1 John 2:1
“My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin,
we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous”
At the close of our last chapter we expressed the opinion that the forgiveness and cleansing of 1 John 1:9, includes both, a judicial and experiential one, an objective and subjective, but that the same is difficult for the finite mind to grasp fully, and still more so to express clearly. It should ever be borne in mind that with God there is no such thing as past, present and future, though in condescension to our infirmities He sometimes so represents things in His Word. Time limitations do not exist with the eternal “I am:” all is an ever-present now. This needs to be remembered in connection with the Atonement. In the view of God, Christ was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, and therefore the Old Testament saints, from Abel onwards, enjoyed all those benefits which His sacrifice procured as truly as do believers in this Christian era. Therefore, theologians are only creating their own difficulties when they wrangle among themselves as to whether or not the sins which believers commit after their conversion were blotted out from before God when Christ cried “It is finished.” The important point to be concerned about is when do we enter into the good of Christ’s redemption?
Certainly no one is saved by Christ’s sacrifice until he be converted, that is until he repents of his sins and trusts in the cleansing blood. Equally certain is it that we cannot repent of sins before they be committed. Those who insist that it is dishonoring to the blood of Christ to speak of repeated applications thereof to those who contritely acknowledge their sins need to be told that it is most dishonoring to the holiness and government of God to talk of His pardoning sins before they are owned before Him. Both Old and New Testament alike distinguish between the blood shed, (Heb 9:22) and the blood of sprinkling (12:24), and we must do so too, especially in connection with the antitypical fulfillment of Leviticus 16:21, and Numbers 19:2-9. As shed, the blood of Christ has met all the claims of God, so that He can now righteously pardon those who plead its merits. As shed, the blood of Christ has a cleansing virtue, and as sprinkled it actually removes defilement, as the apostle declares in Hebrews 9:13,14, where he shows the antitypical fulfillment of Numbers 19:9, in that the blood of Christ purges the conscience.
The question as to when the Christian’s sins were put away from before God and he was discharged from the guilt and penalty of them admits of more than one answer. Vicariously the penalty of his sins was fully borne by Christ upon the cross, and the guilt of them was remitted when God raised his Surety from the dead. Yet personally he is not formally forgiven any sins until he savingly believes on Christ. The Lord Jesus purchased and procured a right unto God’s elect receiving forgiveness, but they do not individually enter into the enjoyment of that blessing until their faith is placed in Him. At the cross the Saviour secured certain benefits for His people, but they do not become partakers thereof before they are converted. Distinction must also be made between that general pardon which is received the moment we first lay hold of Christ and the more specific and detailed forgiveness which we stand in need of repeatedly, daily. To say that there is no need for Christians to pray for forgiveness because all their sins were atoned for at the cross betrays great confusion of thought, and flatly contradicts Scripture. As well might an Israelite have argued against the offering of the daily lamb because all of his iniquities were remitted on the annual day of atonement, (Lev. 16:21). The satisfaction of Christ is indeed eternally valid before God and allows of no repetition or addition; but considering forgiveness as the act of God as the moral Governor of the world, it is continuous unto the same persons.
It is the inconformity of sin to the Law of God and its loathsomeness to His holiness and as it is attended with defilement and shame to us that has to be confessed. Our daily sins displease the Holy One, and it is our duty to acknowledge them. It becomes us to humble ourselves before Him on their account. The righteousness of God requires that we own our guilt and seek His remission of it. The Old Testament saints asked for pardon, “O Lord, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great,” (Ps. 25:11), and requested Him to “look upon the face of Thine anointed,” (Ps. 84:9). And can New Testament saints do less? No, Christ Himself taught them to pray “Forgive us our debts,” (Matt. 6:12), and that prayer is assuredly suited unto Christians today, for it is addressed “our Father!” In so making request, we ask Him to be gracious unto us for Christ’s sake and not to lay to our charge the sins we have committed (Acts 7:60; 2 Tim. 4:16)—“enter not into judgment with Thy servant,” (Ps. 143:2). Applying unto God for the forgiveness of our sins is a coming to the throne of grace “that we may obtain mercy,” (Heb. 4:16). “To the very end of life the best Christian must come for forgiveness, just as he did at the first—not as the claimant of a right, but as a supplicant of favor,” (J. Brown).
