“Dear children, let no one lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous even as he is righteous. He that doeth sin is of the devil, for from [the] beginning the devil sinneth. To this end was manifested the Son of God that he might undo the works of the devil. Every one that hath been born of God doeth not sin, because his seed abideth in him: and he cannot sin, because he hath been begotten of God. Herein are manifest the children of God and the children of the devil.”
The opportunity is here taken to review briefly what was last considered with the verses before us, in order to set forth its great principles more fully and less cumbered with detail. On every side they are of immense importance, though the manner in which the apostle brings in the second of the two seems peculiar; but it is in the wisdom of God. Only our ignorance makes it appear strange. What God does or says, we may be perfectly assured, must be the best way for either.
We have seen that, in the last verse of the chapter before, is first introduced the subject of our righteousness. For here begins our righteousness in principle and practice: because we have had God righteous in 1 John 1:9; and a wonderful truth it is that God is there declared faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from every unrighteousness. Man’s notion of His righteousness would be His strictness in condemning evil. But Christ has changed everything for the believer by His atoning death, and made it not merely a question of grace in God but of righteousness to forgive him. The ground of this is Himself — Jesus Christ the righteous, and His death for our sins; the effect of which is that God is able to act not merely graciously in our favour when we do not deserve it, but righteously to forgive that which is so offensive to Him as sins. It is true that when born of God we too abjure sins; we have learnt to condemn sin itself, and ourselves for having been guilty of sins. Is it not verified in the believer from his first turning to God? He abhors himself and his sins as before Him. He knows very little, but he knows it personally and truly by God’s teaching. When the work of the Lord Jesus is received in the Spirit’s power as well as His person, then even the young believer sees things clearly as they are in the sight of God. He begins to know not only things in God’s sight, but God Himself in His feeling of perfect love towards those that are His.
Here however our righteousness is asserted as inseparable from our new birth. This often alarms any one immature in faith; because he at once naturally turns to look within. He does not find ground for satisfaction there, and, what is more, he never can. What we have to do is in the first place to rest on Christ made to us righteousness. This therefore is the direction of faith. There is no object of faith in looking at ourselves; it brings experience of our utter weakness. Only when Christ fills the spiritual eye is His strength made perfect in our weakness. Then indeed follows practical righteousness.
Now this is the part in which he returns to the whole family of God, laying down the principle that, “If ye know that He is righteous, know (or, ye know) that every one that doeth righteousness is begotten of Him.” It has been already remarked that righteousness, in respect whether of God supremely or of ourselves as begotten of God in our little measure, is in every case consistency with the relationship. For this very reason, although in the last verse he had introduced righteousness, he immediately seems to turn away from it in the opening verses of 1 John 3, where he suddenly bursts out into those wonderful words, “See what manner of love the Father hath given to us,” etc. Thus he takes in the Father’s present love, and the future glory in the same surpassing favour to the children of God in being like Christ, “because we shall see Him as He is. And every one that hath this hope in Him” (Christ), founded on Him, “purifieth himself, even as He (Christ) is pure.” It is clearly not the Christian pure, else he should not require to purify himself; but Christ being the standard, and He being absolutely pure, the incongruity of impurity in a follower of Christ, that is in one having Christ as his life and his righteousness, makes him feel that he cannot but purify himself from all unworthy of Him. Needless to say, that when we look into daily conversation, there is failure too often. But John is not occupied with the shortcoming as a general rule, but with the principle, and therefore he puts it in all its simplicity as he was entitled to do.
For this is the true way to look at a principle, apart from possible or actual complications. If we get into paring away on the right and the left and all round, we can never face a principle really. It is apt to be lost in our looking at the circumstances. But a principle is above all circumstances if it is a principle of grace, and a principle of grace made ours in Christ whilst here below. Does not this help us to see why he turns to the unfolding of the richest grace and glory after beginning on practical righteousness. “See what manner of love!” Why does he so speak here? Because all that grace is needed for practical righteousness. For how could this righteousness hold on its even way without that mighty spring? How could the Christian find adequate cheer, in the midst of the world without and the flesh within, to persevere in God’s will with joy and confidence, unless he had the assurance of His perfect love? His wondrous love is brought in exactly at the right time and place, though it may seem a singular departure from the righteousness of which he had been speaking before. It is to supply in the Father’s love what best strengthens practical righteousness.
