1 John 3:4–10
Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and 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 sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. 7 Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; 8 the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.
This Passage Will Help Our Understanding of Romans 2:6-10
I chose this text this morning for two reasons. One is because it is the Sunday before Christmas when we are thinking about the coming of Christ into the world, and verse 8 is one of the clearest statements in the Bible about why Christ came. Verse 8b: "The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil." We will come back to see what that means.
The second reason I chose this text is that, in our series on Romans, we have been wrestling with the teaching in Romans 2:6-10 that eternal life is given to those who persevere in a life of good works or a life of love. I have tried to show that this does not contradict justification by faith alone, because our good deeds confirm faith, but don't replace faith as the means of our justification. This passage in 1 John, and indeed the whole book of 1 John, sheds light on this issue.
So let's begin by seeing what's helpful in this book in regard to the issue of Romans 2:6-10. Here's what's helpful. 1 John seems to be one of the most perfectionistic books in the New Testament and one of the least perfectionistic books in the New Testament. It has verses in it that sound like Christians simply don't sin. As if we are perfect. But it also has some of the verses that say most clearly that everybody, including Christians, does sin.
So if we can understand why this is, it will help us grasp Paul's point in Romans 2:6ff that you have to persevere in a life of love in order to have eternal life, but this does not mean that you have to be perfect.
Christians Are Perfect?
Let me show you these two sides of 1 John. First, let's look at a group of verses that seem to say Christians are perfect and don't sin. Maybe you would want to put "NS" in the margin beside these verses for "not sin".
1 John 2:3 - "By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments." Keeping the commandments is one means of our assurance.
1 John 3:6 - "No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him." And again in 3:9 - "No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." Same thing again in 5:18 - "We know that no one who is born of God sins."
1 John 4:8 - "The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love." Loving others is the evidence that you know God. If you don't love people, you don't know God.
These verses show you what I mean when I say that 1 John seems to be one of the most perfectionistic books in the New Testament. We will come back in a minute to see what this means.
Christians Are Not Perfect?
But look at the other side. I said that 1 John also seems to be one of the least perfectionistic books in the New Testament. It has some of the clearest statements that everyone sins, including Christians. Let's take a look at these. You might want to put "S" in the margin for "sin". Then you can show someone who is stumbling over the perfectionistic verses that there is another side to the issue.
1 John 1:8-10 - "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us." This is written to Christians. The "we" of verse 9 is believers. We must confess our sins, because we do sin.
1 John 2:1 - "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." Here is the heartening realism: "If anyone does sin, we have an advocate." The aim is that we not sin, but the reality is that we do sin.
1 John 3:2 - "Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is." We are already God's children because of immense and incomprehensible love, but we are not yet like him the way we will be when he comes. There is yet a purifying work to do.
1 John 5:16-17 - "If anyone sees his brother committing a [omit "a" - the Greek text does not require it] sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a [omit "a"] sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a [omit "a"] sin not leading to death." This last verse seems to be targeted pointedly at perfectionists who say: all sinning is equally damning and the only person who can escape judgment is the one who commits no sin. John emphatically says in verse 17b, "There is a [omit "a"] sin not leading to death."
What Does John Mean by "Sin"
Now let's go to our text and look at it against this bigger backdrop. When 1 John 3:6 says, "No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him," and when verse 9 says, "No one who is born of God practices sin," the key is to realize that the present tense verbs used here in Greek for "sins" (verse 6) and "practices" (verse 9) imply ongoing, continuous action. This probably means that, in John's mind, what is impossible for the Christian is a life of unchanged continuation in sin the same as when he was not born of God. In view of all his insistence that Christians do sin, we can't take these verses to mean Christians don't sin at all. We should take them to mean that Christians don't go on sinning without conflict and confession. Christians see it, hate it, confess it and fight it. And they do so with increasing vigilance as they grow up into Christ.
That is what Romans 2:7 is trying to say: "To those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [God will give] eternal life." The point is not that doing good earns eternal life or gets us connected to the life of God in Christ. The point is that a changed life shows you are already connected to God as his child. 1 John 3:9 says that the reason born-again people don't go on casually sinning is that "no one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin." In other words, God has come into their lives, caused them to be born again, put his "seed" - or his Spirit - in them, and is working in them to awaken them to the ugliness and folly and danger of sin so that they will be unable to choose it.
They don't avoid sin first, in order to get God into their lives. God gets into their lives first, and then they start overcoming sin. You can see this clearly in 3:14, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren." Passing out of death into life happens first, and then we know that it has happened because of its effect in our lives. We start to love people like we never did before. You don't love people in order to get out of death into life by new birth. You experience new birth, pass out of death into life and the effect is love.
What Can I Do to Make New Birth Happen?
So if you ask, Well, what can I do, then, to make the new birth happen?, the answer is that you can't do anything to make the new birth happen, any more than an unborn baby can do anything to get born. We can't believe the new birth into happening, we can't love the new birth into happening, because the new birth has to happen first so that we can believe and so that we can love.
