Apostle John’s Three Letters . . . 1 John 3:4–10
Rightfulness vs. Sinfulness
During last week's study, we crossed Apostle John's "Epistle Bridge," enabling us to travel from Fellowship Avenue, located at the end of chapter 2, to Sonship Street, which starts at the entrance of chapter 3, beginning with v. 4. We'll see, in chapter 3, John's beautiful review of the greatness of God’s love toward us as we become his dear children. This chapter provides reasons not to sin (as shown in this Bible Project video titled "Khata: Sin"). Jesus appeared on our behalf to take away our sins and destroy Satan's stronghold. John notes that true sons and daughters of God don't continue their sinful ways because they've been given a rebirth by and for God. This chapter ends (as highlighted in week 11's summary) by reminding us to follow Jesus’ example of love that expresses itself in truth and actions. We'll then be encouraged to prevent our hearts from condemning us because "God is greater than our hearts, and knows everything" (3:20).
Before we begin to rightly distinguish "righteousness" from "sinfulness," it's wise to realize what John has written so far in his first epistle. False spiritual teachers were a big problem in the early church; many house-church members were led astray by deceivers who taught their own doctrine and touted themselves as being most-knowledgeable leaders. John wrote his epistle to set the record straight on a number of essential issues, particularly the one relating to the person or identity of Jesus Christ.
John's letter was also focused on faith in Christ, helping his house-church members know that they were true believers, based on their faithful actions: If they loved one another, it was clear that God had a personal relationship with them; if they argued or acted as the world was acting, they clearly didn't have the requisite relationship with God. Over all, First John is a letter about love and joy. It highlights our fellowship with others and with Jesus. It differentiates between temporary happiness and true, complete joy.
Removal of Sin, Thanks to Jesus (1 John 3:4–7)
At the end of Epistle Bridge, we find v. 3: "All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure." John was telling his readers that, because of these glorious truths, we must purify ourselves, just as the people of old had done before approaching the Lord and his temple. We become purified when we allow the Holy Spirit, the word of God, and the blood of the Lamb to cleanse us daily through our justification and sanctification. However, when we sin, we live in lawlessness, which John will write more about in these first three verses.
4Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him (3:4–6).
In his opening verse, John makes clear that we have something to do with "the law." He interprets sin at its most basic source. If we sin, we break God's law, have no regard for it going forward, and become lawless because "sin is lawlessness." Note: John writes "sin" in the singular, addressing the root of sin, not sins themselves. About this distinction, Warren Wiersbe writes: “Sins are the fruit, but sin is the root.” Christians today who aim to become pure or holy are obligated to acknowledge the proven nature and wickedness of sin, then trust in the Spirit of Jesus to prevent continual sinfulness.
Looking next at v. 5, the Elder assures his readers that Christ appeared so that he might eradicate our sins. On our own, we're unable to do that; it's impossible to cleanse ourselves in this way. Thankfully, Jesus, who had no sin whatsoever, came down to earth to take upon himself the penalty of our sins, thereby paying our sin debt. Only Jesus, the true and merciful Redeemer, is capable of making and keeping us pure.
A true child of God cannot continue to habitually sin. In fact, if someone claims to be a child of God but continues in a life of sin, it's more than likely that he or she was never genuinely born again. The Bible makes it clear that it's simply impossible for a bona fide child of God continue living in sin. John's saying that anyone who continues to live in habitual sin doesn't know Jesus.
The choice we're to make is either "A" or "B". There's no third option. John makes this straightforward declaration in v. 6 regarding in whom sin can be found: "No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him." There are only two options available: (A) Be in close fellowship with God to keep from sinning or (B) resist such a divine fellowship and expect to pay our sin debt on judgment day. We who have such fellowship with God cannot and must not continue to sin.
David Guzik writes this about the phrase "does not sin": "It is very important to understand what the Bible means — and what it does not mean — when it says "does not sin." According to the verb tense John uses, it means does not live a lifestyle of habitual sin. John has already told us in 1:8, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. That grammar indicates John as speaking about occasional acts of sin while the grammar of 3:6 indicates that John is speaking of a settled, continued lifestyle of sin. John is not teaching here the possibility of sinless perfection. . . the NIV has the right idea when it translates these verbs with phrases such as keeps on sinning, continues to sin, and he cannot go on sinning." Sin is serious; it opposes the reasons why Christ came to earth; Christians cannot live in sin!
7Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous (3:7).
Yet again, the Elder affectionately addresses his readers as "Dear children" (v. 7a) before protectively exhorting them to not be deceived or allow anyone to lead them astray. To prevent deception from occurring, he repeatedly emphasizes the basics of Christianity, for example, the need for obedience, for love, and for a proper view of Christ. He then gives them one nugget of wisdom on "righteousness" (v. 7b). The habitual lifestyle of righteousness for a genuine believer stands in sharp contrast to that of false teachers who practiced sin (vv. 4 and 6). Because Christ died on the cross to transform sinners, those truly born again have replaced the sinful nature habit with one of righteous living (Romans 6:13–14). And John's "just as he is righteous" speaks of the divine nature of the Son. Then and now, believers are told to behave like Jesus, manifesting his power in them (Galatians 2:20). Let's walk every day in the righteousness that he provides for us.
It's important to realize and remember that there's not one single person whose merits or actions is righteous in God's eyes. Apostle Paul confirms this fact in his letter to Jewish believers living in Rome, explaining that salvation is offered only through Christ Jesus. Paul wrote: "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10).
Before we explore the second segment of todays passage, we ought to make note of each verse's parallel verse (adapted from The Letters of John by John R W Stott).