We never perform our duties rightly to God or any other unless we are by grace above our duties. If you sink under your duties, you will always fail. There will necessarily in that case be something that you cannot reach. And many saints are content to jog on in that shambling way. They are quite satisfied if they can fairly hope they shall not be lost. “By God’s mercy I humbly trust that He will not cast me into hell; I hope for Christ’s sake to get to heaven.” With this he goes on quietly, as if the gospel gave no more. But is this consistent with the child’s relationship to his Father? How utterly short of what is here revealed to faith and meant to fill the Christian with unwavering delight and fulness of joy even now? A Christian is entitled to nothing less. Why? Christ! Everything turns upon Him for the believer. Consequently it is an appeal to his faith, and so it ought to be. Through no other channel have we ever derived any blessing Godward since sin came into the world. Who ever obtained testimony except from faith in what God in Christ is; and what God is in Him to the believer is a delivering God. Only He delivers, but never will He consent to deliver in any other way than through the Lord Jesus; and the Holy Spirit, who glorifies Christ, works in the Christian to make him realise it. For the truth, however blessed in itself, is outside of him without the indwelling power of the Spirit of God. But the Holy Spirit, if one rests on Christ and His redemption, makes it to be real internally, turning even the severest affliction to our exceeding joy. We are not to suppose that it was a privilege peculiar to the early Christians that they could have fellowship with the apostle Paul when he bids them “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.” Little of this is now tasted by the children of God; but we do well to challenge our own souls whether we do. Let us seek that what we read in the word may be verified in us and our brethren, according to the grace of Christ both theirs and ours.
Hence then we find the new relationship glowingly urged, and to what does it amount? Is it merely that we are become strangers and pilgrims like Abraham? No; we are, or ought to be such, but is there not far beyond that measure? Abraham was separated from the nations because they were idolatrous. He and his family were called to walk apart to God. They required for this no small bulwark, to have Himself for their shield in the midst of enemies that hated them because of their separation to His name. If they had only intermarried with them like decent fellow-citizens, and entered into community of pursuits, taking their part in their friendships and their wars, it would have been all well! The same principle applies now. But Christians have lost immensely by association with the world, excited no less than worldly men by the Boers and the Germans, by the Japanese and about the Russians, and such like. What have we to do with such associations? If we were only Englishmen, we might and ought to have a great deal to do with it all. If only men in the flesh, it is a natural duty clearly, as far as one can talk about the duty of a sinful, guilty, and lost man. Now as Christians we are not our own but bought with a price; we are saved and brought to God for the purpose of living no longer to ourselves, but to Him who for us died and was raised. We are called to do God’s will during the little while we are here on earth in the midst of an evil world. Consequently we have a relationship far superior.
Abraham needed protection, and Abraham had it in God with the blessed name of the “Almighty.” What a suitable name of relationship for him and his! His enemies were all near and around him, it would easily leak out that his seed were to dispossess the Amorite and the rest. No doubt many an Israelite might report that God gave Canaan to the fathers and their line for ever. At the least the very fact of Abraham’s coming and settling in that land must have been an omen to the Canaanites and the rest that were there. Was it not notice to quit, and a warning of judgment? Do you suppose they would take this quietly? The chosen race were long but few, but the truth would make itself felt as they increased and got stronger; more particularly after the mighty work of their deliverance out of Egypt, where their numbers multiplied in spite of all the efforts of the wicked king to destroy the males.
Next the sons of Israel were brought to Sinai; and indeed even before they reached it, in the process of their being redeemed out of Egypt — externally of course — God intimated that He was going to give Himself a new name. What He gave to Israel was the name of Jehovah. “Father” would not have been true, because the great nation for the most part consisted of unconverted men. It was not at all a question of renewal by grace. They were as a people taken up by God to govern; and government does not necessarily require that people should have divine life in them. Government supposes evil to be repressed; and God took the name of a divine governor, the God of their fathers but also now “Jehovah.” At Sinai as His nation they undertook to obey His law as the condition of their standing and of His blessing. But He well knew that they would not be subject, but depart more and more into rebellion. Alas! the fleshly mind has but the principle of self-will and is never subject to God. On the contrary it is enmity against Him and dislikes His will. Therefore it was as certain as possible — and Moses was quite conscious of it — that all would go to ruin; that they would abandon Jehovah and follow greedily strange gods; so that they must be chased out of the goodly land. How solemn to all the nations the lesson of a people which once had God doing the mightiest and kindest things for them, but now become not rebels only but apostates and consequently punished in the most severe and public manner before all the world under their worst enemies the instrument of their degradation!
