My dear children, these things I write to you, that ye may not sin. And if any one sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ [the] righteous; and he is [the] propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the whole world.”
These two verses properly belong to the first chapter; they are its necessary supplement. Though there is the connecting particle in the beginning of the third verse, it loads to a new subject — the application of the truth that is in the first chapter, in ways of the greatest importance and of deep interest, to guard souls from self-deception and error. These verses remain untouched at present. But we have ample matter for our searching into the word, and the meditation of our souls, in the two verses immediately before us.
We have seen that the first chapter consists of two parts: the outflow of the love of the Father in the Incarnate Son flowing from divine grace, without cause from without — save our sins! The energy of His nature is love; and the purity of His nature is conveyed by the expressive figure — word “light.” What word could suit His purpose so well? Thus it was written for our instruction, and meant not to be beyond our comprehension under the Holy Spirit’s succour. For there is no element which refuses corruption more than light, as it is also in itself absolutely pure; at any rate, the light of God’s nature is. Such is the portion in God’s grace, His nature, we receive as Christians; and this is what the apostle was led to tell them when the church outwardly was becoming a wreck. Here we see that it was so then: this Epistle itself proves it. The worst form of evil that can be conceived in Christendom is what is called “antichrist;” and at this time there were “many antichrists.” There are many more now. Thus God took care that at any rate the germ of the very worst evil should be thoroughly out before the last apostle wrote, in order that there might be a divine pronouncement on its evil and its danger. It was not to be left to spiritual judgment alone, although this is surely required for any profit through the word of God. But we have God’s authority expressed in His word: no inference even, no argument of men, no result of the saints’ experience; but what directly commends itself on God’s authority to the conscience and the confidence of every child of His. He by His word therefore took care, in His wisdom, that as all these evils were to be, the very worst of them should be in existence for God to designate and condemn it before His saints.
Hence it is that this Epistle has a very peculiar character. It is not like the Second to the Thessalonians, looking to another epoch which is not present, at that which had not arrived but must be before the day of the Lord — the apostasy or “the falling away.” The apostasy means the abandonment of Christianity altogether, and as this will surely come, one of the evil factors in bringing it to pass is what is strangely called the “higher criticism.” It is the preparation of men for that unbelief which will be far more thorough, complete, and undisguised. And where is the honesty of officials, whose very position is to maintain the authority of God’s word, reaping earthly honour and emolument from the very thing which they are undermining, and which they ought to, if they do not, know they are undermining? But that apostasy is future; whereas antichrists were already come. It was the “last time,” and the sign of the last time was “many antichrists;” and here they were. It was not merely the future evil. The antichrist is coming, but many antichrists are the precursors of the antichrist.
But in the verses which are now before us it is a much more general evil. It is, alas! what has to be taken into account as to every professing Christian. The flesh is enmity against God, a near and constant danger, because it affords a ready handle to the enemy to act upon, and to act upon it not merely in those that have nothing but flesh, but in those who, although themselves in the Spirit, have the flesh in them. It is true that they are distinctly said not to be in the flesh, that is, they are by faith in Christ delivered from the flesh; they have got another nature altogether new, and are not left helplessly in the old. There is adequate power in the Holy Spirit to keep every saint of God from sinning.
We know as matters of fact that we may sin, and that we all often stumble; but it is our own fault. Hence the believer is the one that ought to be ready, and I might say glad, to vindicate God against himself. It is humiliating, truly; but, dear brethren, have we not derived blessing, and great blessing, from what humbles us? There is not a single trial of the sort, however unhappy it may be, however painful, however unjust sometimes, but, if accepted from God, is by His grace turned for good. “All things work together for good to those that love God, to the called according to purpose.” And we know that as every good gift and every perfect giving come from the Father of lights, so we are inexcusable when we misrepresent Him; for we are His children, and are called to keep up the family character.
Hence therefore the apostle ought not to be mistaken when, in the second part of the first chapter, he shows the marvellous starting-point of the believer. For the seventh verse, so much and widely misunderstood, really refers to the standing of the believer. It is constantly turned to his de facto conduct, to the actuality of his walk; whereas it is the character of the walk that is normal to us, because we have eternal life; and further, because that eternal life has both the powerful guard and the ground of infinite comfort in the sacrifice of Christ. “But if we walk in the light:” it is an abstract statement applicable to the Christian if he is one. This is enough to show the perversity of such an understanding of it. In reality no question is raised of an actual point of time or fact in a believer’s walk, but of its character according to God.
