One of the greatest complaints against the church is that people in the church seem to be hateful toward some others, unacceptable, and seem to look down on others. We have all experienced it. Perhaps there was a group in the church that talked about someone behind that person’s back for any number of reasons. Perhaps we heard a preacher tell us that we were going to Hell because we are doing something that he believes is entirely sinful. Maybe, like me, growing up you saw that the church was quick to declare the all-loving nature of Christ and the imperfection of people, yet pretended to be perfect and refuse to share the story of a Christ who desires all people to come to Him. If Christ loves all people and desires all people come to Him, why do so many people in the organized church ignore those outside the church walls? The inconsistencies I saw growing up made me think that the whole church thing was a joke and that people who claimed to love Christ only said that so they might feel better about acting selfishly.
The difficult truth is this: there are many people in the church who claim to be people of a gracious God and, at the same time, show one version of hatred or another toward others in their action or live lives where God is not proclaimed as absolutely preeminent.
Why is this the case? If God is all-good, why do people who claim to belong to God do bad things? Why do we still struggle with sin?
This question is going to force us to examine human nature in this fallen world. People who claim to be God’s people are not the only ones who struggle with this. Some inclusivists (people who claim to incorporate great diversity into their belief systems) seem to be hateful toward anyone with an ideology that promotes a single worldview over all others. Some atheists claim to have a greater capacity for love than the religious person, but then don’t speak in a loving way concerning religious belief. Some intellectuals claim to be more prepared to live for the benefit of others, but pursue status and authority selfishly. Some younger people claim to have a better way of living than older generations, but live in such a way that the older generations suffer as a result of their lifestyle. Some who are more aged claim to be wiser for the benefit of others, but are really only concerned with fulfilling their own preferences. Some people in every category do what others consider to be bad things. Thus, I realize that our question deals more with human nature as a whole and not particularly the tendencies of some who claim to be God’s. People under every category do evil things. Why is this the case? Again, why do we all struggle with sin?
1 John 1:5-2:6
Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. If we say, “We have fellowship with Him,” yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say, “We don’t have any sin,” we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father — Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.
This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” yet doesn’t keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly in him the love of God is perfected. This is how we know we are in Him: The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked.
The human condition
In Genesis 1, we read about the creation of human kind. People were created in God’s image and were created in perfection. Perfection included the freedom of will. In Genesis 3, we read of how people used that freedom of will to choose against a perfect God. To choose against a perfect God is to choose imperfection. In this, people sinned, walked away from God and chose to place themselves in a different condition: a godless one.
Scripture is honest about this condition and it is something that we can plainly observe when we look at our world and even our own lives. This is what it means to say that we are fallen creatures. People have a fallen condition. If we claim to be without sin, Scripture states that we have deceived ourselves and are without truth.
There are a couple of ways that we can claim to be without sin. The first, and most obvious, way is that we say with out mouths that we are without sin. When we claim with our mouths to be perfect, we deceive ourselves. What I find is that most people will not outwardly claim to be perfect and will not profess with their mouths to be without sin.
The second, and not as obvious, is that we insinuate our perfection by constantly pointing out the imperfections in others. When we focus on the faults of others, we don’t usually have to think about our own faults, and this is something that many people in every worldview are guilty of. There was a story in Scripture where Jesus went up the side of a mountain and began to deliver some moral teaching. We know this commonly as the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus addresses the temptation of judging others:
“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (HCSB).
In all honesty, brothers and sisters, this should scare us. Here we have the God of the universe telling us not to focus on the faults of others, but instead to focus on our own faults. When we focus the faults of others, our attention is not on Christ. We should not assume that this is some new way that God operates. There was an instance in the Old Testament where King David had sinned against God but was unwilling to recognize the sin in his own life. Nathan, a prophet God chose to hold David accountable, went to david and began to tell the story of another person’s sin:
“So the Lord sent Nathan to David. When he arrived, he said to him:
There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up, living with him and his children. It shared his meager food and drank from his cup; it slept in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man could not bring himself to take one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for his guest.
David was infuriated with the man and said to Nathan: “As the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! Because he has done this thing and shown no pity, he must pay four lambs for that lamb.”
Nathan replied to David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:1-7 HCSB).
King David was entirely willing to point out sin in the lives of another man until Nathan revealed that man to be David himself. As we read more of the story, we learn that God was absolutely furious with David. We present ourselves as perfect when we complain about or constantly point out what we believe to be the insufficiencies of other people instead of focusing on our own imperfections and sins.
There is yet a third way that we present ourselves as without sin, and I call it “Holier Than Thou Syndrome.” At church, many people act like they have it all figured out even though their lives are in shambles when they get home. This is the tendency that many people have to act in front of people in a way that makes them look good. This forces us to not admit the struggles that we have. It also forces us to be more concerned with looking perfect than concerned with pursuing Christ. In our effort to look good, we miss the goodness that Christ actually has for us. I might, here, refer once again to Jesus’ famous sermon. In Matthew 6:1, Jesus teaches that we ought not practice our acts of righteousness before people. In Matthew 6:5-8, He teaches that prayers are to be secret, simple, and to the point (not to impress people). In Matthew 6:16, He teaches that we should not brag about our spirituality. We should not be concerned with others seeing our righteousness, and we should not be concerned with whether or not we see the righteousness of others.
If we claim to be without sin, when we focus on the sin of others, and when we present ourselves as holy, John claims that we have deceived ourselves. This is ironic because our attempt is to deceive others. When we do any of these things, all we accomplish is hurting ourselves because we are not open to Christ’s leadership in our lives.
