RPM, Volume 15, Number 6, February 3 to February 9, 2013

The First of the Tests of Life

1 John 1:1-10
(Series on 1 John: No. 2)

By Robert Rayburn

Last Lord's Day I introduced this series of messages on the First Letter of the Apostle John by pointing out to you that the main theme of the letter is that of the assurance of salvation. False teachers had troubled these Christians and raised doubts in their minds and John writes to instruct and encourage them by making clear how one can distinguish between genuine belief and its counterfeits and, in particular, how they themselves may come to a solid and joyful confidence of their own salvation.

After an introductory paragraph, in many ways similar to the introduction to John's Gospel--in which John asserts, with all of his apostolic authority, that what he has to teach them about salvation is based squarely upon what he himself saw and heard as a disciple of Jesus Christ--John plunges directly into his argument.

I have entitled this sermon, 'The First Test of Life,' that is, the first mark of a genuine Christian. Actually John gives that first mark in vv. 5-7 and I intend to discuss this morning vv. 8-9. But the burden of vv. 5-7--that genuine Christians live holy lives--is so much the burden of the rest of the letter, so much the subject of what John will say in the chapters to come, that I thought I would pass these verses by and return to them later. They serve, in a way, as something of a title for his entire argument, and we will have occasion to refer to their theme numerous times in the coming week. Clearly, vv. 5-7 suggest that these false teachers had taught, perhaps by their example as well as by their words, that you could be a Christian and live an ungodly life. NO, thunders John as he begins. Christ died to purify us from sin, not to make it possible for us to live in sin without consequences. A genuine believer will live to please God. That is his great theme and thesis and argument.

The verses which immediately follow, in my judgment, amount to a description of the first way a believer pleases God. He lives or she lives, John says, --if a genuine follower of Christ--always facing, always recognizing, always confessing his or her sin. Here is a wonderful and important paradox; real Christians will live to please God and please God in nothing so much as in their ready admission of their failure to please Him as they ought to and wish to.

The false teachers--whose views John is clearly exposing and combating when he says, 'If we say...,' had apparently maintained, in some way or another, that they were without sin. Their argument was probably not crass or obviously haughty. They probably did not believe themselves that they actually lived perfect lives in the world. Rather, they held, in all likelihood, to the view that their outward life, being earthly and material, did not matter; and that now that they were Christians, their inner life, their spirit, was pure and remained untouched. --A view you can find today in some forms of charismatic theologies. Forms of this view and of other views which amount to a denial of the continuing sinfulness of all Christian people in this life, have made their appearance again and again in the ages since John penned his letter.

The great and good John Wesley held that it was possible in this life for a Christian to attain sinless perfection, though, to his credit, he never claimed to have reached that perfection himself, indeed, once making this vigorous disclaimer: 'I tell you flat I have not attained the character I draw.' Later the higher life movement Christians--many fine believers among them--would claim that the normal Christian life is one of uniform, sustained victory over known sin.'

Almost all these views were guilty of some kind of petti-fogging about what actually constitutes sin, so that it could be possible to claim perfection for what to any mature Christian observer would seem to be an ordinarily imperfect life. For, after all, the facts of even a Christian's nature being what they are, all who have claimed sinlessness have actually been as the woman Charles Spurgeon knew, who claimed to be without sin and past sinning, until someone stepped on her toe, and, Spurgeon says, 'her sinless perfection departed her like the morning dew.'

John has stern words for any and every form of this claim that Christians get passed the practice of sin in this life. Such people who make this claim are self-deceived and do not know or practice the truth. They also make God out to be a liar; for the Lord in his Word leaves no doubt of the continuing sinfulness and struggle with sin which will mark the heart and life of every true believer in this life.

That continuing sinfulness is illustrated in the lives of the very best and holiest men and women of whom we learn in Scripture. David and Abraham and Moses were men of faith and love to a profound degree, but they were sinners so long as they were pilgrims in this world. The continuing sinfulness of every believer is again and again explicitly taught in the Bible. David, the man of faith, pleads with God in Psalm 143:2: 'Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you.' The author of Ecclesiastes says it still more plainly: 'There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.' James says in his letter, in 3:2: 'We all stumble in many ways.' And, alongside such texts as these and many others like them, and towering over them all, is Paul's great personal confession of his own still great sinfulness, even as an Apostle of the Lord, and of the final deliverance from that sin and sinning which will not come until he is in heaven with the Lord--that, of course, in Romans 7 and 8.

