpret these words to mean that our conference will begin implementing some local version of the ‘One Church Plan’—a plan that was defeated by a wide margin at General Conference in 2019.”
I fear, as do many in our conference, and many United Methodists around the world, that the words of our cabinet signal a change in our time-tested, biblically based doctrines related to marriage, ordination, and physical intimacy.
And if anyone from the conference hears this, please know that I love you and respect you, but I disagree with you. And you told us last week that it is okay for us to disagree. That’s all I’m doing. And please appreciate this: Jesus says that pastors like me will be held to a higher standard on Judgment Day: “to whom much is given, much will be required.”1 Paul says it; James says it. So please appreciate that I’m just trying to be faithful to what God has revealed to us in his Word. I fear God. I’m going to be judged for how faithful I am to his Word.
But I simply can’t reconcile the words of Monday’s presentation with scripture. For instance, if you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 5. The church in Corinth, to whom Paul is writing, is badly divided. Over a number of issues. And most of the time, Paul is perfectly willing say, “By all means, in spite of our differences, let’s come to the table.”
Except… in 1 Corinthians chapter 5. There is at least one person in the church, Paul insists, who must not have a seat at the table. Look at verses 1 and 2: Let me read it from the New Living Translation: “I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you—something that even pagans don’t do. [And Paul goes on to describe the sin. You can read it yourself.]” He continues, “You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship.” Paul goes on to say in verse 5 that the reason this man must be removed is for the sake of the man’s own soul—that he might come to his senses and repent of his sin before it’s too late, and still be saved. It sounds like Paul is saying that he is still saved, but his unrepentant sin puts his soul in danger.
He goes on to say in verses 6 and 7 that the sin he’s just described is like a “little yeast” in a batch of dough; it spreads—not that other people will necessarily do the same thing he did, but that they’ll drop their guard, they’ll change their attitude about sin; they’ll stop being vigilant fighting spiritual warfare; they’ll start thinking that sin no big deal and how they live their lives, even if it’s contrary to God’s Word, doesn’t really matter.
And lest you think Paul is obsessed with just one kind of sin, listen to what he says in verse 11:
[Y]ou are not to associate [in the church] with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. 2
And not to put too fine a point on it, but where do people usually eat? At the table. Paul’s point is that no one who engages in unrepentant sin should have a seat at the table of a church.
And maybe you say, “That sounds harsh! We all sin, after all.” That’s right, we do. John makes that point in today’s scripture. Verse 8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But he also says, just two verses earlier, “If we say we have fellowship with him”—with Christ—“while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”
When John talks about “walking in darkness,” he isn’t describing when a Christian commits a sin, feels godly sorrow about it, then confesses the sin, and then repents of it. No, he’s talking about the same kind of unrepentant, willful, sinful behavior that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 5: “Walking in darkness” means persistent, unrepentant sin. It means a lifestyle that is characterized by sin. It means that when a person sins, they don’t acknowledge it as sin, they don’t feel godly sorry, they don’t confess it as sin, they don’t repent… In which case, John says, if they nevertheless say that they have fellowship with Christ, John says they are lying.
I heard a United Methodist leader argue against this by saying, “Yes, but we all have sin in our lives that we haven’t repented of.” And I agree, but if we are authentically Christians, we bring to God our willingness to repent of any and all sin… as the Holy Spirit makes us aware of it. If we’re not willing to repent of any and all sin as we become aware of it, then wouldn’t John say that is at least a symptom of a deadly spiritual problem?
Someone on Monday’s Zoom conference made an analogy to tax collectors, and seemed to compare traditionalists like me to Pharisees. This person said, “It really bothered the Pharisees when Jesus called tax collectors to be his disciples.”
Well, hold on… Yes, Jesus called tax collectors to be his disciples. By all means! But not without first requiring repentance! His disciple Matthew, or Levi, literally left his tax booth behind when he became a disciple of Jesus. That’s repentance! Or what about Zacchaeus, the wee little man, who told Jesus in Luke 19, that he would give half of his wealth away to the poor—because that’s about how much he stole from the poor—and that he would repay anyone he’d defrauded fourfold. That’s repentance!
Or about that great Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus tells us that the tax collector beat his breast and said, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” That’s repentance! That’s a sign that he acknowledged his sin, confessed his sin, and offered to God his willingness to change…
After they did this, neither Matthew, nor Zacchaeus, nor the tax collector in the parable was “walking in darkness” any longer. They were walking in the light. They were saved. They were in fellowship with God and with fellow Christians.
