If we want to maintain Fellowship with God do not Sin by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John.” It was preached in the 1940’s and re-published as one volume (formerly in five Volumes) in 2002 by Crossway Books.
My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sin of the whole world. 1 JOHN 2:1-2
THERE ARE CERTAIN PERIODS in our lives—New Year’s Eve perhaps or certain important occasions—when we find ourselves thinking about life itself, its whole object and meaning and purpose. We think about ourselves, wondering what we have made of life, what are we doing with it and what is the ultimate future that is very steadily facing us all. Probably, quite inevitably, we also look backwards, wondering how we have conducted and comported ourselves hitherto, and probably also we are all aware of a sense of dissatisfaction. We are aware that we have not done what we should have done and what we intended to do. We are aware of a sense of failure and inadequacy, and at the same time we are aware within us of a desire to do better in the days that lie ahead. Those are the thoughts that tend to come to us as we pause at any point in life and look backwards and forward, and perhaps the greatest and the most important thing of all is that we should be quite certain about life itself and its meaning and its purpose.
Now the danger at a time like this always is to take too superficial a view. The trouble, it seems to me, about New Year’s and all our other resolutions is that they are resolutions with regard to particular things, but we fail to be concerned about first principles. Our danger is that we deal with the symptoms instead of with the disease, and that is surely the biggest danger as we look back and review the past. We tend to get down immediately to detail before we have really considered the big principles themselves, and thus it is that life so often tends to become rather futile.
One of the real difficulties in life is not to be mastered by it. We all tend inevitably to become victims of circumstances and chance and of accident and thus we go on from day to day perhaps feeling uneasy at times, feeling concerned and then somehow or other getting rid of that feeling or forgetting it, and so we are back where we were before. Then, perhaps, something big and important will take place; a birth, a death, an illness or an accident, some calamity which we read of in the newspapers, or war, something devastating, and again we are pulled up and we begin to think and to meditate. We are once more conscious of this sense of dissatisfaction and lack of ease about ourselves, and we ponder and propose that really something must be done about it. We are genuinely determined to do so and then, somehow or another, that acute state passes and in a few days we are back again exactly where we were at the beginning.
Now that, I suggest, is not an unfair or inadequate picture of the life of the average person; aware from time to time of something centrally wrong and then being confined only to detail instead of to the central thing. And the inevitable result is that the main tenor of life continues more or less as it was before and nothing really vital has been changed.
Now the Bible is very concerned about all that. Indeed, that is its great central concern, and it has one great remedy for the problem. According to the Bible the one big thing that matters is that we should be right with God. The Bible is, primarily, a book of great principles. Of course it does come down to details, but its main emphasis is on these central principles. It looks out upon mankind trying to improve itself, and it says, ‘Yes, that is all right, but it will avail you nothing because you are ignoring the centre. You are treating the symptoms, but you have forgotten that the trouble is at the source.’ So it always brings us back to that source, which is that the most important thing of all is our relationship to God.
To put it another way, all our troubles in life, according to the Bible, are ultimately due to the fact that we are in a wrong relationship to God. That has been the Biblical diagnosis for thousands of years and it is as true now as it has ever been—all our ills and all our unhappiness ultimately come back to the fact that we have wandered from God, that we are not in the right relationship to Him. Indeed, the Bible goes further and says that until we do come back to that true and right relationship, nothing will avail us. We can improve ourselves here and there, but if we are centrally wrong, finally we shall be altogether wrong.
That is the great theme of the Bible from beginning to end, and the ways in which it puts that message are almost endless. You get it in plain, direct, unvarnished teaching, but you also get it in some of the people that it puts before us, and we should thank God for them, these characters and illustrations which we have in the Bible, who are, as it were, living representations of its doctrine and teaching.
