Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared that he might take away our sins. And in him there is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him... No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning because they have been born of God.
I have been struggling with this section of John's letter. For John, sin and following Jesus are entirely incompatible. Paul says the same thing in Romans (6:1-4). In light of my own inability to be sin-less, reading such emphatic statements leads to one of two things: striving or despondancy. Either I determine that right now, starting this very instant, I am going to stop thinking anything remotely negative about anybody, and any other sinful thing that I might be liable to do; or, I realise the impossibity of achieving such a ludicrous goal and I give up and make a cup of tea instead. I don't think John was going for either of these outcomes.
An unexpected combination of Mother Teresa - acclaimed Catholic Saint - and Greg Boyd - slightly controversial American theologian - has helped to bring some clarity. Both - in very different ways - talk about living in the reality that God has aready won for us in Christ. Mother Teresa writes, "God is within me with a more intimate presence than that whereby I am in myself...for our lives to be fruitful they must be full of Christ." Boyd, going further, suggests that the point is that - for the one following Jesus - our life is already full of Christ. We are not on some mission to become sinless and spirit-filled; we are, in fact, both these things already.
That feels heretical even as I write it. I am still a sinner, but I do want to be sinless. I have God's Holy Spirit, but it doesn't always feel like it. And yet and yet...John and Paul, seem to state that, for the Christian, this reality has already dawned. We cannot continue to sin because we died to sin. (Romans 6:2) God has already planted his Holy Spirit within our hearts. Part of what I think John is trying to do is urge his readers to recognise the reality that Christ won for them on the cross - to recognise it and start living in the joy and wonder of it rather than endlessly talking thinking praying preaching about how to enter in to such a reality in the first place. There is a danger of preoccupation. There is a danger of continually striving to be in a place where we can love and give and do when the reality is that we are already in such a place and are missing out on the opportunities of loving, giving, doing.
If we understand the truth of being one with Christ, of being united with him and living in him, then we will not sin. Except that we will. But - in some sense - it is the old, dead part of us that is doing it. (Romans 7:17) Not the new, transformed me but the me that died with Jesus on the cross. This doesn't mean that sin isn's a struggle. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't work with the partnership of the Holy Spirit to stop doing the things that God doesn't want us to do (Romans 8:13), but it means that the starting place is different. When I sin, I am not being true to myself. I am not living in the reality that Jesus won for me. I have slipped back into something that I used to do but that isn't really part of who I am anymore. (Ephesians 4:20-24) This, I think, is why Paul continually uses the language of old self / new life. We are called to act like ourselves. When we sin, we are not behaving in a way that is true to who we are. It is a contradiction. So much of a contradition, in fact, that John can call it an impossibility. We cannot go on sinning: to do so would be to betray the reality that we have become part of, to deny the truth of the cross and all that Jesus won for us.