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Issues Facing Missions Today: 53a. The Dynamics of Divine Love in a Divided Community

Issues Facing Missions Today: 53a. The Dynamics of Divine Love in a Divided Community

[This post continues the study of mission as church renewal by examining the themes of unity, love, sin, and the cross in 1 John.  It is the first of four posts on 1 John.  It offers a Biblical understanding of Christian unity that is based not on mere fellowship or common projects but on core theological and ethical convictions regarding Jesus Christ's sacrificial death for sinners.  As such, John's word to a divided community speaks directly to churches and denominations today that understand unity in terms of social toleration and social projects.  In such a case, Christ is understood simply as a great example of love, not the suffering Saviour who forgives sins and establishes a righteous community living according to God's commandments.  John rejects this view as thoroughly unChristian.]

First John is often turned to for sermons on love.  The word ‘love’ appears 24 times in the epistle.  What we actually have in this epistle is an in-depth understanding of love that goes well beyond a simple call to love people.  First John develops the meaning of love in the context of a divided community, not calling persons to unite despite their different theological and ethical views but calling on believers to understand the relationship of love in the community to a correct theology and ethic that is grounded in the reality of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

At times, some teacher or preacher gets so entangled in the message of love in 1 John that he or she fails to notice that the love for the ‘brother’ is actually meant to be about love within the Christian community, not a general message of love for the world, for those in need, or for one’s enemy.  For teaching on these matters, one needs to turn elsewhere in the Scriptures, not to 1 John.[1]  To understand what 1 John is really all about, and what love means in this epistle, one has to understand the relationship between several themes.

First, the message of 1 John about love takes place in the context of a divisive faction that has left the church.  The epistle offers us an understanding of love in the context of sin, division, heresy, and separation.  Second, 1 John’s message of love involves clarifying something about who Jesus is and what he has done.  Specifically, Jesus came to deal with sin.  One needs to understand what sin is all about in order to understand who Jesus is, and only then will one understand Christian love.  Third, relatedly, certain persons dividing the church over who Jesus is and what he has done are claiming that they had no need for anyone to help them with sin.  They were a group denying that their actions were sinful.  Thus, in 1 John we learn that the unity of the Church, the Church’s teaching about Jesus, and the Church’s moral practices are three related teachings.  One cannot have unity with those denying that Jesus came to deal with sin.  One cannot have unity with those who deny that their actions are sinful and who continue in their sins.  As John says, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1.8).  Rather, unity in the truth involves confession of sin and reception of Jesus’ death for our sins: ‘If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1.9).

In this epistle, then, we learn some significant things about love.  Love is not denial of sin or toleration of it.  Rather, people need to acknowledge their sin in order to receive God’s love in Jesus Christ.  Second, they have to accept Jesus’ death for their sins in order to experience God’s love.  Third, they have to obey God’s commandments to demonstrate their love for Him, and, fourth, they have to abide in those commandments in order to show love for one another.

(1)  Love and the Acknowledgement of Sin

The people in the faction causing division in the church to which John writes denied that they were sinful.  The issue facing the church was not over some particular violation of the community that needed to be dealt with, as in 1 Corinthians 5.  Rather, the faction had settled on a particular ethic that really came from the surrounding culture.  They were denying that their actions were sinful, and they were therefore continuing in their sins and denying their need for divine forgiveness and purification.  John says,
1 John 1:8-10 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

As every first semester Greek student learns, John’s use of the present tense implies continuous action in 1 Jn. 3.6: ‘Every person who abides in him [Jesus] does not continue to sin; everyone who sins has neither seen him nor come to know him’ (my translation).  Verse 9 of the same chapter says, ‘Everyone who has been born of God does not continue to commit sin’ (my translation).  John is dealing with the issue of continuing in sin because persons are denying that their actions are sinful.
The faction’s sins arose from their rejection of God’s commandments while claiming to know God—to be, as we would simply say today, Christians.  This point is hammered home in the second chapter.  For instance, John says,

1 John 2:4 Whoever says, "I have come to know him," but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist….

Some verses later, the nature of this faction’s sins are given a little more clarity: they have to do with following the world in sexual immorality, greed or covetousness, and pride in wealth:

1 John 2:15-16 Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world;  16 for all that is in the world-- the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches-- comes not from the Father but from the world.

One aspect of the third example—pride in riches—is when the wealthy do not help fellow Christians in need:
1 John 3:17 How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

In between these two quotes from chapter two is a warning not to hate others[2] in the community.  It is a serious issue, for John returns to the point in chapter 4:

1 John 4:20-21 Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

This point about love in the community can be misread, as though it is a general statement about love towards others.  And such a supposedly general statement has, for some readers, also been turned into an admonishment to keep the unity of Christian community at all costs—anything else would be hate, right?  Are not families stuck with each other because of their genetic unity no matter what differences arise between them?  Is that John’s point?

