If 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