QUESTION: Could you please give me your understanding of 1 John 3:7

John's first letter causes problems for quite a number of people, leading to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. We have to read and understand 3:7 in the context of the whole letter.

 

From the letter we learn quite clearly:

 

[1] That Christians are still sinners who sin:

1:8: ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’

1:10 : ‘If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.’

1:9: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’

2:2: ‘if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.’

3:3: ‘Everyone who has this hope purifies himself, just as he is pure.’ [If we had no present sin there would be no need to keep on purifying ourselves.]

These verses all assume that Christians sin. In fact they warn us against claiming that we don’t. Verse nine actually means ‘if we acknowledge our sins …’ - it is not talking about itemizing them off to God one by one, but about admitting in God’s presence that he is right in his assessment of us as sinners who sin – as the tax-collector did in Luke 18 and as David did in Psalm 51. Neither mentioned any sins by name; both acknowledged being a sinner who had sinned.

So, whatever 3:7 means, it cannot mean that the Christian is perfect or free from sin.

 

[2] That the dividing line between God’s children and those who are not God’s children is what we believe/acknowledge about Jesus Christ:

2:22 ,23: ‘Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist – he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.’

3:23 ,24: ‘And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.’

4:2: ‘This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.’

4:13-15: ‘We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. If any one acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.’

5:1: ‘Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God ..’

5:4,5 ‘… This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.’

5:10 : ‘Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.’

5:12 : ‘He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.’

5:13 : ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.’

5:20 : ‘We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.’

All of these verses indicate that the central and critical question is our belief about Jesus Christ: have we acknowledged that he is indeed God in the flesh? Our eternal destiny hangs on this one point. [If we read John’s Gospel Jesus tells us that the work of God is to believe on the One that God sent (6:29); elsewhere we are commanded to obey the Gospel (2Thess 1:8; 1Peter 4:17): that is to obey God’s command that we believe in his Son.] In this we come near to one of the answers to the question ‘What is sin?’ – that the ultimate sin from which all sins derive is the sin of not acknowledging God as God, or, in New Testament terms, the sin of not recognizing and acknowledging that Jesus Christ is the Lord God Almighty.

 

[3] That our claim to believe in Jesus Christ stands or falls on the basis of our behaviour/lifestyle:

1:6: ‘If we claim to fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie, and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.’

2:4: ‘The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.’

2:5,6: ‘This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.’

2:9: ‘Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.’

4:20 : ‘If anyone says “I love God”, yet hates his brother, he is a liar.’

In these verses John points out that our claims to believe in Jesus Christ mean nothing unless they are backed up by a corresponding lifestyle. All of the relevant words or phrases underlined and in bold are in the present/continuous tense in the Greek text. This is important. We have already seen that John makes it clear that believers are still sinners who sin. Here however he also makes it clear that a lifestyle of habitual sin, a life totally contrary to the life of Jesus Christ, simply does not and cannot be the lifestyle of a person who really knows God by knowing Christ. The two are mutually exclusive. A life on habitual, unrepentant, unchanged sin identifies a person as an unbeliever. Notice that all of the conditional words are present continuous.

 

[4] That, if we really believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be, there will be evidence of this in our lives:

2:3: ‘We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.’

2:15 : ‘If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’

2:19 : ‘They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.’

2:24 : ‘See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.’

2:28 : ‘and now dear children, continue in him …’

2:29 : ‘If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.’

3:3: ‘Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself just as he is pure.’

3:6: ‘No one who lives in him keeps on sinning . No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.’

3:7,8: ‘… He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil …’

3:9: ‘No one who is 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.’

3:10 : ‘This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.’

3:14 : ‘We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.’

3:17 : ‘If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?’

3:24 : ‘Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them.’

4:7: ‘Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.’

4:12 : ‘ … if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.’

4:16 : ‘whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.’

These verses are similar to the previous group, and it was difficult with some to decide which group to put them in. Here the emphasis is not on a claim being made about one’s relationship with Christ, but on the evidence which will automatically proceed [Paul would probably call it the ‘fruits of the ‘Spirit’] from genuine knowledge of God and his love and from genuine faith in him. One cannot know the love of God and remain the same; such is that nature of God and his love and his salvation that they impact the life of those who know him. [Again: the fruit of the Spirit. One cannot live with God within and not be impacted at the level of one’s behaviour.] Again, the underlined and bold relevant words/phrases are present/continuous tense in the Greek text, indicating a continuity, a lifestyle. [Notice that in all except 2 of these verses the conditional words are present continuous. In one of the exceptions ( 2:19 ) the conditional word is in the perfect tense, which refers to a past action with effect remaining in the present.] Again, this in important, for it leaves room for the truth of 1:8-2:2.

