+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This year during Eastertide our Epistle each week is taken from the First Epistle General of St. John. If you are diligent in praying the office, you’ll know that this same epistle has been before us daily over the last week and we will continue on with it in the coming week. As a whole, it serves a wonderful reflection on justification and divine and human love, but it is good we are getting such consistent exposure to it during this season, because as brief as the letter is, it is complex enough that we are not as well-served by getting just a single excerpt out of context. This is not an epistle well-suited to the age of the sound bite or the tweet.
Take this week’s lesson. Taken on its own, out of context, it seems to suggest something which might strike us as demonstrably false: “No one who abides in [Jesus] sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” I don’t know about you, but I believe I have in some sense seen and known Christ in some sense and have abided in him thanks to the grace of Baptism for 37 years, but, brother, let me tell you, I’ve not managed to avoid some sin for probably even one day of the nearly 14,000 days I’ve been on earth. Maybe there were several hundred days between the time I was baptized and freed from original sin and the time I was old enough to actually engage in particular sins, but I am not winning on points, to use a boxing metaphor I half-understand.
Taking this completely out of context and giving it such a flat reading leads to some pretty serious theological problems. Historically, it has meant people have put off accepting God’s Grace for fear that a sin after Baptism would foul the whole enterprise of salvation up. Famously, Constantine wasn’t baptized until he was on his deathbed, because of a popular misunderstanding that committing a sin after Baptism meant that one was simply out of luck regarding heaven. Or take the young Augustine’s prayer, before he learned better. “Lord make me a Christian, but not yet.”
There is another, more modern version of this, which I came across when I was serving in Arkansas, where fundamentalist evangelicals are “thicker on the ground.” In that form of Christianity, you may know, Baptism (while not unimportant) is generally considered less important than an affective “salvation experience.” I was surprised to learn that many who stumbled after having putatively “been saved” began to question the legitimacy of their salvation. “If I’m sinning,” the argument went, “then what I thought was an experience of Jesus saving me must have not been genuine in the first place, so I’ve got to do it once more, this time with feeling.”
As tempting as it might be, I think it’s really a “bad look” for us, who in pride consider ourselves a more sophisticated breed of Christian to make tacky jokes about getting “saved” and baptized again every time the altar call goes on too long or whatever. It seems to me that there is a really sad truth here about how a misunderstanding about the nature of sin and justification (a bit of 1 John taken out of context) can create scrupulosity and spiritual anxiety, and the proper response is not to make fun, but to try to gently, lovingly correct this dangerous theological error.
So, how are we to understand it? I think there are three primary interpretive solutions here. I’ll be a little provocative here, in order to (I hope) make it easier to remember, by labeling them the Methodist view, the Lutheran view, and the (small ‘c’) catholic view. I’m not saying all adherents of these particular Christian movements believe or teach these things; obviously Christian theological trends (particularly among 21st Century Protestants) are complicated, and the farther we get from the Reformation and the Great Awakening, the less one can expect a rank-in-file cleric or layperson to hold to his or her church’s historical position. I’m just using the terms here to make it more memorable; and maybe it’s the “Old Adam” in me trying to stir the pot a little, so I must be personally very careful to understand the controversial verse in question for the sake of my own soul.
Anyway, the first approach, which is the standard Wesleyan or Methodist view, is a particular understanding of sanctification, which you’ve heard me mention before in sermons, so you already know I find it inadequate and I won’t belabor the point. The view is generally called Christian perfectionism, and it holds that after justification (so here we’re not just talking about where you end up when you do) one can achieve moral and spiritual perfection in this life. So adherents to this view would hold that John is here talking about a “perfected Christian” for lack of a better term, on in whom the Holy Spirit has completed his work this side of the grave. I think the problem here is not in simply positing the possibility of achieving this degree of holiness in life, but rather the assumption that it is the normative experience. I would suggest that perhaps there are some very few lights of the world that get to that point, and we call them Saints (with a capital ‘S’), but to suggest that it is a reasonable expectation or a likely outcome is to turn Christianity into the province of a very few spiritual athletes, and when used as the lens through which we read 1 John 3:6 it implies not one body of Christ throughout the world, but a division between imperfect sinners like you and me and “True Christians” (registered trade-mark) and this, I think, needs to be rejected as being antithetical to the Gospel.
