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When Christians Bow to Sin
Have you ever been terrified by 1 John 1:6-7? One of my friends sent it to me earlier today via text message. It reads, "If we claim to have fellowship with Jesus 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."
I think the reaction of many people, upon reading something like that, is to immediately think of the areas in their lives where they're holding out on the Holy Spirit, those few stubborn sins that we just can't get rid of no matter how hard we try or how much we pray. I know that's my reaction, anyway. The matter isn't helped by the way John likes to write in polar opposites: light and dark, love and hate, sin and holiness. He has a real way of making Christians feel terrible about themselves.
This is a phenomenon that I call the Sin Magnifier, and demonstrates one major area where Christians give way too much credit to the sin that persists in their lives.
We choose to give sin power over us by focusing on it instead of on how far God has brought us. Am I, in fact, walking in the light? By and large the answer is actually yes. The person I am now is a thousand miles above the person I was before I came to Christ. I've been on an upward growth curve, both in terms of Biblical knowledge and applying it in my life, almost since the day I gave my life to God. The way I treat my friends, strangers, people who disagree with me, and lost people all bear witness to the fact that God is in me and has changed me tremendously. I have the desire to do the things that please God. By basically every objective measure, aside from those one or two pesky sins, I am definitely walking in the light - yet I choose to give my sin more credit than I give the work of the Holy Spirit, by immediately pointing to those tiny handful of sins, rather than at the massive, total life change that God has brought to me.
The question behind that mindset is actually, "How close to the light do I have to get? How much darkness do I need to eradicate before I can consider myself to be walking in the light?" I want to observe that these are destructive and misguided questions. They are all me-centered, and they open the door to a ferocious, cancerous legalism and a lack of faith in God's work in my life.
Nobody in the history of the universe has been perfect, apart from Christ himself. Every Biblical saint had his or her faults, and most of the time they were quite aware of these faults. They were by no means free from sin, yet they still pleased God - not with their legalistic, moralistic lifestyles, but with their faith. Take a quick stroll through Hebrews 11 and find the person in there who came the closest to being perfect, if you can. Even Paul struggled with some issue that he calls "a thorn in my flesh;" he doesn't elaborate on exactly what this is, but the point is that even he had a flaw in his life, something he kept begging God to be rid of, but God wouldn't take it from him. God even says that it was in Paul's life for a reason: to keep him humble. Yet we could hardly say that Paul was not walking in the light.
If we react to verses like 1 John 1:6 by excoriating ourselves for the sin that remains in our lives, we demonstrate immaturity in failing to understand what is really meant by our sin and our holiness as children of God. The New Testament makes no secret about the fact that all who are in Christ Jesus have had their sin completely and totally removed. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says, "we have become the righteousness of Christ." When Jesus paid for our sin on the cross, God took our sin completely off us and placed it on Jesus instead, leaving us with no sin whatsoever. We are, instead, completely holy as far as God is concerned. That's why, in the same chapter, Paul writes, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, and the new has come.
Romans 8 then goes on to add, "There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Back before, there was condemnation, back when our sin stood between us and God. But now that our sin, even that pesky sin that we can't get rid of, has been completely forgiven and paid for, there is nothing between us and God at all. God now considers us his adopted children (Hebrews 2, 12; Galatians 4) and friends (John 15). We didn't accomplish our own salvation or righteousness. They were free gifts from God, independent of who I did or what I was. Yet if I read 1 John 1 and feel convicted, my reaction is probably to trend toward legalism, to place new restrictions on myself, or redouble my own efforts to rid myself of those few pet sins. But my restrictions, my own efforts, were not what got the sin out of my life in the first place. My exertions were never and will never be strong enough to carve the sin out of my life. Only God can do that.
That's why it's so silly to gravitate toward our sin as the measure of how close to the light we are. The last vestiges of the old self, which persist in our lives despite our wholehearted longing to the contrary, are not the measure of our spiritual progress. Indeed, the very fact that we wish to be rid of them demonstrates that we have the Holy Spirit inside us, yearning to be more like God. The testimony of our lives, after we encountered God's saving grace, demonstrates beyond any shadow of a doubt that we are new creations, that sin no longer rules us. That is how close to the light we are, that we have been able to turn our backs on the entirety of who we used to be, and instead run toward God's light with manic abandon, screaming out in our souls for the day when sin will no longer be any part of us at all. This is a thing that we could not even crave if it weren't for the Holy Spirit in our hearts, repudiating sin, and making us crave oneness with the Father.
When I read 1 John 1 and I feel the accusation, instead of bowing to it and flogging myself inside for sins that have already been removed from me, paid for, and forgiven, I fight back against the accusation with truth. My salvation and my righteousness are gifts from God, and the full weight of my sin was not enough to undo them. Now that I am even closer to righteousness, the miniscule remainder of sin still clinging to me is not enough to undo me. We must all fight the urge to bow to sin, to give it even more of a foothold in our lives by overestimating its power and its influence on us. Truly the love and grace that we have received from the Father through Christ are all sufficient for us, sufficient to cleanse us from sin and sufficient to fight the lies that whisper to us, trying desperately to prevent us from dancing for joy in the new life that God showers on us.
In the dark moments when our sin knocks at the door, let us by no means ever bow to it or accept its accusations against us. Let us instead turn back to God, thanking him for his mighty works and for the light he continues to shine.
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