Take the saints of the Bible, the so-called heroes of the faith; take people like those who are represented in Hebrews 11. They are but samples, just a few of the great list of names that we have in the Old Testament. There are men and women who were in this world exactly as we are, subject to the same vicissitudes, subject to the same things that tend to happen to us in a world like this, and yet, as you look at them, you have to admit that there was something exceptional and outstanding about them. They were people who seemed to be triumphant in life, and their secret, according to the Bible, was only one thing; it was their relationship to God.
Now these were men and women who were independent of their circumstances, and they were what they were because they were right at the centre with God. They suffered terrible trials, they endured adversity in its extremest form, yet you cannot look at them without seeing that they were people who possessed a calmness, a poise and a hopefulness which nothing could destroy. You see things going wrong all around and about them, and yet you see them going steadily forward. And the reason for this, says the author of Hebrews, was their faith. Faith is being in the right relationship to God, knowing Him. Their secret was that they went on ‘as seeing him who is invisible’ (Heb 11:27); it was because they were right with God that they were made independent of circumstances and chance and conditions and surroundings.
That is typically representative of the Biblical teaching, and the message of the Bible to us is still just that. It is not part of the business of Christian preaching and of the Christian Church just to comment about conditions and circumstances and happenings. It is not part of the preaching of the gospel to try to predict and prophesy what will happen in the future. Many attempt to do that, but it is utterly hopeless. It may cheer us up for the time being to be told that something good is going to happen, but it is the old story and it never leads to anything. Rather, the business of Christian preaching is to tell us that whatever the circumstances may be, whatever may be awaiting us in the future, if we are right with God it will not finally matter, it will not have a devastating effect upon us.
Now that is an all-inclusive challenge; the Bible makes that claim and its whole offer is just that: if we are right at the centre with God we can look to the future and say, ‘Come what may, all will be well with my soul.’ This message, which it puts to us in so many different ways, places us in this happy position of being more or less independent of circumstances and accidents and chance and environment, anything that may happen. It does not try to improve these particular problems; it puts us right. Its case is that if we are right, then we shall be masters of our circumstances, so it always brings us back to that central and all-important matter.
Here, then, is the thing that primarily counts, that we should be right with God, that we should have fellowship with Him, that we should know Him; so that if God calls us, as He called Abraham, to do something which seems to us at that moment to be shattering, we go forward as seeing Him who is invisible; we do it in faith. Or, like Moses perhaps, we may be presented and confronted by a choice which we cannot quite understand, but we will be in no hesitation, ‘choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season’ (Hebrew 11:25). That is it! We may be called to do things which come to the natural man in an utterly devastating manner, and yet to us, because we are right with God, we will have an understanding and we will not be afraid.
That is the thing which John deals with in these two verses. This epistle, as we have seen, was probably written about A.D. 85 when John was an old man. The words he uses suggest that he was old: he says, ‘my little children,’ though he was not addressing little children but adults, members of the Church. But to John they were but little children; some had even come into the faith in his own ministry. At any rate, he had taught them, and now the old man at the end of his life, knowing he has not many more years in this world, sees these people, the young Christian Church, confronted by difficulties and problems and trials and tribulations. What can he say to them? He sees the danger, he knows the frailty of human nature, what is it that matters? So his final bit of advice to them is: ‘My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.’
As John looks at those people, and as he looks back across his own life, he sees that there are two main dangers that always confront us—he is writing particularly to Christian people. The first is that of complacency, and the other is the exact opposite, the danger of hopelessness. Or, to put it another way, the danger is compromise on the one hand and depression on the other; and the trouble with most of us is that we tend to oscillate between these two. In certain moods and states we are very complacent; we say we are all right, but in the next moment we are feeling utterly hopeless and full of despair. How difficult it is to maintain an even keel, to keep balance, just to be steady and strong and sure, avoiding these extremes that are always there confronting us. That is John’s diagnosis, so he provides something which will cater for that very possibility and he divides his message up into two—command and comfort; exhortation and consolation; objective and promise. And the two parts are: what you and I have to do and what God in His infinite grace is always ready to do for us.
