Commentary on 1 John 3:1-7
The closing lines of chapter 2 reminded the readers of Jesus’ expected return, and called for a life of righteousness that will allow “boldness” when he comes.
The first two verses of chapter 3 root this confident hope in what God has already done. The text begins where we must always begin, with the love of God given to us.
The content of that love (or perhaps its result) is that we are called “God’s children”. This is not just wishing or pretending; we are what God declares us to be. The implicit imagery here is one of adoption. God lovingly calls us God’s children, and that declaration makes it so. We are God’s children not by our choice or by our accomplishment, but by the Father’s love.
One might reasonably conclude that being God’s children must be the ultimate goal; after all, what could be better? However, verse 2 points ahead to a greater, still unrealized fulfillment. The fullness of what it means to be God’s children will be revealed only at the apocalyptic appearing. But it is not as though we have no idea what God has in mind. Jesus himself is our future, and God intends to transform us to be like the Son.
There is no other pattern or goal than Jesus himself. The good news is not that Jesus helps us to be “more ____”, with the blank filled by whatever value, virtue, or ideal we choose to adopt. Rather, the good news is that Jesus himself is the goal and the gift. Jesus is not only the shape of God’s past love toward us through incarnation, cross, and resurrection; Jesus is also the shape of God’s final gracious gift: to conform our lives to God’s perfect love in the Son.
That hope for the future shapes life now. Faithful discipleship means living along the grain of God’s promise and intent. Thus those who are God’s children will be “pure” (verse 3) and “righteous” (verse 7), “just as he is.” The phrase “just as” can be taken to mean “in the same way as” or “because,” and in this case we ought to hear both. “What we will be” may not be known in its fullness yet, but by God’s grace we see our future in Jesus, and this future already has a transformative effect in the present for those who are God’s children.
The most problematic part of this text is the claim made in verse 6 that those who “abide in him” do not sin. It is difficult to understand how this is not a blatant contradiction to much of the rest of the biblical witness, and even to what 1 John says elsewhere (see 1:8-2:2). Some have suggested that the present tense of the verb “sins” in verse 6 indicates that the author is denying only a constant habit of sinning. While the author of 1 John would certainly consider habitual sinning to be out of bounds for those who claim to be God’s children, the verse cannot be tamed quite so easily. Are we to imagine that the author is willing to excuse occasional sins?
Furthermore, 5:16 expects that one may see one’s brother or sister “sinning”, also expressed with a present tense verb; there, such sinning within the church is possible and perhaps even expected. So, the difficulty of how 3:6 fits into 1 John cannot be solved by the tense of the verbs. Alternatively, some have suggested that the author means that as long as, and only insofar as, we remain in Christ, we cannot sin; it is when we step out of being “in him” that we find ourselves sinning. However, this solution is hardly satisfying. Imagining such constant stepping in and out of relationship with Christ hardly does justice to the Johannine tradition’s deep sense of “abiding in him.”
No solution to the puzzle of 3:6 has won a consensus. There is a genuine tension, both within the text of 1 John and within the experience of the church, regarding the reality of sin on the one hand, and life as God’s children on the other. What is clear is that the author will allow neither self-delusions of sinlessness nor a casual acceptance of sin within the lives of God’s children. Perhaps those who left the community of 1 John were claiming that they did not “really” sin, regardless of their actions, since the Gospel of John defines sin primarily as unbelief; perhaps they appealed to their belief in Jesus as proof that sin was no longer even a possibility for them.
This position, then, would be what the author rejects early in this book (1:8-2:2), cutting off all claims to sinlessness. In our text, as further response, the author says that one’s actions really do matter. Being a child of God does not make all behaviors un-sinful for you. Sin within those who hope in Jesus is both a real possibility, and a profound contradiction. That contradiction is not to be glossed over.
Verses 3-7 are implicit exhortation: If we remain in Jesus, and he has no sin, then we must not sin either. 1 John cannot imagine being a child of God, trusting and hoping in Jesus, and not reflecting the character of Jesus in one’s own life. But we must not get confused at this point. All discipleship rests on the declaration of what we already are: loved by God, children now, promised that we will be like Jesus when he appears.
It may be significant that this text is full of indicative verbs, not imperative. The readers are not simply told to be better, to try harder, or to get rid of their sin. That’s what Jesus came to do (verse 5). Perhaps the tension of this text regarding sin finds its resolution only in the conviction that by God’s grace we will be made like Jesus in the end. Here in Easter season, we have a new identity because of Jesus’ resurrection, and yet we hope and look for that day when the risen Jesus will return and transform us all into his image.