Doing Righteousness

Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin, because his seed abideth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother (1 John 3:9-10).

Righteousness and sin are always at odds. You cannot hold to one and court the other; you cannot be fully devoted to one while having affection for the other. John wants his fellow Christians to be very clear on this.

The context of 1 John 3:1-10 is the same as that of 1 John 2:18-29: John is greatly concerned about the “antichrists” who would lead Christians astray. John sets out boundary markers to both assure Christians of their standing before God while making sharp and stark distinctions between them and their opponents. The impetus in 1 John 2:18-27 involved doctrines and teachings: Christians could have assurance in their standing before God by holding firm to the message they heard from the beginning and remaining strong in the instruction provided through the Spirit. Those who confessed the truth of God in Christ as revealed to the Apostles by the Spirit from the beginning remained in God in Christ; those who denied Jesus as the Incarnate Christ, the Son of God, were antichrists (1 John 2:18-24).

John does begin a slight shift in 1 John 2:29 that informs 1 John 3:1-10: doctrine is one means by which one can have either assurance or warning, but the practice of righteousness is another such marker. John fleshes this out in 1 John 3:1-10, particularly in 1 John 3:4-10. Those who sin do lawlessness, and Jesus became flesh in order to take away such sin, and in Him there was no sin (1 John 3:4-5). The contrast is set: those who are in Christ and begotten of God do not sin but do righteousness, and those who do not know God in Christ but are of the devil persist in sin and do not love their brethren (1 John 3:4-10).

John speaks in very black and white terms; unsurprisingly, many have taken his messages out of context, interpreting them in the most absolute terms, and have caused confusion, disharmony, and inserted contradiction into Scripture by so doing. One who has read all of 1 John until this point can see the tension and challenge inherent in John’s strong language: did John not say in 1 John 1:8 that those who say they (presently) have no sin deceive themselves, and the truth is not in them? Did he not speak of the need for confession of sin in 1 John 1:9? What of 1 John 2:1, where “if we sin” we have an advocate before the Father in Jesus Christ the righteous? How can John in one verse allow for the possibility of Christians sinning, or declaring that Christians presently struggle with sin, and yet a few verses later say that true Christians will not sin at all?

We can make sense of what John says first by considering those against whom he speaks and then by considering what he might mean by his language. Those whom John characterizes as “antichrists” are at least docetists if not incipient Gnostics. Docetists believed that Jesus was not actually human but only seemed to be human (from Greek dokeo, “to seem”). In their view, God would never humiliate Himself to the point of taking on flesh; to accept such a view would deny the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12-20), and such is why John denounces this view with such force in 1 John 2:18-3:10. Perhaps their docetism was part of incipient Gnosticism, a view which would become popular in later centuries. The Gnostics were docetic and believed they had special, secret knowledge of the “story within the story” in the Bible. In either case, many times adherents of such views would either start out in Christianity and depart from it or would visit Christian assemblies, perhaps attempt to join with the Christians, and seem to be one of the Christians, but only in order to get a chance to speak privately with individual Christians in an attempt to lead them astray from the faith (cf. 1 John 2:19, 26). Such is why John emphasizes the need to hold to the message Christians heard from the beginning (1 John 2:24), but it also is why John must emphasize righteousness (1 John 2:29-3:10). Throughout the New Testament, one consistent condemnation of false teachers involves their attempt to satisfy desires of the flesh through the proclamation and substance of their messages (Philippians 3:18-19, 1 Timothy 6:3-6, Titus 1:10-14, 2 Peter 2:1-20, Jude 1:3-16). Whereas Jesus in His life and death practiced and exhorted toward righteousness, and the Apostles sought to proclaim and practice righteousness, these antichrists would use their proclamations and practice to practice greed, sexual immorality, and a host of other sins, and justified themselves on account of the fact that the flesh was irrelevant, to be destroyed in death, and the spiritual realm was all that was important. Little wonder then why John emphasized the resurrection of life as the foundation of hope that leads to purity and holiness in 1 John 3:2-3: when you understand that God is about redemption and reconciliation, you will seek to be pure and holy even in the flesh so as to be like Him. In terms of the language used, some modern versions do well to flesh out what John means by “doeth sin”: “making a practice of sinning.” The difference is not between people who never sin versus sin a little or a lot; the contrast is between those who continually or repeatedly sin versus those who do not have such a practice. In so doing we can reconcile 1 John 3:9-10 with 1 John 1:8-9, 2:1: Christians are not to continue in unrepentant sin and must not make sin a habit, but when they stumble in their walk with Christ, they can confess that stumble and be forgiven so as to continue to pursue righteousness in Christ.

