1 John 3
1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. 4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
It is amazing how the mere mention of a family name can conjure images for us. For instance, let me name some family names. As I do so, ask yourself what images, ideas, and thoughts come to mind.
Hatfields and McCoys
I offer these without comment. I do not need to comment in order to make the point: family names, even in our day, carry with them and evoke within us a whole host of feelings, thoughts, opinions, and reactions.
Here is another family name. When I say it, ask yourself what images it evokes: Christian.
One of the things John is doing in 1 John is explaining the nature and character of those who are antichrist. To do that, he also needed to explain the nature and character of those who are in Christ. We find John doing both of these in 1 John 3:1-10. We will approach John’s handling of this in terms of “marks.” What are the marks of those who are in the family of God and what are the marks of those who are of the devil?
The marks of being in the family of God.
The Church is a family in that believers have God as their Father. John details the characteristics of the family of God in verses 1-7.
The mark of the certain hope of being like and seeing God
The first characteristic of the children of God involves the hope that we have in Christ.
1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
The Christian hope is comprised of two promises:
- “we shall be like Him”
- “we shall see him as he is”
The statement, “we shall be like him,” is jarring, but however one understands this theologically it must be recognized that Christ Jesus Himself pointed to the need for this similarity when He said in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So while we are uncomfortable with this at initial glance, it is nonetheless clearly the case that we are intended to be like God.
But in what sense? One sense can be clearly ruled out. We are not God. We will never be God. Only God is God. This is a point that suffers from an embarrassment of riches from Genesis to Revelation and there is therefore no great need to argue the point. Whatever John means, he does not mean anything like the Mormon idea that we become gods.
But what does John mean? I appreciate the insights of the ESV Study Bible on this point when it says:
In eternity, Christians will be morally without sin, intellectually without falsehood or error, physically without weakness or imperfections, and filled continually with the Holy Spirit. But “like” does not mean “identical to,” and believers will never be (e.g.) omniscient or omnipotent as Christ is, since he is both man and God.
We might also say that in glory the image of God in us will no longer be obscured. We will, in these senses, be like God.
Furthermore, we will see God. Imagine the glory and beauty of that moment! “For now we see in a mirror dimly,” wrote Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Try to imagine an undimmed view of the glory of God. What we see through a glass dimly is itself overwhelming. What will we do when we see the glory revealed! The children of God know that they will one day see God!
The mark of purity
This should motivate us and compel us forward with great expectation. Barclay makes a helpful point when he writes, “The Christian is on the way to seeing God, and to being like God…The man who knows that God is at the end of the road will make all life a preparation to meet his God.” This is why John next points to purity as a mark of the child of God.
3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
One of the ways we will be like God is in purity, but this desire for purity does not wait for the end that is our beginning. Rather, it starts now. We yearn for purity because we know we will see Him and stand before Him and be like Him. Our lives now therefore become preparations for our lives then.
Another way to think of the desire for purity is to think of it in terms of holiness. The Christian now should be motivated to be holy. We should, in fact, desire holiness and the purity it brings. “Only one who has a strong desire to be holy,” writes Jerry Bridges, “will ever persevere in the painfully slow and difficult task of pursuing holiness.” Bridges goes on to quote Scottish theologian John Brown’s definition of holiness:
Holiness does not consist in mystic speculations, enthusiastic fervours, or uncommanded austerities; it consists in thinking as God thinks, and willing as God wills.
This raises a question: do you desire holiness? Do you want to be pure? Does the fact that you will stand before God one day motivate you to be holy?
The mark of rejecting wickedness and practicing righteousness
To become holy is to commit oneself to rejecting wickedness. These two actions necessarily go hand-in-hand.
4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.
The children of God do not embrace lives of sin. If you are in Christ you do not “keep on sinning” (v.6). Does this mean that the true believer will not ever sin? Of course not. “Many commentators suggest,” writes Craig Keener, “that the present continuous tense of ‘sin’ suggests ‘living in’ sin, sinning as a natural way of life. This is different from living righteously but sometimes succumbing to temptation or deception and genuinely repenting.”
I once heard somebody say, “When you are a Christian, it is not that you do not ever sin but rather that, when you do, you hate it!”
