“A sin unto death” (Forsyth on 1 John, pt. 2)
March 26, 2009
In the first part, Forsyth is dealing with the contradictions (paradoxes) in 1 John, to wit, he who abides in Christ does not sin, yet we continue to sin and require daily confession (as also taught by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer). Now, Forsyth finds the solution to the contradictions in the two types of sin briefly mentioned in chapter 5. These are classic proof texts for the Catholic doctrine of mortal sin, which is not entirely discounted by Forsyth’s presentation. As per usual, Forsyth is in top form in his biblical exposition, and this is far better than anything you will find in the current academic commentaries on the Johannine epistles.
6. Where does the solution of these contradictions lie? We ought to find it in the same John who presents the problem. A real revelation, and a true apostle of revelation, push forward no problem whose solution they do not carry in the rear. The problem is but the deflection of the light as it enters our denser air.
John himself believes in two kinds of sin, and both of them are possible to the believer. “There is a sin unto death … and there is a sin not unto death” (I John v. 16, 17). It was a distinction current in the Old Testament, and it explains much in the New, where it is deepened. The sin unto death is when a man falls entirely out of communion with God. He loses the life of God from his soul permanently—I do not say eternally. He has not Eternal Life abiding in him. The world conquers him. The habit of his mind becomes earthly; and if he has relapsed it is a more inveterate worldliness that holds him, because his faithlessness makes his old faith seem a mockery. He is bitter because he is disillusioned. Sin becomes not an attack, an episode, or a lapse, but the principle of his life. I do not mean gross sin, necessarily, but the godless habit. It settles down on him and into him as frost penetrates the ground. He relapses, never to rise again. That is the sin unto death. And the sin not unto death is every transgression which still leaves the habit and
sympathy of the soul for God a living thing. There are lapses which a man by vigilance, repentance, prayer, and well–doing can repair. Sin is a region he may visit, but it does not become his element. He falls into sin, but not into godlessness. The chill is thrown off. The frost does not go in upon him. The attack does not reach the heart. Every believer has more or less of this sin in him, and the risk of it always. But it does not cut him off from the divine life. There is a daily confession, a daily forgiveness, a daily cleansing of the channels of the grace of God.
Now the former, the sin unto death, is sin by pre–eminence. The man becomes identified with it. He loves sin, he does not love God. His life is one act of sin. And it is incompatible with the regenerate life of faith. Whoso is born of God sinneth not in this sense. No man so sinning abides in Christ. Whoso abides in Christ sinneth not this sin. He may commit sins, but he does not live sin like the man who has returned to be a worldling and practically renounced Christ. Sin does not become his world, his element. His sympathies and affinities, his effort and his service, are all to goodness and to God. His life on the whole and at the core is a life of faith and of growing mastery over the world.
7. But John seems to imply that once a man is born of God relapse is impossible: iii. 9, “He cannot sin, because he is born of God.” Now, I admit with great reverence that for the modern Christian mind such language is too absolute. Had John written with an eye to modern ways of thinking he would have said something to show on the spot, as he does show elsewhere, that he did know the difference between the ideal and the actual, between a moral and a natural necessity, between a judgment of experience and a judgment of faith. If we reason from experience we do find that men born of God have fallen into sin, and have sinned even unto death. Men remain free, with the perils of freedom, even as the subjects of divine grace. The compulsions of God are not natural necessities. The “cannot” here does not mean a natural impossibility as if we said, he cannot fly, cannot fall from the earth’s surface, if he is born on the earth. There is no such necessity as if, when a man is born of God, all the rest followed of itself by inevitable sequence and a causative chain. It is not as if sinlessness then worked itself out in us without effort. To be born of God means to pass into fellowship with a living will; that is to say, it is to develop into a greater intensity of living will, to be more than ever a doer, a free doer, if we are like God, and a doer of righteousness, of holiness. “Cannot sin” means not that he is not