But all this was brought out in Jehovah’s dealings with the Jews’ relationship till the Son of God appeared; and more soon followed, and still more is yet to be fulfilled. But He appeared as Man, the only way in which He could appear in grace and to purpose; the way in which, according to scripture, it was absolutely necessary He should appear. For in that nature, which constantly and in every form in others had wrought evil, He came not merely to bring God into the world but to put sin out of it. Only in fact this was not all to be done at once. Meanwhile still worse was to be the display of the unbelieving wickedness of the Jews in refusing Jesus as Jehovah’s Messiah; whereas He had given them overwhelming proofs of the truth. Nevertheless their inveterate and rebellious self-will would not have it. They were therefore the chief instruments in bringing Him to the cross. The idolatrous Romans even did not wish it. Pilate’s name had been known for a name of hardness and severity even among Roman governors; but Pilate quite shines in comparison with the High Priest of the Jews, their elders and scribes and all the rest of them. Masses and classes made no difference; they were all full of enmity and spite against their own Messiah, blinded by fleshly will. Such is what people call “free will.”
Yes, it is Satan’s and the sinner’s free will. As a man, what possible title can he have to a free will? Is he not bound, as an intelligent creature, to be a servant of God? Consequently the claim to exercise free will is really preposterous. As fallen, is he not a slave of Satan? And is not this the condition of what you and I and all other men were born and lived in till God gave us to take the place of the sentence of death for our souls, and to receive by faith a new life in Him that came down from heaven? And He, the Son of God and Son of man, made known to His disciples while He was ministering on earth, that there was a new name which God reveals as His to believers, the same name as He knew and loved Himself not only then but from all eternity — the Father; He in divine right, and we by sovereign grace.
Such is the fruit of the love that has reached to our once dark hearts which is here referred to: not merely that we should be forgiven and justified, but that we should be called children of God. The second verse, if not the first, distinctly says that we are so now. It is not only a name that will be made good in heaven or in the resurrection state. “Now are we” children of God. It has been already pointed out that “sons” is not the term that the apostle here applies to us, but “children.” Our translators were admirable scholars; but we require the truth in our soul to translate scripture properly, and constant dependence on the same Spirit who wrote it. If they had had to do with any other book, they would have translated it correctly; but their theological prejudices hampered them here and there as to the Bible. Their mistakes seem to have chiefly arisen out of habit. Their failure lay not in lack of learning but in traditional bias. They had found others of name before them translating in a certain way, and they followed in the same rut. “Children of God” — what can be a nearer relationship to Him? Man could not make a stranger outside himself to be his child
God can, and this is what He does. Such is now the relationship of grace. It is not only that Christ called God His Father, but His Father is our Father; and He adds that “His God is our God,” after He had borne atoningly the judgment of our sins and rose from out of the dead. For it is full of interest that Christ did not speak ordinarily to Him as God but as Father. When He rose from the dead, the work of redemption being accomplished, He says not merely “your Father” but “your God.” The force is made exceedingly striking by comparison with the time when the Lord said “My God, My God.” In the days of His flesh, and before this on the cross, it was always “Father” whether He spoke of Him or to Him. After being made sin, and hence forsaken by God, He comes to the “Father” again, even before death, that we might know that all against us was settled. For He had gone down with our sins laid on Him under that infinite judgment; and in His spirit He had the consciousness that it was finished and accepted so that He could say “Father” before the moment of death, because it was virtually ended. The resurrection was the public proof that all was peace; but before He departed, He said “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
Accordingly here we have this wondrous privilege, “The Father hath given us” the title of “children of God.” There we have its character; and to make it more plain that it is a really given nature and not merely a title, he adds, “Beloved, now are we children of God.” In a general way it was said before that the righteous one, as He is righteous, is “born of God.”
This is all exceedingly important in order to lay a firm and sure basis for our righteousness; for it is not at all that certain duties have to be fulfilled in order to our attaining righteousness. This was the ground of an Israelite. The law set before him certain duties that he was bound to accomplish to gain life. Nevertheless these he never fulfilled. The law therefore could only condemn him. It is altogether a different thing with the Christian. This is made plain when we are assured that we are children of God, and that He is our Father according to the way in which Christ knew Him; He in the right of His own divine person, we solely by grace. But have we no duties of ours? and what are they? They are the duties of children of God. We are brought into a relationship higher than any duties. What can we accomplish by any fulfilment of duty comparable with the place of a child of God? We are therefore always above our duties. We are brought into a nearness to God which no duty done by us could ever gain. We received the title by sovereign grace when we were at our worst, children of wrath even as others. He gave us life in the Son.
