Category Archives: 1 John

When is Sin Habitually Prevalent?

One of the many challenges in the Christian walk is the due diligence necessary to recognize the prevalence of sin in our lives.  For some, this takes the form of unhealthy introspection, while for others it is a neglected duty altogether.  To this cause, there is much wisdom in the infamous quote of John Owen, “be killing sin or it will be killing you.”  As Owen’s pithy statement alludes to, there really is no gray area when it comes to the presence and activity of indwelling sin.  In other words, there’s no neutrality, there is simply making war and progress against it, or there is considerable and regular defeat.

The danger here is not simply that sin wins on a regular basis, rather it is the cumulative effect that the ongoing and active power of sin has in one’s life.  In this way, sin is much more than a deed one commits and then confesses, sin is a power, an operative force.  It’s primary goal is not to get you to sin today or tomorrow, but to collectively numb you towards its presence and then to spread like a cancer until it hardens the heart completely,  leading to a shipwreck of faith.

Writing in his first epistle, the Apostle John intimates as much when he says,

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 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. 10 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.”

In this enlightening passage, John confirms there is no gray area in the Christian life.  For him, as a divinely inspired author, there is either the practice, i.e. regular pattern, of sinning or their is the practice of righteousness.  To engage in both is inconsistent, in fact it’s an impossibility and leads to a rather schizophrenic condition.  The challenge, for us then, is to determine whether one’s life is marked by a regular pattern of habitual sinning or whether one’s life is marked by bad habits that lead to temptation and sin.  Said another way, the Author of Hebrews exhorts us to lay aside every besetting sin, or the one that so easily entangles.  There is a snare that appeals to each of our flesh, a proclivity we might say, towards a particular sin.  Of this, we need to be alert and aware, not allowing it as an excuse to sin.  We need to know the ways and means, the pattern or principle, as it were, that these particular sins like to maneuver and operate in our lives.  However, this is not to say that a particular besettting sin is to be equivocated with a regular pattern of sin, which the apostle exhorts against above.  How then are we to know the difference?

In a discourse, sharing the same title as this post, John Owen addresses this very topic.  Writing in volume 9 of his works, Owen lends a hand towards untangling this particular knot when he says,

“Brethren, I take it for granted the vilest of those lusts which our Saviour and his apostles warn us against, to mortify and crucify, may be working in the hearts and minds of the best of us; and that a particular lust may be habitually prevalent, where, for particular reasons, it never brings forth outward effects: therefore, look to yourselves.  I say, then, when the mind and soul is frequently and greatly, as there are occasions, urged upon and pressed with a particular lust and corruption, this doth not prove that particular lust and corruption are habitually prevalent; for it may be a temptation.  This may all proceed from the conjunction of temptation with indwelling sin; which will make it fight and war, and use force, and lead captive.”

Owen has summarized the situation that we presented above.  There is a distinction to be made in our lives with regards to sin, whether we are under the influence of temptation of our flesh to sin, or whether there is within us the habitual prevalence to sin.  How then are we able to distinguish whether we are subject to a particular sin which so easily entangles, perhaps taking advantage of bad habits, and when a particular sin has become habitual and prevalent in our lives?

Turning to Owen again, he deduces three ways in which we may see that our sin is NOT from its habitual prevalence in our lives:

  1. If the soul be more grieved with it than defiled by it, it is a temptation, and not a lust habitually prevalent.
  2. It is so, when the soul can truly, and doth, look upon that particular corruption as the greatest and most mortal enemy.
  3. It is so, also, when a man maintains his warfare and his conflict with it constantly, especially in those two great duties of private prayer and meditation.

If these things be true of us, that we be grieved over the sin, a mortal enemy of the sin, and maintaining war against it through prayer and meditation, then, at least according to Owen, it is not a habitual sin, rather it is the effect of temptation with indwelling sin.

He then lists four ways which show that a habitual sin IS present:

  1. When a man doth choose, or willingly embrace, known occasions of his sin, that sin is habitually prevalent.
  2. Let a man fear it is so, when he finds arguments against it to lose their force.
  3. When a man, upon conviction, is turned out of his course, but not turned aside from his design.
  4. When the soul, if it will examine itself, will find it is gone from under the conduct of renewing grace, and is, at the best but under the evidence [influence?] of restraining grace.
  5. Lastly, when there is a predominant will in sinning, then lust is habitually prevalent.  Sin may entangle the mind and disorder the affections, and yet not be prevalent; but when it hath laid hold upon the will, it hath the mastery.

Owen’s words here are sobering.  Generally speaking, when we willingly choose and embrace sin, make arguments to support our sin, can be convicted, but not to change the direction of our sin, are completely reliant upon God’s restraining grace, and have our wills mastered by sin, then it may be said that we are under the habitual prevalence of sin.

If this be the case, we are in dangerous waters.  If this be the case, we have much to be in fear of.  If this be the case, we need to reassess, as per the exhortation of the Apostle above as to whether or not we abide in God as one of His children.  If sin be habitually prevalent in our lives, we lose all assurance and are indeed in danger of making a shipwreck of our profession.  Therefore, we ought to seek God in repentance and faith, turning from our sins with a desire to kill them; turning towards God asking for mercy for how we have grieved Him and neglected the grace of salvation through His Son Jesus.

Give glory to God. Repent and Return.

The Emphasis on the Son

In John’s first epistle, He begins with establishing himself as an eye-witness to the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He emphatically states that he had seen, heard, touched the Lord and now from that experience He proclaims Christ.  For this purpose, we would expect the entirety of the book to be focused on Christ, and this is true, however there is a remarkable pattern that emerges when one examines how it is that John brings his emphasis to the Son, particularly through His use of the terms Father and Son.