 

In addition, from history we learn that this letter was written to combat a heresy that was impacting the church which had three significant elements of false teaching:

[1] a denial of the true deity of Christ – a refusal to believe that the real God actually dwelt in real human flesh;

[2] a denial of sinfulness;

[3] a failure to acknowledge the reality of sin.

This heresy was related to both gnosticism [which taught a dualistic distinction between spirit and matter; matter (including the body) was evil, and spirit (soul) was good; only spirit/soul was significant, so what you did in the body was irrelevant] and docetism [which denied the real incarnation – there was only the appearance of God in the man Jesus, not the real thing.]

Because of this false teaching it was necessary for John to emphasize the importance of how we live our lives, and the utter incongruity of a lifestyle of on-going habitual sin in one who claimed to know God through knowing Christ. For this reason 3:7 begins ‘dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray.’ This is referring to the false teachers, with their Gnostic ideas, who were convincing the Christians that it was okay to keep on sinning – that what was done in the body was temporary and irrelevant.

 

In addition, from the meaning of the word ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness’: the Greek text of 3:7 reads ‘the one doing righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.’ Each of these words – the noun ‘righteousness’ and the adjective ‘righteous’ are words from the courts of law. They talk about what is legally right. The word translated ‘righteousness’ is also the word for ‘justification’ and, particularly in Paul’s use, refers to the declaration of ‘not guilty’ – the declaration of legal acquittal. Jesus Christ is ‘righteous’ – there is no accusation that the law can bring against him – he is ‘not guilty’ he is ‘in the right, legally’. Anything less, is sin. [I will attach a study on ‘The LORD our Righteousness’ which is part of a series ‘Knowing Christ – Knowing God’ that will be on the website soon.

 

In the context of the immediate verses :

If we were not assured by verses 1 and 2 that now we are children of God, even though we don’t particularly look like it, this verse would send us all into the pits of despair. But that is not John’s purpose; his purpose is to argue that it is utterly inappropriate, incongruous, and at the bottom-line, impossible, for a person whom God has made his child, to keep on living as he/she did when they were children of the devil:

3:1-3 speak of our awesome identity as children of God

3:3 states that with this hope in our hands we ‘purify ourselves just as he is pure’

3:4 identifies sin as breaking the law

3:5 speaks of the purpose of Christ’s coming – to ‘take away’ our sins

3:6 speaks of the impossibility of anyone who lives in, knows/sees Christ sinning (present continuous)

3:7 speaks of the righteousness of Christ, and by contrast, our legal guilt.

3:8 speaks of the habitual and persistent sinfulness of the Devil

3:8 speaks of Christ coming to destroy the works of the devil.

3:9 states the impossibility of anyone who is born of God continuing to sin.

In this context 3:7 plays a part in confronting the believer with the utter wrongness of sin: it doesn’t come from Christ: it comes from the devil. It is totally contrary to the character and life of Christ. It is the very reason that brought Christ to earth and to the cross.

 

Summary/conclusion:

1 John 3:7, like all verses of Scripture, is not intended to be read or understood in isolation. It is part of an argument, part of a whole letter, contributing to the total impact: that if the totality of my life is continuing to demonstrate the nature and character of the devil and the darkness then my claim to know Christ is empty and without substance. If I know him as the eternal Lord of glory I cannot possibly think that sin is okay. If I have seen him dying in my place on the cross, if I see there that this is how horrible sin is, this is how much God hates sin, then I can never again think that sin is okay. That if I am born of God, if God is my Father, then his Spirit within me will be transforming me, little by little, into his image (2 Corinthians 3;18). This is the message, not only of John’s first letter, but also of Jesus and Paul and James. 1 John 3:7 fits right into that total picture, at the one time forbidding any of us to claim that we are ‘righteous’ in ourselves, and also challenging us to admit the utter wrongness of sin and to face up to the challenge of obeying him whom we call our Lord, so that his nature will be increasingly expressed in us.

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2009