able to sin, but that his principle will not allow him to sin. As the regenerate personality he cannot do it. He may, of course, be at the same time something other than the regenerate personality in his actual condition so far. But in so far as he is the servant of that personality he cannot. “You cannot do it,” we say to a man, not denying the physical possibility, as if he were paralyzed or in jail, but denying the moral possibility. “You cannot, consistently with your principles do it; you cannot, with your nature, with all I have known of you, do it; it would not be you if you did it; you simply cannot.” Ideally, whoso is born of God cannot sin. That is the absolute truth. That is a judgment of faith as distinct from a judgment of experience. It arises from what we know of God, of Christ, not of human life. These texts of John’s are all judgments of faith, formed from his knowledge of the absolute holiness and power of Christ. He has forgotten for the moment the actuality of man. He is possessed with the sense of the omnipotence of Christ. That will be finally as actual as it is now ideal. It is the ultimate reality. It is the surest thing in existence. John was speaking from the interior of Christ, possessed by the faith of His moral omnipotence. The words were not written by a man who had attained sinlessness, or watched it in others, and then worked out its implications backward to Christ. They came from one who by faith and not experience had grasped this nature, power, and place of Christ. Experience works up from nature to infer God’s power and glory; from human love to infer a divine tenderness and fatherhood; from personal history to implications about Christ and God. And that is the method of a subjective, literary, and humanist age like the present. But faith works downward from its grasp of God in Christ alone, from its absolute and eternal certainties, to actual life. And it works not merely with an inference but with an ought; not with implications but with compulsions; with demands absolute in order to be final and effective; not upon thought or truth, but on conduct. Faith does not induce from life what God must be, but it deduces from God what life must be. It does not predicate about God; it prophesies about man. The experimental religion of true faith is not based on experience, but on revelation and faith. It is realised by experience, it proceeds in experience; but it does not proceed from experience. Experience is its organ, but not its measure, not its principle. What we experience we possess, but faith is our relation not to what we posses, but to what possesses us. Our faith is not in our experience, but in our Saviour. It is not in our experience of our Christianity, but in a Christ Who, while we are yet without experimental strength, both dies and lives for us. John concludes from Christ to man as the normal man in Christ should be, as Christ alone is. It is not a logical but a Christological judgment. To abide in Christ certainly would be to escape sin. It would not be to acquire sanctity as a recompense for faith, but it would be to perfect that life of faith which is the only sanctity. He who sins does so because he hath not seen Christ or known Him, has not seen into Him and understood Him. He has perhaps been thinking of his own sin, and arguing up from mat experience that he must be out of Christ, instead of dwelling on the Redeemer and working down with a spirit–compulsion on his own sin. He has not grasped Christ’s spiritual omnipotence in temptation, has not gone in upon Christ, but merely hung on Christ. To hang upon Christ, and to do no more than hang, is to be a drag on Christ and a strain on man. To see and know Him is to enter and live in Him, to walk, run, mount, by the communion of His life. The fall of many who once were Christ’s is because they took no serious means with themselves to prosecute their life in Him, but were dragged in His wake till they got tired of the strain. There are men to–day who once tasted Christ, but their serious will was not given to their Christian life but to their affairs. And so the world, having monopolised their will, submerged their soul. And to be dragged after Christ, submerged in a medium so dense as the world, means a friction and a strain so severe that they took their fatal relief by cutting the cord—and drifting.
8. I wish to lay much stress on the vital difference between the saint’s sin and the sinner’s sin, as these texts carry it home to us. It has a vital bearing on the question of a sinful and a sinless perfection, the perfection which is faith, and the perfection which has outgrown faith and become only rarefied character or conduct. Any perfection which does that has become another than Christian perfection, and in leaving faith behind has fallen from faith.