In the opening chapter, God the Father is mentioned in 1:2 and 1:3, while the Son is mentioned in 1:3 and 1:7.  However, at the beginning of chapter 2, it is the Father who is mentioned again, not the Son, as we might expect his pattern of proclaiming Christ to proceed.  The use of Father appears in the discussion from 1 John 2:1, and again in 2:13, 2:15, and 2:16.  Meanwhile, though Jesus Christ is mentioned in 2:1, the actual use of Son does not occur again until 1 John 2:22.  This is rather shocking given that we would expect the bulk of references to be about Christ, the Son of God, given John’s own emphasis on his experience with Christ’s earthy ministry.  But then something remarkable happens.

In 1 John 2:22-24, there is a transition that takes place from emphasis on the Father to the Son.  Note the passage below

22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. 24 Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.25 And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.

Here we see the use of both Father and Son in verse 22 and again, twice, in verse 23, followed by the fourth pairing in verse 24.  These pairings single a massive shift in emphasis from the Father to the Son.  From this point forward, God the Father is only referenced 3 times in the remainder of the letter, whereas God the Son 14 times, after only being mentioned twice up to this passage.

The question we need to ask at this point is why?  Is there a purpose for John to withhold and then subsequently emphasize the Son?

Interestingly, on the heels of this shift from Father to Son, we find a passage describing believers as children of God, those marked with consistent obedience and desire holiness.  For instance, 1 John 2:29

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.

then again in 3:1

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.

The development of the teaching that believers are children of God extends from 1 John 2:29 to 1 John 3:10 and includes specific mention in 3:2; 3:8 (negatively stated); 3:9 (2x); and 3:10 where it is stated both positively and negatively.

This pattern is simple enough, if one slows down long enough to see it, but it brings up another question.  What is John’s purpose in connecting the emphasis on God the Son with believers as children of God?

Quite frankly, it is to show the relationship that exists between God the Father and God the Son is parallel with God the Father’s relationship with those who have been born again,

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”  John 1:12-13

Similarly, as we read in Ephesians, we are co-heirs with Christ.  Not only that, but as the emphasis on the Son continues, we also see impeccability, i.e. sinlessness, righteousness, and purity attributed to Him, but not in isolation from us.  He died to remove sin from us; as He is righteous, so too ought we be righteous; as He is pure, so too will we be pure.  The relationship is familial, but also one of shared identity – holiness – through our union with Christ.

Oh the wisdom of God, who by way of simply shifting the emphasis from Father to Son, draws attention to the person and work of Christ and His holiness, but subsequently uses it to transition into our relationship as His children, that we too ought to look like His only begotten Son and walk in purity.

The Heart’s Gauge

 

During our Lord’s earthly ministry, He repeatedly pressed upon His disciples, and those who heard Him speak, that the heart and affections must be set upon heavenly, spiritual, godly things, indeed upon God Himself, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  Desiring to convey both what he heard and saw from His Lord, the Apostle John provides this sentiment of proper desires in chapter 2 of his first epistle.

There are two major sections that lead into our passage under consideration in this post.  The first occurs in 1 John 2:3-6 in which the Apostle outlines the requirement of obedience to God’s commands as evidence for coming to know God.  Rather than leaving it as heartless duty, he intertwines it with love, “whoever keeps His word, in Him truly the love of God is perfected.”  With that statement he paves the road for our second passage, 1 John 2:7-11 which builds upon this concept of love.  Notably, John introduces love as a commandment, not a new commandment, but an old one, but not really an old one because it is new in Christ.  By weaving together love and obedience, John most definitely recalls the words of Christ from John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

But also our Lord’s words from John 14:15,  If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” As well as His words from John 15:9-14

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

With this context in mind, providing our framework for understanding what the Apostle is aiming for in this chapter, we arrive at the passage under our consideration

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” 1 John 2:15-17

Love continues to be the theme in this section of chapter two, though stated negatively, do not love, or we might even say dislike, or perhaps even more strongly stated, hate the world and the things of the world.  Said this way, we should be compelled to ask, what does John’s use of world here mean?  Surely not the created order that God made as recorded in Genesis?  Surely he doesn’t mean hate trees, and squirrels, and the sun?  Before unpacking this further, notice that John places a qualification on loving the world, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  As has been typical throughout the book, there is no room for gray area here.  Love the world, then the love of the Father is not in you.  Love the Father, obey His commandments, and love the brethren, then it is incompatible to love the world.

Here we are in need of further defining the use and meaning of world.  Thankfully, this is done for us in the verse that follows

  • the desires of the flesh
  • the desires of the eyes
  • the pride of life (or pride in possessions)

Puritan Matthew Henry sheds light upon the meaning of these three phrases when he writes, “The things of the world are classed according to the three ruling inclinations of depraved nature. 1. The lust of the flesh, of the body: wrong desires of the heart, the appetite of indulging all things that excite and inflame sensual pleasures. 2. The lust of the eyes: the eyes are delighted with riches and rich possessions; this is the lust of covetousness. 3. The pride of life: a vain man craves the grandeur and pomp of a vain-glorious life; this includes thirst after honour and applause. The things of the world quickly fade and die away; desire itself will ere long fail and cease, but holy affection is not like the lust that passes away.”

In our passage we are exhorted, or better commanded, to not love the world or the things of the world.  This was preceded by a test of our affections for God and a delight in the duty of obedience.  The issue under our consideration is where do our affections lie?  We ought to consistently, even daily, consider the gauge of our hearts to determine whether it is inclined towards loving the things of the world, or whether it is inclined towards loving God, obeying Him, and loving others.  It isn’t a matter of legalistic do’s and don’ts.  It is a matter of desire, at the heart level, of where the affections of our heart rest.  That is the genuine test of a Christian and it is one that we need to apply to ourselves on a regular basis.

Soli Deo Gloria