If you’re reading from the NIV you’ll see that the publishers have given today’s passage the title, ‘Children of God’. And that’s appropriate because the passage is about the difference between the children of God on one hand and the children of the devil on the other. In fact, take a look at the beginning of verse 10 where John says: ‘This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are.’ How do we know? How can we tell? The children of God and the children of the devil each bear a family resemblance.
Rachel resembles her cousin, Megan. I remember someone showed me a photo of Rachel sitting in the back of our car. And the first time I looked at the photo I wondered to myself when was Megan ever in the back of our car? And then there was the time when Megan was in a clothes shop and she thought she saw Rachel coming up to her. But it turned out that Megan was walking towards a large mirror and she was looking at her own reflection. They resemble one another. And the children of God resemble God, whereas the children of the devil resemble the devil. Of course, the resemblance isn’t in appearance. It’s not a physical resemblance. It’s a moral resemblance. It’s about what we do and how we behave and how we live and what we love. And so, that’s what today’s passage is about. It’s about how the children of God resemble God; and how the children of the devil resemble the devil. The children of God resemble God by doing what’s right, whereas the children of the devil resemble the devil by sinning.
So, let’s turn to the final two verses of chapter 2 where John introduces this topic. He tells his readers — and that includes us — to continue in him. That is, remain in him. Abide in him. He means we’re to remain in Christ; or we’re to remain united with Christ. In John’s gospel, the Lord Jesus used the image of the vine and the branches. He’s the vine and we’re the branches and we remain united to him, or attached to him, by faith. And perhaps that image was in the back of John’s mind, because when he tells us to continue in Christ he means we’re to remain united with Christ, or attached to him, by faith. So, keep trusting in him. Don’t turn away from him as some had done. Continue in him.
And if we continue in him, if we remain united to him by faith, then we won’t be ashamed at his coming. When John refers to his coming, he’s referring to the time when the Lord Jesus comes again and when he will appear again on the earth. The first time he came, he came in weakness and humility. The next time he comes, he will come in glory and with power to judge the living and the dead: all people who have ever lived.
So, we know he’s coming. We know what he will do when he comes again. How then can we prepare ourselves for his coming? How can we look forward to his coming with confidence instead of with fear? We prepare ourselves for it by continuing in him. That is, we prepare ourselves for his coming by remaining united with Christ by faith. If we’re trusting in Christ, and if we continue to trust in Christ, then we’re ready for his coming and we can look forward to it with confidence, because though we’ll have to stand before his judgment seat to give an account of our lives, we know that all those who trusted in him in this life will be acquitted at the judgment. Instead of being condemned, which is what we deserve for a lifetime of disobedience, we’ll be declared not guilty. And we’ll be declared not guilty, because Christ paid for our sins when he gave up his life for us on the cross; and by faith we share in his perfect righteousness. And so, though we may have done everything wrong in this life, we’ll be treated as if we’ve done everything right.
Those who trust in Christ have nothing to fear. But those who never trusted in Christ, or who once trusted in him, but who gave up their faith, have every reason to be afraid, because when they stand before his judgment seat they will be condemned for all that they did wrong and they will be sent away to be punished forever.
Now, in the next verse, John refers to those who are born of God. He’s referring to those who have experienced the new birth. They have been born from above by the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about the new birth in chapter 3 of John’s gospel. Do you remember their conversation? Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He was a learned man. The Lord Jesus referred to him as ‘Israel’s teacher’. And yet this man, this learned man, Israel’s teacher, did not know what the Lord was talking about when the Lord spoke to him about the new birth. He wondered: How can a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb? But the Lord Jesus was not referring to physical birth, but to spiritual birth. He was not referring to childbirth when we’re born and begin our life on earth. He was referring to what the Spirit does when he enters a person’s life for the first time and enables that person to believe in Christ for the first time. And by means of this new birth from above, that person begins a new life. It’s a life of faith, because that person now trusts in Christ for salvation. But it’s also a life of obedience, because the Holy Spirit works in the heart of that new believer so that he begins to hate his sins. And what he wants to do, more than anything else, is to do what’s right. And in this way, the new believer, who now belongs to God’s family, begins to bear the family resemblance, because he begins to do what is right, just as his Heavenly Father always does what is right.
And so, John says in verse 29, we know that God is righteous; and we know that everyone who does what is righteous has been born of him. In other words, those who have been born again by the Spirit of God will begin to bear the family resemblance by doing what is right.
John will say more about this when he gets to verse 4 of chapter 3 where he writes about the difference between the children of God and the children of the devil. But before he gets to that, he takes three verses to speak about what a privilege it is to be born again by the Spirit of God and to become a child of God.