Even though we must resist making John’s language absolute, we still must come to grips with the force of his words in terms of our lives as Christians. John is sharply and starkly re-stating Jesus’ principle regarding false teachers in Matthew 7:15-20: by their fruits you shall know them. If doctrines lead to righteousness, they likely are true (although even in this case we must be hesitant to speak in absolute terms, for many people do a lot of righteous things yet believe very different things about the nature of God in Christ). But if the people who promote a teaching persist in sin, or the doctrines themselves justify persistence in sin, then they are clearly false and of the Evil One. It is easy to always project this concern onto others; after all, we believe we teach the truth and are in the right, yet who would ever honestly claim to be a false teacher? We must first consider ourselves: do people know we are Christians by how we speak and act? Are we producing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24)? We may intend to practice righteousness, and that intention may be well and good, but a big difference remains between intending to do righteousness yet persisting in sin and actually doing righteousness and thus avoiding sin. We might attempt to take solace in the idea that we have the true teachings, but John’s words should expose that assurance as a lie: it has never been enough to just know the truth, but it must be practiced. To not practice the truth you know is sin (James 4:17); you have no excuse. We know we are children of God when we do the things we know are true!

Many good-hearted, sincere, and conscientious Christians read 1 John 3:9-10 and are pricked in heart, concerned they may not be good enough to be the children of God. Such people most likely have the least to fear; a heart so tender to God’s message remains open to all He says and seeks to accomplish them. We must remember that John writes these things to assure Christians that they remain in Christ when they hold to the Gospel as proclaimed from the beginning and practice righteousness, not to upset their faith. Yet we must be doing righteousness; just knowing it is never enough. Let us demonstrate that we are born of God by practicing righteousness, assured that we will be known by God, Jesus, and those around us by the fruit expressed in our words and deeds!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Mark of True Discipleship

“A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34-35).

What is supposed to define a disciple, or follower, of Christ?

For the better part of 1,750 years, one could be forgiven for thinking the answer involved finding and adhering to the right doctrines regarding Jesus. For most of its history Christianity has seemed to focus on determining the nature of God and Christ, how salvation is accomplished, the relationship between the believer and the church, the church and the state, and a whole host of other matters. Upon these matters most of the written records focus; comparatively precious little is said regarding the practice of the faith. Perhaps the practice of the faith was more strongly emphasized in other contexts; perhaps it went unsaid because there was little disagreement regarding it.

The Bible does insist on a good understanding of God in Christ and the substantive message of the faith and the need to stand firm within it (2 Timothy 2:15, Jude 1:3, 2 John 1:7-11). Yet it is worth noting what Jesus Himself emphasizes as the true mark of His followers. He does not say that all men will know we are His disciples by the doctrines we teach, the truths we uphold, or the persuasive arguments we make. The mark of true disciples of Jesus is their love for one another (John 13:35).

The statement seems so simple, so obvious, and yet it is quite compelling and extraordinarily challenging. It is not as if this is the first time that the disciples have been told to love one another; the Law exhorted them to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), and all Israelites would agree that fellow Israelites were their neighbors (cf. Luke 10:25-29). That aspect of the command is “old,” but Jesus adds a twist which makes it “new”: they are to love one another as He loved them (John 13:34; cf. 1 John 2:7-8). God is love (1 John 4:8); Jesus, God in the flesh, is the embodiment of love (John 1:1, 14, Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 3:16). We can therefore understand the love Christians are to have for one another by understanding the way Jesus conducted Himself among His disciples.

