1 John Bible Study
Lesson 1: Unlock the Closets
What images come to mind when you think of the word “holiness?” Holiness is not a trendy word. For some of us it conjures images of radiant light, or a sense of awe and wonder. For others it might remind us of dusty pulpits and mercy seats—untouchable historical artifacts. It may remind you of a particular old saint in your congregation who has a reputation for a powerful ministry. Or it might remind you of an instruction manual, a list of strict rules and regulations to control your behavior and keep you in line. Perhaps the concept confuses you and leaves you with too many questions and a stress headache. Or you may not have given it much thought. Holiness might mean nothing to you at all.
A few in your group might have keen theological minds. These sisters might have answered the discussion question with profound poetic thoughts, such as “separation from sin” or “Christlikeness.” I hope that you are able to learn from each other throughout this series, as I’m sure that there are women in your circle who have much wisdom to contribute. I only wish I could sit across from you with my cup of coffee and hear from your perspective and experience. But one thing we all have in common is our access to the Word of God. What a gift! Throughout the course of this series we will be zoning in on a few specific passages in the book of 1 John, but I would encourage you to read the whole book in your own time. Let’s break it open together.
Read 1 John 1:8–10.
We will unpack a full definition of holiness in the coming sessions. But for now, I hope that your appetites are whetted. Let’s start from a place of humility. Verses 8–10 levels us all flat to the ground. We cannot pretend to be without sin, and if we try, we are just lying to ourselves and calling God a liar. Before we can even tiptoe into the dream of holiness we need to come before each other, before God, and before ourselves with raw honesty. There is no point in putting up a holy façade when underneath the ground is rotten. One of the most powerful steps we can take towards holiness is to admit that we are not holy in the first place. I pray that your Bible study group becomes a place of total safety and authenticity. What is the point of pretending we have it all together? When was the last time that you transparently confessed sin to a sister?
Read 1 John 1:9.
This is one of the most frequently quoted verses in the entire letter. It summarizes so much of the good news. I want to highlight one detail that can often be skimmed over: forgive and purify. When we confess our sins, God is ready to forgive us and wipe our slate clean. Shame is removed and we are fully embraced, just as we are. But He also wants to clean us up.
It is as if we have taken the Holy Spirit on a tour of our house. We might start off by trying to impress Him, showing Him the living room and breakfast nook. Eventually we get deeper and let Him see the unfolded laundry and under the bathroom sink. But when we really confess the mess—the darkest corners of our conscience that no one sees—it’s like bringing the Holy Spirit into a closet full of 10-year–old garbage. He smells the rotten food. He sees the rats. He forgives us immediately and continues to look at us with eyes of love and not shame. But do you think that He would let you close that closet and forget about it? No. He intends to forgive and cleanse. He rolls up His sleeves and starts to deal with the problem. Don’t cut the gospel in half by stopping at forgiveness. God also has the power to transform your life.
In the opening of chapter 2 John shows us his agenda. His purpose in writing this letter is laid out for us simply. He is writing so that the reader will not sin. What! Didn’t we just spend the last chapter finally acknowledging our sin? Yes. But John still seems strangely optimistic that somehow, through this letter, we will become the kind of people who do not sin. I would like to echo John today: I pray that because of your time studying 1 John, you will not sin. Receive this prayer as an adrenaline shot for your faith. John and I believe that you can be holy.
But we also believe that you will probably need verse 2 on occasion. Our goal is that you won’t sin, but if you do, you have an Advocate and an atonement. Hallelujah! The good news of Jesus never gets old, no matter how holy you become. We never outgrow our need for an Advocate: One who speaks on our behalf before the Father. His name is Jesus, and without Him, who could stand? Without our Advocate we would not be able to receive the immediate forgiveness that God grants, and our shame would remain with us. If you fall into sin, turn away from it as quickly as possible and run back into the heart of God. You do not need to hide from Him any longer, but run towards Him with your sin, confident that your Advocate has already paid the price (atoned) for your sin. Not only yours, but the sin of the whole planet.
What is one area of your life that you need God’s power to cleanse?
