This past Sunday in the Contemporary Worship service at Mountain Brook Baptist, I preached on John 3:1-15 and the truth that a person must be born again to enter the Kingdom of God. I pointed out that being born again is something that can only be accomplished by the Holy Spirit working in someone who is looking to the love and mercy of Jesus Christ that was on display on the cross.
At the end of the sermon, I mentioned that we could have an entire conference on this idea of being born again and the new life that we are given in Christ. In particular, I would have liked to have covered the topic of what a person’s life should look like if they have been born again. I mentioned I would blog on this subject, so here we go.
The book of 1 John is filled with language about Christians being born again and in it John says that two things in particular should characterize the life of someone who has been born again: a turning away from sin and love. Here is one passage in 1 John where those two things are mentioned:
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” (1 John 3:9-10, ESV)
In today’s post, I want to discuss this idea of the person who has been born again making it a practice of avoiding sin.
In verse 9, John says pretty clearly that no one who is born of God makes a practice of sinning because God’s seed abides in him and he can’t go on sinning. Now, if you are like me, this passage is a little problematic. I have a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ and have been born again by the Spirit of God. However, I still struggle with sin on a daily basis. I would venture to guess that if you are a Christian, this is your experience as well. So, how are we to understand passages like this one?
I have read two things recently that have helped me think about this issue. The first is John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. In Book 3, chapter 6, Calvin is talking about the Christian life and the need for the Christian to wholeheartedly seek after Christ. But then Calvin states,
“But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.6.5)
All Christians will continue to struggle with sin as long as they live in “this earthly prison of the body” on earth. But, Calvin notes that it is important that we keep on progressing and pushing forward in obedience to the Lord even when it seems like we are wavering, limping and crawling on the ground. Regarding the necessity of pressing on toward the goal of obedience to the Lord Calvin writes,
“Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end; that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.6.5)
So, the Christian life is not one of perfection, but instead it is one of continually striving toward the goal of being more obedient to God’s will for our lives each day.
Another resource that has been helpful for me in thinking about this issue is an article a friend gave me about perfectionism by D.A. Carson. In it Carson discusses the different ways that the Bible talks about the character and moral life of the believer. One the one hand the Bible gives extremely strict moral requirements for those who seek after God and on the other hand it contains stories about saints like David, who was desbribed as a ‘man after God’s own heart’ who made horrible mistakes and committed egregious sins. And David is not alone is this. Abraham, Moses, Peter and other biblical heroes all committed sins that illustrated their humanity and their need for God’s forgiveness and mercy. And Carson notes that it is necessary for the Bible to contain both of these types of literature because they provide a goal for which Christians are to continually strive while at the same time giving us pictures of people who failed miserably over and over and were still restored and used by God. Carson writes,
“We need the unflinching standards of absolute polarities to keep us from moral flabbiness, and in this broken world, we need the candid realism of the narratives to keep us from both arrogance and despair.” (D.A. Caron, Perfectionisms, Themelios, 35.1 (2010): 1-3).
Those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit should strive to grow in godliness and holiness by the power of the Spirit and at the same time realize that we are engaged in a continual battle with sin. Like the saints we read of in Scripture, we will never fully win this battle with our sinful flesh until we are in the presence of God in heaven.
Carson closes his article with these words about the importance of always looking at our struggle with sin in light of the cross of Christ,
“The intensity of the struggle against sin easily generates boundless distortions when we do not return, again and again, to God’s love for us manifested on the cross. There alone is the hope we need, the cleansing we need, the grace we need. Any pursuit of perfection that is not awash in the grace of God displayed on a little hill outside Jerusalem is bound to trip us up.” (D.A. Caron, Perfectionisms, Themelios, 35.1 (2010): 1-3).
Surely this is what John meant in 1 John 3. Those who have been born again must not make a practice of sinning. Our goal must be to live a life of obedience to the Lord. And when (not if) we fail we must continually bring ourselves back to the cross of Christ, repent of our sins and trust that God in his grace, love and mercy will forgive us, cleanse us and continue to use us in the work of the Kingdom.
The other characteristic John gives of those who have been born again is living a life characterized by love. I will discuss this characteristic in another post on Friday.