This for many is a blessed truth to learn, that our duties flow out of an existing relationship, instead of being done to win it. Our duties do not bring its into the relationship; but the relationship decides the kind of duties which become it and are owing to it. Our near and blessed relationship — and we could have none nearer — flows out of our being now His children. It is a standing fact which nothing can alter, except when one who has professed to be a Christian shows that there was no root of the matter in him, because he has given Christ up; even then it will tell against him in the judgment. But evidently it is a general principle and easily understood by looking at natural duties. Hence the world is always wrong in its ethical notions, because they do not at all base duty upon relationship. On the contrary they make duty to flow from the man’s moral power. They suppose that man is able to do his duty if he will; and therefore there is nothing in a man’s duty but what he can do if he choose. The sorrowful fact certainly is that man fails in his Godward duties utterly; but philosophers think little of that. The error shows how the system of ethics has no source in revelation but is merely of fallen man. There is neither the truth of God nor the reality of man, as in His sight.
Look, for illustration, at a parent. What is it that is the ground of the child’s duty to the parents? It is the relationship. It is because he is the child of his father that he is bound to love him who begat him, and to obey him. No other can stand in a father’s place. Should the child begin to regard others as equally near with his father, or to let them usurp his place, it is clear all must be false and wrong. There is again the relationship of a husband and wife; and here what more evident? The man’s duty is to love her, as is due to none else, though she may be sometimes a little trying; and it is the woman’s duty to obey him, though doubtless she may have to endure sometimes.
Duties are quite independent of mere passing circumstances. Nor are they a question of the man’s will or of the woman’s. Whatever be their thoughts or their feelings, the obligation of duty flows out of the relationship. Whether one does the duty or not, relationship is what creates and calls for it. In a servant there is a little of the same principle, but more distant and feeble from its nature, especially in our day when they are prone to getting tired of their masters, as the masters and mistresses are not at all unwilling to part with their servants, sometimes on small occasions. In itself it is indeed, as we read in John 8, not an abiding but a temporary relationship. But the others abide for this life, and therefore they can better illustrate the relationships which grace has established never to end.
We are entitled by God’s word to believe this. But while the flesh remains in us, we need grace,(“but He giveth more grace”) to accomplish the duties proper to our relationship whether to God or between us and our brethren. The least one involves corresponding duty. But the all-important depend on the supreme rights of God. And here God has taken the place of incomparable love: “See what manner of love.” It is entirely beyond any affection that man ever conceives. It was only possible for God; and He gives to us under the Father’s name, as the Lord Jesus knew Him and communicated after He died and rose, not more truly His than ours. Therefore the blessing, above all thought of man, being ours now encourages us to fulfil the obligations which that relationship calls into being.
Has not the relationship then a great deal to do with righteousness? If so, cannot one perceive at once the great propriety and beauty as well as the peculiar force thereby given to sustain righteousness — that is, our consistency with our relationship? For here if anywhere the relationship is brought out in all its reality, and its present rich grace; also carried right through to the presence of the Lord, when we seeing Him as He is shall be like Him. Thus it furnishes a very complete and divine light on the subject, and in a way as unexpected as indispensable, meant and adapted to give energy to the duty of practical righteousness, and to minister unfailing joy and comfort under all circumstances.
Take the danger that ensues when we give up our relationship and begin to doubt whether we are children of God: are we not ripe for the world, for indulgence in sin? No wonder that we should turn into evil ways if we do not enjoy present, living, and everlasting relationship with God; but if we do, there is no excuse for sin. There is the new nature, the near tie, and the love of the most powerful kind as the motive. For the new nature may be viewed in connection with relationship, or as it acts by itself apart from it. But the full and proper way is to bring both nature and relationship to bear on our conversation in this connection; and this is what our apostle is doing in his own remarkable manner in the parenthesis of these three verses between the first and the renewed treatment of righteousness.
