Whether from fear or ignorance, sizeable segments of the Christian church avoid the New Testament teaching that pursuing purity in this life is necessary for entrance into the next.
Among other reasons, this is why Christian living in the New Testament feels so wonderfully serious, while so much contemporary Christianity seems obliviously playful by comparison.
Even the One Point Was Missed
I grew up among a few million “one-point Calvinists” who misunderstood their one point: “once saved, always saved.” In general, it meant, if Johnny asked Jesus into his heart at age six, left the church at sixteen, mocked Jesus for ten years, and died in Vietnam with a bullet hole through his playboy bunny, he was in heaven.
In my first year in the pastorate, I told a young woman who was committing fornication that if she didn’t repent and turn to Jesus, she would go to hell. She was not happy with that theology. Later she accepted it. I did her wedding, and for twenty years she wrote me at Christmas to say thank you for the warning. No one had ever told her that growing up in a Christian home.
“The pursuit of purity now, not in the hour of your death, is the mark of a true Christian.”
Then there was a married woman who came to me and confessed she was having an affair. I believe she said they rendezvoused in the man’s truck. She said her husband had found out and wondered what to do. She was a member of the church. She let me know that, among the options, breaking off with her trucker friend was not one of them. Well, I said, in my simple manner, if you don’t repent from this sin, and turn to Jesus for forgiveness, you will go to hell.
This time the blowback was an articulate “No way!” with an exegetical defense and the imprimatur of her former pastor. She took me to Romans 8:38–39. Her paraphrase: Nothing can separate us from the love of God, including “principalities and powers” — and that means the devil. So when the devil lures me into adultery, that can’t separate me from God and heaven. The pastor said so.
As I recall we spent the next fifteen minutes or so looking at the text to see who “us” is. She did not like what she saw as we walked together through Romans 8 noticing who it is that will be glorified with Jesus. Evidently it touched a nerve. She ditched her trucker, reconciled with her husband, avoided excommunication, and stayed at the church for almost thirty years.
Chipper Church Leaders Are Not Paying Attention
I don’t like casual — largely carnal — Christianity where nothing eternal is at stake for professing Christians. Pastors who lead their people in this kind of chipper churchianity are just not paying attention when they read their Bibles. Or not believing. I’m thinking of texts like Hebrews 12:14; Galatians 6:8; James 2:17; 1 John 1:7; 2:4; 3:14; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Matthew 6:15; and Romans 8:13.
This morning I was reading 1 John in my devotions and was made to tremble again with the necessity of pursuing purity in my life. Necessity. First John 3:3 would not let me treat purity as a bit of parsley offered as an optional embellishment beside the meat of Christian faith. It was necessary, in no uncertain terms.
Test Yourself by Your Take on Trembling
By the way, if you stumbled over the word “tremble” in the previous paragraph, that’s the part of the problem I’m getting at. Why would you respond negatively in view of what God has said about trembling: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
There is a trembling whose happiness is more deep and durable than the peace of those who close their eyes to serious passages.
The Implications of “Everyone”
When the apostle John says in 1 John 3:3, “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself as he is pure” (my translation), the hope he is referring to is the hope he just mentioned in verse 2: “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
Christian living in the New Testament feels so wonderfully serious, while churchianity today is obliviously playful.
So, we may restate verse 3 like this: “Everyone who has the hope of being pure like Jesus and the Father, in their presence someday, purifies himself now as Jesus and the Father are pure.” Ponder the implications of the word everyone.
Everyone who has this hope purifies himself. If you don’t purify yourself, you don’t have this hope. And if things stay that way, this hope will never be true of you. You will never be like Jesus and the Father. Which means you will never see them face to face, because John says that the reason we will be like him is because we shall see him face to face (see also 1 Corinthians 13:12).
No True Christians Who Do Not Purify Themselves
To put it another way, the word everyone in this sentence — everyone who has this hope purifies himself — means that there is no group of people who have the hope of seeing and being like Jesus and the Father, but do not purify themselves. That is, there are no true Christians who do not purify themselves — do not pursue purity of heart and mind and body.
That is, all true Christians do purify themselves. This is one of the necessary marks of true Christians: they purify themselves.
This is not an isolated idea in 1 John. The grammatical construction he uses here is a favorite. He uses it thirteen times in this letter. In Greek it is pas (meaning “everyone,” or with the negative, “no one”) followed by a participle which we usually translate with a clause like, “who does such and such.” The point is that all Christians do or do not do something. And the all-embracing “everyone,” in effect, makes this a defining mark of true Christians. Here are a few of these thirteen. See how similar they are to 1 John 3:3.
First the form without the negative:
Everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. (1 John 2:29)
Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. (1 John 3:4)
Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. (1 John 5:1)
Everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning. (1 John 5:18)
Now the form with the negative:
No one who denies the Son has the Father. (1 John 2:23)
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. (1 John 3:6)
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. (1 John 3:9)
In other words, the requirement of pursuing purity in 1 John 3:3 is not an isolated condition for seeing and being like Jesus and the Father. The same thought runs through the whole letter.
Purification Is Not Arbitrary
Neither is it an arbitrary condition. Holding a ticket is an arbitrary condition for watching the football game in the stadium. Having good eyes is not an arbitrary condition, but an essential one. Eyes are essential for seeing the game. Tickets don’t belong to the essence of seeing.
So it is with purity. Purity belongs to the essence of seeing God. It is the condition of the eyes that can see holiness as the beautiful thing that it is. That’s why Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Being pure is the way we see God for who he is. Impurity darkens the God-seeing lens of the soul.
You Cannot Will Away Blindness
“Pursuing purity in this life is necessary for entrance into the next.”
This explains another folly of casual, non-serious churchianity: the folly of thinking we can pursue impure lives, while planning to repent at the end, and thus escape hell at the last minute. This is folly because a lifetime of impurity will have clouded the lens of the soul so badly that it is highly unlikely that suddenly Jesus will appear beautiful at the end. On the contrary, he will probably appear terrifying as you die, and a lifetime of impure preferences for other things above him will probably leave you hardened like Esau (Hebrews 12:17), not tender like the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43).
The pursuit of purity now, not in the hour of your death, is the mark of a true Christian. It is not an optional mark. It is necessary: Everyone — not some, but everyone — who hopes to see God, and be pure in his presence forever, purifies himself as he is pure — now (1 John 3:3).
Of course, there are many more things to say about this pursuit of purity.
It is not the ground of justification, but the fruit of it. It is not by unaided works of the flesh, but by Spirit-enabled self-denial.
It is not to gain acceptance with God, but because we are accepted by God.
It is not to become children of God, but because we are children of God.
It is not to pay our ransom with religious booty, but to show that we are already blood-bought.
It is not because we must add our efforts to Christ’s purchase, but because our efforts are included in the purchase.
It is not replacing faith with works, but proving that there are works that come through faith.
It is not our working for God, but God working in us.
And so many more. If you have questions, that is good. So good. What is not good, though, is to settle back into the casual way, as if you could drift to heaven. No one drifts to heaven. At the end of Paul’s life, he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Fight. Race. All the way home.
Take your questions to the Bible. The life it offers is glorious. The world cannot understand it — nor can coasting, casual, carnal, professing Christians. It remains to them a baffling paradox. But to you who tremble at his word, it is the only way:
I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. . . . For sin will have no dominion over you. (Romans 6:12, 14)
Cleanse out the old leaven [every one purifies himself!] that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7)