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Issues Facing Missions Today: 53b The Dynamics of Divine Love in a Divided Community (2)

Issues Facing Missions Today: 53b The Dynamics of Divine Love in a Divided Community (2)

[This post continues a series of posts on the notion of Christian unity and the place where division should be allowed to occur rather than attempting to maintain some false, communal unity despite fundamental differences.  Four posts in this series are focussed on First John (see 53a for the first post on this epistle).]

(2)  The Reception of God’s Love in Jesus Christ

Just how does one receive God’s love?  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not some truth and reconciliation commission that settles for uncovering what happened and then seeks social reconciliation by laying down any hostilities and moving forward with plans to rebuild a nation.  The Gospel adds something central and essential to this: restitution through suffering.  God’s love is an emptying love, a sacrificial love, a self-denying love.  It entails Jesus’ sacrificial payment for our sins.  God’s love is bloody, painful, shameful, sacrificial.  It is a love that hangs in agony on a cross until the Son of God is dead, pierced with a sword, and buried.  It is not an abstraction from the cross of Jesus, the Son of God, such as a value (‘love’ in the abstract) or a virtue (‘reconciliation’) or a principle (‘forgive others as they forgive you’): it is only these because of Jesus Christ crucified for our sins.

Twice in this epistle John speaks of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for our sins:

1 John 2:2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 4:10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Thus, Jesus’ death is to be understood with reference to the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, when the sacrificial blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat in the holy place of the temple.  The offering was a sin offering, and it was offered once a year for all the sins of all the people.  John extends this to speak of Jesus’ offering for the sins of the whole world.  In saying so, he affirms, first, that all have sinned and have need of this sacrifice and, second, that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice once for all for sin.  As Peter writes,

1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.[1]

So, to understand who Jesus is, one has to come to a self-awareness.  One simply cannot claim to know Jesus while denying any need for the atoning sacrifice that he came to give to save sinners from their sins.  As John says,

1 John 3:5 You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.

The ‘blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1.3; cf. v. 7).  The notion of a sacrifice is that of exchange, not just of one in the place of another but also of a pure and righteous one in place of a sinner.  As John writes, Jesus Christ the atoning sacrifice for our sins is ‘the righteous one’ (1 John 2.1).

Believing in Jesus means believing that he is the one who came to remove sin.  To believe that Jesus is the Son of God is not, for John, an abstract theological tenet (1 John 4.15; 5.1, 5).  It is to claim that God has offered his salvation in Jesus Christ and through none other.  This, in turn, is a belief that one needed God’s offering of salvation because one was sinful.  Therefore, as we see so clearly in 1 John, there is a direct connection between one’s understanding of Jesus as the Son of God, of sin as the human plight, and of righteousness—not just forgiveness—as the goal of Jesus’ work.  To do what is right is a sign that one has been born of Jesus, for he is righteous (1 John 2.29; cf. 2.1).  Our righteousness is not our own as it comes from the one who is righteous—but this does not mean that we continue in sin.  Jesus not only forgives us our sins but also cleanses us from unrighteousness itself (1 John 1.9).  To ‘abide in him’ means to walk as he walked (1 John 2.6).  With this language of participation in Christ, John emphasises that the work of Christ is not only forgiving but also transformative, and it is not our own work but the work of Christ in us.

All this cuts to the heart of the problem in the church.  The heretical group that has left the church denied (1) their sinfulness and (2) their need for a Saviour.  John writes,

1 John 4:14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.

This is precisely what the false group has denied.  When some group downplays sin, whether by denying that some behaviour is a sin or by denying that sin itself is the human plight, the group typically also focuses more on understanding Jesus as a great example of love rather than seeing how God’s love is revealed in Him as Saviour of a sinful world.  The cross tells us of the extent to which God will go in loving us: an extreme suffering and sacrifice even for an extremely unworthy and sinful people.

With this rejection of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for sin and of the accusation that they were sinners needing God’s sent Son to deal with their sins, the heretical group also rejected the orthodox group in the church.  For John, this was a schism in the church that could not be repaired—one should not pray that God would give life to such sinners (1 John 4.16).  This is obvious, since they are denying the very need for forgiveness and the very cleansing and atonement of Christ.  There can be no unity with such a group that has denied the very truth of Jesus’ work and the essential understanding of what it means to be a people abiding in him.

[1] Cf. Romans 6:10: ‘The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.’  Hebrews also understands Jesus’ death in terms of the atoning sacrifice: (1) Hebrews 9:12 ‘He entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption;’ (2) Hebrews 9:26 But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself’; (3) Hebrews 10:10  And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (cf. Hebrews 7.27; 10.2).