FIRST LETTER OF JOHN 3
You must see what great love the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children — which is what we are! The reason why the world does not acknowledge us is that it did not acknowledge him.
2 My dear friends, we are already God’s children, but what we shall be in the future has not yet been revealed. We are well aware that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is.
3 Whoever treasures this hope of him purifies himself, to be as pure as he is.
4 Whoever sins, acts wickedly, because all sin is wickedness.
5 Now you are well aware that he has appeared in order to take sins away, and that in him there is no sin.
6 No one who remains in him sins, and whoever sins has neither seen him nor recognised him.
7 Children, do not let anyone lead you astray. Whoever acts justly is just, just as he is just.
8 Whoever lives sinfully belongs to the devil, since the devil has been a sinner from the beginning. This was the purpose of the appearing of the Son of God, to undo the work of the devil.
9 No one who is a child of God sins because God’s seed remains in him. Nor can he sin, because he is a child of God.
10 This is what distinguishes the children of God from the children of the devil: whoever does not live justly and does not love his brother is not from God.
The faith of the authors that followers of Jesus are God’s children is made real in two ways: just action in the present and hope of transformation in the future. Their faith holds to the promise that in the end time Jeaus will be openly revealed as the unique child of God, and that all his followers will be like him and share his divine identity. This provides a motive for genuine discipline in the present time, to model one’s life on the purity of Jesus, which entails what the authors call in Greek dikaiosune, meaning justice, in the sense of a personal virtue rather than a legal judgment. I have changed the New Jerusalem translation here; it has “uprightness” which is weak; I can see the problems of using “justice” but it is the root meaning of the Greek word and points to the public nature of the right actions demanded.
The argument that those who belong to Jesus cannot sin, seems strange. It springs from the conviction that justice and goodness arise from being born of God, not simply from personal discipline; whereas sin and wickedness arise from being born of the Devil. The shared life (Koinonia) which is the authors’ fundamental word for Christian Faith, arises from a spiritual birth, which in this passage is ascribed to divine seed. This seed should be identified as the “word of life received in the beginning” (See chapter 1). It is assumed that wicked people are fathered by the devil.
This absolute distinction, along with the refusal to accept that believers can sin, is puzzling since the authors have said that “if we confess our sin, he is just and faithful and will forgivve our sin and cleanse us from all injustice.” Does that refer only to sins committed before people became believers?
I think the authors may be pushing their insight too far. I find their insistence that our actions are rooted in our fundamental belonging, helpful. What I do is rooted in what I am and “where I’m coming from”; so that whatever goodness I do flows from the life I share with God and my brothers and sisters. Yes. But where do my wrong actions flow from? The answer seems to be that they flow from the bits of life I share with the devil. The authors refuse this possibility, for them there can be no double allegiance. Unfortunately this leads them to the extreme position of saying that true believers cannot sin. I think it is true that there are areas of my life which have not opened to Jesus/ God and consequently remain open to his Satanic Majesty with predictable results. The work of Jesus in “undoing the work of the devil” continues in my life, and I think, the lives of most believers.
With this correction I find the thinking of the authors about sin very helpful. A unjust or unloving action is not a mere failure, but an indication that something is wrong in my sharing with God and my brothers and sisters. The changes I need to make may be to do with my relationships rather than simple matters of discipline. Some part of me may be dangerously closed to God.
The argument of this passage shows the danger that a profound understanding can bring. The authors’ insight into the deep roots of human action is splendid, but it needs balanced by a dose of common sense, of humour even, so that it can be used wisely rather than extremely.