Beloved, Confident Children of God, Lesson 10

Originally posted at Women of Purpose.

28 And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. 29 If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.

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. 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. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 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. 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. (1 John 2:28-3:10)

In this week’s lesson we are once again tackling a larger swath of scripture. There is much to learn here, but it all adds up to one great theme: Because Christ, the Righteous One, has appeared to take away sins and to make us righteous, we must practice righteousness now, so that we may look forward to his return with confidence. In this week’s passage we will find the Doctrine of the return of Christ, as well as the beginning of the second cycle of John’s tests of assurance, featuring the moral, or, obedience test: “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous” (3:7). This iteration of the moral test is closely tied to the past and future appearances of Christ, focusing on the righteous conduct of believers in light of his appearances, contrasted with the lawless conduct of unbelievers in spite of his appearances.

The manner in which John writes of the return of Christ suggests that it was not a controversial teaching among the early church, but a future event which all true believers expected without doubt. The controversy, or rather, the confusion, was centered on the conduct of those who called themselves Christians, and whether it mattered that they pursued righteousness and purity. The heretics who were troubling the flock had set themselves above the standard of righteousness to which Christ calls us and lived impure and unrighteous lives (2:4). John is reminding his readers to practice righteousness, as living proof that they are indeed children of God (3:10).

Christ’s Future Appearing, Looking Ahead (2:28-3:3)

In  1 John 2:28 we see a transition from the exhortation to abide in Christ as a refuge from false teaching, to abiding in him because we anticipate his return. According to this verse, the two responses people will have upon Christ’s return are confidence and shame. Throughout this epistle, John has been drawing a hard line of distinction between believers and unbelievers. But here it seems that he is speaking only to believers, urging them to obedience in anticipation of Christ’s return, so that when he comes through the clouds they will greet him with confidence because they have pressed into him, abiding, believing, obeying, and loving one another. Just as when a father comes through the door at the end of his workday and his children run to him with joy and excitement because they have minded mommy well throughout the day.

The righteous who abide in Christ will not shrink from him because they are God’s children who will be like Jesus when he appears. We are being perfected in love by the perfect love of God which casts out all fear, making us even now to be as Jesus is (3:2, 4:17-18). Verse 29 gives us another clue to this confidence. The righteous practice righteousness because they have been born of a righteous God. Righteousness is not only our birthright, but it is our expression of our family resemblance to our righteous Father and our elder Brother, Jesus Christ! We have been born of a righteous God and so righteousness is woven into the DNA of our new nature.

If we don’t want to be ashamed (not lost—ashamed), our response now to this promise of our Lord’s return is to be the practice and pursuit of holiness. John tells us to purify ourselves as our Lord Jesus Christ is pure (3:3) Peter spells it out in more detail, telling us to “make every effort to grow in the attributes of holiness, because “whoever lacks these qualities … has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins,” and therefore we ought to be diligent to practice these qualities, “for in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-11). And Jesus himself reminds us: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” To which John responds, “blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (Rev. 22:12-14). Jesus is coming, so make diligent effort to purify yourselves, growing in righteousness and holiness, and when you enter the gates of heaven the red carpet will be rolled out to welcome you into the eternal kingdom!

Always remember that our own practice of righteousness, our very ability to make the efforts to which scripture exhorts, us is based solidly in our new birth and the precious and very great promises which have been granted to us by God’s own glory and excellence, that by his divine power and through the knowledge of him we would have all that we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3-4). The imperatives of what we are to do always follow the indicatives of what God has done for us. As we will see as we progress through this lesson, we have the power to practice righteousness because it is given to us by our Father and he is working in us.

The Astonishing Love of God

John’s rigorous teaching has been hard and fast, and you can almost see him punctuating each truth with a blow to his desk. Yet, as he mentions at the end of verse 29 that those who practice righteousness have been born of God, it’s as if the glory of the thought captures him and he bursts forth in an exclamation of awe-struck wonder: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God!” (3:1).  The Greek word he uses which is translated ‘what kind of’ originally meant ‘of what country.’ Commenting on this word choice, John Stott writes, “It is as if the Father’s love is so unearthly, so foreign to this world, that John wonders from what country it may come.”[1] This word was always used to express astonishment, and as he contemplates our new birth John cannot hold back his outburst of wonder at the otherworldly love of God for us—his children!

