Sonship As Responsibility: An Exegesis Of 1 John 3.

A critical examination of the Epistles reveal that sonship is described in two ways; the word “son” or “child” can be understood in two different contexts in the apostolic writings. These two contexts are readily found in the Pauline and Johannean Epistles respectively.

When Paul speaks of believers being “sons” (“huios“) of God, he refers mostly to a reality i.e. our freedom/liberty from the Law in Christ (see Gal 3:26, 4:6-7). John’s teaching of sonship differs slightly from Paul’s; he uses the word “child” (“teknon“) in context of conduct i.e. sons resemble their fathers in their lifestyle (see 1 John 2:28-29, 3:1-3, 7-15). So John’s Epistles speak of the Christian’s sonship as a RESPONSIBILITY primarily, not a reality (i.e. who we are in Christ). We are sons of God to act like God in John’s Epistles; Jesus taught sonship this way too (see Matt 5:9, 43-48).

The concept of sonship as responsibility may be readily found in 1 John 3.

Vs. 1 says, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called CHILDREN OF GOD! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.” We are sons of God to show forth the Father (in our conduct) in a world that does not know Him (John 17:25). The world is alienated from Him in sin (John 14:17).

Although we are sons of God, we currently exist in a mortal body. However, this would change, at the end of the age. Vs. 2 says, “Beloved, now WE ARE CHILDREN OF GOD; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, WE SHALL BE LIKE HIM, for we shall see Him as He is.” The Christian is saved with the promise of a future glorification, in which his body would be transformed, bearing the glory of the Father (Rom 8:18-25, Phil 3:20-21, 1 Corin 15:50-57). As we wait for this future transformation, we must align our present conduct with that of our Heavenly Father (Matt 5:16, Phil 2:15, 1 Pt 2:9). John’s point is this: since we will one day bear the image of the Father bodily (i.e. at the resurrection), we should endeavour to bear the same now, in our lifestyle.

The hope of a future glorification should inspire holy living in the present time. Vs. 3 says, “And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” Christians should lead a life which reveals and glorifies God, in all purity and righteousnesss.

Vv. 4-5 say, “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin.” If we are truly born of God (i.e. saved), our conduct must reveal this fact. Sin is so antithetical to God’s nature that one cannot truly claim to be His son while continuing in the same. Christ came to save us from sin’s consequence (death), not to give us a license to continue in sin. One truly born of God does not make a practice of sin.

Vs. 6 says, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” To “abide in Christ” is to fix one’s gaze and attention solely on Jesus; to fellowship CONTINUALLY around the knowledge of Christ. A person who does this CONTINUALLY, does not sin (or “does not continue in sin,” the Greek says). If your eyes are fixed on Jesus, on His love and His Grace, you cannot continue in sin.

However, “…whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” The Greek sounds like this: Whoever is in the act of sinning (continuous actions) has neither seen Him nor known Him.”

Seen” (“horaó“) and “known” (“ginóskó“) are terms of experience or fellowship. The one in the act of sinning was not fixing His gaze on Jesus (i.e. experiencing fellowship with Him from His Word) while he was sinning. Most times, those who fall into sin are not saturating their minds and hearts with the consciousness of Christ, as they ought to (Phili 4:8, 1 Pt 3:15).

Vs. 7 says, “Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.” Righteousnesss here refers not to the gift of righteousnesss which we have received in Christ i.e. a reality (2 Corin 5:21, Rom 5:1). It refers to right living, speaking of the believer’s conduct, as with the antecedent verse (vs. 6). The Greek literally says, “he who CONTINUALLY practices righteousness is righteous (in conduct), just as He (Jesus) is.” Such a one has fellowshipped around Christ’s attributes long enough that this knowledge begins to affect his own conduct.

To John, God’s sons are known by their good conduct while the sons of the devil (i.e. the unsaved) are known by their sinfulness. Vs. 8 says, “He who sins is OF THE DEVIL, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” The Greek reads: “He who CONTINUALLY and HABITUALLY makes a practice of sinning is of the devil.” This CANNOT be describing the believer, but the unsaved man. All men sin (including the believer) but the unsaved differ in that they make sinning a lifestyle. They are comfortable in wrongdoing. No true Christian has this attitude towards sin.

