No one who is born of God will continue to sin. Of all the scriptures that are explained away, diluted beyond recognition, talked around and sometimes ignored, this one must be on the centre podium.
And yet its meaning is clear, almost self-explanatory when read as it should be, which is as part of a letter.
I conducted a mini-survey a while ago, asking a range of people for their opinions, and it came as no great surprise that most of them retorted: ‘What? Christians don’t sin? It can’t mean that!’ Even though it’s abundantly clear that is exactly what it says.
Some said it means that Christians don’t sin deliberately. Others that when a Christian sins, he or she is no longer one of God’s people; that they need to confess, again, and receive forgiveness in order to be reinstated into God’s family. Scary heresy, that one!
And others thought that because Christians are forgiven, their sins don’t stick. But it doesn’t say that, does it?
The fact is that however you read it, no matter which translation you read, you have to go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to get past its simplicity: Christians don’t sin.
So, what is the truth? Well, it’s not hard to find, it’s just that it’s hard to believe because it often cuts across what we have always assumed.
We tend to believe what we believe for no other reason than we have always believed it. And it is precisely that which makes this life of faith so uncomfortable, for it often calls us to challenge stoutly held traditions and deeply entrenched ways of thinking, even though to do so can be hugely rewarding.
Fear and guilt and insecurities can be banished. We can be set free from condemnation rooted in some dark and grubby corner of our lives that we can’t speak about to anyone, least of all God.
The little verse from John’s epistle that I began by quoting used to give me nightmares, for I knew better than most that I was, and remain, far from saintly. I thought it followed that I could not be ‘born of God’ because those who are do not continue to sin.
Right, here’s my explanation, and I’d be grateful if you would tell me what you think: When John wrote, ‘No one who is born of God will continue to sin’ he went on to leave us in no doubt by adding his definition of sin: ‘...the transgression of the law.’
However, Paul tells us that we are not under the law and again, just like John, he elaborates: ‘... where there is no law, sin is dead.’
So was John saying that Christians do not do wrong things? Clearly not. He was saying that the wrong things done by Christians are not counted against them as sins. He is not suggesting that the law is bad, or that it should be ignored, but he is clear that the law does not have to be observed before an individual can be reckoned righteous. We are saved by faith and by faith alone.
The word ‘Gospel’ is derived from an old Anglo-Saxon word, ‘godspel’, or ‘good story’ or ‘good news’. And that, folks, is really good news.
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