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There is no ambiguity in what the Apostle John says in 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So, any well-intended but misguided notions of Christian perfectionism can be put to rest. It seems that all of John’s exhortations in this letter rest on three fundamental truths: we should not sin (2:1), we will sin (1:8, 10), and we have forgiveness and propitiation for our sins (1:9; 2:1–2).
My focus here is on the fact that Christians do indeed sin. This truth is the logical and biblical outworking of the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, whose righteousness is imputed to us even as our guilt is imputed to Him. Our justification or right standing before God is not because in our regeneration we are now intrinsically righteous or that we have righteousness infused within us. We stand righteous before God because He credits and covers us with what earlier Protestant theologians called an “alien” or “foreign” righteousness, which of course is the righteousness of Christ. The righteousness of Christ is complete, meaning that it satisfies all of the demands of God’s holy law.
Furthermore, the righteousness of Christ is of eternal value, meaning that it never expires. It is this complete, never-failing, objective righteousness to which our faith clings in the person and work of Christ. Genuine faith brings believers into union with Christ and therefore objectively covers them with His perfect obedience and purifying blood. Subjectively, we are awakened to at least three realities: (1) the depth of our fallenness (Rom. 7:13–19); (2) a genuine desire to do what is pleasing to God (Phil. 2:13; it is the combination of consciousness of our fallen nature and this God-given desire to do what is pleasing to God that creates the tension that Paul speaks of in Rom. 7:12–25); and (3) knowledge of the bounty of God’s grace in Christ that saves sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).
Being grounded in these truths and fleshing them out should enable us not only to understand the truthfulness of John’s assertion in 1 John 1:8, but to do so in a way that does not make us complacent in the fact that as Christians, we remain sinners. On the contrary, a true sense of our failures in thought, word, and deed magnifies the grace of God that saves sinners. And God’s grace magnified triggers gratitude that manifests itself in doing what pleases God. Yes, disciples stumble, but God uses their stumbling to show them more and more of the grace that is greater than all of their sin.