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TEXT: I John 5:18-20
SUBJECT: I John #18: Gripped by Grace
Here's a story of the Marriage of Good Theology and Bad Manners. A couple of generations ago, Arthur W. Pink was greeted by a neighbor in the customary British way:
Mr. Pink, How are you keeping?
To which he replied:
I am not keeping; I'm being kept!
On hearing such an exchange, it's no wonder Mr. Pink was such an unpopular man, why his last years were lived out in near total isolation. The man was a jerk!
But, if his manners were bad, his theology was good. We Christians do not keep ourselves; we are kept. Peter says, we are-
Kept by the power of God.
Our Lord said we're in the hands of God the Father and that-
No one can pluck us out of His hands.
In one of the Bible's most stirring affirmations of faith, Paul says nothing-absolutely nothing-can separate us from the Love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Pink was rude, but right: We don't keep ourselves. We are kept. But some verses, including the last verse of I John, seem to say otherwise. In v,21, the Apostle says-
Keep yourselves from idols.
And even more emphatically, Jude 24 says-
Keep yourselves in the love of God.
It seems Mr. Pink wasn't so right after all. But it just seems that way, because we only keep ourselves away from idols or in God's love or on the straight and narrow by the wisdom and power that God gives us. Even our personal efforts are but the product of His love, the saving work of His Son, and the Abiding Presence of the Holy Spirit. We are gripped by grace.
This is what John wants us to take away from his Letter, to 'get out of it'. That's why he puts it at the end, so that, when we forget other things he wrote, we'll remember this thing. Or, better than 'remember' it; so that we'll-
Know it for sure. This is why he uses the word know four times in three short verses. He doesn't want us insecure in Christ, but secure in Him. Not always doubting and wondering, but knowing and being confident that Jesus is our Savior and that He has really saved us!
The first thing to note is John's audience. Though our Bibles typically call this a Catholic or General Epistle, we mustn't think it's written to everyone. V.19 says John is writing to and about-
In v.18, he specifies who the we are by saying those who are-
Born of God.
All can benefit from reading his Epistle, but John is writing for Christians in particular-and not, I should say-nominal Christians, no less heretical 'Christians', but people who are authentic children of God, the born again as our Lord put it back in the Gospel of John.
What he writes about such people is alarming, if taken by itself, and read only in English. V.18 says that such a person-
Does not sin.
Is John saying that the born again Christian is sinless-already sinless, sinless before the Resurrection? No, he's not saying that, and we know he's not because:
Back in Chapter 1, he has denounced everyone who makes the claim, saying, firstly, that he is deceived, and then, that he-
Makes God a liar.
This is on the other end of the Letter, of course, and maybe John's view has drifted a bit? No. As recently as the previous paragraph, John has assumed that brothers sin. Not that we ought to sin or that's okay with God, but the simple fact: we do sin.
This is true, not only of some brothers, but all of us-including the sisters! John himself was once-
A son of thunder.
Peter denied the Lord; Paul said he wasn't perfect; the First Church ignored the needs of the foreign-born widows in favor of the native-born. We all sin every day, even the saintliest people need to confess their sins daily and be, daily-
Cleansed by the blood of Christ.
This is certainly what the Bible teaches, what universal experience demonstrates, and what John himself has already said.
Still, there it is-
Whoever is born of God does not sin.
What does this mean? The word sin is in the present tense and means something like this: sin doesn't characterize his life. Of course, he sins every day, and he sins in the same way every day. But he is not controlled by sin as he once was. Paul says the believer-in-Christ is no longer under the-
Dominion of sin.
No longer ruled by it.
This is all John means by saying the one born of God does not sin. And it's more than enough to give us pause and push us to a firmer commitment to Christ and holiness.
When I hear the word, 'addiction' I always think of alcohol, drugs, sex and gambling. These are addictions that hold people in moral and spiritual chains. But there are more respectable addictions as well, things we don't usually think of in this way. Here I think of bitterness, envy, pride, self-righteousness, contempt for other people, the need to always have the last word, to always be right. Such attitudes rule over people in ways that old Jack Daniels cannot. Because, while they're seen as (possibly) character flaws, they're not seen as mortal sins.
May the Lord, by His Almighty power and infinite love, free anyone and everyone from the malign powers that hold you in bondage!
Christian character is far, far, far from what it ought to be. But it's even farther from what it used to be! For all our weaknesses, blind spots, and bad habits, people born of God-
Do not sin.
Sin does not control us; we're not under its power anymore!
WHY WE DON'T SIN
Why don't we live the way we used to? Have we all just gotten too old to enjoy the pleasures that once ruled us? Or now have 'too much to lose'? These are means of Common Grace for curbing sinful man. John doesn't bring this up.
