I hate to rag on the NIV too much, since a couple of my favorite profs were on the translation committee, but here in 1 John, the NIV puts us on the wrong track right from the start of this section. It’s not a huge misdirection, but it’s a real one, caused by the fact that the NIV likes to use different English words to vary the translation. Thus all over chapter 2, John uses the Greek word meno, which means “to abide” or “to remain,” and throughout the passage we looked at last week, the NIV translates it “remain”—you see it in verse 19, and a couple times each in 24 and 27. And then here in verse 28, all of a sudden, the NIV takes that same word and translates it “continue,” as if John has just moved on to something new—as if it’s just a transition, nothing more.
Which is too bad, because there is in fact a very close connection here—so close that scholars don’t actually agree whether verse 28 marks the beginning of a new section at all; some see 28 and 29 as part of the previous section, with the next part of the book beginning with 3:1. Truth is, I think, those two verses really belong to both sections; there really isn’t a break here at all, because John’s argument in our passage this morning is deeply rooted in what he’s just been saying in the passage we read last week. He’s been talking about abiding in Christ, and abiding in the Father, and abiding in the Holy Spirit—he doesn’t say it that way, but that’s what he means, as the Holy Spirit is the anointing we have received from Jesus—but it’s not just about abiding in God so that we know true things and aren’t deceived. This is much deeper, and so he drives deeper.
What he’s on about here is a very deep truth, and a very difficult doctrine—difficult because it’s something of a mystical reality, not something which we can easily rationally define: our union with Christ. Christ himself talks about this in John 15, where he says that he is the vine and we are the branches, and so we must abide in him and he in us if we are to bear fruit. Paul goes after it from a number of angles—he describes the church as the body of Christ, united in him who is our head; he also talks quite a bit about our having been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, crucified with him and raised to new life with him. Following Jesus, being a part of the church, isn’t just about doing certain things or not doing other things; it’s not just about working together, and it’s not even just about being in relationship with God and with each other as we usually understand that. It’s about being one with Christ in a very deep way that we can’t really fully explain, we just have to live into and experience.
That’s what John’s talking about, and it’s important we understand that, because if we don’t, we’re going to misunderstand everything else he’s saying. If you were here when we started this series, remember what John says in chapter 1: righteousness is a result of walking in the light—you walk the right way when you have the light to see where you’re going. Remember what Jesus said: the branches bear fruit because they are a part of the vine, and that’s just what healthy branches on a healthy vine do. Remember that he told his disciples, “You will know them by their fruit”—a tree doesn’t grow up, decide it wants to be an apple tree, and then start working as hard as it can to squeeze apples out of its limbs; if it’s an apple tree, apples are simply a natural part of its life, assuming it’s healthy, has enough water, and so on.
This is how it is with righteousness—it isn’t something we have to strain to make happen, it’s evidence of what has already happened and is happening. We have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection, we have been crucified with him—our old life is dead, and we now live by his life in us—and as such we have become God’s children; all his love is ours, lavished on us, poured out with utter abandon and complete disregard for dignity. This is now the fundamental reality of our life; we just need to stop striving to live something else instead. It’s not even about trying to live this way, trying to abide in Christ—it’s about not trying not to. My kids don’t have to try to be my kids; they just are, they’re stuck with it. It’s not always the best bargain in the world by any means, but no matter what may happen, thus it will always be; and it’s how it’s supposed to be, which means that even though my kids no doubt wish sometimes that I did things differently—and sometimes no doubt are completely right—and even though I’m not the best father in the world, them being with me is what is best for them.
And so it is with us and God, except that he is the best Father in the world; all the more, then, is it for our best to abide in him as his children, to live in his love and humbly bow before his authority. Again, this means living differently from the rest of the world—because we are in the light instead of the darkness; because we are loved and we respond to his love. It means giving up our own plan and direction for our lives and accepting being remade like Christ—which, in truth, is being remade as ourselves, the falsehood stripped away, leaving us as we truly are, as God made us to be. This also means being purified, because drawing near to God has that effect; nothing impure can survive in his presence—including, ultimately, our impure desires. The closer we come to him, the more we want to please him, and the less we want anything that doesn’t.
This will set us against the world around us—not that we’ll always feel that strongly; sometimes it won’t be obvious at all. But that reality will always be there, and we should always expect it to be there. The world hated Jesus, after all, and the more we’re like him, the more it’s going to have a problem with us. And remember, it wasn’t the bad people in the world that hated him most, on the whole: it was the religious part of the world, the people who were good and godly and upstanding and righteous. Why? Because they were the folks who were most impressed with themselves, and so they were the ones least willing to hear the message that they were sinners, alienated from God and in desperate need of his grace. That’s the start, that’s where abiding in Christ begins: right there, in giving up the false hope that we can somehow be good enough to make it all right ourselves, in accepting his grace. Being really good at being really good doesn’t make you a Christian, it makes you a Pharisee.
Now, it might seem strange that I would say that when verses 4-10 are full of strong language against sin; but remember, in chapter 1 John has already said that no one can claim not to be a sinner, and anyone who does is a liar. Remember that he said that as he was talking about the importance of walking in the light—we walk in the light, we have fellowship with God, and yet we know that we do stumble and we do sin; the key is that when this happens, we are in Christ, who allowed himself to be crucified for us as the sacrifice to pay the price for our sin and purify us from our unrighteousness. He became sin for us so that he might be our righteousness—so that we might have his righteousness instead of our own, because our own wasn’t good enough.
And remember the context of this passage, why John is writing this letter: because there were those in the church who had left to follow their own preferred version of Jesus. This is the sin of rebellion—or lawlessness, as the NIV renders it in verse 4—of choosing to reject the will of God because his will isn’t what we want it to be. It’s the sin of choosing the darkness over the light. Do we sin? Yes, and then we repent, we ask forgiveness, we seek to make it right—and above all, we trust in Jesus and give thanks for his grace. We sin, but we don’t go on sinning; we give our sin to Jesus, who took it all on the cross, and we are cleansed. As Luther said, we are at one and the same time sinners and saints: we sin, but Jesus takes away our sin; there is darkness yet in us, but the light of Christ is in us, driving away the darkness. We sin in various ways, but by the power of Christ in us, by the work of his Spirit, we continue to choose him over sin But those who are committed to sin—those who, when it comes down to brass tacks, choose their sin over Christ—don’t abide in him, they abide in sin, and so their sin remains.
The bottom line is that this is about living as God’s beloved children. Be loved; live in his love; let him teach us what that means, rather than insisting on defining it for ourselves; trust him to know and do what’s best for us, obey his commandments, and follow where he leads; and when we don’t, repent of our disobedience and ask him to forgive us. He loves us; he has redeemed us; he will never let go of us. All we need is to abide in him, and all will be well.