None of us deserves to receive the new birth. None of us has earned it. God is not obligated to give anyone the new birth. And so, how can we account for it? How can we explain why God should give any of us this new birth and make us his children? The only explanation is the love of God which he has for us. And in verse 1 of chapter 3 it’s as if John is lost in wonder as he thinks about God’s love for us. He says: How great is the love the Father have lavished on us. The Greek word translated ‘How great’ really means ‘what kind?’. It even means ‘from what country?’ And the point is that this is a love which is foreign to us. We’ve never come across anything like it. We’ve never seen this kind of love before that God the Father should make sinners like us his children. John is lost in wonder as he thinks about it. But then he adds: ‘And that is what we are!’ So, this is not wishful thinking. This is not a case of, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it were true.’ This is true. This is a fact. We have become God’s children! Though we are sinners who have sinned against God continually, he set his love upon us; and out of the sheer greatness of his love he sent his Spirit into our lives to give us the new birth and to enable us to believe so that we became his children. It’s astounding! As sons and daughters of Adam, we inherited Adam’s guilt and his sinful nature. But now we have become sons and daughters of God. It’s amazing!
And look what John goes on to say at the end of verse 1. He refers to the fact that the unbelieving world does not know us. I’ve mentioned before the time I visited an old man in hospital. And to the other patients in the ward, and to the other visitors who were there that day, he was just an old man who couldn’t walk properly because of a bad leg; and who couldn’t see properly because of a bad eye; and who couldn’t hear properly because one ear was completely deaf and the other wasn’t much better. He just seemed like an old, frail, broken man. But what they didn’t realise was that this old man was a child of God.
And the reason an unbelieving world don’t know us is because they did not know him. John could either be referring to God the Father or to the Lord Jesus. In one sense, it doesn’t matter which it is, because the point is the same. If they knew God the Father and his Son, then they would know us too. But since they don’t know the Father or the Son, then they don’t realise that we are his children and the immense privilege which has been given to us.
And God has something even more remarkable in store for his children. What even more remarkable thing does God have in store for his children? Well, in one sense, we don’t know. John says in verse 2 that what we will be has not yet been made known. So, we don’t yet know what remarkable thing God has in store for us. However, in another sense we do know, because John goes on to say that when the Lord Jesus appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. Here’s the remarkable thing which God the Father has in store for his children. The Lord Jesus will appear on the earth again and our dead bodies will be raised from the dead and our bodies will be glorified so that they become like his glorified body. And we will see him. Imagine that! None of us has ever seen him. For now, we have to make do with reading about him in the Bible. And we have to make do with little bits of bread which represent his body; and with a little drink which represents his blood. But none of us has seen him with our own eyes. But the day is coming when we will see him. That is our great hope. That is what we long for. Since we love him, we want to see him. And one day we will see him. And on that day, not only will we see him, but we’ll be like him, because we’ll receive a glorified body like his. And, of course, in the life to come, sin will be no more. There will be no more sin and no more shame. We’ll not be tempted to do evil; and we’ll be perfectly righteous in all we think and do and say. In other words, the family likeness will be perfect in the life to come.
And John adds in verse 3 that everyone who has this hope of seeing him and becoming like him purifies himself, just as he is pure. So, one day we’ll see the Lord Jesus, our glorified Saviour. And we’ll be like him. That’s our great hope: seeing him and being like him. And our hope for the future expresses itself in the here and now in the effort we make to purify ourselves from sin and to do our Father’s will here on earth.
But trying to keep ourselves from sin is not something we’re reluctant to do. This is not like cleaning the house, which is something we have to do, but we’d rather not do. We’re rather put our feet up and rest. No, this is something we want to do. We want to purify ourselves, because our loving Heavenly Father is pure and Jesus Christ our Saviour is pure. And we want, more than anything else, to become like them.
And so, John has written about the greatness of God’s love for us; and how we’ve been born again by his Spirit; and how we’ve become children of God, who want to do what’s right; because our Heavenly Father is righteous. And John has written about how Christ is coming again; and when he comes, we will see him and become like him. And in the verses which follow John says more about the difference between the children of God and the children of the devil. Listen first to what he says about the children of the devil.
Verse 4: ‘Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.’ The NIV translation isn’t as helpful as the ESV translation, which puts it this way: ‘Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness’. He’s referring to the person who makes a practice of sinning; someone who sins habitually or by way of habit. He’s referring to the person for whom sinning is their normal practice. And when he refers to breaking the law, he means someone whose whole life is characterised by lawlessness.
