The United States Treasury Department has a special group of men whose job it is to track down counterfeiters. Naturally, these men need to know a counterfeit bill when they see it. How do they learn to identify fake bills? Oddly enough, they are not trained by spending hours examining counterfeit money. Rather, they study the real thing. They become so familiar with authentic bills they can spot a counterfeit by looking at it or, often, simply by feeling it.
This is the approach in 1 John 3, which warns us in today’s world there are counterfeit Christians—“children of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:10). But instead of listing the evil characteristics of Satan’s children, Scripture gives us a clear description of God’s children. The contrast between the two is obvious.
The key verse of this chapter is 1 John 3:10: a true child of God practices righteousness and loves other Christians despite differences. 1 John 3:1–10 deals with the first topic and 1 John 3:11–24 takes up the second.
Practicing righteousness and loving the brethren, of course, are not new themes. These two important subjects are treated in the first two chapters of this epistle, but in 1 John 3 the approach is different. In the first two chapters the emphasis was on fellowship: a Christian who is in fellowship with God will practice righteousness and will love the brethren. But in 1 John 3–5 the emphasis is on sonship: because a Christian is “born of God,” he will practice righteousness and will love the brethren.
“Born of God” is the idea that is basic to these chapters (1 Jn. 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18). “No one who is born of God practices sin … he cannot practice sin because he is born of God” (1 Jn. 3:9). To “practice” sin is to sin consistently and as a way of life. It does not refer to committing an occasional sin. It is clear no Christian is sinless (1 Jn. 1:8–10), but God expects a true believer to sin less, not to sin habitually.
Every great personality mentioned in the Bible sinned at one time or another. Abraham lied about his wife (Gen. 12:10–20). Moses lost his temper and disobeyed God (Num. 20:7–13). Peter denied the Lord three times (Matt. 26:69–75). But sin was not the settled practice of these men. It was an incident in their lives, totally contrary to their normal habits, and when they sinned, they admitted it and asked God to forgive them.
An unsaved person (even if he professes to be a Christian, but is a counterfeit) lives a life of habitual sin. Sin—especially the sin of unbelief—is the normal thing in his life (Eph. 2:1–3). He has no divine resources to draw on. His profession of faith, if any, is not real. This is the distinction in view in 1 John 3:1–10—a true believer does not live in habitual sin. He may commit sin—an occasional wrong act—but he will not practice sin—make a settled habit of it.
The difference is a true Christian knows God. A counterfeit Christian may talk about God and get involved in “religious activities,” but he does not really know God. The person who has been “born of God” through faith in Christ knows God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Because he knows them, he lives a life of obedience: he does not practice sin. 1 John 3:1–10 gives us three reasons for living a holy life.
1. GOD THE FATHER LOVES US (3:1–3)
God’s love for us is unique. “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 Jn. 3:1). This may be translated, “What peculiar, out-of-this-world kind of love the Father has bestowed on us!” While we were His enemies God loved us and sent His Son to die for us! (Rom. 5:8). The whole wonderful plan of salvation begins with the love of God.
“Children of God” is not simply a high-sounding name we bear; it is a reality! We are God’s children! We do not expect the world to understand this thrilling relationship because it does not even understand God. Only a person who knows God through Christ can fully appreciate what it means to be called a child of God.
1 John 3:1 tells us what we are and 1 John 3:2 tells us what we shall be. The reference here is to the time of Christ’s coming for His church. This was mentioned in 1 John 2:28 as an incentive for holy living and now it is repeated.
God’s love for us does not stop with the new birth. It continues throughout our lives and takes us right up to the return of Jesus Christ! When our Lord appears, all true believers will see Him and will become like Him (Phil. 3:20–21). This means, of course, they will have new, glorified bodies, suited to heaven.
But the apostle does not stop here! He has told us what we are and what we shall be. Now, in 1 John 3:3, he tells us what we should be. In view of the return of Jesus Christ, we should keep our lives clean.
All this is to remind us of the Father’s love. Because the Father loved us and sent His Son to die for us, we are children of God. Because God loves us, He wants us to live with Him. Salvation, from start to finish, is an expression of the love of God. We are saved by the grace of God (Eph. 2:8–9; Tit. 2:11–15), but the provision for our salvation was originated in the love of God. Since we have experienced the love of the Father, we have no desire to live in sin.
An unbeliever who sins is a creature sinning against his Creator. A Christian who sins is a child sinning against his Father. The unbeliever sins against law; the believer sins against love.
This reminds us of the meaning of the phrase so often repeated in the Bible: “the fear of the Lord.” This phrase does not suggest God’s children live in an atmosphere of terror: “The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). Rather, it indicates God’s children hold their Father in reverence and will not deliberately disobey Him or try His patience.
A group of teenagers were enjoying a party and someone suggested they go to a certain place for a good time.