The second approach, which is the historically Lutheran view, is to understand righteousness in terms of how Christ’s sinlessness has been reckoned to us without our having done anything. This process called “imputation” can go both ways, unsurprisingly termed “double imputation”- our sins are imputed to Christ on the Cross and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. This can get very complicated and we can have a long, exciting conversation some other time about the differences between something being imputed, imparted, and infused; I’m sure I’ll get lots of takers for that chat!
Anyway, I think this understanding of justification is both biblically sound, and unlike either Christian perfectionism or fundamentalist evangelical scrupulosity is profoundly pastorally satisfying. You’re not going to be entirely sinless in this life, so thank God Christ has already done what none of us could and made us as though sinless.
I think, though, it doesn’t really apply to the matter John is writing about. Theologians and biblical scholars have tried to make it apply, which is why I’m bringing it up, but that approach seems to me to ignore the context of the epistle in which this verse finds itself. John does not go on to state simply and directly “but Christ has imputed his righteousness to us, so don’t worry over-much about those sins you’re committing.” This is not an antimonian treatise, saying “do as thou wilt” or even “sin boldly that grace may abound.”
Rather, before today’s lesson we hear those famous words “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” After today’s lesson, John writes that those who continue sinning are children of the devil and following the example of Cain, the murderer. It is true that we are justified through no good works of our own, but John is making it clear that moral failures (i.e., particular sins) remain significant in terms of our spiritual status.
For what I take to be the solution (or at least a solution) we can return to our friend, St. Augustine. His ten homilies on 1 John present a careful exploration of the whole epistle, and sadly there is not enough time in a sermon to go line-by-line through the whole of it. Nevertheless, I take his answer to this question we’re looking at to be the heart of his whole sermon series:
This then I have said, that in saying, “Whosoever is born of God sinneth not,” it is probable he meant it of some particular sin: for else it will be contrary to that place: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” In this way then the question may be solved. There is a certain sin, which he that is born of God cannot commit; a sin, which not being committed, other sins are loosed, and being committed, other sins are confirmed. What is this sin? To do contrary to the commandment of Christ, contrary to the New Testament. What is the new commandment? “A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.” Whoso doeth contrary to charity and contrary to brotherly love, let him not dare to glory and say that he is born of God: but whoso is in brotherly love, there are certain sins which he cannot commit, and this above all, that he should hate his brother. And how fares it with him concerning his other sins, of which it is said, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us?” Let him hear that which shall set his mind at rest from another place of Scripture; “Charity covereth a multitude of sins.”
My friends, as I have said before, the Gospel is not without its moral requirements, and if faith is simple cognitive assent without some sense of faithfulness, then it is at best a sort of Cartesian bet-hedging and at worst an exercise in moral luck.
On the other hand, if our Credo is about more than signing on to a somewhat incredible proposition, but that having thus signed on, faithfulness to its moral and spiritual implications is, indeed, required then we need to determine what the central implications are, that those things which are peripheral (as important as they may be) do not make our consciences afraid because we realize that the center still holds. In other words, we have to determine where the line is between things like saying a rash word when you’re cut off in traffic or drinking a bit too much on a Friday night or fleetingly coveting your neighbor’s new car or skipping church on a Sunday to play a round of golf and that which has the genuine possibility of creating a dangerous gulf between ourselves and the grace which is available.
Fortunately, St. Augustine identifies that central tenet. Even more fortunately, Christ does so too. He does so before the Pharisees and Sadducees, and he reiterates it in his last conversation with his disciples before the crucifixion. It’s love. That’s it. Love of God and love of neighbor. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets, and in themselves they cover a multitude of sins.
This is not to say that minor infractions like the examples I just gave are unimportant. They are important, because when we continue to indulge in them without penitence and amendment of life, we are in danger of letting them have dominion over us, harm our souls, make us less loving of God and neighbor. But thanks be to God, we have a constant companion, Christ himself who walks beside us and calls us constantly to be more loving, and the Holy Spirit who enables us to follow that path. And if we follow where he leads us, our detours will be minor and the God of love will bring us home by that same path.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.