This past Sunday as we continued our journey in 1 John, A Word on Reality, we looked at both the blessings and the expectations of being called the children of God. The blessings are incredible beyond our ability to comprehend, but we are at the same time called to live up to a standard consonant with our confession. What is this standard? Keep reading to find out.
Good Little Children
Way back in Genesis, when it talks about God creating people, the text describes the process as going down like this: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
In the beginning, we were created in the image of God. This doesn’t mean we looked like God, it means we shared in some of God’s attributes: His intelligence and ability to reason, His creativity and imagination, His compassion and mercy, His love and sense of justice, His ability to form relationships, and a variety of other things. No other being was so created. In this way, we were truly created to be God’s children. Unfortunately, we took advantage of these gifts and rebelled against our Creator. In effect, we said to our heavenly Father: “We don’t want to be your children anymore. Now go away and leave us be.” And God let us do it because He knew that His love for us would be vindicated in the end. Because of this, though, we lost the right to be called children of God. In other words, we lost our identity which was rooted in His image residing in us. Now, it was neither gone forever nor was it completely destroyed, but it was fractured beyond our ability to repair it. When sin was thus allowed to enter our lives and pollute everything, we ceased to reflect God’s image as we were designed to do and became spiritual orphans of our own making.
Eventually, however, we realized our predicament and started reaching out for God again. Our early attempts were pitiful and pretty fruitless, but we knew something wasn’t right and needed fixing. We decided that being enslaved to the forces of this world and to our own fallen natures wasn’t really working out for us. Well, after quite a bit of time as far as we are concerned, God sent His Son to open the path to life for us once again. The effect of this was to make available the great spiritual heritage that was always intended to be ours. Paul talks about this in Galatians 4:3 “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” So, though we left God’s family in the beginning and wandered throughout this world as spiritual orphans for far longer than we should have, God made it possible for us to be adopted into His family once again. He made possible the restoration of what we lost in Eden.
Speaking of adoption, it is really a beautiful thing. Having kids the natural way can be planned or it can happen unplanned. When a couple decides to adopt a baby, though, they go through a lengthy and expensive process during which they select the exact child they want to raise and call their own. It is for love’s sake that they adopt in order to give a child who does not have a permanent home and is a slave to the system a place where she can grow in the love of her adoptive mother and father. There aren’t any unwanted adoptions.
There are, however, adoptions that don’t work out as planned. My dad is an attorney who specializes in adoptions. In fact, he’s the top adoption attorney in the State of Missouri. He told me a story some time ago of a couple who adopted a newborn. Given that they couldn’t have children on their own, they were as excited as they could be at the direction their life was headed. After a few months, though, the child began to have some problems. Then some more problems. Then they started doing some more digging into the child’s background. As it turned out, the child was the result of an incestuous relationship and had all of the accompanying birth defects. He was going to be fully developmentally disabled and it was not clear that he would live beyond one year of age. This couple wasn’t prepared to handle something like this so they brought the child back. Now, I’m sure this couple was heartbroken to do this and I don’t say this to demonize them at all, but this is how the world treats us. We are broken because of our sinful natures and the world offers to take us in long enough for our depravity to reveal itself and then tosses us out in the cold.
Fortunately, this is not how things are with God. When we were spiritual orphans in this world, tossed out in the cold because of our brokenness, out of His great love for us, God opened the door for us to be permanently adopted into His family. This is the essence of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God loved us so much that He made it possible for us to have the life we never managed to find on our own. This is also the essence of one of the verses from our passage this morning: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”
Well, in the next leg of our journey through 1 John aimed at giving us a clearer picture of the reality of God’s kingdom, we find this incredibly encouraging discussion of the implications of our being able to be called God’s children because of His great love for us. But, being adopted into a family does not mean everything about the child’s life is going to remain the same. As a matter of fact, everything is going to change. In order for her to adjust fully to her new reality, she must exhibit behavioral patterns that fit with those of her new family. This is one of the basic expectations on the child: to live according to and underneath the authority of his adoptive parents regardless of the way he was living before. Refusal to live under this authority reveals that while the right paperwork and hearings and forms have been taken care of, she was never really a part of the new family in the first place. For us as the adopted children of God, the standard of living we are now expected to honor is the righteousness of Christ. If we are going to be called children of God, then we need to adjust our lives to the reality of His kingdom and the pattern of life there. The sinful patterns of this world are simply no longer appropriate for children of God. Our heavenly Father calls us to something better. There are without a doubt incredible blessings available when we are His children, but there are also clear expectations as to the kind of life we will be living. God’s children are called not to sin, but to righteousness.