In 3:1 John writes that we are “called children of God.” And then, in the same breath, he reassures us that this is not merely a title, but a fact, by emphatically declaring “and so we are!” (exclamation point added—and, why not?).  As John wrote in his Gospel and Peter also gloriously affirmed:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Peter 1:3)

No wonder John pauses for an exclamation of wonder and praise. Take a moment yourself to praise our Father with a grateful heart, and ask him to deepen your wonder and awe at this life-giving, transformative truth.

 In 3:2 John gives us three things that we can know for certain and one thing which we cannot yet know. We know that we are God’s children now—already, we know that when Christ appears we will be like him, and we know that we shall see him as he is. What we don’t know is what exactly that will be like; “what we will be has not yet appeared.” These three things that we can know for certain are the things which we need for assurance. That we are his children; that we will be like Jesus—meaning, purified and glorified; and that we shall see him, the beatific vision! The one thing in this future hope that isn’t certain is something upon which our hope of glory does not depend: what will it be like to inhabit glorified bodies?

John actually saw Jesus in his glorified body after his resurrection. He walked, talked, and ate with him. He watched as he appeared suddenly inside a room where the disciples were hiding behind a locked door (John 20:19, 26), and then he watched as his Master was bodily lifted up and carried into heaven (Mark 16:19; Luke 24: 51; Acts 1:9). Jesus assured him and the rest of the disciples that the Holy Spirit would remind them of everything that they need to know in order to preach the gospel and make disciples (John 14:26). And yet, here is something which arouses much curiosity from us now, for which he has no exhaustive explanation. John’s chief concern is that we know what we need to know in order to grasp the truths of the gospel and to have assurance that we are in the faith. Our chief concern, therefore, ought to be the same. What we will be, we will be, by the wisdom and grace of God, and that should be enough to satisfy us until that day.

Here John confesses that the exact state and condition of the redeemed in heaven had not been revealed to him… Indeed, it is implied, it will appear only when he will appear. . . . It is enough for us to know that on the last day and through eternity we shall be both with Christ and like Christ; for the fuller revelation of what we are going to be we are content to wait.[2]

And so, what is the Christian’s hope as we look for his appearing? Our future hope is threefold, beginning with that part which John, and we, can’t really wrap our heads around. But the Bible teaches that we shall bear the image of Christ, and our perishable bodies will “put on the imperishable,” and our mortal bodies will “put on immortality,” as Jesus transforms our lowly bodies to be like his own glorious body. And then death, in the ultimate reversal, will be robbed of its sting and swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:49, 53-55; Phil. 3:20-21)!

A second aspect of the hope which we anticipate is the “eternal weight of glory” which will cause all our earthly afflictions to pale in comparison, as we step from this transient life into life eternal. Because we have been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, we look forward to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading and is reserved in heaven for us while we are being guarded here and now, through faith, by God’s power, for the ‘final act’ of our salvation. This gives us reason to rejoice here and now, even though we are suffering grievous trials, because this is all a gift of God’s great mercy (2 Cor. 4:17-18; 1 Peter 1:3-6).

And finally, saving the best for last, we will be with Jesus, which is far better (John 14:3; Phil. 1:23; Col. 3:4)! We may be anticipating reunions with family members and loved ones who have gone before us to our heavenly home, but the first face we will see, the first embrace we receive, will be that of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ himself, who gave his life that we might be with him where he is, to see his glory which the Father gave him before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). Yes, we will join the great multitude in heaven, the great cloud of witnesses from every tribe and tongue, and innumerable angels in festal gathering. But, sisters, Heaven will be heavenly only because Jesus is there. He is the sum and substance of our hope.

This hope spurs us to action. John issues the call to action the very next verse: “And all who thus hope in him (Christ) purify themselves as he is pure” (3:3). John isn’t the only author of the New Testament calling us to purity as we live here in the Covenant of Grace. Paul urges us to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1); James admonishes us to “draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (James 4:8), and Peter reminds us that we have been called by a holy God, we are also to be holy, “since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). We recall that only the blood of Christ can cleanse us from our sin and guilt (1:7), so John is clearly calling us to a different kind of purification. As with Paul, James, and Peter, John is calling us to pursue our sanctification not to earn grace—which is a contradiction in terms—but because of the promises of grace.

