Three false claims; One true remedy

1 John 1:5-2:2

19 April 2009

St Mary's, White Waltham

Morning Prayer


I was sitting in an airport lounge a few weeks ago with a couple of colleagues, reading the Times, when an article caught my eye. It filled most of a page, and turned out to be a kind of highbrow agony aunt column by Professor Tanya Byron.

It was the headline that caught my eye "I just want to get on with student life, but feel that I'm a sinner who is going to Hell".

Dear Tanya, I'm 18 and in my first year at university but I can't help thinking that I'm 'sinning'.

I didn't grow up in a religious family, didn't go to a religious school or have God-fearing friends, I just seem to have developed this strong belief that I'm not good enough and I'm going to Hell. I think that if I don't dedicate my life to selfless acts then God will send me to Hell...

I would be very grateful for any advice. Anna.

What are we to make of this? How would you respond to Anna? What would be your advice to this young lady? We'll come back to the paper's response later. But I want us to have this letter in the back of our minds while we look at these verses from 1 John.

Light and Dark

We're going to be looking at chapter 1 verse 5 onwards. And in verse 5, John makes his great headline statement, God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

Often in the Bible, and certainly here, light is a symbol of God's moral purity and holiness. John is saying that God is completely good and pure and holy. By definition there is no darkness in him, because darkness is the absence of light. In the metaphor, in fact, darkness is the absence of God.

Therefore, sin and evil are darkness, because God is not in these things. Sin in our lives happens when we reject God's rule over us: it is an exclusion of God's light. Our sin is part of the darkness.

So John makes this great headline statement, and then in the light it (if you will excuse the pun) he goes on to examine three false claims.

Now, false claims are easy enough to make. Here are some genuine adverts from a hundred or so years ago.

As I said, false claims are easy enough to make, and John attacks three false claims that are being made about sin, each one just as outrageous as these false claims in advertising.

False claim 1: My sin does not Exclude me

The first of these is a claim that my sin does not exclude me. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness.... We claim we know God, but the way we lives our lives shows that we have shut him out: we are continuing to walk in darkness.

John says that we cannot do this. We cannot claim to be in the light, yet be content to leave parts of our lives in darkness. Walking in sin matters: it excludes us from fellowship with God.

Please note that John is not talking about isolated acts of sin that we all commit every day through weakness. He is talking about "walking" in the darkness. In the Bible, "walking in" something is a lifestyle choice. It is an habitual and on-going commitment, a way of life.

So here John is talking about persistent sin in our lives: sin that we are not fighting. Perhaps we are nurturing and cherishing it instead. If there are dark areas of our lives that we won't let God shine his light into, dark corners that we would rather keep in the shadows, then we are walking in darkness.

Perhaps you have a longstanding grudge against somebody: an unresolved situation with someone in the church or in your family. You'd rather hold on to the grudge and nurse it, than let God shine his light into it.

Or, there may be an adulterous affair, or sex before marriage. You certainly don't want to let God's light in there, do you?

Perhaps the sin you walk in is to hoard your wealth. That is, greed. Less easy to diagnose, perhaps, but no less corrosive to one's relationship with God.

If you are committed to walking in the darkness in some part of your life, then, according to John, there is no point coming to church. There's no point saying your prayers. There's no point singing the songs. We cannot have fellowship with God if we continue to walk in darkness by tolerating or indulging some sin in our lives. Our sin matters.

The remedy, John says, is to walk in the light.

We need to be ruthless about finding all the dark corners of our lives — all the things we are ashamed of; all the things that we would rather remained hidden — and we need to let God shine his light into them.

My favourite Puritan, John Owen, said "Be killing sin or it will be killing you" . To walk in the light is to be committed to tracking down every last dark corner, opening the shutters, and letting God's light flood in.

False claims 2 & 3: My sin does not Exist

If false claim number 1 is that my sin does not exclude me, false claims 2 and 3 can be summed up together as, my sin does not exist.

John says If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in usref, and again, If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar.ref

None of us wants to admit that we are sinful, guilty people. But, the only way we can pretend to be sinless is to redefine what sin means. We take some sin, some God denying behaviour, some darkness, and call it light. Then we can call ourselves sinless.

