What we are
The Apostle begins this section with “Behold”. In other words, Draw off your eyes from other objects for a moment, and fix them on this transcendent grace, free, costly and eternal: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the children of God” (3:1). Here we are confronted at once with two most wonderful things: firstly, that we should be called the children of God, and secondly, that we should know the bestowal of the Father’s love. The two facts are connected, as we shall see, but first we must note once more a distinction suggested by the use here of the two titles ‘God’ and ‘Father’.
The Father’s love is only really known by the members of the family. It may be observed by outsiders, but cannot really be tasted or experienced by them. John will have something to say later about the love of God in chapter four verses 9 and 10, and the context there clearly relates to man in his sinful state. The love of God is towards us as sinners, and it is the love that sent Christ into the world that we might live through Him. It is the love of God that saves (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). We do not, of course, suggest any distinction in the Person who loves, but only seek to distinguish between the love of God as it meets the sinner in his need, and the Father’s love which enfolds the child of God within the family. The distinction is really a change in us and in our relationship.
The love of God is demonstrated in the cross; it goes out to every sinner, and is pre-eminently for his benefit. It is for all men and toward all. But the Father’s love is something more. It can only be truly known when we have entered the family and become members of the family circle. The Father’s love has a peculiar sweetness and force because it embraces those who have put their trust in the Son. When we see how that love enfolded the Father’s own Beloved One throughout His earthly life, emphasizing the unique and privileged relationship in which He stood as Son of God, then our own privileged place and title as God’s children finds wondrous illumination. This love of the Father is not to be known primarily by the number of the blessings we receive and the experience of His grace, but rather by the title which we have now: children of God. “Beloved, now are we the children of God” (3:2). “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16,17).
“What manner of love”! says John. Yes, because what we taste now is more than the love of God which we tasted as sinners. It is the Father’s love, the exclusive portion of Christ and His brethren. And what a wonderful designation: the children of God; suggesting not merely the fact of our relationship but also a claim we have upon God, the holy and righteous One who has now become our Father. And then how precious His response to that claim—the response of a heavenly Father’s love! He, who calls all by their right names, calls us, who have believed in His Son, My children, and enfolds us hourly in His Fatherly love. “Children of God: and such we are”, says John (3:1). (This clause “and such we are” is not found in all our translations, but it is in the more ancient and trustworthy Greek manuscripts, and does add a very real note of certainty.) Because we are “begotten of Him” (i.e. Christ; 2:28,29) we are children of God (3:1). It is the Father’s life that we have through the Son, which makes us indeed our Father’s children.
“For this cause the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not.” (3:1). We cannot expect unconverted men of the world to understand our statement that we are “children of God.” It was over this point that the Jews had the greatest controversy with the Lord Himself. Of course His claim went further than ours, for He could claim deity; but if we rise to the title that is ours, and say, “Now are we children of God”, (meaning, those to whom the Father has imparted His Life) the world will not follow us, nor can we expect to be understood. The world will be unimpressed and will treat any such statement with indifference and perhaps contempt, because it does not know Him.
What we shall be
“Beloved, now are we children of God…” (3:2).
Men’s blindness and ignorance does not affect the blessed reality. But John does not stop there; he moves on from this emphatic statement to something in the future, of which we do not know the details yet; “… And it is not yet made manifest what we shall be …” (3:2) . We must wait until the hour arrives for the full disclosure, but we know,we are assured of this blessed and indisputable fact, “that if (when) he shall be manifested we shall be like him, for we shall see him even as he is.” (3:2).
The Lord always sees His people as they are going to be when He has finished with them. He is like the artists who paints with the finished picture always in mind. He may have only a few strokes of his brush on the canvas, and if you visit him, he may forget and be surprised that those strokes are unintelligible to you, when he has all the time got the finished picture before him.