Having thus brought in the Father’s love and our relationship as children, with its bright hope, he turns again to the moral side and probes sin to its root, as he had not yet done. He does not call sin “the transgression of the law,” and for the best of all reasons. He is going to treat it in a far larger way than in connection with the law or the Jews. They were accustomed to unrighteousness or righteousness in a measure, although they superficially misunderstood it through their unbelief. Still they read of it habitually in their Scriptures; and they could but wonder at the depth of the word of righteousness from the Lord Himself as He the true light shone when here.
But the heathen, what did they know about righteousness? They had no conscious relationship with God who was to them an unknown God. If they had any moral feeling in the presence of their spurious objects of veneration, it was fear. But they had not the smallest idea that God was a God of love. Their gods were patrons of vice and villainy, never rising above selfishness. If ever they came down to the earth to man, it was perhaps to make a pet of this one or that one, and it might be something far worse than a pet; because they were really disgraceful in their immoral ways. Did Hellenism ever attain to anything in religion higher than disgraceful gods, without a particle of either holiness or love? Which of them was not bad from Zeus down to the lowest of them? Their gods were just the exaggerated reflection of themselves. But here we have the truth of God, and that truth working in the way of sovereign grace to bless us without the smallest desert on our part. The Christian can only take the ground of utter ruin and evil in the first man, and of perfect righteousness and grace in Christ. All the virtue, efficacy, and blessing came from God who gives all freely to faith in Christ. What could our God and Father do so well to the believer for renouncing self and every hindrance, as to confess the name of his Lord and Saviour, and to enjoy the blessed nearness of his relationship to the Father, in a new life given by grace?
That the believer is righteous as being born of God, and consequently sharing with Christ God’s hatred of sin, was much; for doing follows being. And every one that doeth righteousness is born of God, and thus knows that he has nearness of relationship from being the object of the Father’s spontaneous and perfect love. Thus the nature and the relationship join hands and go together, and this is what the apostle here explains to us. But now, having brought in all the bright side, and alike its present reality and its surpassing hope also, he proceeds to insist on the necessary contrariety of God’s nature, whether in Christ or in us, to all sin.
“Whosoever doeth sin doeth also lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness” (ver. 4). “Committing sin” is generally used for a particular act, as when one says that a man has committed a sin. But “doing sin” as here means that it is both the principle of the man and his practice too; for there is nothing else really but the man’s doing sin. It is his nature. Of whom does he speak? Of every man naturally. This is exactly what man does as in God’s sight. It is not merely the Gentile but the Jew; for in that light there was no difference, though they might ever so much oppose one another, and habitually indulge in mutual hate and scorn. Before God fully revealed in Christ what possible room for any thought of pride? Man’s place is in the dust as a sinner.
Who then is the sinner but every man as such in his natural state? Was not this your life and mine before we learned Christ? God was unknown to our souls except in a certain dread of Him — a fear that He would cast us into hell some day. If God was not in our thoughts, sin was. What is its true character then? Lawlessness, the principle of self-will and of total independence of God. Man finds it not so easy now to be independent of his fellow; he has no difficulty in being thoroughly indifferent to God. How mad, wicked, awful a state! God is in none of his thoughts; this is sin. The moment you bring in such a definition of sin as is here revealed, it applies to everybody whether Jew or Gentile. The Jew had a claim of righteousness, because he was under law; but the consequence if he sinned was the additional guilt of breaking a known law, and that law the law of God. He was therefore a “transgressor,” which the Gentile could not be, because the Gentile knew nothing about the law as a general rule; most of them had not even heard of it. it would be therefore quite a misapplication of terms to talk about the Gentiles as if they were transgressors. Scripture never does so speak, but calls them lawless or sinners; as for instance Gal. 2:15 says, “sinners of the Gentiles.”
But now we have lawlessness brought to bear upon the Jew, and if he believed not on Christ, he also was lawless with all his boast in the law, because his sinning proved him to be really living without God. While the temple stood, he went up and brought his offering; any Jew might do that. Men, even the worst of them, like to have a little bit of religion. Cain had not merely the world to love as he began it, but he had the world’s religion in man’s idea. He was not at all one of the sort that have no church or chapel of their own. He was strict in bringing an offering of his particular device to the Lord; but there was nothing in it except a real insult to Him who alone can say how He is to be worshipped, with an absolute ignoring of his own sinfulness. He brought the fruits and flowers of the earth. People do something like this at funerals. It is a great day for flowers, as we know, even at the grave; and a more monstrous thing than flowers on a coffin it is hardly possible to conceive as far as principle is concerned. It utterly blots out the solemnity and the consequences of death. What is death for the saint but departing to be with Christ? And what is death to the sinner but the knell of inevitable and righteous judgment) And what for either are flowers? Can one wonder that even sensible people of the world now give notice to their friends “No flowers by request”? At any rate it is hard to conceive any fashion more heartless or foolish, though it is natural enough for the gardeners, and good for taste perhaps and trade but for nothing else.
