Front-Line Discernment

Image1The first epistle of John, like almost all of the New Testament epistles, came about largely for the purpose of refuting the false teaching of the Gnostics. Specifically, this letter deals with the Gnostic idea that, because matter and spirit are supposedly mutually exclusive, a Christian has liberty to engage in sinful behavior without that behavior resulting in spiritual consequences. (They also denied Christ’s humanity, but that’s a topic for another blog post.) Like the apostle Paul, the apostle John felt a deep concern that the Gnostics would deceive actual Christians into excusing personal sin.

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. ~~1 John 3:4-10 (ESV)

In this brief essay (brief because I took too much time reading and commenting on someone else’s blog), I want to zero in on verse 7. John tells us not to be deceived into thinking that we can be righteous without demonstrating righteous behavior.

In studying cross-references to verse 7, I discovered some fascinating Scriptures linking warnings against deception with the call to align our lifestyles with the Word of God. For insistence, look at Paul’s charge to the Galatians:

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. ~~Galatians 6:7-8 (ESV)

Paul warned the Galatians in no uncertain terms that investing in fleshly pursuits (which generally end up in sinful actions) never yields spiritual reward. He asserts that, as Christians, we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we  can indulge in sinful behavior and still enjoy spiritual benefits. In reality, saturation in carnal interests only brings decay.

James strengthens Paul’s admonition in his epistle:

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. ~~James 1:22 (ESV)

Here, the Holy Spirit speaks through James to alert us that we can deceive ourselves into thinking that mere knowledge of God’s Word is sufficient. Scripture has no real effect on us if we simply read it and then carry on with our lives without applying its commands and principles.

A final cross-reference brings us to a sobering realization that sinful behavior incurs God’s wrath.

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. ~~Ephesians 5:3-6 (ESV)

The Gnostics famously taught that, since matter and spirit had nothing to do with each other, one could do whatever he or she wanted sexually without impunity. Paul, writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit, not only denied that possibility but added that God would punish such flagrant disobedience. Notice that, in verse 6, he commanded us not to let empty words deceive us.

Spiritual discernment, at its most basic level, calls Christians to make distinctions between right and wrong so that we can avoid sin. Ladies, don’t be fooled. Our obedience matters.

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