We “shall be like him” (3:2). There is comfort in such a statement and we embrace it with thankfulness, but we must enquire why and how we shall be suddenly like Him? We remember again in the first place that the Greek word for ‘appear’ or ‘be made manifest’ is ‘phaneroo’which means ‘to be apparent’. It refers to something which is already existent but which may for a time be veiled or hidden, and which then at length is unveiled and becomes apparent to all. This is illustrated, as we saw, by our Lord’s transfiguration before His disciples on the mount. All that in Him which had been so difficult to understand because it went so far beyond human comprehension, resulting in His being a constant mystery to them, was suddenly explained. The veil of His flesh was suddenly drawn aside, and they saw His majesty (2 Pet. 1:16). While truly Man, He was really more than man. He was divine. Their mistake all along was to try to confine Him to human measurements.
Now, says John, “We know that, if he shall be manifest, we shall be like him.” The world now thinks us odd; it derides and scorns us; but the hour will come when this body, which is a temporary covering, will be put off, and the new man which was begotten by the Word and formed under the hand of the Spirit according to Christ, will be made manifest as already present. Our new body in that hour, conformed to the body of his glory, will not be given us to disguise or to cover over our defects in that day, but rather to transmit, as it were, through transparent glass the glory of the life we already possess, the Divine Life of Christ indwelling human lives. The change will not be so much inward as outward, removing for ever the veil that prevents people, be they men or angels, from seeing what the grace of God has done in us.
If the hour spoken of in this verse should come just now, we should not become more spiritual than we are at this moment, but rather, what we are spiritually would be manifested. It is an unveiling of what is there. The Father has given us life in His Son. Christ is our Life, and we are being conformed to Him. The world cannot see it; it cannot really identify us now, but when all the curtains are drawn aside, what is really there will be exposed for all to behold.
“And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (3:3). In these words the apostle indicates that the glorious end just contemplated calls for a response on our part. Knowing now that the end will be an exposure of us, and anxious that that exposure shall be to His pleasure and praise, we seek to be like Him now. We have the life of Christ in us, and therefore it is not a question of using human resources. He is pure, and our hope of purity is set on Him; it arises from what He is. “Every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself.” That is the starting point for profitable exercise on our part. If we are looking for His return, then we cannot enjoy the world that rejected Him. They who love this world do not look for His return. The two things do not go together. We must choose.
Now since in this verse we are encouraged to exercise ourselves unto purity, it is evident too that we are not yet pure as He is pure. Paul says in 2 Cor. 7:1: “Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilements of the flesh” (i.e. such defilement as has God alone for witness), “perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” There is a work to be done, an attitude to be taken by us. Of course the future glory in the day of unveiling when we shall be like Him does not entirely depend upon us. If it did, we should have little hope. Our hope, for this as for our redemption, is in Him—in His Person and His finished work—but we do nevertheless most certainly exercise ourselves in obedience to His word to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10).
God’s children and the two natures
In the argument that follows John brings to our notice a very evident and important fact, and that is that every child of God partakes of two natures, a human nature, and a Divine nature. The first is his natural human life, and the second because of the Divine Life he has received in Christ. We must be clear that John is speaking here of the children of God and not of the unregenerate. An unregenerate man has only a human nature, but because a child of God possesses divine life in Christ, he also partakes of the divine nature. When we are born again, we do not cease to be human nor subject to human urges and passions, but in addition to our human nature and life we also now possess a divine life and nature.
These two natures are soon found in conflict. It is not many days after new birth before we recognise that these two parts of us are pulling in different directions, “for the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against flesh (Gal. 5:17). In these words Paul describes two natures in deadly conflict. When we recognise this we have an explanation of much that puzzles us in our Christian life and walk. There are those who believe wrongly that as soon as we are born of God and receive divine life, all fleshly desires, actions and impulses cease, and we become governed by the Spirit in all ways and at all times. It is possible and often gloriously true that our encounter with the Lord at new birth is so real and vivid, our response to Him so immediate and complete, and our capitulation to Him so radical, that indeed in experience we are new creatures, and for us “the old things are passed away; … they are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Christ has come in, divine Life has been received, the divine nature has been implanted, and from henceforth this new life and nature take precedence over the old. There is a new seat for the government from on high and at once a new direction is given to our whole life. Further experience soon reveals, however that the old human nature, the natural life, is still present and active. John recognises this when he says, “If any man sin …” (2:1), and it is with this question that he now proceeds to deal.
