Forgiving Our Failures

1 John 1:5-2:2

September 11, 2011 | Brian Bill

It was a happy day when my dad built me a bedroom in the basement.  I loved my paneled ‘man cave’ and especially enjoyed having a refuge from my four sisters where I could listen to my 8-tracks in peace.  One result of living in the basement is that I got pretty used to the dark.  I could head downstairs without turning any lights on and find where I wanted to go.  Even in the middle of the night I could get up, open the bedroom door, turn right, open a curtain, go past the water heater and wood stove on my right, feel the shelves on the left, put my hands on the duct work above me and then hang another right past my dad’s work bench and our freezer and make it into the bathroom, all without any lights.  

I would then retrace my steps and jump back into bed.  Darkness never bothered me because I spent so much time in it.  That’s a metaphor for life lived apart from Christ, isn’t it?  Check out what Jesus said in John 3:19: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

Remember that John is about 90 years old and is writing to second and third generation Christians who have become complacent in their Christianity.  Our passage for today gives us three distinguishing marks of a growing disciple of Christ.  If you consider yourself complacent today, this passage is for you.  Here’s a simple outline we’re going to follow.

  • Live in the light
  • Face your failures
  • Strive to not sin

Before we dive in, let’s make some observations.

John uses a series of “if” clauses six different times:

  • If we claim to have fellowship
  • If we walk in the light
  • If we claim to be without sin
  • If we confess our sins
  • If we claim we have not sinned
  • If anybody does sin

These clauses divide into three pairs.  Each pair consists of “If we claim…” followed by a negative statement and “But if…” followed by a positive declaration.

1. Live in the light.

Let’s lock in on 1:5-7:

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

There is no dark side to God.

In verse 5 John is addressing the error that taught that God is not perfect.  I find it interesting that John did not declare that God is love (He does that later), though He certainly is.  Or that God is powerful, though He for sure is that.  By saying that God is light, he’s affirming God’s holiness.  There is no dark side to God.  He is completely holy and perfectly perfect.  1 Timothy 6:15-16 says, “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.  To him be honor and might forever. Amen.”

In his book With, Skye Jethani tells about a test that Scott McKnight gives every year to his incoming group of college students:  The test begins with a series of questions about what the students think Jesus is like. The twenty-four questions are then followed by a second set—with slightly altered language—in which the students answer questions about their own personalities.

Do you know what he found out?  Everyone thinks Jesus is just like them! McKnight added, “The test results also suggest that, even though we like to think we are becoming more like Jesus, the reverse is probably more the case: we try to make Jesus like ourselves.”  

I come back often to a quote from A.W. Tozer: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  John doesn’t start with what we might like from God but with a declaration of what God is like.  Have you ever noticed that when you walk into a jewelry store, that the diamonds are often displayed on black velvet?  They’re positioned like that so their brilliance stands out in contrast to the blackness.  God’s light is so bright that there is no darkness within Him.

In verse 6, the word “walk” is in the present tense meaning “to keep on walking.”  If someone were to say that they are in fellowship with God and yet continues walking in darkness, they are lying.  A practicing sinner may have a saving relationship with God but he is not in fellowship with God.  To walk in darkness is to really try to hide from God, which is impossible by the way (just ask Jonah).

The IVP Bible Commentary puts it like this: “Light and darkness are opposites, and repel each other.  One cannot have fellowship with God with one foot in darkness and one in light, since God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. Darkness and light are two opposing forces, each making their competing claims upon us.”  

Verse 7 stands in contrast to verse 6 and focuses on true fellowship with one another and serves as a reminder that the blood of Jesus is a central doctrine of the Bible.  His blood purifies us from all sin.  

Martin Luther tells about the dream he once had in which Satan set before him on a great scroll all of his sins and manifold iniquities.  Luther didn’t argue with the devil, he just admitted each one without denying any of them. In his dream, he simply scrawled 1 John 1:7 across the list: “The blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.”

We need to be living in the light but when we try to do that we’re quickly reminded that sin trips us up.  What do we do when that happens?  That leads to the second distinguishing mark of a believer.

2. Face your failures. 

While we must determine to live in the light and deplore the deeds of darkness, we must know what to do when we mess up.  Is it all over?  Are we disqualified when we sin?  Maybe some of us don’t consider ourselves to be sinners who sin.  Darkness can deceive us as we see in verses 8-10:

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”

Verse 8 reflects another claim of the false teachers.  Unbelievably, some felt like they were without sin.  This is absurd.  I talked to a college student recently who told me that one of her Profs believes that children are born good and that we’re all basically good.  Let’s let 

Proverbs 20:9 speak into that: “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’”? 

A few years ago an article entitled “Pick-and-Choose Christianity” appeared in a major national magazine which summarized the results of a three-year study of Christians of all denominations. Not surprisingly, most church members pick and choose which of the teachings of Christianity they will accept and which they will leave behind.  One of the least popular teachings was regarding sin: “Although 98% said they believe in personal sin, only 57% accepted the traditional notion that all people are sinful and fully one-third allowed that they make many mistakes but are not sinful themselves.” (As quoted in the IVP Commentary).