This is precisely what our apostle is so happy in presenting, and so constant in applying to us. “If we walk in the light” means in effect if we are Christians, if we have seen the light of life, if we are following Christ. It is the Lord who says, “He that followeth Him shall not walk in darkness” (John 8:12). Does He mean that this belongs only to some saints? He asserts it to be true of every one that follows Him; “he shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” Great as the privilege is, it is wholly of divine grace, and in no way attainment through our fidelity; it is solely the fruit of God’s incomparable goodness, that even now as believers we have to do directly with God as He is. And where is God known as He is? In the light; certainly not in the dark but in the light. There it is that we not only have eternal life, but along with it we walk in the light, instead of in darkness like a heathen. Fallen man walks in the darkness necessarily, because he does not know God. The believer walks in the light, because he does know God, having seen Christ, the light of life; and this light of life is not merely a little gleam which soon vanishes away; it is a perfect and a constant light. The true light already shines, and where does it shine? On the Christian, and into his very heart. The apostle Paul even adds “the light of the glory,” because he is occupied with Christ on high; but here it is rather the light of life in Christ, the true light of the divine nature. Hence, when we are converted and rest upon redemption, where are we brought? Not yet to heaven, but “brought to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And is God darkness? “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” Therein it is that we walk.
People confound walking in the light with walking according to the light; but this is quite another thing. For if you say “we walk according to the light,” it means practical conduct; but if it is said “we walk in the light,” it is where we are brought by our Lord Jesus Christ — to God, walking from that moment till we are with Him where that light has absolutely no hindrance more. Here we are surrounded with till kinds of drawbacks, obstructions, and dangers from the flesh, the world, and the devil. Yet by faith we walk in the light of God’s presence already.
The Enemy has what one may call a personal spite against the Son, the Lord Jesus, in particular. From the first too Satan had a spite against man, as God had a compassionate and tender feeling for man. And no wonder, since it was the purpose of the godhead, that the Son would become Man. But besides mere man was of interest to God. He was a creature of dust only, till God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life — into man alone, and into no other creature on earth; none but the earthly head received in this immediate way the breath of God. Other creatures began to live without anything of the kind, and consequently they perished in death. But not so man; he in dying certainly returns to dust; but what about the breath of God? Therein is the ground for the immortality of the soul. One is not now speaking of the new life of believers, but of the souls of men. If any person denies the immortality of the soul, is he not thus far (and it goes far) an infidel, because he makes man’s soul in this respect no more than a dog’s? Can anything be a greater affront as well as unbelief, in face of what God has done even to man and for man? No other animal is made in God’s image, or after His likeness. So much the more unbelieving and ungrateful in putting a shameless slight on God and His word — the God who has been so good to him, and put such remarkable honour upon the entire race in its head. Man is made to rule. Not even an angel is allowed any such position; they are all servants. No angel will ever wear a crown or sit on a throne, no matter what poets or theologians dream; but those who believe undoubtedly shall. The saints are to reign with Christ.
There is thus what is extremely important even in the creation of man; and Satan’s work is to make him a mere creature for present things, shutting his eyes to all that is coming, and thus denying God’s word and judgment. Many no doubt are, especially in our day, the varying degrees of infidelity; but its first degree, we may assume, is denying Scripture as God’s word, if it be not rejecting His testimony to Christ in the preached gospel; then lowering his immortal soul to a brute’s, effacing hell and heaven; and so throughout all the ever darkening clouds of infidelity. But here there is also and always a danger of presumption, for the flesh will abuse anything and everything. The flesh most of all strives to pervert grace, and likes to do so unless there be a new nature. And even where there is that nature, the believer is only kept right by dependence upon God in faith of Christ’s work.
On the other hand God is active. If light be the moral nature of God, love is the energy of God’s nature going out in goodness, and working with the deepest affection and concern. It is not, abstractly speaking, the case with anything but love. Undoubtedly it is an easy thing to abuse love; and we should not only abuse it occasionally, but go on from bad to worse, were it not that God in Christ is not only life and light, but love. Yea, the Saviour in it died for us and shed His blood to make us whiter than snow in the sight of God, as He is the Advocate that we have with the Father, who is holy and righteous.
You may notice here that the writer is not now pursuing the nature of God as in the latter part of the first chapter. We return to His character as Father, the gracious name of relationship with a Christian. For the grace shown to the Christian is the highest grace that God has ever shown or ever will. His word is now complete. No more revelation is given by God, no further revelation has man to gain. Not only has God brought out His last word and deepest in Christ His Son, but also now the Holy Ghost is here to supply present power. We have not to go to Jerusalem or Samaria, to Rome, Canterbury, or anywhere else, to know the word of God or its meaning. As the Scriptures are the sole standard of the truth, so the Holy Spirit abides in every Christian for this express purpose — to guide into all the truth.
But also this supposes a suited condition of the soul. The high and blessed condition that we find looked at in the early part of the first chapter is fellowship or communion. And Christian communion means sharing the Father’s mind and affection, His work, and His purposes, whatever their extent, as concentrated in the object of faith set before us. They are all in the Word personal and in the word written, and they are there for us to apprehend. We learn thus what God has done for us in Christ was what He had in His heart before anything was done; and this as revealed in His own Son, and applied as only the Holy Spirit could. We have the best God could give us, His own everlasting delight in His Son, and that delight now communicated to us. For when He said “This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased,” is it not, as another has observed, much more wonderful than to say “In whom you ought to be well pleased?” Even this would have been a great favour as we ought to feel; but there He shares with us the chief joy of His own heart. For God’s complacency centres in the Lord Jesus, and all the more because the Son was born of woman, because He deigned to become man — as necessary a thing for our blessing as that He had always been God. There could have been no link with man except through the incarnation of God the Son. And what is it not for God’s glory?
