Monday, April 9, 2012

Darkness, Light, and Entire Sanctification

1 John begins with an abrupt assertion of orthodoxy.  No introduction.  No greeting.  Just a blunt, nearly grammatically incoherent assertion of faithfulness to the Johanine teaching about Jesus.
"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life..."  
It is easy for us to forget just how much diversity there was in early Christianity, how many disagreements there were over really fundamental questions like "Who is Jesus?" and "Was he really human?".  But these questions lingered for centuries before the Church worked out what it believed.  It seems likely that the Johanine community was in the midst of debating such a question, though the enigmatic, proverb-like language of 1 John (just think how different 1 John sounds from Paul's very logical, sequential arguments) makes it difficult to discern just what that question might be.  Nevertheless, it is clear that the writer of 1 John (John himself? a disciple of John?) wishes to assert right away that his understanding of Jesus is the one the Johanine community should follow.  He asserts that his teaching is the one that has been since the beginning (thereby implying that the beliefs of his opponents are heretical innovations) and that it is this teaching which has been publicly verifiable (seen, heard, even handled) and passed on to those to whom he is now writing.

This message is that God is light and in him there is no darkness (v.5).  With this summary statement, the writer turns to a series of alternating and escalating statements which describe the relationship between light/truth and darkness/falsehood in the life of the believer.  The writer begins the alternating pattern with a darkness/falsehood statement.
"If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth." v. 6
"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us."  v.8
"If we say we have not sinned, we make him (God) a liar and his word is not is us." v.10
Each statement escalates in severity.  If we claim fellowship with God but walk in darkness then we lie.  If say we have no sin then we lie to ourselves.  If we say we've never sinned then we make God a liar.

Interlaced between these statements of darkness/falsehood are statements of light/truth, each meant to counter-balance the darkness/falsehood statement that comes before it.  
"But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son cleanses us from all sin." v.7
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." v.9 
 These statements are dialectical.  They are meant to stand in tension with one another.  We can almost imagine each sentence tugging on the others.  As long as each statement continues to pull its weight then a balanced view of the Christian life will emerge.  But if we begin to lean on one statement or group of statements too hard then the tug-of-war will be thrown out of whack and we will end up with a distorted view of the Christian life.

On the one hand, v.6 and 7 make plain the expectation that a Christian is to walk in light rather than darkness.  That is to say that being a disciple of Jesus requires a certain kind of living, it requires "practicing the truth" and avoiding sin.  On the other hand, v.8 and 10 tug back the other direction so as to make it equally plain that avoiding sin is not the same thing as saying that we don't sin or have never sinned.  Finally, v. 9 gives another tug back in the direction of v.6 and 7 by reminding us that if we confess our sins God really does forgive those sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

This brings into clearer focus what it means to "walk in the light".  It is not sinless perfection.  If it were then confession would be failure.  Instead, the recognition and confession of our sinfulness is the very thing that allows God to forgive us and cleanse us and thereby make righteousness possible.  Confessing our sinfulness allows God to work in us in such a way that further sin can be prevented in our lives.

As a people who believe in a doctrine of Entire Sanctification, we Nazarenes would do well to meditate on these verses day and night, letting them soak into the deepest parts of our existence.  We are a people who are optimistic about the extent of transformation that is possible by God's grace in this life.  When 1 John says that we can be cleansed from all unrighteousness, we take that to mean that God frees us from all of sin's power in this life so that it really is possible for us not to sin, to really live righteously in this world.  However, as these verses remind us, that is not the same thing as saying that we will never sin again once we are entirely sanctified.  Too often in our tradition entire sanctification has been confused for a spiritual plateau, a place where spiritual growth levels off because one has already reached the highest possible state of holiness.  As a result, confession has become somewhat of a lost art in our denomination since there has at times been an implicit expectation that those who are entirely sanctified shouldn't have anything to confess.  This in turn has led to an abundance of legalism and self-righteousness.

This is not to say that we should give up on our hope of transformation, sanctification, and righteousness in this life.  1 John clearly calls believer to "walk in the light" and to be "cleansed from all unrighteousness". It is to say that such sanctification is not a state that we reach once and for all but a path we must continually walk and the means to staying on this path of light is not pretending that we have no sin.  For the concealing of anything will only require that we seek out even more darkness.  But if we remain on the well lit path then even our darkest deeds will be exposed and it is that exposure itself which will eliminate the darkness.  It is the exposure of our whole selves to the light of Christ that makes our cleansing from all unrighteousness possible.

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