The Tests of True Christianity

1 John 3:4-10

October 16, 2011 | Brian Bill

I’m not the handiest hammer in the toolbox when it comes to doing home projects so I always try to become good friends with guys who have a lot of tools and know how to use them.  We made a few improvements to our laundry room this summer and I think our neighbor John wishes I didn’t have him on speed dial.  One night I thought Beth and I could move our washer and dryer into the garage by ourselves but I quickly realized that I didn’t have the right tools to unhook each of them.  John came over and saved the day (night).

After we had some new flooring installed, it came time to move the appliances and other items back into the house.  After wrestling the washer and dryer into place, John asked me to make sure the water hoses were positioned correctly so that the hot water and cold water were hooked up where they needed to go.  I assured him that I had it right and he reinstalled the hoses.

A couple days later Beth mentioned that when she was using the cold water setting that the water seemed hot.  I think I told her that sometimes this just happens.  A couple days later she brought it up again and I told her that I had no idea what could have happened.  About a week later, John was over for our Connection Group and I told him about our dilemma.  He did a quick test with the settings and then started laughing uncontrollably.  I had messed up the inputs so that the outputs were backwards.

John assured me that he wouldn’t tell anyone about this but I thought I’d get out in front of it and just admit it here.  What was supposed to be hot was cold and the setting for cold was hot.  But hot is supposed to be hot and cold is supposed to be cold.  The apostle John is dealing with something similar in this brief letter.  A lot of people had gotten confused and as a result, some people were cold when they should have been burning hot for the Lord.  John uses a lot of extremes in his letter to show the seriousness of surrendering fully to Christ.

  • Light or Darkness
  • Love or Hate
  • Truth or Lies
  • Righteousness or Sin
  • Christ or Antichrist
  • Child of God or Child of the Devil
  • Packers or Bears

This section falls into two parallel passages and provides some tests so that we can determine what is true and what is false.  Let’s look at how 3:4-7 corresponds to 3:8-10.

3:4 – Sin is lawlessness 3:8a – Sin originates with the devil

3:5 – Christ came to take away sins 3:8b – Christ came to destroy the devil

3:6 – Christians do not live in sin 3:9 – Christians cannot live in sin

3:7 – Christians practice righteousness 3:10 – Christians practice righteousness and love

Let’s keep a few things in mind as we walk through this passage.

  • This book is meant to encourage true believers.  At the same time, it should cause each of us to do an inventory to see if we are really in the faith.
  • Remember that the backdrop to this letter is to give believers confidence in their Christianity and in the process to confront the false teachers.  One of their many errors was to believe that sin didn’t really matter.  Some claimed to be disciples and yet lived a depraved existence.  Keep this in mind when we come to verses 6 and 9 because it will help us understand why these words are so strong.
  • John likes to reinforce truth by restating that which is important.  His favorite themes keep coming up and are often addressed and emphasized in different ways.  Since he uses parallelism in this passage, we’re going to take the related verses and treat them together as one point.  
  • The word “sin,” “sinful” or “sinning” is used eight times in these seven verses.  We can safely say that this is the theme of the passage.  Since verse 3 mentions purity, it’s only natural to move to a discussion of sin.

Here’s the outline we’ll follow.

  1. Rebellion is sin (3:4, 8a)
  2. Release from sin (3:5, 8b)
  3. Refrainment from sin (3:6, 9)
  4. Righteousness over sin (3:7, 10)

Here’s what I’m hoping that we discover together: Growing Christians are not sinless but should sin less.

1. Rebellion is sin. 

In verse 4 we’re given a definition of sin: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.”  The word “sin” literally means “to miss the mark,” as when an archer misses the bulls-eye.  The word “lawlessness” means to break or violate a law, especially the law of God.  To practice sin is to be in rebellion against God.  