“I’d rather you took me home,” Jan said to her date. “My parents don’t approve of that place.”
“Afraid your father will hurt you?” one of the girls asked sarcastically.
“No,” Jan replied, “I’m not afraid my father will hurt me, but I am afraid I might hurt him.”
She understood the principle that a true child of God, who has experienced the love of God, has no desire to sin against that love.
2. GOD THE SON DIED FOR US (3:4–8)
John turns here from the future appearing of Jesus (1 Jn. 3:2) to His past appearing (1 Jn. 3:5). John gives two reasons why Jesus came and died: (1) to take away our sins (1 Jn. 3:4–6) (2) to destroy the works of the devil (1 Jn. 3:7–8). For a child of God to sin indicates he does not understand or appreciate what Jesus did for him on the cross.
Christ appeared to take away our sins (vv. 4–6). There are several definitions of sin in the Bible: “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). “The schemes of folly are sin” (Prov. 24:9). “If anyone knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (Jas. 4:17). “All wrongdoing is sin” (1 Jn. 5:17).
But John’s epistle defines sin as lawlessness (1 Jn. 3:4). It views sin as defilement (1 Jn. 1:9–2:2) and defiance. The emphasis here is not on sins (plural), but on sin (singular): “Whosoever practices sin.” Sins are the fruit, but sin is the root.
That God is love does not mean He has no rules and regulations for His family. “We know that we have come to know Him if we keep His commands” (1 Jn. 2:3). “We receive from Him anything we ask because we keep His commands and do what pleases Him” (1 Jn. 3:22). “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out His commands” (1 Jn. 5:2).
God’s children are not in bondage to the Old Testament Law, for Christ has set us free and has given us liberty (Gal. 5:1–6). But God’s children are not to be lawless, either! They are “not free from God’s law, but are under Christ’s law” (1 Cor. 9:21).
Sin is basically a matter of the will. For us to assert our will against God’s will is rebellion and rebellion is the root of sin. It is not simply that sin reveals itself in lawless behavior, but the very essence of sin is lawlessness. No matter what his outward action may be, a sinner’s inward attitude is one of rebellion.
Little Judy was riding in the car with her father. She decided to stand up in the front seat. Her father commanded her to sit down and put on the seat belt, but she declined. He told her a second time and again she refused.
“If you don’t sit down immediately, I’ll pull over to the side of the road and spank you!” Dad finally said and at this the little girl obeyed. But in a few minutes she said quietly, “Daddy, I’m still standing up inside.”
Lawlessness! Rebellion! Even though there was constraint from the outside, there was still rebellion on the inside; and this attitude is the essence of sin.
But after a person has become a child of God, born again by faith in Jesus Christ, he cannot practice lawlessness! For one thing, Jesus Christ was without sin and to abide in Him means to be identified with the One who is sinless. And even more than that, Jesus Christ died to take away our sins! If we know the person of Christ and if we have shared in the blessing of His death, we cannot deliberately disobey God. The whole work of the Cross is denied when a professed Christian practices deliberate sin. This is one reason why Paul calls such people “enemies of the Cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18–19).
“No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen Him or known Him” (1 Jn. 3:6). “Abide” is one of John’s favorite words. To abide in Christ means to be in fellowship with Him, to allow nothing to come between ourselves and Christ. Sonship (being born of God) brings about our union with Christ; but fellowship makes possible our communion with Christ. It is this communion (abiding) with Christ that keeps us from deliberately disobeying His Word. A person who deliberately and habitually sins is proving he does not know Christ and therefore cannot be abiding in Him.
There is more in the death of Christ on the cross than simply our salvation from judgment, as wonderful as that is. Through His death, Christ broke the power of sin in our lives. The theme of Romans 6–8 is this identification with Christ in His death and resurrection. Christ not only died for me, but I died with Christ! Now I can yield myself to Him and sin will not have dominion over me.
Christ appeared to destroy the works of the devil (vv. 7–8). The logic here is clear: if a man knows God, he will obey God; if he belongs to the devil, he will obey the devil.
John accepts the reality of a personal devil. This enemy has many different names in Scripture: Satan (adversary, enemy), the devil (accuser), Abaddon or Apollyon (destroyer), the prince of this world, the dragon. Whatever name you call him, keep in mind his chief activity is to oppose Christ and God’s people.
The contrast here is between Christ (who has no sin) and the devil (who can do nothing but sin). Satan was once one of the highest angels, placed by God over the earth and over the other angels, but he sinned against God and was cast down (Isa. 14:9–17; Ezek. 28:12–14). Satan was not created sinful. His present nature is a result of his past rebellion.
Satan is not like God: he is not all-powerful, all-knowing, or everywhere present. However, he is assisted by an army of spirit creatures (demons), who make it possible for him to work in many places at one time (Eph. 6:10–12).