When a person becomes a Christian, his guilt is utterly swept away, his sins are forgiven entirely, everlastingly, and unqualifiedly. But his sins are not immediately removed from his heart and his life. That takes place over time and not completely until we see Jesus face to face and become like him, because we see him as he is. This is the standard, self-evident, emphatic teaching of the Bible and confession of the church whenever she has had her wits about her. It is also clearly the conviction of the Apostle John.

Indeed, John says here that one way to tell the difference between a genuine and a counterfeit Christian is precisely in this: that the real believer in Christ faces the reality of his sin and his continual sinning, he mourns over it, he confesses it to God that it might be forgiven and so that he might be cleansed from it and rise above it.

Now, to many in our day, all of this acknowledgement of sin and confession of sin seems negative and depressing. And many voices in the church are raised against it--if not actually denying our still great sinfulness as Christian people, at least urging us not to think or speak much about it.

But this is a great mistake! Facing out sin and confessing it are not negative things at all--

However discouraging our sinfulness and our sins may be to us--facing these unhappy facts is a very positive part of any healthy Christian life and produces the most happy and holy consequences. Some of the holiest people the church has ever known have given pointed expression to this fact and to the great benefit a sense of sin produces in Christian lives. Samuel Rutherford wrote: 'A sense of sin is a close friend to a spiritual man.' John Fox, the author of the famous Book of Martyrs, put it still more strikingly: 'My sins have in a manner done me more good than my graces.' James Fraser, the Scottish covenanter could say, 'I find advantages of my sins...'

Well, so it will be with every genuine believer, with every one who makes the acknowledgement and confession of his sin to God an important part of his days and nights. To encourage you in this honesty about yourself before the Lord and in the work of confessing your sins to God, let me, this morning, briefly remind you of the advantages, the benefits, which come to those who--far from denying their sin--readily admit it, mourn it, and confess it daily to their heavenly Father.

I. First, it is the sense of sin and a believer's constant occupation with his sin and his sins, that keeps Jesus Christ in the forefront of his heart and keeps a believer holding fast to him as the Savior.

Is this not the effect of John's great 'if...then..' in v. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful to forgive them and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. It is the sense of sin that leads to forgiveness and the divine work in our hearts. It is the person who knows himself or herself a sinner that always turns to Christ for deliverance.

It is an unalterable law in the spiritual world, that if sin is minimized, Christ is minimized--for he is in fact a Savior from sin; it is sin that sent him into this world and without our sin he would not have come to die; and if sin is not much to be saved from, Christ must not be much as a Savior. That is true on the level of Christian theology--as here in the false teaching of these troublers of the church, who minimized sin and therefore minimized Jesus Christ--and, it is true on the level of Christian living. Jesus Christ will be as important to any believer as he or she senses the burden of sins and wants to be free of that burden.

It is unalterably true! You show me a person, a man or a woman, whom you admire for his or her devotion to Christ, and I will show you a person in whom the reality of his or her own sin still darkens the mind and heart. Your Augustines, and Luthers, and Bunyans, and Rutherfords, were Christians whose sin was always before them, always a burden to their renewed and sanctified hearts, and, for that very reason, Jesus Christ was always before them and always terribly precious to them, because he and he alone could deliver them from both the guilt and the power of that sin.

Stop confessing your sins--John says--and soon you will stop turning to Christ, and soon after you will stop thinking highly of Christ. So it was with the false teachers, but not, says the great Apostle, with a genuine Christian whose eyes have been opened to see himself, and therefore to treasure Jesus Christ as the One who alone can save him from himself.

II. A second great advantage or benefit which accrues to the one whose life is full of facing and confessing his or her sins, is that of humility. Humility before God, of course, but also humility before one another.

