The disobedient Christian.

“Not perfect; just forgiven” is how they justify their sinful lifestyle.

1 John 2.1-5

I’ve known Christians who greatly object to my using the term “cheap grace.” Grace, they insist, isn’t cheap. Well of course it isn’t. “Cheap grace” isn’t about grace being cheap; it’s about people treating grace as if it’s cheap. It’s about taking God for granted, figuring if Jesus cancelled out a trillion sins by his death, what’s another? Heck, what’s another thousand? And since we have that blank check on forgiveness, why go to all the trouble of cleaning ourselves up and sinning no more? Self-discipline is so hard. Easier to just do as comes naturally, and stay the same bitter, selfish wankers we’ve always been—but we’re saved, so we get to go to heaven!

As a result of this lousy attitude, this is the bumper sticker we find on many a Christian’s car:

Christians aren’t perfect.
Just forgiven.

Okay yes, it’s technically true. But for every Christian who’s using it with the proper sentiment, “I’m not perfect, but I’m working on it,” fifty are using it with the cheap-grace sentiment, “I’m not perfect, and Jesus loves me anyway. So [biological command] you; stop expecting better of me.”

What’re the chances today’s 1 John passage rebukes this sentiment? Better than average.

1 John 2.1-5 KWL
1 My children, I write these things to you so you won’t sin.
When anyone sins, we have an aide from the Father: Righteous Christ Jesus.
2 He’s the atonement for our sins.
Not only for ours, but for the whole world’s.
3 In this way we know we’ve known him: When we keep his commands.
4 Saying, “I’ve known him,” and not keeping his commands: It’s a lie, and truth isn’t in this.
5 God’s love is truly achieved this way: In whoever can keep God’s word.
In this way we know they’re in God.

If a person isn’t even trying to follow Jesus, they’re not Christian. Doesn’t matter what they call themselves. Doesn’t matter their church affiliation. Really doesn’t matter how they vote. (Politics are part of the wrong kingdom anyway.) Living in the light means we’re gonna draw away from sin. Living in sin, justifying it because “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” and treating God’s safety net of forgiveness like a bounce house, means we’re not in the light. We don’t know God. ’Cause God expects more.

So let’s pursue more.

Stop abusing God.

When people read verse 1, they tend to skip the first line and jump straight to the second: When we sin, we have Jesus! Which is understandable; it’s really good news. But let’s return to line A again:

1 John 2.1 KWL
1A My children, I write these things to you so you won’t sin.

That’s why John wrote this letter: Stop sinning. Too many Christians were hopping on the cheap-grace bandwagon, and using a thousand copouts and misinterpretations in order to justify living in the dark.

Too many of us cling to a contractual understanding of God: We said the sinner’s prayer, and in exchange for believing Jesus saves us from sin and death, God has to take us into his kingdom. Has to. ’Cause he said he would, and being God, he’d never weasel out of his own word. We got him by his heavenly short hairs.

So since he’s gotta grant us grace no matter what, he’s like an indulgent father who lets us borrow the car. And we recklessly crash it into other cars, into buildings, into pedestrians, just for fun. And every time, he bails us out of lockup, bribes the judge to look the other way, has his mechanics completely fix the car, pats us on the head, and says, “Please drive the speed limit. Please stop hitting bicyclists. Please. I love you.” Gee thanks, Dad; love you too. But tomorrow all his requests are totally forgotten, ’cause our buddies wanna go drag racing.

That’s not love. That’s exploitation.

Relationships involve give-and-take. But all the contractual understanding does, is take. We do nothing but offend God, and he has to suck it up because he loves us so desperately. Turns him into a codependent, and us into abusers. We just don’t recognize we’re abusers, because we figure he’s almighty, so he can take it.

If we love God, truly love him, we can’t do him like that. We can’t justify our sick behavior by claiming he’s obligated himself to accept the short end of the deal: That’s just how grace works.

That’s absolutely not how grace works. Grace is a free gift. Gift, not obligation. God isn’t forced to grant it. We haven’t forced him; he hasn’t forced himself; his love doesn’t irresistibly compel him. If it did, he’d save everybody, like he wants to. 1Ti 2.4 But while he applies common grace to everybody, he applies saving grace only to those of us who love him, trust him, and actually follow him. To those who are trying not to sin.

Yes, God graciously takes care of it when we slip up and sin anyway. And that’s awesome. But this grace applies to those who try not to slip up. Who live like a Christian is meant to live. Living any other way only indicates we’re no Christians. The outward behavior reflects the inner person. Mk 7.23 Those who live in the dark, are usually dark all the way down to the core. No Holy Spirit within them, lighting them up. No real relationship with God.

Jesus covers our sins.

1 John 2.1-2 KWL
1B When anyone sins, we have an aide from the Father: Righteous Christ Jesus.
2A He’s the atonement for our sins.

