In the last essay we studied 1 John 4:1-6 in which we saw John teach us how to test the spirits, that is, to distinguish between spirits.  As John warned us, we cannot believe every spirit.  Some are from God, and some are not.  So we discussed which spirits are from God, and which are not from God and how to discern the difference. 

            In this essay we are taking up 4:7-21 in which John gives us an important discourse on love.  In verse eight of this passage (repeated in verse 16) we find one of the most important statements in scripture, perhaps the most important; namely, that God is love.  The Bible tells us many things about God, but if this one is true (and I believe it is), then it influences our interpretation of every other revealed fact about God.  Indeed every statement in the Bible about God must be understood in light of this statement. 

            God’s character is love.  Everything he is, everything he does, flows out of that essential attribute.  Even when he exercises judgment and wrath, he does so out of a heart of love.  What could be more important than to know that?

            I remember well a friend from North Carolina, whom I will call “Irene,” who did not understand this.  Irene freely confessed that she was a good Christian because she was afraid of God.  She feared that God would punish her if she ever did anything “bad.”  She never grasped the truth that God is love, that he doesn’t enjoy punishing people, and that he is merciful and forgiving.

            I’m sure Irene’s attitude had much to do with her religious background.  She undoubtedly had been taught as a child, probably by her parents, that if she were “bad” God would punish her, perhaps even send her to hell.  And Irene never was able to shake that perverted picture of God out of her emotional life.  It is true that God will punish unrepentant sinners.  But he will do that only reluctantly, when those persons have left him no option, because he is love!

            Turning now to our passage, John, as he so frequently does, returns to a previous theme, this time to the theme that we should love one another.  But while he is repeating that theme, he tells us five things about the love of God.

            First, he teaches us where love originates, verse seven.  It originates in God: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God” (4:7a).  Yes, “love is from God.”  Thus all love originates in God.  It has its source in God. 

            Then John continues in 7b-8 to draw a tremendous contrast between those who love and those who do not.  Those who are born of God consistently will love.  Those who do not love will, by virtue of that very fact, declare that they are not born of God; indeed they do not know God at all. 

            I might mention here, as a digression since John doesn’t speak to it, that the positive side of this matter is not as simple as it might seem on the surface.  Although persons without love clearly do not know God, persons who love may or may not be born of God.  All of us know non-Christian persons who are quite capable of loving others, sometimes even sacrificially.  Thus it is evident that being a loving person does not guarantee that a person is a child of God. 

            What we must realize is that even the love of non-Christian has its source in God.  Non-Christians are capable of loving because of prevenient, i.e., common grace.  All human beings have the capacity to love, because all of us are made in the image of God.  Thus even cruel, wicked men sometimes genuinely love their families. 

            The prevenient, or common, grace of God extends to every human being, enabling all to love.  But only those who are born of God can be open channels for God’s love.  And Christians always will love, because God is love.  John’s point here, however, is that all love originates in God. 

            Second, John teaches us where the love of God is manifested.  It is manifested in Jesus, verse nine.  God revealed what love is by sending his only Son to become one of us.  His name is Jesus.  Thus by looking to Jesus we can understand the real meaning of love.  As John reminds us in his Gospel, in John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only son, who is the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” 

            Third, we learn in this same verse love’s nature, namely, sacrificial action on behalf of others.  God himself made the ultimate sacrifice of love when the second person of the Trinity humbled himself by becoming a human being.  The Son of God came into the world to die on the cross in order to take away our sins.  That is what love is all about.  It is self-sacrificial in nature. 

            The fourth thing that John tells us about the love of God is its character.  It is characterized by forgiveness, verse 10.  We studied the concept of atoning sacrifice when we dealt with chapter 2, verse 2.  God forgives or pardons us, because on the cross Jesus took the burden of our punishment upon him.  Thus forgiveness characterizes God’s love.

            Fifth, and last, John gives us three consequences of God’s love.  First the love of God causes people to love one another, verse eleven.  When we look at Jesus with eyes of faith and become recipients of God’s love, we want to love others.  Although John is thinking primarily of our Christian brothers and sisters in this verse, he undoubtedly also has others in mind as well, because the analogy is with the way God loved us; and God loved us while we were yet sinners. 