If pride is the great sin--the bottom sin, the mother sin--the sin which nurtures and feeds all the other sins; then humility is the bottom grace of the Christian life, the grace upon which all the other graces depend. 'Humility, humility, and humility' said Augustine are the three basic virtues of Christian holiness. And the basis, the engine of humility in the Scripture and in Christian experience is the honest reckoning with our own sin and the constant exercise of having to turn to Christ to be delivered from that sin--from its guilt and from its power and corruption in our hearts.

It is again a simple rule. If you find a Christian who is eminent in humility, you will find a man or woman who is thoroughly acquainted with his or her own sin and to whom the practice of confessing sins is second nature. You know of my admiration for Alexander Whyte, the Scottish Presbyterian pastor who died in 1921. Whyte was a Christian who impressed all who knew him with the depth of his humility and with the many virtues which are simply the public expression of humility in one way or another: kindliness, modesty, reverence and so on. But you will not have to do much reading in Whyte to discover where that humility came from. Here is a man--as much as any man I know about, who refused to ignore the truth about himself and about his sin. His sin was always before him, his secret sins as well as his public sins--and he was always confessing those sins to God and to others. And all of that confessing of sin had its perfect fruit in his so humble life.

A minister colleague of Whyte's reports: 'On one occasion, when a prominent citizen of Edinburgh had been imprisoned, and the whole city was aghast at the scandal, as Dr. Whyte came into the vestry on Sunday morning the bells were ringing for church. He turned to me and said, "Do you hear those bells? He hears them in his prison cell this morning. Man, it might have been me!"' There is a man--a very good man--but a man who knew his own sinful heart, had searched out the height and the depth of his own sin. And it made of him a man who did not think himself better than others, whose eyes were too low to look down on another but rather who rejoiced that anyone, most of all the Lord himself, should love and care for him. And that is the attitude all of us should have as we live before one another, and a consciousness of our own sin and the daily practice of dealing with it before the Lord is the only way to gain that pure and spiritual humility which Christ loves and which other Christians so admire.

III. Third, a sense of sin and the practice of confessing our sins, has the wonderful and wholesome result of breaking the grip of this world in our hearts and setting us hungering and thirsting for heaven.

We know, don't we, how very much more than is now the case, we ought to be thirsting for heaven, have our hearts set upon things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. How we would be so much less enamored of this world and its pleasures, if our hearts were fixed on what will soon be ours in the Heavenly City. How we would bear up so much more patiently under our trials, if we had always in mind the joys and the rewards soon to be lavished upon us in Christ's world of joy. And how it would help us to honor Christ and represent him in this world, if our lives bore the unmistakable imprint of our heavenly citizenship.

How unseemly and how dishonoring to the gospel it is when God's people live as if heaven did not exist and as if this world were their home!

Well, beloved, nothing so keeps a Christian's eye fixed on heaven as that weariness with this life and this world which only the knowledge of our own sin, and the believer's intense frustration with his own sin, and his anguished desire to be rid of that sin, and his need to confess that sin every day of his life here. It is when Paul is thinking about his own still so great sin and his remaining bondage to that sin that he speaks of the whole creation, of which he is a part, 'groaning' until the day of Christ, eagerly waiting for the redemption of the children of God.

Perhaps sickness and pain can break the grip of this world upon a believer's heart when he is old or otherwise near the end of life; but when in health and vigor, when life is full and rich, only the darkness of sin, in the believer's heart and overshadowing the believer's days and nights, can serve so effectively as that reminder, that goad to force upon us the awareness that this world is not our home, and that we are looking for a heavenly country, a far better country than this.

It is a hard thing, a demoralizing thing, always to be facing our sinfulness; always to have to reckon with it, acknowledge it and confess it. But, this and this alone, is the sure path to a life of vital dependence upon the Lord Jesus and devotion for him; of a deep and sincere humility and meekness before God and men; and of a heavenlimindedness which casts the brilliant light of the eternal city over our thoughts, words, and deeds in this world. And that is why God has seen to it that every true believer must and will live in the awareness of his or her own sin and practice the confession of that sin to God.

The new life Christ died to create in us, depends upon that sense and that confession; and so it will appear, says John, in every man or woman, boy or girl, who is truly born of God.