Remember that we commit sins of commission and sins of omission.  That reminds me of the Sunday School teacher who asked her class this question: “What are the sins of omission?”  One girl raised her hand and replied, “They’re the ones we ought to have committed, but haven’t.”

Let’s look at 1:9 closely because it’s so important.  Could I encourage you to memorize it?  It’s one of the five verses that we ask our new members to memorize.

  • “If” – This is the key place to start.  No one can make you confess if you are not ready to do so.  
  • “We” – This is for each and every one of us.
  • “Confess our sins” – This takes me back to when I would go to confession and say something like this to the priest: “Bless me father for I have sinned.  I have tormented my sisters and disobeyed my parents.”  I’m sure the priest got tired of hearing this identical confession (I actually sinned a lot more but didn’t want to admit them).  Friends, we don’t have to go to a pastor or a priest to confess because Jesus is our intermediary.   The word “confess” literally means, “to say the same thing” about our sins that God does.  We agree with Him that we have sinned, not that we have made mistakes or stumbled into a blunder.  This is in the present tense, which means we are to continually confess – “If we keep on confessing.” How do we say the same thing as God says about sin?  He hates it and abhors it.  It cost Him the death of His Son.  
  • “He is faithful” – God’s faithfulness has its roots in Old Testament passages like Exodus 34:6-7 where His faithfulness is linked to His forgiveness: “…Abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  This word also means trustworthy.  He can be counted on to do what He said He would do.
  • “He is just” – Because God is just, He must punish sin.  Thankfully, He sent a substitute to take our sin punishment for us.  Romans 3:26: “He did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
  • “And will forgive us our sins” – As we’ve learned before, to forgive means to let go.  It actually is deeper than that.  It means to send or to send away from.  The picture is found in Leviticus 16:10 when the High Priest would transfer the sins of the people to a scapegoat and send it off into the wilderness never to return again.  Psalm 103:12 is a beautiful reminder of how thoroughly God forgives: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” 
  • “And purify us from all unrighteousness” – Sin pollutes the sinner and forgiveness purifies us from all unrighteousness.  Some people think they have to clean themselves up before they come to Christ.  The truth is that you need to come to Christ first and then He’ll clean up the mess as He purifies that which is putrid in your life.

When’s the last time you truly confessed your sins?  Let’s do that right now.  Psalm 130:3-4 says, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?  But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.” 

Verse 10 is not referring to the sin nature but to those who deny actual acts of sin: If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”

Verse 6 calls people liars who claim to love God but don’t live it and verse 10 says that we make God out to be a liar when we deny our sins.  Most of us have no idea how much and how often we sin.  Why is that?  I think it’s because we soften sin.  Here are some ways that we do that.

  • By renaming sin to make it more polite and palatable.  I don’t have a problem with the sin of anger; I just lose my temper.  
  • By comparing ourselves with others.  Since we don’t do those bad things that others do then we’re OK.  
  • By justifying.  I just need to get away…I deserve some pleasure because I work so hard…I’d forgive but I’m waiting until they change.   Corrie Ten Boom once said, “The blood of Jesus never cleansed an excuse.”
  • By blaming.  It’s not my fault…he made me do it.  Proverbs 5:22: “…the cords of his sin hold him fast.”  
  • By tolerating sin.  My sin is no big deal; it’s not hurting anybody.  I’ve been doing it so long that God must understand.
  • By being smug.  I can’t believe others live the way they do.  I’m glad I’m not like them.  Friends, we have to stop looking down on people who sin differently than we do.  Don’t be like the Pharisee described in Luke 18:11: “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men…’”

Charles Spurgeon has written: “Our deceitful heart reveals an almost satanic shrewdness in self-deception.”  If you think you’ve gotten beyond sin, look out.  You’re actually going backwards because it means that you’re deceived.  Worse than that, according to verse 10, you’re calling God a liar and God’s Word has no room in your life to do its work.

Let’s live in the light and then face our failures when we don’t.  There’s one more mark.  Instead of just giving up and letting our sins control us, we’re called to…

3. Strive to not sin. 

Do you believe it’s possible to go through a day without sinning?  How about a morning?  How about an hour?  For a minute?  Listen to the tenderness in John’s tone in 2:1-2 as he calls us to holiness:

“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense — Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

The phrase “dear children” is a family term of endearment, meaning literally “little born ones.”  The use of “my” adds a further note of warmth.  In addition, he refers to God as “Father.”  Brothers and sisters in Christ, avoidance of sin must be our aim, knowing that perfection is impossible.  Our goal should be to not sin.  Jesus said these words to the woman caught in adultery in John 8:11: “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  To a church filled with backbiting, judgmental attitudes, and immorality Paul writes this in 1 Corinthians 15:34: “Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning…”  Holiness is not an optional accessory you can add or not add to your life.

