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Theological Commentary: 1 John 2:1-2

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. In one of many statements that the Elder makes as to his reason for writing, he claims that one of his purposes is sanctifactory. He writes to aid the congregation to refrain from sin. The liberating implication of this is clearly that sin can, in fact, be avoided. It is possible to walk in the light and not in the darkness. Liberation is a reality that can be experienced and practiced. As the rest of the treatise goes on to make clear, what is central in the Elder’s definition of sin is a failure to love one another and make truthful confession regarding Christ. Thus, one of the key purposes of the treatise is to drive its readers into a life fully suffused by the Love that flows from the triune God. Indeed, despite its heavy concentration of “sin” language, there is nothing whatsoever that is moralistic about 1 John. For the Elder sin is the refusal of love. In the thought of the Elder all moralizations of sin are undone. There are simply two options: to refuse participation in the Love that God is, or to accept it with joy and thanksgiving.

And this all coalesces in one overriding theological point: not sinning is not a moral accomplishment. Rather is it simply a life of fullness, a life that participates in the plenitude of God’s Love. As such, it is important to say that on one level, not sinning is easy–to not sin simply names the posture and practice of saying Yes to God’s infinite Love.

But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. The Elder is not naive, of course. He knows how deep the human “No” to God runs. Our slavery to sin, our perverse and irrational necrophilia is endemic. Living into Christ’s defeat of death, while liberating, joyful, and infinitely delightful, is difficult for us precisely because it is so utterly and apocalyptically new. The adjustment of our eyes to the fullnes of the God who is light and in whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5) is not simplistically achieved. The vestiges of the old age that is passing away still vie for our allegiance. 

But in full knowledge of the reality of the depths of the human “No” to God, the Elder reminds his readers of the infinitely greater depths of God’s “Yes” to us in Christ. Even in the fullness of our rejection of the Love that is God, Love goes further. Christ, the man for others is our advocate with the Father. This should not be understood as Christ interceding with an angry God on our behalf. Christ is not rescuing us from God, but from our own darkness. The emphasis in the Elder’s statement is not the Christ is holding God back from angrily dealing with us, rather the emphasis is that our advocate, the one who stands for us is with the Father. The one who loves us is in the very presence of the fullness of God’s transcendent mystery. His closeness to the Father, to the source and goal of all things is our hope. No other power can be higher than the power that is with the Father. There is no sovereignty that extends beyond or above this. 

And he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. Not only is Jesus our advocate, according the the Elder he is also the sacrifice for out sins. What this means is, of course, a very complex thing to search out, as many have done in different and conflicting ways. Jesus is a hilasmos according to this verse; the meaning of this phrase is not clear. It likely has some connection with the Jewish day of atonement (cf. Heb 2:17; 9:5). The point, however, is that whatever else Jesus is, he is the one who solves the problem of our sin, our refusal of love, or alienation from the Love that is God. Also what is crucial to note about this verse is that it claims that Jesus is the hilasmos for our sins, just as he is the parakletos with the Father. Christ’s sacrifice, however we construe the matter is not something that just happened “then”; it is something that “is.” Christ’s reality towards us as “sacrifice” is a present reality, not simply a past event. Christ is our sacrifice. What might this mean?

In one of his most fruitful suggestions, Colin Gunton argues that we ought to construe God’s own trinitarian life in terms of sacrifice. The triune God embodies an economy of mutual sacrifice in which sacrifice is construed as gift. Here sacrifice is not to be understood as the diminution of one for the sake of the other, at least not as if that dynamic were a zero sum game. Rather the very economy of God’s being is one of total and complete self-giving, a life of absolute, ek-static gift. As such, to say that Christ is our “atoning sacrifice” is to say that in Christ the infinite life of God’s mutual self-gift is opened to us in all its fullness. We are invited into the “sacrificial” economy of God’s own trinitarian life of joy and rejoicing. This is also why the Scriptures speak at length of our call to offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice of praise (e.g. Rom 12:1-3). Praise, doxology, is the appropriate response to our graced participation in God life of infinite excessive gift. Because Christ is our sacrifice, the sacrifical opening out of the triune God to embrace the world, we are freed into a life of sacrifice–a doxological life centered on loving one another (as the Elder emphasizes) and worshipful confession of the lordship of Jesus.

It is precisely the ek-static trinitarian understanding of sacrifice that lends intelligibility to the Elder’s further statement that Christ is the sacrifice, not for our sins only, but for those of the whole world. The trinitarian life of sacrificial gift is so excessive in its vitality that it cannot be concerned with less than the entire world. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5). Rather the light overcomes all darkness. The excessiveness of light, the superabundance of Love that is the triune God cannot be terminated, even by the human “No” to God’s liberating Word of life. Christ is the sacrifice for the whole world. They excessiveness of God’s trinitarian agape could not allow him to be anything less.


  1. Hill wrote:

    I may have sent this to you, but there’s a lesser known early Milbank article on sacrifice that touches some of these themes (of sacrifice). Really great read and displays some of his most luminous anthropologico-theological faculties.

    Saturday, March 21, 2009 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  2. Another fine post Halden.

    Sunday, March 22, 2009 at 2:11 am | Permalink

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