Becoming What We Should Be

Becoming What We Should Be

 This morning and for the next few weeks we’re going to continue considering and highlighting parts of the Apostle John’s first epistle. If we had to provide a news-bite of why John wrote this letter, it might be this: that all might know and become what they should be—what God intends us to be; that all might learn the purpose and meaning of their lives as it is found in Christ. As we saw last week, this general purpose has various parts for John writes:

First, to proclaim Christ who was with the Father and has now appeared[1] for us and for our salvation to give us eternal life in him now and forever. John draws his understanding of this from having been one of the original twelve disciples and thereby a firsthand witness to Jesus’ life.[2]

Second, the purpose of this proclamation is to increase the fellowship between John and the recipients of his letter[3] for the oneness Christ creates by his Holy Spirit binds us not only to our heavenly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but also to each other.

And third, John writes that they might not sin. And he always provides reassurance that if they do sin, they can rest in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross covering that sin and in his consequent advocacy for those who are his.[4]

In this morning’s passage John continues to tease out the implications of God’s extravagant love for us. So he begins this third chapter with the following words: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” This familial emphasis of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, can also be found in his Gospel where he notes, “12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” to be “born of God.”[5] The added exclamation points in our translation capture the meaning and power of these words for in his Son, our heavenly Father has lavished his love upon us. He has bestowed upon us, in generous and extravagant quantities, his love. When it comes to love, God isn’t stingy! And we should keep in mind what this love cost God. As Paul relates, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[6] So at a time in which we couldn’t have cared less about God;

when we were more interested in living our lives according to our selfish ways rather than God’s selfless ways;

when we were indifferent or unbelieving or perhaps even hostile to God, this is when Christ died for us. And by dying and taking upon himself the penalty and wrath that was our due for not caring about the God in whose image we were made, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, made it possible for us to go from being enemies of God, to being reconciled with God;

He made it possible for us to go from being strangers to God to becoming friends of God;

He made it possible for us to go from being orphans, wandering aimlessly and alone in this world, to becoming children of our loving and heavenly Father—for this is what we are!

So though we once followed the ways of darkness, through Christ the Light of the world, we are now children of that light, sent to shine his light that others, too, might see their sin, their sickness, and subsequent need for reconciliation themselves. As John notes at the end of verse 1, “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” Though we have a world of things in common with those who don’t yet know Christ, what Scripture teaches and what our society teaches are often at odds with one another:

But for Jesus, we, too, might decide that it doesn’t matter what we do so long as it doesn’t harm others. But Jesus wants more for us. He doesn’t want us to be involved even with those things whose only victim is ourselves;

But for Jesus, we, too, might only watch out for ourselves. But Jesus wants more for us. He wants us to care for all who suffer or are hurting or undergoing trials regardless of whether or not we know them;

But for Jesus, we, too, might only love our friends. But Jesus wants more for us. He wants us to love even our enemies, even those who dislike or may seek to do us harm. He wants us to love others even when it hurts

John returns to reflect upon the great love the Father has lavished on us in verse 2: “ Dear friends,”—and I think “Beloved”[7] is a better translation here—“now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” As children of our heavenly Father, we can rest assured of belonging to him by virtue of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. Yet the benefits of that sonship are provisional this side of heaven. For the time being our union with Christ by means of his Holy Spirit whom he’s sent us is both definitive[8]—he has applied Christ’s resurrection to us and set us apart for God’s purposes—and progressive[9]—by virtue of that union we are being sanctified, we are being conformed to the holiness that defines and comprises the Godhead. But there’s more to come! Though we are children of God, “what we will be has not yet been made known.” What we will one day become is yet a mystery to us for we can’t imagine what a glorified body, untainted by sin and the effects of the Fall, looks like. But what we do know, what we can be confident of is “that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” One day we will be glorified even as Jesus was glorified when he rose from death so that we will no longer experience decay or suffering or death. This is reminiscent of what Paul states at the end of the wonderful chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”[10] So during our earthly lives, by Christ’s Spirit working in us, we can actually grow in our Christlikeness. Again quoting Paul, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”[11] Do you see what great love our heavenly Father has lavished on us in his Son??

