When You Fail, Remember This (1 John)

“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.”  (I John 2:1-2).

            When I was a child, I tried to obey my parents and be as good a child as I could be.  And I think what I feared most of all was not punish­ment.  That’s not to say that I enjoyed being spanked or grounded.  But what I feared most of all was letting my parents down.  I didn’t want to do anything that would disappoint them in any way.  And when I did do some­thing wrong, I think that’s what hurt the most — knowing that I had let them down.

            As a Christian, I find that much the same thing is true in my relationship with God.  I think that what I fear most of all from God is not punishment.  And that’s not to say that the thought of hell has no effect in my life.  But what I fear most is letting my heavenly Father down, to feel that I have disappointed him in some way.

            One of my favorite poems is a prayer by Sandy Johnson.  She writes:

            God, I know you must be awfully disappointed in me.

            Here it is, the end of another day —

            A day which you gave me to use to further your cause.

            This morning I was enthusiastic;

            Intent on plans for how to put the next 24 hours to good use;

            Humbly apologizing for yesterday’s mistakes

            And promising to do better today.

            Well, I’m afraid I’m right back where I started

            Because I really didn’t accomplish anything today.

            I didn’t even remember to meet everyone with a smile

            Or to love my neighbors the way I should.

            I let my attitude conform to the world’s attitude,

            And I did some of those things you’ve said I shouldn’t do.

            It looks like I’m here to say I’m sorry — again.

            If I were you, I’d have given up on me long ago.

            But you’re so full of love

            You’ve kept giving me second chances for years.

            You know, I realized something today —

            This could have been my last chance to win a soul

            Or to encourage a brother,

            And my heart is full of sorrow that I gave it up.

            If I am blessed with another day,

            I’m not going to waste a single moment in hate or self-pity.

            I’ll change the world’s attitude instead of my own,

            And if I only touch one person’s heart

            Or bring one person a step closer to you,

            Then my heart won’t be so heavy

            Because I’ll know I haven’t wasted my time — or yours.

            I think that all of us who are trying the live the way God wants us to live experience those sorts of feelings, because we’re all guilty of sin.  Now those of us who are Christians don’t sin on pur­pose.  And sin isn’t the habitual pattern of our lives.  But we do sin.  And when we sin and we realize that we have disappointed our heavenly Father, we have to deal with that.  If we’re not careful, we can allow our failures to utterly destroy us because we feel so worthless, so guilty.

            And so, I think, a necessary part of the Christian life is learning to deal with failure in the right way.  In the first two verses of I John chapter 2, John deals with precisely that situation.  We know that we’re going to fail, we know that we’re going to disappoint God at times, so how do we respond to our failure?

            First let’s take a look at this overview of 1, 2 and 3 John and then I’ll be back to see what John says about how Christians should deal with failure.

            Watch VIDEO (I John)

            In chapter 1, John makes two important points about sin.  One is that we all sin.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  (I John 1:8).  None of us es­capes sin, and anybody who says he doesn’t sin is a liar.  Secondly, although that’s true, there is forgiveness of sins through what Jesus Christ has done for us and what he continues to do for us.  “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.” (I John 1:7)

            I think maybe John realized that there might be some people who would use both of those statements as an excuse to think lightly of sin.  I mean, if everybody sins, then why make a big fuss about it?  After all, it’s gonna happen.  And if there’s forgiveness of sins, why worry about it?  All we have to do is confess, be forgiven and go with our lives.

            So, to make sure nobody responded in that way, John says in chapter 2, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”  When John wrote these words, he was an old man, likely in his 90’s.  He was perhaps the last man alive who had walked and talked with Jesus in the days of his flesh.  And you can feel the tenderness of John toward these Christians whom he had known for many years and whom he loved very much.

            He’s writing to tell them that they must not sin.  John is saying that sin is serious business.  We must never treat it lightly.  It’s never all right to say, “It doesn’t really matter.  I sinned but it’s not a big deal.”  It’s always a big deal. 