Keeping all of this firmly in mind, find your Bibles and turn with me to 1 John 2 one more time. Listen first to some of the blessings of being God’s children and then in a minute we’ll talk about some of the expectations. First from 1 John 2:28 and following: “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. See what kind of love the Father has given to us, 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, 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. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
When you were growing up, did you ever do something you shouldn’t have done while your parents weren’t home? Do you remember how you felt when they walked in the door? Let’s be honest: you knew that you had done something wrong. You knew the moment you thought about doing it. You knew while you were doing whatever it was. And you knew when they walked in and looked at you that you were in for it when they found out. Because of all this you felt shame. You may have even hid yourself to delay what you knew was inevitable. Rob Bell tells the story of a time when his son had done something wrong while he was at work. The little boy knew he was in for it and went and hid himself under the covers of his parents’ bed…for hours…until Rob got home to have a talk with him. He pulled back the covers and found a little boy completely soaked with sweat (and a set of sheets that had to be changed).
In the same way, after Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden what happened? God came home and they were hiding. Genesis 3:8 describes it like this: “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.’” They knew God’s standards (because they were made in His image which includes a basic knowledge of right and wrong) and knew further that they hadn’t lived up to those standards, so they hid. Last week we heard from John that the last hour is here. This means that Christ could come back literally any time. We don’t want to get caught with our pants down when He returns. We have been adopted and we’re waiting for our Father to return home. As a result, John first encourages us to abide in Him, to live His way of life, so that we can be excited when He returns instead of ashamed. And let’s face it, how many of you have the kind of luck that Jesus would come back just as you were committing some sin you were sure no one knew about? This is why God’s children are called not to sin, but to righteousness.
Well, after reminding us to be living like we are God’s children and laying out how we can in fact be sure we are His children, John pauses for a moment to marvel at the incredible gift of love this whole being God’s children thing really is. And it really is an incredible gift. A bit more literal a translation of the first part of v. 1 would be: “Consider how lavish is the love that the Father has showered on us…” This is really a cool word picture. When I was in grade school I went to a Christian sports camp called Kanakuk a couple of times. One of the years we had a fierce rainstorm in the afternoon. Once the rain had subsided, it was really too wet to play any sports on the fields. Well, what are you going to do to entertain a bunch of boys when it’s too wet and muddy to play soccer or baseball or football? Duh, you have a contest to see who can get the muddiest. By the time the contest was over, the whole lot of us were covered from head to toe with a thick, slimy coat of mud. There was no way we were going to be able to go anywhere or do anything until we had been hosed off. So, out came the hoses (which were fed from the ice-cold Lake Taneycomo).
When it came my turn, the counselor who was holding the hose held it high above my head and let loose a torrent of freezing cold water. As it hit me I could feel the chills run all the way down my body from my head to my toes. At the same time, though, a layer of mud came sliding down my body as well. As a lavish amount of water was showered over me, I gradually became clean. Where everything was drab from the filth I had been caked in, color and brightness shown forth once more. Where I had looked just like everyone else around me—skinny little mud monsters—the cleansing flood sharpened my features once again so I looked like myself and no one else. This is what the Father’s lavish love showered down on us does in making us His children. We were caked with the mud of sin and He washed us clean and made us His children once again. God’s children are called not to sin, but to righteousness. Washed clean as we are in the Father’s love, of course the world, which only knows the mud, doesn’t recognize us. It didn’t recognize Christ for who He was so it’s not going to recognize us when we are reflecting Him.