Reflecting upon two possibilities—future glory because of our union with Christ or future ignobility because of our rejection of Christ—C.S. Lewis, the literary critic—not to mention apologist and popularizer of Christianity—put it this way, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship,”— that would be glory, the outcome of our union with Christ. But Lewis goes on, “or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare”—that would be ignobility, the outcome of rejecting Christ. But listen to what he says next:

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary [sic] people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feelings for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.[12]

The point in all of this is that there is something about beholding God that in and of itself will sanctify us; will change us; will cause us who, though made in his image have had that image broken at the Fall, to at long last reflect him perfectly as he originally intended. Beholding God helps us become what we should be.

In verse 3 John adds, “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” Why is this? Why is it that to have the hope of one day becoming pure like Christ purifies us even now? In part I think it’s because we become what we worship. We seek to become like what we emulate. We seek to become like those whom we respect and admire. So if we look to Jesus, his life and example and teachings as our benchmark, we can’t help but change our behavior to reflect his. And through our union with Christ, God not only gives us Christ’s righteousness so that in his sight we are holy even now; but through our union with Christ, he also gives us the desire and ability to obey and become like him.[13]

Having addressed the positive benefits and outcomes of being adopted by God, John turns to the disadvantage and negative outcome in verse 4: “Everyone who sins breaks the law.” Then John goes on to provide a definition of sin for us, “in fact, sin is lawlessness.” Negatively, lawlessness is exemplified by behaviors that don’t conform to God’s teaching in Scripture. Paul provides some examples of such sin, or lawlessness, namely, “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.”[14] So this isn’t necessarily lawlessness as defined by society but lawlessness as defined by God in his Word. Positively, lawfulness would include the many admonitions that we become what we should be—people who live according to the teachings of Christ and Scripture. And what this ends up looking like is the fruit of Spirit, lives characterized by “love, joy, peace, forbearance [patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.” As Paul goes on to note, “Against such things there is no law.”[15] There is no law because all of these are extensions or manifestations of God’s perfect love.

Returning to John, he reminds us in verse 5 how Christ “appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.” So John is building upon here what we earlier noted from his teaching last week—that Christ appeared for our salvation means that he appeared in order to take away our sins. So Christ appeared to deal with any sins we commit, but he appeared not simply to deal with our sins as they arise but to actually take them away. What is more by sending us his Holy Spirit, he is gradually taking away our propensity towards lawlessness, towards breaking God’s Word, and helping us instead to love and follow his Word. A lot is at stake in our doing so for Scripture teaches that “the wages of sin is death.” Yet we mustn’t overlook the second half of this well-known verse namely, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”![16] Brothers and sisters, it is in Christ that the power of sin—and of death—and of the devil have been conquered and done away with once and for all. So believers have a foretaste of this now while we are still on earth. In himself Jesus Christ, who was fully God and fully human, took away our sin. As one who was human yet never succumbed to sin,[17] he has become our new head, our new representative, in place of our old head, Adam. Jesus is qualified to be such for “in him” there “is no sin.” Whereas Adam failed in representing us by succumbing to sin, Jesus did not. And as one who is also fully God, Jesus Christ is able both to forgive sin and to apply the benefits of his work to all who believe in him. For by his death, Jesus died for us, taking on our guilt, our lawlessness, and the penalty that was our due; and by his resurrection he conquered all that had gone wrong with the world—all evil, all sin, all death—so that now all who acknowledge him as their Savior and Lord become the recipients of this new life by union with him and are thus welcomed and embraced as children of our heavenly Father. Oh, see what great love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God—for that is what we are!

And we can know who the Father’s children are not only by what they profess but by how they live. John considers the negative side of this in verse 6 when he states, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” As we saw last week as well, to walk in darkness means to walk continuously, to live in a lawless manner whereas to walk in light means to walk continuously, to live in a manner that is in keeping with Scripture’s teaching. So the question isn’t whether we have ever sinned—of course we have! The real issue, as indicated by John, is whether we choose to keep on sinning. For to keep on sinning keeps us from becoming what we should be. So we need to ask ourselves: Have we made the ways of the world our priority instead of putting on the ways of God? Because if we continue in sin, this indicates that we have never known Jesus Christ intimately and personally in the first place. In other words, it’s possible to believe that Jesus lived—and that he was a good man—and that he lived a moral life. And we can even believe that the teaching Jesus gave, if followed, would make this world a better place. But if we believe all of these things and yet choose to live contrary to what Jesus taught and lived, then we simply know about him, but have never come to know him personally or intimately. For to know Jesus personally will result in a changed life. To know Jesus personally will result in a desire to obey his commands. In his Gospel John records what Jesus himself taught about this,[18]

