Genuine Christianity is a different life. Dr. Rod Culbertson preaches on 1 John 3 in chapel at RTS Charlotte.
It’s always a privilege to preach in chapel, to preach any time, really, but to be here among our seminary family. I have to go on record saying that this is actually the first sermon that I ever preached while I was in seminary in a public place, at Rosehill Presbyterian Church, but thankfully, it’s not the same sermon.
Our passage is 1 John 3:1–10. This is the Word of God.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
May God bless the reading, hearing, and indeed the preaching of his Word. Let us pray for his blessing. Father, we come to you, and we do want to be those who live as your children. Father, that really is our desire, and we are amazed that we could be called children of God, could be part of your family. And here, Lord, at RTS we have a special family, brothers and sisters in Christ, and we pray, O Father, that you might speak to us at this time through your Word. We ask for your blessing in the name of Christ, your Son, Amen.
Robocalls, phishing emails, fake Facebook friend requests. Deception, trickery. I got a robocall right before chapel started, wouldn’t you know it? You might not realize it, but there are four warrants out for my arrest. And I owe the IRS a lot, too. I’ll be thrown in jail if I don’t pay. But deception and trickery, it’s all around us. It’s become part of our culture.
There is such a thing as false Christianity: those that claim the label but don’t live the life.We don’t like fake things; we don’t like to be deceived. And yet there is such a thing as false Christianity: those that claim the label but don’t live the life. Some deceive others with their Christian profession because it’s to their advantage. Others are simply self-deceived. They think they’re believers, but they’re not at all. John is dealing with an issue in the first century, and he is trying to explain in his little letter what genuine Christianity is. In this passage we see that genuine Christianity is characterized by a changed life, a different life.
To meet Jesus Christ personally is to turn from your sin and your self-centeredness and to trust him to give you a new heart, and that’s going to mean a new and different life. So in the face of false teaching in his day that proposed that one could engage in serious sin and yet still be a Christian (that is unaffected by their fleshly living), John writes to assure these young believers that as the children of God, they are to be different. Genuine Christianity is a different life.
Christians Are God’s Children and the World Will Not Understand Them
The first thing we see is that it’s a life that strives to please the Father. He starts, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us.” And that word “see” means to notice, recognize, understand, contemplate, look at this! Look at the manner and the quality of God’s love. It’s an amazing reality that God in Christ makes us his children.
Genuine Christianity is a different life.The context is really the previous version in the second chapter: “everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” Then John just runs with this concept: what does it mean to be born of God? We’re children of God. We are adopted children. He says, “Look at this great love that we should be called children of God.” And then he stops and he says, “And we are.”
Now, when I was in seminary, I got engaged after a flurry of two months with my future wife dating. Don’t do that. But in two months, we got engaged, and I was in seminary with the Bible College and had lots of friends. I’m walking around, and they’re going, “I heard you’re engaged.” “Yeah, I’m engaged!” “Hey, you’re engaged!” “I’m engaged. I’m engaged. I’m engaged.” And then I stop. “I’m engaged.”
And that’s what John is doing here. We’re the children of God. And we are the children of God. Amazing. He says this is the reason we as believers, as Christians, are misunderstood. We’re in another realm; we’re in a heavenly realm. We’ve all been adopted into a heavenly family. And therefore, they don’t understand. When Chuck Colson became a believer after the Watergate fiasco and he was put in jail, he became a believer and it perplexed many people. He wrote a book, Born Again. What happened?
C.S. Lewis became a believer later in life and his good friend Ian Wilson tried to explain it. He couldn’t figure it out. How could that happen to an intellectual?
When I became a believer, my father, knew that I aspired to a baseball career and I just walked away from it. He was not a believer himself, and he was like, “Well, what happened?” And the only words I could come up with were, “It’s all new. I found something so much better!” And if I could have quoted a Scripture, I would have said, “I found the pearl of great price.” But he still didn’t understand what had happened in my life.