Now these, according to the Bible everywhere, are the two most important things for us in this life and world. They are the two things we must always bear in mind if we are anxious to enjoy true fellowship with God. That is John’s advice to these people. ‘I am going out of the world,’ he says in effect. ‘I shall not be with you much longer, and the one thing that matters for you is that you should always be walking with God, that you should always be maintaining that fellowship. If that is right, it does not matter very much what will happen to you.’
How, then, is that to be maintained? This is John’s reply. First of all there is the word, the command, the exhortation, the objective which we should never lose sight of, but which we should always keep steadily before us: ‘These things write I unto you, that ye sin not.’ If you want to know God and maintain fellowship with God, do not sin. We shall look later at these two verses in a more purely practical sense, and I want to put it as simply as I can. There is very high doctrine in these two verses, doctrine that has often led, and will lead, to a great deal of discussion and disputation, but let us just look at it now quite simply as a practical, direct exhortation.
‘That ye sin not.’ What does this mean? To answer that, let us ask an apparently almost ridiculously simple question: What is sin? Why should we not sin? Well, sin means that we disobey God’s holy law which He has revealed to us. Sin is anything that is condemned in the Bible. It does not matter what it is, if the Bible tells us not to do it then we must not do it: ‘Thou shalt not kill’; ‘thou shalt not steal’; ‘thou shalt not commit adultery.’ I feel at times we ought to put the Ten Commandments in the forefront of our preaching. There are certain prohibitions which are absolute and about which there is no discussion, and if you are in a condition of querying and questioning and breaking them, then you will never know fellowship with God; these are absolute where God is concerned. Sin is disobedience to God’s revealed law.
It also means disobeying conscience. There is within us all that inward monitor; we have no excuse; before we did that thing we knew it was wrong; there was this voice that told us not to do it, that called us to stop and think. It said, ‘No, you cannot do that.’ It was there and we knew it was wrong and yet we did it. To disobey conscience is to commit sin. The Bible does not only say that if we are doubtful about a thing we must not do it; it says, ‘Abstain from all appearance of evil’ (1 Thessalonians. 5:22); anything that looks evil, do not do it.
Or, to put it still more generally, sin means that our lives are governed by desires and not by truth. Is this not the very essence of the whole moral psychological problem at the present time? People today are not interested in truth; they say they are entitled to do what they want to do, and if you begin to reason with them they say, ‘Why not?’—that is the question—or ‘I couldn’t care less!’ That is the terrible and awful statement that sums it up—this modern spirit of lawlessness, governed by desire, by impulse, by passion and lust and not by standards of truth, not by a clear indication of that which is right and wrong.
We can sum it up like this: to live a life of sin means that we are not governed by God, that thoughts of God are not at the centre of our lives, that we do not ask ourselves, ‘What would God have me to do, what does God prohibit?’ It means that we are governed by what John, in this self-same chapter, goes on to call ‘the world’—the way of the world, the whole attitude of the world. It is that sort of life in which thoughts of God do not come in except perhaps occasionally when men and women are frightened because they have been taken ill or there is a death. It means God has not governed and controlled their lives, that they have been dictated by everything that is apart from God. That is sin, to live and to dwell in that kind of atmosphere and to be living that sort of life; as if God did not exist and as if this were the only world and as if man were the supreme being in the whole universe. That is the negative way of looking at it.
The positive way to view this is, of course, that we live as people who are walking in the light. We must not be content with looking at this question of sin negatively; the best way of not sinning is positively to be living the godly life, and that means walking in the light. In other words, it means living as to God and to His glory.
As the first question in the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession puts it, ‘The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever.’ That is the way to avoid sinning, to start out with this main objective, that I am here to live to the glory of God, that my supreme purpose should be to honour Him and to live in accordance with His holy will. I should ask myself, not ‘What do I want?’ but ‘What does the Lord want? What is the Lord’s will? What has He revealed concerning Himself and His purpose?’ I start with the great desire to live to His glory, and if I do that I shall not sin.
