This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
This is a familiar passage for many of us because it is often a go-to text for prayers of confession (see, for example, Rejoice & Sing no.3). We are all sinners, and if we claim not to be we are lying to ourselves – being Christians doesn’t stop us being as flawed as any other group of people. And yet God loves us all, and so if we confess our sins we will be forgiven, because God is faithful and just. Which is of course wonderful good news and a magnificent statement of God’s all-encompassing grace.
The only problem is that a little later in the same book the author ‘John’ – whoever that might have been – writes that those who abide in Christ do not commit sins, and in fact anyone who commits sin has not really known him. (1 John 3.6) So which is it? Are we sinners who are forgiven, but carrying on making mistakes, or does becoming a true disciple mean leaving sin behind?
There are arguments worth exploring about whether these statements can be reconciled or not, but on the face of it this seems to be a huge contradiction. Should this bother us? Perhaps. On one level, it’s a reminder of the dangers of taking any one verse from scripture out of context and without considering how it fits into the bigger picture. But going further, wouldn’t it be more surprising if, in explaining the wonders of God’s revelation, none of the writers of scripture ever got confused or contradicted themselves? Accused of inconsistency, the American poet wrote "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." That’s true of all of us, and is certainly true of Scripture.
Gracious God, we accept that we make mistakes. Sometimes we deliberately act to hurt others and sometimes we stand by when other are in need. We ask you, in your justice and faithfulness, to forgive us, and we resolve to follow your ways more closely and to forgive others for their faults. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Nick Jones, Minister, Heswall URC & St. George’s URC, Thornton Hough