“Whosoever doeth sin doeth also lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness?” This is a very different rendering from that of the A.V.; but as it was dwelt on previously, little more is called for now. Sin is not breach of law but lawlessness. This is the true sense. No other rendering is possible legitimately. What has ruled here is an utter mistake, founded on making the law instead of Christ the rule of life for the Christian, as people do who understand not the scriptures. “And ye know that He was manifested that He might take away our sins; and in Him is no sin.” The apostle introduces at once the exact opposite. Where shall we look for one utterly free from lawlessness? There was but One, and He so evident that it was needless to name Him. Yes, we know that the Lord Jesus was manifested to take away our sins. How suited to a divine person, but withal truly man! He indeed abhorred sin; and, as is said immediately after His work, “In Him is no sin.” It is not only “was” before His advent, and “will be” now that He is risen, but “in Him is no sin.” It is an absolute truth. As it never was at any time, so it never could be. Yet the sinless One was just the One whom God made sin, that we — who were indeed sinners might become God’s righteousness in Him. The one refers to the unique act and aim of His atoning death; the other refers to the immutable and holy character of His life, so peculiarly displayed and tested particularly in this world. There it was manifest to every eye, unless they were blind or saw crooked.
“Every one that abideth in Him sinneth not.” There is no other remedy against sin than abiding in Him, constantly dependent and confiding. The guard or preservative is not in that one has called on the name of the Lord. This is excellent to begin with; but many that today say “Lord, Lord,” must be ignored in that day. To abide in Christ is the test of living faith in Christ, which is not empty or vain but works by love, as the law-affecting Galatians were told. Nor could it be otherwise. “I am crucified with Christ, but live, no longer I (the old man) but Christ liveth in me; and that which I now live in flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, that loved me and gave Himself for me.” He is not ashamed to call us brethren; He has proved His love for us to the uttermost in a way proper neither to the Father nor to the Holy Spirit, yet essential. They never became incarnate to display absolute obedience in life, and in death to endure the judgment of our sins at God’s hand. He did. Therein is for us a motive of exceeding power, particularly as there is a righteous nature communicated, as well as a relationship of such nearness to God, as only the supreme love of the Father could conceive and confer.
Then we come to the verses not before cleared. “Dear children, let no man lead you astray.” Where is the subject on which there is more frequent mistake? Where any in which men are more apt not only to err, but to mislead others who trust them? There is no help for it but in Christ, His word, and His spirit. What can learning avail herein? Even piety can do little unless there is also true abiding in Him. “Apart from Him we can do nothing.” Hence it is that if we so abide, the wicked one cannot harm us, though we are always exposed to his wiles, yet not ignorant of his devices. Not of us is he afraid, but of Christ his vanquisher. But our faith and abiding in Christ puts Him between us and the devil, who thus resisted will flee from us. It is not our old nature, the flesh, turned by grace and truth into a good nature. The flesh, the very mind of the flesh, is incurably evil; and on this God executed condemnation on our behalf who believe in Christ a sacrifice for sin. And now that He is dead and risen, He gives us of His own risen life, a new creation, not the old improved but set aside for ever and judged in Christ’s cross. What is His life? Was there ever a single sin to tarnish it? Did the smallest defilement ever enter Him? This is the life that we now have; and hence the joy of the Father’s love rests upon us as His children — children of God the Father. We have therefore the new nature, which is a righteous one, before we are to do righteousness which is the course of that nature, as unrighteousness is alien to it.
