In Alice In Wonderland, Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” The Cat answered, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Likewise, our moral decisions depend on where we want to get to.
It seems that like Alice, there are many Christians asking a similar question. They’ are people who have become Christians, understanding the problem of sin and that they need to be saved. They’ve come to believe that salvation is in Jesus Christ, and they’ve believed and obeyed the gospel. They’ve been born again, freed from sin, risen to walk in newness of life in Jesus Christ. They’re in a right relationship with God, his Spirit lives within them, and they’re fairly active members of a church. But, it seems that they don’t have a clear understanding of “which way” they ought to go.
I’m talking about the life they live and the standard by which they live it.
Too many Christians seem to think a lot like the Gnostics of John’s day. They think they’re on some kind of higher plane so sin doesn’t count. They’ve heard of grace, so they figure it doesn’t matter how they live.
But…they’re wrong on BOTH counts.
This blog is about “practicing righteousness” as opposed to “practicing sin.” It’s a lesson we in the postmodern church age need to learn and be reminded of over and over again. And I want to start with our motivation. What motivates us to practice righteousness – and obey God rather than disobey Him?
In 1 John 2 and into the first part of chapter 3, John writes: “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him. See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” 1 John 2:29-3:3
According to John there is one overriding motive to practice righteousness: God’s love. What John is saying is that God’s love gives us the desire – the “want to” – to do the right thing.
God’s love is a powerful motivator and incentive to live as a child of the light. God’s love motivates us to act righteously – to “practice righteousness.”
All of us who are parents know that our children will obey us for a lot of different reasons. I know there have been times that our kids have obeyed to get something that they wanted. At other times they’ve obeyed because they were afraid of being punished. And there have even been times that we had to make them obey us. But there’s no better feeling that we have as parents then when we know our kids obey us simply because they love us.
As a follower of Jesus, why do you obey Him? What’s your motivation for “practicing righteousness”? The reward of heaven? Being afraid of being punished? You have no other choice (self-imposed righteousness)? Or is it simply because you love Him?
According to I John 3, there are two distinctive marks of someone who practices righteousness. There’s a certain “look” and “feel” characteristic of a “righteous” person.
- The first mark is Character. “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (3:2)
A righteous follower of Christ will look like Jesus. Their character will be just like His. Notice that it doesn’t say that when He appears we’ll physically look like Him or that we will become God ourselves. (That’s Mormon/New Age thinking). What John does say is that we will be “like Him” – in character, in personality, and in behavior. That’s a reference to a child of God both in the future (in heaven) and in the present (on earth). John says, “Dear friends, NOW we are children of God…” – so we can begin to act NOW like the “good kids” of God the Father!
I read recently of a teenage girl, Jenny, who was with a group of other teenagers at a party. Someone suggested that they go to a night club. Jenny said, “No, my parents wouldn’t like that.” One of the other girls said, “Why? Are you afraid your father will hurt you?” Her response was: “No, I’m not afraid my father will hurt me. I’m afraid I might hurt him.” That’s the point, isn’t it? We shouldn’t be afraid that our Father is going to punish us if we sin. We do not practice sin, because we love Him and don’t want to do things that would hurt Him. Sin should grieve us – because it grieves God. That’s a sign of a healthy relationship with God. If sin doesn’t grieve us, there’s something wrong.
- The second mark of someone who practices righteousness is: Confidence. “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (3:3)
If you believe that Jesus is coming back, and that someday you’re going to be like Him, then that will give you the confidence in this life to live a pure life for Him and keep practicing righteousness. And it’s a “purifying” confidence that gives us hope. Hope doesn’t mean “maybe.” Hope is a “divine certainty based upon divine revelation mingled with glad anticipation.”
So, John is saying: How confidently you live here on earth, today, is the measure of the confidence you’ll have of living with Jesus Christ in heaven one day!
This passage encourages me because it says, “…it has not yet appeared as yet what we shall be. [But] we know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.”
I am really glad that God isn’t finished with me yet. If He was, I’d be pretty discouraged. I know that I’m not the husband I want to be. I’m not the parent or the grandparent I want to be. I’m not the pastor I want to be – YET! But God is working on me. I saw a T-shirt recently that read: “This is not the best the grace of God can do!” That’s the truth. God’s grace can do so much more with us.
These verses say that one day you and I will be just like Jesus – in character and confidence. But in the meantime, we’re “in the process” of becoming more and more like Him every day. We’re growing in His Character and His Confidence – so we can practice righteousness. And if we live in His character and confidence, then we shouldn’t get too discouraged with our lack of progress at times. And that should also keep us from being too concerned that other people haven’t progressed any faster than we wish they would, either!