            But John also knew there are a lot of Christians who do take sin seriously and they’re well aware of the fact that they let God down on numerous occa­sions.  There are Christians who feel that God must be tired of having them come to him time after time.  And so there’s a tendency to get discouraged by your failures, to feel like you might as well give up because you can never meet God’s standards.

            If you’ve ever felt that way in your own life, then John has something to say to you.  He says that, when you fail, there are a couple of things that you need to remember.

I.          Remember That Jesus Christ is Our Advocate

            John says, “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.”  (I John 2:1).

            John tells us that Jesus is our advocate with the Father.  The Greek word used here is “parakletos” and it’s the same word that Jesus used in John 14-16 to refer to the Holy Spirit.  This word is sometimes translated “Comforter” in those chapters. 

            But “advocate” is a better translation.  It’s a word that used to be applied to lawyers, and I suppose it still is at times.  The Greek word literally means “someone called alongside to help”.  When a man was summoned to court, he would take with him an advocate or a lawyer to stand at his side and plead his case. 

            The Jewish philosopher Philo tells how the Jews of Alexandria were being oppressed by a certain governor and they decided to take their case to the emperor.  They said, “We must find a more powerful ‘parakletos’, an advocate, by whom the emperor will be brought to a favorable disposition towards us.”

            When the Jews used the word “parakletos” in the sense of an advocate, they used it as the opposite of the word “accuser”.  For example, the rabbis had a saying about what would happen in the days of God’s judgment.  They said, “The man who keeps one commandment of the law has gotten to himself one “parakletos”; the man who breaks one commandment of the law has gotten to himself one accuser.”  So the imagery of this word suggests a courtroom scene.  There is on one side an accuser, a prosecuting attorney, if you will.  But, there is by our side an advocate, a lawyer for our defense.

            The Bible makes it clear that Satan loves to accuse us whenever we sin.  Revelation 12:10 refers to Satan as “the accuser of our brothers…who accuses them day and night before our God.”  When you sin, Satan says to God, “Look at that!  He did something wrong.  He sinned and he deserves to be punished!”  Satan is the accuser, he’s the prosecutor, and Christ is the advocate, he’s the lawyer for the defense.  His response to Satan’s accusations is to say, “Father, that Christian’s sin is taken care of.  I paid the penalty.  The sacrifice has already been made.” 

            In Romans 8:1, Paul says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” 

            Later in the same chapter, Paul says, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is he who condemns?  It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.” (Romans 8:33-34).

            The whole point of that passage is that Satan can’t successfully accuse us, although he’s certainly going to try.  The reason is that we have an advocate in Jesus Christ.

            There’s a beautiful picture of this in the Old Testament, tucked away in a somewhat obscure spot in a book that you probably don’t read much.  In Zechariah 3, we read about Joshua after the Jews returned to their land following the Babylo­nian captivity.  Now, don’t confuse this Joshua with the one who conquered the promised land.  This Joshua was a high priest. 

            The nation of Judah had sinned.  To symbolize this, Joshua stood before God in filthy garments and Satan stood at Joshua’s right hand to accuse him.  It looked as if Satan had an open-and-shut case.  After all, the Jews had a lot of sins in their history.  But Joshua had an advocate who stood at God’s right hand, and that changed the situation.  The angel of the Lord gave Joshua a change of clothing repr­esenting his cleansing power and thus silenced the accusations of Satan.

            Jesus does the same thing for those of us who are Christians.  He came to this earth to give his life as a sacrifice for our sins.  But today he has a continuing work in heaven.  He represents us before the throne of God.  Hebrew writer says, “He is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through him, since he ever lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25).  Right now, at this very moment, Jesus Christ is at the right hand of God making intercession for those of you who are God’s children

            Remember when Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Com­mandments, the Israelites committed a horrible sin.  They constructed a golden calf and bowed down before it in worship.  When Moses returned from his mountaintop experience with God and he found the Jews bowing down to that idol, he became furious and he broke the tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  He said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin.  So now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for you.” (Exodus 32:30).  The Israelites needed someone to inter­cede for them, or God’s wrath and judgment would fall upon them.

