by Robert Candlish
"My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father."—1 JOHN 2:1.
To obviate, as it might seem, an objection against his doctrine of confession, that it was liable to be turned into an allowance of sin, the Apostle first makes a most emphatic protest as to his real design in setting forth that doctrine; and secondly, puts the manner of restoration, through the advocacy of Christ, on a footing that effectually shuts out all licentious and latitudinarian abuse of it, in the line of practical antinomianism.
His first desire is to make clear the sinless aim of the guileless spirit, about the production of which he has been so much concerned.
And here his appeal is very affectionate: "My little children!" It is the appeal of a loving master to the good faith and good feeling of loving pupils; beseeching them not to misunderstand him, as if he meant to indulge or excuse them in sin. Nay, it is more than that. It is an appeal to their highest and holiest Christian ambition. Far from tolerating sin, I would have you to aim at being sinless. "These things write I unto you, that ye sin not;" that you may make it your express design and determination not to sin.
That is the full force of the Apostle's language, when he says, "I write these things unto you that ye sin not."
I. Let that be your aim, to "sin not." Let it be deliberately set before you as your fixed and settled purpose that you are not to sin; not merely that you are to sin as little as you can; but that you are not to sin at all.
For there is a wide difference between these two ways of putting the matter. That in the business of your sanctification absolute holiness is to be your standard, you may admit. A sinless model or ideal is presented to you; and you acknowledge your obligation to be conformed to it. But is not the acknowledgment often accompanied with some sort of reserve or qualification? The measure of conformity that may be fairly expected must be limited by what your infirmity may hope to reach; nay, you even venture to add, by what God may be pleased to give you strength to reach. This is scarcely honest. It is not equivalent to an out-and-out determination not to sin. You do not really mean to be altogether without sin; but only so far as your own poor ability, aided by the Divine Spirit, may enable you to be so. Or, with reference to some specific work or trial that you have on hand, you do not really mean not to sin in it, but only not to sin in it more than you can help. Is it not so, both generally as regards your cultivation of a holy character, and particularly as regards your discharge of holy duties in detail? And what is that at bottom, but secret, perhaps unconscious, antinomianism? You are not in love with sin; you do not choose sin; you would rather, if it were possible, avoid it, and be wholly free from it. But that, you say, is impossible. You make up your minds therefore to its being impossible, and reckon beforehand on its being impossible. You wish and hope and pray, that the evil element may be reduced to a minimum. Still it is to be there; you are quite sure it will be there; and you must accommodate yourself to what is unavoidable. However you may try, you cannot expect to be without sin, or "not to sin."
This is a very subtle snare. And it is not easily met. For it is founded on fact. It is but too true that in all that we do we come short of the sinless aim. That, however, is no reason for our not only anticipating fault or failure, but acquiescing in the anticipation. Above all, it is no reason why we should take it for granted by anticipation that some particular fault or failure, foreseen and foreknown by ourselves, must be acquiesced in. For the special danger lies there. It is not merely that in entering on any course of holy living, or engaging in any branch of holy labour, I feel certain that I shall sin in it. I have a shrewd suspicion as to how I shall sin in it. I can guess where the breakdown is to take place. I have tried already to keep this law as I see it should be kept, and to keep it perfectly. I will try again, asking God to incline my heart to keep it. I know well enough indeed that I shall fail and fall short. And I know well enough how I shall fail and fall short. Nevertheless, I can but try, and I will try, to do my best.
Is that, however, a really honest determination on my part not to sin? Am I not reconciling myself prospectively to some known besetting infirmity? Let us not deceive ourselves. Let us consider how inconsistent all such guileful dealing is with that "walking in the light, as God is in the light," which is the indispensable condition of our fellowship with God and his with us. The very object of all that the apostle writes on that subject is that, at the very least, we rise to the high and holy attitude of determining not to sin. All that he tells us of "the word of life," the life "which was with the Father and was manifested unto us;" all that he tells us of the divine fellowship for which the way is thus opened up; all that he tells us of the nature of him with whom our fellowship is to be, and of the provision made through the blood of Jesus Christ his Son which cleanseth from all sin, for our coming forth out of our natural darkness into his light; all is designed to bring us up to this point, that we sin not; that in purpose and determination we are bent on not sinning.
II. But not only would I have you to make this your aim; I would have your aim accomplished and realised. And therefore "I write these things unto you, that ye sin not."
We are to proceed upon the anticipation, not of failure but of success, in all holy walking and in every holy duty; not of our sinning, but of our not sinning. And we are to do so, because the things which John "writes unto us" make the anticipation no wild dream, but a possible attainment.
We must assume it to be possible not to sin, when we walk in the open fellowship of God, and in his pure translucent light; especially not to sin in this or that particular way in which we have sinned before, and in which we are apt to be afraid of sinning again. For practical purposes this is really all that is needed. But this is needed.