What he does bring up brings us to another technical controversy. Some manuscripts say-as my Bible does-
He keeps himself.
In other words, we are kept from our old ways of living because we work on it. As long as we remember that the Lord is the One working in us to work, this is a true doctrine, and needs to be reinforced, as Paul does in Philippians 2-
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.
If this is how v,18 reads, this is its meaning. But other manuscripts don't say 'he keeps himself', but rather-
He keeps him.
This seems like a quibble of no real importance, but it isn't. For if these manuscripts are right, what John is saying is that-
God keeps him.
For a variety of reasons, I think this is the proper reading. The reason born again people don't live the way we used to is because God keeps us, protects us, gives us and secures our Christian lives.
This, I believe, is what John is saying here, and it fits beautifully with what follows. Because God is keeping us (holding us tightly in His grip)-
The wicked one does not touch us.
The devil certainly tempts us every minute of every day, and we give in more than we'd care to admit, but, for all this.the devil does not control us. He used to be his (willing) slaves, but now-
The Son has made us free and we're free indeed!
Not free from his harassment, but free from his lordship.
To show us how wonderful our freedom in Christ is, v.19 contrasts what everybody else is stuck with-
We know that we are of God and the whole world lies in the wicked one.
Here, perhaps, the little words of and in are worth thinking about. The believer in Christ is of God, that is, we're born of Him, members of His family. But the unbeliever is in the wicked one, in his control, or-to borrow from Dante-in his claws, or even in his mouth!
This gives ample reason for the deepest humility, for we too-every one of us, including nice church boys, like myself-were once in the wicked one! And, while we were his victims, we were never innocent victims. We used to serve another master, and we served him from the heart. At bottom, we were deceived because we wanted to be deceived! Like the men our Lord so harshly criticized, we-
Were of our father the devil and his will we did.
On purpose. Intentionally. Because we wanted to.
But, more than 'humility' this spurs us to the highest gratitude. Never mind having a good family, a job, a nice place to live, fine health, and the other common blessings of life, as dear as they are to us. Just think of what God has done for you! He hasn't 'helped' you, He has delivered you! Paul says He has-
Delivered us from so great a death!
And, even closer to our present topic, God has-
Delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the Kingdom of His Son.
You haven't done this, God has; and He hasn't asked for or needed your help in doing it! He's the Subject, we're the Predicate; He is the Actor in the Great Drama of Salvation; we are the acted upon-
Of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory now and forever. Amen!
The sad state of the world must also stir us to prayer and evangelism, befriending the lost and setting a good example for them. Do you have any unsaved friends? If you don't, why don't you? Are you too good for them? If you are, remember, Stand back, I am holier than thou, was not the stance our Lord took, but the Pharisees!
The world is blind; nice people are blind; intelligent people are blind; moral, church-going people are blind, and the Only Light There Is is the Light of Christ, a Light you can turn on them. And then leave the results to a sovereign, loving God.
In v.20, John sums up the message he has been developing from the start-
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true, in His Son, Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.
We are convinced of the Gospel because God Himself has convinced us of it. This Gospel is not about us, our happiness in this world or the next. It's all about Christ, who He is and what He's done.
Who He is, is the (1) Christ, the (2) Son of God, (3) God Himself, and (4) Eternal Life. No one has ever packed more theology into fewer words than John does here. Whatever the heretics say to the contrary, Jesus is both fully Divine and fully human; He has come to save us from our sins and He has done it, obtaining for us what we could never obtain for ourselves, namely-
That is, a life that can be lived in the Presence of God, without fear, and with His full approval, even now, and one day, with complete conformity to the Image of His Son. This is who Jesus is, and He did all of this, simply by-
By which, John means 'coming into the world' to 'do the will of Him who sent Him'. And that will was none too easy or pleasant. What the Father sent the Son to do is to Drink the Cup of Divine Justice in the place of the people who had it coming!
On the Cross, that's just what Jesus did. He died the death that we deserved-and I don't mean simply 'a painful death', for many Christians die in the most terrible pain.
What I mean is He died under the Curse of God, He suffered all the pains of Hell, of Eternal Damnation, on the Cross. For you.
We celebrate Christmas with hearts full of joy, and why shouldn't we? On that Day, God joined the human race. But in picturing that cute Jewish baby sleeping in the manger, let us never forget that His destiny of earth was not in the manger, but on the Cross. Not so say, 'goo goo', but something less adorable-
My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?
Out of sheer mercy, God has given us this understanding, and enabled us to act on it by putting our faith-not in ourselves, not in men, not even in the Church, but in Christ Himself. Amen.
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