Satan is a rebel, but Christ is the obedient Son of God. Christ “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:8). Christ is God, but was willing to become a servant. Satan was a servant, but wanted to become God.
From the beginning of his career, Satan has been a sinner and Christ came to “destroy” the works of the devil. Destroy (1 Jn. 3:8) does not mean “annihilate.” Satan is certainly still at work today! Destroy, here, means “to render inoperative, to rob of power.” Satan has not been annihilated, but his power has been reduced and his weapons have been impaired. He is still a mighty foe, but he is no match for the power of God.
Jesus compares this world to a palace that contains many valuable goods. A strong man is guarding this palace (Lk. 11:14–23). Satan is the strong man, and his “goods” are lost men and women. The only way to release the “goods” is to bind the strong man and that is just what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus, in coming to earth, invaded Satan’s “palace.” When He died, He broke Satan’s power and captured his goods! Each time a lost sinner is won to Christ, more of Satan’s “spoils” are taken from him.
For many months after the close of World War II, Japanese troops were discovered hidden in the caves and jungles of the Pacific islands. Some of these stragglers were living like frightened savages; they didn’t know the war was over. Once they understood it was no longer necessary for them to fight, they surrendered.
Christians may rest in the truth that Satan is a defeated enemy. He may still win a few battles here and there, but he has already lost the war! Sentence has been pronounced on him, but it will be awhile before his full punishment is given out. A person who knows Christ, and who has been delivered from the bondage of sin through Christ’s death on the cross has no desire to obey Satan and live like a rebel.
“Little children, let no man deceive you!” Counterfeit Christians were trying to convince true believers that a person could be “saved” and still practice sin. John does not deny Christians sin, but he does deny Christians can live in sin. A person who can enjoy deliberate sin and who does not feel convicted or experience God’s chastening had better examine himself to see whether or not he is really born of God.
3. GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT LIVES IN US (3:9–10)
“Whosoever is born of God does not practice sin!” Why? Because he has a new nature within him and that new nature cannot sin. John calls this new nature God’s “seed.”
When a person receives Christ as his Savior, tremendous spiritual changes take place in him. He is given a new standing before God, being accepted as righteous in God’s sight. This new standing is called “justification.” It never changes and is never lost.
The new Christian is also given a new position: he is set apart for God’s own purposes to live for His glory. This new position is called “sanctification,” and it has a way of changing from day to day. On some days we are much closer to Christ and obey Him much more readily.
Justification means a new standing before God, sanctification means being set apart to God, and regeneration means a new nature—God’s nature (2 Pet. 1:4).
But perhaps the most dramatic change in a new believer is what we call “regeneration.” He is “born again” into the family of God. The only way to enter God’s family is by trusting Christ and experiencing this new birth. Physical life produces only physical life; spiritual life produces spiritual life. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (Jn. 3:6). Christians have been born again, “not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to convict of sin and to reveal the Savior.
We are saved by faith (Eph. 2:8–9), and “faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the Word about Christ” (Rom. 10:17). In the miracle of the new birth the Holy Spirit imparts new life—God’s life—to a believing sinner and as a result the individual is born into the family of God.
Just as physical children bear the nature of their parents, so too God’s spiritual children bear His nature. The divine “seed” is in them. A Christian has an old nature from his physical birth and a new nature from his spiritual birth. The New Testament contrasts these two natures and gives them various names:
Old Nature: New Nature:
The old nature produces sin, but the new nature leads to a holy life. A Christian’s responsibility is to live according to his new nature, not the old nature.
One way to illustrate this is by contrasting the “outer” man with the “inner” man (2 Cor. 4:16). The physical man needs food, and so does his inner or spiritual man. “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Unless a Christian spends time daily meditating on the Word of God, his inner man will lack power.
A converted Indian explained, “I have two dogs living in me—a mean dog and a good dog. They are always fighting. The mean dog wants me to do bad things and the good dog wants me to do good things. Do you want to know which dog wins? The one I feed the most!”
A Christian who feeds the new nature from the Word of God will have power to live a godly life. We are to “clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh” (Rom. 13:14).
The physical man needs cleansing and so does the inner man. We wash our hands and face frequently. A believer should look into the mirror of God’s Word daily (Jas. 1:22–25) and examine himself. He must confess his sins and claim God’s forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:9). Otherwise the inner man will become unclean and this uncleanness will breed infection and “spiritual sickness.”
Unconfessed sin is the first step in what the Bible calls “backsliding”—gradually moving away from a close walk with Christ into a life filled with the alien world in which we live.
God’s promise, “I will cure you of backsliding” (Jer. 3:22), implies backsliding resembles physical sickness. First is the secret invasion of the body by a disease. Then infection follows and there is a gradual decline: no pep, no appetite, and no interest in normal activities. Finally comes the collapse!
