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Fighting for Our Fellowship

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1 John 2:1-2

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. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

A Review of the Three False Claims

Last week we looked at three false claims regarding sin. Let’s review them briefly.

FALSE CLAIM #1: Sin does not affect my fellowship with God (v. 6). John’s response is, yes, sin does prevent my fellowship with God, but fellowship can be restored if we walk in the light because the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. So fellowship with God is not possible because of sin. But sin has a remedy, namely, the blood of Jesus, which is effective for those who “walk in the light.” Walking in the light cannot mean “living without sin” or else there would be no need for us to be cleansed from sin as the verse says. I’m suggesting that “walking in the light” means actively pursuing holiness by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit. And last week we said that this active pursuit is a community effort.

FALSE CLAIM #2: I used to sin, but I have overcome it and I sin no longer; I have become sinless (v. 8). John’s response is, No, you can never completely eradicate sin in any area of your life, but if you will confess your sin, God will faithfully and justly forgive your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. True confession is more than just admitting that something is true. Confession must move us out of the sphere of darkness and get us walking in the light. We suggested that confession includes repentance, or it is not really an agreement that somethings is wrong.

FALSE CLAIM #3: I have never sinned (v. 10). John’s response is that such a claim in effect calls God a liar. God says that we have all sinned.

All three false claims have to do with the denial that sin is a problem in one’s life. So what should we do about this problem we have with sin? I think John’s response in this passage to that question is basically this: We must fight for our fellowship with God by recognizing the problem that sin is for us and by clinging to the only remedy that God has provided for us.

We must fight for our fellowship with God

I say we must fight for our fellowship with God in order to stress once again that the battle against sin is an active battle for the Christian, not a passive one. Notice the grammar that John uses at the beginning of chapter 2. He refers to his audience as my little children. It is a term of endearment and intimacy. And he switches from the first person plural (“we”) to the first person singular (“I”). The effect is that John wants to address his readers pastorally, and he doesn’t want them to miss the personal appeal in light of his responses to the false claims being made by some. In other words, John wants his readers and us to understand the seriousness of sin. Its damaging effects cannot be overstated.

John then tells us why he brought up these false claims regarding sin in the lives of believers: “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” The goal of what he has written up to this point is preventative. He does not want us to say, “If it is impossible for me to completely eradicate sin from my life, then why worry about it at all?” He wants us to think, “If sin is so damaging to my fellowship with God, then I will go to whatever lengths necessary to avoid it.” John does not want us to be careless toward sin. He points us to the plea of Jesus in John 5:14: “Go and sin no more.”

This means that we can have victory over sin. We can make real progress in our sanctification. That is, we can stop any sin in our lives. No sin in the Christian is invincible. There is no legitimate excuse for our sin, for there is always a way to escape its temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). The proper response of every Christian toward sin is to fight for our fellowship with God by actively resisting every kind of sin in our lives.

We must recognize the problem that sin is for us

But how does this admonition to not sin make you feel? We already know that we cannot say, “I sin no longer.” So John has already warned us about the temptation to believe that we can completely eradicate sin from our lives. In other words, when John says I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin, we have to respond with something like, “But I know that I will blow it.” That’s why John responds with “But if anyone does sin we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. Here I want to deal with two questions. First, what is meant by an advocate? Second, how badly do we need one? 

We need help.

The word advocate used here simply means “one who is called to someone’s aid.” Hence it means a mediator or an intercessor or simply a helper.[1] The word occurs only in John’s writings and only four other times, all in John’s Gospel and every time in reference to the Holy Spirit, (though the word also applies to Jesus by implication in John 14:16). The Holy Spirit is said to be a “Helper” in that he replaces the physical absence of Jesus to prevent the disciples from being left alone (John 14:16). As their Helper, the Holy Spirit would continue to teach the disciples and to remind them of the things that Jesus had said to them (John 14:26). “The characteristic function” of the Helper is seen in John 15:26 and John 16:7-11 where the Holy Spirit assists the disciples in giving testimony about Jesus in a hostile world.[2]

But here in 1 John we find that it is Jesus who is the “helper.” And here the word is translated advocate. The English translation comes from the Latin word, but rarely does the Greek word refer to a lawyer or an attorney. Most would say that there is a strong legal context in view here so the word is appropriately translated advocate and means “counsel for the defense.”[3] But there are two reasons why I think that is not the best way to understand the word in this text.