I do not care much for any general assurance, even if I could get it, that I am not to sin at all. But, if I am in earnest, how deeply do I care for even a faint hope that, in the particular matter that lies heavy on my conscience, it may sometime and somehow become possible for me not to sin! That is what is pressing. In some hour of calm meditation or divine contemplative speculation, the idea of a serene and stainless perfection of holiness and peace wrapping my spirit in ineffable bliss may have a certain fascinating charm, and may awaken undefined longings and aspirations. They are far too vague, however, to be practically influential. And they do not meet my case. For why am I troubled? What is it that distresses and vexes me? Alas! it is no mere vague consciousness of imperfection. It is some specific "thorn in the flesh" that, as a "messenger of Satan, is buffeting me." "When I would do good, evil is present with me." When I would pray, my soul cleaves to the dust. When I am in my closet, with my door shut against all the world, all sorts of worldly thoughts intrude. When I read and study, I find my mind unfixed. When God speaks to me, my attention wanders. When I should be hearing the voice of his servant, my eyes are drowsy. I take up some branch of God's service,—how soon do I grow weary, or stumble, or offend! I seek to control my temper, and some slight provocation oversets me. Try as I may, I am sure to fail. And then, when, going down to the depths of my inner nature, I seek to have my whole soul purged from lust and filled with love, alas! is there never to be an end of this weary, heartless, fruitless struggle? Is it to be always thus,—sinning and repenting; repenting and going back to sin?
Nay, let me hear John's loving words; "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not." Believe these things; realise them; act upon them; act them out. They are such things as, if believed, realised, acted upon, and acted out, will make it possible for you "not to sin." For they are such things as, if thus apprehended, change the character of the whole struggle. They transfer it to a new and higher platform. We are brought into a position, in relation to God, in which holiness is no longer a desperate negative strife, but a blessed positive achievement. Evil is overcome with good. The heavenly walk in light with him who is light carries us upwards and onwards, above and beyond the region of dark guilt and fear, in which sin is strong; and places us in the region of peace and joy, in which grace is stronger. Sanctification is not now a mere painful process of extirpation and extermination of weeds. It will no doubt be that still; but it is not that merely. It is the gracious implanting of good seed, and the cultivating of it gladly as it grows. And as we enter more and more, with larger intelligence and deeper sympathy, into the spirit of John's opening words concerning the end and means of our "fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ," we come better to know experimentally what is in his heart when he says: "These things write I unto you, that ye sin not." That is what you are to aim at; and you are to aim at it as now possible.
III. Why then, it may be asked, is provision made for our sinning still after all?—"If any man"—any of us—"sin, we have an advocate with the Father." Let me in reply again appeal to any who are really exercised in resisting sin and following after holiness; "walking truly in the light, as God is in the light."
For I do not address those who take this whole matter easily; being quite contented with a very moderate measure of decent abstinence from gross vice and the perfunctory performance of some pious and charitable offices. The present theme scarcely concerns them in their present mood. John assumes that we are in earnest; that sin is to us exceeding sinful, and holiness above all things desirable. We have purposed in good faith that we will not offend. We rejoice to think that we may now form that purpose with good heart; not desperately, as if we were upon a forlorn hope; but rather as grasping the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ. For he is with us. He cheers us on. He assures us of success. And when, at any time, he sees some lurking apprehension of failure or defeat stealing into our souls again to discourage us; when he sees that we are getting nervous about the risk of our making some mistake, or meeting with some check or reverse, and that this very nervousness is unhinging and unmanning us; he tells us not to think too much of it, but to press on; for he is beside us, to help us if we should stumble, to lift us if we should fall—"If any of us sin, we have an advocate with the Father."
Shall I then be emboldened to walk heedlessly, presuming on his advocacy? Perish the ungenerous, the ungrateful thought! What! shall I make a mere convenience of that Divine Saviour, and turn his ministry of holy love into a mere pleading for indulgence and purchase of impunity?
Lying priests, false mediators; priests and mediators false to both the parties between whom they mediate, to God's high honour and man's pure peace; false, as not reconciling but alienating, not bringing together but keeping asunder, the yearning Father and his poor prodigal child;—they and their offices may be so used, or abused. But Jesus is an advocate of a very different stamp. He is not content to negotiate, as a third party, between God dwelling in light and us suffered still to continue in darkness. He is one with both the parties whom he makes one in himself. By his one offering of himself, once for all, he brings us, when the Spirit unites us by faith to him, into the very light of God, his Father and ours.
But the light is such as, when our eyes are opened to its brightness, makes our walking in it an affair of extreme delicacy. In good faith, with full purpose, right honestly and heartily to "walk in the light," is to face an ordeal from which a man with renovated principles and sensibilities may well sensitively shrink. True, the tendency of all this marvellous arrangement for placing us on such a footing of light with God,—admitting us into such a fellowship of light and setting us to such a walk of light,—is that we "sin not." And we are assured that if we make full proof of this light, we shall find it no such impossible thing as we might imagine not to sin. But with a growing clearness of vision, becoming more and more alive to the inexpressible lustre and loveliness of the light, and the offensiveness of whatever partakes of the least soil or stain of the darkness which the light exposes;—how should our advance along the ascending path of heavenliness and spirituality be anything else than one continued discipline of anxious fear?
Jesus knows our frame, in its worst and in its best state. He knows what to us, with such a frame as ours at the best is, our really "walking in the light as God is in the light" must be. He knows how at every step,—in spite of all the encouragement given us beforehand to hope that we need not, that we may not, that we shall not sin,—we still may shrink and hang back; fearing with too good ground that even if, in the form we used to dread, our sin shall seem to give way, it may, in some new manifestation of our deep inward corruption, lie in wait to trouble us. Well does our sympathising friend and brother know all this And therefore he assures us that he is always beside us; "our advocate with the Father." We need not therefore be afraid to walk with the Father in the light. We may walk, alas! too often unsteadfastly. We may give new offence. We may incur new blame. But see! There is the intercessor ever pleading for us. "If any of us sin, we have an advocate with the Father."
From Robert Candlish,(1877). Commentary on the First Epistle of John