What does it mean to be a Christian? Well, that is easy, you just believe in Jesus. Yes, faith in Christ is the foundation of the protestant church. People become Christians by faith alone. Read through Romans, the Apostle Paul goes through it over and over again. It is not be works, it is only be faith. We cannot earn our way into God’s family. You become a Christian by faith alone.
But that is not what I originally asked. What it means to be a Christian is different than the means by which one becomes a Christian.
This is a difficult distinction for many people. I have been challenged before by people who objected to me preaching on passages of the Bible that talk about what God expects of us. Because of past issues, they see any expectations as strict legalism. But what is legalism? One dictionary defined it as “excessive adherence to law or formula.” It added that in the realm of theology, it meant “dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.”
These are all good, but we must take them with knowledge that moral law is not bad, the New Testament does provides lists of things to do and not do and that the most primitive Christian creed is Jesus is Lord. The personal religious faith that we have is Jesus as Lord, and Jesus as Lord means that we are committing ourselves to follow his will.
So how do we avoid legalism? Legalism is more of a culture than anything. Legalism is when leaders or others try to dominate other Christians by enforcing rules that are often not even found in the Bible. The point of legalism is to control people and not to help people get closer to God.
So rejecting legalism, there are still some expectations for the Christian life. This does not contradict salvation by faith. My wife and I married each other because of love and not for what we were able to do. But being married, there are certain expectations of what being a husband or a wife is like.
John’s first letter is a place that we can delve into the Christian life. Much of the book is really a faith test, a reflection of what the Christian life is supposed to look like. As you will see, what John has to say is far from modern concepts of legalism. Taking this faith test will only strengthen our relationship with God.
Sin is Unacceptable
The first test that we will look at is about sin. Sin is something we do not like to talk about. For one thing, it makes us feel guilty. No one likes to be reminded about how much we miss the mark. But the other reason is that many of us have not reflected on what sin means for the Christian. Do we lose our salvation the moment we sin? Some people in the early church believed that baptism washed away all sin committed before the baptism and anything after was unforgivable. Some would wait until their deathbed until baptism so that they could be assured to be righteous when they met God. While that may not be our problem today, there is still much confusion. What we can be clear about is that sin is bad. Really bad. If sin wasn’t bad, then there would not have been a reason for Jesus to die on the cross.
Not only is sin bad, according to John, it is unacceptable. Which sins are unacceptable? All of them! Paul, in one of his sin lists says this:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19–21 ESV)
We can point to some of these sins as being absolutely unacceptable, in fact we would be shock if they were taking place. But jealousy, rivalries and envy? That is just a part of being human. Except neither Paul nor John gives us those options.
John explains it clearly, God is light and therefore we should walk in the light. It is simple as that. Later in this letter we will see the theme of family resemblance. Children should resemble parents in some way and in this case, that means are our attitudes toward sin. But what is sin? Sin means to miss the mark, like archery when instead of hitting the bulls eye, you hit the instructor. What kinds of sin are there? Sins of commission and sins of omission. A sin of commission is doing the wrong thing. If you punched the person beside you right now, that would be a sin of commission. If the person you punched received a bloody nose and you refused to give them a tissue, even though you had an entire box, that would be sin of omission. To be honest, I find sins of omission to be the hardest. I am disciplined enough to keep pretty straight and narrow but there are times that I feel God wants me to do something and I too often let the opportunity pass.
The point is that sin, of either type is completely unacceptable.