It was so not merely that the Lord Jesus Christ came to die. This no doubt is what brings us in, superior to all the disabilities from our sins, and all the consequences of our fallen nature. Yet to enjoy God as He is, to have fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ, is notoriously left out for the most part by the modern Christian; and is it not the best part? Is it not where believers come short? They think it quite enough if they are saved; or even have a humble hope of being so at last. It is there Calvinism is so incurably hard and selfish. “If I am saved, this is the great matter. To he elect, or not to be, that is the first of questions to be settled.” All circles round self. The first question with God is that I should believe on the Lord Jesus. Then the heart can go out fully, naturally to the Father and the Son in the power of the Spirit, not only to all saints, but to all sinners, that they too may believe and be saved.
No; the first question is not my safety. Blessed as it is to be saved, my safety is a small part of what Christianity really is, and still less of divine glory. It is doubtless essential for the believer to begin with, when he receives Christ; and that beginning suffices to show that he had not the smallest desert for any blessing; God gives it free and full to him. But to enjoy His own love, and His delight in the Son of His love, what could give higher joy than this? What is there in heaven greater than that? There will be the absence of all the bad, and the presence of glory; but nothing in heaven exceeds fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. Is it not an enigma how a Christian could actually put down on paper that we shall have no fellowship in heaven? Of course, “ecclesiastical” fellowship was not meant; for it would be mere idiocy to talk about such a thing in heaven, however precious on earth. He meant what he said, “No fellowship “; and we may leave it to be, weighed. The wonder is that fellowship with the Father and with the Son should be given us on earth; yet it is only one of God’s crowning mercies that we should here be fitted to enjoy it in the Spirit.
But, however blessed the fellowship of the Father and the Son may be, it is easily interrupted; a single foolish thought or word interrupts it. For how could the Father and the Son have fellowship with sin? And we need restoration. For this reason here we have this gracious supplement: “My dear children, these things write I to you that ye may not sin.” It was not fear lest they might be lost. There the Calvinist, hard and narrow as he may be, is perfectly right. Life eternal means eternal life, nothing less; but a great deal more than what is commonly drawn from the two words thus put together. They contain far more than many saints and martyrs drew out of these words of God in compass and depth. On the very surface of the words, it is not a question of mere safety. We all know that not a few lively Christians think it is even less than safety; and we are sorry for them. But is there anything too foolish, even if contrary to the word, to gain currency with Christians, save the foundation truth of Christ Himself? God watches as to this the heart and the mind and the tongue of His children. Here it was necessary that there should be no abuse of His incomparable grace, no slight of His adorable person.
The communion with the Father and with His Son, based on eternal life in Christ, fits us for the light, making us capable of walking in the light; and God graciously imparts not merely intelligence but peace, and also fills us with joy. Do you think that most of the children of God really believe that such is their title now, and that this is the mind of their Father about them? Does their practical Christianity at all approach it? “Fulness of joy!” And it is not only here; the same thing is true of Paul’s experience and witness.
Look at that experimental Epistle written to the Philippians; yet none other has such joy overflowing on every hand. The apostle both had it in his own heart, and looked for it in the hearts of these saints so beloved of him as he was of them. Indeed he had carried on the work at Philippi, as one may say, in a prison at midnight, and under a great deal of abuse from man, and suffering and shame inflicted upon himself and Silas. In no place did the gospel work commence so manifestly with triumphant songs to God in the midst of sorrow. And God heard them, not only the prisoners as we are told, but God heard; and he answered by an earthquake, the like of which, one safely presumes, never appeared in any other spot since the world began. The effects that followed had a character altogether unprecedented. It loosed all their bands, yet nevertheless not a prisoner escaped, nor was there a life lost, or a limb injured. But the gaoler, waking up, was awakened not only to learn that all his charge was safe, but to something incomparably better: to the Saviour and his own salvation in sovereign grace. Evidently he was a rough, hard, reckless man, as gaolers so often are naturally, in those days undoubtedly. But there he was, a mighty trophy of divine mercy, and a witness of God’s answer, not merely in rebuke of abused authority, but to the patient faith of His servants who sang His praise in the prison. And thence rose up to His ear acceptably their songs of joy, which their many stripes made to be all the sweeter. Surely in ordinary circumstances, and in the midst of all the peaceful enjoyment of divine grace and truth, songs ought to be every moment accompanying them in spirit. Not that one means every Christian always singing, but praise going up at all times from their hearts; and so it would surely be if saints had Christianity as it was once for all delivered to their faith, and enjoyed in the spirit, themselves separate from the darkening embargoes of unbelief.