We need to distinguish between the purchase of our pardon by Christ and its actual bestowment upon us by the Father. After David was assured “the Lord also hath put away thy sin,” (2 Sam. 12:13), we find that he begged God’s forgiveness of the same, (Ps. 51:1). Let it be distinctly pointed out that in asking God for forgiveness we do not pray as though the blood of Christ had never been shed, or as though our tears and prayers made any compensation to Divine justice. Nevertheless, renewed sins call for renewed repentance. While we do not need another Redeemer, we do need a fresh exercise of mercy unto us and a fresh application of the cleansing blood to our hearts. That, too, is included in the petition of Matthew 6:12: grant a gracious manifestation of Thy mercy. “Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice,” (Ps. 51:8). We ask for a comforting sense of His forgiveness, that we may again have “the joy of His salvation.” It is the assuring of our hearts of the Divine forgiveness, the same being efficaciously made known to the mind and conscience.
As this writer understands 1 John 1:9, it is not a legal forgiveness of God considered as Judge which is in view, but the governmental pardon of God as the moral Governor of this world and the Father of His children. It necessarily follows from its language that if believers do not confess their sins, then those sins are neither forgiven nor cleansed. 1 Corinthians 11:31, appears to us a parallel passage: “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged,” and as the preceding verse shows, those who failed to do so brought down upon themselves sickness and death. As Candlish pointed out, the forgiveness and cleansing includes more than the remission of punishment. “Our sins are so forgiven as to ensure that in the forgiveness of them we are cleansed from all unrighteousness—all unfair, deceitful and dishonest dealing about them; all such unrighteous dealing about them, either with our own conscience or with our God. The forgiveness is so free, so frank, so full, so unreserved, that it purges our bosom of all reserve, all reticence, all guile; in a word, of all unrighteousness. And it is so because it is dispensed in faithfulness and righteousness.” God deals with us neither complacently nor indulgently, but as equally true to Himself and to us.
“My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man [“any one” Greek] sin, we have an advocate with the Father,” (2:1). As we shall see, these words are intimately related to what precedes; but before dwelling upon that we will outline the contents of our verse and consider them in order. First, there is the apostle’s affectionate address unto those he was here dehorting, [Exhorting (a person) not to undertake a particular purpose or course of action; advising or counseling against an action, etc.]. Second, the immediate design which he had before him in now addressing them: that “ye sin not.” Third, the provision made in case there should be failure. Fourth, the striking balance of Truth here presented.
“My little children.” Such indeed are all God’s people, metaphorically speaking, and it is Divine grace which has made them so. It is the power of the Spirit which casts down proud reasonings, self-righteous pretensions, “and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God,” (2 Cor. 10:5), and makes us “become as little children.” And such in spirit we are to continue—dependent, trustful, conscious of our weakness and helplessness: “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby,” (1 Pet. 2:2). There was, as others before us have pointed out, a peculiar pertinency in John’s thus addressing them. “It is probable that he was the only surviving apostle when he wrote this epistle, and his old age and long-continued usefulness, faithfulness and love for Christians must have given him a kind of parental authority over the whole Church, as far as it adhered to the pure Gospel of Christ. It was therefore peculiarly proper for him to address them as his spiritual family, whose welfare he had greatly at heart; and as most of them were young in years compared with this beloved and venerated disciple, who probably was the oldest Christian on earth at that time,” (Scott).
The form of salutation “My little children” combines the two notes of tenderness and authority. As someone has reminded us, “It is a notable triumph of godliness when age is redolent with the earnestness and diligence, of youth.” Throughout the first chapter John had been presenting objective doctrinal statements, but now he was going to make practical application of the same and address himself to the conscience of his readers. “In this there is an example to all who would be teachers of others, whether pastors or parents, or any who would be to them ‘helpers in Christ.’ It shows the spirit in which they should labor, and the object at which they should aim. That spirit should be affectionately ‘speaking the truth in love,’ ever in meekness instructing those who oppose themselves,” (J. Morgan). Yet care needs to be taken against suffering that tender and gentle spirit to degenerate into a servile timidity, which brings the teacher almost to apologize for presuming to exhort others. There are not a few ministers in this effeminate age who need to heed that word: “These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee,” (Titus 2:15).
