Thursday, 30 April 2015

Dear Whitney (1 John 2:1-14)

I did a little internet search on the question ‘how can I be sure I am going to heaven?’  When I saw that the Billy Graham Association had an answer to this question I clicked on their site.  They, rightly, pointed out that we are to base our assurance not on what we have done, but on what Christ has done for us.  That is why it is not arrogant to be sure that we are right with God.  When we claim to be Christians we are not claiming that we have done enough to earn our way to heaven, instead, we have simply accepted the gift of life by faith (and even that faith is a gift of God).
But below the post on the Billy Graham site, in the comments section, was the heart-moving confession of a lady called Whitney Edwards.  This is what she wrote:
‘I am so hopeless right now.  I keep thinking there is a possibility I can go to hell because I may have unforgiveness.  I want to forgive and I have tried but I still feel scornful towards the person. It’s my mother.  I told her my father molested me and she ignored me and did nothing.  To this day she denies it and it makes me more angry.  How can I be a Christian, love God and be experiencing this?  I am so afraid that this won’t be out of my heart when I die and I might not go to heaven. Please help.’   Whitney Edwards.
I have decided to entitle this sermon, ‘Dear Whitney’.  
Not everything in this sermon addresses Whitney’s question, as I want to let the text set the agenda, but this passage does deal with the issue of assurance.  I doubt that there is a single Christian in this room that has never struggled with the question of whether they are really a Christian or not.  John wants us to be sure, ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life’ (1 John 5:13).
1. You can be sure, even though you are not perfect 
John assumes that we will not live morally perfect lives.  He has written, ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves’ (1:8).  But that does not mean that sin does not matter.  The genuine Christian takes sin seriously and seeks God’s help to overcome it.  In fact this letter is a call to holiness, ‘my dear children, I write these things to you so that you may not sin’ (2:1a).  
But what happens when we let God down?  What about the fact that, even this morning, my thoughts, attitudes, words and actions have fallen short of the love and purity I see in Christ?  Well, we take heart in the fact that ‘we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one (2:1b).  He is our propitiation, that one who experienced God's wrath so that we could know his peace.  In him there is no condemnation.  His blood goes on cleansing us from all sin.

Beating yourself up about your sin is not a sign of faith.  It is a sign that you are not taking the promises of God seriously.  He doesn't want his redeemed people to wallow in the self-pity of wounded pride.   In pride we think, 'I can't believe I did that.'  The truth is that without Christ's help you are capable of a lot worse.  Faith lets God's promises sooth our souls.

Beating yourself up about your past failures in sin is actually very unproductive.  Godly sorrow leads to repentance, which leads to joy.  There is a place for being sad about your sin, but you must not get stuck there.  You must think more about the fact that you have failed.  Your focus must be on God than it is on yourself. 

Jack Miller writes, 'never again look at your sin apart from Christ.  You can't handle them.  You'll either supress them and deny they are there, or if you see how bad they are they will overwhelm you.  Learn to view your mistakes, failings and your transgression in light of Jesus' forgiveness.'
Christ was the atoning sacrifice was for the sins of the whole world.  It is sufficient to bring you to heaven!
2.  You can be sure, if loving Christ makes you want to obey him
Supposing you are a member of a lifeboat crew, and you are called out on a stormy night.  A fishing boat has sunk but two of the fishermen managed to get into a life raft.  As your lifeboat approaches these two men you throw them a rope.  One of those men reacts by reaching out and grabbing desperately for the rope, the other lies there motionless.  There reactions leave you realising that one is alive and the other may be dead (illustration adapted from Matt Slick).  Something similar happens in the Christian life—the struggle demonstrates life.

Remember the context of this letter.  There were false-teachers, who had disturbed the church, who were saying that sin does not matter.  They didn’t see any connection between knowing a holy God and seeking to live a holy life.  They lay there lifelessly in the storm.  They were not grasping the rope.  They did not look to God for his help in the battle with the sinful nature.  In Ireland, we used to talk about people living in sin—that is a good description of these false-teachers.  The refused to address the sin in their lives and their attitude revealed that they were spiritually dead.

Because the Holy Spirit dwells within God’s people we cannot live in sin.  ‘We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands’ (3).  We strive to be holy.  We grieve when we fail.  We keep looking to him for the power to change.  But the false-Christian doesn’t care.  The false-Christian says ‘I know him’, but refuses to take the call to live a holy life seriously—‘the truth is not in such a person’ (4).
Some people lack assurance because they are not very good with feelings.  Feelings are important, but they are not the only way you can know you love God.  Much more important is our desire to change.  Jesus said. 'If you love me you will obey my commands.'  John agrees, 'if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in him.  This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did’ (5-6).  Keep in mind all we have said about the reality of the fact that we still sin.  “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am” (John Newton).
3. You can be sure, if loving Christ makes you want to love his people
John seems to be saying that the command to love our fellow Christians is both old and new.  It is old in the fact that it should be one of the first things we grasped when we became Christians; it is new because it is as fresh a command today as it was then—we never outgrow the challenge to love.  It is old because it is spoken about in the Old Testament; it is new because Jesus gave it new depth.   Indeed, it is as we live out this command that we reflect God’s light and dispel the darkness of this hate-filled world.

Loving people isn’t easy.  Forgiving people isn’t easy.  Sometimes we think we have made progress in getting over what someone has done to us, only for some painful memory to come flooding into our mind, and we have to begin forgiving them all over again.  But the Christian strives to love.  Keep praying for those who have hurt you, for it is harder to hate those you pray for every day.  Beware if you have a critical spirit towards those in the church—this is not a sign of spiritual health.  Flee from gossip.  Remember the grace that accepted you, with all your flaws.  Let love cover a multitude of sins.

Remember Whitney Edwards, that dear woman who was wrestling to forgive her mother?  She feared that she might go to hell because of the anger she felt.  This is what I posted beneath her comment.
Dear Whitney,
No one has ever hurt me to the depth that both your mother and father have hurt you.  You must have some very painful memories and an awful sense of betrayal.  I really admire you for your efforts to forgive.  I think it is a really good sign that you are concerned about your anger.  Many people would excuse it, but you take Jesus seriously when he tells us to forgive as we have been forgiven.  
I recently read an illustration about the Christian life.  The writer gave the picture of a rescue boat, in a storm, throwing a rope to two men in a life raft.  One of the men grasps frantically for the rope, whereas the other is slumped motionlessly.  The reactions of the two men lead those in the rescue boat to assume that one man is truly alive, and the other seems to be dead.
The apostle John writes, ‘if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8).  So no Christian is morally perfectly.  But the Christian is the one grasping for the rope of God’s help.  The Christian strives against the feelings of the sinful nature.  It seems to me that this is what you are doing.  To me that looks like evidence of the Holy Spirit in you.  I hope that you will daily experience God’s grace to change your heart towards your mother as you seek God’s ongoing help in the face of temptation.
Your brother in Christ, 

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