            So Moses, a great servant of God, went out to pray for them.  And who among us wouldn’t want Moses to pray for us?  Can you imagine how relieved you would be if you knew that Moses was going to pray for you?  “Surely God will listen to Moses.”  But one greater than Moses is here!  Jesus Christ the righteous will pray for you, he intercedes for you.

            Sometimes our friends will tell us that we are in their prayers.  And just knowing that they are praying for us often gives us the determination to hang in there.  Can you imagine the encouragement that comes from the knowledge that Jesus is praying for us?  Jesus said to Peter in Luke 22:32, “I have prayed for you.”  Those words must have stayed with Peter.  Can you imagine how stirring it must have been for the apostles to actually hear Jesus praying for them the night before his death (John 17)?  I don’t imagine they ever forgot that prayer.  But do we realize that Jesus prays for us every time we make a mistake, every time we fail?  He’s always ready to intercede with the Father for us.

            Those of us who are Christians are disappointed when we sin.  Sinning against our heavenly Father is never our intention.  We try our best not to sin.  But when we fail, John wants us to know that we have an advocate with the Father.  Our advocate is Jesus Christ, the righteous one.  He pleads our case before the Father.  So, as you confess your sin and ask God to forgive you, Jesus will ask the Father in light of his righteous life and his atoning sacrifice to grant your request.  And our heavenly Father, on the basis of what Jesus did and who he is will respond to you with grace and forgiveness.

            I don’t know how that makes you feel, but it gives me a powerful encouragement as I strive to live the Christian life – to know that Jesus is not my accuser, he is my advocate.

II.        Remember That Jesus is Our Propitiation

            John goes on to say, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”  (I John 2:2).

            What that means is that when we sin, Jesus doesn’t plead to God that we’re innocent.  He doesn’t say, “That’s OK, Father.  They haven’t done anything wrong.  Don’t believe a word Satan says about them.”  Rather he says, “They are guilty.  However, I’ve taken care of their sins.” 

            John uses a difficult Greek word here to explain what Jesus does for us.  It’s a word that’s translated “propitiation” or “expiation”, and we don’t use either one of those words very often.  The picture of an advocate is fairly easy to get a handle on because everybody has had the experience of a friend coming to their aid and their support.  But the picture of propitiation comes from sacrifice, and that’s more natural to the Jewish mind than it is ours.

            Understanding the word “propitiation” is even more difficult because if you look it up in the dictionary, you may get the wrong idea of its meaning.  The dictionary tells us that to “propitiate” means “to appease someone who is angry”, especially to appease an angry god.  You’ve all seen these old movies, I’m sure, where the tribe offers up an innocent victim as a sacrifice to appease the gods and keep them from getting angry.  And that’s the idea behind the dictionary meaning of this word.

            But, if you apply that to Christ, you get this horrible picture of an angry God who is about to destroy the world, and a loving Savior who is willing to give up his life to appease this irate God.  But that’s not the picture the Bible paints at all.  It was God who came up with this idea to love the world so much that he would send his only begotten Son to die for our sins.  As Paul said, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them.”  (2 Corinthians 5:19).  God was not only the one being propitiated or appeased.  He was also the one doing the propitiating.

            So perhaps a better definition of propitiation is “the satisfying of God’s judgment on sin.”  You see, because God is infinitely holy and righteous, he can’t tolerate sin.  With sin in our lives, we could never be in fellowship with God.  But since God is all-loving, he wants to be in fellowship with us.

            So how can a holy God uphold his own justice and still forgive sinners?  The answer lies in the sacrifice of Christ.  At the cross, God in his holiness judged sin.  God was just in that he punished sin, but he is loving in that he offers forgiveness through what Jesus did at Calvary. Jesus took our place by bearing the penalty of our sins at Calvary.

