On Heresy and Sin

1 John 1:6-2:6

John here warns against multiple false teachings and attitudes which had already entered the Church. It’s ever so important that we heed this teaching, because so many of these attitudes and teachings are still prevalent in our current generation.

The first of these is a complete indifference to sin. It’s this attitude that since we believe, we can do whatsoever we choose and it will make no difference. It very much tackles the Western mindset of salvation as a strictly judicial decree set forth wherein, once someone believes, they are deemed not guilty and free to indulge in whatever activity they desire. He here tackles this mindset by stating that “if we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” This ending clause “practice the truth” is important because it implies action, much as the very word “walking” does. See, the implication here is that our faith is not merely something that we say or feel or even know, but rather something that we do; something that we live. This “truth” is a right relationship with God, made manifest in a holy and righteous life. He later goes on to state that “the way that we know that we know God is that we keep His commandments.” Notice, not that we know them, not that we can recite them in Greek, English, Hebrew and Russian, but that we keep them.

The second attitude that he addresses is the self-righteousness of claiming that we have no sin. Whether this attitude arises from pridefully thinking ourselves to be perfect, or from not believing that anything that we so is sinful (since we are “saved”) is unclear, but this response could apply to either of these attitudes. “Anyone who says that they have not sinned is deceiving themselves.” There is no one who is fully without sin. Even the most pious monks throughout history were still sinful. See, when we search internally (as the Apostle Paul teaches us to do), then we will find sin if we are testing our lives against the commands of Christ. No one is fully without sin. But, he gives us this lesson not to discourage us from striving for perfection, for the “holiness of God,” but rather to humble us, to discourage us from sinful self-righteousness. If we search ourselves and believe that we are free from sin, if we believe that we are perfect, then how can we be healed? A patient seeking help from a doctor claiming that he is perfectly healthy will never receive the treatment that he needs; likewise, until we confess that we are in need of a physician, we will never be healed of that which ails us. It is a lesson given to bring us hope, for no matter what sin we are guilty of, we are always free to return. In the story of the prodigal son, we find a man who goes and squanders all of his inheritance, and yet is welcomed back with opened arms. He merely seeks to return to his father’s house. Likewise, if we repent of our sins and confess them, we are always free to return; and He is faithful to forgive. “There is a sin which is unto death, it is the sin of which we do not repent, for which even the monks prayers will not be heard.” And, God is faithful not only to forgive us of our sins, but John tells us that He will cleanse us of those sins. Our sanctification becomes a process through which we are slowly being made more and more righteous through the grace of God and through our humility and acceptance of His grace.

The last attitude that John deals with is the teaching that one in union with God can not sin. How often in our culture do we hear the self-righteous proclamation that “I’m not perfect, just forgiven,” as someone jumps headfirst into some sinful activity. Or, even worse, “I’m a lukewarm Christian,” as though that we something to be proud of. Similar to the first mindset, this is the attitude that since we are in Christ, or “saved” (by American standards), nothing that we do could ever be held against us. Thus, we are free to indulge in whatever sinful activity that we wish. And what is so important to realize here is this, we will sin. We are humans. But, to indulge in sin should never be the goal. We should strive towards the holiness of God, accepting the fact that we will occasionally fall short, and as such seek healing and forgiveness; but Jude warns strongly against perverting that grace into a license to sin. No, rather the goal must be to strive towards holiness and then accept that we will fall short, and return to God in true, heartfelt repentance, when we do. We don’t allow the despondency of self-reliance to overcome us, but rather admit that we can’t achieve it through our own power, and turn to the One who can empower us to do so.

In the West, we tend to cling to this “guilty/not guilty” view of sin and of salvation. A one time decision, where we equate Jesus to Judge Judy and look legalistically at our sinfulness. And, when you have that mindset, it’s very easy to fall into one of these attitudes. It’s very easy to say that “I was a drunkard when I was ‘saved,’ and now I’m forgiven, so I can continue to do so because I’ve been absolved of the punishment of that sin.” But this is a very modern, and, I hate to say, but a very American, approach to our faith. The history of the Church, dating back all the way to the apostles, has always been that salvation is a process to be “worked out with fear and trembling,” (Philippians 2:12); a “fight to be fought, a race to be finished,” (2 Timothy 4:7); a constant evaluation of self to see that we are in the Faith (2 Corinthians 13:5); lest when we come to the end, we should find ourselves disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Let us all, my brothers and sisters, strive, through the grace of God, for this sacred holiness that the Lord commands us to (Leviticus 11:45, 45; 19:2; 20:26; 20:7; 1 Peter 1:16). John, the “disciple whom the Lord loved, ends this passage with this lesson for each of us; “He who says that he abides in Him ought to walk just as He walked.” We must heed this lesson, seeking after the holiness of God, knowing that through His grace and our constant confession, we can be formed more and more into the image of Christ. Our salvation is not a one time confession of faith, but rather a process, in large part, towards consciously moving away from sin and seeking His strength to overcome it’s power over us. To become more, through His grace, what He is in His essence. To become like Christ, and worthy to bear His name.

Christ is in our midst.

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