            A second consequence of the love of God is that it can be perfected in us.  This is seen in the next few verses, where John returns to his much-beloved idea of abiding in God and letting God abide in us.  In the next six verses he mentions the abiding relationship four times (vv. 12, 13, 15, and 16) and the perfection of love twice (vv. 12 and 17). 

            Verses 12-17 contain a fantastic promise.  Through the process of mutual abiding, John says that love is “perfected with us.”  That is, we become perfected in God’s love by perfectly abiding in God’s love, by becoming a channel for God’s love, by becoming like him: “As he is, so are we in this world,” verse seventeen. 

            John gives a third consequence of God’s love in verse eighteen.  It casts out fear.  Do you see the wonderful good news here?  If we will abide in Christ and let Christ abide in us, God’s love not only will be “perfected within us;” but that perfect love will drive fear out of our lives. 

            Fear takes many forms.  Some fears are healthy and needed.  For example, we save ourselves much pain because we fear the negative effects of acid on our skin, fire in our hair, or being run over by a train.  Other fears are deeply psychological and require professional help to overcome. 

            But many of our fears cause us pain and suffering unnecessarily.  Some folks are afraid of the devil.  They worry that a demon is going to influence, or even take possession of them.  Others fear the future, because they don’t know what terrible event the future may bring.  And still others are afraid of the past, because they have secret sins that they don’t wish to come to light. 

            Fear is powerfully present to many people.  And it may indicate that the work of God’s love in us is incomplete and imperfect.  Years ago, when I pastored that little church in Washington County, KY, a young woman named Linda who belonged to my church had a common fear of snakes.  One morning she was waking up in her comfortable bed.  She threw her arm over to one side, and sensed something unusual.  That was not her pillow that she threw her arm over.  The sensation caused her to come out of her sleep. 

            As she awoke, she suddenly realized that she was face to face with a huge black snake.  Now she was in no danger, but she didn’t know that.  She went into a complete panic, and left her bed faster than she thought possible. 

            Linda went completely to pieces.  She couldn’t sleep; she could barely work; and she thought for a while that she would lose her mind.  As her pastor I wasn’t sure how to help her.  I was rather inexperienced at the time; and I didn’t know any Christian psychologist to whom I could refer her.  So I did the best I could.

            I took down my concordance from the shelf and looked up every reference in the Bible to fear.  I found many passages that dealt with the subject in a positive way, like the one we are studying now: “perfect love casts out fear.”  Another one was Proverbs 3:24, which reads: “If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” 

            I asked my wife, Tillie, to type all those positive Scriptures onto a single sheet of paper, and I gave the sheet to Linda, with the instruction to feed her mind and soul on those Scriptures every day.  She did it; and wonder of wonders, the promises of God in his Word healed her so that she could sleep in peace without fear.  That is the power of God’s love!

            What a powerful force love is!  It originates in God; it is manifested in Jesus; it is sacrificial in nature; it is characterized by forgiveness; it causes people to love one another; it can be perfected in us; and it casts out fear.  Love is to be the motivating power in our lives.  We are to be like Jesus; we are to be motivated by love rather than hate. 


            As we move into chapter four of 1 John, in verses 1-6 John teaches us how to test the spirits.  In this paragraph we see John return to his theme of truth versus error.  In the first verse he makes it clear that we are responsible to test the spirits.  To test the spirits means to distinguish between spirits.  As John says we cannot believe every spirit.  Some are from God, and some are not. 

            Of course, the Holy Spirit is from God.  And angels are from God.  On the other hand, the devil and demons are not from God.  But I believe John had in mind a broader definition.  Notice the last part of the verse: “for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  He was thinking not only of spirits from the spirit world.  He also had in mind human spirits that seek to serve either God or the devil. 

            In the last essay in this series we saw John tell us that the witness of the Holy Spirit within us is to give us confidence in relation to God and in prayer.  But that won’t work if we aren’t sure that it is the Holy Spirit who is witnessing within us.  Satan has fooled more than a few Christians into believing that God was behind something that actually was of the devil. 

            A recent TV news magazine, I believe it was 20/20, had a segment on a small cult that claims it is the only genuine branch of Roman Catholicism.  Of course for them that means that no one outside the cult is saved.  And like all cults, it does some strange things.  The report focused on a seventy-eight year old mother of, I believe it was, five children and lots of grandchildren.  She left her family and joined the cult 13 years earlier, and had absolutely no contact with them during the intervening 13 years.  When she left, she wrote a note saying that she was leaving to save her soul.  They didn’t even know she was alive, let alone where she was. 

            Then they learned from a person who had left the cult that their mother was indeed alive and where she was located.   So they arranged to “rescue” her from the cult.  But she resisted, and by the time they got her home, it was clear that she didn’t want to be rescued.  Indeed she was irate about the whole thing.  And in an interview with the 20/20 people, she not only indicated that she was returning to the cult, but she said she would press kidnapping charges against her children.  Obviously, that mother was unable to distinguish between the spirits.  Now to distinguish between the spirits sometimes may require a supernatural gift of discernment.  But many times we have to make the judgment without any supernatural help. 

            Now John’s human opponents, the false teachers and prophets of his day, claimed spiritual inspiration.  Like the cult portrayed on 20/20, they believed themselves inspired by God.  And the Christians to whom John was writing had to be able to test the spirits so that they would not be deceived. 
            Look first at the very last sentence, in verse six.  “From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”  This sentence confirms that John’s main concern in the paragraph was the false teachers, the human beings who were claiming they were inspired by God but were not.  John clearly had returned to the theme of truth versus error.  He felt compelled to remind his readers that not every “spirit” could be believed.  They must “test the spirits” in order to discern whether any particular “spirit” was from God or not. 
            Of course the big question is how one tests the spirits, how one determines whether or not a person who claims to be inspired by God actually is.  There are three tests, three ways of making the distinction.  In these verses John reveals two of them.  The first test John mentions is a test of doctrine in verse two and three. 

            John is pointing to a significant doctrinal truth here.  There are certain orthodox doctrines that are at the heart of our faith.  They are clearly revealed in God’s Word, and we don’t need a supernatural gift to discern false teachings in these areas.  The particular, essential, orthodox doctrine that concerned John was threatened by the teachings of the false teachers of his day.  They were teaching that Christ had not come in the flesh.  In other words they were denying the incarnation of Christ. 

            Now early false teachers denied the incarnation in a variety of ways.  Some early Jewish believers (Ebionites) couldn’t accept a divine Jesus, because in their minds that made two Gods.  So they taught that Jesus was simply a human being whom God chose to be the Christ.  They believed that God gave Jesus an unmeasured fullness of the Spirit at his baptism, which constituted him the Messiah; but he certainly was not God.  And of course that was a denial of the incarnation.  Many liberal thinkers today have similar views. 

            Some early Gnostic believers also taught that Jesus was simply a human being, but they put a different wrinkle on it.  They made a distinction between the divine Christ and the human Jesus.  Thus they taught that the divine Christ came on the human Jesus at his baptism and left him when Jesus was on the cross.  Once again that was a denial of the incarnation.  And again some liberal scholars today make a similar distinction between the divine Christ and the human Jesus. 

            Still other Gnostics taught that Jesus was indeed the divine Son of God, but he didn’t really become a human being.  He merely pretended to be human.  It appeared that Jesus had a real human body, but he didn’t.  His body was not real.  Fortunately, I don’t know of any scholars today who hold this view. 

            Now we do not know precisely how the false teachers of John’s day were denying the incarnation.  But it is clear they taught that Jesus was not God come in the flesh.  Now in a case of false teaching like that today, we must test the spirits the same way John did, doctrinally. 

            Notice in verse three that John labeled this kind of false teaching as “the spirit of antichrist.”  Those who were teaching such false doctrines were the antichrists that already had come (2:19).  He saw their teachings as a sign of an end-time type rebellion against Jesus.  And he condemned it.  And that kind of rebellion has to be condemned by us as well. 

            In verse 4 John confidently asserts his belief that the recipients of the letter have not been taken in by the false teachers.  They have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them.  Therefore they have overcome the false teachers, because the one who is in them is greater than the one who is in the world. 

            Then John continues in verses 5-6 to make a distinction between those who are of the world and those who are not.  Those who are of the world respond favorably to the false teachings; but those who are not, those who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, respond favorably to the teaching of the apostles.  The false teachers and people who are of the world have the spirit of error; but the apostles and true believes have the spirit of truth. 

            All right, the first way to test the spirits that John mentioned was a doctrinal test.  The second way to test the spirits, seen in verse six, is a test of proper authority.  For the people to whom John was writing, John and the other apostles were the proper authority.  Since John was an apostle, they should have obeyed him.  For us, the proper authority is the Bible, which contains the apostolic teaching.  And we should obey it. 
            Now then, there is a third way to test the spirits that John doesn’t give here, but I believe we must mention it.  It is the supernatural gift of discernment of spirits that I mentioned in passing earlier in the lesson.  The apostle Paul mentions this gift of the Spirit in 1 Cor. 12:10.  Sometimes we face situations where doctrine isn’t the issue, and where our authority, the Bible, can’t help us.  An example would be when faced with demonic possession or oppression.  In cases like that the Bible cannot tell us kind of spirit we are dealing with.  We must depend on the indwelling Holy Spirit to reveal to us what kind of spirit it is. 
            Obviously we are not without ability when face with false teachings or an unknown spirit.  We have the test of doctrine, the test of biblical authority, and the supernatural gift of discernment to help us deal with false teachings and antichristian spirits.  Because we have this ability to discern among spirits, we need have no fear of false teachers.  And we must never forget what verse four tells us, “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” 


In this essay we continue our study of 1 John.  The section we will look at is 3:18-24.  In these verses John provides a strong statement of Christian assurance.  We dealt with verse 18 in the last essay, because it added an important element to that lesson.  But it also is part of the section we are studying today, so we are including it. 
When John said, in verse 18, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” he meant that we must not simply talk about sharing our goods, but we must do it.  Those of you who are familiar the book of James will remember James 2:15-16, where James said the same thing even more clearly, “if a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”  John is making the same point here in verse 18.
And when John goes on to say, in verse 19, “And by this we will know we are from the truth,” the “this” is the loving one another of verses 11-18, which includes the giving to others of verses 17-18.  We know we are of the truth, because we love one another and act on that love.  But John continues in the same sentence to say that our hearts also are reassured by that love and action.  In other words, Christians who love and act on that love are given an inward assurance by the Holy Spirit that they are of the truth, and that gives them confidence before God.
All of us have known Christians who do not have inner assurance. They tend to have a self-condemning heart.  Perhaps we have experienced a self-condemning heart ourselves.  But John is saying that if we are right with God, there is no need for self-condemnation, because God knows our hearts.

Many years ago when I was in seminary, I pastored a little church in Washington County, KY.  We had a series of revival meetings one year; and the evangelist, who was a friend of mine, was making some home visits with me.
As we drove from one place to another, we were talking; and I remember making a statement like the following: “I’m glad that God knows my heart.”  What I meant was, I’m glad that God knows my motivations.  I’m glad he knows I want to do what is right, whether or not I succeed all of the time.  I was able to say that, because I love God, and he knows that I love him, regardless of my performance.  He knows that it is the desire of my heart to do his will in everything, despite my failures.  He not only knows my sins, he knows my heart.
I no longer remember why I made the statement.  That is, I don’t remember the context of our conversation.  But in any case, my friend Don responded immediately with, “Really?”  I did not expect that response.  It was unexpected, because as I told him, I thought all Christians felt that way.

“No,” he said, “many people don ‘t feel that way.  They wish God did not know their hearts.”  I was taken back a little at the time; but now I realize that my thinking was rather naive.  He was right.  Many Christians wish God did not know their hearts, because they have secret sins.  And although they can hide those sins from people, they cannot hide them from God.  So there is both a positive and a negative side to this issue.  On the negative side, God knows when we are insincere, just as he knew Cain was insincere.  But on the positive side, God knows when our hearts are right with him.
Well here in verse 19, John is speaking about the positive nature of God’s knowledge of our hearts.  He is affirming what I instinctively understood nearly forty years ago.  He is saying that when we genuinely love others and act on that love, we have confidence regarding our relationship to God, because God knows our hearts. 

All right, we who love God and neighbor have confidence in regard to our relationship to God.  Next, in verses 21-22 John tells us that we also can have confidence regarding our prayers.  The confidence before God that we gain from loving others leads to boldness in prayer.  Indeed John declares, “we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.”
                Now obviously this teaching easily could be misunderstood as works righteousness.  It can be interpreted to mean that we can get what we want from God by doing works he wants.  No, John was not teaching works righteousness.  This is a family relationship situation, not a works righteousness situation.  Children are to obey their fathers out of love, not to get things.  And fathers are to provide for their children according to what’s best for them, not according to what the children want.  Good fathers, and mothers as well, never give their children everything they selfishly desire.  It is true, as John says, that obedience is a condition for answered prayers; but obedience isn’t the key to the answers we receive from God in response to our prayers.  Our relationship to him is the key. 
So how then are we to understand this fantastic promise that we will receive from him whatever we ask?  Again the relationship is the key.  Later in the letter, in 5:14-15, John writes, “And this is the boldness [or confidence] we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.”  Did you catch it: “if we ask anything according to his -will, he hears us.”  When our relationship with God in Christ is right, we will ask only for what is God’s will.  That is, we will only ask for what is best for us and for those we love, not for what we prefer. 
All right, having mentioned the importance of obeying God’s commandments, John next offers three specific commands that essentially summarize the section.  As you see, the three commands are quite clear.  First, believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus, which of course simply means believe in Jesus.  This is a doctrinal command.  And it’s important.  John has been stressing loving one another, but faith in Jesus is of prior and superior importance.  Our love of neighbor must flow out of our commitment to Christ, or it will have limited value.  So first and foremost, believe in Jesus.  But there is something else here that we do not want to miss.  John reminds us that this Jesus isn’t any old Jesus.  This Jesus is the Son of God, the one who can redeem us from sin and death.  That is why doctrine is important. 
The second command is ethical in nature.  Love one another.  Since John has been stressing this, I don’t think it needs any further comment from me.
And then third, John commands us to abide in Christ by means of the Holy Spirit.  As we have noticed, John keeps repeating this idea of our mutual abiding relationship with God in Christ.  We abide in Christ (hopefully completely); and the Holy Spirit abides in us (again hopefully completely); and that relationship delivers us from sin and empowers us for life. 


            In the last essay we studied 1 John 3:1-10 in which we saw John teaching, first, about the hope of the children of God (in 3:1-3) and second, about sin (in 3:4-10).  As we move into the next section of the letter, we are introduced to a third major theme.  The first was light vs. darkness (1:5-10), which leads to a choice between walking in the light of Christ or the darkness of sin; the second theme, truth vs. error (2:18-25), led to a choice of following the truth of Christ or the error of false teachers.  Now we come to the third theme, love vs. hate. 

            John develops his theme of love versus hate by two contrasting examples, one negative (Cain) and one positive (the Lord Jesus himself).  He begins with the negative.  “Do not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother.”  The motivation in Cain’s heart was hate.  Thus his story is a great illustration, because murder is the ultimate outward expression of the inner emotion of hate.  What better case study can we have then the first murderer!

            You remember the story and the motive.  Cain, we are told, murdered Able, “because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.”  When the two brothers brought offerings to God, God honored Able’s offering.  As Genesis puts it, “God had regard for Able and his offering” (Gen. 4:4).  But that was not the case with Cain.  God knew Cain’s heart.  He knew that Cain had not really intended to honor God, and so God “had no regard” for Cain and his offering.  And God communicated to Cain that he was not pleased (Gen. 4:6-7).  This made Cain angry with God.  It also made him jealous of, and angry with, his brother Able.  And so Cain invited Able out to the field, apparently with the intention of killing him.  It was a premeditated murder. 

            John tells us that this action was “of the evil one.”  And of course that’s true.  As John earlier taught us, all sin is of the evil one, the devil.  When we turn away from the will of God, whether it be to do our own will or that of someone else, the devil gains a victory.  And so Cain, for whatever reasons, turned away from God’s will and no longer worshiped him in spirit and in truth.  And when his hypocritical offerings were not accepted, he turned the rage generated by his own wickedness into jealous wrath against his brother, whom he killed. 

            This is one of the most important lessons anyone could learn, whether we look at it from Cain’s standpoint, or Able’s.  For those who choose not to obey God, as did Cain, the lesson (if such a person is open to truth at all) is to see how self-destructive it is to turn away from God.  But that isn’t the only lesson John brings out.  John highlights the perspective of Able in verse 13, “Do not wonder, brethren, that the world hates you.”  You see Able represents those who love and serve God.  And the world always hates those who love and serve God. 

            As William Barclay reminds us, evil men instinctively hate good men: “The life of a good man always passes a silent judgment on the life of an evil man” (The Letters of John and Jude, p. 101).  And so Christians who are living out their faith can expect hatred from the world.  We should be surprised when we are not persecuted rather than when we are persecuted. 

            Notice in verses 14 and 15 that John provides a quick but important contrast between the destinies of the “Cains” and the “Ables.”  Those of us who “love the brethren” (rather than hating them), that is the Ables, know that we pass out of death into life.  But the story ends differently for the Cains.  Those who do not love remain “in death.”  John continues: “Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (v.15). 

            Now we must pay close attention to this, because it is so important.  It never ceases to amaze me how many people who claim to be Christians freely admit that there is someone they hate.  Do you see what John is saying?  He is saying that one cannot be a Christian and consciously hate someone.  He is saying that to hate someone in one’s heart is a spiritual form of murder, which cuts the hating one off from eternal life. 

            And we can be sure that John is right.  He is revealing to us that unrepentant hate will send a person to hell just as surely as unrepentant physical murder.  And John is not saying something new here.  Jesus said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount.  He taught, quote: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” (Mt. 5:21f.).  Jesus also taught in the Lord’s Prayer that our forgiveness depends on our forgiving others. 

            After Cain’s example of hatred illustrates the negative side of the love versus hatred theme, John turns to the Lord Jesus himself for a positive example.  He wants to illustrate what it means to be motivated by love: “By this we know love, that he [meaning Jesus] laid down his life for us” (v.16). 

            Love, the opposite of hatred, reacts to others in an opposite way.  Whereas hatred leads to the taking of the life of another, love leads to one’s laying down his life on behalf of another. 

            As was the case with murder, the laying down of the life is more frequently figurative than literal.  We rarely actually are called upon to give up our physical lives, though we should be willing to do that, as was Jesus.  But we must remember that the death of Jesus was not just a spectacle to demonstrate that God loves us.  As James Denney put it:

            If I were sitting on the end of the pier on a summer day enjoying the sunshine and the air, and someone came along and jumped into the water and got drowned ‘to prove his love for me,’ I should find it quite unintelligible.  I might be much in need of love, but an act in no rational relation to any of my necessities could not prove it.  But if I had fallen over the pier and were drowning, and some one sprang into the water, and at the cost of making… what but for him would be my fate, his own, saved me from death, then I should say, ‘Greater love hath no man than this.’ (The Death of Christ, p.103).

            Though we probably never will have to lay down our physical life, we always are called upon to give up our lives in a figurative sense.  We need to ask ourselves regularly whether or not our lives are available to love others.  When I ponder this question, I can only pray, “God, I repent.  Help me I pray.” 

            John goes on in verses 17 and 18 to indicate one practical way that we can lay down our lives daily.  Christian love is love that gives to those in need.  If those of us who have so much are unwilling to give of our material goods to those who have little, it indicates that we do not have the love of God. 

            In summary, in this section of the letter, we have seen John’s third major theme, love verses hate.  He illustrated it with two biblical examples, a negative one and a positive one.  The negative example was Cain, who demonstrated hate by murdering his brother.  And we learned that unrepentant hate is deadly for the hating one even if he or she doesn’t commit physical murder.  John’s positive example was Jesus, who demonstrated love by giving up his place in the Godhead, becoming human, and dying for our sins.  Thus we saw that whereas hate wants to take the life of another, love wants to give its life for another.  Moreover, love meets the physical needs of others by giving of its resources.  May God give us the grace to love rather than hate. 


            In the last essay, we studied 1 John 2:18-29 in which we saw John giving a warning about antichrists and a second major theme: Truth versus Error.  In this essay we take up 3:1-10 in which we shall see, first, the hope of the children of God (in 3:1-3) and second, an important teaching about sin (in 3:4-10).  First, at the beginning of chapter 3, John springs from the subject of the wonderful results of abiding in the truth to the great hope that we have as children of God.  He mentions the fact that we are God’s children now, in the present; but there is hope for an even greater glory in the future at Christ’s coming.  “See what love the Father has given us,” says John.  John is excited!  He’s excited about the love of God.  And he has good reason because God has made those of us who believe his own children.  That’s worth getting excited about! 

            In the second verse, John emphasizes the fact that he has been talking about the present aspect of our relation to God as children.  He writes; “We are God’s children now.”  But then he begins to bring in the future aspect of it: “it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” 

            Here are three more important truths.  First, he reminds us that Christ will come again.  We easily could miss that, because John refers to the second coming in the phrase “when he appears.”  “When he appears,” means, when he comes again. 

            The second truth is related to the first.  When Christ appears, when he comes again, we shall see him as he is.  We have seen John present Jesus as a complex God-man about whom many things are revealed in the scriptures, but in spite of all that revelation, we still do not see him as he is.  But when Jesus comes again, we shall see him as he is! 

            Now then, not only will Jesus come again; and not only will we see him as he is; but also, third, we will be like him.  Of course we are taught in the NT to be like him now.  And we already have seen John teach us that.  And yet there is a “being like him” that is beyond what we experience in this life.  I don’t know exactly what that means.  And I don’t think John knew either.  That’s why he said, “it does not yet appear what we shall be.”  But he is certain that, whatever it is, “we will be like Jesus.”  And that’s good enough for me.  Indeed it sets me on fire to think about it. 

            Verse three both concludes this little section, and makes the transition to the next subject.  What John has been expressing in verses one and two is our Christian hope.  We believe, by faith, that we are children of God.  We believe that the Lord Jesus, the risen Son of God, is coming again.  And we believe that when he comes, we shall see him as he is; and we shall be like him.

            But when Christ comes, if we are to reflect his image back to him, as a good mirror reflects back our image, then we must be pure, because he is pure.  Therefore, in verses 4-10, John returns to the subject of sin and how sin relates to our being either children of God or children of the devil. 

            John tells us several things about sin in these verses.  First, he tells us what sin is: It is lawlessness.  John does not explain exactly what he means by that term, but it is easy to figure out.  If this statement were in the Old Testament, we would know immediately that the Jewish Law, the Mosaic Law, of the Old Testament was meant. 

            But in New Testament times the law of God was understood more broadly than that.  It means almost the same thing as the will of God.  To fail to do the will of God is to break the law of God.  It is to sin.  And as you know, we can sin either by commission or omission, by doing what God has forbidden, or by not doing what he has commanded.  Thus sin is lawlessness. 

            In addition to telling us what sin is, John tells us secondly where sin originates.  Look at verse eight: “He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning.”  When people sin they simply are expressing their family likeness.  They are “of the devil,” who has been a sinner from the beginning.

            A third fact that we learn here about sin is why sins are committed and a sinful attitude remains in so many people.  Verse 6 says, “No one who abides in him [him being Christ] sins.”  Therefore, the reason that people sin and maintain a sinful attitude is because they refuse to abide in Christ.  Of course for non-Christians we have to back this up a step.  They not only are not abiding in Christ, they have not yet believed in him by faith.  But many Christians, who sin, do so because they are not abiding in Christ.

            The fourth fact about sin that we learn is the opposite truth to that just discussed.  If we sin because we fail to abide in Christ, then we can avoid sin by abiding in him.  As we saw earlier, this idea of abiding in Christ is one of John’s favorite images.  He uses it extensively in chapter 15 of his gospel, where he likens it to the abiding of a branch in a vine.  Unless a branch abides, or remains, in its vine it can never bear any fruit.  And non-fruit-bearing branches are pruned away and burned.  But when a branch abides in its vine, it bears much fruit.  And the same is true of the Christian.  When a disciple abides in Christ, the disciple bears much fruit. 

            John gives us one more fact about sin in this passage.  He has told us what sin is (lawlessness), where it originates (the devil), why people do it (because they don’t abide in Christ), and how to avoid it (by abiding in Christ).  He also tells us why we can conquer it.  Again we go to verse eight: “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”  The Christ in whom we believe is a conquering Christ, and he has given us power over the devil and his hosts. 

            Now then, this brings us to the problem verse in I John, which is one of the classic problem verses in the entire Bible, namely, verse 9: “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.”  Let us begin by getting a proper understanding of one of the key words.  I’m referring to the word “seed.”  The Greek word is sperma, which you immediately recognize is the origin of the English word “sperm.”  The first question we must ask is what did John mean when he said, “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s ‘seed’ abides in him.” 

            John obviously is not using the term “seed” literally.  Look at chapter 4, verse 13, which I believe will help us to understand the term: “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”  When we are abiding in Christ and he is abiding in us, God’s Holy Spirit (who is the Spirit of Christ) is abiding (that is, dwelling) within us.  And when that is true, God’s “seed” is abiding within us.

            Now let us attack the main problem.  It is this.  In our earlier study of chapter 2, verses 1 and 2, we saw John (who was writing to Christians) clearly indicate the following.  Though he was writing that we might not sin, he recognized that sometimes we do sin and need forgiveness.  And he assured us that Jesus Christ is our advocate in such situations and that Jesus became our forgiveness, by dying on the cross for our sins.

            All of that is very clear.  But here in 3:9, John seems to be saying something totally different.  He is saying that no person “born of God,” that is, no Christian, sins.  Indeed, he says that a Christian is unable to sin, because God’s seed dwells within him.

            There are several ways of dealing with the problem.  First, some radical scholars have suggested that John simply contradicted himself.  But that is an insult to John’s intelligence, let alone to the Word of God.  No, John did not contradict himself in back to back chapters.

            A second way of dealing with the tension between 2:1-2 and 3:9 is to suggest that one loses one’s salvation every time one sins.

            And a third way of dealing with this problem is the typical Wesleyan approach.  Wesley took this verse at face value.  If it says that persons who are born of God cannot sin, then that is what it means!  And this is where his definition of sin becomes so important.  Wesley defined sin as “a voluntary transgression of a known law of God.”

            Wesley recognized, with everyone else, that everyone transgresses the law of God at one time or another.  The difference, he said, was whether or not it was a willful transgression; persons born of God do not willfully transgress the known laws of God.  Thus in this view John had in mind only voluntary, willful, transgressions of God’s law. 

            I like to understand this matter in terms of Wesley’s image of abiding, and in terms of our free will.  As long as we Christians abide in Christ, we will be free from sin; indeed we cannot sin.  It is only when we choose to no longer abide in Christ that we are able to, and do, sin. 

            The typical Reformed approach is different.  Since persons in the reformed tradition consider any transgression of the law of God, whether willful or accidental, to be sins for which we will be held equally responsible, we cannot escape sin in this life.  Therefore they interpret John to mean that a Christian is not able to regularly, habitually continue sinning.  The Greek verbs in verse 9 are in the present tense, and thus the verse is interpreted as it is rendered in the NIV: “no one born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God” (NIV).

            John rounds out this section with a “bottom line” type of statement in verse 10: “The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”  John says that we children of God are distinguished from the children of the devil by what we do.  Children of God do not do sinful acts; the children of the devil do.  It is just as Jesus said: “you shall know then by their fruits.”

            Now let me summarize.  Beginning at 2:18 John gave us a second aspect of light as a moral way, by means of a second major theme.  The first aspect, seen in the first major theme (light verses darkness) gave us a choice between walking in the light or in the darkness.  The second aspect, seen in the second major theme (truth versus error) gives us a choice between the true and the false, as we are enlightened by the Holy Spirit.

            Now here in chapter three, John has taught us about sin, and the way we can overcome it.  If we will get our will in harmony with God’s, that is, if we will abide in him and let him abide in us, we will not sin.  As he told us in chapter one, “if we walk in the light as he is in the light, he will cleanse us from all sin.”  Praise his name!