Our verses open with the touching appeal to the loving confidence of those at length addressed as “My dear children.” He had abstained from any such endearing term before; now he uses it. “These things write I unto you.” Nor is it any longer the appropriate form of joint testimony, “write we;” but here his speech becomes definitely personal; he was writing to each and all of them, as God led yet from himself individually. No doubt he was inspired just as much to say “We write,” in the first chapter, as “I write” in the second; but in the first chapter it was what chosen witnesses testified by divine grace, and what all the saints were meant to enjoy to the full. If they could speak to Him in songs at midnight, surely they sang their spiritual songs in the light of mid-day also.
But here it is a serious warning that he enjoins These things write I to you that ye may not sin.” Who can wonder that this becomes a personal appeal, and not without need? Why? Sin deeply touches, especially if a saint of His be the one who might thus compromise Him. If we know the gospel, we should believe that eternal life goes right through till time is no more, and eternal life the Christian has, the now communicated life of Christ; as he also has the everlasting redemption of Christ (Heb. 9:12), not temporal as that of Moses of course was in coming out of Egypt. Like our other Christian privileges, ours is everlasting redemption. In 1 John 2:1 it is no question of such a fear arising as for an Israelite. By grace we are made to feel, as alive with Christ’s life and character, for what lowers Christ’s name, and grieves the Holy Spirit of God in virtue of whom we were sealed for a day of redemption. And we go further here: “the Father” as such is alleged. For not merely have we now partaken of a divine nature, but we stand in the relationship of children to the Father.
If you think of a poor orphan that never livingly knew its own father or mother, seeing with pain its loss of a tie which bound others together, you could better judge the great blank that must be felt there. Here we are precluded from any such feelings. Not only have we a divine nature which is given by grace to abide through every strain and difficulty; but our title holds good as having received Christ to be children of His Father and ours. And what is sin in His sight? Nothing less than a direct stroke at God’s nature. The nearness of our relationship only aggravates the insult done to God. It is one acting in his own will, against God’s will, for that is the true character of sin; not a transgression of the law, as wrongly in the Authorised Version of 1 John 3:4. So theologians have mistakenly made him say, because they are all apt to sink more or less under the law. What the apostle really wrote there is, that sin is lawlessness. This is both larger and deeper than a breach of the law. Such breaches might be by a Jew under carelessness or provocation without realising God’s authority in it; whereas lawlessness has an awful character. Hence Gentiles who know not the law are characteristically thus guilty, so that “lawless” is used to describe them. But this is the definition of sin revealed to the Christian: “Sin is lawlessness.” Transgression of the law is sin; but the converse is not true; for sin has a far wider bearing; it is lawlessness, unrestrained self-will.
Here therefore, after all this unfolding of a divine fellowship and divine nature, the apostle with earnest affection writes to his dear children that they should not sin. If I sin, far from the exercise of life eternal, I affront in the deepest may the love of the Father and of the Son; and I violate the moral nature of God Himself. It is not merely a broach of the law given by Moses to Israel, momentous as this is in itself, and of deep value for everybody that knew it. The commandment is holy, just, and good; but we, even if we had been Christian Jews, died with Christ to the law, and are brought into another standing altogether; for we are under grace, and not under law. Such is the revealed position of the believer since our Lord died and rose. And consequently, as Satan is ever alert to entrap the Christian to His Lord’s shame, we read, “These things write I to you that ye may not sin.” Few, but very solemn words! and the marked simplicity and tenderness with which they are introduced add to their weight. “And if any one sin.” “Man” might give the idea of a generality not at all intended, for there “man” is not expressed in the case at all. “If any one;” if any saint, if any having this relationship and divine nature should sin.
It is supposed to be only an act of sin. It is never contemplated that the Christian deliberately lives in sin. Scripture affords no reason or excuse for such laxity. There may arise in some minds a vicious theory whereby sin is denied to be in us; but, as we have seen, it is ruled to be misleading themselves. The truth is not in those who thus theorise. But to deny that we have sinned goes a great deal farther it evinces a seared conscience, and a total absence of that divine light which makes manifest our entire life of self-will. What. idea can there be more opposed to the word of God about us? “If any one sin (that is, shall have sinned), we have an Advocate.” Is not this last clause a singularly beautiful expression of a comforting truth? It is not that “he hath an Advocate,” but that “we” have. Nor are we warranted, great as this boon may be, to confine the advocacy of Christ to annulling the sorrow and shame of a believer’s sin.
