For those who passionately believe that the ‘blood of Jesus Christ’ can cleanse the acknowledged perpetrator from ‘all sin’ there is a question that is often asked.
In 1 John we read…
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8 NKJV.
Surely, say the questioners, this verse shows the continual universality of sin. It is a comprehensive statement relating to the whole human race, and as it is in the present tense, it declares that ‘sin’ lurks in every breast, no matter how holy a man or woman might be and no matter what ‘higher’ (or deeper) experience he claims.
The Wesleyans answered this question by linking the verse with later verses and have been roundly chastised for their bad exposition. I think John Wesley was right in his commentary on 1 John but I would have expressed the explanation differently. The question has cropped up on the Facebook Group ‘friends of biblebase‘ but the broken conversations there make serious Bible exposition difficult. We need to start with something a little more substantial before a real conversation can begin. Let’s see if a weekly blog can lay a foundation.
In his “Explanatory Notes on the New Testament” John Wesley writes,
“If we say – Any child of man, before His blood has cleansed us. We have no sin – To be cleansed from. Instead of confessing our sins (verse 9), the truth is not in us – Neither in our mouth nor in our heart.
and again in his “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” he answers objections that are raised to ‘Christian Perfection’,
“But St. John himself says, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves;’ and, ‘If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.’
“I answer, (1.) The tenth verse fixes the sense of the eighth: ‘If we say we have no sin,’ in the former, being explained by, ‘If we say we have not sinned,’ in the latter, verse. (2.) The point under consideration is not, whether we have or have not sinned heretofore; and neither of these verses asserts that we do sin, or commit sin now. (3.) The ninth verse explains both the eighth and tenth: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ As if he had said, ‘I have before affirmed, The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin.’ And no man can say, ‘I need it not; I have sin to be cleansed, from.’ ‘If we say, we have no sin, that ‘we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves,’ and make God a liar: But ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just,’ not only ‘to forgive us our sins,’ but also ‘to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,’ that we may ‘go and sin no more.’ In conformity, therefore, both to the doctrine of St. John, and the whole tenor of the New Testament, we fix this conclusion: A Christian is so far perfect, as not to commit sin.
There are several comments we could make on this but I’ll just stick to the topic in mind. I’m not trying to defend Wesley in all his points but I do think he has got the right handle on this passage and over the next few blogs I’ll try to tell you why I think so.
Going a little further back in history we’ll make a call on the man who has been called the “Morning Star of the Reformation”. John Wycliffe was an early example of a ‘biblebased’ man. I like to think he would have joined our ‘friends of biblebase’ Facebook group!
Among many other contributions he listed a series of questions that would help our understanding when reading the Scriptures. It was an early example of what is often called Inductive Bible Study. It is a very sound methodology.
Whenever we begin to unpack a Bible verse we need to ask some of these questions and I want to ask the first three of Wycliffe’s questions in particular.
- What are we talking about here?
What does John mean by ‘sin’ in this passage? Is he to referring sins as specific acts of transgression or to Sin as the ruling power that Paul speaks of in Romans 5-8?
- Of whom was this spoken? Is he referring to the whole of humanity here? Does he mean ‘we regenerate’, ‘we apostles’? Or does he have another group in mind?
- To whom was this spoken? John’s epistle has no address on it so how are we to answer this question? What do we know of this era of early church life? What do we know of the historical context into which he writes?
We may feel that these questions will delay our answer to the question but we can’t afford to ignore the context of 1 John. Almost all the epistles of the New Covenant Scriptures are ‘occasional’ i.e. they were triggered by an occasion. They were responses to situations that had arisen and that demanded a response. One of the first questions we need to ask is “Why did John write this letter?” So please give some thought to these questions and, DV, I’ll catch up with you next week.