I John 5:18-20
18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
This passage is part of today’s epistle reading, and it raises an issue that seems fairly important to us as we try to live out our calling to follow Jesus. I suppose the fifth chapter of the First Letter of John isn’t a part of the New Testament that gets that much attention, but I think about this passage from time to time because of an experience I had in my early days as a pastor. Some of you might remember me sharing this story in Bible study or some other setting.
At the first church I served, a college student in the congregation was a member of a Bible study with several other young men. The members of the group sort of shared in leading the sessions, but the young guy from our congregation asked me to come and offer whatever guidance I could. I was a lay pastor, so this was before I enrolled in seminary, and I’m sure my knowledge was limited, but I was happy to do what I could to offer encouragement. A couple of other pastors from the churches the members of the study belonged to would also attend from time to time.
Once as the group was wrapping up at the end of the hour, one young man asked the others to pray for him. He said he’d been saved about six months before, but he was having trouble breaking himself of the habit of swearing. He regarded that habit as sinful, and he said he’d prayed for God’s help in controlling his tongue, but still found himself swearing with some regularity.
As it happened, there was another pastor there that day, an associate pastor from a denomination that identified itself as “evangelical.” And the associate pastor responded to the young man’s concern by saying, “Well, if you can’t break yourself of the habit of swearing, maybe you’re not really saved at all. Maybe you just think you’re saved.” And he pointed to the first verse of this passage we’re reading today: “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin . . .”
Years later, when I actually enrolled in seminary, I asked one of my professors about that associate pastor’s comment, and I remember seeing him actually blanch physically when he heard it.
So what about this idea? What would you say if you had been there when the young man raised his problem giving up swearing?
And more importantly, how does this verse reflect on our own experience in trying to live in a way that’s appropriate to followers of Jesus?
Well, first of all, as we mentioned a couple of days ago, John seemed to understand that the only real sin was failing to acknowledge that Jesus was (and is) the messiah. So from his perspective, John would day that a person who has been “born of God” obviously wouldn’t go on denying that Jesus is the messiah.
But let’s assume that John did acknowledge that there are other behaviors that would fall into the category of sin. I suspect that John would not have meant to suggest that a person who has been reborn in Jesus is completely without sin. After all, the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome that “There is no one righteous, not even one.” And Paul, arguably the greatest Christian who has ever lived, agonized over his own sins. (You can read about it in the seventh chapter of Romans.) I think it would be pretty hard to make the case with a straight face that Paul “wasn’t really saved.”
It seems to me that John would say that a person who is living a new life in Jesus still sins, but that a person who has been reborn in Jesus now finds their sins to be painful, and struggles to lay aside their sinful ways.
Those of us who are from the Reformed part of the church (as Presbyterians are) understand that we are justified in God’s sight when we commit ourselves to following Jesus. That means that from that point forward God considers us innocent in spite of our sins, because Jesus paid the price for those sins on the cross.
But as we come to realize the great gift we’ve received at the cross, we want to live in a way that expresses our thanks to God. From that point on we believe that followers of Jesus are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. That means that the Spirit is at work in our hearts and minds, pointing out to us our sins – the things we do that displease God – and leading us to turn more and more away from those things.
But sanctification isn’t something that happens instantly. It’s a lifelong process. As we learn to open ourselves more and more to be filled by the Spirit, we are shaped more and more in the image of Jesus.
It seems to me that a more helpful answer to that young man’s concern about swearing, at least from a Reformed Christian point of view, would be that his distress at continuing to swear was a sign of that process of sanctification – a sign that the Holy Spirit was at work in him, making him discontented with the life he had once lived and making him hunger to live a life that really glorifies God.
So if you find yourself struggling with behaviors that seem to you displeasing to God, pray for the help of the Holy Spirit, and do your best to be led by it. And be thankful for the ‘holy discontent’ that’s a sign of the Spirit’s work of sanctification in your life.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the way your Holy Spirit shows us when we displease you, and serves as your agent of change in our lives. Help us to open ourselves more and more to its transforming power, and make us more and more pleasing to you and useful to your kingdom. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 16 and 62; Proverbs 7:1-27; and Matthew 11:25-30.)