Are you such a person; such a contrite sinner, such a penitent and confessor? Do you daily confess your sins to God, really, sincerely, because they weigh upon your heart; because you are grieved at the disloyalty you have shown to your Father in Heaven and to your Savior; because you fear that sin and how it can separate you from God; because, now knowing the beauty of Christ and his righteousness as you do, you have come to hate sin and to see its full ugliness and corruption, to see it yourself as what it is, the 'abominable thing which God hates'?

Is it one of the fundamental intentions of your life to be found always acknowledging your many sins; never excusing or mitigating them, but rather confessing them and crying out to God for deliverance from them--to be found on your knees for your sins, pleading for forgiveness and purification, until the final breath escapes your body? If you are a genuine Christian, so you will intend! And, if you are a growing, deepening Christian, you will hope for and work for almost nothing so much as to excel ever more at this very grace and work of confessing your sin.

There is a piece of history that I have shared with some of you some years ago, and will no doubt, if God gives me years to come as your minister, will share with you again from time to time. I want you to remember it, and so I must repeat it. It is for me, it is so far in my life, at any rate, the Lord's great illustration to me of the truth of the necessity and the importance and the virtue and the benefit of a sense of one's own great sin and the constant confession of that sin.

It strikes me so powerfully, because the man in question, Thomas Boston, is a man whose life and writings have made a deep and lasting and wonderful impression upon my own heart. He is a man I admire as much as any man I know about; he is a man such as I long to become. His autobiographical Memoirs, the story of his life, I consider to be one of the greatest books ever written, and one of the most profound textbooks in the Christian life and in true godliness that I know. It was Rabbi Duncan who said, you may remember, that he wished that he could sit at the feet of Jonathan Edwards to learn what true holiness is, and then at the feet of Thomas Boston, to learn how to obtain it. Boston was a man whose life, both in his own day and since, became renown for his fierce and passionate love for Christ, his fearless defense and service of the gospel, his humble affection for his brethren and his congregation, and his patience under intense hardship and suffering. So it may come as a surprise to some to read the end of his life story as he himself relates it.

Near the end of his life, as he relates in his Memoirs, Boston, knowing that his end was near, conducted a thorough self-examination, to make sure that he was ready to leave this life and to meet the Lord. During the several days he spent at this solemn task, he recollected his long life as a Christian and the experiences he had had with God. He went over the gospel of Christ in every part examining his agreement with it and his commitment to and trust in Christ. But, then he attends at some length to his sins. Let me quote briefly from the Memoirs:

I [Boston] read over ....."the larger catechism on what is required and forbidden in the Ten Commands; then thought on my ways in the several periods of my life, and in the order of the Ten Commands; by all which means I got a humbling sight of myself. Then bowing my knees before the Lord, I did silently read over the two confessions before him; which done, I prayed, and made confession of my sins as fully and particularly as I could; and there I got a view of my whole life as one heap of vanity, sin, and foolishness. It appeared a loathsome life in my eyes, so that my very heart said, "I loath it; I would not live always;" and I loathed myself on account of it. It cut to the heart to think of it, and cut off desire of returning to it, if that had been possible. But such as I was, I behoved to look again towards his temple."

And when he was through with all of that, he turned his attention to a particular sin, a besetting sin, which had bedeviled him all of his life and over which he had still not gained the mastery. This sin required a special attention and a special confession, a special prayer for pardon and for purification. Here is the lesson I draw from all that, beloved!

If such a man as Thomas Boston, beside whose Christian life yours and mine pale to virtually nothing, finishes his life in a paroxysm of confession of sin, then who are we to say that we do not need much more of that same acknowledgement and confession of sin than now we practice. Thomas Boston was giving himself the tests of life and he passed with flying colors, and in no test did he achieve a higher score than in this most important test of genuine faith and life in Christ:

'If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves...If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.'

Is it negative to be so mindful of our sin and always confessing it? The Devil wants you to think so. But it is only negative, if it is negative to love Christ passionately and be always turning to him in trust and hope as your Savior, only negative if it is negative to be meek and lowly of heart before God and others; only negative if it is negative to live in this world with one's heart full of heaven and desire for the life to come.

There is but one way to Thomas Boston's kind of Christian life--and that is the way of the Apostle John--the way of confessing our sins and turning from them to Christ for forgiveness and for deliverance--every single day of our Christian lives.

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