“Advocate” is a word of much more general value than simply meeting a particular act of sin, though this is the case here raised; and as in a Christian, so much the greater dishonour to God for the Advocate to meet. What did not the bearing of sin and sins cost Christ? It was when “made sin” that He went down under all depths and endured at the hand of God its judgment, that we might not have it to endure. “But if any one sin, we” — the entire Christian company, all the objects of divine grace, “have an Advocate.” There He is on high to meet this need. There as He is for us always, so we too have Him. As we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, as we have eternal life in Him, no less have we Him as Advocate with the Father. It is a wondrous provision of grace. “Advocate” is the same word (
παράκλητος) that the apostle John applies in the Gospel to the Holy Spirit, which is conveyed not so correctly there as “the Comforter.” This would require
παρακλὴτωρ, as in the Sept. Version of Job 16:2. Whereas the very formation of
παράκλητος, and above all its meaning as understood from its application in Scripture, rather signify one called on our behalf who can perfectly do for us what we are and must be incapable of doing. This alone shows that we must not put a narrow limit to it, and imagine that the only thing for the Advocate is to meet sin; He is also the Comforter, and sees to our every want.
Evidently comfort, though the gracious issue, would be a strangely imperfect way of meeting a Christian’s sin; perhaps a human device, and a way that the flesh would like, that is, “Say as little as possible about the sin: spare the feelings of our poor failing brother, who could not help it.” An upright soul, on the contrary, wants the sore to be probed, prays that the insidious mischief may be thoroughly sifted out to the bottom, and is self-judged before God because he had been drawn into a wrong so unworthy of the Father and the Son, and such a grief to the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, before the sin was yielded. to, and to turn so sad an occasion to the best account, we have an Advocate with “the Father,” Jesus Christ the righteous. It is not in His quality of “God.” This would have been properly said, if we had lost our place as Christians; but, sad as the sin was, we do not lose the relationship of grace. We are entitled still to hold it as ours. Indeed, there is no time that we need more to remember our place as Christians than when we have fallen through our folly into sin. For how else could we be made profoundly ashamed of ourselves without despair? How overwhelming that, after having God’s incomparable mercy and blessing, we should have tampered with iniquity, guilty of forgetting both the love and holy nature of our Father, and the sin that we have still indulged in, the old man!
For is not indwelling sin like a wild beast within, that must be kept under lock and chain in order that it may not break out? It is indeed a deadly enemy; which, nevertheless, we are entitled to keep under death — the only efficacious death — the death of Christ and our death with Him. Therefore, what exposes to the fall is a lack not only of watchfulness for ourselves, but of faith in Him, our present exercise of faith in what Christ has done for us on the Cross. For it was not merely to clear away the sins, but also to have sin in the flesh sacrificially condemned in Him whose flesh was altogether holy. God condemned it there, and such is its end to us by grace, to be condemned, not pardoned. Sins need to be pardoned, but sin God condemned in Christ made sin. Sentence was executed on sin in Christ crucified, that we might be set free in Him. And this is what we wanted, and we have it by grace (Rom. 8:3). Therefore are we always to be on our watch, for power to condemn the flesh whenever it shows itself, or consciously works within without being shown to others.
But here it is sin committed. The saint, the child of God, myself, you, or another, has sinned; and what then? The nature of sin is to get worse and worse, to work unto greater ungodliness; and it must do so, were it not that we have such an Advocate. But the Advocate works, and the effect of His working is that we are brought to feel and judge the sin with humiliation before our God and Father. It may seem to many very remarkable that it should be said not if any man “repent,” but “if any one sin, we have an Advocate.” The former, we need not question, is the way in which legalism in its unbelief of grace would put it. For does it not seem right, “If any man repent, we have an Advocate”? But the word is, “If any man sin.” Surely God hates the sin with an infinite hatred; but He loves the saint, and as Father loves His child with a love rising above every difficulty. Further, His object is to bring that saint into His own thoughts, His own hatred of that very sin. We have an Advocate therefore, and not merely with “God,” as if one had to begin again, and lost everything by the sin. No; but I have brought shame upon His grace and His truth; and He is bringing me to condemn it and judge myself accordingly. And who is He that effects so gracious an end? The Advocate above. He works in us too by another Advocate who is here below, the Holy Spirit.
It will thus be apparent why one ventures to affirm that the right translation in our tongue for the word (
παράκλητος) is “Advocate,” and that it is as much required in the Gospel for the Holy Spirit, as here for the Lord Jesus with the Father above. The “Advocate” is meant to cover everything we cannot do ourselves, even in the extreme case of a sin. It answered (as has been often shown as far as a poor earthly illustration might furnish it) to the “Patron” among the early Romans, when they were not so selfish, luxurious, and corrupt as they became afterwards; but when there was among them at any rate a moral feeling strong for heathen people. Their clients could look up to their chiefs, the various members of the family, of the “clan,” as they call it in another part of our country. The “clan” could claim the aid of the “Patron,” and he was bound, by the very fact of being their chief, to take a personal and active interest in every one needing his help that belonged to the clan. At any rate this was the theory; for we must not expect it fully in practice, which is quite another thing in man and this world. But advocacy was the idea. And now in the Lord Jesus, what was an idea greatly failing among men, the Christian finds its perfection.