“My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not.” The “these things” makes it plain that the first two verses of chapter 2 are intimately related to what has been stated in the first, and thus in those words the Holy Spirit, through the apostle, emphasizes the need and importance of carefully observing the context. The real force of many a verse can only be perceived as we note and ponder its connection and coherence with what precedes. In this instance the reference looks back to all John had said from the opening of his epistle. First, he had set before his readers the glorious person of the Mediator as “the Word of life” and as the Author and Giver of eternal life. If, then, such be the Lord Jesus, and such His mission, what ought we to expect will issue therefrom? Surely that, “He shall save His people from their sins,” (Matt. 1:21). Second, he had shown that a saving knowledge of Christ produces fellowship and joy. And what but holiness must be the result thereof? Third, he had made clear his design and the tendency of his message by a presentation of the character of God and of those who enjoy communion with Him in Christ: they walk in the light, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses them from all sin. Thus, the purifying influence of such fellowship is obvious.
Finally, John had given a brief but comprehensive outline of the Divine life in the soul of the believer. It is marked by the conviction of sin (1:8) and the confession of his sins (1:9). The effects of such exercises of soul must be the bringing forth of fruits meet for repentance, i.e. an increasing hatred of sin and godly sorrow for the same. In view of all this, the propriety of his applicatory injunction “sin not” is apparent. Between such things as he had mentioned and the practice or indulgence of sin there is an absolute contrariety: they are altogether incompatible with each other. Light and darkness are no more opposed than are fellowship with God and the allowance of sin. In view of all that I have said, this is the practical application you are to make. It might be summarized “therefore sin not.” By thus tracing the connection of his “these things write I unto you” and the dehortation “sin not” we perceive the fuller force of John’s “my little children,” in which, for the first time, he directly addressed his readers, namely that he was speaking of their responsibility, and therefore did he express both his warm love to them and his parental authority, and as Gill said, “it might serve to put them in mind of their weakness in faith, knowledge and spiritual strength, that they might not entertain too high notions of themselves, as if they were perfect, without infirmity.”
More specifically our present verse is to be connected with 1:6-10, wherein a double proposition is presented. First, that fellowship with God is conditioned upon a repudiation of, and separation from, “darkness.” Second, that fellowship is accompanied by an owning of the principle of indwelling sin and confession of its works. John had a definite design before him when he made those statements, which is plainly expressed in 2:1, and that design is likewise twofold: to exhort and comfort—to deter from moral laxity and afford relief unto those who, despite their endeavors to the contrary, often failed to realize their ideal. First, “sin not,” second, if you should, there is an Advocate to plead your cause. But how do these practical consequences follow from the preceding doctrinal propositions? Why that 1:6-7, lead to the conclusion that believers ought not to sin; yet verses 8 and 9 presuppose they will do so. Even fellowship with Him who is light does not eradicate innate darkness; nevertheless, that is not to be condoned or excused by us, but diligently and unsparingly resisted. Yet our best efforts therein are but partly successful, and this is deeply distressing to a tender conscience.
“But though all sin that was pardoned, was pardoned upon the account of the blood of Christ, which had a property to cleanse from all sin, and that confession was a means to attain this forgiveness, purchased by our Savior’s blood, yet men might suck in this poisonous doctrine of licentiousness, believing that upon confession they should immediately have forgiveness, though they walked on in the ways of their own hearts. And, on the other side, many good men might be dejected at the consideration of the relics of sin in them, which the apostle asserts no man was free from in this life. In 2:1, therefore, he prevents these two mistakes which men infer from the former doctrine: that we may not presume by the news of grace, nor despond by a reflection of our sin. Though I have told you that forgiveness of sin is to be had upon confession, yet the intent of my writing is not to encourage a voluntary commission. If you do commit sin, you must not be so cast down as if the door of mercy were clapped against you; no, there is One above to keep it open for every one that repents and believes,” (S. Charnock, 1628-1680).
“These things write I unto you, that ye sin not.” The standard of conduct which the Gospel sets before us is no less holy and perfect than that of the Law: no indulging of the flesh is permitted, no self-pleasing tolerated. When our Lord healed the impotent man His word to him was “sin no more,” (John 5:14); and though it was not then His province to condemn to death the woman taken in adultery, so far from making light of her crime He said “go, and sin no more,” (John 8:11). Nor was John the only one of the apostles who made this exacting demand upon the Lord’s people. “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good,” (Rom. 12:21) said Paul; and again, “Awake to righteousness, and sin not,” (1 Cor. 15:34). Likewise Peter, in his first epistle: “But as He which called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation,” (1:15). And again, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation,” (2:11-12).