That reminds me of the young boy who had just been disciplined by his mother.  He stormed around the house and eventually went into his mom’s closet and shut the door.  When she didn’t hear from him for awhile she opened the door and asked him what he was doing.  He responded, “Well, I’ve spat on your coat, and I’ve spat on your dresses and I’ve spat on your shoes…and now I’m waiting for more spit!”  Sin is like that.  When we sin it’s like we’re spitting on God and those things that are important to Him.

If we don’t understand that sin is cosmic treason against a holy God we’ll content ourselves with tips on how to have a happier life or strive to find Scripture to help us improve our self esteem

John begins with a definition of sin because far too many of us excuse it or we take it too lightly, or we’ve simply become soft on sin.  If we don’t understand that sin is cosmic treason against a holy God we’ll content ourselves with tips on how to have a happier life or strive to find Scripture to help us improve our self esteem.  False teachers then, and now, minimize the serious nature of sin.  

Steven Cole writes, “Satan’s strategy has always been to get rebellious man to think more highly of himself than he ought to think…if God is not so holy and I’m not so sinful, then I don’t need anything as radical as the shed blood of a sinless substitute to atone for my ‘faults.’”  A right understanding of sin is central to Christianity.  If you’re not convinced that you are a rebellious sinner, you will not see your need to receive a sinless Savior as your substitute.

Incidentally, a good evangelism method is to help the person you’re speaking with to see that they have broken God’s laws and are therefore guilty of rebellion.  An easy way to do this is to just walk through the 10 Commandments and point out how no one can keep them perfectly.  And that’s why we need a Savior.

In verse 8 we see a description of sin’s origin: “He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”   The word “of” refers to an allegiance or orientation.  Those who sin show an allegiance to the devil.   Confronting the religious leaders, Jesus made this strong statement about them in John 8:44:“You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.  He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  Likewise, we are most like Satan when we sin.

God created all angels as good but because of Lucifer’s pride, he led a rebellion of other angels who became demons and they were cast out of heaven.  Most scholars believe Ezekiel 28:12-19 and Isaiah 14:12-14 are references to Satan’s fall: “How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn!  You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!” That’s verse 12.  Now let me read verse 13 and listen for the five “I will” statements: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain.  I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”

When we sin we’re saying, “I will” instead of following God’s will.  We act most like the devil when we put our will over the will of God.  And when we allow pride to control us, we end up sinning just like Satan did.  Let’s keep Proverbs 16:18 in mind: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Here’s a question.  Are you on the side of Satan or on the side of the Savior?  Let’s admit that our sin is rebellion and then let’s rejoice in the fact that we’ve been released from sin.

2. Release from sin. 

Sin is disastrous and demonic but Jesus came to free us from its bondage.  When we sin, we are essentially disregarding the work of the Savior.  One pastor put it like this: “He didn’t die so you could sin to your heart’s content.”

  • Jesus came to take away sin.  We see this in verse 5: “But you know that He appeared so that He might take away our sins.  And in Him is no sin.”  To “take away” means “to raise up,” “bear away,” and “to carry off.”  This should draw our minds to the Day of Atonement found in Leviticus 16:21-22 where we read of the high priest placing his hands on the scapegoat, representing the sins of the people, and then sending the goat off into the wilderness, never to come back.

I love how John the Baptist responded when he saw Jesus in John 1:29.  He announced the purpose behind his coming using very clear words: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  Jesus lived a sinless life so that He could be the perfect sacrifice for us.  Daniel Webster, the famous American politician and orator, once spent a summer in New Hampshire and went to church every Sunday morning and evening.  His niece asked him why he did this because she knew he paid little attention to far better sermons in Washington.  I love his reply: “In Washington they preach to Daniel Webster, the statesman, but this man has been telling Daniel Webster, the sinner, of Jesus of Nazareth.”  