Those Born of God Practice Righteousness and Love (3:8–10)
John will next present in vv. 8–10 the flip side of what he emphasizes in vv. 4–7. It's all about distinguishing between God's family and Satan's. John's outright declaration that Satan (Hebrew satan means adversary) "has been sinning from the beginning" hearkens back to the commencement of his evil career. Old Testament Scriptures enlighten us as to the devil's work "back in the day" (1 Chronicles 21:1; Job 1 and 2; Zechariah 3:1–2).
8The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. 9No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. 10This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister (3:8–10).
Multitudes of people today are held hostage in their minds by the devil. They're incarcerated, locked up and caged in their minds and emotions, held like slaves or prisoners who are under arrest and live at the mercy of their conqueror. But John assures us in v. 8 that Jesus came into the world "to destroy the devil's works." According to Rick Renner, the word "destroy" is taken from the Greek word luo, which refers to the act of untying or unloosing something. It was used in classical Greek literature to refer to people being delivered, released, or freed from difficulties, burdens, or needs.
"In the New Testament," writes Renner, " the word luo was used to depict the untying of the thongs of a sandal (Mark 1:7); the unfastening of a donkey's colt (Matthew 21:2); the loosening, unraveling, and removal of Lazarus's grave clothes (John 11:44); and the taking away of Paul's chains (Acts 22:30). But luo also means to break or destroy (Revelation 5:2) where we're told that Jesus is worthy to loosen or 'break the seven seals.'"
It's important to note that the Elder uses "does" in v. 8a, which is a simple present tense verb. As such, it describes a continuation. Here, "does what is sinful" suggests the continual practice or commitment of sin. The phrase "of the devil" was directed at the false teachers in John's house churches. The word “devil”, means “accuser” or “slanderer.” Not only does Satan (“adversary”) oppose God's will and master plan, he's the originator and instigator of sin and rebellion against God's law (v. 4). The unsaved are under Satan's influence. Their sinful lifestyle reflects satanic origin. John contrasts the children of God with the children of Satan by their actions. While those who are truly born again reflect the righteousness habit, Satan’s children practice sin.
Verse 8b's "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work" clarifies God's purposeful plan. Christians aren't to habitually practice sin, since Christ came to combat and destroy the works of arch-sinner Satan; he's the one who sins habitually. Although we might fall into sin occasionally, we must never follow the devil's pattern of sinning habitually. And while he's still present and powerful, his capabilities have been diminished; our living in the more powerful Christ enables us who truly believe in him to escape the devil's tyranny. The day will come when all of Satan’s power and influence in this universe will cease and he'll be sent to hell forever (Revelation 20:10).
Thankfully, because Jesus defeated Satan and sin, on the cross, Christians who've put their faith in Jesus are no longer to habitually commit sin. We're told in James 4:7 to “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Following that two-part command, when we live according to our Master's will, Satan cannot control us!
John, in v. 9, uses the phrase "born of God," possibly referring to the concept of "new birth" that he spotlights in John 3:7. When people become Christians, God makes them new creatures with new natures (2 Cor. 5:17). These new children have his characteristics because they've been born into his family. This new nature reveals the habitual character of righteousness produced and provided by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22–24).
The elder plainly declares in v. 9 that an authentic child of God cannot routinely commit and live in uninterrupted sin. Because he's been "born of God," he is so inwardly changed that it affects him outwardly. He acts differently because he's different. On the other hand, if a person's life doesn't emulate God, perhaps it's an indication that he never really received God's divine seed into his spirit. If he'd been implanted with God's seed, that seed would have caused clear and visible changes in his life.
Next we come to John's repetition of "continue to sin," with "continuing" or "habitual" being a dominant element of sinfulness. Remember: He's not addressing an occasional, one-time sin act. Instead, he's directing believers to not continue to habitually sin. Following his repeated "continue to sin" phrase, John portrays "born of God" as a genesis or birth. Such "new birth" connotes the need for seed, which John alludes to when he writes "God's seed remains in him." A new birth involves planted seed, the image of which John uses to depict the divine element of one's being born again. To be born again means that a big change comes into our lives, into every area of our lives, as we grow in Christ; it's a real, noticeable, life-changing change.
John finally wraps up and summarizes in v. 10 his discussion of the importance, to brothers and sisters in Christ, of living righteously by not sinning habitually. Only two kinds of children exist in today's world: children of God and children of Satan. One either belongs to God’s family and exhibits his righteous character or belongs to Satan’s family and exhibits his habitual sinful nature.
The Essence of First John, Chapter 3
Apostle John documents the irreconcilable contrast between Christians and non-Christians. Christians are designated as children of God who may be recognized as such because they practice righteousness and love their brethren. Non-Christians are called children of the devil because they don't practice righteousness and don't care for their brethren. In summation, whoever persistently hates their brethren is spiritually dead. Conversely, genuine believers become alive in Christ when they loves their brethren.
Pastor-teacher John MacArthur presents this overview of chapter 3: The primary aim of this section is to combat false teachers who are corrupting the fundamentals of the faith. These verses further amplify, reiterate, and emphasize the moral test already presented by John (see 2:3–6, 7–11). The text of today's 3:4–10 passage teaches that genuine believers practice righteousness, while next week's 3:11–24 passage will prove that genuine believers practice love, especially toward fellow believers.
- Q. 1 What does John mean in vv. 6 and 10 when he says that a Christian does not sin?
- Q. 2 What characteristics distinguish "the children of God" from "the children of Satan"?
- Q. 3 This past week, did you feel more like a child of God or one of his distant relatives?
1 John 3:4–10
New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 3 narrated by Max McLean.]