Spiritual decline works in a similar way. First sin invades us. Instead of fighting it, we yield to it (Jas. 1:14) and infection sets in. A gradual decline follows. We lose our appetite for spiritual things, we become lethargic and even irritable, and finally we collapse. The only remedy is to confess and forsake our sin, and turn to Christ for cleansing and healing.
The inner man not only needs food and cleansing, but he also needs exercise. “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Tim. 4:7). A person who eats, but does not exercise will become overweight; a person who exercises without eating will kill himself. There must be proper balance.
“Spiritual exercise” for a believer, includes sharing Christ with others, doing good works in Christ’s name, and helping to build up other believers. Each Christian has at least one spiritual gift which he is to use for the good of the church (1 Cor. 12:1–11). “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10).
Here is a vivid commentary on this whole process of temptation and sin: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (Jas. 1:13–15).
Temptation appeals to our basic natural desires. There is nothing sinful about our desires, but temptation gives us an opportunity to satisfy these desires in an evil way. It is not sin to be hungry, but it is a sin to satisfy hunger out of the will of God. This was the first temptation Satan hurled at Jesus (Matt. 4:1–4).
The two terms, “dragged away” and “enticed” (Jas. 1:14), both relate to hunting or fishing: the putting of bait in a trap or on a hook. The animal (or fish) comes along and his natural desires attract him to the bait. But in taking the bait, he gets caught in the trap or hooked. And the end is death!
Satan baits his traps with pleasures that appeal to the old nature, the flesh. But none of his bait appeals to the new divine nature within a Christian. If a believer yields to his old nature, he will hunger for the bait, take it, and sin. But if he follows the inclination of his new nature, he will refuse the bait and obey God. “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).
Yielding to sin is the distinguishing mark of “the children of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:10). They profess or claim one thing, but they practice another. Satan is a liar and the father of lies (Jn. 8:44), and his children are like their father. “Whoever says, ‘I know Him,’ but does not do what He commands is a liar and the truth is not in that person” (1 Jn. 2:4). The children of the devil try to deceive God’s children into thinking a person can be a Christian and still practice sin. “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as He is righteous” (1 Jn. 3:7).
False teachers in John’s day taught a Christian did not have to worry about sin because only the body sinned and what the body did in no way affected the spirit. Some of them went so far as to teach sin is natural to the body because the body is sinful.
The New Testament exposes the foolishness of such excuses for sin. To begin with, “the old nature” is not the body. The body itself is neutral: it can be used either by the old sinful nature or by the new divine nature. “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to Him as an instrument of righteousness.” (Rom. 6:12–13).
How does a child of God go about overcoming the desires of the old nature? He must begin each day by yielding his body to God as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). He must spend time reading and studying the Word of God, “feeding” his new nature. He must take time to pray, asking God to fill him with the Holy Spirit, and give him power to serve Christ and glorify Him. As he goes through the day, a believer must depend on the power of the Spirit in the inner man. When temptations come, he must immediately turn to Christ for victory.
The Word of God in his heart will help to keep him from sin if only he will turn to Christ. “I have hidden Your word in my heart that I might not sin against You” (Ps. 119:11). If he does sin, he must instantly confess to God and claim forgiveness. But it is not necessary for him to sin. By yielding his body to the Holy Spirit within him, he will receive the power he needs to overcome the tempter. A good practice is to claim God’s promise: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
A Sunday School teacher was explaining the Christian’s two natures—the old and the new—to a class of teenagers. “Our old nature came from Adam,” he explained “and our new nature comes from Christ, who is called ‘the Last Adam.” He had the class read 1 Corinthians 15:45: “So it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.”
“This means there are two ‘Adams’ living in me,” said one of the teenagers.
“That’s right,” the teacher replied. “And what is the practical value of this truth?”
The class was silent for a moment and then a student spoke up. “This idea of the ‘two Adams’ really helps me in fighting temptation,” he said. “When temptation comes knocking at my door, if I send the first Adam to answer, I’ll sin. But if I send the Last Adam, I’ll get victory.”
A true believer does not practice sin; a counterfeit believer cannot help but practice sin because he does not have God’s new nature within him. The true believer also loves other Christians, which is discussed in detail in 1 John 3:11–24.
But these words were not written so that you and I might check on other people. They were inspired so that we may examine ourselves. Each of us must answer honestly before God:
- Do I have the divine nature within me or am I merely pretending to be a Christian?
- Do I cultivate this divine nature by daily Bible reading and prayer?
- Has any unconfessed sin defiled my inner man? Am I willing to confess and forsake it?
- Do I allow my old nature to control my thoughts and desires, or does the divine nature rule me?
- When temptation comes, do I “play with it” or do I flee from it? Do I immediately yield to the divine nature within me?
The life that is real does not pretend, but is honest with God about these vital issues.