  • Jesus came to take out Satan.  Check out the second half of verse 8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”  Note the contrast between Christ who cannot sin and Satan who can’t help but sin.  The word “destroy” means to “render inoperative” or “to rob of power” or “to loose.”  I love the picture found in Colossians 2:15: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” 

If Christ came to destroy the devil’s works and we’re to share in his victory march, how can we align ourselves with the work that Satan does?  How can we participate in sin, which is the very thing Christ came to wipe out? 

3. Refrainment from sin. 

Verse 6 and verse 9 are very strong but if we keep in mind that John is confronting the false teaching that taught that sin is no big deal, then the force of these words makes more sense.  He is bringing out the drastic contrast between true believers and those who have become soft on sin: “No one who lives in Him keeps on sinning.  No one who continues to sin has either seen Him or known Him…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 born of God.”  If someone lives in a habitual lifestyle of sin, it reveals that He has not seen or known Jesus.

Growing Christians are not sinless but we should be sinning less.

These are forceful words and I want us to ponder the weight of them for a bit.  If we could abide in Christ without interruption, we would not go on sinning.  Growing Christians are not sinless but we should be sinning less.  Abiding in Christ means that we are committed to have nothing come between us and Him.  When we live in close connection to Christ our desire to disobey diminishes.  Sin must no longer taste sweet to the believer.  Some understand this to mean, “Does not continually practice sin.”  Authentic Christians do not continuously engage in sin.

John has already affirmed that Christians do sin.   We saw this in 1 John 1:8: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  And verse 10 says, “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” 

To say that we don’t ever sin is to make God a liar.  But John also declared in 1 John 2:1: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin…”  

While it is true that Christians backslide, let’s also remember that the prodigal son did not stay with the pigs.  When “God’s seed” is planted within a person it will grow.  To say it another way, we cannot live in a lifestyle of sin and at the same time expect to enjoy a rich, intimate relationship with Christ.  Sin and closeness with Christ are incompatible.  The false teachers were saying that sin doesn’t matter so it doesn’t matter how you live.  Friends, it does matter how we live!  Our conduct must reflect our life in Christ.  To say it more positively, believers who continuously abide in Him will not persist in habitual sin.

Here are some questions worth pondering for each of us.

  • How sensitive am I to sin?
  • In what ways have I become soft on my sin?
  • How separate am I from sin?
  • Have I slipped into a pattern of sin?

Charles Spurgeon once said that “God does not allow His children to sin successfully.”  Numbers 32:23 says, “And you may be sure that your sin will find you out.”  He loves us too much to let us go down a path that is destructive.  

4. Righteousness over sin. 

There are several tests of authentic Christianity found throughout the Book of 1 John.  Another one is found in verse 7 and verse 10.  True believers will live righteously because they have been born of the God who is righteous.  Simply put, how we live and how we love reveals whether we are a child of God or a child of the devil: “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray.  He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous…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.”  In short, we resemble who our parent really is.

A person’s ethical behavior is the outward indication of one’s inner character.  Jesus said you can pick out a false prophet by looking at his life in Matthew 7:16-20: “By their fruit you will recognize them.  Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”  It’s clearly evident when someone is hooked up to the hot water.

Polls and surveys consistently reveal that there is little or no difference between those who claim to be Christians and the rest of the population when it comes to morality, materialism or marriage.  This should not be so.  A righteous life is to be the distinguishing mark of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  John is saying you can discern who the children of the devil are by their behavior.

I read an article this week called, “The Explosion of Evangelism: The Fifth Great Awakening.”  Dr. Jim Denison points out that Christianity is growing around the world.  For instance, there are more than one million new Christians in Cuba in the last ten years: “By contrast, in Great Britain, four-times more Muslims go to mosque on Friday than Christians go to church on Sunday.”  He notes that the number of atheists and agnostics in America has quadrupled in the last 20 years, and only 1% of college students attend church on any given Sunday.

When asked to explain why the church is growing almost everywhere except in America, Dr. Denison writes: “In our culture, God is a hobby; God is for Sunday, not Monday.  Just like golf or tennis or any other hobby, God’s a part of our lives — not the Lord of our lives…We’re consumers in our culture, so we go to church for what we can get out of it.  We judge the experience by what it means to us.”

