A Work in Progress. A Reflection on 1 John 3:1-10

1905062621_061a172acd_nIf all the scripture we had to go on were verses 8 and 9 of 1st John, we would be incredibly stressed Christians:

8 Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 1 John 3:8-9 NRSV

From this alone we would come to the conclusion that the congregation and pastor together are a collection of devil-children. We know that we do sin and can sin. So what are we to do when the clear word of scripture does not align with our experience? Do we head down the path of despair that we will never measure up?

We remember that the Word of God contains more than these two verses. We do not need to go very far to find some comfort, indeed before John speaks about our sin, he speaks about God’s love: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” ( 1 John 3:1 NRSV). John in speaking to those who have repented of sin and turned to God in Christ does not say “we might be His children . . . ,” or “we could be His children, if we are perfect everyday in everyway,” he simply says “we are His children.” Before we look at our sin and conclude that we are devil children, we look at the cross and the empty tomb to see we are God’s children. Before we look at our ability to attain perfection in purity, we look at His ability to love the impure person.

Also, we notice that perfection in purity is the goal toward which we are to progress, and so imperfection is assumed in the present. If you were to ask me how my bathroom renovation is going and I were to say “it will look good someday,” you will immediately know that it does not look good just yet. We have this same thing happening in verses 2 and 3:

2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 1 John 3:2-3 NRSV

“What we will be has not been revealed,” in other words let us not dive too deep into conjecture as to precisely what our resurrection bodies will look like. Paul uses the analogy of of a seed becoming a plant to describe what happens when this body becomes a resurrection body. We are not told too much about the plant! But what we do know, as John points out, is that we will be like Jesus. And what is Jesus like? Verse 3 answers that: “he is pure.” If we look forward to perfect purity when Jesus returns, we know we still have sin now. We are a work in progress.

However some will stop with “we are a work,” and will forget the progress part. They will point to the love God has for the sinner and conclude that it is okay to remain a sinner. That misses the point for several reasons as John makes clear:

First, only a fool will make no progress toward a worthy goal. It is a foolish handyman who does not desire progress toward the goal of fixing a leaky roof. It is foolish beyond measure to not progress toward purity. John assumes that we will: “we will be like him . . . all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” I can attest to the fact that progress is exciting in renovation projects. When it comes to holiness, progress toward the goal is even more exciting!

Second, to continue in the enjoyment of sin is to act contrary to God’s activity. It is the foolish employee of a roofing company who takes a shovel to potter around a garden instead of getting to the job of ripping off old shingles. As John points out: “You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” (1 John 3:5,6 NRSV)

Third, to continue in the enjoyment of sin is to show a family resemblance to a father we should want nothing to do with, a father we should completely disown:

7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9 Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 10 The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters. 1 John 3:7-10 NRSV

On the one hand, if we desire a family resemblance to the devil rather than to our Heavenly Father, then yes, we should suspect that our relationship with God is in question. John is dealing in his letter with heresy that was threatening to infect the church which included the notion that a life of sin does not matter. It does!

On the other hand, the presence of sin in our lives is not automatic proof that we are not God’s children. It is proof that we are a work in progress. Are you already perfect? Are you making progress?

8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  1 John 1:8,9 NRSV

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His Birth, Our Adoption

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But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 4:4-7 NRSV)

Jesus was born, so that ultimately we might receive adoption as God’s children. There are few things we can note:

  1. We cannot think of ourselves as automatically being God’s children just because we happen to exist. The Bible does not affirm that all people are God’s children, if we were, there would be no need for adoption. It does affirm that we are separated from God by sin. God therefore has no “fatherly” obligation toward us. Thankfully, it also affirms that we can become His children: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:12 NRSV)
  2. Adoption is a result of God’s will, God’s desire. A parent who goes to an adoption agency has no prior obligation to adopt a particular child. God has no obligation to adopt us, or do anything for us. But He chooses to do so. It is His will to do something good for us, He sent His Son, that we might be adopted.
  3. Our background is not an issue for adoption. When God has chosen to adopt you, there is no “but Lord, you know that I am . . . or I have done . . .” He already knows and has gone ahead with the adoption anyway. There is repentance from those things in the past that separate us from God, but our past does not keep God from adopting.
  4. We are adopted by One who will be present to us and intimate with us: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6) Though we can point to the Lamb’s Book of life, an adoption certificate is not our proof now that we are His children. His fatherly presence through His Holy Spirit is. And through His Spirit we are to call him by what is really the more familiar “Dad” rather than the formal “Father.”
  5. We are no longer enslaved. We have been enslaved to sin this side of Eden. A particular people were called through whom God would bless all, they were enslaved to the law. Through adoption we are no longer slaves to sin or the law, but we are free children of God. Being freed, our desire will be to honour the One who has freed us from slavery, and adopted us as His own.
  6. As God’s children we look forward to an inheritance. While I appreciate translations that look to being appropriately inclusive in language, these are verses where it helps to know that the word “son” is used throughout. In fact it is even found in the very word for ‘adoption’. This is important because it was written at a time when sons enjoyed the inheritance, the daughters not-so-much. So the ladies among us also look forward to a full and equal inheritance in Jesus.
  7. A familiar expression is true: “God has no grandchildren.” Perhaps some prefer to think of God as a grandfather type of figure, close enough to enjoy a relationship, but far enough to enjoy freedom from a father’s discipline. When we are adopted, we are adopted as children, not grandchildren. We can expect His wonderful presence, we can expect a wonderful inheritance, and we can also expect His discipline. This too is wonderful!

At the right time Jesus was born so that someday you might be adopted as God’s child. Have you experienced that?

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