Jesus called His twelve disciples, not because of who they were at the time, but on account of their willingness to follow and because of what Jesus knew they could be (Matthew 10:1-4). He spent a lot of time teaching them; many of Jesus’ teachings were directed to the disciples, even if others were present (e.g. Matthew 5:1-7:28), and would provide further explanation to them in other contexts as well (Mark 4:33-34). Nevertheless, the disciples proved slow to truly perceive and understand what Jesus was saying; He remained patient with them (cf. John 13:36-38, 14:5-8, etc.).

But Jesus went beyond instructing them in word; He also showed them in deed the things He was saying (1 John 3:18). He showed His love for them by serving them, finding no task too humiliating or “beneath” Him (John 13:1-11). He took care of their material needs many times (e.g. Matthew 17:24-27). He prayed to the Father for them (John 17:1-19). In the moment of His greatest need they forsook Him and even denied Him; He loved them anyway, died for them anyway, and welcomed them back joyfully in His resurrection (John 18:1-20:23, 1 John 3:16). Jesus embodied the definition of love toward His disciples: He was patient and kind with them, did not envy or boast, was not arrogant or rude, did not insist on His own way, was not irritable or resentful, did not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoiced with them in the truth, bore their deficiencies and iniquities, continued to believe in them, hoped in them, and endured with them. His love for them never ended (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

As we can see, coming to an understanding of the truth of God in Christ Jesus and His Kingdom is part of showing love to one another, but does not and cannot fully embody what it means to love one another. Yes, we are to learn about Jesus, but that learning is not supposed to be merely an intellectual exercise or an end unto itself; we are to learn about Him so that we can be more like Him (Romans 8:29, 1 John 2:6). Doctrine is important: we feel and act based upon what we believe, therefore, we must have the right beliefs if we are going to feel and act as we should. Yet, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, mere intellectual understanding was never the goal; knowledge of God in Christ is designed to inexorably lead to reflecting the characteristics of God in Christ.

Jesus’ phrasing might seem odd to us: how is it that all men will know we are disciples of Jesus by our love for one another? Would they not understand how we are disciples of Jesus by our love for them? It is not as if Christians are to not love those outside the faith (cf. Luke 6:27-36, Galatians 6:10), but Jesus’ emphasis on love toward one another is well-placed and quite poignant. We like to think that people are persuaded to follow Jesus through well-constructed and persuasive arguments. Some are convinced through such apologetics, but God knows us better than we know ourselves, and recognizes that very few people are ever convinced about anything on account of rational argumentation. In the end, God is not interested in just setting up an alternative mental construct through which to see the world; Christianity was never designed to just be the correct philosophy of the world.

The true mark defining a group of disciples is their love for one another. How do they treat each other? If Christians love one another like Jesus has loved them, they will remind each other of the truths of God in Jesus (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-5). But they will also show great concern for one another, making sure that each other’s material needs are met (Galatians 6:10, 1 John 3:17-18). They are patient and kind with one another; if they sin against each other, they forgive each other and bear with one another (Colossians 3:12-14). True followers of Jesus understand that they have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and feel comfortable enough with one another to open up and confess their sins, faults, and failures, entrusting themselves to one another, even though they will at times hurt each other and betray each other (James 5:16). They love each other anyway. They share with each other anyway. They build each other up anyway.

Where else in the world can such love be found in true community? People in the world crave that kind of love, acceptance, welcome, and openness. People want to be loved; people want others to be patient with them; people want to be treated kindly and considerately; people want to share life together. People want a greater purpose in life and to share in that mission with others, and so it all is supposed to be in Jesus. If Christ’s followers show love to one another as we have described it, others will want to share in that experience, and they will themselves be inspired to follow Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:13-16)!

But what happens when people claim to follow Jesus but do not manifest that love? The history of “Christianity” is full of examples of such failures, and they have given the faith a bad name and have given reason for the nations to blaspheme. Emphasis on right doctrine alone led to wars, death, misery, and pain for untold thousands; to this day, how many people associate Christianity with the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the people on the street spewing forth messages of condemnation? The world is full of different groups of people who only see each other’s failings, show little patience with one another’s faults, constantly nitpick and judge each other with a view of denigrating them, and feel important or special because of their knowledge or means by which they identify themselves. There’s nothing special or attractive about such groups, and if some such groups try to wear the name of Christ, it’s little wonder why they struggle to grow or be effective in any meaningful way.