It is an incredible thing to reflect His glorious image in this way. Yet in spite of this we are still not fully what we were created to be. The full discovery of this will not come until He returns and we are perfected in His image. What we will be then we can only dream about. This is what John is saying in v. 2. The amazing thing about God’s love is that the more we come to know it, the more fully we become who He created us to be. This is what love does. Love changes people. You can tell the difference between a child who is cared for by loving parents and a child who has been raised by parents who consider her a burden. This power of love does not stop at people. You can even tell a difference between a dog that’s a treasured member of the family and one that has been abused. Because all human love is a reflection of God’s love, it has the power to make us more reflective of Him when we know it. The point John is making here is that we are not yet fully ourselves. We are not yet fully who we were created to be. This final joy is not yet ours and won’t be until His kingdom finally comes. Still, we can reach for it now and allow Him to help us experience it as fully as is possible in this world.
In this way, it is easy to tell who is a true follower of Christ and who is not. His followers have been changed because of their encounter with Him. It is impossible to have had an encounter with Jesus and come away unchanged. If someone claims to be a follower of Christ and yet their life is no different from what it was before such a claim was made, then it is fair to question their claim. If our lives do not reflect the transformational power of our knowledge of Christ, then perhaps the reason is that we do not truly belong to Him. In this way God’s children are called not to sin, but to righteousness.
More than simply being a nagging finger of judgment, what this can all become for us is actually an incredible invitation to hope. If we are living according to the law of love that dominates the kingdom of God we can have hope that we are, with His Spirit’s help, becoming every day more reflective of Him. When we live out of this great hope, we will find ourselves purified in His sight just like Jesus was pure before Him. We will more and more come to live out of the new nature we have thanks to the Holy Spirit’s living in us and less and less out of our old, sinful nature. Indeed, God’s children are called not to sin, but to righteousness.
All of this leads to the other side of being God’s children. There are blessings to be sure, but there is also a standard by which we are called to live. This standard is as clear in Scripture as it can be: You shall be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect. What this means is that if we are to be living as children of God, then sin must necessarily come to have less and less of a role in our lives. The tough reality is that sin simply has no place in the life of someone made new in God’s image. This is the point John tries to get across in the next few verses of our passage this morning. Come back to the text with me starting in 3:4: “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. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
Now, at the beginning of that little section, in v. 4, John uses two different words to describe behavior that doesn’t cohere with God’s kingdom: sin (hamartia in Greek) and lawlessness (anomian in Greek). The way John uses the words here seems to suggest that when He says sin, He is talking about isolated, individual sins. The phrase “lawlessness,” on the other hand, seems to suggest something more sinister; an entire worldview that rejects the authority of God’s law in this life. Now, some of you might be asking why John makes this distinction since Paul talks about believers being free from the demands of the law which was powerless to save us anyway. Well, in some ways we are free from the law, but in other ways we’re not. The law (and the heart behind it) is still the standard to which we are to be living. But, the grace won on the cross covers us when we don’t live up to the standard (which is pretty often). A lifestyle that reflects resistance or apathy toward the law is a lifestyle undergirded by the belief that God is not sovereign; that Jesus isn’t Lord. If we sin, we can repent and receive grace, but a lifestyle of sin—which embodies this idea of lawlessness—reflects this more sinister belief. This point about all sin being lawlessness helps to explain why a single sin disqualifies us from Heaven. The reality is that all sin comes from a worldview that says God is not sovereign over me. In this way Paul’s warring natures of Romans 7 can be viewed as two opposing worldviews. Yet there is a difference between the person who falls back periodically into a former, false worldview and a person who is boldly living out of such a worldview. God’s children are called not to sin, but to righteousness.
At this point, things start to get a bit tougher. John states a fact that should have been well-known to his audience as it is to this one: Jesus came and lived a sinless life in order to take away our sins. This is basic, but the implication is not. Everyone who remains in Jesus does not sin, John says. This is hard verse in many respects. Perhaps the difficulty is most notable in that John has already acknowledged that no one is free from the tangles of sin in this life and that if (when) we do sin, we have an advocate on our behalf. Now John says that folks who abide or remain in Christ do not sin. So, does this mean that we are condemned if we commit a single sin as believers? Certainly not. What’s going on here is probably this. John is talking about a group of people in the church (perhaps the group that recently departed given its close textual proximity) who claim to be followers of Christ, but whose lifestyles suggest an emptiness to their claim. In other words, they have been in the church for some amount of time, they have been claiming the label of “Christian,” but they have never truly been children of God because they haven’t been willing to leave their sin behind.