Sin is Inevitable
Are you depressed yet? It’s going to get worse. Not only is sin unacceptable, it is inevitable. If anyone says that they are without sin, they are a liar. Look at the heroes of the Bible. Noah was a drunk. Abraham lied. Moses murdered. David committed adultery. Peter denied Jesus. And these are the people who we are supposed to look up to! The human race is fallen and tends to sin. Paul says it clearly, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19 ESV) We can all feel its draw in some way. Whenever I see a sign that says do not touch or do not enter, I feel a temptation to do it. It is not that I want something, I just want to test the boundaries. We have some ongoing issues with one of our children. He has explained to us that he never wants a no. He tells us that good parent would always say yes. It seems completely unfair to ever encounter a no. In God, we find that there is a divine no. Some things are not meant to be. As children, this seems unfair and so we reach out and take it any way. No matter how dedicated to God we are, there will always be some sin getting through. We may look completely holy on the outside, but God sees the corruption on the inside. I find that even when I try to do something good, there is that little part of me that hopes that people will notice. I want to pride myself at how unprideful I am. I want an award for being the most humble person in the world. No matter how hard I try, there will always be something sinful there. That is not to say that I shouldn’t try, I just need to be honest that I will never be perfect. Sin is inevitable.
Sin is Forgivable
So far things seem pretty grim. Sin is unacceptable and sin is inevitable. God will not tolerate sin and yet he knows that we will always sin. That hardly seems fair. If God is good, he must provide some way out of this problem. He has and his name is Jesus.
Through Jesus, we have forgiveness of sins. The image that John gives us is that of Jesus as a defense lawyer. There we are expecting to be condemned for our sins and Jesus speaks on our behalf. But there is a twist here. Normally the lawyer would speak about our redeeming qualities. However, we have no redeeming qualities when we are in sin. The redeeming qualities that we rely on are Jesus. Notice that John described Jesus as the Righteous One. That is because it is his righteousness that we rely on and not our own. Jesus speaks to the Father and announces that he has already paid for us. Have you ever gone through the Tim Horton’s drive thru only to find out that the person before you has already paid for your order? It feels nice. Multiply that by a billion and you have a glimpse of what is going on with the atonement.
When it comes to forgiveness of sins, there are two things we need to talk about. There is the initial forgiveness of sins that takes place at conversion. That only takes place once. Once that happens, we are children of God, we are saints, we are holy and righteous, aside from how we feel about ourselves.
But John also is talking about an ongoing forgiveness of sin. This is not about being resaved. You do not stop being a Christian once you commit a sin. It is not as if you looked at a person with envy and then were killed before confessing your sin that you would go to hell. There is not stepping in and out of salvation, despite what some may think.
But if committing a sin as Christian does not send us to hell, why do we need to confess? Let me use my relationship with my wife as an example. I do the wrong thing many times a day. My wife asks me to do something and I agree but quickly forget about it. My wife does something really nice for me and I neglect to thank her. She takes on a huge load when I go away for a few weeks either for study or for army training and I don’t always show the proper appreciation. I won’t tell you what, but I frequently say the wrong thing. It makes sense in my head but as soon as it leaves my lips, I know I have made a big mistake. Even so, my wife does not hang the threat of divorce over me. I apologize, not out of fear of divorce but because I love her and that is what is needed for a healthy relationship.
The ongoing confession of sins to God is not legalism, nor is it fear of hell. We confess because the Father hates sin so much that he allowed his only Son to die for that sin. We confess because we are in relationship with God and when we sin, confession is the loving thing to do.
So here is the situation we have. Sin is unacceptable. If we follow the God who is light, then we walk in the light. We are not given the option of walking in the darkness. Sin is unacceptable. But sin is also inevitable. There is no way that we are not going to sin. If someone tells you that they no longer sin, they are lying and therefore a sinner. If these were the only two truths, we would be in big trouble. But there is a third truth. Sin is forgivable. God forgives our sins when we come to Jesus for the first time at our conversion. But God also forgives us during our Christian walk as we continually stumble.
We started off by asking about what it means to be a Christian. Here it is: 1) we have no tolerance for personal sin, 2) we are humble in understanding our weakness living in a fallen world and 3) we rely on our defense lawyer, Jesus Christ, who speaks to the Father on our behalf. That is the faith test.
If you would like a free copy of my eBook, The Faith Test, email me here.