The difference between the Christian and the world is not that the world sins and the Christian does not. It suits the world to think that it is; because it offers a handy whip to scourge the Church’s consistency while resenting its demands. But such a distinction is no part of the Church’s claim. Nor does it mark off the Christian’s worldly years from his life in Christ. A difference of that kind is merely in quantity—all the sin on the one side, none of it on the other. But the real difference (I must say often) is not in quantity; it is in quality. It is not in the number of sins, but in the attitude toward sin and the things called sin. It is in
the man’s sympathies, his affinities; it is in his conscience, his verdict on sin, his treatment of it—whether the world’s or his own. The world sins and does not trouble; it even delights in it. In sin it is not out of its element; it may even be in its element and most at home there. The fear and hate of sin is not in the least its temper. But with the Christian man there is a new spirit, a new taste, bias, conscience, terror, and affection. His leading attitude to sin is fear and hate. His interest, his passion, is all for good and God. He himself is different from himself. He is renewed in the spirit of his mind. He may indeed lapse. The old instinct, the old habit, breaks out, and surprises him off his guard. The old vice fastens on him in a season of weakness. The old indifference may creep back. Mere nervous exhaustion may make him feel for a long time as if the spirit had been taken from him. But these are either interludes, or they are upon the outskirts of his real nature. The loyalty of his person is still true, and his course in the main is right, whatever deviations the storms may cause, or however the calms may detain and irritate him. What is the thing most deep and assertive in him? I mean, what is most continuous in him? I do not ask what asserts itself oftenest, but what asserts itself most persistently on the whole, and in the end most powerfully and effectively. What is the real and only continuity of his life? Is it a sinful temper and bias, a sinful joy or indifference, broken only occasionally, and ever more rarely, by spasms of goodness, glimpses of holiness, freaks of mercy and truth? Or is it the sympathy and purpose of holiness, clouded at times by drifts of evil, and cleft, to his grief, by flashes of revolt? That is the question. And it is the way the question will be put at the last. It will not be, How many are your sins and how many your sacrifices? but, On which side have you stood and striven, under which King have you served or died? A man may abide in the many–mansioned, myriad–minded Christ, even if the robber sometimes break into his room, or if he go out and lose his way in a fog. You stay in a house, or in a town, which all the same you occasionally leave for good or for ill. The question is, What is your home to which your heart returns, either in repentance or in joy? Where is your heart? What is the bent of your will on the whole, the direction and service of your total life? It is not a question settled in a quantitative way by inquiry as to the occupation of every moment. God judges by totals, by unities not units, by wholes and souls, not sections. What is the dominant and advancing spirit of your life, the total allegiance of your person? Beethoven was not troubled when a performer struck a wrong note, but he was angry when he rafted with the spirit and idea of the piece. So with the Great Judge and Artist of life. He is not a schoolmaster, but a critic; and a critic of the great sort, who works by sympathy, insight, large ranges, and results on the whole. Perfection is not sinlessness, but the loyalty of the soul by faith to Christ when all is said and done. The final judgment is not whether we have at every moment stood, but whether having done all we stand—stand at the end, stand as a whole.
Perfection is wholeness. In our perfection there is a permanent element of repentance. The final symphony of praise has a deep bass of penitence. God may forgive us, but we do not forgive ourselves. It is always a Saviour, and not merely an Ideal, that we confess. Repentance belongs to our abiding in Christ, and so to any true holiness.
We may be essentially parted from our sin while yet it hangs about us. The constitution is renewed, but the disease recurs in abating force. The new nature asserts itself over the head of reactions. We lust for the fleshpots of Egypt, and we return upon our tracks and move in a circle; but it is, after all, but a loop upon our larger line of onward march. The enemy is beaten, though he makes guerilla raids and carries off something we deplore. Our progress is a series of victories over receding attacks which sometimes inflict loss. And the issue turns on the whole campaign, not on a few lost battles. We sin, but we are not of sin. We are its master, though at times the convict seizes the warder and gets him down. But it does not reign in us. It is not our life–principle, though it may get expression in our life. We sin, but not unto death. We still have and still use the Advocate with the Father. Against our sin we plant ourselves on God’s side. There is that strange power in us to be two yet one, to be a seventh of Romans, to face ourselves, yea to face a divided self, as if we were three in one, and to say No with the total man to a sin which extorts a partial or occasional Yes. Every act of faith is saying No to a sin which says Yes in us. And sometimes the Yes drowns the No, while on the whole the life in faith says Yes to God. We lose on items, but we gain on the whole account. We are free from sin before we are rid of it, and of all its effects we are never rid. To all eternity we are what our sin has made us, by God’s grace to it either as taken or refused. At our eternal best we are what redemption has made us, and not sanctification alone. We enter heaven by a decisive change, and not merely by a progressive purification. And this is the very marrow of Protestant divinity and Evangelical faith.
P. T. Forsyth, “Christian Perfection,” in A Sense of the Holy (Wipf & Stock, 1996), pp. 64-70.