In this light, some of the adoptions my dad has handled over the years have been a couple adopting a young child, but not an infant, who had been through a number of incredibly traumatic experiences. These experiences had caused genuine psychological damage in the child that was not revealed until after the adoption was finalized. The child literally began threatening the lives of other children in the house as well as the parents. The adoption may have been finalized, but this child never really became a part of the new family. This is how it is with those who join a body of Christ, but who never truly become a child of God in their heart. This is probably the group of people toward whom John is directing his comments here. But, let us not allow this understanding to let us remove ourselves out from under the weight of God’s expectations as expressed here. Let us instead allow it to cause us to strengthen our efforts to demonstrate our fidelity to the kingdom through good works as well as to deepen our gratitude for and awe of the grace of God. Here’s the deal: we can’t “really mean it” into Heaven. John has already made clear and continues to do so here that simply affirming fidelity to the Christian faith is meaningless without an accompanying life change as demonstrated by our active obedience to God’s word. God’s children are called not to sin, but to righteousness.
The next couple of verses create a contrast between those who are born of God and those who are not. In this life, there are those who come at the world with a very different take on reality than the kingdom commends. You know these people. Perhaps you have been these people. Maybe some of you are these people. We’re glad you’re here. In any event, our culture teaches the value of achievement and success. Young people today are taught that their primary value is found in their utility and earning potential. These are dangerous and destructive things to teach, but if these are our primary values, then things the Bible proclaims to be true and right are viewed as false and wrong.
In this world, practicing the righteousness of Christ is often viewed as a negative. Don’t be selfless, look out for number one. Don’t be humble, toot your own horn to get ahead. Don’t put your needs second to those of the people around, they may take what is rightfully yours. Don’t give up control of yourself to someone else, you need to be the final authority on your life. In this way, there is a concerted effort on the part of the world to deceive us away from the path of Christ; to convince us that the ethic of the kingdom of God is a negative while the ethic of this world is a positive. John is saying this not necessarily to frighten anyone (except for those who think they can have both God and the world), but to reassure us. Practicing the righteousness of Christ makes one righteous just like He is. On the other hand, when we sin, we are practicing the things of the devil. Jesus came to destroy those works. Sin in the life of a believer is essentially an attempt to revivify the destroyed work of the devil. This is why it is so enormously inappropriate for believers. It’s like a former convict who had to wear leg irons around the prison wearing them once he has been set free because they are familiar to him. God’s children are called not to sin, but to righteousness.
Coming right down to it, then, John lays it on the line for us in the last couple of verses: “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. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” When we are adopted into God’s family, we are given a new nature. As God promised the prophet Ezekiel hundreds of years before John wrote this letter, when we turn ourselves over to Him He removes our heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh. He puts a new spirit in us that seeks Him and can find Him. When we live out of this spirit, which we can only do when we are abiding in Christ, we won’t sin. It’s that simple. When we are living out of the power and righteousness of Christ we won’t be able to sin because it’s not in our nature. Our problem is that we still have a sinful nature in us and that nature will be with us until we are perfected in His presence. The hope of the Gospel, however, is that the longer and more fully we abide in Christ, the more muted the pull of our sinful nature will be on our life. In this, it is clear who are the children of God and who aren’t. God’s children live in righteousness and love and the devil’s don’t. To quote a great song: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
Speaking of that, remember the child that was taken back to the adoption agency because he had so many genetic issues? A few days after that happened, a Christian couple heard the story of this little boy. As it turned out, the wife’s vocation was working with fully developmentally disabled children. They came and took the child into their home and gave him all the love and care he needed. That is an exercise of the love of Christ if ever I’ve heard one. And as it turns out, it is exactly what God does for us in adopting us into His family and making us His children. Once there, though, it is both our duty and our pleasure to live within the spacious bounds of our new reality. This means pursuing and demonstrating the righteousness of Christ, not reproducing the works of the Enemy. God’s children are called not to sin, but to righteousness. Let us live as good little children of our heavenly Father.