When it comes to the issue of ongoing sin in the life of the believer, Christians often make one of two mistakes: either they claim an easy victory over sin or they concede an early defeat to it. A careful reading of 1 John 1:8-10 is the cure for both mistakes.
In the history of Christian theology, people who claim an easy victory over sin have come to be known as perfectionists. They believe that God’s Word and Spirit are so powerfully at work in the life of the believer that he or she can attain sinlessness in this life. In 1 John 1:8-10, John refutes pretensions of perfection when he writes:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
John’s argument is two-fold: First, perfectionism contradicts the truth about ourselves. We are sinners. Whether atheists, agnostics, spiritual seekers, or mature believers, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” according to Romans 3:23. Human sinfulness is both a biblical assertion about us, as well as an empirically verifiable fact. But who are the “we” John is writing to? It is tempting to claim that they are unbelievers, but that temptation should be resisted. The context of these verses demands that “we” includes us. John is writing to Christians about their ongoing sin.
Second, perfectionism contradicts the truth about God. If we claim perfection in this life, then we make God a “liar” and “his word has no place in our lives.” In Romans 3:9-18, the Apostle Paul quotes a litany of divinely inspired prophecies about human sinfulness. And this litany is about both unbelievers and believers. “Are we any better?” Paul asks. “Not at all!” If God tells the truth, if his word is to have any place in our lives, then we Christians must acknowledge that we are sinners.
But if an easy victory over sin is impossible, should we concede an early defeat to it? I once had an extended conversation with a very thoughtful young man who, if I understood him correctly, doubted that believers could make any progress in holiness in this life. While we should not underestimate the powerful grip sin has on us, we also should not underestimate the far more powerful grip God has on us through his Son, Jesus Christ.
The solution to sin is not anxiously striving for perfection or guiltily wallowing in defeat. Rather, the way out is confession: “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” How does he do this? According to 1 John 1:7, by “the blood of Jesus.”
More on how Jesus overcomes sin tomorrow.