Today is the third in a 7-part summer sermon series called “Going Deeper.” This series is intended to inspire worshippers to proactively go one step deeper in their walk with Jesus Christ. Today’s message focuses on the fact that confession of sin is an essential component of spiritual depth.
Read: 1 John 1:8-2:2
If you hang around Methodists long enough, eventually you’ll hear someone make a joke about “going on to perfection.” Most often it’s in response to some kind of mistake or breakdown, or even a typo in the bulletin. We’ll acknowledge the error with a smile and say, “Well, we’re going on to perfection,” meaning we’re not there yet.
This notion of Christian perfection is usually associated with John Wesley, the father of Methodism. He believed that it’s possible for a person to be fully perfected in love in this life. He ties Christian perfection to Jesus’ command to love one another (cf. John 13:34-35), and also to where he says that the fulfillment of the entire Law of Moses comes down to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). Perfection as Methodists talk about it, is about loving God and loving other people. And John Wesley believed that it was possible to fully love God and others with no hint of malice self-interest in this life. So to be clear, we’re not talking about being moral perfect or mistake-free; we’re talking about perfectly loving God and other people.
So, if Christian perfection isn’t about being morally perfect or mistake-free or failure-free, then it stands to reason that even if by the grace of God one reaches the point of Christian perfection, they’re still going to make mistakes and experience moral failures. In fact, one of the few beliefs that Christians from across the whole spectrum of Christendom agree on is that in this life we’ll never be sin-free. It’s a reality that no amount of faith will make remove from our human experience.
Now, sin isn’t something that most modern, Main Line Christians talk a lot about. Back in 1973, a Harvard psychiatrist recognized this fact, and so wrote a provocative book entitled Whatever Became of Sin? In it he expressed his fear that sin was disappearing from our moral vocabulary—not just the word, but the very concept of a universal standard of wrongdoing. In the book he bemoaned the declining sense of morality in our culture and people’s reluctance to take responsibility for their behaviors. He was concerned for the impact it might have on our society and on people’s physical and emotional – and I would add spiritual – well-being.
While many people would probably agree that his fears have become a reality, that doesn’t mean we’re any more comfortable talking about sin. If you were here last week, you might recall that I mentioned it when I said that from John’s perspective, the first step to going deeper in your relationship with God is to stop sinning. Specifically, to consciously take steps to stop acting in unloving ways towards God and others. According to John, the main indicator that one is living in God’s light is that they’re in healthy, loving relationships with other people. And when this is happening, they’re experiencing the spiritual realty of having been “cleaned from every sin” by the blood of Jesus (1 John 1:7). Another way of putting is that Jesus’ death [on the cross] cleanses us from the guilt of our sins and, as a result, we have the power through his Holy Spirit to fully love God and others in both thought and deed.
So, what exactly is sin? For the heady ones among us, in the Bible, the Greek word for sin is hamartia. Broadly speaking, hamartia can be described as:
- missing the mark (think an arrow that fails to hit the target)
- to err or be mistaken
- to miss or wander from the path of uprightness
- to do or go wrong
Merriam-Webster defines it simply as a “tragic flaw.” In a story, hamartia could be used to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the hero’s tragic downfall. Or maybe in the context of sports, it’s the error of judgment on the part of the coach of a team who’s going to win the game to call a final play which results in the other team pulling out an unexpected win (think Jim Harbaugh’s decision to punt on the final play of the 2015 Michigan-Michigan State game).
From a Christian perspective, it’s not difficult to see why the New Testament writers chose to use the word hamartia when talking about that which misses the mark set by God. The Law of Moses is that mark. God gave his people lots of commandments, lots of “thou shalts.” And every time we fail to keep those commandments, we break his law. And the Bible calls this failure “sin.” Ultimately, sin is anything we do or even think that separates us from God and others…and even ourselves. Sin is anything that is hostile or contrary to the ways of a loving, grace-filled God. Sin results in destroyed relationships. And corruption. And lies. And ultimately, death.
Here’s the problem (which we alluded to earlier): we all fall short of the mark that God has set for us because we are all innately sinful. This is John’s point in v. 8, where he boldly says, “If we claim, ‘We don’t have any sin,’ we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” John’s the only biblical writer to use the expression, to “have sin.” He’s describing sin as a condition rather than an act. To say that we “have sin” is to say that we have a moral problem, an underlying principle at work in our beings, a disposition towards disobedience. As one author puts it, it’s not just that we do wrong things; it’s that there’s something wrong with us, in us. And John’s assertion about the reality of this human condition is quite stunning. He says that denying this, claiming to not have such a condition, is a sure sign that you’ve been deceived.
And in v. 10 he moves from the human condition to individual actions and behaviors. “If we claim, ‘we have never sinned,’ we make [God] a liar and his word is not in us.”
Here’s John’s point: whether we like to think about it or not, and whether we agree with it or not, the reality is human beings are sinners by nature and by choice. We have a disposition towards sin and we commit sins.
So, what do we do with this? Here are some common options. We could ignore it. We could try not to think about it and hope that it either goes away or doesn’t pose a problem. This is the classic stick-your-head-in-the-sand approach. This is how I’ve chosen to deal with the 3700 unopened emails in my inbox! (in my own defense, I know that lots of them are not important; but I also know that some of them have been important, and should have been opened and answered).
We could make excuses for our sins. We could minimize it, rationalize it, and just learn to live with it. Well, it’s really not that bad. After all, compared to somebody else….
Another option is to obsess over it. This would be the opposite end of the response spectrum. We could punish ourselves for it, beat ourselves up over it, wallow in guilt, shame, and regret. The problem with all of these approaches is that they only serve to drive us deeper into our sin and further from God, others, and even our true selves. So, if these common approaches aren’t good for us, what can we do with it?
We find the answer in verse 9: If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. The solution? Confession. Getting real with God. Being honest with ourselves and with him about the ways we’ve fallen short of the mark and failed to live up to the high standard the God’s set for his people. And when we do this—no matter how often or how many times—God forgives. And the forgiveness on his part never runs out.
What does forgiveness do? It does two things. First, it releases you from guilt. It releases you from debt and obligation. By God’s law, whoever sins is obligated to make restitution for it. But when God forgives that sin, he removes that obligation. And we can stop punishing ourselves.
The second thing that happens when we confess sin is that he cleanses us. If forgiveness removes guilt and debt, cleansing removes shame and regret. To clean something is to remove what doesn’t belong. Just like a washing machine removes dirt from clothes, so the blood of Christ removes the shame that would keep us spiritually and emotionally paralyzed. Forgiveness takes care of our past; cleansing makes possible our future.
John brings this opening teaching to poignant close: My Little children, I’m writing these things to you so that you don’t sin. But if you do sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is God’s way of dealing with our sins, not only our but the sins of the whole world.
Here it is in the vernacular: John says that 1) sin is damaging. Sinful actions, whether done on purpose or otherwise, can and will do deep damage to the soul and to our relationships. Every single person here this morning could tell many personal stories about the effect of sin upon our close relationships. But fortunately, it doesn’t end there. But he also adds that 2) if and when we do sin, we have a heavenly Father to turn to who can and will forgive us and set us free.
What does this have to do with going deeper in our walk with Jesus? Well, it has everything to do with it. If sin can negatively affect relationships, consider the possibility that there may be unconfessed sin in your own life that’s keeping you from going deeper in Christ. If there is, go to a trusted friend or a pastor and confess it. Most importantly, talk to God about it. Either way, consciously and intentionally lay it as Jesus’ feet and accept the freedom and forgiveness he offers.