Ilasmós/“payment” tends to be translated “propitiation” (KJV) or “atoning sacrifice” (NRSV). The idea in Greek culture—found in a lot of cultures, really—is it’s how you appease an angry opponent. Say you’ve pissed off a ganglord, and if you don’t do something to calm him down, he’s gonna have you shot, or more likely torture you himself. An ilasmós is the something you do. Humiliate yourself, sacrifice something or someone, pay tribute—whatever makes him happy, and keeps him from smiting you. Pagans applied it to angry gods, too. If there was a massive earthquake, someone angered Poseidon, so offer him a few hundred oxen and see if that doesn’t get rid of the aftershocks.

The Septuagint used ilasmós to translate kippúr/“atonement,” which isn’t a good translation. But it’s why the authors of the New Testament kept using the word, and why the concept of penal substitution became so popular among Christians: Jesus’s sacrifice was the payoff made to an angry God. (Forgetting Jesus and God aren’t One.)

But in the proper Old Testament context of what atonement means, Jesus covers our sins. Covers like a coat of plaster. Patches the hole, fixes what’s broken, makes our relationship good as new. There may still be consequences—it’s not like the evangelists claim, where God tosses them into the Abyss and posts a “No fishing” sign above it. But most of the consequence was Jesus taking our sins into death with him—then coming back to life, with our sins still dead.

So thanks to Jesus, when we screw up—as we do—he gains us access to the Father. He has access, so we have access.

A lot of Christians try to redefine this passage as a courtroom situation. Because Jesus is our parákliton/“aide,” and that’s the same term Greeks used for a legal aide, Christians imagine Jesus is our defense attorney before our Father the judge. At the same time, Jesus is our ilasmós, which they interpret as “bail” or “fine” (certainly not “bribe,” which is way closer to what the ancients thought of an ilasmós). Most Christians claim Jesus wins our case ’cause of biased judicial favoritism. A few claim he actually doesn’t win the case, but he fully pays our fine, so we’re good. And a small minority claim he does both—they don’t mind trying to apply two contradictory metaphors at once.

Neither of those interpretations work. The Father isn’t our judge; Jesus is. Jn 5.22, Ac 17.31, 2Ti 4.1, Rv 19.11 He pays off no one; he covers our sins with himself.

Jesus atones for the world. Unless you’re John Calvin, who says he doesn’t.

1 John 2.2 KWL
He’s the atonement for our sins.
Not only for ours, but for the whole world’s.

One of the five distinctive points of Calvinism is limited atonement—the idea Jesus’s death only covers the sins of the elect, the people he singled out for salvation. His death covers us Christians, and covers the Old Testament saints, and that’s it: He died for no one else.

The rest of us Christians recognize there are verses like 1 John 2.2 in the bible, which state just the contrary: Jesus atoned for the world’s sins. Not just ours.

Out of curiosity I wanted to know how John Calvin interpreted this verse. So I checked it out. If I understand him rightly, he leapfrogged right over the proper interpretation.

2. And not for ours only… He added this for the sake of amplifying, in order that the faithful might be assured that the expiation made by Christ, extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel.

Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation. They who seek to avoid this absurdity, have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage; for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world.

Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles at 1Jn 2.1-2

First he poked at the one extreme, universalism: Those who say because Jesus died for the sins of the world, the whole world’s getting saved. No exceptions. Satan too. This, Calvin says, “deserves no refutation,” so he doesn’t offer one. Bit lazy of him. When I talk Jesus with pagans, sometimes I gotta deal with universalists, and I can’t resort to Calvin’s simple go-to tactic of having them burned to death as heretics. Not that I even want to. But you notice Calvin’s patience had its limits: He wasn’t willing to leave “turn or burn” till Jesus’s final judgment.

I gotta explain to universalists: I appreciate their sentiment. God likewise wants to save everybody. 2Pe 3.9 But not everyone wants to sign on to God’s plan of salvation. They don’t wanna live in a kingdom where everyone’s loving, kind, patient, and gracious. Not unless they can take utter advantage of “all those suckers”—and in the kingdom, they can’t. Life under Jesus will put a stop to all the evil they wanna indulge in. For them, the kingdom’s gonna suck. It won’t be “heaven” to them. They’d prefer anywhere else. Even someplace dark, hot, and stinky.

Then Calvin jumped to the teaching which “commonly prevailed in the schools”—which actually didn’t prevail in European theological colleges of the 1500s, but he made sure it did in his schools in Geneva: “Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect.” In other words Jesus’s atonement could apply to everyone—it’s just that mighty—but doesn’t. Yeah, John wrote just the opposite, both here and in the gospel: Jesus takes away the world’s sins. Jn 1.29 But Calvin had some mighty thick blinders on.

See, Calvin repurposed some pronouns. “Ours” in his hands meant our church. “All” meant the whole world… of elect Christians. Apparently Jesus died “to make this benefit common to the whole church.” Not whole world.

Yeah, you gotta insert some words into the scriptures’ text before Calvin’s interpretation makes any logical sense. And he thought bending the verse to fit his theology was justified. ’Cause his doctrines were so important. But they aren’t as important as what the apostle meant to teach. Easy to lose sight of this, and even the great Dr. John Calvin wasn’t immune to the temptation to seize a little power from God, and rework the bible till it endorsed his view. It’s why we gotta double-check every bible teacher. Not just me; not just Calvin.

