What Is A “Good Christian”?
(1 John 1.5-2.6)
We’re in the third week of our current series “Questions/Answers,” in which we’re simply answering the most common questions we’ve received in the church this year. Today’s question, like the others, is a kind of summary of a number of different questions we’ve gotten. The question seems like a simple question, but in reality it is deceptively complex: “What is a good Christian?”
I asked lots of different people this question over the last few weeks, and nearly everyone gave me one of two answers (worded more or less the same way). The first answer was, A good Christian is one who obeys God’s commands. The second was, A good Christian is one who trusts in Christ’s sacrifice for us. Both answers are at least partially true, but both answers are inadequate. To see why that is the case, we’re going to be looking in John’s first letter, starting at the end of chapter one and continuing through the beginning of chapter two. We’re actually going to see the text twice—we’ll look at it once, to get an idea simply of what John says; then we’ll take a step back and think about the question itself, and the typical answers we give to it; and lastly we’ll come back to the text to see if we can go deeper, to really get at the heart of what John says.
1) The Cycle of the Christian Life (1 John 1.5-2.6)
In our passage, John presents us with a picture of the Christian life, and as we’ll see, it’s not so much a linear process, as it is a cycle which repeats endlessly. 5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
So here’s the first thing: we are called to be honest about our own state. We are sinners—that is, we are all rebels against our king, desiring our own ways rather than his ways, desiring our own dreams rather than his will for us. This is nothing less than cosmic treason against the Creator and King of the universe. We are all guilty of this, and if we try to pretend otherwise, then we deceive ourselves, and we accuse God of lying: our guilt just keeps getting deeper. So the Christian’s first duty is to be honest about this, to admit and confess our sins before him. Next:
2.1: My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. John’s clear intention in writing his letter is that his readers might be able to obey God more faithfully. But John is not naïve. He knows that no matter how willful his readers may be, they are sinful people, and they will sin. So he calls us to trust in our advocate: But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Jesus Christ is our propitiation. A “propitiation” is something which satisfies, or removes, wrath. I know most of you are probably Christians here today, but I can’t assume that everyone here is, or that everyone has heard these things before. So quickly: why was it necessary to remove God’s wrath? Why did God have wrath toward us in the first place? We know the Bible says that God is love—that verse is in this very letter (1 John 4.8)—so how can a God who is love pass judgment? It’s important to understand what God’s love drives him to do. We can cry for forgiveness all we want, but imagine your wife is murdered. Imagine your wife is raped. You will not be indifferent about that. You will be angry, and demand justice, not in spite of your love, but specifically because of your love. Love is not contrary to judgment; love demands judgment when wrong has been committed.
And this is our situation. We have all rebelled against God, we have rejected his glory, and his justice demands punishment—his wrath burns against our sin, and we deserve it. So Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became our substitute: he lived the perfect life we should have lived, and he suffered the death we deserved, in our place. He absorbed God’s wrath against us on the cross, and took it away: he is our propitiation. Jesus is also our advocate. He stands now before God, risen and alive and glorified, as proof that his sacrifice was sufficient to pay for our sins. So we are called to trust this. To believe that Christ’s sacrifice has appeased all of God’s wrath toward us, and that God is satisfied. Next, verse 3:
3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
Next, we are called to respond to the grace God has shown us by obeying his commands. We see what Christ has done for us; we place our faith in him; we grow to know him as our Savior; we grow to love him as our Savior; and if we know him, if we love him, we obey.
But of course, none of us will be able to do this perfectly, for none of us knows Christ as deeply as we should, and none of us loves him as completely as we should. We still sin; we still fall; we still need forgiveness, every day. So every day, what do we do? We go right back to the beginning: 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness… If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. We are honest about our sin, we confess it, we repent of it, and we trust in Christ, our advocate.
This is the Christian life, day in and day out. As Martin Luther said in the first of his 95 theses, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Repent’, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” It’s a cycle that never ends—there are no levels to Christianity, there is no promotion. All of life, from beginning to end, is this: confession, trust, and joyful obedience.
So we could say that a good Christian confesses his sin before this holy God; he trusts in Jesus Christ his advocate and substitute; and he responds to the grace God has shown him in joyful obedience to his commands. This is a surface-level answer, and as far as it goes, it’s a good one. But we shouldn’t stop there, because it is a surface-level answer; it’s missing something that’s there in the text, but that we have a harder time seeing; we’re wired that way. Most of us will zero in on one or another aspect of this text, and miss the point entirely. To help us see that, I’d like us to go back to our question.