I am not to strive and sweat and pray in order that at the end I may enter heaven. No; I start rather from the standpoint that I have been made a child of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. I am destined for heaven; I have an assurance that I have been called to go there and that God is going to take me there, and it is because I know this that I am preparing now. I must never regard that as contingent and uncertain in order that I may make it certain. It is exactly the other way round: it is because I know I am going to meet God that I must prepare to meet Him.[3]

If you were invited to appear before Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, you would not simply go slouching into her presence, dressed in the casual clothes thrown on for a trip to the grocery store. You would choose your very best clothing—or you’d run out and buy a new best outfit. And then you’d carefully read through the protocols for an audience with her majesty, where to stand, how to curtsey, what to say and not to say. The magnitude of the occasion would increase not only your excitement at the honor extended to you by such an invitation, but your urgency to do everything in your power to prepare for your meeting.

How, then, do we prepare to meet God? I give the floor to Paul: look carefully for the mercy and grace that makes our “doing” possible:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13)

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. . . . Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:1-3, 12-17 italics mine)

This, my sisters, is sanctification, the work that is given to us to do, as we are enabled and helped by the Holy Spirit, to make the effort to grow in holiness. Justification is a free gift, but we who have received that gift now have work to do. The inspired writers of the New testament all urge us to roll up our sleeves and set about this hard and holy work.

And why? Again, from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

If I believe that I am a child of God and that I am really going to heaven and to glory, if I believe that this uncertain life of mine may suddenly come to an end at any moment and then I shall be with the Lord in all the glory and perfection, is it not surely common sense that I ought to be preparing myself for that?[4]

Christ’s First Appearance, Looking back (3:4-10)

We come now to a passage of Scripture, tucked into John’s epistle of assurance of faith for believers, which, when taken out of context, has been used to teach unbiblical doctrines, and, worse, to undermine the very confidence that John is seeking to strengthen. We must keep in view what John has already taught us, that we are saved only because of Christ’s propitiation for us and that because of his advocacy on our behalf we have recourse to confession and forgiveness when we do sin (2:1-2, 1:9). John was addressing false teaching. “This passage (and indeed the whole letter) is … directed against the heretics’ arrogant assumption that they constituted an initiated élite set apart from the rank and file. John will admit no distinction.”[5]

 In 3:4 John teaches us that the nature of sin is lawlessness, plain and simple. This is, in fact, the most concise and direct definition of sin found in Scripture. Whether by omission or commission, willfully or inadvertently, to sin is to break the law of God. Therefore, “everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness.” Moreover, as John elaborates in 3:8, sin originates with ‘the devil,’ “for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” And therefore, “whoever makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness.”

In response to each of these declarations about the seriousness of sin we find two statements about the 1st appearance of Christ. According to 3:5 and 3:8, Jesus appeared to take away sins and to destroy the works of the devil.

To take away our sins, Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, bore our sins in his body on the cross, bearing them to such a degree that Paul writes he not only took the curse of those sins for our sake, but he was made to be sin. He offered himself as a one-time sacrifice to bear our sin, pouring out his soul to death and being numbered with the transgressors. He did this so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness and become the righteousness of God. By the sacrifice of himself he made the multitude of the elect to be accounted righteous (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24; Heb. 9:28; Isaiah 53:11-12). This, beloved, is the Great Exchange: the sinless One took our sins and bore the Father’s wrath in our place, so that he might give to us his own holy and perfect righteousness, that when we stand before the Father we are clothed not in our own filthy rags, but in robes of pure, unblemished holiness.

To destroy the works of the devil, as promised to Adam and Eve, Jesus crushed the head of the diabolical serpent by making we who were dead in trespasses and sins alive together with him, forgiving us and canceling the dept that was against us—nailing it to the cross! Having partaken of our flesh and blood by becoming a man, through dying he destroyed the one who has the power of death, the devil, and delivered us from our lifelong slavery to death (Gen. 3:15; Col. 2:13-15; Heb. 2:14-15). Jesus destroyed the devil’s works by freeing us from slavery to sin and death. This freedom is a gift of grace to us, but the cost to our Savoir was the agonizing death of the cross. Yet though he died, three days later he rose, victorious!