Lesson 2: Jump In and Swim
When you were a child, what did you want to be like when you grew up? I recently discovered a box in my parents’ basement called “The Olivia Box.” This plastic tub contained artwork, report cards and clothing items from my childhood. Some items were adorable, and of course, some items were deeply embarrassing. I found one drawing from my time in elementary school, scribbled in crayon. It showed a woman standing at a pulpit with her fist in the air. I had written at the top of the page: “When I grow up, I want to wear dangly earrings, drive a minivan, and PREACH!” The word “PREACH!” was written in an extra-large font, followed by many exclamation points. Apparently, I was a prophetess, because here I am today, wearing dangly earrings, driving a minivan and preaching. Honestly, what kind of little girl dreams of driving a minivan? A little girl whose mother drove a minivan. And wore dangly earrings and preached. I may not have actually been a prophetess, but I was definitely a daughter. I admired my mother so deeply that I wanted to minister like her, to dress like her, and even to drive a vehicle like hers. And today, one could say that I have turned into a version of her. We don’t look much alike physically, but I am definitely my mother’s daughter.
Read 1 John 2:28—3:1.
We are children of God. And as children, we grow up wanting to be like our parents. We look up to Him with admiration and wonder: could I ever be like Him? Could I look like God, walk like God, treat people like God? Will there be a day that others will see me and think, “She is just like her Father?” 1 John 2:29 tells us what children of God are like—we are those who do what is righteous. If my Father is righteous, and I have been born again with His blood running through my veins, then I, too, will be righteous. I love that this verse doesn’t just say that we are righteous. If it said only that, then we could convince ourselves that this righteousness is only referring to our spiritual standing. But in fact, it says that we will do what is righteous. Our actions will be like God’s actions.
Children must grow. However, the process of becoming like our Father takes both time and intimacy. I couldn’t drive a minivan when I was 6, but now I can. That required years of physical and mental maturation, combined with actual training and intentional study. I couldn’t preach when I was 6, but now I can. I spent years listening to my mother, week after week, and her actions became a part of me. But the process of growth in holiness does not happen unintentionally. I must make time to get to know God and observe God’s actions, if I am going to begin to reflect Him. How is your intimacy with your Father? Are you spending time with Him?
Time and intimacy are required to grow in holiness, but it is impossible to grow into holiness. You can swim in the ocean, but you cannot swim into the ocean. There is a moment in which you choose to step from dry land into the water, and from there you swim deeper and deeper. A small toddler can put on a large jacket that does not fit. He will grow, and eventually the jacket will fit him. But he cannot grow into the jacket. He must choose to put it on. Today you can put on the jacket of the holiness of God. Jump into the ocean of holiness of God. Then continue in Him.
This is what theologians refer to as “process–crisis–process.” The moment you are saved, you begin a process with the Holy Spirit. But there will come a time in which He convicts you regarding holiness, and as you respond to His pulling you experience a “crisis”—not in the negative sense, but in the sense of a clear and defining moment of transformation. This is your moment of sanctification. This is jumping into the ocean. But that moment isn’t the end. After the crisis comes more process. You continue to go deeper and grow in the holiness He has given you. Where are you in this journey? Sitting on the beach or in the deep end?
Read 1 John 3:2–10.
Just as 1 John 2:28 calls us to continue in Him, chapter 3 begins to talk about continuing in sin. Verse 6 says that the one who lives in Him will not “keep on” sinning, and that if we “continue to sin” we do not know God. Yikes! This does not mean that we never make a mistake again, but it does mean that we do not walk in a lifestyle of habitual, intentional sin. Intentional sin—“I know this is wrong but I’m doing it anyway”—is extremely dangerous to the soul of a believer. When we choose to intentionally go against God’s desires, we are distancing ourselves from the One we claim to follow.