The unsaved man (who continually makes a habit of sinning) is “OF the devil.” Observe that John does not say “BORN of the devil” as he does “born of God” (in vs. 9). This is because “the devil begets none, nor does he create any; but whoever imitates the devil becomes a child of the devil by imitating him, not by proper birth” (St. Augustine, Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Homily 4.10). From the devil there is not generation (birth), but corruption (Bengel).

Where John speaks of the unsaved as “a child of the devil” (1 John 3:10, John 8:44), this should not be understood in terms of a literal birth but in terms of imitation. Remember, John uses sonship primarily in the context of character emulation; so the believer (born of God) imitates God in his character, while the unbeliever (a child of the devil) exhibits satanic traits (in lusts, sins, vices and transgressions). This is the context in which Satan has “children” (i.e. his children are those who act like him). They are under his influence and control (Eph 2:1-3, 2 Tim 2:26). He who sins (i.e. makes an habit of it) is therefore OF the devil, in contrast to “he who practices righteousness” in 1 John 3:7.

Vs. 9 says, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” The Greek puts it this way: “Whoever having been born of God (past tense) does not CONTINUALLY practice sin.” This does not mean he doesn’t sin at all, but he doesn’t make a practice of it! He is not comfortable with sinning because “His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.

The word “seed” translates the Greek “sperma” (σπέρμα). It literally refers to the sperm; what is sown to create posterity. The offspring then bears the nature of his father. John uses it figuratively here for the new nature in every believer. At salvation, the Old Man of sin is crucified (Rom 6:6, Gal 5:24). We have now received a new nature, identical to God’s (Eph 4:24). This new nature, like God’s, detests sin. It does not make a practice of it! So a true believer, who has this seed in him “cannot sin.” Actually, the Greek says, “is not able to continue sinning” (in the infinitive mood) i.e. to continue non-stop and without control. That seed of God in him keeps him in check. He is now a brand new man in Christ! His character changes “because he is born of God.

Vs. 10 says, “In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.” Understanding the context in which John uses “children” (i.e. character imitation), we find that those who are saved (born of God) are righteous in conduct; this is not a reality but a responsibility. By conduct, the children of the devil (those who act like him) are also known.

The children of the devil act like him in hatred and murder (evil works). The believer loves. The unbeliever does not have the ability to truly love (in the Biblical sense of the word), he is under bondage to the devil in his mind, thought and emotions, just like Cain. Vv. 11-12 say, “For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as CAIN WHO WAS OF THE WICKED ONE and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous.” Therefore those of this world hate and murder, revealing their true nature (they are dead in sin). Vv. 13-14 say, “Do not marvel, my brethren, IF THE WORLD HATES YOU. We know that we have passed from death to life, BECAUSE we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother ABIDES IN DEATH.” Believers emulate their Father in love. This is contrasted with the unsaved man who hates and murders, in vs. 15, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that NO MURDERER HAS ETERNAL LIFE ABIDING IN HIM.

Our sonship in Christ therefore comes with a RESPONSIBILITY; we are God’s sons to act like Him. Salvation is so colossal and life-altering that a man should bear tangible fruits and results of a changed life afterwards.

John then explains ways in which the Christian acts as God’s son. Vv. 16-17 say, “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” To “lay down our lives for the brethren” does not mean to die for them, but to reciprocate the same self-sacrificial love we have received in Christ towards them. In context, we do this by giving to them; meeting the needs of the impoverished.

James teaches similiarly in James 2:14-16, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?’

Paul teaches Christian generosity in Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, LET US DO GOOD TO ALL, ESPECIALLY to those who are OF THE HOUSEHOLD OF FAITH.” To help the saints in need is to render service to Christ (see Matt 25:37-40).

Love is not merely in words alone, but ought to be expressed via overt actions. Vs. 18 says, “My little children, let us not love in WORD or in TONGUE, but in DEED AND IN TRUTH.” Jesus also cautioned against doing charitable deeds to showoff or for eyeservice (see Matt 6:1-4).

