Note: This is the graduation address I presented at the commencement exercises of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa (Lilongwe, Malawi) on 4 May 2013.
Scripture reading: 1 John 3:7-18
Text: 1 John 3:8b – “God Son appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (Common English Bible).
“Hate sin and love God (by loving others)”
(salutation and all protocols observed)
We are gathered together today to honor the achievement of the graduates of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa, both campus and extension students. You have persisted through many hours, days, and months of study, and all for one reason: To better equip yourself for the ministry to which our Lord Jesus Christ has called you in his church. Today, we pause on this auspicious occasion to say two words: Well done!
Many of you have already been involved in ministry in the local church. Some of you will be taking the role of pastor for the first time. At such a moment, what words of wisdom does the Bible have for you?
We have heard the Scripture reading from 1 John 3:7-18. In the passage, two commands repeat themselves:
1) hate sin;
2) love God, by loving others.
II. HATE SIN
Let’s look at that first commandment: “Hate sin.” John never says it exactly this way, but it is his clear intention. There are few words in the English language as strong as this one word, hate. To hate something is to loathe it, despise it, detest it with all one’s being. Here at NTCCA, you have learned several definitions for sin, but allow me to define it differently. Sin is anything that pulls us away from God.
In chapter 3 verse 7 and following, John warns his listeners: “Let no one deceive you.” As we individually examine our own hearts, what do we see? As we look at our actions, what do we find? John is simple and clear: If we find righteous acts, then we are holy. But if we practice evil deeds, then we are of the devil.” Verse 8a declares: “The person who practices sin belongs to the devil because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” And take no comfort in the word “practice.” You cannot say: “It’s alright since I don’t practice sin, I only sin from time-to-time.” There is no escape clause here.
I recall a young man from West Africa. He had been attending the church for some time. One Sunday morning, he stood to give a testimony. “Hallelujah! Praise God!” he said. “I am a taxi driver, but I don’t have a driver’s license. The other day, the police stopped me. Thank the Lord, they didn’t ask to see my driver’s license! Glory to God!”
Yet can God be glorified by our sin? Romans 13 is clear that we are to live in submission to the authorities that God has placed over us. Every day, temptations to sin face us. Yet the message of holiness that we preach is a message of victory over sin!
One of John Wesley’s favorite passages from which to preach the holiness message was 1 John 3:8b — “God’s son appeared for this purpose: to destroy the works of the devil.” Did you hear that word? It was not to contain the works of the devil or stun the works of the devil. God is not interested in a partial victory over sin. Our God is not a God of half measures. God does not want you to love sin less than you love God. God wants you to hate sin like you would hate a poisonous snake that crossed your path. Would you pick up a poisonous snake, pet it and say: “Good little snake”? No – you would run away from it as fast as you could.
God is not interested in merely paralyzing the sin in your life. He does not just want to barely hold it in-check, like a cancer. No! God’s Son appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.
But do we play games with God? Do we say: “God, you can destroy this sin and that one. Jesus, go ahead and do away with this sin, but this other one? It’s really nothing, Lord. I’ll keep just this one.”
A man was gloriously saved. With the Holy Spirit now living inside him, he looked around the house and realized that it was time for the devil to leave, along with all his clutter. “Out of my house!” the man demanded in no uncertain terms, “and take all your junk with you.” The devil complied, but asked: “May I just leave this one nail on the wall?” It didn’t look like much, so the man agreed. A few days later, there was a knock. Surprised, the man found the devil at the door. “Hello, he said. “Didn’t I tell you to leave and never come back?” the man asked. “Yes, you did,” said the devil. “I’ve just come to look at my nail.” Reluctantly, the man had to let him in the door. The devil kept coming back, always supposedly to look at “his nail,” and little by little, the devil left his junk behind, cluttering up the house again, until finally he had moved back in.
Graduates of the class of 2013, do you have any nails left in your life? Any seemingly little sins that you are holding on to? As you head into the battle of full-time ministry, you cannot afford to harbor anything that will give the devil a foothold, a means of control over you. God’s Son appeared to destroy the works of the devil. And that destruction begins in our own hearts and lives before God can use us to bring the fight to the devil. John’s words to us this morning are simple but powerful: Hate sin.
III. LOVE GOD BY LOVING OTHERS
While John commands us to hate sin, when it comes to God and others, only one word repeats itself: LOVE. It’s no wonder they call John the apostle of love. He returns to the theme again and again, and his message is clear: Love God by loving others.
Even new believers know John 3:16, but 1 John 3:16 is equally powerful:
This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
It is our love for each other, according to John, that confirms our love for God. 1 John 4:8 reminds us: “The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.”
We live on a continent that is torn by war. From the north of Mali to the genocides in Sudan and Rwanda; from the child soldiers of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Northern Uganda to the rebels of Eastern Congo who leave rape and destruction in their path, we know too well what battle and warfare are all about.
It’s not surprising, then, in such an atmosphere that the language of spiritual warfare has crept into the church. And so we speak of combat against evil spirits, and look for opportunities to display “Jesus power.” We want the world to know that Jesus is the greatest of all spiritual powers.
Let me be clear: There is a place for the concept of power in our holiness theology. We believe that the fruit of entire sanctification in the life of the believer is purity and power. Jesus said: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples…” (Matt. 28:18-19a). And there are times when – as servants of God – we confront the devil and his efforts to disperse God’s flock.
But it strikes me that John 13:35 does not affirm: “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you show your great power.” What does Jesus say? “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” Graduates, as you preach, for every one time that the word “power” crosses your lips, the word “love”must be there ten times.
What do unbelievers think when they see hatred and discord among us? What do they think when they see striving for position or status? Can they not find these things in the world? Should they not expect to find love in the church, a church filled with those who call themselves “Christians,” little Christs?
Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of India in the mid-20th century. He peacefully resisted British rule and was largely responsible for helping India gain its independence. A lifelong Hindu, he had frequent contact with Christians. One day in an interview, he observed:
I like your Christ; I don’t like your Christians.
The holiness ethic is to hate sin and to love God by loving others. But sometimes I wonder whether we do the opposite, loving our sin and hating God by hating others? In our spiritual battle, may we never forget that our only arm is love, love inside of us thanks to the fullness of God’s Holy Spirit, winsome, holy love overflowing from us, powerfully impacting our world for Christ. Let us love God by loving others.
In a 27 June 1760 letter, John Wesley wrote something that applies equally well to women:
Give me one hundred men who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the Kingdom of heaven upon the earth.
Dear graduates, you will be part of that great Cause? If you would, then heed the commands of God through the Apostle John: hate sin — run away from it, and let Jesus destroy its presence and power in your life. And just as importantly, love God by loving others. Remember that the world is watching how we, Jesus’ followers, treat one another. What will they see?
Now may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us now and forever more, AMEN.
Nail: Public Domain Photos
Gandhi: Empower Network
John Wesley: Albatrus