At Christ’s Return Christians Will be Sinless
John said, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” We do not fully understand our future in heaven, what that means as God’s children. But we can understand this: at Christ’s return, we will experience some sort of transformation—theologians call it glorification. This transformation means we will be like Christ. Not eternal, infinite, unchangeable, and those incommunicable attributes. But we will be like Christ: pure, righteous, holy, sinless. I will tell you, it’s inconceivable to me.
As a matter of fact, when I when I interviewed with the faculty to come onto the faculty, I had credentials that I did not tell them about. I have some credentials; they’re not on my resume. But I have some credentials. I have multiple PhDs in sin. I mean, anger, lust, complaining, self-righteousness, judgmentalism, thought, word, deed; I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t say all that to be transparent and real. I say that because it is inconceivable to me that there will be a day where I will not have any, not a single inclination toward sin. It is beyond me. Getting a new body? I can kind of remember when I had a fully functioning athletic body. I can remember that. I can’t ever remember not sinning.
And somehow that day will come, that glorification, and only God could do it. It’s beyond my imagination. John has built his case, “You’ll be like Christ.” And he says everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself as he is pure. Our glorification, those thoughts, impact our sanctification, our daily walk. We want to be like Christ more and more. We want to please the Father. Our life is different. We’re living to please him.
Christians Strive to Avoid Practicing Sin
John builds his case. Not only are we striving to please the Father, but a different life means we’re breaking old patterns. Verse four, he says, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness.” We can’t take sin lightly.
The Gnostics or the pre-Gnostic influences that were affecting the early church were building a case that they had some sort of enlightenment. And because of that, as long as their spirits seemed good, they could do whatever they wanted to in the flesh. They could live fleshly, but “Oh, it doesn’t touch our spirits.” And by the way, the Gnostic influences are alive and well even in the church today. I’ve encountered numerous ministers in marital counseling. Most of them will say that most of the people they are counseling are already sleeping together. They would profess faith, but they are not living it out. That is just modern day Gnosticism: “It doesn’t really affect me. It doesn’t bother us. It’s overrated, sexual immorality.” It’s here, it’s today, it’s a Gnostic influence.
Sin is alien to everything Jesus Christ is.But John says, “everyone.” Those false teachers, they think they’re up here. They’re teaching you this false theology, false Christianity, they’re included too. Sin is lawlessness. The late David Nicholas, a pastor and evangelist down in Boca Raton, Florida, said, “To understand sin in modern day terms, let’s just call it crime. We are all criminals in the sight of God the judge.” Sin is lawlessness.
So John says, “You know that he [that is Christ] appeared in order to take away sin.” Sin, even well rationalized, and the Gnostics will rationalize it, we do too. If we’re not careful, we build our little case for why we could sin. He says it is alien to everything Christ stands for. What was his mission? His mission was to take away sins, to take away the dreadful punishment of sin. Verse eight tells us he came to do away with the devil’s work. Then John says not only is that his mission but look at his character. In him, there was no sin. There is no sin. His work is the cross. That was his mission, his work. His person is sinless deity. John gives us this picture of Christ, his person and his work, to motivate us. Sin is alien to everything Jesus Christ is.
And so he concludes, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him” in any real way. No one has really considered who he is if they’re saying, “Oh, your spirit’s OK, but you can do these things.” They haven’t seen Christ. That’s the case that John is building.
Now, this is one of those verses that a whole tradition that has run with. John Wesley, mentored by William Law, created this doctrine of sinless perfectionism, and this is one of the key verses. We can command those men or at least wanting to be sinless. We know we are a far cry from it. We remember that in the first chapter, John says, “If you say you are without sin, you deceive yourselves. If you say you have not sinned you make him a liar.” So we know sin is a reality in our lives. There’s no question about that. So what is he saying?
When I was a student at University of South Carolina, we had a traveling evangelist, and his name was Jed Smock. I don’t know if anyone ever heard Jed Smock; you had to be a little older, probably. But he was also coming to the University of Florida when I was there, and he was a outdoor preacher and he was Pentecostal holiness. And no matter what anyone said to him he was like, “I have not sinned. I have not sinned. I have not sinned.” He could never admit that he had sinned because of this verse, because of the holiness tradition. Well, we would like to be able to say that, but probably none of us could say it like that. None of us would believe that that is true. And yet John says, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning.” To keep on sinning you haven’t seen him. So what is it?
