Real Faith, Real Sin, Real Mercy

A message on 1 John 1:5-10 delivered at Large Group to the Fellowship in Christ at Stanford.


Good evening everyone. Glad to see so many of you! This is the last time many of you will be hearing from me. That might be a relief for some of you.

So this school year is almost over. I sincerely hope that you have grown in Christ, grown to know more of who he is, of what the gospel, the Good News, really is. It’s been a rough year for most of us, but I think many of us can honestly say that it’s been a year of tremendous growth. I personally have grown a lot in my understanding of the power of the gospel.

Before you all leave for the summer, and some of you forever, I want to exhort you once more concerning our faith. If you have your Bibles with you, please read 1 John 1:5-10 with me.

5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

John is a very real guy, and his first epistle, otherwise known as 1 John, is a very real letter.

What do I mean by that John is a very real guy? If you search for the word “truth” in the Gospels you’ll find the word once in Mark and once in Luke. You’ll find it about 20 times in the Gospel of John. He describes Jesus as “the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” He describes how the “truth will set you free.” The reason he wrote the Gospel of John is made clear in John 19:35, which says, “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.”

And we see this approach in 1 John. Without an introductory greeting, John immediately starts the letter with a proclamation of the truth: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life […]”

He is emphasizes from the get-go, the reality of Christ, and specifically, the human nature, the physical nature. That’s important because during that time, there’s this heresy called Docetism, which espoused the doctrine that Jesus’s incarnation (which means the embodiment of his spirit in physical form), was merely an illusion, and therefore, his death was also an illusion. But if Jesus’s incarnation and death were illusions, then there was no real sacrifice, there was no real atonement, and therefore, there was no forgiveness. We would still be under the just punishment of God, with no hope of escaping His wrath.

We see John’s concern as he warns about these antichrists in chapter 2 and again in chapter 4. The word “truth” and “liar” appear repeatedly throughout this letter, in different local contexts.

So John is really obsessed about the truth.

Thus, the title of this message is, “Real faith, real sin, real mercy.” If you can’t tell already, this is going to be a three-point message. It’s going to be easy to remember these three things, because there are only six words, and three of them repeat:

  1. Real faith
  2. Real sin
  3. Real mercy

The emphasis, like John, is going to be on “real,” because the faith that we have, Christianity, isn’t a myth designed to make us feel better. It is, as John wrote, the truth.

Real faith

So first point: real faith. What does it look like?

Apostle James talks about this in the book of James, “Faith without works is dead.” Looking at Scripture as a whole (especially when Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”), we know that works don’t add to our faith. How do we resolve this seeming contradiction? In short, there are two meanings of the word “justified”: one is being declared righteous, and the other is demonstrating the validity of the declaration of righteousness. In the context of people claiming to have faith but not doing anything, James uses justification in the second sense, whereas Paul uses it in the first sense. Works prove faith, and you see it in teachings of Jesus like, “Each tree is known by its fruit.”

So what does John say about real faith? Verse 5 states, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Just like in his Gospel, John uses the language of creation. What did God do in Genesis 1? He separated the light from the darkness. What did darkness try to do in John 1? It tried to overcome the light, but it did not overcome it. John was talking about Jesus himself, and the world that he came into. In accordance to this pattern, the people of God are set apart from the world. So walking in darkness is walking in the ways of this world, and walking in the light is walking in the way of Jesus.

Walking in darkness is antithetical to walking in light. “Well, duh!” you say, “But what’s the spiritual significance?” The spiritual significance is that what you do, or how you walk, demonstrates what you are. It doesn’t determine what you are. You see that? What you are determines what you do. What you do demonstrates what you are. Real faith is demonstrated, as we see in the verb “walk.” Notice that in v. 6, the truth is practiced.

Why this talk about work? Because faith that does not produce works is just an empty claim. Faith isn’t just knowledge of the facts. James says, “Even demons believe [that God is One]—and shudder!” (James 2:19).

We get the same message by the other authors of the New Testament: Paul says we “uphold the law” when we have faith (Romans 3:31) and tells us to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5). Peter calls us to be holy because God is holy, and that was in the context of conduct in the world. John here tells us to walk in the light and to practice the truth. It’s a consistent message. There are imperatives in the Bible.

So what does this look like? Let’s look at verse 6. Why did he bring up “fellowship with each other” when he was talking about “fellowship with God” earlier? Because I think that the evidence of true faith is displayed in your love toward your brothers.