2) Two Typical Answers
I mentioned earlier that there are typically two answers most of us give to this question. The first is, “A good Christian is one who obeys God’s commands.” This is true; but taken by itself, it could tend toward what we call “legalism”. Legalism is that mindset which imagines that our salvation or God’s love for us depends on the good things we do, or the extent to which we manage to obey him. No matter how well Christians know the gospel, nearly everyone struggles with this, because this is how things work in our world: if you work, you get paid. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. A pure legalist would say, “God won’t love you if you don’t obey him well enough.” Now most of us would never actually say that, but on a functional level, most of us still think that way a good deal of the time. We beat ourselves up when we fail, imagining that God now feels the same way about us as we feel about ourselves; or we beat others up when they fail, looking down on them and imagining we could have done better.
The other typical answer to the question is, “A good Christian is one who trusts in Christ’s sacrifice for us.” This is a better answer; but again, taken by itself, it could lead us to another, equally dangerous mindset called “antinomianism.” Antinomianism assumes a right truth in a wrong way. The truth is that because Jesus Christ died for our sins, no failure on our part could ever separate us from God’s love. That’s wonderfully, gloriously true—he is our advocate and our propitiation. But some would think, “Okay, if nothing can separate us from his love, then his commandments are no longer necessary.” They assume that because Jesus fulfilled the wrath of God for us, the commandments we see in the New Testament are more suggestions than actual commandments; since we are saved once and for all, our obedience or disobedience don’t really make a difference. Again, almost no one would actually say this, but no matter how well you know the gospel, you probably struggle with this too. Have you ever really wanted to do something which was sinful? What happens? You’ll think, “But God will forgive me…” If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness…
For most of us, our lives are a constant pendulum swing from one extreme to the other. And when we see that, we assume that the right place to be is somewhere in the middle of the pendulum swing: if you tend more towards one, you need to swing a little more towards the other. If you tend be more legalistic in nature (if you think you need to earn God’s approval through doing good works), give yourself a little dose of antinomianism, an extra dose of grace; if you tend to be naturally antinomian, be a little more legalistic.
But here’s the thing: it never works this way. You can’t fight one problem with the other, because they both have the same root cause. Sinclair Ferguson calls legalism and antinomianism “nonidentical twins from the same womb.” Both legalism and antinomianism are born out of a lie, the lie that Satan told Adam and Eve in the garden, the lie which says that God isn’t really good, that he doesn’t really want us to be happy, so if we obey his commandments, “we’ll miss out and be miserable.”(1) The legalist doubts God’s grace and his love, and so lives under constant pressure to perform for him. The antinomian doubts that a loving God could ever require obedience from us, so he assumes God sent Jesus to obey those commandments for us, so that we would no longer have to.
The reason I bring this up is because these are not new tendencies. They were both present at the time John wrote these words, and although he never uses the words “legalist” or “antinomian,” in our text he is violently attacking both ideas: on the one hand, that our good works are necessary to win God’s approval, and on the other hand, that because God is loving, obedience to his commandments is not really necessary. But here’s what’s surprising: he doesn’t attack these ideas by talking about us; we Christians are not the focus of this text.
3) Knowing God
Let’s look at the text one more time. John constructs his letter in many parts, and these parts turn around each other like gears in a motor. And the central gear around which the others turn, the focal point of his thinking, is always God himself, manifested in Jesus Christ. This happens all throughout the letter, and rarely is it clearer than in our text.
2.1: My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. Jesus Christ is the central gear here, the focus around which the other two parts turn. Jesus is our propitiation—why? Because (1.5) God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. He is perfectly holy, perfectly good, perfectly righteous. But we are not holy; we have rebelled against God, and preferred our own sinful desires to his good will for us. 1.8: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. So we stand condemned under God’s just wrath, and our only way out of this mess is a perfect, holy sacrifice. And because Jesus is that perfect sacrifice, because God has given us a propitiation and advocate, 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Jesus makes our confession possible: Forgiveness should not be possible, because it would not be just: under ordinary circumstances, God would have to punish our sins, because that is what we deserve. But Christ took our sins on himself, and God poured out his wrath on those sins, which is why he is not only faithful, but JUST, to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Christ makes our confession possible.
So on the one hand, Christ makes our forgiveness possible; Christ makes it possible for God to declare us righteous; Christ makes it possible for us to not be afraid when we come to God, because he’s there next to us, standing there as our advocate. And on the other hand, Christ also makes our obedience possible! It is knowing God, who he is and what he has done for us in Jesus, which drives us to obedience (2.3): 3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. You see how John phrases this? He doesn’t point to obedience to God’s commandments as a condition for God’s love for us, but rather as evidence of our love for him—obedience is not the cause, but the result of knowing God, and loving God, and abiding in God.
