Before I became a Christian in 1984 I was immersed in “new age” thinking: I believed that there was a higher level pf consciousness that we called God, but that there were ‘many paths up the mountain.’ (I write a bit on how I met with Jesus in the middle of this fog of deception – including my conversation with a demon masquerading as the spirit of the pharaoh Ahkenaten that I was writing a novel about – in “Two Seconds to Midnight.”) So I was fascinated by all things spiritual, unless of course it was the Truth – that can only be found in Christ – and that had long been consigned to the intellectual bin of narrow-minded dogma. I love to think back sometimes on my winding road to salvation. The apostle John wrote “The darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining,” (1 John 2:8) and I think that is what happened to me: the light in the fog gradually came nearer, then one day I saw where – Who – it came from. (If you are a non-Christian reader who has somehow googled your way onto this page, that is happening to you now.)
One significant time marking the approach of that Light for me was when I read the first epistle of John. I can’t remember why I read it at that time, because I wasn’t yet a Christian, but it was the first book of the Bible that I ever read, and what struck me about it was its deep spirituality. I didn’t understand it (although I probably thought I did at the time), but I realised that here was something in the Bible that was talking to me about spiritual matters on a level that I enjoyed. It pushed my buttons. Ever since then I have been drawn to that book. I have been challenged by it, I have meditated on its many pithy statements, I have been encouraged by it, I have been swept along by the tides of its all-encompassing pronouncements such as “God is Love,” “God is light,” “Perfect Love casts out fear,” “By this we know Love, that Jesus Christ laid down His life for us,” and many more. But only now, after 37 years, do I see the point of it. John himself tells us plainly why he wrote this letter: “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin.” (1 John 2:1).
It’s easy to lose sight of the basics in our complicated, hyped-up modern world. Our senses look for more and more stimulation, and we expect it to come more and more easily. And just like the world constantly lures us with calls for “more,” we can bring the same consumerism into our Christian lives: we can look for “more” of God and heightened levels of spiritual experience, and at the same time lose touch with the whole point of the Christian message, which is that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tim 1:15.) Jesus went to the cross so that we would stop sinning.
John’s logic is clear and compelling: when we are born again we are born of God; we are no longer of the world. We have “passed from death to life.” (1 John 3:14) God is light and God is love: there is no darkness in Him and He cannot sin. Sin is from the devil who “sinned from the beginning.” Jesus came to “take away our sin” and to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3: 5, 8). “Whoever has been born of God,” writes John, “does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.”
If we are born again we cannot sin and we don’t sin. Hmmm. Have you sinned recently? I know I have. Are you born again? I know I am. How do we reconcile these contradictory statements? John even writes himself: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) It must be possible to square that particular circle, because John himself clearly has no problem with it. Strong’s tells me that the meaning of “commit sin” is to have nothing to do with God’s law, to wander away from it; to miss the mark. It means to persistently live without reference to God’s righteousness: in other words, to sin is to walk in darkness. If we are born of God, who is Light, we cannot spend our time walking in darkness because there is a “seed” of light that remains within us.
What happens of course is that there are times when we don’t walk on the path where the light is shining; and when we stray from that path we stumble. If we are not born of God we remain in the world, “and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one;” (1 John 5:19) however if we are born of God, we have overcome the world: “for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” (1 John 5:4)
If we are not born of God by faith, whatever we do and however we worship (however good it may seem in the world’s light) remains in darkness, because the world and all that is in it is in darkness and is passing away. As Jesus Himself put it: “If your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matt 6:23) On the other hand it is possible to walk by faith and stumble because we have looked away from the light, because “if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
So the difference between walking by faith and having religion is this: religion is thinking you are walking in the light while your “eye is bad,” whereas faith is knowing that we are children of the light even if we have stumbled out of it, and knowing that Jesus will always bring us back from the shadows and into the eternal sunshine.
Our path in the light doesn’t have to be a haphazard one, though, because we have been given a torch to keep hold of: “He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him.” (1 John 2:10). We all know Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet. And a light to my path.” This light to our path is not difficult to hold, or as John puts it “God’s commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3 b). In fact all of the law is summed up in one verse: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8) If we obey the command to love, His word is a lamp to our feet. And as loving God is keeping His commandments, (1 John 5:3 a) if we don’t love one another, not only have we dropped the torch, but we aren’t loving God either. “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death.” (1 John 3:14)
Jesus didn’t just command us to love one another so that the Church could be a reflection of the values of the Kingdom: He told us to love one another because His purpose was to rid the world of sin. He told us to love one another because “love will cover a multitude of sins.” (1 Pe 4:8) He told us to love one another because the world is dark and we need a torch if we are going to we can walk in the light. It’s not by memorizing pages and pages of scripture, it’s not by reading a new devotional book every week, it’s not by praying in tongues for two hours every day or playing worship music from the beginning to the end of every car journey. All of these things help us to know where the torch is and where the light comes from, and they can help to keep the battery on charge. But the only way to walk in the light is to take hold of that torch with both hands and shine it on the path before our feet. If we don’t love one another, we stumble straight into sin.