So, our incentive to practice righteousness is God’s love that is producing in us His character and His confidence.
After reminding us of our motivation for obedience – to practice righteousness – John talks about why people (including us) are more inclined to practice sin than righteousness. “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” 1 John 3:4-10
There are two extremes commonly practiced today in the church – and each one presents a very similar problem.
First, there’s the idea that we just don’t sin much at all. There are a lot of people who seem to have lost the capacity to be honest with themselves. They believe that they’ve risen above sin. When they’re confronted with a discussion of sin, they’re much more likely to deny sin than they are to admit to it. It’s an attitude that can leave sin entrenched in a person’s life.
Second, there’s the idea that – if we do sin – it doesn’t matter that much. You won’t necessarily find many people openly promoting this idea, but you will find them living it. There are many people who misuse the idea of God’s grace. They think that God will simply make up for their lack of effort. But it’s another attitude that can leave sin entrenched in a person’s life.
The problem with living in either of those extremes is that sin is still the “practice” – the habit – of a person’s life. Sin is not just a one-time failure or a weakness in temptation. For them, sin is their standard way of living, despite the fact they may claim to be Christians – and even want to be Christians.
So, we need to hear John’s words concerning the practice of sin. John defines sin for us, and he shares a specific concern about practicing sin. He says: “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. 1 John 3:4-6
This passage can be confusing if we’re not careful to read it correctly. And it does make a difference how you read this passage, because it might seem like John is saying here that it’s impossible for a faithful Christian to sin.
But we know that isn’t true because of what he’s already said about sin. 1 John 1:8-10 reads: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” And also in 1 John 2:1 he says: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…”
So, right away we know that John isn’t presenting some kind of spiritual super perfectionism – because if he is we’re all in trouble. Here’s what he’s saying. Sin is serious business, and we need to pay attention to it. It won’t do to deny our sins, or to think they don’t matter.
First, he defines sin for us: “Sin is lawlessness…” Sin is anything that contradicts and disobeys the will of God. Essentially, sin is anarchy – the idea that we don’t need any authority or established order beyond ourselves. That is a popular belief on college campuses all over America today. “Sin is to obey oneself rather than to obey God.” And if we live life like that – as “anarchists” – then we’ll do God’s will only when it’s convenient or advantageous. But otherwise, we’ll do whatever we want to do, however we want to do it.
So, John not referring to an accidental breaking of God’s law, or even a moment of weakness. He’s talking about making sin a way of life. That’s why the word “practice” is so important. Sin is that which is practiced as a way of life, and it violates the law of God.
Next, John tells us that sin is a total contradiction in the life of a believer in Christ: “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). Jesus is “…the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29 NASB). So, in Christ, there is no sin. According to 1 Pet 1:19, He is the “lamb unblemished and spotless…” 2 Corinthians 5:21 says: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Jesus became sin so we could become righteous.
So, why are we, then, so careless with sin – as if it somehow it doesn’t matter how we behave? To practice sin – as a believer – is a total contradiction to Jesus Christ, and to the life that we’re called to live in him as children of God. So, in response to that knowledge, John explains the nature of the problem of sin. “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him” (1 John 3:6).
The problem comes from a failure to abide in Christ. Remember what John has already said about abiding in Christ? Let me quote just two. 1 John 2:24 – “As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father.” 1 John 2:28 – “Now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming.” Failing to live in Christ is the problem. Living in Christ – or abiding in Christ – is the solution to practicing righteousness. Abiding in Christ foster righteous living.
So, John says there are two primary evidences of those who practice sin. First, they’re lawless (1 Jn 3:4) – and now he says, they’re ignorant (1 Jn. 3:6). They don’t know God and they don’t see God. They have no vision of God – they see only themselves. They have no knowledge of God – they know only selfishness.
Sometime ago now, I watched a Primetime Live episode on LA street gangs. One girl was talking about looting during a recent riot. Her father disapproved of her gang life and that she sold drugs to make a living. He refused to use the coffee maker she had looted. He wouldn’t touch it. In the interview she said of her father: “He has an attitude man! He has something called morals!” She had no concept of what morality was. To her it was like some sort of social disease. She was a sad example of someone who practiced sin – habitually, regularly, and deliberately. She was lawless and ignorant of God’s ways. She was five months pregnant and in jail for dealing drugs. Another young girl was a legal secretary by day and a gangbanger by night. She would kill, and steal, and enjoy violence perpetrated on a rival gang – but she would reverently pay homage to the Virgin Mary. We probably all know of people like these two young girls. Maybe we even used to be like that ourselves. We would “behave” ourselves all week long – just so we could practice sin all weekend! This is what John is telling us. Those who practice sin are lawless and ignorant of Gods ways!