Walking in the light
This self-deception is mentioned by John in reference to walking in the light. John implores his readers not to deceive themselves by convincing themselves that they are without need of improvement. Instead, they are to walk in the light. Here, we notice something very important about what it actually means for us to walk in the light. To walk in the light is to adopt a lifestyle where we are actually seeking to improve and seeking to make changes based on Christ’s conviction in our lives. If we focus on the improvements that other people need to make or pretend to be more perfect than we are, then John’s claim, here, is that we walk in darkness because we have made Christ Himself out to be a liar by rejecting His word for our lives.
Our current condition, then, according to Scripture is a fallen condition. We are all imperfect. Every person in every place and under any worldview is capable of unspeakable evils. We are also capable of not recognizing our own bad deeds because we simply don’t like to be wrong. Christ, though, challenges His people to rise above this pattern, to examine the sins and the imperfections in their own lives, and to change according to His conviction. This is a constant process in the life of the genuine Christ-follower and it is a process referred to as sanctification.
The world is full of people who do bad things. The difference for the Christ-follower is that he or she is constantly being conformed to the likeness of Christ through this process of sanctification.
The truth about our failure
John claimed to write these things so that his readers might not sin. If anyone does sin, though, it is Christ who comes to our defense if we belong to Him. We’ve stated that evidence of our closeness with God lies in our works. Works are evidence of our closeness with God. When our works reveal that we are not close with God, it is Christ who defends us and draws near to us. This is a beautiful thing! God does not depend on people. This is grace!
John does state, though, that we can know we are in Christ if we walk as Jesus walked. In context, this means that we can know we are in Christ if we are walking in the light that we have described: allowing our sin and imperfection to be exposed to us so that we can strive for change. Jesus was perfect, but our calling here is not to exist as Jesus exists. It is to walk in the same manner that Jesus walked: in the light. If we obey God’s word, striving to apply the text of Scripture to our lives, God actually makes His love complete in us. The truth about our failure is this: it doesn’t matter in light of salvation. The church will be full of imperfect people, and the only way we reject God is by claiming, even by insinuation, not to have any sin or imperfection.
The tendency of people to perform acts of evil is a human condition, not a religious condition. We are all in desperate need of Christ to begin and carry on this work of sanctification within us so that we might be conformed to His perfect image! Without Christ, we cannot be transformed in this way. No one can.
Let us, then, surrender to Christ and surrender to His work of sanctification in us. Let us not focus on the faults of others but, instead, always strive to change according to Christ’s conviction. This will help us to love one another more, and it will help us to love those who are outside of the community of faith even more. It is not our job to change one another. It’s not my job to change the people that God has placed in my congregation. It is not anyone’s job to change me. It is not up to us to change the actions and behaviors of those in our community. That is a job that belongs specifically and strictly to the Holy Spirit. Thank the Lord for that! All God asks us for us faithfulness to His sanctifying work of conviction in our lives while we are on this earth. God’s sanctifying work, His grace, draws us into deeper commitment and greater works for Him.
Why do people do bad things? We live in a fallen condition. Why do we struggle with sin? Because we are still being sanctified. There are people who claim to be Christians who do not follow Christ, but for those who do, sanctification will be a regular part of life for as long as we live on this earth.
Great insight! I might make a couple of observations. Simply to tell someone that they are in sin or to be an accountability partner is right, but this does not mean that we focus on the sins of others. To focus is specifically to concentrate our interest and activity on something. If we are focusing on the insufficiencies of others, then those insufficiencies are the centrality of our activity and action, causing us to ignore Christ’s conviction in our lives. In order to rightly hold our brothers accountable, we must focus on Christ’s conviction in our lives and not specifically on their sin.
I might also observe that God did use Nathan to tell David, and He will use us to tell our brothers and sisters as well. Nathan’s focus, though, was not David’s sin. It was God’s instruction and conviction in his own life. In fact, we do not know whether or not Nathan was even aware of David’s sin until God revealed it to him as a His prophet (I am not a prophet in this manner and I doubt seriously that God gives much insight into the secret sins of others).
It is God and only God who convicts concerning sin and we must be humble enough to recognize that. We become the hypocrite when we focus on the sin of others, and this is the message that Jesus shared with his audience. The passage is quoted wrongly when it is used to justify sin. It is also quoted wrongly as an excuse for us to focus on the speck in our brother’s eye. We must focus on the conviction that God brings to our lives.
As far as what it means to judge, we must make a judgment in order to distinguish any right from wrong. If there is a time when we need to point out a brother’s or sister’s sin (not focus on or change them on our own power, but to speak what would honor Christ into their loves because Christ is our focus), then we do necessarily make a judgment call, act in judgment and, indeed, judge the actions of our neighbors. It seems important for us to realize this. To not judge is to not speak to anyone regarding any moral action. Everyone judges his neighbor, and there is not one person who speaks regarding morality in a neutral manner. Our objective is not to be condemning as we speak to moral matters. It is God alone who has the authority to condemn, and, thus, God alone who has the authority to convict and to lead people to change; not us. This is another implication we could draw from the main passage of Scripture in this post.
While from this comment, I see that you have chosen to focus on one part of the post and not on the main passage of exegesis (only one of the cross-references), my hope is that you were able to walk away with the main emphasis of the passage in 1 John. If not, let me encourage you to re-read. Our sanctification is important. The sanctification of others is important. It is God alone who brings about the sanctification of those who belong to Him: it is not a power or authority that we have. Thus, we cannot boast in ourselves, but only in our Lord, Jesus Christ.