The logical conclusions which John, draws, and therefore, so must we, is that no one who abides in Christ keeps on sinning or makes a practice of sinning (3:6 & 3:9). And this is where we must read carefully, keeping the context of the entire letter in mind. Lifting these verses out of the context in which they were intended to be read can be at least misleading, lending to unbiblical doctrines, and at worst they are potentially soul-crushing, leading to despair. Is he teaching sinless perfectionism, in which believers are so freed from sin that they never in this life sin again? Or is he teaching that any sin is evidence that one is not a believer after all? Or is he teaching that one who struggles with a particular besetting sin can’t be abiding in Christ? Take heart, beloved, John is not teaching any of these (see 1:8-10).

What, then, is he teaching? All the commentaries I am using give much careful exposition of this text, drawing out the meaning from the original Greek words and a lot of grammar which is above my pay grade. Let me boil it down for you, not to simplify it, but to cut to the heart of what has been a painful misreading for many Christians. When John uses the expressions “makes a practice of sinning” and “keeps on sinning,” he is talking about the settled character, the overarching tenor of one’s life and practice. These descriptions do not refer to individual acts of sin in the believer, but to “persistence in sin, ‘a character, a prevailing habit, and not primarily an act ‘(Wescott).”[6] “John is not setting before us a terrifying perfectionism; but he is demanding a life which is ever on the watch against sin, a life in which sin is not the normal accepted way but the abnormal moment of defeat.”[7]

John assures us that “no one born of God make a practice of sinning” because “God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (3:9). Paul makes this clear when he reminds his readers in graphic terms of what they were before their new birth and what they are now:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous  will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9-11, emphasis mine)

Sisters, we are children of a holy God, and as such we are called to live holy lives. Furthermore, we are children of a loving God who is for us and who longs to see us succeed in our battles against sin! He is not frowning down upon us, waiting for us to fall on our faces once again. No!  He sends his Holy Spirit to help us (John 16:7-8), his Word to guide us (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and has placed us in a body—his church—to equip, encourage, and fight alongside us (Eph. 4:11-16). Jesus gave us a picture of the Father in the parable of the prodigal son who willfully wanders from his father’s home and pursues sin to the full. When he returns home, penitent, prepared to recite his confession and become a slave in his father’s house, His father races to embrace him and won’t even allow him to finish his rehearsed speech. He extends to his son lavish grace and mercy and throws a party to celebrate his return (Luke 15:11-24). “If you are a child of God who is now running with the wolves or supping with the swine, get up and walk home. . . . Repent. Return. Rejoice.”[8] Remember the astonishing, otherworldly love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God… Beloved, we are God’s children now, and … we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (3:1-2).

This is a Positive Desire

We all ought to have a positive desire to be like Him. We ought to be filled with a yearning and longing to live this glorious, wondrous life that Christ has made possible by His death and resurrection. Should we not all be animated by a desire to please Him if we really believe He came from heaven to earth? If we really believe that He suffered the agony of the cross and shed His holy blood that we might be redeemed and rescued, if we really believe that and love Him, should not our greatest desire be to please Him?[9]

We haven’t shared a hymn together in several lessons, and this one occurred to me as I finished typing up the blog post today.

Before the throne of God above

I have a strong, a perfect plea;

A great High Priest whose name is Love,

Who ever lives and pleads for me.

My name is graven on his hands,

My name is written on his heart;

I know that while with God he stands

No tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair,

And tells me of the guilt within,

Upward I look and see him there

Who made an end of all my sin.

Because the sinless Savior died,

My sinful soul is counted free;

For God, the Just, is satisfied

To look on Him and pardon me.

Behold Him there the Risen Lamb!

My perfect, spotless Righteousness,

The great unchangeable I AM,

The King of glory and of grace.

One with Himself I cannot die;

My soul is purchased by His blood;

My life is hid with Christ on high,

With Christ, my Savior and my God.[10]

[1] John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary, (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, first pub. 1964, reprinted 2009), 122.

[2] Stott, 122-123

[3] Martin Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John, (Wheaton, Il: 2002), 299. Italics mine.

[4] Lloyd-Jones, 304.

[5] Stott, 125.

[6] Stott, 129.

[7] O’Donnell, 97, quoting William Barclay, The Letters of John and Jude, Daily Bible Study Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 81.

[8] O’Donnell, 100. Italics mine.

[9] Lloyd-Jones, 304.

[10] Charitie Lees Bancroft, Before The Throne of God Above, (1841-1892)

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