If you think back to the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), what were some visible signs that the Pharisees’ belief was false? An obvious one was their judgment on and contempt for their brothers. Jesus condemns the rich men for passing by the beggar sitting outside their gates. They accused Jesus for healing a brother on the Sabbath when they would have taken care of any emergency involving their animals. They did not show mercy, and we saw that in the parable of the Good Samaritan. There are accounts in which they questioned why Jesus sat with the tax collectors and sinners. Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: “That you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

You see that the visible sign of their following Christ is in their love for one another.

And this is the kind of “works” that James is talking about. He wasn’t talking about reading your Bible, or praying before your meal, or going on short-term mission trips. He wasn’t talking about consistent church attendance, or regular fasting, or giving tithes. These all have value only if they are motivated by love and done in love.

The big question about the reality of your faith is, “Do you love?” Do you love God? If you do, you will walk according his nature.

One of the greatest dangers that a Christian can fall into is self-deception. We have the very real scenario even today of people claiming to be Christian but believing in a totally unbiblical Jesus, the one having tea with Buddha wondering why mankind is killing each other, for example. You also have people claiming to be Christian but living in contradiction to the fact that Jesus is their Lord and commands obedience; these people find excuses for their sin. They say, “I’m forgiven, so stop being so legalistic.” And then they go and get wasted.

We see in 1 John 2:3-4: “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.” Why is the truth not in him? Not only because his belief of where he is at spiritually is wrong, but also because the Jesus he believes is (to quote my Reformation Study Bible) “a false christ, a savior who is indifferent to righteousness.”

What John is trying to drill home is, “Because God is a God of truth, 1) make sure your beliefs are aligned with the truth, and 2) make sure your actions are aligned with your beliefs.”

That’s the first point.

Real Sin

Now if we are honest, then we know that obedience is hard. What if we don’t “walk in the light”? Who can say he’s perfect? The interesting fact is that the “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” even though we are “walking in the light” (v. 7). The phrases appear in the same verse! So “walking in the light” by no means suggests perfection or flawless performance.

In fact, even if you are walking in the light, and like John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (v. 8). He is claiming that everyone who walks in the light still has sin. Do you think you have no sin? Then you’re lying to yourself. You’re not just oblivious, you’re not just innocently ignorant, but you are deceiving yourself.

Now you might wonder, what does this have to do with me? That’s a big question, isn’t it? What does this have to do with me?

It has to do with you, and it has to do with me, because we lie in subtle ways. We’re not blatant about it. We know far better than to say outright, “We don’t sin.” We’d find it arrogant. No, we’re much better at that. Tell me if this isn’t a pattern you recognize:

  • We hide our deeper, more shameful sins, by admitting more obvious, less distasteful ones.
  • We talk about the same few sins to throw people off from our other sins.
  • We use general sins to cover up our specific sins.
  • We even put our sins on a scale, and compare it to the sin we perceive in others, and say to ourselves, “Well, I’m not bad as them.”

In all this, we think that by tricking people, we can trick God. And the sad thing is that we believe it. We stay in our comfortable accountability bubble, if we have one, and think, “Yeah, I’m doing my job as a Christian. I’m doing my duty. I have accountability.” By doing this, we demonstrate our lack of trust in the gospel’s power to save us and free us.

Maybe that’s not you. If it’s not you, praise God, and you can sleep through the rest of the message. But for the rest of us, how does this play out?

Let me ask you this: do you talk about your lack of spiritual discipline, your need for prayer, your lack of reading the Bible, instead of admitting the works of the flesh outlined in Galatians 5: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” If you look at the list of qualities in Romans 1 when Paul is calling out all the sins of unbelievers, he says that they are filled with “all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” Does talking about these things make you feel uncomfortable? These are the things we ought to be confessing. Instead, we often merely “confess” our external circumstances without confessing our responses to them.

Let me ask you this: do you talk about all your sins, or just a few well-known ones? Do you say, “I’m struggling with pride,” or, “I need to be more diligent,” or do you admit, “Yes, I am proud of my grades. I am proud of my athletic ability. I am insecure and compare myself to my brother’s financial situation. I envy him because he got a job at Facebook, and I am stuck in Company X. Yes, I have a double standard when I look at other people’s sins and compare them to my own. I looked at a girl the wrong way today. I actively searched for pornography. My lips were loose and I did not watch my tongue. I talked about a coworker, or a pastor, or a boss behind his back today.”

