Scripture: 1 John 2:28-3:10
I want to tell you about one of the best things I’ve discovered, or rediscovered, in the Bible during my quiet times recently. As you know, I do “Bible journaling.” I learned this practice from my daughter four years ago. I have a journaling Bible, which has a blank page between every page of scripture, which enables me to take notes, right down thoughts and reflections and prayers… It has been a great blessing. So I started journaling through Song of Solomon recently.
The Song of Solomon, in case you don’t know, is a breathtakingly beautiful and passionate poem that celebrates the love between a new bride and her husband—the poem is all about romantic love, about falling in love, about being in love. It captures those feelings so perfectly.
On the surface, that’s what the poem is about. But the Church has traditionally understood that it has deeper meaning: It’s a book that celebrates the love between Christ and his church.
Why do we interpret it that way?
Because the Bible itself, in many places, compares the love between God and his people to the love between a man and woman—the prophets of the Old Testament do it, most prominently in the Book of Hosea. John the Baptist does it when he talks about Christ being the bridegroom and his people being the bride.1 Jesus does it, when he tells parables about wedding banquets. The apostle John does it in the Book of Revelation when he talks about a future marriage supper between Christ the Lamb and his church. And Paul does it, most astonishingly, in Ephesians 5: from the beginning of time, Paul says, God intended for the institution of marriage itself to bear witness to Christ’s love for his church.2
Since that’s the case, then reading the Song of Solomon as a picture of Christ’s love for us makes perfect sense. It’s like reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and saying, “That father’s love for his sons looks a lot like our heavenly Father’s love for us!” God is like a human father, we say, except, even more so! Because unlike with us human fathers, our Father loves with perfect love. In the same way, in the Song of Solomon, Christ is like a husband, except even more so. Because unlike any human husband, he loves his bride with perfect love…
So of course we learn a lot about about our relationship with Christ by reading the Song of Solomon!
And you know what I’ve learned from journaling my way through this book? I don’t love Jesus enough! I hope that doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but honestly… it’s good to be reminded of that, because I can now confess and repent of the many ways in which my love for Christ falls short! I can ask him to change me.
How does my love for Jesus fall short? Well, listen to some of the woman’s words in Song of Solomon about her husband:
On my bed by night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not.
I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.
I sought him, but found him not.
A few verses later, after she finds him again, she says, “I held him and would not let him go.”3 Still later she describes how absolutely perfect he is, and she praises him because he’s so beautiful and perfect, and she says, “[Promise me4], O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him I am sick with love.”5
Can you imagine being “sick with love” for Christ? Lovesick for Christ…
I can imagine that… I was right here, for example, in Toccoa, Georgia, in 1984, at the old Baptist Center, when I had a profound encounter with the Spirit of Christ… and I fell in love with Jesus in a new way. So long before I came here as your pastor, Toccoa had a special place in my heart. It marked a turning point in my life which likely even put me on a path toward answering God’s call into ministry.
So… has it been smooth sailing since then? Not at all! I’ve told you before that I’ve had long seasons in my life in which my love for Christ waxed and waned—as I told you a few weeks ago, I had an especially difficult time when I was in seminary, when my love for Christ grew cold. But twelve years ago that changed; twelve years ago the Lord got hold of me again. He renewed my love for Christ—and for his word that his Spirit has breathed out for us. I started trusting in him and his Word again, and I haven’t looked back.
And since that time, twelve years ago—more often than not—I have known and felt this lovesickness for Jesus that the Song of Solomon describes. And knowing Christ like this is by far my life’s greatest treasure. “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Philippians 3:8. Those are the words of Paul, a man whose love for Christ I long to emulate. Those are the words of a man who is lovesick for Christ.
For the apostle Paul, as for the woman in the Song of Solomon, the apostle John’s command in verse 28 would not be burdensome. It would not be difficult to obey! Look at verse 28. John commands us to “abide in [Christ], so that when he appears [that is, when the Second Coming occurs] we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”
This should not be a hard command to fulfill…
After all, suppose we were like the woman in the Song of Solomon, and we were told, “Abide with this person, this person that you love so much that you feel lovesickness when you’re not with him… Abide with him… Live with him… Make your life with him, put him at the center of your life, make him your top priority… that’s an order”? What do you think she would say? “Oh, maybe I’ll abide with him, but first I’ve got to do x, y, and z. I’ll put that on my calendar for next week… if I get around to it.”
Is that what she would say?
No, that would be unthinkable… Because she loves him so much! Because she is “sick with love.”
I know so many great love songs seem over the top when they speak of the great lengths to which someone will go, and the suffering that they will endure, for the sake of the one they love. I’m thinking of that great Foreigner song: “I would climb any mountain,/ Sail across the stormy sea./ If that’s what it takes me, baby/ To show how much you mean to me.”6
Remember that Bryan Adams song, which is literally one of the best-selling songs of all time…
You can’t tell me it’s not worth dyin’ for
You know it’s true
Everything I do
I do it for you
It’s all worth it. It’s all completely worth it.
My point is, these songs are true… When you’re “sick with love” for someone! What wouldn’t you do for the one you love? You’ll do anything! It will bring you the greatest joy imaginable to sacrifice for the one you love!