It's like the train operators who were being penalised for missing punctuality targets. The solution? Improve the trains? Oh, no... much better to pad the timetables! According to the timetable, it now takes 10% longer to get from Reading to London than it did 20 years ago. But at least the trains are more punctual!

By fixing the standard against which we are measured, we can make sure that we pass as sinless.

So we might want to say, Indulging my fantasies about that colleague can't be a sin: it doesn't cause any harm. Or, Visiting those websites can't be sinful: it doesn't hurt anyone. So we change the measure of sin to be what causes harm, or what hurts people. Not what offends God.

Or we might want to say, Oh, I'm not gossipping: I'm only sharing some important information. Or I'm not stealing: I'm only optimising my tax return. So we use weasel words to change the standard of sin.

But, in doing this we only deceive ourselves, John says. God alone sets the standard for sin. He has told us what sin is, and we make him out to be a liar if we say anything different.

One True Remedy: Sin Exposed and Expunged

So, we have one headline statement God is light, in him there is no darkness at all, and three false claims that stem from hiding our sin and denying our sin.

Clearly, hiding our sin from God or denying our sin before God do not help us. What, then, can deal with our sin? What remedy is there?

Let's revisit our friend Anna, and her feelings of sinfulness. What remedy did the learned professor recommend. Here are some extracts from her response to Anna.

Your transition to university has triggered a state of acute anxiety and paranoia that has left you with thoughts that are irrational but feel real and frightening. These thoughts are sometimes called cognitive distortions and, because they can leave feelings of profound hopelessness and helplessness, depression is commonly experienced.

Thoughts of being a sinner and having to go to Hell are often described as persecutory delusions of a religious nature.

...You are not a sinner. God will not judge nor send you to Hell ... [you have a] mental illness.

Frankly, as I read this in the airport lounge with my colleagues, tears began to well-up in my eyes. How can your heart not break for this poor girl, who has been given a precious gift of insight into her own sinfulness, and then been sold snake-oil as a cure?

This is, of course, the second of our false claims: "you are not a sinner" . This is not what Anna needs! She needs something much more radical than this. We need something much more radical than this!

In the end, neither hiding our sin nor denying our sin is going to help us. John says our only remedy is to confess our sins: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousnessref.

Notice, incidentally, that he says that we should confess not our sin (singular), but our sins (plural). So, we need to confess not our general sinfulness, but the actual specific sins that we have committed.

Our sins are like a stain on our souls. We can try to hide them or deny them, but it won't really help.

Against the dark background of this world we live in, the stain of our sin may not be very obvious. But when we hold up the fabric of our souls to the pure white light of God, then — just like in the washing powder adverts — the stain of our sin becomes all to obvious.

What we need is a stain remover. As you know, different kinds of stains need different treatments. Apparently, lemon juice is effective at removing rust stains. Methylated spirits is good for grass stains, and white spirit for shoe polish.

When it comes to the stain of sin on my soul, only one treatment will do: the blood of Jesus, [God's] son, purifies us from all sinref. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sinsref. When we confess our sins to God he applies the stain remover: he purifies us from all unrighteousness by the blood of Jesus.

I once discussed this with my grandfather, who happened to be vicar of Waltham St. Lawrence down the road after the war. He'd studied at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, which was rather conservative, and he told me, "Oh, I couldn't bear it, young Ben: all that talk of blood all the time" . But sorry, Grandpop, we need to talk about the blood of Jesus: it's the only thing that can purify us from sin.

And because of Jesus' blood, because of his atoning sacrifice, it means that you and I do not need to atone for our sin: at least not as far as God is concerned. The price is paid; the stain is gone. We do not need to feel guilty or to do penance or keep confessing the same sin over and over again. Once confessed, it's done: let it go. Jesus atoned for that sin on the cross; you needn't bear the burden of it any longer.


In the end we know that our sin does exclude us from God. It matters so much that God sent his precious son to die a horrible death on a cross as the atoning sacrifice for it. If your sin did not matter, he would not have done that, would he?

And we know that our sin does exist. If your sin did not exist, then Jesus would not have had to die for you. But he did. He died for your sins, my sins, and the sins of the whole world.

To hide our sin or to deny our sin is to have contempt for the cross.

God is longing for you to bring your sin to him, so that he can purify you from it. And that's the way to enjoy fellowship with him: our God, who is light.

Will you bring your sins into the light by specific, detailed confession day after day?