“Your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1 John 2:12).
The Bad News
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ begins with bad news. You are a sinner. Your thoughts, your actions, and your words are all tainted with selfishness, pride, and idolatry. You need forgiveness.
By whom do you need to be forgiven? While you may have hurt friends or family along the way, the one person whom everyone has offended is God. Because he is thoroughly good and holy, God will not allow sin and wickedness to go unpunished. He will not simply ignore or forget it.
As Liam Goligher writes in The Jesus Gospel:
God is light…the biggest threat to our relationship with God is God himself … Here is a God who is apart from us in terms of being and nature; above us in terms of authority and control; and against us in terms of sin and judgment. In fact here lies our biggest problem: ‘it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment’ and it is God who is ‘the Judge of all’ (Heb 9:27; 12:23).
So how can you be forgiven? No matter how good or charitable you may be, you cannot undo the sins you have committed in the past, and even one sin is too many for a perfect, holy God to overlook. So you cannot earn forgiveness by doing good works.
Forgiven, For His Name’s Sake
The apostle John announces, however, that your sins are forgiven you for his (Jesus’) name’s sake. Because of the perfectly righteous life that Jesus Christ lived, and because he died on the cross to pay for sin, you can be forgiven through Christ. He took your sins on himself, and he gave you his perfect record!
The fact that we are forgiven for the sake of Christ is, in itself, a declaration of the sovereignty of God in salvation. Martin Luther marveled at just how good the gospel news is: “Is it not wonderful news to believe that salvation lies outside ourselves?”
Paul writes, in 2 Timothy 1:9, that “[God] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” The eternal, and uninfluenced, cause of our salvation is clearly and only the grace of God, which is given us in Christ Jesus. Anyone who is ever forgiven is forgiven for Jesus’ name’s sake alone.
In 1 John 2:13, John affectionately addresses his readers, “I am writing to you, fathers because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father.” How is it that you are able to know God? It is not because you were smart or wise or humble enough to pursue God. In fact, can any Christian believer even pretend to be the one who sought out God, who initiated faith on your own? Even C.S. Lewis, who carefully weighed the intellectual evidence for Christianity before converting from atheism, described his conversion as the result of “the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
If you know God and his Son Jesus Christ today, it is because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake. John later in this epistle insists, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins … We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:10, 19). The love you have for Jesus Christ is a direct result of the work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, at the behest of his gracious Father.
Earlier, John recorded Jesus’ words in his gospel: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…” (John 15:16). It is always and only through the choosing, ordaining, fruit-producing, sovereign work of God that we come to love and worship and believe in his Son Jesus Christ.
The Freedom This Gives
While it may be unsettling at first to hear that your salvation does not rely upon any foreseen faith, strength, wisdom, or works on your part, ultimately it is greatly liberating (as all truth is).
You see, the access we have to God through Jesus Christ is based entirely on his goodness, not your own. For this reason, you can always pray to God, come boldly to God, when you are clinging to the perfect and sufficient work of Christ on your behalf. It doesn’t matter how you may have fallen this week, or how little you may feel to deserve God’s notice. The notice and forgiveness you receive are on Christ’s behalf, not your own!
So it is with every aspect of the Christian life. You read your Bible then, not to earn God’s love for you, but because you are drawn to love the God who gave his Son for you. You obey God’s Word, not out of some slavish need to outweigh your faults with good deeds, but because his law has been written on your heart.
As John writes in his first epistle to the saints he describes them as those who know God, are strong, have the Word of God dwelling in them, and have overcome the wicked one. But this description of God’s people is not because they are so faithful and powerful in themselves. It is because their sins have been forgiven for the sake of Jesus’ name.
Every admonition to obedience, then, is ultimately an admonition—not to greater independence and strength—but to greater dependence upon God and his grace through Christ. True obedience flows out of a trust in, resting in, the perfect work of Christ on the cross. God’s commands are not an admonition to work harder, but to trust more; not to live better, but to rest in Christ more; not to more holiness, but to believe in Christ’s holiness for you, more so than you ever have before.
The more you lose yourself in Christ, the more you lose of yourself and gain of Christ—his character, his love, his forgiveness, his purity.
“I write to you, children,” John explains in 1 John 2:12, not primarily because you have been strong or overcome wickedness, but because your sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake—and that forgiveness that grace has lead to overcoming strength in your life.