Followers of Jesus show love to one another in a number of different ways, and they are all important, but only insofar as they point back to Jesus, glorify Him, and are done with a view to reflecting Jesus to one another and our fellow man. Jesus knows what He is doing; He has good reason to make love for one another the clear identifier of His true followers. Any group of people professing to follow Jesus which does not share in love toward each other has not truly understood Jesus. Any group which professes to follow Jesus and to have the love they should have but do not adhere to the truth of God in Jesus Christ has not really understood all that the love of Jesus requires. But it is just as true that anyone who thinks they have understood the true knowledge of God in Christ but does not show true love to His fellow Christians has not really understood the true knowledge of God in Christ and certainly has not perceived the end to which we are to learn of Christ. Instead, let us follow after Jesus the way He intends. Let us come to a better knowledge of Jesus, understanding how He lived and loved, so that we can love each other as Jesus intends!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A God of Peace, Not Confusion

For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33a).

Satan likes to insert a question mark where God has made a period.

From the beginning, God has sought a peaceful relationship and harmony with His creation (Genesis 1:31, 2:25). Ever since, Satan has attempted to challenge what God has established, spreading confusion among mankind (cf. Genesis 3:1-6).

By all accounts, the Evil One has been quite successful. Even if we just investigate into the various groups claiming to follow Christ we find a dizzying array of differing attitudes, doctrines, and practices. Everything from the nature of God to the nature of the relationship between Christians is disputed in some way or another. In such an environment, many despair of ever coming to the knowledge of the truth. It is easy to get discouraged; it is easy to see why many believe that we will always remain in a state of confusion.

But we do well to remember what Paul told the Corinthians. It appears that the Corinthian assemblies were quite the spectacle: different people prophesying at the same time, others speaking in different languages, often with no one to interpret. An outsider could be forgiven for thinking them all quite mad (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:23)! This was not what God intended with the spiritual gifts He provided through the Holy Spirit at this time; the Corinthians needed reminding that God was not a God of confusion, or instability, tumult, or commotion, but a God of peace. He remains the God of the “still, small voice,” and not of “the wind, earthquake, or fire” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Even though the gifts all came from God, it was up to His servants the Corinthian Christians to use them properly and toward the right ends (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, 14:26). His good gifts could be misdirected toward a confusing commotion that was not of the truth but of worldliness and immaturity. They could use what God had given them to strengthen and build up or to weaken and tear down.

While we do well to keep these things in mind when it comes to our assemblies today, Paul’s reasoning holds true in every aspect of our lives as Christians. God is not a God of instability, confusion, or commotion, but a God of peace, and that remains true outside of the assembly as much as within it.

God is not the author of the confusion of the modern mind, religious or secular, despite what many might claim. God made known His truth through Jesus and His Apostles (Matthew 18:18, John 8:31-32, 14:6). Part of that truth was the confession that many would sow confusion among Christians, promoting the teaching of demons, leading people astray from the truth (1 Timothy 4:1-3, 2 Timothy 4:3-5). This has never been the Lord’s intent, and it never will be. Nevertheless, He does not compel or coerce. He has given us the revelation of His message through Jesus and the Scriptures; it is up to us as to whether we will abide by His message for good or whether we will misdirect His message for selfish, immature, and improper ends.

God communicated His message so that it could be understood and followed (John 8:31-32, Romans 8:29). It is lamentable to see how effective Satan has been at getting people to question and challenge the revelation of God, vaunting their own methods and idols above the ways of the Most High. But God remains a God of peace, not confusion. His message allows us to be reconciled back to Him in sincerity, truth, and love (Romans 5:6-11). Love rejoices with the truth but cannot do so at unrighteousness (1 Corinthians 13:6), and God is love (1 John 4:8). Therefore, let us entrust ourselves to the God of love and peace, finding rest in Him, and not be tossed to and fro by the challenges, questions, and disputations which come from the author of confusion, Satan and his minions. Let us pattern our lives after the God of peace, not the author of confusion and commotion!

Ethan R. Longhenry