Now John shifts his focus to the confidence that Christians can have in Christ. Having seen the dangers of false teaching, it remains now to see how we are to live.
v28. John begins by urging his children to “continue in [Jesus].” These types of exhortations have appeared and will continue to appear all throughout this book (cf. 1:12-14; 2:20, 24, 27, etc.). Since a person cannot “continue in” something they are not already in, this is yet another reason to remember that John is writing to believers–to people who are already in Christ.
The reason they are to continue in Christ is so that “when He appears we may be confident and unashamed before Him.” It is unclear if the “we” here refers to the apostolic community or to the general church. If the community (as in chapter 1), then John is saying that if his children in the faith falter, he himself will suffer loss, much as any father is embarrassed when his children get into serious trouble. This is actually my preferred view, because I tend to think this ties back into the overall purpose of the book, which is how to have fellowship both with Christ and with one another. After all, if these believers do continue in Christ, then John can be confident, which would only enhance their fellowship with him.
If, on the other hand, the “we” refers to Christians generally, the message is simply that if we do not remain or abide in Christ, then we will be embarrassed when He returns. In fact, whichever view of “we” we take, this ends up being the bottom line. If we want to be confident and hear “Well done my good and fail servant,” we must “continue in Him.” Such praise from Jesus is simply not guaranteed to all believers, even if their eternal salvation from Hell is.
v29. But why would Christians who fail to abide in Christ be ashamed when He returns? Because, knowing “that He is righteous” (cf. 2:1), we know He will return in righteousness. That implies a certain expectation of us, which John will address shortly. For now, though, he stops to note that “everyone who does what is right has been born of Him.” Jesus is not only righteous. He is the only truly righteous one. Therefore, if anyone does what is right–if they are righteous–it must be that they got that righteousness from Christ. It is very important to note here that John says clearly and unequivocally that everyone who does what is right is born of Him. Readers familiar with Paul might be surprised at that statement. They might say, “No, that’s not true, John. Everyone who believes in Jesus is born of Him! But John doesn’t say that. He ties being “born of [Christ]” with doing “what is right.” I’ve found a lot of interpreters try to get away from this in a lot of ways. I think John knew people might try to explain this away, because he’s going to restate this simple truth in several ways in the coming verse. But for now, for our purposes, I just want to highlight it and accept it as written. For John, the one who does what is right is the one who is born of God.
CH3.v1. At this point, rather than picking up on the idea of doing what is right, John focuses on the idea in the last verse on being “born of” Jesus. Now, if someone is “born of” me, then what is their relation to me? They are my child. And so it is here. John almost shouts with joy about how amazing it is that God has “lavished” His love on us by calling us “children of God.” But if we* really are God’s children, then we should not be surprised that “the world does not know us,” since it “did not know Him.” Remember that “know” suggests intimacy and fellowship. Far from “knowing” Christ, the world crucified Him. His children–those who are born of Him, who do what is right!–ought to expect the same and for the same reason (cf 2:16-17).
v2. Human children can look at their parents and know what they will be when they grow up. God’s children can’t say that. We don’t know exactly what we will be. We only know that we will be like Jesus. When we read about what Jesus’ resurrected body was like, we get some indication of how different we will be than we are, but the truth is we can’t really grasp that truth right now. We do know that when He returns (cf 2:28), whatever He is (which, first and foremost, is righteous), that’s what we will be like.
v3. And here John basically gets the point of the last five verses. Since we know Jesus is righteous, since we are continuing in that righteousness so as not to be ashamed when He comes back, since we know that when He comes back we are going to be “like Him,” then if we have “this hope”–that is, the hope that we are going to be like Him–then we “purify [ourselves], just as He is pure.” We should note that John uses a different word for “purify” here than He does in 1:9 (if you are using the NIV, you’ll see “purify” in both places). The word in 1:9 has the idea of cleansing, whereas this word has the idea of setting apart for a special use. We could translate this, “All who have this hope [of being like Christ] make themselves saints, just as He is a saint.” A “saint” isn’t just a moral, religious, or good person. Rather, the “saint” is the person who is dedicated to God in all she thinks and says and does. She has been set aside as God’s tool to use in this world. But if we’re set aside for God’s use, then we can’t live in sin. To be set aside for His use is just to be abiding in Him!
v4. Now John considers the other side of this coin. What if we don’t set ourselves aside for God’s purpose? What if instead of living in Him we live in sin? He says here that such people are lawbreakers, that simply put, sin just is lawlessness, because at bottom, sin says that what God wants doesn’t matter. The only “law” sin cares about is the law of the self–I’ll do what I want because I want to do it. That’s the completely opposite attitude of love.
v5. The lawlessness of sin in the life of a Christian is especially heinous because “he appeared so that he might take away our sins.” This is something “[we] know.” To live, then, in sin is contrary to what we know to be true. If Jesus came to take away our sins, then why would we live in them? In fact, since “in him is no sin,” then if we are living in sins, then we certainly can’t say we’re living in Him!
v6. John makes that plain in this verse saying, “No one who lives in Him sins,” here following translations like the KJV, NKJV, NASB, HCSB, etc. The NIV translates this, “No one who lives in Him keeps on sinning.” I don’t think we actually need to get into arguments about translation, though. What the NIV is trying to do is recognize that all Christians sin. So how can John say that no one who lives in Christ sins at all? If we follow the NIV, we can say, “Well, I might sin, but I don’t sin all the time. I don’t ‘keep on sinning’.” But the problem, I think, is that we do keep on sinning. And if we take this passage that way, we’ll always find ourselves (if we’re honest with ourselves, anyway), worried about whether or not we’ve sinned “too much” to be “real Christians.”