Jump down now to the second part of verse 6 where he says: ‘No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.’ Again, he’s referring to the person for whom sinning is their normal practice. That person has never seen nor known Christ. When John says they have never seen Christ, he means they have never seen him by faith. They have never believed. The person who keeps on sinning is someone who does not believe in Christ.
Take a look at the first part of verse 8 now: ‘He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.’ Again the ESV translation is better because it makes clear that John is referring to the person who makes a practice of sinning. Sinning is their normal practice. Their whole life is characterised by lawlessness. And such a person, John says, is of the devil. That is: the devil is their spiritual father. They are the devil’s spiritual offspring. And so, by the way they live their lives, they are displaying a likeness to their spiritual father, who has been sinning from the very beginning.
And now we come to verse 10: ‘This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.’ He’s referring to those who don’t make a practice of doing what’s right. Instead they make a practice of doing what’s wrong. And such people do not have any love for God’s children.
So, that’s what John says about the children of the devil. They bear the family likeness, because they make a practice of sinning and they live without any regard for God’s law. And that’s what the devil has been doing from the beginning. I should perhaps add here that people are rarely as bad as they could be. And the reason people are rarely as bad as they could be is because of God’s restraining grace, by which he keeps them from becoming as bad as they might otherwise be. And so, people who don’t believe in Christ can do good. They can do what’s right. They can be kind and generous and self-less. And that’s due to God’s restraining grace, or his common grace, by which he helps those who don’t believe to do good. Nevertheless, since they don’t believe, their aim is not to please God. Though they may do good, they are not doing it for God’s glory and out of obedience to him. And therefore they are still sinning.
But let’s go on now to hear what John says about the children of God. Take a look at the first part of verse 6: ‘No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.’ That is to say, no one who is united to Christ by faith, no believer, keeps on sinning. John doesn’t mean believers never sin. After all, back in chapter 1, he said that the person who claims to be without sin deceives himself. And he also said that when we sin, we can rely on Christ for forgiveness. But he means the believers’s life is no longer characterised by sin. The believer regards sin as unwelcome. It’s foreign to him. He hates it and wants rid of it. It’s like a fly in the kitchen. The fly is there, buzzing around; but we don’t want it there and we’ll do what we can to kill it. And the believer might sin; but the believer doesn’t want sin in his life and he does what he can to kill it.
Verse 7: ‘He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.’ The ESV translation is better: ‘Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as the Lord Jesus is righteous.’ So, the unbeliever practices unrighteousness. That’s what he typically does. But the believer practices righteousness. That’s what he typically does. And by practicing righteousness like that, the believer bears a family likeness to the Lord Jesus, who always did what was right.
And then there’s verse 9: ‘No-one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.’ Those people who have been born again by the Holy Spirit have God’s seed in them. It’s not entirely clear what John means by God’s seed. Some commentators think he’s referring to the Holy Spirit; others think he’s referring to the new nature which God gives his people through the new birth. In any case, what John means is that those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit display the family likeness by turning away from sin. We still sin, but we now hate our sins. They are alien to us. They are strangers in our life. We want rid of them, because we want to do what is right in the sight of God.
And let me turn again to verse 10, where John makes clear that the children of God make a practice of doing what’s right. And they also love their fellow believers, who are their brothers and sisters in the Lord.
And so, the children of the devil make a practice of sinning, whereas the children of God make a practice of doing what’s right. And here’s the thing and this will lead us into the Lord’s Supper. The reason the children of God are able to make a practice of doing what’s right is because of the work of our Saviour.
Take a look at verse 5. The Lord Jesus appeared on the earth the first time to do what? To take away our sins. He took them away from us when he died on the cross. On the cross, his body was broken and his blood was shed. And by the shedding of his blood, he has cleansed us from the stain of our sin. He has washed away our guilt for ever. That sin which once clung to us and made us unfit to come into the presence of a holy God has been removed from us as far as the east is from the west by the blood of our Saviour.
And now look at the second half of verse 8: The reason the Son of God appeared on the earth the first time was to destroy the devil’s work. What is the devil’s work? He does many things, doesn’t he? But one of his works is to get us to sin. That’s what he did in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. And it’s what he continues to do to this day. But the Son of God appeared on the earth to destroy the devil’s work. By dying for us, the Lord has taken away our guilt; and he now gives us his Spirit to help us to resist the devil’s temptations and to do God’s will here on earth. And so, because of Christ’s work to undo the devil’s work, we no longer make a practice of sinning. Sinning seems strange to us. We hate it. And we want to do our Father’s will. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will do his will more and more, so that the family resemblance will be seen in us more and more while we wait for our Saviour to come again.