Nor is it merely in the Advocate with the Father, but also. in the Holy Spirit who has come from the Father and from the Son to be the advocate within us. Part of His action is that He carries on intercession for saints according to God. It is not precisely in the same way; but there is constantly going on the intercession of the Spirit, as we read in Rom. 8:26, 27, no less than Christ’s above in ver. 34. The twofold divine advocacy covers all our need effectually. Wherever we have a difficulty, wherever a trial, a sorrow, the Spirit never fails. Wherever we are weak or ignorant, the Spirit comes to our rescue; working one way or another, not always directly in ourselves, but through one another. Is not this a way most happy? Far be it from us to be independent of one another. We are made now in the power of the Spirit, as members of the one body of Christ, members one of another too. And it is the will of God that we carry this out here below; but how are we doing it? At least we know that the Advocate above never fails, any more than the Advocate below; and thus, in the wonderful grace of God, we are doubly encouraged and cared for, that we may be faithful, however feeble. These two provisions are disclosed one in the Gospel of John and the other in this Epistle of his. Oh, how doubly we are indebted to God for such support!
The apostle Paul did not supply all, though there never was a greater steward of God’s mysteries, never a mightier labourer in the gospel and in the church, among those that wrought and lived and suffered for the name of our Lord Jesus. Still the apostle John had a place that none could fill but himself, inspired by the Holy Ghost for it. And no wonder! He did not lie in the bosom of the Lord for nothing. There were grounds and reasons why he should enjoy so blessed a privilege; and we reap blessing through the disciple that Jesus loved, thus formed and fashioned by divine grace for the work given him to do so many years after, in the most distressful circumstances that the church of God knew till then. What is it now? Are not those distresses heightened, deepened, and multiplied since? Yet abides the Advocate above, and the other Advocate abides in and with us. Do we simply, truly, fully believe in both?
It is important to see the difference between the advocacy and the priesthood of the Lord. We never have him brought forward as Priest by John, at least now for Christians. The Advocate partakes of a more intimate character by a great deal. The Priest had a most necessary place; and it is particularly brought out, where it ought to be as most needed, to the Hebrew Christians, who (many at least) had been hankering after the old priesthood and ritual. The needed truth they were taught, singular to say, by the apostle Paul. He was not their apostle; and his Epistle takes the shape of a teaching, rather than of apostolic authority, brought to bear upon the Hebrews. He effaces himself not giving his name, and will have all the help by passages, wrought with incomparable skill, out of the Old Testament. But that skill was what the Holy Spirit gave him for the purpose. No doubt he too was a suitable vessel for this work of Jesus, the great Priest on high; as John was for the other task we have been looking at — the more intimate form of the advocacy.
But one can see clearly what is very helpful to the difference of these two Epistles, the one to the Hebrews, and this one of John with which we are now occupied; for the distinctive line of truth is not merely in a single point, but runs through each of the Epistles. The Epistle to the Hebrews treats of our approach to God, access to His sanctuary. It is not relationship to the Father. There is indeed reference in Hebrews 12 to God speaking to His saints as sons, and of fatherly chastening as the Father of spirits reserved to those real. But the character of the Epistle is to speak throughout of “God,” as far as saints are concerned; hence it is a question of how, being what we are, we can approach to God in the holies. Consequently here we have the sacrifice of Christ brought out most strikingly, and in its perfect efficacy. It is shown to be peculiarly marked by one feature, and in constant contrast with Israel — “one offering” accomplished once and for all; for there is the utmost care to stamp unity upon it, and completely exclude all notion of a fresh application of the blood. And why must it be so? Because Christ’s blood has a character that no other blood did or could possess. It does its work perfectly, and therefore once for all. But this truth is exactly what it would be hard now to find anywhere fully and unqualifiedly believed.
Different forms of church government are in evidence, and also different shades of doctrine; but they all agree, even among evangelicals, in maintaining fresh recourse to, or fresh application of, the blood of Christ. Substantially this is to be like a Jew, and it amounts thus far to a revival of Judaism, after being hunted out more particularly by the apostle Paul. Not the least trace of it appears when he wrote to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians or Philippians. To the Jewish believers, the Hebrews, he peremptorily excludes such a thought. As he says in Hebrews 9:26, in such a case He must have suffered often. He was offered once, not often. And there not only the error, but the folly, of the Roman mass betrays itself. It is avowedly sacrifice without blood; a sacrifice continually repeated day by day for the remission of sins. It is a sacrament which declares that Christ’s blood has failed; and that offering of the Mass is needed to effect remission. But it is a mere sham; and an invention of the most blundering kind, the most pretentious for the earthly priest, and the most dishonouring to the Lord Jesus both here and in heaven. But even among the keenest Protestants, are they not all under the mist of a constantly needed recourse to the blood time after time?