And I want to know that joy! Don’t you?
Gosh, how many of y’all watched Phil Mickelson last Sunday at the PGA Championship become the oldest golfer in history to win a major tournament? After he teed off on 18 and victory seemed certain, and he was walking to the hole… There was this crowd of excited people who were following him and cheering him on… and he was giving the thumbs up to everyone… So much joy! On his part, on the part of the spectators… So much glory from Phil and reflected in the faces of his adoring fans! Something about it was so beautiful. I was tearing up… with a big lump in my throat.
I’m thinking, “He’s my age, and look what he can do! There’s hope for me! I’m not over the hill!” Just kidding!
But I wanted to bottle that feeling of joy! I wanted it to last forever!
And brothers and sisters, all I’m saying is, Christ wants you to know joy like that, except on a whole nother level! He wants you to have a faith that doesn’t just live up here, but lives in here [points to heart].
Are you feeling it in here?
In Revelation 2:6, Christ is talking to a church that no longer feels it in here—the church at Ephesus. At one time they were feeling it in here, at one time they were “sick with love” for Christ, at one time they were in love with Jesus… but not anymore. So Christ tells the church, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” The love you had at first. They were still Christians. Jesus wasn’t telling them they were no longer saved. But they weren’t feeling the joy in here.
I’m sure I’m speaking to some Christians in this congregation who, although you’ve remained faithful to Christ for years, you have abandoned the love you had for Jesus at first… when you first fell in love with him. And consequently, John’s command to “abide in Christ” seems like drudgery… seems like hard work… it seems incredibly difficult.
If I’m describing you, please, please, please hear my words: Christ wants to capture your heart… or capture your heart again. He wants you to fall in love with him again. He wants you to feel—yes, feel—love for him.He wants you to be sick with love for him. And through loving him he wants you to know joy, true and lasting happiness…
And if you will fall in love with him again, all of John’s warnings about the dangers of sin in verses 4 through 10 will not give you any reason to be alarmed. You won’t have to worry, “Am I saved?” Because you’ll know that these warnings don’t apply to you—or no longer apply to you.
But before any of us can know that, we have to know what verses 4 through 10 are saying. Because they are among the most difficult words in the New Testament. Let me read verses 6 and 9 in the New King James Version:
Verse 6: “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.”
Verse 9: “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.”
Do you see the problem? That sounds worrisome. Most of us say we “abide in Christ” and that we are “born of God”… Yet we do still sin…
Are we in trouble?
Before any of us can answer these questions, we need to interpret these verses properly.
First, we know for sure—because John has already told us in three places earlier in the letter—that Christians—I’m talking about authentic, non-hypocritical Christians—still commit sin.
Without question John says that! In chapter 1, verse 8, John told us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Verse 9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Chapter 2, verse 1:
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.
These verses imply that Christians sin. We don’t want to sin, we try to resist sin, we pray for strength to resist temptation, but we do still sin. I hope that’s clear. And when we sin, it is not necessarily a sign that we have backslidden, or fallen from grace, or lost our salvation. It’s probably not a sign of that…
Even more importantly, John is well aware of the Model Prayer that Jesus gave him and his fellow disciples… in Matthew 6 and Luke 11… He was there in person when Jesus taught this prayer! This “model prayer” is otherwise known as the Lord’s Prayer. In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and he gave them and us this prayer that we pray every week in our two worship services—and more importantly, it’s a prayer that can guide us as we pray our own prayers.
And as you know, we begin the prayer with “Our Father.” And even that phrase says a lot: It says that we are—already—children of God. We became children of God when we first believed in Jesus and were saved. So Jesus implies that God is still our Father.
Jesus assumes, in other words, that nothing has happened since the last time we prayed that has fundamentally altered our relationship with our Father; he is still our Father, and we are still his children.
Then the prayer continues with a series of petitions—that God’s name would be hallowed or glorified; that his loving reign—his kingdom—would become more and more visible and apparent on earth; that we would do his will on earth the way his will is done in heaven—where there is no sin or rebellion against him. Next, we ask for our daily bread, which is another way of saying that we ask our Father to supply all of our practical and tangible needs—whatever we think we need God to do for us on that particular day, Jesus teaches us to ask.
So far, so good… but let’s notice something: It’s only after we call God “our Father,” and after we ask our Father to do all these things for us, that Jesus teaches us to do what? To ask our Father to forgive our sins.
What does this imply about sin in a Christian’s life? Two things…
First, there’s no doubt at all that Jesus assumes that his disciples—those who John would say are children of God, who have been born of God—Jesus assumes they will have committed sin… since the last time they prayed! That’s why he teaches his disciples to ask for forgiveness!
These Christians have sinned, yet God is still their Father.
Second, for those of us who are in Christ, we can be confident that our heavenly Father is not holding our sins against us. Because notice… our Father has already listened to each one of our prayer requests before we’ve asked him to forgive our sins. This means he’s not holding our sins over our heads, he’s not holding a grudge against us, he’s not waiting for us to beg for forgiveness before he will do anything good for us! Not at all! The Lord’s Prayer implies that God is not mad at us.
