Post Series on 1 John 2:28-3:10:
- Because Truth is So Much More Than Just Being Right (1 John 2:28-3:1)
- We Shall Be Like Him (1 John 3:2-3)
- Whoever is Born of God Cannot Keep on Sinning (1 John 3:4-10)
In 1 John 3:4-10, John makes a startling claim: if we have indeed been born of God, we cannot (i.e., we are not able) to continue sinning. If we continue sinning, then we have not been born of God. Read carefully what John says:
4Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8Whoever 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. 9No 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. 10By 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.
At first glance, John’s demands seem impossible and overwhelming. Is he really saying that, unless we are able to completely abandon sin, we are children of the devil? Is God’s seed not in me if I keep on sinning every week, every day, every hour?
But John isn’t demanding perfectionism, and God isn’t demanding it either. Really. This is abundantly clear from what John has just written in 1 John 3:2-3, when he insisted that (1) we are God’s children now, even though (2) what we will be has not yet appeared. John knows and acknowledges that, although we are already God’s children, we are not yet fully formed in the image of Christ.
More than that, compare these two verses:
And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (kathos ekeinos hagnos estin – 1 John 3:3)
Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. (kathos ekeinos dikaios estin – 1 John 3:7)
John is purposefully drawing a parallel here between purifying oneself (i.e., lifelong, growing, progressive sanctification) and practicing righteousness. Practicing righteousness does not mean practicing perfection, but something different: practicing righteousness means ongoing, lifelong (1) repentance from our sin and (2) faith in the gospel.
Of course we will sin. Of course we will stumble. In fact, John has already told us that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Anyone who says that they do not sin at all is a liar.
What John means by someone who “keeps on sinning” or who “makes a practice of sinning” is the kind of person who neither repents from their sin, nor who receives the righteousness of Christ through faith in his gospel. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil, and so whoever does not turn from the works of the devil in order to flee to Christ has no commonality with the Son of God. That person makes a practice of sinning, and therefore of lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness.
Many people imagine that the gospel of Christianity goes something like this: we think that Jesus lived a good life, and so we try to live a good life like him.
But the gospel of Christianity, in fact, says something startlingly different: we believe that Jesus came to destroy every last bit of sin, death, and the devil, but we confess our inability to follow in his footsteps by ourselves. (You see, we kind of like our sin, no matter what death it may bring, and no matter what devil may be behind it.) So we believe that God, being rich in mercy, planted his seed inside of us to render us incapable of embracing our sin as we once did, and to cause us to repent and to turn to Christ for salvation.
And so now we have become the children of God, even though what we shall 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. And all of us who thus hope in him will practice righteousness (as he is righteous) by purifying ourselves (as he is pure), by grace and through faith.
Therefore, little children, abide in him.