Through the transformative power of God, we can be set free from this habit. Sister, do not buy into the lie that your habits cannot change. If you think that your sinful habits are unbreakable, then your view of God’s power is too small. Verse 5 says that the reason Jesus appeared was to take away our sins. He can do it! Verse 8 phrases this thought even more dramatically: Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work. You cannot discipline your sinful habits into submission. The influence of the enemy in our lives is not a pet lion to feed and tame. It is a monster that needs to be killed, or else it will destroy us. It’s time to take our sin seriously and stop the flirtation. Jesus is able to demolish it. Are there sinful habits in your life that you feel powerless to break?
Lesson 3: Red Light, Green Light
Describe a challenging social situation. How would a holy person respond?
Holiness would be a piece of cake if it weren’t for the existence of idiots. I’m serious! If I could live in a beachside spa, I might feel like a holier person. No slow walkers on the sidewalk in front of me, no guys in my church giving me unsolicited advice, no family members interrupting me … then I would be SO holy. I wouldn’t be impatient, I wouldn’t be judgmental, I wouldn’t be arrogant. I could just be at peace with my God and myself and enjoy a sinless life while sipping my berry smoothie on the beach.
Of course, the problem is that we can’t run away from sin. We have to deal with it. The other issue with my dream scenario is that people are deeply important to the heart of God, and if I ignore people, I am not acting like Him. John Wesley said, “Solitary religion is not to be found here. ‘Holy Solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.” (Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739). No holiness but social holiness. So perhaps if I lived in my beachside cocoon of isolation, I would actually be missing a crucial element of holiness: other people.
Read 1 John 4:7–17.
John loves love. He talks about it more than most people I know. John is very clear in this passage, yet again, saying that the one who does not know love does not know God. In our culture today the word “love” is very popular. Everybody seems to agree that love is the way to go. The Church, more than anything else, demonstrates love explicitly. We know love better than most, because we know God personally, and He is love. Jesus was just as direct when He told His followers that everyone would know they are His disciples because of their love for one another (John 13:15). And, classic Jesus, He makes it even more painful by teaching that we shouldn’t only love those who love us in return, but we should love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Love is kind of “our thing.”
How does the world define love? How does the Bible define love? It’s like this: we are born again as God’s children, only to discover that we have multiple annoying siblings. Sometimes I want to be an ONLY child of God. But the family business in God’s house is the business of loving others. 1 John 4:12 explains that as we love one another, God can be seen in us. This is our clearest and most audacious claim on planet earth. Do you want proof that our God is real? Then observe how I love.
As a holiness movement, sometimes we act as if our primary aim is to be against worldliness. Certainly, this has some biblical roots, and I can understand why we feel the call to be separate from the world. In fact, the root of the word “holy” can be literally translated as “different.” We are not meant to conform, but to stand out. We are always going to be an oddity to our nonbelieving neighbors. It’s supposed to be that way! But we do not want to be different only because of what we avoid, but different because of what we choose to do. You want to be really different than the world? Love your neighbor as yourself and bless those who persecute you. Now that’s different. That’s holy.
Read the Gospel of John 17:15–20.
This passage records Jesus at the last supper praying for you and me. He prays that we would be sanctified (made holy). He prays that we would be as different (holy) from the world as He is from the world. He also prays that we would not be taken out of the world, just protected while we are in it. This means that Jesus believes it is possible, by the grace of God, for you and me to be part of society around us while being holy.
“Sins of commission” are usually obvious (sins that we commit)—stealing, lying, cheating, sexual immorality, etc. The Holy Spirit puts a huge red light in front of us when we act in these ways: “STOP!” On the other hand, “sins of omission” can be much more subtle and insidious. These are sins by nature of what we choose to omit. This is when the Holy Spirit is giving us a bright green light and telling us, “GO!” but we hesitate. We see in the Scriptures Jesus telling us to feed the hungry, but instead we want to remain comfortable and just don’t really make time. We hear the Holy Spirit nudging us to pray with our coworker, but we are too embarrassed and choose to shut out His leading. Sisters, this is also sinful! This is not total obedience! We might have our external behaviors controlled, but if we are neglecting to show radical love, then we can’t claim to be people who prioritize holiness. Holy people love people. Holy people GO. What is a “green light” that God has been giving you recently?
Lesson 4: Expulsive Power
What connection do you see between fear and sin in your life?
