Finally Alive by John Piper
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifi es himself as he is pure. Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
1 John 3:1 –10
This chapter was fi rst composed at Christmastime. Therefore, it attempts to do two things at once. It makes the connection between the incarnation of Christ and regeneration—that’s the Christmas part—and it attempts to carry forward the question in the previous chapter: What will we miss out on if we are not born again? If you read the chapter with those two questions in mind, you may fi nd your way more easily.
Twice in 1 John 3:1–10 we are told why Christmas happened—that is, why the eternal, divine Son of God came into the world as a human being. In verse 5, John says, “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.” So the sinlessness of Christ is affi rmed—“in him there is no sin.” And the reason for his coming is affi rmed—“he appeared to take away sins.”
Then, in the second part of verse 8, John says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
And the specifi c focus John has in mind when he says “works of the devil” is the sin that the devil promotes. We see this in the first part of verse 8: “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” So the works of the devil that Jesus came to destroy are the works of sin.
Two times John tells us that Christmas happened—the Son of God became human—to take away sin, that is, to destroy the works of the devil, namely, sin. So Jesus was born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18, 20), and “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52), and was perfectly obedient and sinless in all his life and ministry, all the way to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5–8; Heb. 4:15)—in order to destroy the works of the devil—to take away sin.
Jesus’ Incarnation and Our Regeneration
One of the questions we are asking in this chapter is: What is the connection between Jesus’ birth and our new birth? What is the relationship between Jesus’ incarnation and our regeneration? To answer this question, let’s build a bridge from the previous chapter to this text here in 1 John 3:1–10.
In the last chapter, we saw that when we ask why we need to be born again, the answer could look backward to our miserable condition in sin, or could look forward to the great things we will miss if we are not born again—like entering the kingdom of God. We gave ten answers for why we need to be born again in the first sense—looking back on what we were apart from new birth. And we gave fi ve answers for why we need to be born again in the second sense—looking forward to what we will not enjoy if we aren’t born again.
The Great Love of God
Now the bridge between that chapter and this text in 1 John 3 is the great love of God that gives life to people who are at enmity
with God and are dead in trespasses and sins. Ephesians 2:4–5 puts it like this: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” So the greatness of the love of God is magnifi ed in that it gives spiritual life—that is new birth—to those who have no claim on God at all. We were spiritually dead, and in our deadness we were walking in lockstep with God’s archenemy, the devil (Eph. 2:2). The justice of God would have been well served if we had perished forever in that condition. But for that very reason, our new birth—our being made alive—is a magnifi cent display of the greatness of the love of God. We owe our spiritual life, and all its impulses, to the greatness and the freedom of the love of God.
Now this is the bridge to 1 John 3:1–2, namely, the great love of God for those who are not yet in his family.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us [there’s the link with the greatness of the love of God], that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved [loved ones!], we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
Consider four observations that connect this text with the greatness of the love of God in Ephesians 2:4, and with our question in the previous chapter about why we need to be born again.
1. Made God’s Children
First, when verse 1 says that we are “called” the children of God, it doesn’t mean we were already the children of God but not called that, and then God called us that. No, it means that we were not children of God. We were like the rest of the world
referred to in verse 1. We were dead and outside the family. Then God called us children. And we became children of God. Notice the words “and so we are.” Verse 1: We are “called children of God; and so we are.” The point is: God made us his children. He did it with his sovereign call—the way he raised Lazarus from the dead. He simply called him. And the call imparted life (John 11:43). This is the new birth. God made us alive just as he did in Ephesians 2:5.
2. The Greatness of the Love of God
Second, this new birth into the family of God is owing to the greatness of the love of God here in 1 John 3, just like it was in Ephesians 2:4–5. “See [Look! This is amazing!] what kind of love the Father has given us that we should be called the children of God.” John was amazed, just as Paul was—just as we should be—that rebels, enemies, and dead, unresponsive slaves to sin like us are made alive, born again, and called the children of God. John wanted us to feel the wonder of it. That’s why he begins with “See!”