The one who walks as a Christian (in loving his brother) can be rest assured that he is truly saved. He is not a false professor of the Christian faith, since his conduct aligns with his confession. Vs. 19 says, “And BY THIS WE KNOW THAT WE ARE OF THE TRUTH, and shall ASSURE OUR HEARTS before Him.” True Christians love the Lord and love His people. There is no two ways about it; based on God’s Word, we have liberty to doubt that a man is truly saved who shows no iota of love/dedication for God—salvation changes our very hearts (Eze 36:26-27)! This does not mean the believer is flawless and perfect in his conduct, but the true believer does not make a lifestyle of sinning. He strives to please the Father in all he does, although he may sometimes fall. This is how a man can be rest assured that he is “of the truth” (i.e. truly saved). The unsaved, on the other hand, are completely/utterly opposed to God—they hate Him and His ways. One cannot truly claim to be a believer, while he acts like the unsaved. This is John’s point. His heart cannot be rest assured before God.

Vs. 20 says, “For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.” This is not a positive statement. No one knows a man more than himself (his heart/conscience), yet God is greater than his heart and knows all things. Even our conscience is not infallible (we sometimes think we have done better than we actually have). So ultimately, it is God Who remains the ultimate Judge. He is greater than our hearts and His verdict is final. John’s point is this: if our hearts, which are lesser than God, condemn us for not walking in love (i.e. leading Christ-like lives), how much more God Who is greater? His reprove of our bad conduct will be greater! So, we must walk in love, this is how we can “assure our hearts before Him” (vv. 18-19).

By loving fellow Christians in word and action, we certify/confirm the truth that we are truly saved (since only our works, not our faith, can be seen). When we have walked in the Word (by loving others), our conscience is pure, and cannot condemn us. Vs. 21 says, “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God.

Vs. 22 says, “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, BECAUSE we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” This is not placing a condition on receiving from Him, but simply describing the believer. The word “because” translates the Greek “hoti” (ὅτι). It means “that.” So the text should be better read thus:

And whatever we ask we receive from Him, we that keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.

We that keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” is not a condition to receive from God, but simply describing those who are asking. They are the ones who keep His commandments and “do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” These commandments are not the laws of Moses (see Rom 10:4). The succedent verse (vs. 23) reveals these “commandments.” It says, “And this is His commandment: that we should BELIEVE on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and LOVE ONE ANOTHER, as He gave us commandment.” The New Testament commandment is the obedience of faith (believing) and love for others.

Vs. 24 then says, “Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.

He who keeps (CONTINUALLY keeps, the Greek says) His commandments (i.e. loves his brother) abides in Christ (he can be rest assured that he is truly saved and in union with Christ). Christ also lives in such a one by His Spirit. So the assurance of salvation is twofold: the Spirit living in us and the fruit of the Spirit (love) made evident without (1 John 2:3-11). By these we know we are truly sons of God, saved and regenerate.

We must not mistake John as teaching salvation by works. But the Apostle of Love is SO confident that if a man is truly saved, he will walk uprightly. He is so sure of God’s working in that man’s heart, so much so that he can boldly say a man not walking uprightly just might not be born of God, but self-deluded. To John, a true Christian can be discovered, not in sinless perfection, but in a desire to lead a holy life—although the Christian may sometimes fall into sin, his heart is in the right place. He always comes back to his senses eventually. He is never comfortable in a lifestyle of transgression.

True Christians love to please God (Phil 2:13), so John describes Christians throughout his Epistles using their conduct; rather than use terms like “righteousnesss of God” “new creation/man” “seated with Christ” etc (i.e. Paul’s description of the saved man), John instead uses descriptions such as “those who love” (1 John 3:14), “those who practice righteousnesss” (1 John 2:29, 3:7), “children/imitators of God” (1 John 3:10), “those born of God” (1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 18), “those who abide in Him/in the light” (1 John 1:7, 2:6, 10) etc. Thus, Paul and John refer to the same thing (the saved man), only with different words and with different emphasis. John describes Christians based on what they do (love), while Paul describes Christians based on who they are (free in Christ). This is the key to interpreting both writers correctly.


© Josh Banks Ministries. 2022.


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