The first epistle of John was written to expose the false teachings of the Gnostics and encourage the faith of those that remained in the ecclesia after the Gnostics had left. The Gnostics claimed to have a superior knowledge (Gk gnosis) and relationship with God, yet they espoused teachings that were contrary to godliness.

John now deals with another element of the false teachings of the Gnostics in this next section of the epistle, which can be entitled ‘Born of God’. This is the second major section of the epistle as shown in the table below. This article covers the verses on the theme of ‘Righteousness and Sin’ (2:29–3:10).

God is Light (1:5) Born of God (2:29)
(God is Life)
God is Love (4:8)
Righteousness and Sin 1:5–2:2 2:29–3:10 5:16–17
Love and Hate 2:3–17 3:10–24 4:7–5:3
Truth and Error 2:18–28 4:1–6 5:4–13

Born of God

John’s readers would be familiar with the Gospel of John (which was written before this epistle) and would have read of the concept of the true believer being spiritually “born of God” and becoming “children of God” (John 1:12-13):

“But as many as received [Christ], to them gave he power to become the sons [children] of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

It appears that John is drawing on what he had written in his gospel when he presents the theme of this section of the epistle in the words of 1 John 2:29:

“If ye know that he is righteous, ye know [Gk gnosis] that everyone that doeth [practises] righteousness is born of him.”

Now the “he” in this verse is referring to God, and we know from many Scriptures that He is righteous (eg Isa 45:19-21). The second part of the verse is what John is going to prove—that “everyone that practises righteousness is born of Him”. Or to put it another way, those who are born of God (spiritually) will manifest the Father’s righteous character.

So why is John going to prove that “everyone that doeth righteousness is born of him”? Because it counters the Gnostic claim that indulging the flesh in immoral living didn’t affect one’s close relationship with God. John shows that practicing immorality in fact shows one doesn’t have a relationship with God.

In our age, our inherent fleshly bias can cause us to err, though perhaps in lesser ways than the Gnostics. We might not condone immoral living, but the taking up of the cross to follow Christ in the self-sacrificing doing of righteousness is still irksome to our flesh. We may perhaps emphasise that salvation is by faith and that we can’t earn salvation by works. This is true if we define works as works of the law or works in our own strength. However, it is easy then to subconsciously err into believing that we are saved by faith and faith alone, and that obedience has no bearing on whether we are saved or not—which is not true. The words of our Lord are clear: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you” (John 15:14).

Children of God (3:1-3)

Immediately after the thesis of 2:29, John puts some wonderful thoughts in parenthesis (3:1-3) about the wonder of being children of God:

“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons [children] of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons [children] of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.”

John reminds us that by being in Christ we are “the sons of God” (the word “sons” should be translated as children). A few moments contemplation of the benefits of becoming adopted into God’s family should surely fill our hearts with deep gratitude. Imagine if your ecclesia were to approach someone of power and wealth like Donald Trump, or Vladimir Putin, and ask if we could all be adopted into their family and share in their status and wealth. Do you think they would agree to this proposal? Not likely. They want to keep all that to themselves. However, the God of the universe, with immeasurably more power and wealth than any man might have, invites us to join his family and have a share of the status, wealth and power that is His. What an enormous privilege is that! This is what we can have in becoming ‘children of God’.

But the promise is even more expansive: “it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is”.

What an amazing prospect. When the Lord appears (returns) we shall be like him. We shall be immortal in constitution like he is, as Paul expressed in Philippians 3:21: “[he] shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body”. But the promise extends beyond that as well. How wonderful to be “like him” in being sinless and righteous and having a mind fully in tune with our God and our Lord at all times. Hymn 388 beautifully picks up the joy of the theme: “We shall be like him”.

The children of God do not practise sin (3:4-9)

This bracket of verses counters the Gnostic doctrine that committing sin doesn’t matter. As outlined in the first article, Gnostics claimed that immorality was acceptable, because as long as the mind is steeped in light it is unaffected by what the body does. Irenaeus (AD180) explains the Gnostic view: “as gold deposited in mud does not lose its beauty, so they themselves whatever may be their outward immorality cannot be injured by it, nor lose their spiritual substance”. John is countering this evil doctrine.

The KJV translation of this bracket of verses is not the best. This results in several statements which can be somewhat alarming for Christadelphians: For example:

  • v6 – “whosoever sinneth hath not seen him [the Father], neither known him”. As all of us have sinned—this verse would mean we have never known the Father at all; we have no relationship with Him!
  • v9 – “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin”. Again, a confronting thought—if we have sinned, we have not really been born of God!

