Like all the early Christians, John’s first readers were facing false teaching that threatened to separate them from their relationship with each other and with Christ. While there are times when John tells us exactly what the false teachers were saying, there are times when we are required to infer the false teaching from the correction John gives. We learn the disease by reading the prescription labels. It seems to be the case that John’s congregation was being tempted to take sin too lightly, to view it with a frightening level of indifference, to see sin as inconsequential to their lives with Christ.
To be sure, this is one way of dealing with the unremitting reality of our own brokenness. If we are able to deny sin itself, justify any behavior we want, or even claim a certain kind of perfection, we are able (we think) to side-step the problem sin presents. But this is not John’s solution. His is radically different from the temptation to suppress the sinfulness of sin. Instead, the closer we look at the depth and power of sin and all of its consequences in our lives the more we learn that God as greater than all of that. The God who forgives does not forgive small and inconsequential things, He forgives the very thing that becomes our ruination. Disciples of Jesus Christ do not live forgiven lives because they have diminished sin, but because God has done something about all their sin.
To remedy the false teaching John tells his readers that all “sin is lawlessness.” Everything that is contrary to the will and character of God is a breaking of His law. John does not make distinctions between the large, visible sins and the small or private sins implying that only the ‘big’ acts of rebellion are lawless while the others are not. All that goes against God’s law is sin and all sin is lawlessness – every inclination, every action.
John, however, does not leave us there. Christ “appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.” John knows our lives are riddled with brokenness and that Christ came to fix that problem. In fact, knowing the extent of sin is our doorway into understanding why Christ came. If John’ s readers were denying their sinfulness, were they changing the reason why Christ came? If I have decided that I no longer suffer the ravages of sin, who then does Christ become? It is a short path from the softening of sin to Christ being reduced from a Savior to a moral example or a great human teacher. Changing my need changes my savior.
But, if John’s congregation holds to the teaching they have heard from the beginning about their need and their true Savior, then both the problem is rightly understood and the remedy is rightly accepted. Jesus Christ came to take away sins, not to be listed among some of the greatest philosophers or teachers in history. And the only way to get to that saving God is to take sin seriously.
The lighter we take sin the smaller and more unnecessary God becomes to us. But if we look unflinchingly at the power and ubiquity of sin and turn to the only One who can cure us, God becomes Lord and Savior of our lives.