Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

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.

I suppose lots of people would consider this passage sort of “obscure,” because it comes from the final chapter of a book that doesn’t get that much attention in sermons and Bible studies. But I think about this passage from time to time, mostly because of an experience I had in my early days as a pastor.

At the first church I served, a college student in the congregation was a member of a Bible study with several other young men. They worked together at a health club, and their manager let them take their lunch hour together on Saturday afternoons to have Bible study. 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 at the time, and I hadn’t yet enrolled in seminary, so I’m sure my knowledge was limited. But I wanted to support these young guys, so I showed up to offer encouragement. A couple of other pastors would attend sometimes, too – staff members from the home churches of other members of the group.

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.

On this particular Saturday, there was another pastor there, an associate pastor from a church that identified itself as “evangelical.” 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.”

I really didn’t know how to respond. That didn’t seem correct, but after all, the associate pastor was a seminary graduate, and he did have a verse from scripture to quote.

Years later, when I actually enrolled in seminary, I asked one of my professors about that associate pastor’s comment. The professor was John Burgess, one of the wisest and most learned teachers I ever had. And I distinctly remember seeing him physically blanch when I related what the associate pastor had said.

So what about this idea? How does this passage guide us in trying to live in a way that’s appropriate to followers of Jesus?

Well, first of all, as you might remember us mentioning in our Reflection earlier in the week, the apostle 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 say that a person who has been “born of God” obviously wouldn’t go on denying that Jesus is the messiah. That’s most likely what John meant by ‘continuing to sin.’

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, who was arguably the greatest Christian who ever lived, agonized over his own struggles with sin. (You can read about it in the seventh chapter of Romans.) Somehow, I think it would be pretty hard for anyone – even that associate pastor – to say 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 daily 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 doesn’t mean we no longer sin – it 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. For the rest of our lives, we believe that as followers of Jesus we 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 the working of 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. The fact that his swearing bothered him was a sign that the Holy Spirit was at work, making him discontented with the life he had once lived and making him hunger to live a life that really pleases and glorifies God.

So if you find yourself struggling with behaviors that seem to you displeasing to God, my advice would be to 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,