With the Israelite it was a man addressed in the law as having a sinful nature. The law supposed such proclivities in him; he was therefore surrounded by prohibition on every side. He was not to own false gods, nor to have an image of the true God. Worship was exclusively due to the unseen but only true God that brought Israel out of Egypt, whose name he might not take in vain. He was not to take another’s property, nor even to covet any one or thing that belonged to his neighbour. He was to keep the Sabbath on the seventh day, and to honour his parents, all under the severest sanction. Why? Because having aversion to God’s will in his nature he was unrighteous. The law held out life and death — life to the obedient, death to the disobedient. Cursed be the man that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them; and all the people shall say, Amen! Accordingly death passed upon Israel long ago. But the day is coming when they too shall live; and “doing righteousness” will follow. The soul that does righteousness, the nature that loves it, has a new life in Christ which God gives of His grace independently of anything on our part. His Spirit it is that works in us to repent and believe the gospel. With this new life the new and Christian responsibility begins. We are called to walk consistently with Christ, whose is the righteous life given to our soul. “He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous” (verse 7). It is His nature, just as a mere fallen man sins.
Now he gets much stronger, and looks at the source of the mischief. “He that doeth sin is of the devil.” He had shown the source of the blessing; now he looks at the ultimate source of sin. It is not merely what Adam and Eve did but what the serpent infused into their hearts. What has the devil been about ever since but adding to the sin of the head fresh unrighteousness for each of the race? Here, it is said, “He that doeth sin is of the devil.” He is the leader that man belongs to. He may boast of his ancestors, but there is another who was not literally his father; but fallen man has made Satan practically his god. So scripture calls him the god of this age, and the prince of the world. How true it is “He that doeth sin is of the devil”; not as flung out in man’s haste, but nothing less than the truth of God. Not only is he a sinful man, but “he is of the devil.” “For the devil sinneth from the beginning,” that is, from the time that he was not content to be an angel of God but set up independently of God in his pride. From that moment was his beginning as the devil. This of course was after the time when he was created an angel. Here again we see that
“From the beginning, “does not mean” In the beginning.” This is said of the Word, the Son, in eternity before the creation, or as “In the beginning” of Gen. 1:1, pointing to God’s action, not His being. “From the beginning,” no matter how or where it occurs, is from the time that the person spoken of manifests himself. “From the beginning” of Christ was from the time when Christ manifested Himself. “From the beginning” of the devil was when he manifested not his angelic qualities but his pride against God first, and his malice afterward, the sure effect of pride in others also.
“To this end the Son of God was manifested, that he might undo the works of the devil.” This does not seem to mean exactly the same thing as to take away our sins. It is not to be doubted that this great object also points to the self-same time; but we must remember that the death of Christ had far more in it than simply taking away our sins. This is everything to us; or at any rate everything of God’s grace practically begins with His work to take away our sins. But He became the bondman of God, and so His champion against Satan, the ceaseless adversary of both God and man; and Christ was manifested not only to reconcile us to God by His death, but to undo everything that Satan had wrought in all his malignant history. And so He will. Satan has a great deal to do with wars, famines, earthquakes, pestilences, etc., as is to be learnt from the early part of Job and elsewhere. Meanwhile God overrules for good all these things that Satan does for evil. But there is mischief in him at all times, restless mischief to injure; as there is the unceasing love of God to do good to all that listen to Him, especially in what He reveals of the Lord Jesus. “Every one that is born of God doeth not sin.” Righteousness is his life for practice, as it is for piety. The believer is characterised by the new nature that does not sin. Supposing a man had been a slave from the time that he was born, but that in the course of time some kindly Englishman interposed and delivered him from his captors. The man becomes a free man directly, by the law of this country, no small boon to the slave. When he thinks or talks of himself after that moment, does he still think of himself as a slave? Not at all: this is far from his thought. Such he was once; but now he is a free man. It may be objected that the old man still exists in the Christian; but the answer is that God set him free from it by Christ’s death. So that there remains enough true in this illustration to justify its use here. Alas! what is spiritual is not so easy to understand and feel as the natural.
“Every one that hath been begotten of God.” This is the starting-point. To be born of Him is the real beginning, not in divine counsels but of His effectual work in the soul. Of the other life he does not speak, but distinctly of every one born with a nature that never sins. Our business is not to let the old nature out but to keep it under the power of Christ’s death, mortifying all that belongs to it, and never by grace allowing it to work actively. We may fail, and we do through our own fault; for we have the Spirit dwelling in us to oppose the flesh, and are always inexcusable when we thus break down. But righteousness is our principle from the first, and a blessed fact too, because we have it as our new nature. We are not waiting for it as a prize outside us, like an Israelite. Sovereign grace has already made it ours, not only for us as to justification as the apostle Paul says, but in us a new nature as we see here. God has given us the blessing; and therefore we are to act consistently with it, looking up to God the source, and the Lord Jesus through whom we have it to abide in Him, that we may bear much fruit to the Father’s glory all the way through.
