“Gentlemen, gentlemen, and ladies: all theology is but a matter of emphasis.”
These words were repeated often by John Stephenson, my Christology and Soteriology professor back in Bible College. The more I study, the more I find those words to be true. Take Jesus’ nature as an example. If you swing the pendulum of belief toward the (paradoxically stated) 100% human too much, you end up in Arianism. Conversely, if you emphasize the 100% divine too much, you stumble into Docetism.
Some wisdom from Ecclesiastes has often helped me in these situations:
Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of the one, without letting go of the other; for the one who fears God shall succeed with both. (7:16-18, NRSV).
Admittedly, I’ve indulged in a little sensus plenior in my application of that verse, but for some reason it always comes to mind when dealing with theological extremes: take hold of one without letting go of the other.
In 1 John 2:1-2, John gives the solution to the deception (
if we say that we have not sinned) and the effect (
we make him a liar, and his word is not in us) from 1:10. This solution reminds us how we need to keep the pendulum swinging between an emphasis on avoiding sin, and on confessing our sins.
. . .
Stott reminds us of the importance of keeping both of these poles in sight:
It is possible to be either too lenient or too severe towards sin.
John may have felt some pressure to offer a disclaimer after such a generous statement of God’s willingness to forgive in 1:9. Here, John states both sides like a parent guiding his children. In fact, John actually calls his parishioners “my little children”. Not just “little children,” as elsewhere in this letter, but my little children. Instead of speaking to them in the first person plural as in chapter 1, he switched to the first person singular. He moved past formalities and got personal.
What is so important to John that he feels he needs to open the sentence with such emotionally charged words?
I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin
But if anyone does sin. . .(2:1, NRSV)
. . .
He doesn’t want his church community to sin, but he knows that they will and is quick to share with them a three-fold provision:
- You have an advocate
- You have Jesus Christ, the Righteous
- You have an atoning sacrifice
Let’s look at the first two provisions.
The first provision for our sin is a paraklētos, commonly translated as
advocate, although sometimes as
counsellor. It’s important for us to understand what John meant by this word. In a legal sense, a paraklētos is a sort of solicitor, who speaks on behalf of someone else in a forensic setting. John’s use of the term, however, is more highly nuanced. If you dig a little with a Greek commentary, you’ll see that John used this word in his gospel (NRSV):
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. (14:16)
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (14:26)
When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. (15:26)
If I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (16:7)
Think about the beautiful symmetry here. In the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke of a paraklētos who would testify to the world on behalf of believers. In the Epistle of John, John called Jesus the paraklētos who testifies to God on behalf of believers. This is why Jesus spoke of another Advocate. He was the first; his Spirit was the second. What good news! We have two advocates speaking on our behalf—the Spirit to speak to the world, and the Son to speak to the Father when we sin.
The second provision for our sin is
Jesus Christ the Righteous. It’s fitting that the one who will
cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1:9, NRSV) must be
righteous himself. “Righteous” is an important theological term that has a variety of nuances. When the term appears in 1 John, though (1:9; 2:1, 29; 3:7, 12), it implies moral behaviour every time. We fail morally, and it took a morally flawless Messiah (Hebrew for the Greek word, Christ) to speak on our behalf to the Father.
. . .
Next we’ll look at the third provision, how Jesus is our
atoning sacrifice (2:2, NRSV). For now, let’s accept John’s fatherly advice and try not to sin—but be quick to confess when we do, knowing we have the flawless Son of God speaking on our behalf to our Father.