That, then, is the first way of looking at it; that is what is meant by saying ‘that we sin not.’ But let me go on to ask a still more practical question—why must we not sin? Let me give you some answers to that question—and I suggest to you that the more we reason these things out, the better it will be for us and the more we shall be unable to sin. Firstly, sin is something which is condemned and hated by God, something which is utterly opposed to Him and His divine and holy nature. That really ought to be enough for us. There is no need to argue about this. I must not sin because God has said I must not; it is abhorrent to Him.
Another reason why I should not sin is that sin is wrong in and of itself and in its own nature. Is this not one of the greatest troubles in life, that we will not look upon these things objectively? Of course we do not do that because we are involved in the process and we are always out to excuse ourselves and to explain away what we have done. But it is important that we should look upon sin objectively, look at its ugliness and its foulness; look at all the misery and wretchedness it produces, look at all the havoc that it makes. If only we could see the real nature of sin, we should hate it, so it behooves us to look at it and examine it. It must be avoided because of its ugliness and because of its twisted and perverted character.
Let me put a still stronger reason to all Christian people. I should not sin because sin is the terrible and foul thing that caused such suffering to my blessed Lord; the thing that brought the Son of God from heaven to earth, in a sense, was just this. The thing that made Him humble Himself and make Himself of no reputation was ultimately the problem of sin. It was sin that made Him endure the contradiction of sinners against Himself; it was the problem of sin that caused Him to sweat drops of blood in the garden of Gethsemane; it was sin that drove the nails into His holy hands and feet; it was sin that produced the agony and the suffering and the shame of the cross—that is what sin does. Can I, as a Christian, go on sinning? ‘These things write I unto you, that ye sin not.’ You should not desire that which caused Him so much suffering and so much pain.
But let me give you another reason. Sin is dishonouring to the gospel, to its claims and to its power. Here is a gospel which tells us it can give us power; a gospel that offers us life and renewal of strength. So, then, if we sin, we are denying the gospel and bringing it into disrepute, so we must not sin.
Now I put it like this because that is the way in which the New Testament presents its whole doctrine of holiness and the way in which it calls us not to sin. In other words, we are not to be spending our life trying to surrender ourselves, trying to yield ourselves up, trying to let go that God may give us the victory. No! We have to reason it out; we must say, ‘I must not sin because God condemns it, because it is wrong in itself, because it caused Christ’s suffering, because it is dishonouring to the gospel.’ Reason it out—that is the New Testament appeal. ‘I write these things unto you, that ye sin not,’ and you must know why.
John is concerned fundamentally about our walk with God and our fellowship with Him, and therefore he says, ‘My little children, I write these things unto you because sin always ultimately breaks fellowship with God, and therefore immediately casts us off from the source of all our blessedness. It is no use your saying you want to walk with God and then deliberately sinning. The moment you sin, fellowship is broken; the moment you fall into this kind of transgression, you interrupt the Fellowship. The one thing that matters is fellowship with God. I do not know what may await you; you may be tried, you may be persecuted, there may be war and calamity, there may be terrible things awaiting you; the one thing that matters is that you are right with God. That being so, do not sin because sin breaks the fellowship.’
Not only that; sin is utterly inconsistent with our profession. It is totally inconsistent with our professed hatred of sin and with our professed desire to be delivered from it. Christians are people who realise and know that sin is the central problem in life and they therefore say that they want to be delivered and emancipated from it. So if they continue to sin, they deny what they profess to believe. Such a position is completely inconsistent and self-contradictory.