“Every one that hath been begotten of God doeth not sin, because his seed remaineth in him.” It is not merely that he ought not, but he does not. Every creature acts according to its nature; and the Christian’s new nature is that he cannot sin; for judging by that new nature, it assuredly never sins. sin is the sad inconsistency of allowing the depraved nature to work its way; which was clearly contrary to God’s will, who would have it kept under Christ’s death. Did we not die to it from the first, when we passed out of death into life? Did not our baptism testify to this? The unclean and dead thing ought to be out of sight, even completely put away from us. “And he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God.” It is clearly in virtue of the new nature that he thus speaks so peremptorily.
“In this are manifest the children of God and the children of the devil: everyone that doeth not righteousness is not of God.” But there is the further test of love, and he adds, “Neither he that loveth not his brother” (ver. 10). If this absence of love be one’s character, it shows that he never had the new nature which loves righteousness and lives in it.
Let me call attention to the language of extreme decision in speaking of these two classes. It is the habit of many an excellent Christian to deny the title of saints to exercise such a judgment; and to this they cite our Lord’s prohibition in Matt. 7:1-2: “Judge not, that ye may not be judged; for with what judgment ye judge ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you.” Now in this application they are not wise; for the Lord here does not at all blame spiritual discernment of persons or things, which is a clear and weighty privilege of the Christian for his own guidance and the help or warning of others. And so the apostle lays it down (1 Cor. 2:15) that the spiritual (in contrast with the natural) man judges, or examines, all things, and he is judged by no one. What the Lord warned the disciples against is the bad habit of censoriousness, which so often leads to suspecting evil motives without ground and contrary to the holy instincts of love. But love would be stifled by the notion that we ought not to judge who God’s children are. If we are debarred from discerning them, how can we love them? Yet the very context proves that we can and ought to judge; for the Lord supposes it not only practicable but right and necessary when He says, “Give not what is holy to the dogs, nor cast your pearls before the swine.” If we are thus bound to discern the unclean, how much more is it our happy place to recognise the sheep and the lambs of God’s pasture, and help them lovingly in their need according to our measure!
But we need not go beyond the verse before us to see where the truth lies in this matter. “In this are manifest the children of God and the children of the devil.” The apostle regarded the difference as plain enough. He looks as usual at broad, clear, and practical proofs; he does not encumber his aim with a hypocrite here or there who might for a while be allowed to evade detection; he is earnest in drawing the heed of God’s family to what is of constant moment and interest for them all. There is no real difficulty in forming a sound judgment among those whose conduct is known to us, whether these are walking righteously or those unrighteously. It is unwarrantable to suspect of a hidden evil where no evil is apparent; as it is to accredit others with an excellence which is imaginary. Righteous judgment proceeds, especially in an application so general as this, on grounds which no upright and gracious soul could question.
Though man walks uncertainly and with vain show, it is not, it ought not to be, so with the Christian, who has the clearest duty from his own relationship to God and his brethren for suitable action. For he has to do, as the rule every day, with men who are either the children of God or the children of the devil. Divine love that works in him cannot be indifferent about either; but it takes a wholly different shape to each. The apostle at any rate saw no obstacle in the way, and encourages him to act for God as well as for them, and would keep him from the rashness of framing a judgment on obscure and uncertain grounds. “In this are manifest the children of God and the children of the devil.” Righteousness and love are not without visible effects before all. They are both manifest in the children of God; and it is equally manifest that they are not in the child of the devil, but rather their opposites.
It is of painful interest to inquire how saints should slip into so serious a mistake as to draw them into perverting one scripture and neglecting others. For how many are the words of God which take for granted that even the simplest believers recognise their brethren, as also they love them; whilst they also feel bound to win the heedless from their fatal insecurity, and to warn those who scorn and mock. It is the ruin of the Christian profession which accounts for an assumption so destructive of the Christian’s duty. The world is churchy, and the church is yet more worldly; so that confusion is stamped on the actual state of the saints mixed up with those who, necessarily having nothing spiritual in common, cannot but drag down into more or less of their own darkness those who ought to be clear and free for the Lord. For who can doubt that the saint cannot lift his unconverted associate into communion with God’s mind? Or what is more certain and common than that, if the natural be yoked with the spiritual, the dead weight of the former must sink the latter into more or less conformity with his own bad thoughts and ways?