Two times in 1 John 3:1–10 we are told why Christmas happened — that is, why the eternal, divine Son of God came into the world as a human being. In verse 5, John says, “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.” So the sinlessness of Christ is affirmed — “in him there is no sin.” And the reason for his coming is affirmed — “he appeared to take away sins.”
Then in the second part of verse 8, John says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” And the specific focus John has in mind when he says “works of the devil” is the sin that the devil promotes. We see that in the first part of verse 8: “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” So the works of the devil that Jesus came to destroy are the works of sin.
So two times John tells us that Christmas happened — the Son of God became a human being — to take away sin, or to destroy the works of the devil, namely, sin. So Jesus was born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18, 20), and “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man,” (Luke 2:52), and was perfectly obedient and sinless in all his life and ministry, all the way to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5–8; Hebrews 4:15) — in order to destroy the works of the devil — to take away sin.
Jesus’s Incarnation and Our Regeneration
Now we are in a series of messages on the new birth. So the question I am asking today is: What is the connection between Jesus’s birth and our new birth? What is the relationship between Jesus’s incarnation and our regeneration? To answer this question let me try to build a bridge from last week’s message to this text here in 1 John 3:1–10.
Last week we saw that when we ask why we need to be born again, the answer could look backward to our miserable condition in sin and corruption and say that’s why we need to be born again. Or we could look forward to the good things we will not experience if we are not born again — like entering the kingdom of God — and say that’s why we need to be born again.
We gave ten answers to the question why we need to be born again in the first sense — looking back on what we were apart from new birth. And we gave five answers to the question why we need to be born again in the second sense — looking forward to what we will not enjoy if we aren’t born again.
The Great Love of God
Now the bridge between that message and this text today is the great love of God that comes to people who are dead in trespasses and sins and who are his enemies, not his children, and makes them alive. Ephesians 2:4–5 puts it like this: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love [!] with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” So the greatness of the love of God is magnified in that it gives spiritual life — that is new birth — to those who have no claim on God at all.
We were spiritually dead and in our deadness were walking in lockstep with God’s archenemy — the devil (Ephesians 2:2). The justice of God would have been well served if we had perished forever in that condition. But for that very reason our new birth — our being made alive — is a magnificent display of the greatness of the love of God. “Because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ.” You owe your spiritual life, and all its impulses to the greatness and the freedom of the love of God.
Now this is the bridge to today’s text. Look at 1 John 3:1–2 and think with me how John magnifies the love of God in this passage.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us [there’s the link with the greatness of the love of God], 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 [loved ones!], 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.
Four Observations from 1 John 3:1–2
Make four observations with me to connect this text with the greatness of the love of God in Ephesians 2:4 last week and our question from last week about why we need to be born again.
Observation #1: Made God’s Children
“God made us his children. This is the new birth. God made us alive.”
When verse 1 says that we are “called” the children of God, it doesn’t mean we were the children of God but not called that, and then God called us that. No, it means that we were not children of God. We were like the rest of the world referred to in verse 1. We were dead and outside the family. Then God called us children. And we became children of God. Notice the words “and so we are.” Verse 1b: We are “called children of God; and so we are.” The point is God made us his children. This is the new birth. God made us alive.
Observation #2: The Greatness of the Love of God
This new birth into the family of God is owing to the greatness of the love of God, just like it was in Ephesians 2:4–5. “See [Look! This is amazing!] what kind of love the Father has given us that we should be called the children of God.” John was amazed, just like Paul was — just like we should be — that rebels, enemies, dead, unresponsive slaves to sin like us are made alive, born again, and called the children of God. John wanted you to feel the wonder of it.
Observation #3: Our Final Perfection Secured
This amazing love of God that gave us life when we were dead and caused us to be born again and brought us into the family of God secures our final perfection in the presence of God forever. Look at the way verse 2 connects the love of God, our present life as his children, and the future we long for. “Beloved [those loved by God in this amazing way!], 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.”
John sees an unbreakable link between what we are now and what we will be when Christ comes. He expresses it with the words “we know.” “We are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared [our perfect conformity to Christ awaits his coming]; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him.” In other words, perfection of our sonship is coming. We know it is. How? We are his children. And all that’s left in this adoption is the consummation of our transformation when we see Jesus face to face. His presence will complete it for all the children of God. And “we are God’s children now.”
Observation #4: The Necessity of the New Birth
Observation #4 simply makes explicit something obvious in what we’ve said so far: the new birth is a necessary prerequisite and a guarantee of our future perfection in the presence of Christ forever. Or, to put it the way Jesus did, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). But if you are born again you will see the kingdom of God — you will see Christ and be perfected in the end and spend eternity with joy in his presence.
Why We Must Be Born Again
So here we are with John’s answer to the question Why must we be born again? John’s answer is: Because if you are not born again you will not look upon Jesus someday and in the twinkling of an eye be changed into his image. Instead, you will remain under the wrath of God, as Jesus says in John 3:36. Or, to put it positively, if the immeasurable love of God causes you to be born again and gives you new spiritual life in union with Jesus Christ, you know that when he appears you will be like him. Because of the new birth, you know you will enter the kingdom of God. That’s why we must be born again.
Jesus’s Birth and Our New Birth
Now we are in a position to answer the question posed at the beginning: What is the connection between Jesus’s birth and our new birth? What is the relationship Jesus’s incarnation and our regeneration? Could not God have simply caused sinners to be born again and then finally conformed them to his own character in heaven, without sending his Son into the world? Did there need to be an incarnation of the Son of God and a perfect life of obedience and a death on the cross? The answer is: the new birth and all of its effects, including faith and justification and purification and final conformity to Christ in heaven, would be impossible without the incarnation and life and death of Jesus — without Christmas. Let’s get a glimpse of this from 1 John. And may your love for Christ and his coming increase because of this glimpse.