Let us remember that, earlier, in 1 John 2, John wrote:
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
When the children of God sin, they are broken and return to Jesus in repentance and faith. And, in so returning, they find the arms of Jesus open with love and grace. But to be a child of God means that we can no longer live easily and comfortably with our sin! We can no longer “make a practice of sinning” (v.4).
We must say, if we are honest, that the Church in modern America does not value purity and holiness, and certainly does not stress it, as much as earlier ages did. We tend to see holiness as the characteristic of the super-saved, the uber-Christian. But the New Testament knows of no such distinction. If we are in Christ, if we are abiding in Christ, we should seek to be pure.
The marks of being of the devil.
Just as the family of God has certain characteristics, so do those who are of the devil.
The mark of continuing in unrighteousness
The children of God, John tells us, will not make a practice of sinning. We cannot, for we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God. But those who are of the devil do precisely this.
8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.
Again, a distinction must be made between a sin and embracing a life or practice of sinning. A mark of being in the family of Satan is that one can embrace a life of sinning with no qualms, but this does not mean that the follower of Jesus who falls and fails and sins is not actually a follower of Jesus. A.T. Robertson made the argument that “a great deal of false theology” has grown out of a misunderstanding of verse 9. “The child of God does not have the habit of sin,” he writes. “The present active infinitive…can only mean ‘and he cannot go on sinning.’” Charles Ryrie wrote of this verse, “The lifestyle of the one who keeps on sinning demonstrates that he does not know God…Habitual actions indicate one’s character.”
The second curious aspect of verse 9 is the statement, “for God’s seed abides in him.” This is why we cannot embrace a life of sinning, John says, because God’s seed abides in us. Barclay has offered three proposals for how we can understand the phrase “for God’s seed abides in him.”
- It may be a reference to the family of God. (“Frequently the Bible uses the word seed to mean a man’s family and descendants.”)
- It may be referring to the imagery of biological reproduction and offering a counterargument to the Gnostic usage of the imagery of seeds. “The Gnostics said that God had sowed seeds into this world, and through the action of these seeds the world was being perfected; and they claimed that it was the true Gnostics who had received these seeds.” It might be that John is saying something like, “Yes, God has sown seeds, and it produces His children through faith. It is available to all and not merely to a enlightened few.”
- It may be “the much simpler idea” that “seed” refers to the word of God. Barclay points to James 1:18 [“Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”] and 1 Peter 1:23 [“since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God”] to argue that, “the word of God is definitely identified with the incorruptible seed of God” and that, on this reading, John means “quite simply that the Christian is preserved from sin by the indwelling power of the word of God.”
Regardless of how this is understood, the point is that the people of God are indwelt with the presence of God in such a way that they cannot live easily and peaceably with that which is of the devil. On the contrary, the indwelt Christian must live in harmony with the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in order to live in peace.
Those who are of the devil have no qualms with living wicked lives. There is no inner “seed” that would agitate against such an unwelcome intrusion. They have no qualms because they are not living in conflict with the truth of the gospel, never having embraced it in the first place.
John’s summary statement is beautiful in its precision.
10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
The wicked are not of God. The unloving are not of God.
The righteous are of God. The loving are of God.
When the world hears the family name “Christian” it should think then of these two things: righteousness and love. That comes about when we corporately and individually allow the Holy Spirit of God to have His way in our lives and in our midst. And this is something that each of us must ask ourselves: is God having His way in my life to such a degree that my life could be said to be marked by holiness and righteousness?
R.C. Sproul has written:
I have never had a student, a parishioner, or any other person come to me and ask, “How can I become righteous?”
Many people have spoken to me about being ethical, moral, spiritual, or even pious. But nobody seems to want to talk about being righteous.
But may it be said of us that we consistently ask God how to be righteous, how to be holy, how to be pure. May the world see in us those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6)
To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to do nothing less than to hunger and thirst for Christ. In Him, we will be satisfied.
 Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 154251-154253). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.
 William Barclay, Letters of John and Jude. The Daily Study Bible. (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1970), p.90-91.
 Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), p.101,63.
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: 1993), p.741.
 A.T. Robertson, General Epistles, Revelation. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. VI (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.223.
 Robert Lightner, The Epistles of First, Second, Third John & Jude. Twenty-First Century Biblical Commentary Series. Gen. Eds. Mal Couch and Ed Hinson. (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2003), p.50.
 William Barclay, p.93-94.
 R.C. Sproul, Holiness (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1998), p.167.