First, because this passage is referring to believers, we no longer have need of legal defense. Notice that Jesus is our advocate with the Father. But we are related to God as his children and no longer under the condemnation of a righteous judge.[4] This is not intended to soften the seriousness of our sin; fellowship with God is always destroyed by sin. And we are still in need of forgiveness. But the Father is a lover of his children, and we can be assured that he will always forgive us when we confess them (1 John 1:9).

The second reason why we should not view Jesus as our lawyer but as our Helper or intercessor or mediator is because Jesus does not try to persuade the Father to forgive us because he thinks we are not really guilty. He is not trying to find some loophole in the law. “We have nothing that we can plead before God to gain us forgiveness for our sins.” Rather, “Jesus Christ . . . enters his plea for us.”[5] In other words, Jesus “helps” us when we sin by supplying for us the righteousness that we have failed to achieve. No lawyer or advocate does that.

So when the Scripture says that when we sin we have an “advocate with the Father” it means that we have someone who keeps us in fellowship with God by supplying the righteousness we have violated. As Romans 8:34 tells us, No one can condemn us because Jesus who died and was raised on our behalf “is at the right hand of God” interceding for us. In this sense, Jesus is our Helper. He does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, keeping us in fellowship with God.

We need help at all times.

So how badly do we need the advocacy or help or intercession of Jesus on our behalf? Answer: as often as we sin. And how often might that be?

Now we’ve come back to the false claims of chapter one. It might be easier than we think to believe we can eradicate sin from our lives. One popular author writes:

“Are you ready for a maverick thought? Once we truly grasp the freedom grace brings, we can spend lengthy periods of our lives without sinning or feeling ashamed. Yes we can! And why not? Why should sin gain the mastery over us? Who says we cannot help but yield to it? How unbiblical! You see, most of us are so programmed to sin that we wait for it to happen.”[6]

The author stops short of saying that we can live the rest of our lives without sinning. But why not if he believes that we can “spend lengthy periods of our lives without sinning”? Perhaps it is because we have thought of sin only in the sense of acts and have forgotten that sin includes any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature. With that definition I repeat: we can never completely eradicate sin from our lives at any given moment. It can never be true at any moment of our lives that “we have no sin.” 

So we are in need constant, continual need of someone to help us stay in fellowship with God. We need our Advocate at all times! When we “walk in the light” (v. 7), we find that “the blood of Jesus . . . cleanses us from all sin.” It is a continual cleansing.

Why is this so?

One day sin will be completely eradicated from our lives and we will enjoy eternal, uninterrupted fellowship with God. Revelation 21:3-4 says:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

But for now we have to fight sin. I don’t know how many sins we will have to fight, but it must be a lot. Sin is very difficult to count. For example, if someone murders another, there is more sin involved than just the act of murder. There would be the sinful attitudes of hate, anger, and maybe even jealousy. There would be the sinful nature from which the act of sin arose. Sin is much more complicated and multiplied than any one single act. Only God can see the full weight of our sin, and it must be far worse than we can imagine. Suppose at any given moment I have 10 million sins of which I am guilty. As I grow in my sanctification, let’s say I am able to eradicate sin to the point that I am guilty of only 7 million sins. That would be 3 million sins over which I had gained victory. But that would leave 7 million more of which I am still guilty and for which I need an intercessor.

Why does God permit us to continue our moment-by-moment struggle with sin? Why does he allow us to continue to fail him in act, attitude, and nature? Why doesn’t he completely eradicate sin from our lives now?

For those of us who might feel discouraged about the continual presence of sin in our lives, there is an answer to these questions. Jesus explained it this way to a Pharisee named Simon:

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” . . .  He who is forgiven little, loves little. (Luke 7:41-43, 47b)

So God has done us a great favor in our needing the help of his Son and the cleansing of his blood at all times. The continual presence of sin does not give us an excuse to sin for we have been set free from its power. And the continual presence of sin is not intended to make us feel guilty but to increase our capacity to love and so increase our experience of joy. And in order to love more we need to know the enormity of the debt from which we have been forgiven.

We must cling to the only remedy for our sin.

John wants us to know how much we have been forgiven. Our fellowship with God will come through our clinging to the only remedy for our sin. So in verse two he tells us that Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”  

We have been warned about the harrowing effects of sin to our fellowship with God in order that we would hate sin and not do it. But if we do sin, he assures us that we have a Helper who will keep us in fellowship with God. Now John tells us why this Helper, “Jesus Christ the righteous” is able to keep us in fellowship with God. 