            Years ago, I heard a story about two men in England– two men who had been friends and companions in their youth, who met in the courtroom.  One of them sat on the magistrate’s bench – he was the judge in the case — and the other was the defendant.  The case was tried, and the prisoner was found guilty.  But he made a request.  Would the judge, in consideration of their friendship years before, somehow avoid passing judgment?  But, the answer was no, the judge had to fulfill his duty; justice must be done; the law of the land must be obeyed.

And so the judge passed down the sentence – the guilty man could either do 14 days of hard labor, or pay a fine of 10 pounds.  Unfortunately, the condemned man had no money, so he was prepared to be taken to a prison cell.  But as soon as he pronounced the sentence, the judge rose from the bench, took off his magistrate’s robes, and stepped down.  He stood beside the prisoner, paid his fine for him, and then he said: “Now John, you’re coming home with me to supper.”

            I think that’s such a beautiful picture of what God has done with us.  God cannot overlook sin.  Justice must be done, and sentence pronounced, but Christ himself pays the price. That’s what John means when he says that Jesus became the “propitiation” for our sins.  The cross doesn’t give us a license to sin, but it does offer forgiveness for the one who trusts Jesus and obeys him.

            There’s a beautiful passage in Romans 5 where Paul talks about what that sacrifice means to those of us who are Christians.  “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.  For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.  And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.” (Romans 5:8-11).

            Paul says, if Jesus’ death atoned for my sins when I came to him and obeyed the gospel to become his follower, does it not make sense that it will continue to atone for my sins when I confess my failures to him as a Christian?  If the blood of Jesus Christ was powerful enough to create our redeemed life, don’t you suppose it’s powerful enough to help us continue it?

            Christ’s blood is like the Barada River that flowed through the ancient city of Damascus.  Where the river first entered that city, it provided clean water for the city and gave it life.  And then as it flowed through the city, it took on the city’s sewage and other pollutions and provided cleansing as it carried those things away from the city.  The constant flow of the river both gave the city its life and kept it clean.

            The blood of Christ does the same thing for us.  We obtain cleansing when we’re baptized and the blood of Christ is applied to our lives.  And then, we obtain the continual cleansing we need from the pollution of sin as we walk in the light.

            When you fail, remember that Jesus’ death is adequate to atone for your sin.  It was yesterday, and it is today.  God doesn’t excuse your sin, but he will erase it.  He doesn’t approve of it, but he will remove it.  As a Christian, you have access to God’s cleansing grace and forgiving mercy.


            When you fail, as you will from time to time, remind yourself of who you are and what God has done for you.  Remember what Jesus did at Calvary and remember what he continues to do for you at the right hand of God.  He is your advocate as well as your propitiation.

            God’s plan of salvation not only cleanses us at the point of our birth into God’s family but it also keeps us clean as God’s children.  Jesus wants to bring us into salvation, but he wants even more to keep us in that salvation.  God doesn’t excuse our sin, but, because of Jesus’ perfect life and propitiatory sacrifice, he will forgive his children who are honest enough to confess their sins.

            I heard about a little girl who spent several days with a family that had four boys.  When she got back home, she told her father about her visit.  She said, “Daddy, did you know that family had four little boys?”  He said, “Yes.”  She said, “Daddy, did you know they had a prayer together every night before they went to bed?”  He said, “Yes, I knew they were a very religious family.”  She said, “Daddy, did you know that their dad prayed every night for each boy?  He asked God to make them very nice and to keep them from being bad.”  Her daddy said, “Yes, I knew he prayed for them each night.”  The little girl paused thoughtfully and then said, “You know, Daddy, he prayed for God to make them nice, but God hasn’t done it yet!”

            As we reflect on our own lives, we have to conclude that God “hasn’t done it yet” with us either.  We all have to admit that we do sin.  We’re growing spiritually, but we’re not yet grown.  How encouraging it is to realize that when we do sin we have an advocate with the Father.

            God doesn’t want us to sin.  A true Christian has no desire to sin.  But, if in the daily battles of life we do fail, God has a plan for our forgiveness.  That plan is found in Jesus Christ the righteous.  When you fail, remember him.

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