Saturdays in Scripture: Sin, Harshness and Christian Perfection
This summer I led a short Bible study on 1 John. I decided to not teach it as a formal study but instead teach a few strategies to help folks learn to read and study their Bible better. During one of our lessons, my good friend Jeff mentioned how harsh some of the injunctions to not sin seemed to be.
Jeff was right! If anyone was in the wrong mood or spiritual state, these verses could seem to be pretty heavy.
1 John 3:4-10
Everyone who sins is breaking God’s law, for all sin is contrary to the law of God. 5 And you know that Jesus came to take away our sins, and there is no sin in him. 6 Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know him or understand who he is.
7 Dear children, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous. 8 But when people keep on sinning, it shows that they belong to the devil, who has been sinning since the beginning. But the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil. 9 Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning, because God’s life is in them. So they can’t keep on sinning, because they are children of God. 10 So now we can tell who are children of God and who are children of the devil. Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers does not belong to God.
Part of the design of the class was to teach using larger portions of the Bible to begin study and learn to interpret based on a more holistic approach to reading scripture...ie; do certain observations still have the same validity when we put them as part of the entire book of 1st John?
Knowing 1st John was one of John Wesley's favorite books and he preached a sermon on this passage, I had my class read sermon 19, The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God. What we found most helpful was Wesley's idea of "outward" sin, especially the person who has latched themselves to God cannot sin, not out of command but out of operation. If a person has placed themself in the Holy Spirit, outward (willing) sin is not part of the persons life. Wesley's own definition of sin according to this passage was a "willing transgression of a known law of God."
Wesley then gives a pattern from grace to sin, to help people understand the path to willful sin. You can find this in section 2.
You see the unquestionable progress from grace to sin: Thus it goes on, from step to step. (1.) The divine seed of loving, conquering faith, remains in him that is born of God. "He keepeth himself," by the grace of God, and "cannot commit sin." (2.) A temptation arises; whether from the world, the flesh, or the devil, it matters not. (3.) The Spirit of God gives him warning that sin is near, and bids him more abundantly watch unto prayer. (4.) He gives way, in some degree, to the temptation, which now begins to grow pleasing to him. (5.) The Holy Spirit is grieved; his faith is weakened; and his love of God grows cold. (6.) The Spirit reproves him more sharply, and saith, "This is the way; walk thou in it." (7.) He turns away from the painful voice of God, and listens to the pleasing voice of the tempter. (8.) Evil desire begins and spreads in his soul, till faith and love vanish away: He is then capable of committing outward sin, the power of the Lord being departed from him.
In our discussion, we did note the complexity of understanding a "known law of God", and the weight of grey area in our culture. The call to "not sin" was actually a call to the deep life with Christ that keeps us away from such practices. It is about trusting Jesus! Those who are focusing on and are close to God are kept from sin by the power of the Holy Spirit!
It was a great discussion and a great time helping folks realize how important our heritage was in sorting out tough issues. The call to Christian Perfection is one we as a people called Methodist should hold close. In so many ways, our forgotten knowledge of this principle should be lamented. What would our lives and the lives of those around us look like if we all banded together and made this the focus of our lives once again?