A sufficient Saviour
To do this John begins again with a reference to the -significance of. the first Advent of Christ. “He was manifested” (3:5). “The Son of God was manifested” (3.8). He was heard and seen and handled (as we saw earlier in 1:1). John now tell us the significance of that first coming. It had to do with sins and with Satan. The Word was made flesh with a two-fold object, namely, “to take away sins” ( 3:5) and “to destroy the works of the devil” ( 3:8). We will look now at the first of these.
“Ye know that he was manifested to take away sins; and in him is no sin” (3:5). What are sins? They are the fruit of a sinful nature. A Sunday School teacher once asked a child what sin was. After some thought the answer was given: “It seems to be everything I want to do.” That definition was not far wrong, because, fundamentally, sin is taking our own way, doing what we ourselves like and think and choose. For our own nature is out of tune with God: it is at enmity with Him, and everything that emanates from or has its roots in that human nature comes into conflict with the will of God, and rebels against God. It is for this reason that John calls sin lawlessness (3:4). Our human nature is like a corrupt tree: it bears evil fruit (Matt. 7:17). Its fruits are sins. And Christ was manifested to take away sins (3:5) because sins offend God, and because all that offends God must be removed. We need forgiveness for, and cleansing from, our sins, and Christ came to do this. Of Him it was said, “He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).
Why, then, do we sin? We do so because we have a sinful nature and because our sinful nature produces sins. We don’t have to teach a child to lie or to be disobedient. It does these things naturally, demonstrating that we are born in sin and shapen in iniquity (Psalm 51:5). It is Christ alone that can deliver us.
He was manifested to set aside, or to suspend, the activities of the natural life of our sinful, Adam-derived nature, not by removing it, but by implanting in us a new life, the heavenly or Christ-derived life and nature. Paul refers to these two natures when he speaks in 2 Corinthians 4:16 of our outward man and our inward man, and when again in Romans 7:22 he says, “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man.” Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ came to put on one side everything in us that was offensive to God, and to implant instead in us His own new life. That life is greater than any human life because it transcends all other form of life, and that life of His in us will govern and control (if we will let it) our lesser human life.
What, now, will be the fruit of this Divine nature? In Paul’s words, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22). All this can be compassed in the one word ‘righteousness’ used here by John: “Everyone also that doeth righteousness is begotten of Him” (2:29) and “Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin” (3:9).
A gardener may have a strong fruit-tree of poor stock giving forth small, dry and sour fruit, and, in spite of much watering and manuring year after year, there may be no improvement; but if he takes a vigorous and healthy branch from another good tree of the same species, producing big, sweet, juicy fruit, and grafts it into his old tree then the fruit produced above the line of grafting in the first tree will take its character from and resemble the fruit produced on the good tree. Below the grafting line the first tree may put forth some shoots of the old variety, bearing the poor quality fruit of the old stock, but these must be pruned off, for “If ye live after the flesh, ye must die” (Rom. 8:13). But above the grafting line the fruit will be big, juicy and sweet. The old tree has had new life put into it “from above”, as it were, and so has every child of God.
The work accomplished by the Lord Jesus at Calvary is radical and complete; making possible not only a legal justification but also an inward transformation in our lives. His Divine nature implanted within us is strong enough to overcome the influence and power of the old nature, and by it we are saved.
“To this end was the Son of God manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (3:8). John now states the second reason for the incarnation of Christ. It was that He might destroy the works of the devil!
What are the works of the devil? What has He done from the beginning of man’s history? He has not only led man away from God and produced in him all those gross sins of the flesh listed in Galatians 5:10-21, but he has built up a whole vast human religious system in which God has no true part. It stands between God and man, making an empty claim, and deceiving those sheltering in it as to their relationship with God. Satan has succeeded in establishing philosophies, creeds and heresies of all kinds that stand in the way of God’s revelation of Himself to man through Christ Jesus, and man is deceived, blinded and ignorant of the true satanic source of all this work. But, “to this end was the Son of God manifested that He might destroy the works of the devil” (3:8). He came to prove the hollowness of this whole Satan-inspired system.