Listen… Repentance of sin is not punishment. But I get it: It may feel that way at first. But what we need more than anything is to fall in love with Jesus, and to know him more deeply. Sin prevents us from doing that! It would be cruel for the church to tell sinners they don’t need to repent—because we’d be hindering them from experiencing the greatest thing of all: knowing Christ—in comparison to which, Paul says, the very best pleasures this world has to offer are nothing but garbage!3
If you have Jesus, you have everything! You don’t need anything else! That’s what the Bible teaches. Is the Bible telling the truth?
And as John would say, it doesn’t mean that these reformed tax collectors, or any other reformed sinners, including us, never sinned after they begin “walking in the light.” We do sin! But… notice verse 7: “[I]f we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Notice the tense of the word: “cleanses us from all sin,” present tense—as in, the blood of Jesus continues to cleanse us Christians when we commit sins. We don’t want to sin; we confess and repent when we do sin; and we ask God for the grace to avoid sin. But when we do sin, we can be sure that the blood of Jesus cleanses us!
Isn’t that a relief?
And best of all is this amazing promise in 1 John 1:9. Listen: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Faithful and just.
When he says “faithful,” he means that God will be faithful to the Bible’s many promises that he will forgive us when we repent and believe.
And then John says he’ll forgive us because he’s… just. In other words, when God forgives us, he is doing so because of his commitment to perfect justice. God will forgive us Christians because it is the right thing for God to do… And God always does what is right. God is just.
If that’s true, then it follows that if God chose not to forgive us Christians, then God would be acting unjustly—perish the thought!
It’s simple: If we’re Christians, that means Jesus has already paid the penalty for our sin that we would otherwise have to pay; he’s already borne the punishment for our sins. If God didn’t forgive us—and punished us instead—God would be punishing our sins a second time—once on the cross of his Son, and again after we are condemned to hell. And that wouldn’t be fair. And God is always fair.
The cross is that place where God’s love—including his mercy and his grace—and God’s justice—including his demand that sin be rightly punished—meet. We don’t have to pit God’s love and mercy against God’s justice and wrath. On the cross perfect love and perfect justice meet. If not for the love of God, Jesus wouldn’t have gone to the cross in the first place—and he wouldn’t have stayed on the cross and suffered for his enemies. That’s love! “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8.
But perfect justice was also done on the cross. “The wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23. And Jesus died that death for us.
So let’s get back to the question I started with at the beginning of the sermon: “How can we Christians know for sure that the blood of Christ has cleansed us from our sins and will continue to cleanse us from our sins?”
Look at chapter 2, verse 1. John writes that Christ is our “advocate with the Father.” Advocate literally means what? It means attorney. I like the way the NLT translates this verse: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate that pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous.”
See, I think we often misunderstand this picture that John paints. We picture something like this:
I’m a Christians and I commit a sin. What happens? I confess and repent. My advocate, Jesus, goes to his Father and says, “Father, you know your adopted son Brent? He has done it again! He’s really messed up this time… He has sinned… again! How many thousands or millions of times has done this?
But Father, I’m begging you, just one more time… to please, please, please forgive him—just one more time.
I know he doesn’t deserve it. I know it’s only because of your mercy that you would even consider granting my request for forgiveness. But on Brent’s behalf I’m begging you to show him mercy and forgive him. Surely he’s not going to do it again… I mean, if he does, then maybe we’ll have to have a different conversation. But I just want you to forgive him again.”
But brothers and sisters, that is not the picture that John is painting here!
After all, John says Jesus pleads our case. In the picture I just described, Jesus doesn’t have a case to plead… I’m guilty of sin, and there’s nothing Jesus can do except plead for mercy!
But when a good lawyer, has a case… he doesn’t plead for mercy. He argues the Law. Because the Law is on his side! And that’s exactly what Christ our Advocate does; he argues the Law. It’s as if he says something like this: “Father, as you know, I have fulfilled the demands of the Law on Brent’s behalf. I have fully paid all his debts and suffered all his penalties. He owes nothing. I have even given him the gift of my righteousness. I have—as Colossians 3:3 describes—so ‘hidden Brent’s life’ inside my own life, that you can’t get to him without going through me. Therefore, as a matter of simple justice, Brent is not merely forgiven under the Law: he stands as righteous under the Law.”
And brothers and sisters, if that doesn’t reassure us of your salvation, I don’t know what will!
In the name of Christ, go and enjoy your forgiveness!