Not at all.  In context, the faction that has denied that its actions were sinful has already left the church, and this rejection of the community’s faith and ethics was indicative of its lack of love for the Christian community:

1 John 2:19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.

Note that John does not call for some agonizing process to try to maintain unity with the departed group, as though unity at all costs was the goal.  He does not call for dialogue to explore how, despite their differences, they could continue to walk together.  Rather, he says that their departure demonstrated that any previous unity of fellowship was not a real unity.  Their doctrinal and ethical differences were such that there could be no unity.  Fellowship and joint projects could not count as unity where there was disunity over who Jesus was and that he died on the cross for our sins.  As long as the departing group rejected the idea that its practices were sinful and that it needed Christ’s atoning sacrifice for those sins, there could be no unity.

Apparently, the fact that the faction left indicates that it was the smaller group.  It could have been, as it often is, the other way around—that the orthodox group is the one that has to depart.  This group was not large enough to force the orthodox believers out of the church.  In the 1st century, of course, there was no property to fight over and no lawsuit to file in order to claim church assets from the orthodox community.  They simply left, rejecting the orthodox believers’ beliefs about Jesus, their ethics, and their community.  John does not lament their departure, for he does not consider them Christians in the first place.  Their refusal to see their sins as sins also meant their refusal to see any need for Jesus to die for their sins.  Their moral failings were also a doctrinal failing, and this denial of Jesus’ coming to deal with their sins through his shed blood was equally an admission that they were not Christians in the first place.  John’s call for love is not a call to love the sinful faction, tolerate their errors, and accept them in the spirit of some confused notion of Christian unity.  That would amount to endorsing their errors as mere matters of indifference.  Rather, he sees this faction as the group that has chosen not to love the community of Christ precisely because it has rejected the community whose essential identify is built upon the unwavering conviction that they were sinners for whom Christ died.

One might imagine that the sinful and divisive faction found the orthodox members offensive for calling out certain things that they were doing as sinful.  We do not know how they spun their doctrines.  They certainly believed in God.  The fact that John addresses the topic of love so much probably suggests that they saw God as a God of love.  The fact that they had rejected God’s commandments, any claim that they were sinful, and any need for a crucified Saviour suggests strongly that their notion of love involved fellowship through toleration of differences and moral libertinism.

Yet the orthodox believers to whom John wrote saw the sinful faction’s rejection of God’s commands as instances of the lawlessness of the antichrist coming in the last days:

1 John 2:18 Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.

Obedience to God’s commandments were not matters of indifference, as we know the Graeco-Roman culture maintained.  Greek and Roman religions were not defined in terms of moral commandments, as in Judaism and Christianity.  Ethics was more a matter of philosophy than religion and had to do with figuring out how to live well.  But the gods of the Graeco-Roman religions were, as the religious myths indicate, every bit as immoral as their worshippers.  Very likely, then, the sinful faction had adopted the morals of ‘the world’ and claimed that the petty commandments of the orthodox community had nothing to do with ‘knowing God’ and that, as a result, they had no need of Jesus’ death for their sins.

Thus, John has to put down in black and white in a Graeco-Roman context—a context not steeped in the Biblical teaching of Jews or Christians that reveals God’s commands—that there was such a thing as sin—a lawlessness, a breaking of God’s commandments.  God actually had commands, and He cared about human obedience.  John says,

1 John 3:4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.
God’s commandments, moreover, were a sign of His love.  Commandments do not contradict love, as when love is inadequately understood as tolerance.  Rather, God’s commands are given for human good:

1 John 5:2-4 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.  3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,  4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world.

Believers in the Christian community can also show love to those who sin.  They do not do so, of course, by overlooking the sin, pretending that it is not a sin or not that significant.  Instead, they can pray to God for the sinner, with the result that, provided the sin is not deadly, God will give the sinner life:

1 John 5:16 If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one-- to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that.

What is a mortal or deadly sin?  Coming at the end of the epistle and without further explanation, it seems that the entire previous discussion provides the answer to this question.  In light of the message of the epistle overall, then, the ‘sin unto death’ is the rejection of Jesus’ death for human sins.  If so, the sin that leads to death is the sin of denying that one’s actions are sinful such that one further denies any need for Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, his death for our sins.

[1] I might, for example, suggest the following texts: God’s love for the world (John 3.16); love for those in need (Isaiah 58.6-8); showing love for one’s enemies (Matthew 5.43-48).
[2] Use of the word ‘brothers’ here shows the intense familial connection Christians have with one another.  The NRSV adequately translates the word ‘brother’ as ‘brothers or sisters’—the entire Christian community should be characterized by brotherly love—brotherly love rightly understood, that is.