And then, John identifies the danger of the deception that the ones he’s teaching are facing: “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning” (1 John 3:7-8a). John calls them little children (“little born ones”) – again in reference to their spiritual maturity level. Little children are…dependent on others for help and need special care because they’re easily led astray.
So, John says to them (and us): Don’t let anyone mislead you or deceive about what the difference is between children of light and children of darkness. Children of the light (God) behave in a certain way: FIRST they practice righteousness, and SECOND they cannot (habitually, willfully) sin. John is saying: “If you claim allegiance to Jesus Christ, and you abide in Him, and you have fellowship with Him, and you serve Him – then you will give up sinning on a habitual basis. You simply can no longer sin without a struggle.”
John’s saying that our new nature in Christ cannot sin. In fact, it never sins. If you are a child of God, His nature in you will not go along with the old nature and commit sin. A believer who abides in Christ does not practice sin – that’s just not where they live. That’s where the sinner lives, but the child of God won’t. In fact, John says, he can’t! Only pigs live in pigpens, sheep don’t. The difference between a pig and a sheep when they fall into a mud puddle of sin is, a pig wallows in sin. A sheep can’t stand it and wants out. John is saying: If you go off into the pigpen and live there, that’s the old nature – your “flesh.” If you can stay there and can be happy, then you never were a child of God in the first place. If you can sin and be happy, then you’re not God’s child because God’s children have the nature of their Father!
The children of darkness also behave in a certain way: FIRST, they practice sin “…the one who practices sin is of the devil…” (vs. 8a). And SECOND they cannot NOT sin “…for the devil has sinned from the beginning.” (vs. 8b). The righteous person is the one who practices righteousness. A righteousness person will pattern their life after Jesus Christ. On the other hand, the one who practices sin is of the devil.
The Greek verb tense in verse 8 reveals not just that the devil “has sinned,” but that he “sins” from the beginning…It’s his nature to sin. He sins as a matter of principle. In other words, sin is the devil’s way of life – it’s what he practices. So, the warning is that we must not practice sin as a way of life, or else we are just like the devil – and we prove that he really is our father, rather than God.
Remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 8:44? “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” John says, if we don’t want to be considered children of the devil – then we shouldn’t act like him.
Finally, in 1 John 3:8b-10 John reminds us that Jesus Christ is the answer to sin and how to overcome its practice: “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.”
John says that Jesus came to destroy the works of the Devil – and it’s inconceivable that the very people Jesus came to save could, in the end, be destroyed by the very thing He, himself, came to destroy – the works of the devil! That’s why it’s so hard for John to conceive that if we’re aware of what Jesus came to do, why would we ever live like the devil? So, John reminds us that no one who is born of God practices sin.
Now, don’t confuse this with a sinful mistake, or a sin resulting from weakness in a given moment. He’s talking here about sin as a lifestyle. The person who is born of God simply doesn’t have a sinful lifestyle. And the reason is because the seed of God lives in him. “…because His seed abides in him…” God’s “seed” has impregnated our soul – so to speak. 1 Peter 1:23puts it like this: “For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God…”
John concludes this passage by clearly spelling out the test of righteousness. If you want to know if you are righteous, John says, you will habitually, regularly, deliberately do two things. FIRST, you will practice righteousness: “…anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God…” and SECOND, you will practice love: “…nor the one who does not love his brother…” Both the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious by the fruit of their lives.
Fellowship with Jesus (on the one hand) and habitually practicing and living in a sinful lifestyle (the other hand) – are mutually exclusive. No compromise is possible. And the conclusion we’re forced to draw is that we cannot expect to be confident on that day when we see Christ, if we’re complacent about sin in our lives now.
I believe that we all sin in thought, word and deed – consciously and unconsciously – every day. Therefore we need to come to Jesus every day and confess our sins, repent of our sins, and walk away from our sins. If we neglect that discipline we can easily give room to sin in our lives. And if we’re not vigilant, we can begin to practice sin more than we practice righteousness.
One of the most powerful verses in this passage in 1 John is verse 8b: “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” Only Jesus can deliver you and me from our sin and our sins. We can’t deliver ourselves. And we can’t deliver each other. Only Jesus can do that. Jesus died and rose again to make it possible for you and me to live the Christian life – and practice righteousness by abiding in Him.
Spend a few minutes reflecting on your life today. Examine your heart and your lifestyle. Ask God to reveal if there’s any level of “practicing sin” in your life. If He reveals anything to you – then confess it, repent of it and resolve that you’ll walk away from it. And then come to God with a clear conscience – and an examined life.