You’ll see this over and over again if you read John’s letter all the way through. It is an extremely practical letter, full of imperatives—do this, don’t do that, etc. But none of these imperatives comes without first giving us a statement of who God is for us and what he has done for us in Christ. And it is the same for all of the New Testament authors. They tell us to do a lot of things, absolutely, and those things are absolutely necessary as evidence of our faith; but we are always told to do these things because of him. God is good, and gracious, and loving: he showed us that supremely in Christ. And because we know that, because we know him, we are honest about our sins; because we know him, we trust in his sacrifice, given for us; because we know him, we obey his commandments.
Here’s the point. Nearly every sentence in the Bible is written to make us ask ourselves this question: Who IS this God? What kind of a God is this? What kind of God would do these things? What kind of a God goes to so much trouble to forgive sin? What kind of God would plan, from the beginning of time, to provide in himself a substitute and an advocate to defend people who hate and reject him? What kind of a God would take on himself the punishment his enemies deserve? would love people who would hate him? would be murdered by hands he created? would defend those who still deserve punishment, because he loves them? What kind of a God would demand something of his people, give them what he demands, then reward them for that which he gave them? What kind of a God would use a specific people group to show himself to the world, then fling the doors open to the rest of the world, redeeming for himself a global family from all nations and peoples, who will be his family forever? If God has proven that it is his express will to do things like this…then what must he be like?
Here’s why this is so important. How we FEEL about God will determine how we respond to him. If we feel that God is a harsh, overly demanding God who is simply waiting to pounce on the first sin he sees, thenwe will be afraid to confess our sins, and we will take on his commandments like a burden. But if we know, deep down in our gut, that God is a God who is this loving, this good, this gracious, who has given us all and who promises to keep on giving…how then will we see confession? Confession won’t be a trial to be feared, but a fountain of relief when we have made ourselves weary by our disobedience. If we really know and feel that God is like this, how will we view his commandments? They will be not a burden to inhibit our happiness, but a light shined on a twisted path, designed to show us how to be as happy as we could possibly be: how to know him more deeply, love him more fully, and abide in him more completely.
4) What is a “good Christian”?
So what is a good Christian? We could say, like we said earlier, that a good Christian is one who confesses his sin before this holy God; who trusts in Jesus Christ his advocate and substitute; and who responds to the grace God has shown him in joyful obedience to his commands. But while this answer is good as far as it goes, it is incomplete: it gives us the effect, but not the cause. No Christian brings any warrant to his salvation, before or after; our only merit before or after salvation is Christ alone. So being a “good Christian,” to be honest, has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with your God. A good Christian knows God to be loving and good, and so, for that reason, he responds to God in repentance and faith.
God is a God who forgives: he is faithful and just to forgive us. God is a God who saves: he has given us Jesus Christ, our propitiation and advocate. God is a God who guides us for our joy: he gives us commandments which we are always good, because he is good. So because we know that God forgives, we confess our sin before him. Because we know that God saves, we trust in the means of salvation he has given us, Jesus Christ alone. Because we know that God is good, and guides us for our joy, we joyfully obey his commands.
No matter who you are, whether you know Jesus or not, you are incapable of doing any of this on your own. You are incapable of seeing and knowing God like this on your own; and you are incapable of responding to Christ on your own. So I’d like to invite you to pray. You don’t have to (no one’s going to force you to do so), but if you want this, if you want to repent and believe, to know this God, to grow in your knowledge of God and to respond to him in a way which pleases him, I invite you to do that, to pray along with me and agree with me as I go.
Father, we feel ill-equipped to come to you, because as good as you are, we don’t see you as that good; as merciful as you are, we don’t understand your mercy; as kind as you are, we underestimate your kindness. Lord, we confess that we are sinners. We have rebelled against you. We have preferred our own desires to your perfect will for us; we have preferred our own lusts to the treasure you have offered us in Christ. Please forgive us, Father. We need a Savior.
Thank you for giving us this Savior in Jesus Christ. Thank you for pouring out your wrath on him instead of us. Thank you for accepting his sacrifice, for raising him from the dead. Thank you for placing him before you as our advocate, the seal of approval you have set on us. We pray that you would help us to see Christ clearly, and to love him deeply. Help us to see in him the love you have shown to us. Help us to never doubt the extent of your love, and to never underestimate the depth of your goodness.
Please help us to believe that when you ask us to do something, when you ask us to give up something, you never ask anything of us that will rob us of happiness. Help us to believe that when you ask us to give up sin and pursue righteousness, you are asking us to give up fleeting, temporary, tiny pleasures now to inherit an infinite wealth of infinite pleasure in you. Help us to believe you are good, and to see that your commands for us are also good, so that we may desire the things you command. Let all we do, Lord, have you alone as source and motivation. You deserve this, and we want this. Help us to want it more, and love you as you deserve.
(1) Tim Keller, in Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Crossway, Wheaton, IL., 2016), p. 13.