Perfect Makes Practice
I was in 7th grade, which is the first year that you can play football for school. It was still summer, before school had started for the fall and I showed up at Page Middle School to try out for the 7th grade football team. I went through the first practice, running laps, run and drop, all that Remember the Titans stuff. By the end of the practice I thought I was going to vomit. I went home and I called my buddy from school to hang out and he asked me to stay the night at his house. I told him that I couldn’t because I had to go to football practice the next day. He asked me if I wanted to go and the answer was no; he said, “why don’t you just quit?” And I thought, “Why don’t I just quit?” And that was it; I quit football practice right then and there. I never went back. I regret that day and I have no one to blame but myself (and Andy Binienda).
While I would never encourage anyone to quit practicing sports, music, or whatever you’re working on, I think my Allen Iverson-esq attitude is admirable in one aspect. Our passage this morning is an encouragement to quit practicing. Or rather, it is an encouragement to quit practicing one thing and to start practicing another.
The Gospel Frees Us From Practicing Sin
Remember, St. John wrote this letter to rebuke teachers of a false gospel, and to remind believers of the true gospel. In John’s epistle there are two groups: (1) Christians and (2) antichrists. This has been true of humanity since the garden. Every person who has ever lived is either the seed of the woman, or the seed of the serpent. John says they’re either children of God or children of the Devil. This is important for us to remember has we parachute in on this pericope. This text does not stand alone, but is a part of one letter that we’re working through every week.
John writes, everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. Verse 4 builds on what Pastor Kevin preached last week from verses 1-3. In the first three verses of this chapter, we were reminded that Jesus Christ is going to return, when he does, we’ll be like him because we’ll see him as he is. Because that’s true, verse 3 says, and everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. Which is followed immediately by everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness. Notice that John is comparing two groups of people – (1) everyone who hopes in Christ vs. (2) everyone who practices sin, which is against the law.
Under the old covenant, breaking the law made Israel unclean. Now John applies that idea to the New Covenant. When we sin, we break the law of Christ. Sin can be described with a lot of different word pictures and John’s emphasis in this text is that sin is breaking God’s law. Sin is certainly more than that, but it is not less than that. Sin is lawlessness. We don’t like to think of our own sin that way. We call sin mistakes, bad choices, accidents; we label sin with disorders, or blame our sin on our demons. But here John says that sin is breaking God’s law.
Because we’re all guilty, we need to know how to be justified. How do we become pure from our sin? By hoping in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus lived the only clean life in the history of humanity. He never sinned; never broke God’s law. Through his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, we can be purified. We can be made righteous.
John reminds us that we know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. Jesus Christ came to take away sins. The Greek word is αἴρω, which literally means, “to raise or take up.” Jesus carried our sins away. It was possible because there was no sin in him. He was the true clean one. He never practiced sin.
Through the gospel now, we’re freed from sin. When you’re confronted by Jesus Christ, he changes your heart so that you don’t love your sin any more. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Now what does this mean? If you’re like me, you’re probably discouraged at this point. Especially if you’re reading from the NASB or the KJV, which say No one who abides in Him sins, and Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not. Is John teaching Christian perfectionism, as some have claimed?
The answer is clearly no. We know this isn’t the case from the way John talks about sin in the rest of the book, and from the witness of the entire Bible. Christians indeed sin. In 1 John 1.9, the Spirit says if we confess our sins [Jesus] is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. So we read this pericope in light of that testimony. Until we’re resurrected on the last day, we will battle the flesh and we will continue to fall short of the glory of God. That’s why I think the ESV is a good translation of the Greek here where it says, “Makes a practice of sinning,” or “keeps on sinning.” John is saying that Christians shouldn’t be marked by sin. Does that sound familiar from some of John’s other writings – the mark of the beast? We shouldn’t practice sin. We shouldn’t be known for our lawlessness. If Christ is abiding in us, we wont live in perpetual, unrepentant sin, but if we do, it’s proof that we haven’t seen him or know him.
Don’t Be Deceived By Anything Else
And then in verse 7, we have the only imperative in the entire paragraph. John writes, little children, let no one deceive you. Πλανάτω – let no one lead you astray. He doesn't want them to be duped into believing that they can practice sin and follow Christ. This is simply another version of what he said before – that we can’t love the world and the Father at the same time, they’re mutually exclusive. When we’ve seen Jesus we won’t practice sin, but we will practice righteousness. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Because Jesus is the truly righteous one, when he abides in us, the fruit is righteousness, which proves that we’re righteous.
This is consistent with salvation in the Bible from beginning to end. God’s people are always saved and then commanded to obey. The indicative always precedes the imperative. It was true in the Exodus, Israel was redeemed from slavery and then given the 10 commandments, and it’s true for the new Israel, the church. We’re saved by God’s grace, there’s nothing that we can do to save ourselves. Through the preaching of the gospel the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and then after regeneration, he gives us the gift of faith. We then practice righteousness because our cardiological corpse has been resurrected to new life. Because we’re made righteous, we practice righteousness. We can’t practice righteousness in order to be righteous. Neither can we be righteous without practicing righteousness. When God makes us right in Christ through the work of the Spirit, we then practice righteousness.
What we practice reveals who we are. Our activity flows out of our identity. The industry of our hands manifests the inclinations of our heart. John says that if we practice sin, we’re of the devil because he is sinning from the beginning. Again this phrase from the beginning harkens us back to the garden where the devil (in the form of the serpent) sinned as he led Adam in sin. The mission of Jesus was to undo his work. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. The incarnation was a work of destruction. Christ came to unravel Satan’s web of sin.
And because Jesus did that, believer you’re born of God! You don’t make a practice of sinning; you can’t because God’s seed is inside you. You’ve been born of God! There are 8 participial phrases in these 6 verses and 7 of them are in the present tense: makes a practice of sinning, practices righteousness, practices sin, etc. That phrase in verse 9 is the only one that’s in the perfect tense. The perfect tense means that the action happened once in the past and there are abiding consequences for that action. You have been born of God; it’s a work God did in the past and yet the blessings are still true. You have been made perfect/righteous in his sight!
But if you do not practice righteousness, it’s evident that you’re not a child of God, but a child of the devil. What does it mean to practice righteousness? John tells us – love your brother. That phrase at the end of verse 10 is in apposition to the phrase “practice righteousness.” It’s explaining it. Loving the church proves that we are children of God. If you don’t love the church i.e. don’t practice righteousness, the only conclusion is that you’re practicing sin. You’re breaking the law of Christ. You’re not a child of God, but you’re a child of the devil.
The good news this morning is that children of the devil can be born again. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved! Jesus came to take away sins. Jesus came to destroy the work of the devil. If you repent of your sin and trust in Christ, he makes you righteous and then you will practice righteousness. He redeems you from the dungeon of the devil and seats you at the Lord’s Table. Please don’t buy the devil’s lies this morning. You can’t practice righteousness apart from trusting in Christ and you don’t trust Christ if you’re not practicing righteousness. When you trust in the righteous one, he makes you righteous, and then you practice righteousness. He gives you perfect standing before God. In terms of righteousness, it’s not practice makes perfect, but perfect makes practice.