Shall I tell you how the error rose, and with what it is connected systematically? Because the washing of water by the word is habitually left out. They do not see this truth, except so far as they apply it to baptism. But Scripture applies it to the constant need of the saint after he rests by faith on the blood of Christ. And that washing of water takes two forms in Scripture. The washing of regeneration we have at or about the same time that we rest upon Christ’s blood. This too is never repeated. There is no such thing as re-regeneration. There is no repetition of regeneration any more than of the sacrifice of Christ. It is and can only be once. So too Christ’s blood always abides in its efficacy with God and for us; indeed if it did not always so abide, we are lost; Christ cannot die again for us. But after resting upon Christ’s death for us, men suppose that its efficacy is interrupted by sin, and that a fresh application of the blood is required to cleanse us. If it be so, where are you to find it? He died once and for all, and its value remains for ever, and even without interruption or in perpetuity (
εἰς τὸ διηνεκές). But there is also the washing of water by the word continually, wherever there is need.
The necessity for our being habitually cleansed is set forth in a very striking manner, not in the Hebrews, nor in the Gospels generally, but in that of John only. Our Lord took basin and water and towel, to wash His disciples’ feet, showing in that symbol what He is now doing in heaven whenever our feet get defiled here below; as He also intimated that they should understand it afterwards. It is to meet the defilements in the walk of the Christian. There we have the Advocate, as is plain. The Lord gave its sign in stooping down, not to die for them, but to wash their defiled feet, astounding Peter and no doubt the others too. Peter let out their common ignorance, and showed how foolish he was in trusting his thoughts to preserve the honour of his Master. His deepest moral honour is in that humiliation which He accepted in His own love, and that the Father’s love should be gratified to the utmost, and for the saints to enjoy fully also. Thus the washing of the feet in John 13 answers to his own words here, “We have an Advocate with the Father.” It is not blood but water; and “this is He that came through water and blood, Jesus Christ; not in the power of the water only, but in the water and the blood.” So writes our apostle in 1 John 5:6, referring plainly to John 19:34, 35. Christ’s death both atones for and morally cleanses the believer: the blood once for all, the water (typifying the word, John 15:3) not only at the first but to the last here below; but the word applying His death for purifying us by faith.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, as explained, access to God is secured by a perfect sacrifice, “the blood of the cross,” and by His entrance into the holies as the Great Priest over the house of God, the Forerunner is for us gone in, that we may enter boldly. But His priesthood is to succour the tempted, and to sympathise with our infirmities, that we may receive mercy, and find grace for seasonable help. In heaven He appears before the face of God for us. Thus He cheers and strengthens us against all the trials of the wilderness, and in our weakness and exposure. But nowhere is His office as Priest above applied to our sins. Here it is that His advocacy applies expressly. If any one sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, the same Jesus, but in a different function, and this to restore the interruption with the Father through sin. It is to restore that communion which is interrupted by a sin.
But there is another thing to which your attention is drawn. The Advocate here is Jesus Christ the righteous. That is very significant. More than that; “and He is the propitiation.” Notice the double ground. First, the advocacy is founded upon His being the righteous One. We had no righteousness; He is the righteous one, and from God made to us, not only wisdom, but righteousness. Secondly, He is the propitiation for our sins, and sent by God the Father for this very end. He bore all that was necessary to expiate our sins in divine judgment once for all. But as Advocate He meets the Christian’s sin that interrupted his enjoyment of communion with the Father and with the Son. This has nothing at all to do with His suffering once in divine judgment (for all that is finished on the cross), but everything to do with restoring communion with the Father and the Son when interrupted, as is easily done. Oh how sad, beloved brethren, when we slight that communion, so as not to feel these interruptions, to which any levity of word or deed in our folly exposes us! But “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
Christ is above in all His grace. Righteousness remains in all its undiminished worth; and so does the propitiation through His blood. It is the joy and boast of the Christian that nothing touches either the risen Christ or the efficacy of His work on the cross for us. If the earth is blind and deaf, heaven never forgets what these are for God’s glory and our purification. Only here we have another thing to observe. The apostle says that the propitiation of Christ is not for our sins only. It is also “for the whole world.” Now we never find the propitiation for sins, except definitely for those that believe, as of old; now for those that are God’s children. Christ is a propitiation in a general way for the whole world, but only “for our sins.” There is a marked distinction, when he speaks of the whole world. This makes the putting in of “the sins” objectionable, when the world is in question. It is going beyond Scripture. If the Lord had been the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, the whole world would get its fruit and go to heaven. If He bore their sins in the way He bore ours, what has God against them? He is the propitiation for our sins; He has annulled them for ever, blotting them out with His blood. Were it thus for the world, it would stand clear.