The truth is that we are dead in trespasses and sins and cannot make ourselves alive, any more than Lazarus could raise himself from the dead. God must make us alive, as Paul said in Ephesians 2:5, so that we can believe. Look at 1 John 5:1, "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God." Not "will be born of God," but "is born of God," or more literally, "has been born of God." The new birth precedes and enables faith. Faith is the evidence of new birth, not the cause.
If you want to know what to do this morning to be right with God, the answer is "believe that Jesus is the Christ." Put your trust in Jesus as the fulfillment of all God's promises and bank on those promises as your only hope. When you believe in Christ, you know that you are born of him. Therefore, believe this morning. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved" (Acts 6:31). You will find God working in your life to save you and you will rejoice and give him the glory.
The Christmas Message
But now go back to the text with me for a moment to get the Christmas message. When verse 8b says, "The Son of God appeared [deity - clothed with humanity and born of virgin -who walked in obedience, laid down his life and rose from the dead] for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil," what are the "works of the devil" that he has in mind? The answer is clear from the context.
First, verse 5 is a clear parallel: "You know that He appeared in order to take away sins." The phrase "he appeared to . . ." occurs in verse 5 and verse 8b. So probably the "works of the devil" that Jesus came to destroy are sins. The first part of verse 8 makes this virtually certain: "The one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning." The issue in this context is sinning, not sickness or broken cars or messed up schedules. Jesus came into the world to help us stop sinning.
Before I draw out three practical implications of this, let me put it alongside the truth of 1 John 2:1: "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin." In other words, I am promoting the purpose of Christmas (3:8), the purpose of the incarnation. Then he adds (2:2), "And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."
Implications for Your Life
But now look what this means: it means that Jesus appeared in the world for two reasons. He came that we might not go on sinning; and he came to die so that there would be a propitiation [a substitutionary sacrifice that takes away the wrath of God] for our sins, if we do sin.
Now ponder this remarkable situation with me in a few closing minutes. If the Son of God came to help you stop sinning - to destroy the works of the devil -and if he also came to die so that, when you do sin, there is a propitiation -a removal of God's wrath - then what does this imply for living your life?
Three things. And they are wonderful to have. I give them to you briefly as Christmas presents.
1. A Clear Purpose for Living
It implies that you have a clear purpose for living in 1999 -the last year of this century and this millennium. Negatively, it is simply this: don't sin. "I write these things to you so that you may not sin" (2:1). "The Son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil" (3:8).
If you ask, "Can you give us that positively, instead of negatively, the answer is: Yes, it's all summed up in 1 John 3:23. It's a great summary of what the whole book requires. Notice the singular "commandment": "This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us." These two things are so closely connected for John he calls them one commandment: believe Jesus and love others. That is your purpose in 1999. That is the sum of the Christian life. Trusting Jesus, loving people. Trust Jesus, love people. There's the first gift: a purpose to live.
2. Hope that Our Failures Will Be Forgiven
Now consider the second implication of the twofold truth that Christ came to destroy our sinning and to forgive our sins. It's this: We make progress in overcoming our sin when we have hope that our failures will be forgiven. If you don't have hope that God will forgive your failures, when you start fighting sin, you give up.
Many of you are pondering some changes in the new year, because you have fallen into sinful patterns and want out. You want some new patterns of eating. New patterns of TV watching. New patterns of giving. New patterns of relating to your spouse. New patterns of family devotions. New patterns of sleep and exercise. New patterns of courage in witness. But you are struggling, wondering whether it's any use. Well here's your second Christmas present: Christ not only came to destroy the works of the devil - our sinning - he also came to be an advocate for us when we fail in our fight.
So I plead with you, let the freedom to fail give you the hope to fight. But beware! If you turn the grace of God into license, and say, "Well, if I can fail, and it doesn't matter, then why bother fighting?" - if you say that, and mean it, and go on acting on it, you are probably not born again and should tremble. But that is not where most of you are. Most of you want to fight sinful patterns in your life. And what God is saying to you this morning is this: let the freedom to fail give you hope to fight. I preach to you that you might not sin, but if you sin you have an advocate, Jesus Christ.
3. Christ Will Help Us
Finally, the third implication of the double truth that Christ came to destroy our sinning and to forgive our sins, is this: Christ will really help us in our fight. He really will help you. He is on your side. He didn't come to destroy sin because sin is fun. He came to destroy sin because it is fatal. It is a deceptive work of the devil and will destroy us if we don't fight it. He came to help us, not hurt us.
So here's your third Christmas gift: Christ will help overcome sin in you in 1999. 1 John 4:4 says, "He who is in you is greater than he that is in the world." Jesus is alive, Jesus is almighty, Jesus lives in us by faith. And Jesus is for us, not against us. He will help you. Trust him.
In summary, three gifts: because Christ came to destroy sinning and to forgive sins
1. We have a clear purpose for living in 1999: fight sin. Trust Jesus and love others.
2. The freedom to fail gives us hope in the fight.
3. Jesus will really help us. He really will. Trust him.