In a world hellbent on exacting a pound of flesh, the very idea of forgiveness is controversial. In theory, it sounds wonderful, but in practice, grace and forgiveness tend to elicit polar responses. In 2019, the world witnessed one of the most powerful examples of this firsthand when Texas police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of the murder of Botham Jean. During the ensuing trial, the victim’s younger brother, Brandt, took the stand to deliver the victim impact statement, which is an opportunity for family and friends to describe in painful detail the extent to which the offender’s actions affected them. Instead of dwelling upon the mistakes of his brother’s murderer, however, Brandt shocked the courtroom with these words: “I can speak for myself: I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. I personally want the best for you…Again, I love you as a person, and I don’t wish anything bad on you.”
Instead of condemnation, Brandt spoke absolution. As you might expect, the backlash was immediate and furious. How could he do this?! Wasn’t he letting the perpetrator off the hook too easily?! Wasn’t justice–not grace–supposed to reign supreme?! Didn’t he have a right to be angry and to make the police officer suffer for her wrongful actions?! By forgiving her, wasn’t he just excusing bad behavior and thereby minimizing the severity of her sin?!
There’s this idea out there that forgiveness = permissiveness. The more we emphasize forgiveness, the more we’ll see a corresponding rise in sin. If we tell people that their failures will not be held against them, we’re essentially giving them a hall pass to do whatever they want. Forgiveness unchecked leads to licentiousness, right? The Apostle Paul formulates it this way in one of his letters, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” In the same breath, though, Paul puts the kibosh on that idea in no uncertain terms: “By no means!” (Rom. 6:1-2).
The Apostle John would agree. 1 John 2:1-2: “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.” John has just introduced his famous metaphor of light and darkness, which permeates not only this epistle but his Gospel as well. God is light, and Christians are called to walk in that same light rather than darkness. Walking in the light doesn't entail a spotless moral record but rather an honest appraisal of who we are. To step into the light is to expose ourselves, warts and all, to God–the source of all light. We can confess our failures and shortcomings without fear because “the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from sin” (1 John 1:7). We can have confidence before God because, in his great mercy, he meets great sin with even greater grace. But, knowing the natural proclivities of the human heart and–in particular–the hedonistic leanings of his pre-Gnostic audience, he puts up another guardrail here. Forgiveness does not give us permission to sin, says John. Rather, when we inevitably do sin, we have this sure promise that Jesus stands between the Father and us as our advocate, bearing the penalty for our sins in his own body on the Cross. He casts our sin into the heart of the sea and buries the skeletons in our closet once and for all.
John continues: “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 2:3-6).
For the second time in this letter, the word “liar” surfaces. John’s lingua franca is metaphor and antithesis, and he adds another layer here. Just like Christians who claim to have earned their “holiness blackbelts” are liars (1 John 1:10), so are those who claim to know Jesus and yet ignore his commandments. As has been said by many before, Christian obedience may not be the root of faith, but it is the fruit of it (Gal. 5:22-23). A faith that is living and active has legs, which is to say, it naturally results in good works. As Martin Luther so famously put it in his introduction to Romans, “[Faith] does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them.” Wanton, persistent disobedience to God’s law is an indication that our hearts are out of alignment. When we are turned by the gear of God’s love, the gear of our love for neighbor begins to turn in like manner. A slippage reveals a disconnect in the link, and it tells us we are not actually abiding in God. Is it possible to know God without obeying him? John’s answer is a resounding no.
Beloved people love people. The corollary for this truism is that hatred for fellow brothers and sisters in Christ has no place in our hearts.
He continues with these words, “Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” (1 John 2:7-11).
John’s waterfall of antitheses continues to cascade. New and old. Light and dark. Love and hate. In one sense, the love commandment is nothing new (see Lev. 19:18 & Deut. 6:5). In fact the golden rule isn’t even uniquely Christian, as the #loveyourneighbor yard signs so unanimously proclaim. God’s law is written on our hearts (Rom 2:15). However distorted the human conscience post-fall, to one degree or another we all recognize the importance of treating others well.
In another sense, though, it is new. With the coming Jesus Christ—fully God & yet fully human—the diamond of the Father’s love reveals new facets. Because the righteousness of God has already been fully satisfied in his Son, our motivation for loving one another is fundamentally altered. No longer are our actions fueled by a zeal to prove ourselves or to earn God’s blessing. Because “we have an advocate” (1 John 2:1), and because “the blood of Jesus…cleanses us from ALL sin” (1 John 1:7, emphasis mine), we are unleashed to love out of freedom rather than guilt. As one author puts it, we are freed to run the race without looking down or counting our steps. Beloved people love people. The corollary for this truism is that hatred for fellow brothers and sisters in Christ has no place in our hearts. Since we all stand naked and exposed in the spotlight of God’s law and since we are all equally cleansed by the blood of Christ, what right do we have to withhold love from one another? What right do we have to ration mercy when God Himself withheld nothing from us? If we claim to abide in God and yet harbor resentment, we are hypocrites, plain and simple. In the life-giving atmosphere of God’s unconditional love, the poisonous gas of hatred (which functionally amounts to murder, see Matt 5:21-22) must be expelled.
Our hope is not in our love for him, but in his love for us.
So what hope, then, is there for us? What hope is there for sinner-saints who daily bask in the air of God’s love and yet wander around lost in the clouds of our own poisonous, death-dealing hatred? What hope is there for those who vacillate between light and darkness? What hope is there for hypocrites who fail to obey God’s law, who fall short of the glory of God? What hope is there for those who deserve only condemnation and death?
Perhaps the most important part of our passage comes in v. 5: “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” “Perfected” can also be translated “finished,” as in “It is finished” (John 19:30), the climactic moment of Jesus’ work on the cross in John’s Gospel. In fact, the same Greek word is used in both instances. In Christ, the love of God has been perfected. Accomplished. Finished. He alone obeyed all of the commandments. He alone perfectly loved not only His brothers and sisters, but his enemies. He loves them to death, actually. He alone lived the sinless life we could not, stepping boldly into the light of God to reveal a spotless lamb without blemish or defect.
In the final analysis, then, our hope is not in our love for him, but in his love for us. May we live our lives in alignment with that love.