3. Our Final Perfection Secured
Third, this amazing love of God that gave us life when we were dead, and caused us to be born again, and brought us into the family of God, secures our fi nal perfection in the presence of God forever. Notice the way verse 2 connects three things: the love of God for us, our present life as his children, and the future we long for. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” John sees an unbreakable link between what we are now and what we will be when Christ comes. He expresses it with the words “we know.” “We are God’s children now, and what we
will be has not yet appeared [our perfect conformity to Christ awaits his coming]; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him.”
In other words, the perfection of our sonship is surely coming. We know it is. How? Because of his love, we are his children now. And all that’s left in our adoption is the consummation of our transformation when we see Jesus face to face. His presence will complete it for all the children of God. And “we are God’s children now.”
4. The Necessity of the New Birth
Now we see how John is beginning to address the question from the last chapter: What will we miss if we are not born again? So our fourth observation is simply to make explicit something obvious in what we’ve said so far: The new birth is a necessary prerequisite and a guarantee of our future perfection in the presence of Christ forever. Or, to put it the way Jesus did: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” But if you are born again, you will see the kingdom of God. Or to use the words of 1 John 3, you will see Christ face to face and be perfected and spend eternity with joy in his presence.
So here we are with John’s answer to the question Why must we be born again? John’s answer is: Because if you are not born again, you will not look upon Jesus someday and in the twinkling of an eye be changed into his image. Instead, you will remain under the wrath of God (as Jesus says in John 3:36). Or, to put it positively, if the immeasurable love of God causes you to be born again and gives you new spiritual life in union with Jesus, you know that when he appears you will be like him. Because of the new birth, you know you will enter the kingdom of God. That’s why we must be born again.
Jesus’ Birth and Our New Birth
Now we are also in a position to answer the other question this Christmas-oriented chapter is posing: What is the connection between Jesus’ birth and our new birth? What is the relationship between Jesus’ incarnation and our regeneration? Could not God have simply caused sinners to be born again and then fi nally conformed them to his own character in heaven, without sending his Son into the world? Did there need to be an incarnation of the Son of God and a perfect life of obedience and a death on the cross?
The answer is: The new birth and all of its effects, including faith and justification and purifi cation and fi nal conformity to Christ in heaven, would not be possible without the incarnation and life and death of Jesus—without Christmas and Good Friday and Easter. We get a glimpse of this here in John’s First Epistle.
Born Again to Behold and Believe the God-man
First, consider that the aim of the new birth is to enable us to believe specifically in the incarnate Jesus Christ. If there were no incarnate Jesus Christ to believe in, then the new birth would not happen. Look at 1 John 5:1: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ [that is everyone who believes that this incarnate Jewish man from Nazareth is the promised divine Messiah] has been born of God.” That means that the Holy Spirit causes people to be born again with a view to creating faith in the incarnate God-man, Jesus Christ (see 1 John 4:2–3). That’s the aim of the new birth. And so faith in Jesus Christ is the first evidence that the new birth has happened. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Faith is the sign that the new birth has happened.
New Life through Union with the Incarnate One
But that’s not the only reason the incarnation is necessary for the new birth. The incarnation of the Son of God is also necessary
because the life we have through the new birth is life in union with the incarnate Christ. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). That life that we have in union with Christ is the life that Jesus obtained for us by the life he lived and the death he died in the flesh.
Consider 1 John 5:10–12, and keep in mind as you read that the Son of God here is the incarnate Son of God. “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.…And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
In other words, the new birth gives us life by bringing us into spiritual connection with Jesus Christ. He is our life. His new life in us, with all the changes that it brings, is the testimony of God that we are his children. And this life is the life of the incarnate Son of God. “And the Word became fl esh and dwelt among us….And from his fullness [the fullness of the incarnate one] we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:14–16)—that
is new birth, new life.
No Incarnation, No Regeneration
So if there were no incarnation—no Christmas—there would be no regeneration for these two reasons: 1) If there were no incarnation, there would be no incarnate Jesus Christ to behold and believe in, and that’s the aim of the new birth. So the new birth would not happen. 2) If there were no incarnation, there would be no vital union or connection between us and the incarnate Christ, and so the new birth would abort because there would be no source of new saving, forgiving life.