Christ came to destroy, to pull down, to demolish, to bring to nought, all the works of the devil. To do this He came in frail human form, and in His weakest hour He “stripped off principalities and powers, making a show of them openly” (Col. 2:15). He destroyed the devil’s works in order to make way for the works of God; and that victory is to have effect in us. There is a close connection between the triumph of the cross in verse 8 and what follows.
The next verse (3:9) tells us that the seed of the mighty Victor abides in all those who are born of God, making possible in them a triumphant, holy and righteous life. “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” (3:9,10). The apostle shows the contrast between the righteous Lord and His children on the one hand (3:7), and between the devil, the deceiver of the whole world, and his children on the other (Rev. 12:9). Of the child of God he says that “he … doeth righteousness” and that he “is righteous, even as He (Christ) is righteous” (3:7). How was Christ righteous? He was righteous in that He partook of the divine nature; and the fruits, the evidences, of that nature in Him were righteous deeds, He, being good, went about doing good. But further, as children of God we too have been made righteous even as He is, because, through faith in Him, we have His divine nature implanted in us, and we as a consequence do what is right. The deeds follow upon the changed heart condition.
And what of the others? “He that doeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning” ( 3:8). Why do people sin? Because they have the nature of their father the devil, and the fruits of that nature keep coming out and manifesting its sinful character. To “do sin” means to live habitually in sin. John is not referring here to a child of God suddenly being overtaken in a fault or by a temptation, (nor, in his other statement in 3:9, does he infer that this does not happen to children of God). He is describing an unregenerate person, whose source of life comes from the evil one, and whose inclinations therefore always draw him back into habitual sin.
Thus are set forth here two lives and two natures, the human and the divine which respectively characterise two families, the family of the devil and the family of God. There is an unmistakeable difference between these two families. It may be likened to the difference between two species of animal, sheep and pigs. Sheep have a sheep-nature, and pigs have a pig-nature. The one dislikes and avoids the mud, and if by accident it should fall into it, will immediately get out as quickly as possible. The other delights and wallows in all the mud it can find. The two species illustrate the difference between the two natures—that of the children of God and that of the children of the devil. It is men’s behaviour that reveals which is the nature governing them.
An assurance and a warning
In the portion we have just considered John has had in mind two things, a blessed truth, and a deadly delusion. The blessed truth is that the children of God hate sin and do not continue in it. When he says, “whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not” (3:6) and “whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin … he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God” (3:9), John means that, when we become God’s children, we do not knowingly or wilfully continue in conscious sin. He is not teaching that a child of God is perfect or sinless, and so has no need to exercise care in his Christian walk or to accept correction. The very word ‘child’ implies imperfect growth and experience, and the need of discipline. But what is yet blessedly true of God’s children is that they hate sin and do not wilfully continue in it. They are no longer like the pigs of our illustration, who, though they may be washed many times, return again and again to the same mire (2 Pet. 2:20-22).
The deadly delusion is that we should think it enough to quote scripture and make a profession of godliness, when really it is only a cloak for our ungodly lives. The devil is a deceiver. He has sinned from the beginning (3:8), and when inciting us to follow him rather than God, his language has been, “Ye shall not surely die”. Satan does not mind our quoting Scripture about Christ our righteousness if thereby he can lull us into a false sense of security. There is no deadlier delusion than to imagine that a profession of godliness will cover our sins. Let us face soberly the apostle’s definition of a child of God. If we hate sin like poison, if we loathe every vile thing, it is evidence in us of a new nature within. If we are discovering a new power over sin, so that we do not continue habitually in it, it is evidence that we have in us the triumphant life of Christ which enables us to enjoy victory over the weaknesses of our human life and nature. When this is so, the object of our Lord’s first advent is achieved in us.
Thus at several points already John has brought us face to face with the question of practical righteousness. If Christ-likeness expressed in obedience to the Father—to walk as He walked—is the necessary evidence of divine life in a child of God—its first great practical expression is righteousness. “Everyone that doeth righteousness is begotten of him” (2:29) and “by this the children of God are manifest” (3:10).