I think a much better solution is to just take the text exactly as it is written and remember what we’ve been talking about since the first verses of this book. If we sin at all, then we are not living in Christ. Remember that this book is about our fellowship with God and one another, not about knowing whether or now we are really saved. Furthermore, remember that in these past few verses, John has been telling us that Jesus came to take away sins, that in Him there is no sin. We are considered His children when we do what is right. So it seems easy enough to just affirm that when I sin, I do so because I’ve stopped abiding in Christ. Like Peter began to sink only when he took his eyes off Jesus (Matt 14:22-31), we fall into sin when we take our eyes off Him. Put simply, sin breaks our fellowship with Jesus. So what do we do when that happens? We confess our sins, and He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us of all our unrighteousness (1:9).
John drives home this idea of sin breaking fellowship by adding, “no sinner has seen or known Him” (my translation). Both of these words–“seen” and “known”–are relational terms. We’ve already talked about how “knowing” someone implies deep intimacy. But the same is true with “seeing” someone. Other than in this verse, the word occurs in five other places in this short book. Three of those times are in 1:1-3. John and his companions had “seen” Jesus. The idea there, remember was not simply that they had looked at His body, but they had gotten to know Him. They had really “seen” Him for who He is. The other two usages of this word are in 4:20. We’ll talk about that in detail there, but for now, it’s worth noting that we “see” our brothers in a way that we can’t “see” God (which is why we needed Jesus! cf. John 1:18).
The point, then, is that if I live in sin, then I can’t say that I “get” Jesus. But the especially good news to come out of that statement is that if I want to overcome sin in my life, then the answer isn’t to put all my efforts into beating back sin. It’s to put all my efforts into getting to know the one who did defeat it.
v7. Now John warns his readers against the false teachers again, reminding them and summing up his argument so far by saying, “the one who does what is right is righteous, just as He is righteous.”
v8. For anyone who might still be trying to find some other way out of John’s argument, he clearly states the other side of the coin: “the one who does what is sinful is of the devil.” For John, there are only two types of people: righteous and unrighteous, saints and sinners, children of God and children of the devil. This is the same thing he started this section with (see 2:29) only now stated as clearly as possible. It is a truth, though, that gets obscured if we misunderstand the purpose of the book. If we think John is talking about salvation, we’ll think he is saying that the two types of people are the saved and the unsaved. He isn’t. Rather, he wants each member of this church (and all of us) to be righteous children of God who are living in deep and intimate fellowship with Jesus and His followers.
John could hardly be clearer. The reason he says the the sinner is “of the devil” is because the devil himself is a sinner (remember that “in [Christ] there is no sin” (3:3,4) and always has been. I think the reference to “the beginning” is probably a reference to Satan in Eden, when he tempted Eve to break God’s command and eat of the forbidden fruit. When she and Adam disobeyed God, those chose to follow Satan and his ways. People–Christians included–who sin today follow that same example. But Jesus came “to destroy the devil’s works.” But if we are contributing to his works, then how could we be in fellowship with Christ? For John, the choice is clear and the contrast stark. Follow Christ or follow Satan.
v9. Now we have one last very strong statement meant to drive the reader to clearly see and make a clear choice. The one “born of God” doesn’t sin. This might surprise some readers who can accept that to “abide in” or “live in” Christ is a term for fellowship but who assume that to be “born of God” must refer to salvation from Hell. But we’ve already seen this in 2:29. This, too, is a term for one who is living in fellowship with God through Christ as His child. Further, I think this is consistent with John’s theology in general. In his Gospel, he writes, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Notice this does not say that all who believed He made children of God! We can become His children when, through faith, we come to know Him deeply, so that He not only purifies us but cleanses us from all our sins. I think this idea is also parallel with some of Paul’s thought (though he uses different words), when in Rom 8:14-16 he seems to distinguish between children generally and sons in particular (where the “sons” are not merely believers but those who follow the Spirit).
But John isn’t content just to assert this idea. He points out why. The reason children God–those “born of God”–cannot (not simply will not) sin is because “God’s seed abides in them.” Therefore, “they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.” God’s seed is, of course, Jesus Christ. And we have seen repeatedly that in Jesus there is no sin. So if Jesus is abiding in me, if He is living in me (in the sense of deep fellowship), then I simply am not able to sin. For the moment I sin, I am no longer abiding in Him! That’s why John has repeated the command so many times to abide in Christ, because as we abide in Him, so He abides in us (cf. 3:24).
v10. From all of this, John can conclude that the way you can know a child of God from a child of the devil (the one in fellowship with God through Christ vs the one in fellowship with Satan) is this: if we don’t do what is right, we are not God’s children.
In summary, we can be confident that we are God’s children and in deep fellowship with Him by avoiding the false teaching that says sin doesn’t matter. As Christians, we simply cannot water down the call to righteousness. But far from being a call to legalism, for John, this is actually a call to a deeper knowledge of Christ. No one, Christian or unbeliever, has the power to defeat their sins. But Jesus has. He is the righteous one. So the more we know and see Christ, the more we can be confident of our righteousness (our relational standing before God–not our legal standing before God as in Paul’s letters). Faith in Christ–not our works–saves us, not only from Hell, but even more importantly, from a life of sin and the power of the devil.
* The same issue with “we” occurs in 3:1-3 as was briefly discussed in 2:28. It could be that John was highlighted the fact that those in the apostolic community were the “true children of God” and that the false teachers were not, despite their claims that they were. This could especially be true given his argument in 3:6-10. Still, even if that is the point he is making, it would still hold for all Christians, and so I didn’t feel it was too important to deal with it in the body of the text.