God provides a way of escape for us

Too many of us give in to temptation all the time, forgetting that 1 Corinthians 10:13 teaches that God provides a way of escape for us.  But sometimes we need to avoid situations that lead us to sin.  It’s like what Doc Campbell said to a patient on the old Hee Haw show.  The patient said, “Doc, I broke my arm in two places.”  To which Doc replied, “Well then, stay out of them places!”

The deal is that we will still deal with sin but here’s what I think.  Before you became a Christian you chased it.  After you become a Christian it chases you.  You will still sin…and when you do remember the second part of 2:1: “…we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”  

  • He is our Advocate.  This is the same word that is used of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John (chapters 14-16) and means, “one who is called alongside.”  Like a defense attorney He pleads our case before the Father.  But interestingly, this was generally not a hired person but someone from within one’s own clan.  Friends, Revelation 12:10 refers to Satan as the “accuser of the brethren.”  Jesus stands up for us and declares us as His own.  Romans 8:34 says that He constantly prays for us.  Aren’t you glad you have an advocate?  And He has never lost a case yet…and He never will.

I like the perspective of Steven Cole who said this: “When Satan charges us as guilty before God, our Advocate does not enter a plea of ‘not guilty’ because that would not be true.  Rather, He enters a plea of guilty but claims our pardon because He paid the penalty.”

Let’s look now at 2:2: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the world.”

  • He is our Atoning Sacrifice.  Some translations use the word “propitiation,” which is a great word but not used much in our language.  With connections to the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament, it essentially means to appease God’s wrath.  Because Jesus paid for our sins by sacrificing Himself on the cross, God has extended His mercy to the whole world but this must be accepted by individuals in order for it to be applied.  Or we could say that his death was sufficient for all but efficient only for those who believe.

Here’s the deal.  When we understand Jesus as our Advocate and the Atoning Sacrifice, we will want to sin less.  As we meditate on all that He has done and is still doing, we should hate sin and want to live in the light.

I See the Light

While I enjoyed living in the dark dungeon of our basement, there was one time that I woke up and totally freaked out.  Without knowing it in the middle of the night I had gotten out on the wrong side of the bed and was therefore completely turned around.  I remember feeling for the door and desperately looking for the light switch.  I started to panic.  With my heart racing I started screaming for help at the top of my lungs.  I was now in complete meltdown mode.  After what seemed like hours, the light came on and I turned to see my dad in the doorway on the opposite side of the room.

He didn’t laugh and just gave me a hug and told me that everything was going to be OK.  I’m not sure if I was able to go back to sleep but I’m sure I left a light on the rest of the night.

Psalm 36:9 says: “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”  Friends, when Jesus, who is the light of the world, comes into our lives, he turns on the light and exposes what is going on.  Ephesians 5:13: “But everything exposed by the light becomes visible.”

Jesus said in John 12:46: “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”  It’s time for us to walk the talk and enjoy the cleansing that comes when we confess our sins.  God wants us to…

  • Live in the light
  • Face our failures
  • Strive to not sin

The light has gone out for many but it won’t last because only Jesus is the light of the world.  It’s time for us to live in the light.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways do you struggle with guilt and shame?  Describe how this has negatively impacted your walk with Christ.  Share with others how your relationship with Christ has helped in this regard.
  2. What is the difference between sin and just making mistakes?  What would you say to someone who tells you that they are without sin?  What passages would you use to refute this belief?  
  3. Read 1:9.  Why do you think it’s so difficult to confess our sins?  What two qualities of God’s character can be counted on?  What two results come when we confess?  How do these truths impact your guilt and shame?  
  4. How does the teaching found in James 5:16 correspond with 1 John 1:9?
  5. Read 2:1.  Do you think it’s possible to go through a day without sinning?  Is this something we should strive for?  If so, how can we do this?  Read Exodus 20:20.  How can the fear of the Lord keep you from sinning?
  6. Discuss the balance that John seems to keep between not being too lenient towards sin while not being too severe with sinners.  How would you rate yourself in striving for this balance?  What can you do to grow in this area?
  7. How does knowing that Jesus speaks to the Father in your defense affect the way you approach Him?  Are you timid and shy or bold and confident (see Hebrews 10:19-25)? What difference does it make to you that you have an Advocate?
  8. Discuss ways that this passage can help your parenting.  How should you approach your child when he or she has sinned and won’t admit it?  In what ways can you help them confess what they’ve done to Jesus?  Ask other parents (or grandparents) for their advice.
  9. In 2:2 we see that Jesus paid the price for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world.  Does this mean that everyone’s sins are forgiven?  
  10. In what specific ways can you and your family partner with God in reaching the world?  If you’re in a group, what can you do together to minister to the “whole world”?  Read Acts 1:8 and discuss how you can focus on those closest to you and reach out “to the ends of the earth.”
  11. Who can you help to live in the freedom of forgiveness this week?  Pause and pray right now that God will give you the opportunity to speak to this individual.
  12. If you don’t already have 1 John 1:9 memorized, do so right now. 

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?