Post last updated on April 24, 2022
Image credit: Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp via Wikemedia Commons
This is the first of three posts that considers 1 John 3:1-13.
When in 1 John 3:9 we read, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin,” we read a statement that is so striking that it is impossible to ignore. Various readers over-interpret or under-interpret the statement, but at least they try to face it. Others do nearly ignore the verse, but even that is somewhat understandable, for on its face and read alone, it seems to defy their every experience as a believer. Still others make it teach a kind of practical sinlessness for the believer, for otherwise they must resign their identity as Christians.
Obviously, when the Christian attempts to understand the third chapter of this epistle, he must first take account of what John has already made clear in the same letter. And in the opening chapter of this letter, John writes that when a man says that he has no sin, he deceives himself by that very claim. John then writes that when a man says that he has no sin, he charges God with a lie (1 John 1:8-10). Therefore, when this epistle is read as a whole, the reader understands that the author is not teaching a believer’s absolute innocence, but that John must have something else in mind. After all, the reader’s recognition that John first declares man’s sinfulness (1 John 1:8-10) keeps him from mistaking this later statement (verse 9) as any confirmation of the believer’s actual sinlessness.
Nevertheless, some remain convinced that 1 John 3:9 teaches that a true believer is sinless; and so, the question remains: what is meant then by the statement? In what sense is it true that whosever is born of God does not commit sin? Given John’s first confirmation of man’s sinfulness, it is reasonable and necessary to reconsider what he means here in chapter 3. Left alone, verse 4 might well teach the believer’s sinlessness; but as it is in its context, this is impossible. Rather, this section (3:1-13) merely confirms several distinctions that are made elsewhere in scripture. To this end, consider verses 5-10. There, John first distinguishes sin and righteousness. Secondly, he differentiates the work of Christ and the work of the devil. Lastly, he distinguishes the children of God from the children of the devil. It is this last distinction that is so important for understanding the whole of the passage.
* * *
As the third chapter begins, John confirms that believers are sons of God. This is an extraordinary statement, for it defies present appearances. It is no surprise at all when a powerful or charismatic personality gathers a group of men and becomes their leader. They are all devoted to a single cause, and he leads them to achieve their aim; but John (in so many words) tells us that Jesus changes the very identity of the believer, and does not merely obtain an objective for them. When the believer devotes himself to Jesus by the act of faith, he is consequently joined to God in a new relation that far supersedes that of a mere religious party or affiliation; again, there is a change in his actual identity. The believer in Jesus appears as much as he ever did, but what is difficult to discern with the physical eye nevertheless is established as fact: He is a son of God, and he was not this before he believed. It matters nothing at all that believers do not yet appear as they shall later appear (verse 2), for Jesus Christ has already ascended into the heavens and obtained both their regal privilege and relation as sons of God. When Jesus Christ the Lord then returns to earth in his appearance, we shall then be like him in our appearance.
And so, John first reminds his readers that believers are the sons of God (3:1), regardless of their present and outward appearance or situation. What is more, the believer’s identity remains hidden and mysterious, even imperceptible to the world at large, if only because the full identity of Jesus of Nazareth also remained mysterious to most all of his onlookers. Some had said that Jesus was a good man, while some said that he was evil (John 7:12), but almost no one said that he was the son of God. Herod wondered if he might be John the Baptist, and others mistook him for one of the prophets, but only Peter would recognize him as the Son of God (Matthew 16:14-17). And this is to say that Peter understood the point that John expresses here in his epistle: there are some truths hidden to men; the Father must show a man what is otherwise hidden to him. And to the point, the first coming of the Son of God eventually initiated a series of events—resurrection, ascension, and a second coming—that made these hidden truths manifest, eventually evident even to the most reluctant observers.
* * *
John’s point, then—the very point that he will extend into the next several verses of this chapter—is that mere outward appearances are not always the most accurate or fullest descriptions of truth. Sin has so distorted the world that appearances are not only imprecise but sometimes deceptive. And it is for this reason among others, then, that God sent his son into the world. He reorders it again by the cross. Because some things do not now appear as they should appear—as God first created them to appear—God has now manifested his Son. Among the first things to understand about this section of scripture is that it is foremost concerned with God’s revelation of a new order, established through the new-creation work of Jesus Christ. We see this in the first two verses of the chapter. Jesus is the Son of God, but the world did not recognize him as such. Believers are now sons of God, even as they do not appear as such; but when Jesus does appear again, coming in the heavens, then the believers’ truest identity will also be unmistakably manifest: he is a Son of God, and they are sons of God.