Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Distance

Do you ever feel completely inadequate to the task of being a Christian?

The space between God and man is quite a distance to bridge, isn’t it.

I’m not talking about the distance between hell and heaven, or the moral distance between, say, Hitler and Jesus Christ. That’s obvious enough to not require a labored explanation. I’m not even thinking of the need to get saved or the importance of becoming reconciled to God and escaping the judgement we are all due.

No, I’m speaking here, not as a member of a fallen race, but as one who already knows and loves God and is seeking, however incompetently, to stagger along in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The distance between — the difference between — me and him … good grief!

I have always had trouble understanding the writings of John the apostle. They are heavenly minded in a way that is sadly foreign to me. I seem to be able to grasp the individual points he makes in his letters, but the overall sweep and intent — the way that he thinks, and the way he often switches from one subject to another — often seem alien to me in a way that the writings of Paul or even Peter do not.

All to say, the following thoughts may not be especially profound.

But in chapter 1 of his first letter, John seems to me to be occupied with two things: First, the absolutely immutable and spotless perfection of God, and second, the absolute inevitability of sin in the lives of those with whom that perfect God wishes to have fellowship.

Absolute Holiness

The first is stated as simply and plainly as anything can be: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

Here it is folks, and no beating around the bush. No darkness at all. No tiny little paternal or grandfatherly indulgence of sin, no “Nudge nudge, wink wink”, no “What they don’t know won’t hurt them”; he knows no sin, he does no sin, in him is no sin. He’s “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens”.

The distance is mind boggling. We absolutely cannot get there on our own. Again, I’m not talking here about salvation, but about appreciating him, enjoying him, communicating with him, letting him work in our lives. Having fellowship with God. Being his friend.

The most devoted of God’s servants, upon really seeing the Lord, is devastated by the distance between his own natural inclinations, conduct and history, and the nature of God.

Isaiah: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Peter: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

John: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.”

Inevitable Sin

The second thing John seems occupied with in this chapter is the absolute inevitability of sin in the lives and hearts of those who worship a holy God.

Awareness of sin seems at first to be a barrier into the presence of God. It certainly does to me. But John seems to view it not as a barrier but as a very important prerequisite for fellowship. Preoccupation with sin and obsession with sin are other things entirely, but awareness of sin is most necessary.

John, again rather bluntly, points this out: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us … If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us”.

The first statement seems to deal with sin, singular, as a part of who we are. It goes to the core of our beings as fallen creatures. The second statement seems to refer to sins, plural: the deeds, thoughts and words that issue from that fallen state on a daily basis despite our best efforts. The second describes the symptoms and the first describes the disease. William MacDonald wisely says, “Actually what we are is a lot worse than anything we have ever done.”

We are steeped in sin. We are men and women of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips. And the lips only reveal what is in the heart.

No, the Christian is very much still dealing with sin every day. And the danger to fellowship with God, John says, is not so much in the sin, but in the denial of it. That’s what destroys fellowship.

In fact, it’s only the servant of God who really gets it where sin is concerned. The sinner in the world, oblivious to the nature of God and the magnitude of his own failure, sees himself as really not such a bad sort. This is the wickedness and the giant, screaming falsehood of systems of religion that imply, suggest or teach that there is anything at all that one can do — any act or combination of acts one can perform — that will appease God or bring man closer to God.

These systems both soft pedal and soft peddle the vileness of sin. They utterly underestimate the holiness of God. In him is no darkness at all.

God’s Provision

John stresses both truths here: God is absolutely holy, and we remain, though saved by grace, both sinful and sinners. But he goes on to say “If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father”. Provision for our sin and failure has already been made.

For all of the Lord’s servants who recognize in the presence of God their own complete inadequacy, the Lord provides what they need: reassurance of the fact that God is perfectly capable of dealing with the issue — and a job to do despite it:
  • Isaiah, worried about the sinfulness of his speech, receives a burning coal from the altar as a remedy with the reassuring message that “your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for”, and then is promptly told “Go, and say to this people …” The man of unclean lips is given a job to do with his lips.
  • Peter receives a boatload of fish after an entire night of fruitless effort. Far from jumping for joy at the catch, he feels terrified, inadequate and occupied with his own sinfulness. He thought the solution was for the Lord to give up on him entirely. Maybe that would actually be easier. But the Lord reassures him, “Do not be afraid” and gives him a bigger and more important task to perform, saying “from now on you will be catching men.”
  • A dead man is no use to anyone. John, lying at the feet of the glorified Christ like a dead man, receives first of all the reassuring touch of the Saviour: “He laid his right hand upon me”, and much the same message: “Do not be afraid”, followed by the command, “Write therefore …”
Do you ever feel inadequate to the task of serving God and having fellowship with him? You absolutely should. But we need to remind ourselves that the Lord both takes our sinfulness and inadequacy into account in all his dealings with us, that he has made provision for it in the person of his Son.

And he’s given us a job to do in spite of it.

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