I have been singing the theme song from our VBS for weeks on end. It’s not my favorite song; I wouldn’t even consider it a good song, but I cannot seem to get it out of my head! That is for one simple reason: we sang it over and over and over again for one week straight. We sang it in our morning opening chapel. We sang it in our afternoon closing chapel. The kids want to keep singing it while walking to and from the bathroom, while designing their arts and crafts, while eating lunch … it never ends. I have a suspicion that there is only one way for me to get this annoyingly catchy kids’ tune out of my head: a new year of VBS. I fear that I will only be able to escape this song by replacing it with a new theme song. The vicious cycle continues year after year.
Thomas Chalmers writes: “The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.” This concept is often called “the expulsive power of a greater affection.” When some new passion enters our hearts, something else is expelled, or driven out. If you take a cup, filled with oil and run it under the kitchen tap, fairly quickly the oil will go down the drain, and the cup will be filled instead with water. The addition of water drives out the presence of oil.
Read 1 John 4:18–21.
The expulsive power of perfect love drives out fear. Fear and sin are intimately connected. So much of our sin is rooted in our fears. We fear being alone, and so we maintain ungodly romantic relationships. We fear being an outcast, and so we gossip about others to feel included. We fear dealing with our real emotions, and so we numb ourselves with substances and media. But when love—perfect love—Divine love—floods into our hearts, fears are cast away and we are transformed by this greater affection. Ripping out sin by sheer willpower doesn’t last. Replacing our sin with the perfect love of God—that has lasting power.
Commissioner Samuel Logan Brengle testifies to receiving the Holy Spirit as having his heart flooded with love. He describes walking through Boston Common and loving everyone—from total strangers to dogs on the street. “He gave me such a blessing as I never had dreamed a man could have this side of heaven: a heaven of love came into my heart … Do you want to know what holiness is? It is pure love. Do you want to know what the baptism of the Holy Spirit is? It is not a mere sentiment. It is not a happy sensation that passes away in a night. It is a baptism of love.” God, I want more of this! I firmly believe that if we want to see a transformation in our world, it starts with me. I need a transformation in my life. And if I want to see a transformation in my life, then I need my heart to be flooded with the love of God!
Holiness is not just the removal of sin; it is fullness of love. I used to erroneously think that if I were made holy then I would be “Olivia minus sin.” This sounded like a nicer but more boring, slightly less cool version of me. I didn’t know that holiness was actually “Olivia plus Divine love.” I didn’t know that it is more about addition than subtraction.
Imagine yourself driving on a ramp to get on the highway. The road is curving very tightly, and you need to focus so that you don’t hit the barriers. Driving instructors will teach you to focus on hugging the inner corner of the curve. Do not focus on avoiding danger on the outside edge but focus on turning towards the center. As you hug the center, you will stay clear of the danger zone. It is so tempting to focus on what we should avoid rather than on engaging with God. Aim your life on staying close to Jesus and you will avoid the pitfalls that surround you.
Read 1 John 5:1–5.
Describe someone you know who is full of God’s love.
Apart from the vicious cycle of VBS theme songs, I’ve also noticed another cyclical pattern: love and obedience. An overview of Scripture will quickly show that love and obedience go hand in hand. In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love Me, keep My commands.” Again, here in 1 John 5:3 we read that if we love God, we keep His commands. 2 John 1:6 also reiterates this oft repeated theme, but elaborates further, “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to His commands. As you have heard from the beginning, His command is that you walk in love.”
So, if we love God, we obey His command, and His command is … love. Could it really be that simple? “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). Jesus reaffirmed this in Matthew 22:37–40 when He says that the entire Law hangs on these two commands: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
We’ve come to the end of our study together. Love is our landing place. Holiness equals love. But if you haven’t already heard this yet, let me say it very clearly: only God’s perfect love can make a difference. If you leave this Bible study thinking that you need to try harder to love better, then we have failed to communicate. Holiness is a gift, and God wants to give it to you today: the gift of His world–changing love.
Spend time in prayer, asking for a baptism of Divine love.
Find time alone today to continue this prayer in private with God.