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Being Like God

Series: 1 John

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Sep 14, 2003

We’re continuing to work our way through this book and the two small letters of 2nd and 3rd John that follow it. The last time we were to together we said that John in this book shows us how the Christian life expresses itself doctrinally, relationally, and morally. That is, how it expresses itself in the truth that we believe, in the love that we show for one another in the Christian church, the commitment that we show to our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ as well as to those who are neighbors outside of the body of Christ, in the way that we live in accordance with God's precepts and commands. The Christian life manifests itself in these ways: it shows itself in these ways.

And John makes that point in this book, but he makes that point in this book because there are people that are troubling this congregation with false teaching. There are people that are telling them, for instance, that as long as they believe in God it doesn't matter what they think about Christ; it doesn't matter how they live; and it doesn't matter whether they’re in fellowship with one another or with the apostles. And so John, in responding to those particular false teachings in that local congregation, manages not only to rebut and refute those false teachings but to give us something of lasting, of enduring value for the living of the Christian life in our own time, because the kinds of issues that he addresses here in 1 John are the kinds of issues pressing on us.

And in the course of this book, he explores with us what it means to be a Christian, what a Christian looks like, how you can tell a real Christian from someone who merely professes to be a Christian. He deals with the issue of how you can gain assurance of being a Christian. Few books provide a more timely diagnostic for Christianity and the Christian life in our own day than 1 John. And so we're delighted to study it together.

Now in the first four verses, John responded to some of the concerns of this congregation, because they were unsettled by the false teachers. The false teachers claimed to be teaching the truth even though what they were teaching was different from what John had taught and what the other apostles had taught. And so John, in the opening verses of this book, reminds them that the gospel doesn't change because it's rooted in God. It came from eternity; it's the old, old story. And he also reminds them that John had learned the gospel from Jesus Himself, and so he is able to say, “I knew Jesus. I touched Jesus. I heard Jesus. This is what Jesus taught. You can be confident of it.” And that word is no less comforting to us today than it was to that first, beleaguered congregation when they heard these words of truth and grace. Let's pray for God's Holy Spirit to illumine our hearts and minds as the word is read and proclaimed. Let us pray.

Lord and God, You are light, and in You there is no shifting shadow. So enlighten us as we hear Your word read and proclaimed so that we might come to know You as You are—as You've revealed Yourself in Your word—and fellowship with You and be conformed to Your image. Through Jesus Christ our Lord we ask it. Amen.

Look with me at First John 1 beginning in verse 5. Hear the word of God.

“And this is the message we have heard from Him and announce to You, that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood o f Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Now as we said, in this passage John is responding to the first of three errors that are being taught by false teachers. You can see each of those three errors in his repeated phrase, “If we say…” Look at verse 6: “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness…” Then look down to verse 8: “If we say that we have no sin…” And in verse 10: “If we say that we have not sinned…” Those are the three false teachings which are being propounded in this congregation that John is about to respond to, from about verse 5 down to about verse 10 of chapter 2.

And in the passage before us, in verses 5-7, he has three things to say in response to that first error. The first error is in verse 6: “If we say that we have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie.” He has three things in verses 5, 6, and 7 to say about that error. The first thing he has to say is in verse 6, and it's about who God is: God is light. The second thing he has to say is about those who claim to fellowship with the God of light and yet walk in darkness: they lie. In other words, they’re hypocrites. And the third thing he has to say you’ll see in verse 7, and that is a description of what the normal, the standard Christian life looks like. What does it look like? It looks like the pursuit of holiness; it looks like fellowship and mutual accountability to the people of God; and it requires the ongoing forgiveness of sins. We’re not instantaneously perfected. We need the forgiveness of sins. Those are the three things that he has to say in response to this particular error. Let's look at those things in detail.

I. God is light, therefore, a life bent towards darkness proves that we have no fellowship with Him.
First, looking at verses 5 and 6, John, interestingly, begins to respond to this error by talking theology. In fact, he talks what theologians call “theology proper.” Now theology proper is theology that has to do with who God is and what He is like. It's usually one of the first sections in a systematic theology. It deals with things like: the names of God and the attributes of God, the characteristics of God and the works of God—like creation and providence and redemption. And it's interesting that John responds to this ethical error in the church by first taking people to who God is, and he announces in verse six that God is light. Now in doing that, in and of itself, he reminds us of a very important truth; and that is this: that the Christian life flows from what you really believe God is. What you really believe God is. Who you really believe God is. What you really believe God is like will work itself out in the way that you live the Christian life. And so he makes this announcement that God is light.

Now light is an image that you’re familiar with. We sang about that image in Song 100, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” We sing about it when we sing, “Immortal Invisible God only Wise,” whom we say dwells “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” The image of light is a common one in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. And it's used to stress different truths about God. But here clearly John wants to bring home the truth that God is perfectly, absolutely, morally pure and perfect. He is light.

