My little children,
John uses this phrase and other similar phrases, not to demean his audience but to endear them to himself. He cares for them as a parent cares for children, and he wants them to understand the richness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I am writing to these things to you so that you may not sin.
Here we have another purpose statement in John’s epistle. Of course it is different from other purpose statements that we have in the letter, but it is not contradictory. So what is John’s purpose in writing? That his audience might walk in holiness, that they might not sin. This is an important reminder following the previous statements. It would be easy, in our flesh, to take verses 8 and 10 as permission to revel in our sin. 1 John 2:1 reminds us that that would be an inappropriate response. There is a significant difference between being honest about our sin, the goal of John’s statements in verses 8 and 10, and glorying in our sin, the goal of our flesh.
John is reminding us in 2:1 that the Christian should not sin. That the Christian should not sin, seems like an obvious statement; however, it is often met with charges of legalism or reminders that we are not under the law if we are in Christ or some other such self-interested response. Is calling Christians to holiness legalism; is it placing them back under the law? Not necessarily. Legalism is not any call to holiness. Legalism is a call to holiness as defined by the law as the basis of one’s justification. Ephesians 2:8-10 is helpful here. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Notice that Paul connects a gracious justification with a call to holiness. He does this precisely because by God’s grace we have been freed from sin and death. If we automatically assume that any call to holiness is legalism, then we understand neither legalism or the gospel.
Being “under the law” is a Pauline phrase set in contrast to being led by the Spirit or being justified by faith or being adopted as a son of God or some other such idea. “Under the law” indicates that you are not in Christ; therefore, the law still has condemning power. However, a call to holiness does not necessarily mean condemnation by that holy standard. The good news is, in part, that Jesus has fulfilled the holy standard for his people; therefore, it no longer stands over them condemning them at every turn.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4, ESV).
If we automatically assume that any call to holiness is placing us back under the law, then we understand neither what it is to be under the law nor the gospel.
So, John call’s his readers to not sin. Christians are not supposed to walk in sin. We are supposed to walk in righteousness before God. We are supposed to love God and love one another and love others. Love of course is the fulfillment of the law. The freedom the Christian experiences is not freedom to do whatever he wants but freedom from the condemnation of the law, freedom from sin and death, and freedom from the tyranny of present day Pharisees who go about condemning people based on their own laws of righteousness. Christians are free to love, truly. Christians are free to love, not with a weak, Hallmark love, but with the love that is the fulfillment of the law, with a love that is set on God and others and not self. When we try to love apart from law, it is always a selfishly motivated love, because we are defining what that love looks like, and our flesh, that is warring in us, will always define love in terms that are most convenient for itself.
John goes on to say, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” We’ll dig into those wonderful words next time, but here is a preview.