Jesus our Propitiation

The reason Jesus is able to help us in our relationship with God is because he is “the propitiation for our sins.” All Christians need to know the word propitiation. This is not a seminary word; it is a Bible word. It is one of the important terms of the Christian faith.

To “propitiate” is to satisfy the wrath of another and thereby turn that person’s hostility into favor. In Greek writings this term was generally used to refer to the appeasement of an angry deity by making sacrifice to him. This is the basic meaning used here, where the language recalls the Old Testament sacrifices that were offered for the atonement of the people. Hence some English versions like the NIV translate this word as “atoning sacrifice.”

Some have objected to the idea that God’s wrath was the reason for Christ’s “atoning sacrifice,” preferring instead to understand this word as expiation, or a cleansing, rather than propitiation. The difference between the two words is the object. If the word means expiation then the sinner is the object: Christ cleanses us from our sins. If the word means propitiation, then God is the object: Christ has appeased the wrath of God caused by our sins.

There is no reason to soften the word to expiation. God’s anger, unlike the Greek gods, is not caused by capriciousness but by our sin. God’s anger toward sin is abundantly evident in the Bible. A holy God must be angry at sin. It is what has broken our fellowship with him. True, our sins need to be cleansed and that is exactly what Christ’s sacrifice does for us (1 John 1:7). But it is also true that “there can be no expiation of man’s sin without a propitiation of God’s wrath.[7] The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Consider Psalm 85:2-3: You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin. You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.”

God’s wrath toward you, if you are a disciple of Jesus, is gone because Jesus is the propitiation for your sins. Notice that the verse says Jesus is the propitiation, not Jesus provided the propitiation. That points us back to 1:7 where it is the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from sin. So when Jesus died on the cross, he not only provided the cleansing from sin we needed; he ultimately provided the propitiation that God needed to look favorably upon us. In other words, Jesus took the wrath of God toward sinners upon himself. Not that God was unwilling to forgive sinners. It was God himself who provided for us the propitiation: In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9).

Jesus, the world’s propitiation

What we have seen up to this point is that sin is very serious because it cuts us off from fellowship with God. We have also seen that we cannot become sinless and so we find ourselves in a battle against sin in which we are at all times completely dependent upon the help of Jesus Christ. Without his help and his propitiation, we are helplessly condemned to the darkness where God’s wrath toward sin is eternally poured out. In other words, we are either among those for whom God’s wrath has been satisfied, or we are among those upon whom God’s wrath remains. Those are the two options.

So what, then, does John mean when he says that Jesus is the propitiation not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world? He clearly does not mean that God’s wrath has been turned away from everyone without exception. There are plenty who are still under the wrath of God. For them it cannot be true that Christ is their propitiation because John 3:36 says that “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” 

So when John says that Jesus is the propitiation for “the sins of the whole world” he must mean that Christ is the propitiation for all sinners without distinction. If I say that I went to the zoo and saw all the animals, I do not mean that I saw every kind of animal that exists. Neither do I mean that I saw every single animal that lives in the zoo. I may have only seen three of the six elephants that live there. When I say that I saw all the animals, I mean that I saw each kind of animal; there were no kinds of animals available to be seen that I did not see.

So what John is saying is that Jesus is the remedy not just for my sin and not just for the sins of everyone living in Oklahoma or just for those in the United States. Christianity is not bound by geography. Jesus is the remedy for the sins of everyone in the world.  Indeed he is the only remedy, available to all people the world over. For everyone who receives him by faith, Jesus is the propitiation for their sin. Apart from him, there is no propitiation and the wrath of God remains.

A Final Word: Living Holy Lives by Rejoicing in the Cross

John wants us to feel the seriousness of our sin. He wants us to know the anger of a holy God toward sin. And he doesn’t want us to forget it for one second. So when you feel the weightiness of your sin, meditate on the enormity of the debt that Jesus has forgiven on your behalf by his atoning sacrifice on the cross.

Then go and sin no more.


----

[1]       Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), rev. and ed. Frederick William Danker, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 766.

[2]       F. Porsch, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT), ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, 3 vols (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 3:29.

[3]       I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 116.

[4]       John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 86.

[5]       Marshall, The Epistles of John, 116.

[6]       Charles R. Swindoll, The Grace Awakening (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2003), 99.

[7]       Stott, The Letters of John, 92.

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