To say the least, it also implies that we Christians don’t have to ask God to save us all over again just because we’ve sinned: we are still children of God.
Our sin doesn’t change that!
My point is… whatever John is saying in verses 4 through 10, he isn’t contradicting what he wrote in chapters 1 and 2. And he isn’t contradicting what Jesus taught very clearly in the gospels.
So what is John saying in verses 6 and 9? Here’s where recent translations like the English Standard Version, the new NASB, and the NLT help us make better sense of these verses. Verse 6 in the ESV says, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning…” Verse 9:
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning…
“Keeps on sinning”… “Make a practice of sinning”… Or as the recently revised NASB says, “no one sins continually”… These translations are conveying the following truth: When John says we Christians do not sin, he is referring to sin that is habitual, persistent, deliberate, intentional… and without repentance or godly remorse… he is referring to a way of life that is characterized by sin7… He is referring to people, many of whom call themselves Christians, whose hearts have become indifferent to sin… complacent about sin… who carry on as if being a Christian requires no change in their lives.
Moreover, if we are born of God we will not view our forgiveness in Christ as a “license to sin more.” We won’t say, as Paul’s opponents were saying—slanderously—of Paul’s gospel, “Let’s continue in sin so that grace may abound.”8 We will not have a presumptuous attitude toward sin. When we sin, we won’t say, “Eh! It’s no big deal. I’m forgiven after all.”
Anyone whose life is characterized by attitudes and behaviors like these, John warns, is not a child of God. According to verse 9, he is, instead, a “child of the devil.”
So this is John’s warning… Does it “apply” to you? Only you can answer that. But if it does apply to you, I hope you won’t let this hour pass without repenting and asking God to forgive you… and give you a new heart and a new birth.
Because if we abide in Christ, John wants us to understand that sin is utterly incompatible with our new lives and our new identity in Christ. As John says in verse 5: Christ came to take away sins—which means—yes, by all means—he atoned for our sins on the cross, so we can be forgiven and have eternal life, but also… Christ really wants to get rid of sin in our lives… because sin really is harmful to us and to others!
And the good news is that he’s given us power through the Holy Spirit to change… to actually conquer sin in our lives… So our lives are characterized not by sin, but rather, by ever increasing holiness.
Don’t settle for less than that! Don’t buy into our culture’s lie that this is just the way you are, or the way you were made, that you are a victim of your genes, or you are a victim of your upbringing, you’re a victim of the whims of nature or nurture—so you’re just stuck with living like this! Stuck with your sin. Stuck with your destructive habits. Stuck with your addictions. No! Your body is a temple of God; which means that God is living within you—the Creator of the Universe, the One who “upholds the universe by the word of his power,”9 is living within you right now, and he’s giving you all the power you need to overcome sin… “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”10 Don’t tell yourself you can’t change… That’s a half-truth. It’s true that you can’t change… but guess what? The God who created the universe, who lives within you, has more than enough power to change you!
See, I’m afraid that too many of us have become victims of a really bad theological idea—one that I’ve seen expressed on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and coffee mugs. Maybe you’ve seen it, too. It’s this: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”
And my problem is not with the first part: “Christians aren’t perfect.” By all means, as I’ve spent a lot of time in this sermon proving to you, the apostle John agrees with you… We’re not perfect. And I have no problem with the forgiveness part. Thank you, Father, that you’ve forgiven us through faith in your Son!
My problem is with the word “just.”
When we’re born of God, when we’re children of God, when we abide in Christ, we are not just anything! We’ve received the imputed righteousness of Christ, which means that our Father loves us the exact same way he loves his Son Jesus! We’re adopted into God’s family! We “really are” children of God, as John says in amazement in chapter 3, verse 1! God our Father is now on our side—so that nothing and no one in this universe can be against us. Our Father now promises to work in and through all the circumstances of our lives… for our good. We are now those on whom God’s favor rests!11 And let’s not even mention the future inheritance we have in heaven and in resurrection…
We’re not “just” anything… and certainly not just forgiven.
Because Jesus hates the sin in our lives so much that he gives us his Holy Spirit to enable us to conquer sin in our lives.
And that may not even sound like good news to some of you… because you love your sins… they bring you shallow pleasures; they offer a superficial kind of happiness. And for that reason you’re not so sure you want to live without them. You have a hard time imagining living without them.
But please remember what I said earlier in the sermon: God wants you to be happy—in a deep and lasting way. God wants you to know the greatest joy imaginable! And as I said, that joy comes only through falling in love with Jesus… and abiding in Jesus!
But the devil wants your sins to rob you of your joy. Please don’t let him!
Let God instead give you the grace to overcome your sins.
Will you receive his grace? I pray that you will.
- See John 3:29-30.
- See Ephesians 5:25-32.
- Song of Solomon 3:1-2, 8 ESV
- “I adjure you”—no one will know what that means!
- Song of Solomon 5:8 NLT
- This lyric comes from the song “Feels Like the First Time,” by Foreigner.
- N.T. Wright, Early Christian Letters for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2011), 151.
- Romans 6:1
- Hebrews 1:3 ESV
- Romans 8:37
- Luke 2:14