We often use light and darkness that way. We talk sometimes about the darkness of a person's heart; that's never a compliment. It usually means that we are speaking about some aspect of sin in which they are entangled, moral depravity in which they are expressing. And, on the other hand, often we talk about the lightness or the light that shines from certain people's lives. Well, here John is making the assertion that God is holy. God is pure. God is perfect in His justice and in His character. And he makes that statement because he's wanting to drive home the truth that if you’re going to fellowship with that kind of God, it's going to mean a dramatic change from a life of sin. You cannot live a life bent towards sin and away from God and fellowship with a God who is perfectly upright. And so he makes that point in verses 5 and 6. God is light, and therefore a life bent towards darkness proves that we have no fellowship with Him. Because God is morally pure, those whose lives reflect no desire for purity betray their lack of fellowship with God. To claim to have fellowship with a God who is light, a God who is pure, and yet to live in contradiction of that light in our own lives reveals hypocrisy.

John is stressing is that a life bent in a godward direction, a life spent in the pursuit of godliness, a life which manifests a person's heart desire to be holy, to be morally like his heavenly Father or her heavenly Father: that kind of life reveals God's grace. And correspondingly, a life that is lived away from God, a life that has a bent toward sin, a life that does not manifest a concern for godliness or uprightness shows a lack of grace in the heart. Just as a life bent in a godward direction shows God's work of grace in the heart, so also a life bent away from God shows a lack of God's work of grace in the heart. And so he begins with whom God is in order to show us that anyone who says that you can live however you want in sin and in immorality and still have fellowship with God doesn't really know much about the God of the Bible. That's why he starts out the way he does in verse 5.

II. The idea that “we can have fellowship with God even while walking in immorality” is a false teaching.
Now he follows up this point in verse 6 especially, and that's the second thing I want you to see. Here he talks about hypocrisy. And he's specifically responding to this teaching that he introduces with the words, “If we say.” If we say that we can have fellowship with God even while walking in immorality, he says, we're not telling the truth. He's saying that is a false teaching; that's a false doctrine. If someone in the church is saying, “We’re saved by grace so we can live as we please. We’re saved by grace so it doesn't matter if I am pursuing holy or not. Or , “W we're saved by grace, therefore I have no responsibility to obey God's word anymore. We’re saved by grace, so obedience doesn't factor into my vocabulary and Christian experience anymore.”

John says to all that kind of teaching: that is false teaching. The idea that we can have fellowship with God even while walking in immorality he says is false teaching. And his language here is so similar, isn't it, to James? John says, “If we say we have fellowship and yet walk in darkness, we lie.” What does that remind you of? You remember James chapter 2 verses 14-26 where James says, “If we say we have faith and yet have no works then our faith is dead,” he says. In other words, it's not true faith. Well, John's saying the same thing: if we claim to have fellowship with God, and yet our lives fundamentally contradict that claim, then we do not have fellowship with God. We’re hypocrites.

And this is a vitally important issue, not simply for that congregation in the first century somewhere in Asia Minor, but it's also vitally important for us, isn't it? Because it's easy to make a profession of faith in Christ, and even to be baptized, and to become a participating member in some manor in a local church, and yet live a life that is not bent towards God. And that struggle is not a struggle that waits until you’re 23 and you’re out of college, and you've gotten married, and you’re having your first children, and you’re starting off in your career. That struggle begins at the beginning of your profession.

Young people in this congregation, you have this struggle right now. Will you live a life bent towards God, or will you, though you make a profession of faith, live a life bent away from Him? Every time you go to a dance, every time you go to a social occasion, every time you are tempted to drunkenness by your peers, every time you are tempted to sell out in your commitment to Christ in order to have popularity in your local setting, or to have the type of friends that you want; you are being faced with that challenge. Is your life going to be bent towards God, or is it going to be bent towards temporal self-interest, popularity, your own agendas, and your own priorities? That struggle starts early, and let me say, it presses hard upon our young people. And I want to say, John is not letting you off the hook here: he's saying, so what if you made a profession of faith! If your life contradicts that profession, your profession is false—it's a lie.

That's a challenge for all of us—and not just young people in high school or in college—that's a challenge for all of us in this room. Do we live under the Lordship of God? Is God the Lord of our marriages? Is He the Lord of our business dealings? Is He the Lord of the way we relate to one another and the life of this body, this congregation? Do we truly fellowship with one another, sharing life, bearing one another's burdens, encouraging one another to love and good deeds, encouraging one another to faith and hope and trust in God? Are we living under God's Lordship in our lives? Are we living as if growth and grace and godliness are not necessary or important?

John is saying, “What I want to see in the life of the professing believer is testimony that there is a life that is bent towards God.” God's promises are the desires of our hearts. God's commands we love; we long to do the duty that He has given to us; we long to be like Him; we want to be like the Lord Jesus Christ; we don't want to simply conform in the way we dress or the way we think or the way we act to the prevailing attitudes of the world around us. We want to march to the beat of a different drum. We want to march to the beat of God's drum. We want to be like Him. We want to think after His thoughts. We want to behave as He has called us to in this word. And so John is pressing home the point that if your profession of faith points one way and your life points the other way, it is an infallible proof that you’re a hypocrite.

