Grace Doesn’t Say That Sin Doesn’t Matter, Grace Says It Doesn’t Belong

Here’s a reassuring passage about God’s grace to us through Jesus Christ:

But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

-1 John 2:1b-2

This is exciting stuff: Jesus Christ, the righteous one, the one who has all the moral weight to throw around in heaven, has chosen to throw that weight around for us. He has dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” to make sure we can’t get our names crossed out of the book of life. Not only has he done this for us, he has offered his advocacy to “the whole world,” anyone who wants it. This Jesus Christ is not just generous, he’s patient, thorough, savvy, in charge, and–beyond a shadow of a doubt–He’s got our backs.

Sometimes, this can cause us to wonder, “does sin not matter, then?” After all, “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Perhaps I could get some advocacy on his calendar following the night or weekend I have planned. However, if we read these verses in context, there’s so much to the contrary–so much saying that sin does matter–that this kind of sin-enabling response would suggest we’ve misunderstand what Jesus’s grace is all about. Notice the verses before and after:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

-1 John 2:1-5

Yes, if (i.e., when) we sin “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Yet, that does not diminish our calling to “not sin,” “keep his commandments,” “keep his word,” “perfect the love of God,” “abide in him,” attempting to “walk in the same way in which he walked.”

Is this grace with strings attached? No, this is grace with God attached. While we might respond, “Oh, great, if I want grace then I have to have someone (perfect) looking over my shoulder?” the fact of the matter is, we get someone putting us up on his shoulders, drawing us up into a new kind of life. Far from enabling sin, God’s grace enables godliness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained this well. He said:

Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p.45

The Church Is More Than A Club for A Club’s Sake

Why do ministry? Why share the gospel? Why lead congregations? Why take part?

Here’s one answer from John, at least as to why he proclaims Jesus Christ:

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

-1 John 1:3

This all sounds pretty circular if we misunderstand (as many do) what the word “fellowship” meant the apostles. If “fellowship” just means getting together and being pals, then it seems like John is saying “I’m inviting you to the club so we can have a club.” This might lead them (or us) to ask “Then why should I choose the Church? Why not be part of a club that also reads books or rides bikes or tastes wine?”

However, getting together and being pals is just one part of “fellowship.” Consider this attempt at a definition for the Greek word behind it, koinonia:

koinonia [is] one of those untranslatable words for which “fellowship” provides one angle, “business partnership” another, and “family solidarity” a third, still leaving us with a sense that more needs to be said for the whole to be grasped.

-N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of Godp.401

Yes, John proclaims the Christ because he wants us to share the fellowship that is gathered around Jesus, but that’s not the whole of it. This koinonia is also a mission, also an opportunity to belong, and a great deal more besides. Indeed, the invitation to koinonia is an invitation to fellowship, mission, and belonging, not only with God’s people, but also fellowship, mission, and belonging with God Himself. In other words, we don’t welcome people into congregations simply because “everyone needs a thing”; rather, we proclaim Jesus Christ because in Jesus Christ we discover who we are mean to be, what we are to do, and those with whom God is empowering us to be and do it.

Ultimately, everyone does “need a thing,” this thing: Fellowship with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, a fellowship we’ve somehow been drawn into and that we long for others to enjoy.

Be Strong And Courageous And Not Just For Yourself

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.

-Joshua 1:9

Four times this refrain is repeated in Joshua chapter 1. Joshua has just taken over from “the Lord’s servant Moses,” and he might be a bit nervous. The people are adjusting to this new leadership, and they could be tempted to hesitate. Most importantly, they’re finally preparing to walk into the Promised Land, and they have to trust that God is making easy what would otherwise be impossible: Inhabiting the land that up to this very day was inhabited by mighty-looking armies.

It’s repeated again and again: Be strong and courageous.

We should note, amidst all the the things that could frighten God’s people, could dismay God’s people in this event, it was also the event of fulfillment. This was the moment when God followed through, when his faithfulness became manifest in actual historical events, to a greater extent than this generation had yet seen. It wasn’t things going wrong that called for strength and courage; it was, in fact, thing going marvelously right.

So it is in our living to God. Even things going right can require strength and courage. Sometimes the great changes for the better—in our churches, families, friendships, workplaces, in our very selves—offer fear and dismay, but as the people of God, clinging to God’s promises, we can choose strength and courage. So often we’ll be so glad we did.

Yet, there’s one more twist in this preparatory story. The last ones to receive this charge—“be strong and courageous!”—have already received their land of inheritance. The Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, they’re not waiting to enter the Promised Land, because they’ve already received their Promised Land. They’re going to settle on this eastern side of the Jordan, the very land where these preparations for crossing and possessing are taking place. Yet, Joshua reminds them of the strength and courage they have committed to on behalf of their brothers:

And to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh Joshua said, “Remember the word that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land.’ Your wives, your little ones, and your livestock shall remain in the land that Moses gave you beyond the Jordan, but all the men of valor among you shall pass over armed before your brothers and shall help them, until the Lord gives rest to your brothers as he has to you, and they also take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving them. Then you shall return to the land of your possession and shall possess it, the land that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise.”

And they answered Joshua, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses! Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and courageous.”

-Joshua 1:12-18

So, too, when our lives seem comfortable, we must not forget the strength and courage demanded by our responsibility to our brothers and sisters who have not yet found peace. So, too, our own satisfaction is not our full satisfaction, because we care about those with whom God has called us. If your life doesn’t seem to require courage, consider drawing near to those to whom you belong, who belong to you, as part of one body in Christ, for, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Be strong and courageous and be there for your brother. “Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”