Obviously John stated the contrary. Jesus atoned for the world’s sins. Not just the elect. Not just Christians.

Nope, it doesn’t mean the universalists are right, and everybody’s saved. It only means everybody can be saved, for Jesus paid for every sin, everywhere, in all of time. You haven’t sinned so bad, Jesus can’t cover you. He already has. You’re already good. God doesn’t have to shun your sinful presence; you’re free to talk to him, call out to him… and ask him to save you.

True Christians follow Jesus.

1 John 2.3, 5 KWL
3 In this way we know we’ve known him: When we keep his commands.
5 God’s love is truly achieved this way: In whoever can keep God’s word.
In this way we know they’re in God.

Contrary to popular belief, the way we know we’re saved—the way we know we have a relationship with Jesus—is by the fact we follow him.

It isn’t “blessed assurance,” the once-saved-always-saved idea (OSAS for short; it’s like YOLO but way less douchey) that once you become a Christian, you’re absolutely, positively guaranteed salvation. No matter what. No matter how little you follow Jesus, nor what sins you commit thereafter. Heck, you could even denounce Jesus—and OSAS. Once God puts you in the kingdom, you’re in. Forever.

’Cause “Trust in Master Jesus and you and your house will be saved.” Ac 16.11 ’Cause “If you agree with your mouth ‘Jesus is Master,’ and trust in your heart God raised him from the dead, you’ll be saved.” Ro 10.9 Evangelists love to quote these verses: They’re really simple formulas for salvation. Just trust God, and he’ll saved you. He has to. He said he would. Sounds great, right?

Except trust, or faith, doesn’t save. Faith is a work. (Unless it’s not; then it’s dead, and not really faith. Jm 2.17) Faith justifies us; God considers us in right standing with him when he sees us act in faith, and graciously grants us access to him. Ro 5.1-2 But God still has to do the saving.

And one of our acts of faith is obedience. Behavior, whether obeying Jesus’s commands, declaring him our Lord, trusting him to save us—is the proof we have a living relationship with God, and Jesus will recognize this relationship when he comes into his kingdom. It’s not formulas. It’s action.

Anyone who won’t obey Jesus—like those who don’t bother to follow his commands ’cause “that’s legalism” or “we’re under grace now” or “wrong dispensation,” or “he doesn’t really mean for us to obey them; they’re ideals”—has no claim to a relationship with God. True Christians don’t look for shortcuts, loopholes, or copouts, like a Pharisee.

And if we’re gonna represent God’s love, and pay it forward, we have to obey Jesus. Otherwise we’re only representing some dark twisted version of Christianity. You know the sort.

Bad Christians misrepresent Jesus.

1 John 2.4 KWL
Saying, “I’ve known him,” and not keeping his commands: It’s a lie, and truth isn’t in this.

Obviously what makes a Christian fake is they claim to follow Jesus but don’t; they claim to know Jesus but don’t. And when you ask ’em about Jesus, it’s all secondhand information they swiped from real Christians… or stuff they’re simply making up.

John knew Jesus personally. He knew what an actual relationship with Jesus entails: The Holy Spirit constantly takes us through a process of redefining and refining our lives to conform to his will. He reminds us to follow Jesus. He regularly points out practical applications for Jesus’s commands. He corrects us when we go wrong. He points out relevant scriptures. He encourages us to do better, go farther, love more, take courage, trust him more—and don‘t sweat the small stuff, ’cause grace.

Fake Christians might know this too—again, by secondhand. More often they don’t know it at all. Their “relationship” with Jesus consists of memorizing bible verses and doctrines, quoting them in order to look spiritual, and hypocrisy for everything else. They’ve never accepted a single challenge from the Holy Spirit. Why, he’d never do such a thing. He’s a gentleman.

“It’s a lie,” John bluntly put it. That’s the nicest way to put it.

How can Christianity be adequately expressed—how can God’s love and grace be fairly represented—when we don’t live like Jesus wants? Well it can’t. And isn’t. Fake Christians produce a really sucky substitute, pest-ridden fruit, and nothing in comparison with what God actually wants to achieve.

Fake Christians create the casual slide towards heresy. Instead of teaching self-control and working alongside the kingdom, they try to make the faith sound as easy and casual as possible: God saved us only so we can have warm, fuzzy, positive feelings of self-worth. Or so we can have “prosperity” and “increase” which is far more material than spiritual. Or so we can be comfortable, ’cause Jesus takes all our problems away. They don’t have to pick up any cross and follow him; Mt 16.24 self-control Ga 5.23 doesn’t actually require one’s self to do a thing. It’s all ease, wealth, happiness, sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.

But none of that is real. It’s entirely phony. And most pagans can see right through the fraud—and think we’re all either con artists or horribly self-deluded, and that God’s a fraud too. It turns good news into bad, religion into farce, and spreads darkness instead of light. Watch out for it.