15 If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.

Do you see how intimate a relationship believers have been given? For through Christ and the Holy Spirit he has sent, we are united with them and with our heavenly Father. We continue to see what a good and faithful witness John is to what he saw and heard Jesus say and do, don’t we? For in his epistle, John is merely echoing, he is passing along, what Jesus himself taught. If we have a personal knowledge of Jesus, if we love Jesus—for to know him is to love him—then we’ll desire to obey his commands. This is similar to how we treat people in our lives whom we love—we want to do what pleases them. But in the case of Jesus, what he commands is also for our good. Since Jesus Christ isn’t simply our Savior but, as God, he is also our Maker, he knows what it will take for us to function best as he, along with the Father and Holy Spirit, intended. He knows what it takes for us to become what we should be. For, again, our relationship isn’t only with him but is also with our heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit. So if we love Jesus, if we commit our lives to loving, serving, and following him, he actually sends us his Holy Spirit to seal and indwell and enable us to follow Jesus and to know our Father in heaven. Christ’s Holy Spirit is the means by which we are joined to him for he is in us, teaching and conforming us into Christ’s image. And he, as we saw last week is also true of Jesus, is our advocate. He is on our side. So we can have confidence not only that God is with us, but that he is for us. As Paul so eloquently states,

If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?”[19]

And then Paul answers his own question, “37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[20] See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!

John closes this portion of his letter with a warning starting in verse 7: “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” So we’re provided here a fourth reason why Christ came—“to destroy the devil’s work.” The devil was present at the Garden luring our first parents away from God. And he has ever since been present in the world. He lives to lure God’s image-bearers away from God and Christ. He lives to lure God’s image-bearers into destroying themselves and one another. But Christ has come to destroy his work. As the author of Hebrews states, “14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death…. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”[21] See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!

The Father has lavished great love on us by sending his Son to die in our place that we might rise to live with—and know—and love him now and forever.

So let us tell of Christ’s salvation and eternal life that others, too, might go from living in darkness to living in his light;

Let us tell of Christ’s salvation that our fellowship, our family relationships with God and each other might deepen and grow;

Let us tell of Christ’s salvation that we might not sin—that we might walk in his ways and become what we should be instead of walking in the ways of the world and becoming what we should not;

Let us tell of Christ’s salvation and do our part in destroying the work of the devil—in destroying those things that harm and cripple and cause us to suffer and hurt ourselves and others.

For as Paul reminds us, “24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”[22] So let us become what we should be that we might know and enjoy the great love our great and heavenly Father has lavished on us, his children!

Let us pray.


[1] 1 John 1:1: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

[2] 1 John 1:2: The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

[3] 1 John 1:3: We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

[4] 1 John 2:1–2a: My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins,…

[5] John 1:12–13b. Verse 13 reads in its entirety: children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

[6] Romans 5:8.

[7] Greek Ἀγαπητοί.

[8] E.g., Romans 8:29–30: 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.; 1 Corinthians 15:49: And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man; Philippians 3:20b–21: And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body; Ephesians 1.4: even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.

[9] E.g., Colossians 3.9–10: 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices 10and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.; Ephesians 4.22–24: 22Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, 23and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

[10] 1 Corinthians 13:12.

[11] 2 Corinthians 3.18.

[12] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Touchstone: New York, 1980 edition. The quotation is from the actual essay entitled The Weight of Glory, pp. 39–40. Except where noted above, emphases have been added.

[13] See, e.g., Ephesians 4.22–24: 22Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, 23and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.; also the many “imitator” passages, e.g., Ephesians 5.1: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children., e.g. Ephesians 4.32: and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you; Ephesians 5.2: And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God; 1 Corinthians 11.1: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ; 1 Corinthians 4.16: I urge you, then, be imitators of me

[14] Galatians 5:19–21.

[15] Galatians 5:22–23.

[16] Romans 6:23.

[17] Hebrews 4:15: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. See also: 2 Corinthians 5:21: 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. And 1 Peter 3:18a: For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.

[18] John 14:15–21. See also John 8:31–32: 31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” See also Jesus’ teaching on his being the vine and believers his branches in John 15:1–8:15 I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

[19] Romans 8:31b–35.

[20] Romans 8:37–39.

[21] Hebrews 2:14–15, 17–18.

[22] Galatians 5:24–25.

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