Christianity is not a kind of spirituality that fl oats amorphously through various religions. It is historically rooted in the person
of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Scripture says, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). “The one who rejects me,” Jesus said, “rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). If there is no incarnation, there is no union with the Son or with the Father, and no regeneration—and no salvation.
Incarnation and Purification
So without the incarnation of the Son of God as the Messiah, there would be no regeneration and no saving faith. And we may add then briefly, there would be no justification and no purification. And without these, no final glorification. You can see the connections with justification and purifi cation in 1 John 3:3–5:
Everyone who thus hopes in him [in other words, every child of God who is assured of being made like Christ when he comes] purifies himself as he is pure. Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.
Both justification and purifi cation are implied here. Purifi cation is explicit. John says: If you have experienced the new birth, you will love the day of Christ’s appearing and long for the day when you will be transformed into his perfect likeness (as verse 2 says, “when he appears we shall be like him”). And then, he says in verse 3, “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifi es himself as he is pure.” That means everyone who loves the day of his fi nal purification loves purity now, and hates impurity now, and fi ghts sin now.
Which means that the new birth, which awakens faith and fills us with love for that last great day of purification, produces the fight for purity. And so, since there is no regeneration without
the incarnation, there will be no purifi cation now, and no final Christ-like purity in the end, if there is no incarnation.
Christianity is not the general program for moral transformation that marks most religions. The transformation it calls for is historically rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. The new birth awakens faith in him. And he—the incarnate one—secures our final purification. And we, with that unshakable hope in him, purify ourselves as he is pure.
Incarnation and Justification
Which leaves one last great work of Christ to touch on: justification. It is hinted at in 1 John 3:4–5. Right after saying that those who are born again purify themselves as Christ is pure, John says something about sin that seems out of the blue. He says, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”
What’s the point of telling us suddenly that “sin is lawlessness” and that therefore all sins are lawlessness—and then adding that Christ appeared “to take away sins”? I think the point is this. He wants to make clear to us that the great work of Christ in saving us from sin is not only a work of purification.
The language of cleansing and purifying fail to deal with a huge and terrible dimension of our sin, namely, that all sin is lawbreaking. We don’t only incur defi lement that has to be purified; we incur guilt that has to be forgiven, and wrath that has to be propitiated, and a falling short of the righteousness that God requires.
That’s why he says in verses 4–5, “Sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins.” This “take away sins” is not mere cleansing. This is the work of Christ in taking away the guilt of sin, and the wrath of God that sin deserves. And how did Christ do this? He did it by his incarnation and life and death. Here are two texts from 1 John to show how John thought about this.
First, 1 John 4:10: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” He sent his Son—that’s the incarnation—to die in our place and so absorb the wrath of God that we deserved. That is what propitiation is: It is an act that satisfi es the holy wrath of God. Because of Christ crucifi ed, God’s punitive wrath is removed forever from those who are born again.
Second, 1 John 2:1: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Why is Jesus in heaven explicitly called “the righteous” when he is described as the advocate we need because of our sin? It’s because what he pleads before the Father is not only his blood, but also his righteousness. Which is why 1 John 3:5 says, “In him there is no sin.” The perfection we do not have, Jesus provided. The judgment we do not want, Jesus bore.
Christmas Was Not Optional
All of this unspeakably wonderful news could not have come to pass if the Son of God had never become man. The incarnation was necessary for all this to come true. The Son of God became the God-man. The Word became fl esh (John 1:14). If there had been no incarnation, there would have been no regeneration, no faith, no justifi cation, no purifi cation, and no fi nal glorifi cation.
Christmas was not optional. Therefore, God—being rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, while we were dead in trespasses—sent his Son into the world to live without sin and die in our place. What a great love the Father has shown to us! What a great obedience and sacrifi ce the Lord Jesus gave for us! What a great awakening the Spirit has worked in us to bring us to faith and everlasting life!