A closer look at the Greek text solves the dilemma. For example, in verse 6 above, the expression “whosoever sinneth” is better translated “whosoever practices sin”. It is not referring to the believer falling into sin from time to time, but it is referring to the Gnostic lifestyle of deliberately and repeatedly “practising sin”. Similarly, in verse 9 it should read, “Whosoever is born of God doth not practice sin”.

The table below provides a better translation of these verses, using the NASB as a base. The structure follows the now familiar pattern of this epistle: three groups of three phrases of Error (left side) and three groups of three phrases of Truth (right side). The left side is contrasted to the right side.

Exposing Gnostic Error Expressing the Truth
v4 Everyone who practices sin v5 You know that he appeared;
also practices lawlessness, in order to take away sins,
and sin is lawlessness and in him there is no sin. (v6 No one who abides in him practices sin)
v6  Anyone that practices sin v7 Little children, make sure no one deceives you:
has not seen him,  The one who practices righteousness is righteous,
nor has he known (gnosis) him just as he is righteous
v8 The one who practices sin v8-9 The son of God appeared for this purpose
is of the devil, to destroy the works of the devil
for the devil has sinned from the beginning No one who is born of God practices sin, because his seed abides in him; and he cannot practice sin, because he is born of God

These contrasts show the incongruity of the Gnostic’s belief that practising sin doesn’t matter. The following comments pick up a few points about these verses.

The first contrast (v4-5) is of the Gnostic who is “practising sin”, compared to our Lord who came to “take away sin”. What a stark contrast. How could the Gnostics indulge in sin and not see the contradiction with being a follower of Jesus Christ who came to remove sin? If we think about the pagan society they lived amongst, we can perhaps understand their twisted thinking. Immorality was the normal lifestyle in the Roman world. Immorality was also an integral part of pagan religion[1]. We might not have Gnostics in our ecclesias teaching that sin doesn’t matter, but like in the days of Rome, the world around us tells us that immoral lifestyles are normal and that there is nothing wrong with such lifestyles. Fornication and adultery are not considered by the world as sin, rather they are seen as just lifestyle choices. We may have to work alongside people who live immoral lives. They may even seem to be ‘nice and friendly people’. Because of this we can be affected subconsciously to not see immorality as quite so abhorrent to God as it really is.

The end of verse 4 in the KJV reads, “sin is the transgression of the law”. This expression has been sometimes used as a definition of sin—viz, anything done in disobedience to what the law says, is sin. But that is not what the Greek text is saying. Newer versions correctly render this as “sin is lawlessness” or “sin is rebellion”. John’s point is that sin is very serious, it is active rebellion against God. When we sin, we are in active opposition to God.

The second contrast (v6-7) is of the Gnostic practising sin compared to those born of God that practise righteousness, just as our Lord is righteous. Verse 6 shows the inconsistency of the Gnostic position. They considered that they had an experiential knowledge (gnosis) of God, yet they have a lifestyle of “practising sin”. If they truly had experiential knowledge of God, they would know that God is righteous and separate from sin.

The third contrast (v8-9) involves the devil. Our knowledge of the first principles of the Truth excludes any concept of a devil being a fallen angel or a supernatural being. So, who is “the devil” here? The clue John provides is that “the devil sinned from the beginning”. These terms are drawn from the Lord’s words in John 8:44:

“Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer [better – manslayer] from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.”

The diabolos being spoken of here is personified as the serpent in Eden. He spoke a lie which encouraged Eve (and then Adam) to eat of the tree, of which they were told that they should not eat. This is exactly what the Gnostics were doing. They taught the lie that immorality doesn’t matter. Hence this third contrast is that the person that practices sin is born of serpent thinking, in contrast to the person who is born of God (v1-2), who doesn’t practice sin.

John has shown the hideousness of the Gnostics teaching of practising sin while claiming to have a special knowledge of God. The Gnostics had somehow deceived themselves into believing this falsehood. Throughout the Scriptures there are warnings about the potential to be self-deceived like the Gnostics were (eg Jer 37:9; 1 Cor 6:9). We too need to be on our guard against the deceitfulness of sin.

However, let’s rejoice in the amazing privilege we have in Christ of being the children of God now, and the great prospect of being immortal children of God in the kingdom—freed completely of sin, and able to manifest the righteousness of God—for ever.

References:

  1. The historian Strabo (8.6.20) says “The temple of Aphrodite was so wealthy that it owned more than a thousand slaves as prostitutes who had been devoted…”