Do you preface your confessions with, “I struggle with,” or “I am wrestling with”? Is that even true? Are you really struggling, or are you just giving in? Do you feel compunction, remorse, for when you do any of these things?

James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” How can you pray for one another to be healed, if you don’t confess those sins that are killing you like cancer from the inside?

In Luke 5, we have the story of the calling of Levi, a tax collector. Now a tax collector was considered scum of society, because they exploited their own people, often overcharging because they received a commission of the taxes that they collected. The Jews hated them. This tax collector, Levi, in response to his calling, made Jesus a great feast. The Pharisees were grumbling, and asked, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus, why are you eating with the scum of society, the dirty cheaters and the immoral?

This is how Jesus answered: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Here’s what I want you to see: you have to face the reality of your sins. You cannot think of yourself higher than what you really are. And when you think with sober judgment, you see, “A wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).

Real Mercy

But, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And this is the third point I want you to see: Real mercy and forgiveness is for real sin.

Martin Luther, the Father of the Reformation, in a letter, wrote: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

What does it mean? It doesn’t mean go out and sin so grace can abound! No! Paul already refuted that argument in Romans. Rather, let us not pretend to have sinned this little sin or that little sin. Let us be honest about the full weight of our sin. Let us acknowledge that yes, we are sinners, that we do commit murder every time we desire revenge; we do commit adultery every time we look at a woman lustfully.

You would be minimizing Christ’s atonement, his death on the cross, the blood that he shed, if you think that all he did was die for your lack of doing your daily devotional or skipping church on a given Sunday. You would be belittling the grace of God, if you think that your worst sin is not sharing the gospel enough with your friends. You would even be deceived if you think pride is your only problem, if you think lust is your greatest weakness, your love for money is your only evil.

The real glory in the gospel occurs, when you confront all the dirt and ugliness in your heart, and yet you trust that God is enough. That the blood of Jesus is enough.

Verse 7 states, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin,” and verse 9, which states, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

In fact, if we try to deceive ourselves or others, and say that we haven’t sinned, or even limit the extent of our sins, then “we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

Friends, the cleansing of our sin isn’t merely an offer. It is a necessity.

It is the desperate people, the people who recognize their need to be healed, who come to Jesus.

I pray that we have the courage to confess our sins, our real sins, to the Lord, so that we may obtain real mercy. If you do repent and confess your sins, then Jesus is faithful but also just to forgive our sins (verse 9).

We know “faithful”: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Arguably, the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16 goes, “For God thus loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We know faithful.

But “just”? The forgiveness isn’t something trivial. What is this forgiveness not like? It’s not a simple, “I’ll just let it slide,” or, “It’s not worth my dignity to pursue this offense.” Many atheists reason that God should be above the petty sins of mere humans. But they fail to realize that we have an infinite God that we have offended, and that requires an infinite, real payment for real sins that deserved real punishment. And Jesus paid for it with his real blood.

Jesus’s death was not a fake death as the Docetists believed. It was not a show put on by God. It was not a figurative statement. It was real death involving physical pain, real physical torture, real suffering. The cross was real. And praise God, that Jesus on the cross was real! For we would still be under God’s wrath were that not the case.

But we do have a savior. By the grace of the Father, He has fulfilled justice by providing a suitable payment in the form of Christ’s blood. Even better, not only has that debt been paid on our behalf, but we have been credited with Christ’s righteous deeds. And the fact that God is faithful and just works to our favor! For because God is faithful, He will not change the terms. And because God is just, He will reward us for the faithfulness that Christ had that is now imputed (credited) to us.

Summary: Be Real

So, in summary, be real. The letter of 1 John is concerned about the truth, because God is the God of truth. Christianity isn’t about making oneself feel better, but dealing with the real issues of what is truth, and the how that truth affects the way we live. And that will involve real sin. But Christianity also provides the real solution of mercy through the blood of Christ.

If you remember nothing else from this message, remember this:

Be real:

  • Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.
  • And if you find that you do desire to walk in the light, then also be real in confessing your sins to yourself and to God. Don’t be afraid to involve brothers or sisters or mentors to help point you to God.
  • When do confess, I am certain that you will receive real mercy that is promised by the faithful and just Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Let us pray.