And sin also leads always to an evil conscience. When men and women sin, they are under a sense of condemnation, they are unhappy—I am speaking true to experience, am I not? Look back across the past days. When you did something you should not have done, did you not become miserable with yourself and irritable with everybody? Well, it was because you were unhappy; you knew you were wrong and yet you did it, and there you were, miserable and unhappy. ‘Little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not.’ It will rob you of happiness and joy and will give you a sense of condemnation.
But it will even do worse than that, it will lead to doubts; it will, at times, make you feel uncertain of your relationship to God. But still more important is this: it will make you feel you have no right to pray. Have you not experienced that? You do something that you should not do and you get this sense of condemnation; then something happens and you feel you need strength from God and you say, ‘I will pray about it.’ And then the thought comes to you that you have no right to pray, you have sinned against God, you are a cad to rush to Him just when you want Him; and when everything goes well you do not want Him and you forget Him—have you not found this interruption to prayer? That is why John tells these people not to sin.
It is so practical. It works like this. When we face the future, we wonder what is going to happen; there are so many things that may happen to any one of us—a terrible illness, loss of money, the illness of a dear one, death, war—who knows? Well, these things may happen; we may be utterly helpless. We see that the world cannot help us with all its wealth, its education and its knowledge. We are left there face to face with one of these trials and crises of life. We say, ‘I wonder, what of God?’ and we are about to pray and then comes this sense of condemnation and somehow we feel we have no right to approach Him. That is why we must not sin. If we want to enjoy fellowship with Him, if we want to be able to pray in the hour of crisis, we must keep the line of communication clear, keep the pathway open, avoid these obstacles that hinder access to God.
And then, lastly, let me put it like this. Sin always leads ultimately to a sense of utter hopelessness, and that is why these New Testament epistles are written. People in that state and condition may sometimes sin for so long that they feel they can do nothing and they have this sense of devastation and of being forsaken.
Those are some of the reasons why we should not sin—that is the command which the Apostle gives to these people.
But let us finish with just a word about the other side: the comfort and the consolation. Thank God there is this further word: ‘And if any man sin’—or has sinned—‘we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.’ If, therefore, you see as you look back nothing but sins against God, I assure you that if you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ those sins are forgiven you, they are blotted out. ‘Ah, yes,’ says someone, ‘but you do not know how terribly I have sinned, how much I have sinned.’ My dear friend, ‘He is the propitiation for. . . the sins of the whole world,’ and you and all your sins are included. Do not let the devil therefore depress you, do not let him drive you from that optimistic blessing to despair and hopelessness. If you see your sins, as John has already told these people, you have but to confess your sins, and if you do so, ‘He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1:9). For the provision is already made, the propitiation has already been provided. He, the Christ, the Son of God, has once and for ever covered all your past sins, all your present sins, all the sins you may commit; the sins of the whole world are covered; the offering has been made once and for ever.
Very well, it seems to me there is only one thing that matters and that can be put in the very little word, ‘we.’ ‘My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not, and if any man sin we have an advocate with the Father.’ Who are ‘we’? Is that the whole world? No, that is not the whole world; that is Christian people, we who know Him, we who have fellowship with the Father, the people to whom he writes, the Christian members of the Christian Church. That is, therefore, the one thing that matters and that counts. Do we know God? Have we fellowship with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ? Do I know for certain that Christ is my advocate? I may see myself in six months hence in a terrible predicament. I may want to pray to God and then comes this condition of sin and I feel I cannot; and the one thing that will matter then will be that I shall be able to go on and to say, ‘I have an Advocate and I can turn to Him; and because of His advocacy I shall know that I am in fellowship with the Father, and God will smile upon me and will grant me His blessing.’
That is the thing that matters in life, that we know Him, Jesus Christ, the righteous one, the advocate with the Father, the propitiation for our sins. Do we know Him? If we do, we know God; and if He is our advocate and representative, our continued fellowship with God is certain and assured.
Thanks be unto God for the heavenly advocate who maintains us in fellowship by His life, by the offering He made once and for ever, and by the power and the life He gives us through the Holy Spirit. (149-159)