“I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is the expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world. The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments. Those who say, ‘I know him,’ but do not keep his commandments, are liars and the truth is not in them. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.” (I John 2:1-5a)
In the beautiful letter of I John, a pastor, the Apostle John himself, in his old age, writes to his beloved spiritual children to ensure their continued fellowship with Christ and to encourage their growth in the knowledge and love of God. The deep affection he had for them, the loving tone of his address to them, and the expressed desire for their wellbeing, we should surely receive as God’s own disposition toward them and toward us. The often repeated deeply affectionate addresses, “Beloved” and “My little children”, found throughout the letter, we must realize are meant for us as well as them and that it is God Himself who speaks.
So, Beloved of God, what is it that God would teach us in this particular passage?
First there is a warning and then there is an encouragement; we are warned not to presume and we are encouraged not to despair.
We are not to presume on a grace and a relationship in which there are no expectations. Christ did not die simply to forgive us but also to transform us. His intention is that we should be like Him, to turn from what we were and to become what He is. We are to become, aided by the Holy Spirit, imitators of Christ. If we don’t aim at that, we should not presume to be in relationship with him: “By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (I John 2:6) It is Jesus himself who said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) and “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) Why should we be surprised, then, when St. John says , “Those who say ‘I know Him’, but do not keep his commandments, are liars and the truth is not in them. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.” In short, we are to believe that when Jesus said “Follow Me”, he meant it.
However, as much as we are not to presume, neither are we to despair, for all of us who follow trip and fall along the way. It is too light a thing to say that “none of us is perfect”. The fact is, we have barely just begun to “go on toward perfection”. But we are not to fear for If (when) we fall we have a defense attorney (an advocate) who will speak for us and his defense will be that he himself has become the sacrifice that atones for our guilt (the expiation). As Barclay says,
“Jesus is the person through whom guilt from past sin and defilement from present sin are removed. The great basic truth behind this word is that it is through Jesus Christ that man’s fellowship with God is first restored and then maintained” (Barclay , Letters of John, p40)
We are to always know that when we fall, if we “truly and earnestly repent of our sins”, we shall find forgiveness, the opportunity to begin again, and the help to succeed: “If we confess our sins , he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9) We are to know that no one wants our ultimate success more than God and that he will do all it takes as long as it takes, with our cooperation, to make us like him and to give us life.
If we presume, we never try. If we despair, we give up. John would have none of this for his beloved children. Rather, he would have them strive and trust and move forward–perhaps tripping all the way–in their relationship with God and in the sure confidence of complete fulfillment:
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we will be, but we know when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (I John 3:1-3)
The Apostle Paul captures this same thought in the powerful little phrase “press on.” Perhaps his words can serve as a final exhortation to us to lay aside presumption and despair and “Press on”:
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own….Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own ; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14)
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker