John moves on from his celebration of our status as the children of God to discuss the ramifications of that status. This passage on first reading appears to set a standard of perfection for the believer that is hard to reconcile with John’s statements about sin at the end of Chapter 1. How can we not sin and at the same time be called liars when we claim we do not sin? And regardless of what we claim, how can we live lives without sin? It must be that John wants us to understand a different meaning than what comes across on the surface. We know we sin and John knows we sin – that we sin does not mean we are not followers of Christ. So John’s discussion of the overall character of the Christian does not set a standard of perfection; however, it in some ways sets an equally challenging and sobering bar for the believer to measure up to.
Note the symmetry in this text:
|Statement||Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness||The one who practices sin is of the devil|
|Reason for statement||Sin is lawlessness||The devil has sinned from the beginning|
|Why this cannot be
true of a Christian
|Christ appeared in order to take away sins||The Son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil|
|Outcome||No one who abides in Him sins||No one who is born of God practices sin|
John states what seems obvious – sin is lawlessness. This almost seems redundant. But his point is this: sin is not just bad – it is a violation of God’s law. It is rebellion against God’s law. And rebellion against God’s law is rebellion against God. The one who sins effectively says, “I do not care about God’s commands – I want to do this right now because it pleases me. Nothing else matters.” He violates God’s law and so rebels against God Himself. His rebellion is a rejection of God. Rejecting God ends in eternal damnation. Sin is serious.
The struggle to trust in the Lord, rest in His rule, and faithfully do His will is what sin is all about. You see, every act of disobedience, whether subtle and secret or public and arrogant, is a direct challenge to the sovereign rule of God. Every time I step outside of the boundaries of TRUST and OBEY, I call into question God’s power, wisdom, and rule. (Paul David Tripp, Lost in the Middle; 45.)
Everyone who practices sin compares to everyone who practices righteousness in 2:29. In both cases, the term ‘practice’ carries with it the sense of being ongoing or continual. This is not about periodic or isolated acts – it is what characterizes the person. Those who practice sin are in the ongoing habit of sinning – those who practice righteousness are in the ongoing habit of doing what is right. It does not mean they exclusively sin or they always do what is right – it describes what typifies their lives.
In verse 5 John points out why the Christian cannot be one who practices sin. Christ came for the very purpose of taking away sins. His death erased the penalty for and the power of sin. He was able to do this because in Him there is no sin (note the present tense – Jesus was perfect during his life on earth and is perfect in His eternal state). Paul says in Titus 2:14 that Jesus gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. Jesus did not die only to justify us but also to purify us – He defeated the power of sin such that we can live righteous lives. Thus the one who practices sin shows by his practice that he is not one of the redeemed.
Verse 6 is the logical outcome of verse 5. Jesus does not sin and in Him there is no sin. So those who abide in Him – live in Him and have His Spirit in them – do not sin. Those who sin – whose lives are characterized by ongoing sin – have not seen Him and do not know Him. The ones who can continue in sin do not know what it means to commune with Him. They have not seen Him – they have no experience with Him. They do not know Him – they have no relationship with Him. They live as if He does not exist and did not defeat sin – His actions have no effect on them. Only those who abide in Him see Him and know Him (III John 11). And they do not sin.
His concluding statement of this section is similar to 2:29. He has said that those who practice righteousness are born of Him. Now he says that those who practice righteousness are righteous – just as Christ is righteous. This only makes sense. Someone who is born of God acts righteously as the Son of God does – who is also begotten of God.
He again – like 2:29 – states this in an interesting way. Instead of saying the righteous will practice righteousness, he says those who practice righteousness are righteous. As in 2:29 he seems to be speaking to identity. He wants his followers to be able to identify the true believers and not be misled by the lies of the heretics. Apparently those who have broken away say that personal righteousness is not important and is no basis for proof of belief.
Sin is lawlessness – rebellion against God. And the father of lawlessness is the one who first rebelled against God – Satan. Thus the one who practices sin is of the devil because the devil has sinned from the beginning. Satan introduced sin into the world and those who practice sin identify with him. Just like those who practice righteousness show by their righteousness that they are born of God and abide in Him, so do those who practice sin show by their sinning that they abide in the father of sin (John 8:42-47) – the one who has sinned from the beginning.
Thought: Do we think through this when faced with temptation? Do we stop and consider that sin is rejection of God and those who practice it are of the devil?
In verse 5 John said Jesus came to take away sins. Since that includes both the penalty and the power of sin, He must by definition destroy the power of the agent of sin. The power of sin cannot be destroyed if the works of Satan are allowed to stand. Thus inherent in the statement that Jesus came into the world to take away sins is the idea that He came into the world to destroy the works of the devil. And since this was His purpose, no follower of His can be of the devil and no follower of His can practice sin.
Jesus’ coming is proof the lies of the devil are not true. Satan told Eve that God did not truly want what was best for her – and introduced sin into the world. Since that time the father of lies has always used variations of the same lie – “God does not want what is best for you and I have something better.” The incarnation proved this to be false. God not only wants what is best for us, He loved us enough to give His Son for us.
Everything about Jesus’ life on earth was a defeat of the devil and his lies. His life was perfect and He resisted the temptations of Satan. Through His life He modeled for His followers the path to true joy and contentment. He healed the sick and cast out demons – defeating the effects of a sin-cursed world. In His teaching He showed that true contentment only comes from centering our lives on God – exposing the lie that happiness comes from centering our lives on ourselves. He also taught that out of the heart comes evil and perversion – exposing sin for what it is and showing the dangerous ramifications behind its attractive veneer. Finally, through His death and resurrection He defeated the penalty of sin and made a way for His followers to defeat the ultimate enemy also.
Verse 9 is the logical outcome of verses 7 and 8 and it parallels verse 6. If we are born of God we cannot sin (note – we are not capable of sin) because God cannot sin and we have His seed in us. Note again that John says no one born of God practices sin – the one born of God cannot live a life typified by sin. We are sons and daughters of God and as such cannot live the same lives as those who are not in the family. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit (Matt 7:18). If our lives are not different, then we have no evidence that we are truly members of the family. If we are born of God we live lives similar to the Son begotten of God (5:1).
Thought: Think about the phrase His seed abides in him. John says as God’s adopted children we now effectively have His genes in us (in a manner of speaking). We are connected to Him in every way and have the family likeness. Just as I am a certain height and have a certain hair color because of my parents, so I have an inclination to righteousness and power over sin because of my heavenly Father. He gave His Spirit to indwell me when I became His son and I thus became as much a part of Him as if I had been physically born of Him. And note – His seed abides. His seed is in me and does not go away – it will always be there. Just as I cannot remove my parents’ genetics, so I cannot remove His seed. HIS SEED ABIDES IN ME! How can I sin when His seed abides in me? How can I be drawn to an evil world when His seed abides in me? How can I live like a child of the devil when His seed abides in me?
The conclusion of this text in verse 10 is this – righteousness and holiness reveal lineage. Those who live holy and righteous lives and love their brothers (2:7-11) are children of God. Those who do not are children of the devil. Note that there are only two choices and our lives reveal (they do not determine) who our father/Father is. It is interesting that John states this in the negative – it is those who do NOT practice righteousness and who do NOT love their brothers who are children of the devil. Just as the absence of light is darkness, so the absence of righteousness is sin. And the absence of righteousness is a mark of the devil’s family.
The definitive nature of this text is sobering. John does not say that believers might or should or hopefully live righteous lives. He says they DO. He does not say that believers will not sin – he says they CANNOT. They are incapable of living lives typified by sin. Children of God practice righteousness. Children of God love their brothers. They are not perfect but they are consistent. In rightly understanding that this text does not teach perfection we nonetheless should not miss that it DOES teach holiness without exception. There is no such thing as a believer practicing sin. There is no such thing as a believer who does not love his brother.
Let us all examine ourselves. Do you find it possible to continue in sin, to keep doing sin? If you do not, it is because you have been born again; the seed of God remains in you, and you cannot go on doing sin because you are a child of God and an heir of eternal bliss. If, therefore, we say that we are the children of God, let us go on to prove it; let us demonstrate it by living that righteous life, even as the Son of God Himself lived it and exemplified it when He was here on earth. ‘Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.’ (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ; 91.)