Is your faith just a hobby to you?  There’s no way to get around this truth as consistently taught in the Bible.  There are only two groups of people – the saved and the lost, the children of God and the children of the devil.  Some of us think there are three groups of people: Christians, really bad people, and a group of nice people.  This is simply not true.  We’re all sinners.  Only those who are saved are forgiven and in God’s family.  There are only two groups:

  • Those with divine parentage – children of God.
  • Those with diabolical parentage – children of the Devil.

Imagine that a sheep and a pig are walking together and they both fall into a mud hole.  The pig will wallow in it because that’s his nature.  The sheep on the other hand will want out and will avoid it the next time.  Friend, if you like it in the mud and yet claim that you’re a Christian, something is not right.  

If this passage makes some of us uncomfortable, that’s a good thing.  You may believe that you’re a believer but when you look at your behavior you must conclude that you’re not yet a child of God.  I’ll never forget what happened during my senior year at Moody Bible Institute.  One of my classmates, who had been raised in a Christian home, went to a church just like ours, enrolled at a Bible college and went through three years of classes and chapels, had the courage to stand up at an all-school assembly and tell us that she had been living a lie.  That week she had committed herself to Jesus Christ for the first time.

2 Corinthians 13:15 says, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.  Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” 

  • Is the way you’re living a reflection of the righteousness of God or would you say that you’re lifestyle is more like the devil’s?
  • How are you doing at loving others?  We see in the last phrase of verse 10 that this is something we need to examine.  If you are not loving others it may mean that you are not a child of God: “…nor is anyone who does not love his brother.”    
  • Are you in a pattern of sin and it hasn’t really been bothering you…until right now?  It might be because you’re not yet a believer.
  • Are you bored with Christianity?  Have you been raised with it and now you’re not sure if you believe it or that it has much to do with your life?

Jesus said in Revelation 3:15-16: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Why don’t you settle your salvation right now?  Don’t put it off any longer.  Admit that you’ve been living more like the devil than like God.  Turn from that and trust Jesus as the sinless sacrifice who paid the price for all your sins.  Believe and now receive Him into your life as your Savior and as your Lord.

Steven Cole points out that there’s a popular view in the American church that offers two options for the Christian life.  “Plan A” is for the really committed who trust Jesus as Savior and have surrendered to Him as Lord.  Obedience is their goal and passion.  They have given up the right to spend their money as they choose because they’ve settled the fact that they are stewards of God’s resources.  They have signed up for a lifetime of service and are willing to do whatever God wants them to do.

Many others have settled on “Plan B.”  In this option, you accept Jesus as Savior, but you don’t need to follow Him as Lord.  You can live the way you want and love only those you want.  You can give or serve or plug into church…when it’s convenient to do so.  You can nurse a grudge and withhold forgiveness.  You can live like the devil during the week and come to church on Sundays.  You can have Jesus as a hobby without bowing before His holiness.

Here’s the deal.  Let me say it as plainly as I can.  If you’re saved, it should show.  And if you’re not, now is the time to make it so.  2 Corinthians 6:2: “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

Ask God to give you clean hands and a clean heart.  Ask Him to forgive your sins.  You could pray a prayer like this.

“Dear God, I understand that I am not a member of your family but I want to become your child right now.  I confess that my sins are ugly and deplorable and they represent my rebellious heart.  I turn from the way I’ve been living and want to follow your way.  Thank you for sending Jesus as the sinless Savior who died in my place.  I believe that He died and rose again to pay the price for my sins.  I now receive Jesus into my life and ask you to forgive me and release me from my sin.  If there’s anything in my life that needs to go, I give you full permission to point it out, and with your help I want to live differently.  I ask this in Jesus’ Name.  Amen.”

Surrender to Him right now as we sing, “Give Us Clean Hands.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?