The definition of “sin” has been a matter of great dispute throughout my Christian life (about 7-8 years now), not necessarily within the Church at large, but among the people I have known during that time. In particular, I used to have long debates with a friend of mine who leads a local college ministry here in Springfield about the meaning of “sin.” What does it look like? How does it affect us? Is it conquerable and, if so, only once we reach heaven or can it be overcome in this lifetime?
I was still relatively new to Christianity (and, to be honest, I continue to consider myself a “young Christian” and probably will for another 5-10 years), so I found his points interesting. My friend claimed that sin could be overcome in this lifetime, and his claim was founded on a differentiation between “sin” and “mistakes.” That while the first separates us from God, the latter is just a slip that doesn’t really affect anything. Therefore, one can make the occasional mistake, but not be committing an act that separates them from God. With the help of Jesus, one can be free from sin in this lifetime
1 John 1:8-10 (NIV)
8If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
By way of comparison, I offer The Message paraphrase, which I find a bit easier to understand in this case:
1 John 1:8-10 (Message)
If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—make a clean breast of them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing. If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God—make a liar out of him. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God.
Let’s break these down one at a time.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
Before I became Christian, and even until some time after I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, I didn’t know what sin was. I didn’t understand its existence or implications, and I certainly didn’t know that I needed to be saved from sin. It had been made clear to me that I must follow Jesus, but the whole salvation thing was a mystery. Less than a mystery, in fact–I didn’t really think about it.
My ignorance stemmed from my lack of understanding of the Bible. I hadn’t read it, and even as I began to read it, I certainly didn’t understand. Because the Bible is a historical document as well as a religious text, there are thousands of years of study and surrounding pieces of information that are key to its comprehension.
Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law.
In the Book of Romans, St. Paul explains in chapter 7 how sin makes us do things we don’t want to, and how it prevents us from doing the things we know are right. We cannot recognize sin without the knowledge of God and his Word, though, and that same concept is applicable to verse 8 of the first chapter of first book of St. John. It is a fact that sin is in us, but we can not and will not know or recognize this fact if the truth, that is the Word of God, is not in us. If we do not read and understand the Bible, we will deceive ourselves and think that we are free of sin.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
This verse is pretty straightforward. God came to earth as Jesus to act as the sacrifice for sin, once and for all. To put it more simply, through Jesus our sins are forgiven. If sin is that which separates us from God, the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus builds the bridge between humanity and God.
We cannot build that bridge ourselves, and to be honest, it wouldn’t occur to us to cross that bridge if God hadn’t chosen us to join his family. Let’s face it, a life of sin is generally a life of hedonism and pleasure, so who would choose to leave that? The only reason we know that our life is better with God is because we have experienced it, but when you’re not Christian, you simply don’t know that.
Let’s break this down further.
If we confess our sins
It is written in Romans 10:9, “That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” God’s design for how this all works requires an action on our part, and confession is the first step asked of us. It isn’t enough to quietly accept Jesus yet hide it from everyone else. We must state out loud that we believe in God and follow him.
He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins
There is a particular sermon, or type of sermon, that often gets bandied around under a title like, “Mercy and Justice.” The general message is that while we often praise God’s justice and call our for his justice, none of us really want God’s justice. The just reward for our sins is death–none of us “deserve” anything better. However, because God is merciful, we are forgiven.
A good preacher will observe that God’s justice was served in the sacrifice of Jesus, who committed no sins. That the death of Jesus, upon whom the sins of all the world were laid, paid the price for all of us.
The key to all of this is that God is faithful to humanity and to his chosen people. He promised us salvation, and here it is. He promised forgiveness and he provides it. God’s justice was served in the death of Jesus, so if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, then our price has been paid. God is faithful to his own plan, he’s faithful to his justice, and he therefore forgives our sins, every last one of them.
And purify us from all unrighteousness
I have a saying I coined a few years ago that continues to ring true to me
Innocence comes from ignorance,
but purity comes from God.
Through Jesus, God purifies us and sets us apart. The Word doesn’t deny that there was ever impurity or unrighteousness, and more importantly God’s purification is recognized as an active process. Too often we get locked into this mindset that “forgiveness” means that something never happened. That sin never existed. That isn’t what God is telling us.
There is unrighteousness, but God is actively working to purify and set us apart. God is making us holy as he is holy. This isn’t something we are capable of doing on our own, and it doesn’t pretend that sin never existed. Rather, it recognizes that there is impurity and it deals with that.
If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
I had a lot of trouble with the word “liar” in this verse, which is where the Message paraphrase was particularly helpful. It puts this passage as, “If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God—make a liar out of him. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God.” This concept of contradiction is important here.
The bottom line is that sin exists, and God’s forgiveness occurs in direct recognition of this sin. By claiming that we are capable of existing without sin, or by claiming that sin does not exist, we call God a liar because we are making a claim contradictory to his Word (by which I mean both Jesus and the written Bible). To make such a claim while one also claims to be Christian just highlights one’s ignorance of God and the Bible.
God forgives us because we need forgiven, and due to the nature of our hearts and psyches, we continue to need to be forgiven. Pope John Paul II prayed every day to be forgiven his sins, and paramount among these were the situations in which he failed to act or the times when he had done less than he should have. Every day he felt like he wasn’t doing as much as he could, and so he confessed and asked God to forgive him.
Wonderful Love in Relationship with God
As I wrote that last part, it occurred to me that this whole Christian thing seems very negative and depressing. Though it isn’t directly related to the verses I was studying this week, I want to share something wonderful with you about God’s forgiveness.
As Christians, when we pray for forgiveness, the sense is not ultimately one of failure and melancholy. We may begin that way, but God’s Spirit comforts us. As I wrote two weeks ago, God is intimately familiar with the trials and struggles we face. When we experience God’s forgiveness, it is like a terrible burden has been lifted from our shoulders, or like chains that weighed upon our necks have been broken. The feeling of freedom and joy is stupendous, and God’s loving embrace is comforting and divine.
Yes, the law and our recognition/understanding of sin leads us to sorrowful repentance, and it should, but a loving and open relationship with God alleviates our sorrow. My only reply to those Christians, or ex-Christians, who felt only the depression of sin and guilt and none of the freedom and love of Jesus is that they weren’t listening to God. I am sorry that they never had the truth in them, as verse 8 puts it, because it is there and it is wonderful. And I will continue to pray that they will quiet themselves so they can hear God calling out through all of nature and the universe for them to come home and become free again.
The Bottom Line
There is a difference between “defeating sin,” and “living without sin.” Jesus did the first for us. None of us experience the second in this lifetime.