Now John, I want to say very quickly, is not saying that if you are not sin-lessly perfected, you’re not a Christian. He makes that point very clear in the very next verse. The Christian life is not a life of sinless perfection. It is a life of struggle within and without, with temptation and sin. It is a life in which we continue to need the forgiveness of God. He speaks about it in verse 7, doesn't he. But is your life bent in that direction? Is your desire to grow in grace? Do you long to be godly? Are you unhappy in your sin because you know that that sin is displeasing to God, and it fractures your fellowship with Him and with others? Is sin something that you cannot rest in, you cannot be satisfied in, but you long to please Him in the way you live? If so, your life is bent towards God.

But if being like God, if being Holy, if being separated out and committed to Him and to His people, even if it costs you in this life—if that's not your concern, then John says, You’re contradicting your profession. John is asking us to search our lives and see whether our lives measure up to our profession. His catch phrase—if we wanted to give him a catch phrase here in verse 6—would be, “Do the truth.” He’d say, don't tell me that you believe the truth; do the truth! Now John's not playing down the importance of believing the truth. What's his gospel about but believing the truth? All through the gospel of John, what does he say to you? “Believe the truth, believe the gospel, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.” But here he says, don't just tell me that you believe the truth; do the truth— practice the truth. John is saying, you are what you do. Your lives, he's saying, your lives will reveal whether you really believe the truth that you claim to believe. Your lives will show if you really have fellowship with God. Your lives will show if you have real fellowship as brothers and sisters with fellow believers. That's the second thing that he says.

III. If we live a life of moral purity, by grace, we evidence his work of grace in us, and are enabled to fellowship with one another, even while God continues to forgive our many sins through Christ.
And the third thing is this: isn't verse 7 sort of a catalog of what the normal Christian life looks like? He says in verse 7 that the way we manifest true fellowship with the living God is: we walk in the light—that is, we pursue holiness. We fellowship with one another. That is, we are mutually accountable to one another; we recognize the importance of the means of grace and fellowship with the body of Christ, and we don't take lightly separating ourselves from the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And then thirdly he says, “And the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” In other words, because we're walking with God doesn't mean that we no longer need forgiveness of sins. To the contrary, the normal Christian life will entail being forgiven for sin daily. That's why we confess every Lord's Day when we come together, and it's why I trust that you confess your sins every night even as you adore God and thank God and praise Him for His forgiving grace through Jesus Christ, and intercede for your family and for the world. You confess your sins.

Why? Because the normal Christian life involves forgiveness of sins, and he outlines this three-part Christian life—pursuing holiness, pursuing fellowship, and being forgiven of sins—here in verse 7. And he's saying, when we live that kind of a life in which we're pursuing holiness, and in which we're pursuing fellowship with one another, and as God continues to forgive our sins through Christ, we are manifesting that we are in fellowship with God. Isn't it interesting he doesn't say, “Well did you make a decision?” Or, “Did you pray a prayer?” Or, “Did you sign a card?” Or even, “Were you baptized?” He asks, “What does your life tell me about your faith?” I want you to understand in verse 7, he is not saying that if you are holy then God will forgive you; if you are holy enough then God will show grace to you. That's not his point at all.

His point is this: if you have truly trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, if you have been saved by His mercy alone through the deeds of Christ and not your own, then your life will usher forth in a life which is consistent with what you have professed to believe. He's not saying be holy enough, and God will forgive you: be holy enough, and you’ll have fellowship with one another. He's saying that your pursuit of holiness, your fellowship with other believers, your mutual accountability to them, your love for them, your love for the means of grace, your love for the local church, and, he is saying, your ongoing forgiveness of sins are manifestations of the real Christian life that flows from trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He has offered in the gospel. He is saying that the life of faith issues forth in a life of obedience, of trust, of fellowship, and of forgiveness.

Do you remember how Paul puts this in Ephesians chapter 2 right after he said, “For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God”? What does he go on to say in verse 10? “You were created in Christ Jesus for good works.” In other words, you were created for holiness. You were saved for godliness. You were not only saved by God in order that you could be declared righteous in Christ, but also that God could work in you the grace of His Son so that you’re conformed into His image.

And John is saying, how do I know a Christian? I see a person who is pursuing God, who's pursuing holiness, who's pursuing godliness, who's in fellowship with other believers, who's mutually accountable to them, and who knows the ongoing forgiveness of sins that we all need in the Christian life because we're not perfect and we stumble.

What does John's diagnosis say about you today? Is your profession empty or is it real? We all know that we stumble at many points, but is the bent of our lives towards God or away from him? That's the question that John is pressing on us today. By God's mercy let's answer it right. Let's pray.

Oh Lord, hear our prayer. Make us to be like our Savior: to not merely profess grace, but to possess sanctifying grace. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

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