The best explanation that I’ve ever heard is this. When we talk about practicing sin, there are three categories: planning sin, continuing sin, enjoying sin. Planning sin, in some traditions, they call it willful sin, but we all understand. We know something’s sin and sometimes we just go ahead and do it. We plan that sin. There’s no slip ups there. We do it. But do we continue to live that way?
Well, we all have besetting sins, personal struggles, sins we’re trying to overcome. And we would say, “It seems like I do continue sometimes.” But then the third category: enjoy sin. If you play, continue, and enjoy, it means you have not sensed your grief before God. You have not repented. You are pushing away any influence of the Holy Spirit. You’re just living a life like a pattern. It’s just who you are. It’s pagan living, in essence. No one who abides in him lives constantly in sin without any remorse, repentance, grief, or anything sensitive to how they are living.
Genuine Christians Strive to Practice Righteousness Because They Are Born of God
A different life means breaking old habits. It also means that we live a life that reflects our heritage. John says, little children, let no one deceive you, whoever practices righteousness or is seeking righteousness, they don’t want to be sinful. They’re pursuing, they’re mortifying, they’re putting to death the sin, they’re putting on Christ, they’re practicing righteousness. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous as he is righteous. We don’t really walk around saying, “I’m practicing my righteousness today.” It’s just not a phrase that we hardly even use. And yet we’re called to be those who want to be Christlike, that’s practicing righteousness, godliness. Those are two words we really don’t use much anymore: righteousness and godliness.
But he says, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy his works. No one who is born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him.” What is your heritage? Is it being born of God, therefore righteousness is the result? Or is it being of the devil? The Pharisees encountered Jesus. They were his enemies. They argued with him and then they build their case, “We are sons of Abraham.” And Jesus says, “Indeed you are, but the way you are coming after me, you are children of your father, the devil” (John 8). There are two heritages. We don’t hear that much in this world, either: of God, of the devil.
John sounds pretty tough. He’s tough all the way through the book. He’s the disciple whom Jesus loved. He understood the love of Jesus. Love, love, love. Black and white, in and out, you’re in or you’re out. He builds his case. What is your heritage? And he says, “By this it is evident who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
You’re different if you’re a child of God. Righteousness is what you love, godliness is what you pursue.Here are these two tests. John has three tests, there’s a moral test, righteousness; social test, love; and then there’s a truth test in the book: what do you believe about Christ? The Gnostics mess that all up too. What’s your heritage? You’re different if you’re a child of God. Righteousness is what you love, godliness is what you pursue. Sinlessness, well, it sounds wonderful, but I want to aim toward that. I want to be rid of anything that has to do with the old heritage.
Growing up as a child in the 50s, I had an experience that probably has traumatized me all my life, and that experience was going to the dentist. Dentistry was different back then, and you might not understand that. But the dentist that my mother took us to, he really wasn’t a very nice guy. He had no bedside or dental chair manners or anything like that. He was tough. He didn’t use hardly any novacaine. We didn’t even know there was such a thing as novacaine. We found out later my mother never used novacaine. So she’s like, what’s the problem? He would start drilling on us, and if we simply grunted, he would say, “Shut up,” in a very loud voice. I found out later that his career was a military dentist. He served in World War II. They had no novacaine anywhere then; he was pulling teeth and doing everything. But I’m five years old. So when I go to college, I didn’t tell my mom, but I found another dentist, one that knew everything that you’re supposed to do so that it’s a pain free visit.
Why is it that we hold on sometimes to those things that are destructive, that bring guilt, fear, pain, worry, rather than fleeing to Christ and seeking him and embracing his work in the gospel? We are children of God. Yes, we are. Praise him.
Let us pray. Father, we do want to be your children, live as your children, seek you in every way, look to Christ for all of our needs. Make us more and more like him. Father, I just pray for your blessing on this place and on each person here, each person representing our seminary family. Lord, keep us from sin and call us to draw close to your throne and your Son. We pray in his name. Amen.