Everywhere in Scripture the Gospel is represented to be “the doctrine which is according to godliness,” (1 Tim. 6:3), which forbids us to regard sin as the normal element of the Christian life, or even to consider its commission as inevitable. Not only are we to reject with abhorrence the devilish idea that the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ give license to sin, but we are not even to view them as a provision for the weakness of the flesh. “Sin not” is the peremptory and unqualified demand. It was as though the apostle had said, I would have you so narrowly watch your hearts and ways that no evil might slip into your lives, no wrong thoughts be allowed, no idle words be uttered. I would have you make this your serious and constant aim: not merely that you are to sin as little as you can, but that you are not to sin at all. Great care needs to be taken against lowering or whittling down the exalted standard of moral purity which God has set before us. “Sin not” is not to be restricted unto the commission of merely gross and flagrant offences, nor to open acts in the outward life, but to all inward sinning too.
Each statement of Holy Writ is to be given its full and fair meaning, and is never to be toned down or modified by us. “Sin not” is the standard of excellence which God has set before us, for the Holy One can claim nothing less, and our obligation fully to measure up to the same is beyond contradiction. It is the unabating requirement of the Gospel, for the object of Christ’s death was not only to make atonement for the sins committed by His people, but to supply motives to fortify and restrain their souls against continuing therein (2 Cor. 5:14-15). To sin not is the Christian’s exalted ideal, the earnest pursuit of which is to engage all his faculties and powers. It is what every renewed heart ardently longs to attain unto. Few of our readers will be inclined to call into question the statement that nothing short of complete conformity to the image of Christ should be the daily endeavor of every saint, yet how few appear to make this their fixed resolution and purpose. Nothing short of abstaining from everything which is displeasing to Christ should be the task we set ourselves, and that without any secret reserve. Our eyes are to be fixed on our Rule and not on our infirmities. Say not beforehand a measure of failure is certain, but rather “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me,” (Phil. 4:13).
The Gospel is designed to inspire love to God and holiness, and every part of it reveals the malignant nature and evil effects of sin, and bids us hate, dread and flee from it. “Sin not.” To make anything less than that the daily business of our lives is opposed to Divine grace, for it teaches its recipients to deny ungodly and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously and godly in this world (Titus 2:12). It is antagonistic to saving faith in Christ, for that receives Him as Lord as well as trusts Him as Saviour, and if we are being ruled by Satan instead of rendering obedience to Christ we are not partakers of His salvation (Heb. 5:9). It is presumption and not faith which trifles with temptation. It is contradictory to repentance, which includes both a godly sorrow for sin and the sincere purpose to forsake it. That spiritual repentance which is the gift of God, (Acts 5:31, 2 Tim. 2:25) not only turns the heart from sin, but against it, and therefore serves as a check against evil inclinations. It conflicts with sincere love to God, for that seeks to glorify Him in all things, and makes duty a delight. It is contrary to the injunction which a renewed conscience imposes upon the will, for though the will may, and does, oppose the conscience and follow the impulses of the flesh, yet conscience never consents or condones, but judges and condemns.
Finally, for the Christian to allow himself in any sin is directly opposed to his redemption by the blood of Christ. What a word is that by the Spirit of God: “Ye are not your own. For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s,” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). “Your time is redeemed—use it as a consecrated talent in His cause. Your minds are redeemed—employ them to learn His truth and to meditate on His ways. Thus make them armories of holy weapons. Your eyes are redeemed—let them not look on vanity; close them on all sights and books of folly. Your feet are redeemed—let them trample on the world and climb the upward hill of Zion, and bear you onward in the march of Christian zeal. Your tongues are redeemed—let them only sound His praise and testify of His love. Your hearts are redeemed—let them love Him wholly, and have no seat for rivals. A redeemed flock should live in redemption’s pastures. The Redeemer’s freedmen should evidence that they are called to holy liberty, and that their holy liberty is holy service. The chain of sin is broken. The chain of love now holds them,” (H. Law of Wells, 1862).