“Faith is the sign that the new birth has happened.”
First, consider that the aim of the new birth is to enable us to believe in the incarnate Jesus Christ. If there were no Jesus Christ to believe in, then the new birth would not happen. Look at 1 John 5:1: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ [that is everyone who believes that this incarnate Jewish man from Nazareth is the promised divine Messiah] has been born of God.” That means that the Holy Spirit causes people to be born again with a view to creating faith in the incarnate God-man, Jesus Christ (see 1 John 4:2–3). That’s the aim of the new birth. And so faith in Jesus Christ is the first evidence that it has happened. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Faith is the sign that the new birth has happened.
But that’s not the only reason the incarnation is necessary for the new birth — not just because the aim of the new birth is faith in Jesus Christ. The incarnation of the Son of God is necessary because the life we have through the new birth is life in union with the incarnate Christ. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). That life that we have in union with Christ is the life that Jesus obtained for us by the life he lived and the death he died in the flesh.
Look at 1 John 5:10–12 and keep in mind as you read that the Son of God here is the incarnate Son of God. “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. . . . And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
In other words, the new birth gives us life by bringing us into spiritual connection with Jesus Christ. He is our life. His new life in us, with all the changes that it brings, is the testimony of God that we are his children. And this life is the life of the incarnate Son of God. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . . And from his fullness [the fullness of the incarnate one] we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16) — that is new birth, new life.
No Incarnation, No Regeneration
So if there were no incarnation — no Christmas — there would be no regeneration for these two reasons: (1) If there were no incarnation, there would be no incarnate Jesus Christ to believe in, and that’s the aim of the new birth, and so the new birth would not happen. (2) If there were no incarnation, there would be no vital union or connection between us and the incarnate Christ, and so the new birth would abort because there would be no source of new life.
Christianity is not a kind of spirituality that floats from religion to religion. It is historically rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Scripture says, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). “The one who rejects me,” Jesus said, “rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). If there is no incarnation, there is no union with the Son or with the Father, and no regeneration, and no salvation.
The Incarnation and Purification
So without the incarnation of the Son of God as the Messiah, Jesus Christ there would be no regeneration and no saving faith. And we may add then briefly, there would be no justification and no purification. And without these, no final salvation. Look at 1 John 3:3–5:
Everyone who thus hopes in him [in other words, every child of God who is assured of being made like Christ when he comes] purifies himself as he is pure. Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.
Both justification and purification are implied here. Purification is explicit. John says: if you have experienced the new birth, you will love the day of Christ’s appearing and long for the day when you will be transformed into his perfect likeness (as verse 2 says, “when he appears we shall be like him”). And then, John says in verse 3, “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” That means everyone who loves the day of his final purification loves purity now, and hates impurity now, and fights sin now.
This means that the new birth, which awakens faith and fills us with love for that last great day of purification, produces the fight for purity. And so, since there is no regeneration without the incarnation, there will be no purification now and no final, Christ-like purity in the end, if there is no incarnation.
Christianity is not a general program for moral transformation that floats from religion to religion. The transformation it calls for is historically rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. The new birth awakens faith in him. And he — the incarnate one — secures our final purification. And we, with that unshakable hope in him, purify ourselves as he is pure.
The Incarnation and Justification
This leaves one last great work of Christ to touch on: justification. It is hinted at in 1 John 3:4–5. Right after saying that those who are born again and set their hope in final perfect Christlikeness purify themselves as he is pure, John says something about sin that seems out of the blue. He says, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”
What’s the point of telling us suddenly that “sin is lawlessness” and that therefore all sins are lawlessness? And then adding that Christ appeared “to take away sins”? I think the point is this. He wants to make clear that the great work of Christ in saving us from sin is not just a work of purification. The language of cleansing and purifying fail to deal with a huge and terrible dimension of our sin, namely, that all sin is law-breaking. We don’t just incur defilement that has to be purified, we incur guilt that has to be forgiven and wrath that has to be propitiated, and a falling short of righteousness that needs to be imputed.
That’s why he says in verses 4–5, “Sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins.” This “take away sin” is not mere cleansing. This is the work of Christ in taking away the guilt of sin, and the wrath of God that is on sin. And how did Christ do this? He did it by his incarnation and life and death. Here are two texts from 1 John to show how John thought about this.
“The perfection we do not have, Jesus provided. The judgment we do not want, Jesus bore.”
First, look at 1 John 4:10: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” He sent his Son — that’s the incarnation — to die in our place and so absorb the wrath of God and thus become the propitiation for our sins.
Second, look at 1 John 2:1: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Why is Jesus in heaven explicitly called “the righteous” when he is described as the advocate we need because of our sin? It’s because what he pleads before the Father is not only his blood, but also his righteousness. Which is why 1 John 3:5 says, “In him there is no sin.” The perfection we do not have, Jesus provided. The judgment we do not want, Jesus bore.
Christmas Was Not Optional
All of this because he was born. He was incarnate. He was the God-man. No incarnation, no regeneration. No faith. No justification. No purification. No final glorification. Christmas was not optional. And therefore being rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, while we were dead in trespasses, God sent his Son into the world to live without sin and die in our place. What a great love the Father has shown to us! What a great obedience and sacrifice the Lord Jesus gave for us! What a great awakening the Spirit has worked in us to bring us to faith and everlasting life! Amen.