There Calvinism again is shallow, hard, and wrong. Propitiation is not merely a question of God’s children. God Himself had to be glorified as to sin, apart from our salvation, His nature in love vindicated as to His worst enemies. We may see the instruction afforded on the two truths by the type on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). On that day there were two goats for the people of Israel. One of those goats was Jehovah’s lot; the other was the people’s lot. Now it was only in the people’s lot that all their sins were confessed. This was not the case with the first goat; and it was sacrificed. In this there appears a marked difference. As to one goat, Jehovah’s lot, it was for His glory, tarnished in this world by sin, by His grace, to satisfy the exigencies of His nature. He must needs be glorified about sin. But this did not as yet take up definitely the burden of the sinner. For his remission the sing must be confessed distinctly and positively; and so Aaron did, laying both his hands on the head of the live or second goat, the people’s lot. The first goat was killed, and its blood brought into the sanctuary as everywhere, within and without. Here is the propitiation in a typical way, which so far makes it stand good for the whole world, that the glad tidings might be preached to every sinner.
The doctrine is here and elsewhere. The type of it helps to illustrate the marked difference. The sacrifice of Christ has perfectly glorified God’s nature, so that He can rise supremely and send forth glad tidings to every creature. But there is something more needed for sinners to be saved. “Christ bore their sins in His body on the tree.” This is never said about “the world “; there is always a sufficiently careful guard. But because God has been perfectly glorified as to sin in the sacrifice of Christ, He can by His servants, as it were, beseech and entreat even His enemies: Be reconciled to God. God’s love is the spring. Christ’s death is the way and basis for the gospel. It does not necessarily save every creature, but declares God is glorified in Christ. If there were not a soul converted, God would be glorified in that sweet savour of Christ.
But it is well to note that the difference is great between the two. If God left all to man, not one could have been saved. It is by grace that we are saved. To the elect He gives faith; and there is where the propitiation for our sins comes in. None with the fear of God thinks all are to be saved, or denies that grace makes the difference between a believer and an unbeliever. The Day of Atonement bore witness that the first thing was to glorify His own nature; and this apart from effacing the sins of His people. It was of still higher moment that His truth should be vindicated, His holiness and His righteousness, His love and His majesty in Christ’s cross. Therein as nowhere else good and evil came to issue, for the judgment and defeat of evil, and for the triumph of good, for the reconciliation not only of all believers to God, but of all things (not of all persons), and for new heavens and a new earth throughout eternity. The basis of this was laid in what the slain goat (Jehovah’s lot) typified. But in order to extricate the people from their sins, He would show them His great mercy; and so they are in the second place taken up definitely, and their sins laid on the live goat, which carried them away into a land of forgetfulness, that they might be remembered no more. It is the distinction of propitiation and substitution.
Here we read that our Lord is the propitiation for our sins, “and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.” Particular care is taken not to identify God’s children and the world. Hence it is not said “for [the sins of] the whole world.” There the translators were rash.4 There is the danger of adding to Scripture, and the duty of believing Scripture only. Man’s addition makes the difficulty; adhering to God’s word solves it, while it says enough to proclaim divine mercy to the whole world. There God’s nature and love are vindicated. That He is a Saviour God appears to all men. He sends the message of grace to every creature. He charges all men everywhere to repent. But in order to be saved, first is the effectual call of the sinner according to the divine counsel; secondly, the working of the Holy Ghost, in the heart of the believer in receiving Christ. This is not the case with “the whole world”; and it is vain to deny that which is a fact. But here we have the Scripture that explains it.
When you believe in our Lord Jesus, we too can say, following the word, He bore your sins away; but we are not entitled to say so to the unbeliever, nor to “the whole world.” Faith only is entitled to speak thus.
The fact is that this type is only a particular witness to the great principle of Scripture, dogmatically laid down in the clearest terms of the New Testament. Take the distinction between “redemption” (Eph. 1:7) and “purchase” (2 Peter 2:1): the true key, which opens the Calvinistic and Arminian dilemma. For they both confound the two truths, so that each is partially right, and partially wrong. The Lord by His death “bought” all creation, and every man of course, “false teachers” and all. It is at their everlasting peril that they deny His rights and rise up against their Sovereign Master. But none are “redeemed” save those who have through faith in His blood the forgiveness of their trespasses. Hence the Calvinist is as right in holding particular redemption, as the Arminian in maintaining universal purchase. But they are both in error when they fail to distinguish purchase and redemption. By His death on the cross the Lord added to His creator rights, and made every creature His by that infinite purchase. All are His, and not their own, as the believer only and fully acknowledges. But redemption delivers from Satan and sins: and this is nowhere the portion save by faith.
Take again another form of the truth in Heb. 2:9, 10. Christ by God’s grace tasted death for every thing (
ὑπὲρ παντὸς), including of course every man (compare vers. 7, 8). All were purchased. But the language quite differs from ver. 10, where we hear of God, in bringing “many sons” to glory, perfecting the Leader of their salvation through sufferings. When the two distinct truths are confused, not only precision is lost, but the truth suffers from the heart’s lack of enlargement through knowing universal purchase, and from evaporating into vagueness through ignorance of the speciality of redemption.
May God bless the truth which has been before us for the Lord Jesus’s sake.
4 The Revisers give the difference correctly.