12. Freedom from the Practice of Sinning

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

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The question we will tackle in this chapter is: How do people who have experienced the miracle of the new birth deal with their own sinfulness as they try to live in the full assurance of their salvation? That is, how do we deal with the confl ict between the reality of the new birth, on the one hand, and our ongoing sin, on the other hand? How do we balance the danger of losing assurance of salvation and the danger of being presumptuous that we are born again when we may not be? How can we enjoy the assurance of being born again, and yet not take lightly the sinfulness of our lives that is so out of step with being born again?

God Calls Us to Full Assurance

The First Epistle of John, more than any other book in the Bible, seems to be designed to help us in this practical, daily battle. Consider 1 John 5:13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have
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eternal life.” This book is written, he says, to help believers have the full assurance that they have been born again—that is, that they have new, spiritual life in them that will never die. John wants us—God wants us—to experience something through this letter that makes us profoundly confident that we have passed from death to life.

1 John 3:14 says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life.” Jesus says in John 5:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” So John and Jesus are jealous for us believers to know that judgment and death are behind us because our judgment happened when Jesus was judged in our place, and our death happened when Jesus died in our place. And therefore, new life is in us, and this life cannot perish and cannot be taken away. It’s eternal. That’s the assurance John and Jesus want for us. “I write these things to you…that you may know that you
have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

What the False Teachers Said

But something is going on in the churches that John is writing to that concerns him deeply. Whatever it is, it threatens to destroy this assurance. There are false teachers who are saying things that may give the impression of good news and strong assurance, but will have the very opposite effect. In dealing with these false teachers, John shows us how to deal with our own sin in relation to our struggle for assurance. What were these false teachers saying?

First, they were saying that the preexistent Son of God, Jesus Christ, had not come in the fl esh. They did not believe in the full union of the preexistent Son of God with a fl eshly human nature like ours. Here is what John says about them in 1 John 4:1–3:

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Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the fl esh is from God, and every spirit that does
not confess Jesus is not from God.

These false teachers disconnected Christ and the fl esh. We see that in verse 2. John insisted on the very thing some were denying: “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” They did not like the idea of the pre-existent Christ being united with human flesh.

Bad Christology Yields Bad Morality

Here is the reason that’s relevant for our question in this chapter. This view of the person of Christ not being united to physical flesh evidently had a practical, moral effect on the way these false teachers viewed the Christian life. Just as they disconnected the person of Christ from ordinary physical life, so they disconnected being a Christian from ordinary physical life.

One of the clearest places to see this is here in our text: 1 John 3:7. John says, “Little children, let no one deceive you [so he has the false teachers in view]. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.” What’s he saying? He is saying. “Beware of the false teachers because what they say is that you can be righteous and not practice righteousness.” “Let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous.”

In other words, John opposes not only their view of Christ, that they disconnect his person from his ordinary bodily life of doing things, but he also opposes their view of the Christian life when they disconnect our person from our ordinary bodily life of doing things. “The flesh didn’t really matter for Jesus,” the false teachers say. “What matters is that somehow, in a spiritual
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way, he is the Christ, and there is no real union of the pre-existent Christ and the physical man Jesus. And our fl esh doesn’t really matter either; but somehow, in a spiritual way, we are born again, but there is no real union between that new creation and our physical life that does righteousness or does sin.” Which led directly to the error that John points out in 1 John 3:7—that you can be righteous in some spiritual way, and yet not do righteousness in your ordinary physical life.

John has three responses to this false teaching.

Christ’s Incarnation Lasts Forever

First, he insists that the fl esh of Jesus and the person of the pre-existent Christ are inseparable after the incarnation. 1 John 4:2: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” Notice it does not say “came in the flesh,” as though that union with flesh and bones happened for a while and then stopped. He says, “has come in the flesh.”

This incarnation lasts forever. The second person of the Trinity will forever be united with human nature. We will always know him as Jesus, one like us, and infi nitely above us—the firstborn among many brothers (Rom. 8:29). God did not, and does not, despise the physical creation that he made. He has come in the flesh. And the Son of God remains in the fl esh forever. So John’s first response to the false teaching is to set straight their view of Christ. His physical being is not a mirage. It’s not secondary. It’s not unimportant. That he has a body marks and identifi es him forever.

Christian Doing Confirms Being

John’s second response to the false teaching is to deny emphatically its teaching that spiritual being can be separated from physical doing. John, in fact, insists that spiritual being must be validated by
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physical doing, or else the spiritual being is simply not real. That’s what we saw in 1 John 3:7: “Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.” The deceivers were saying: You can be righteous and yet not practice righteousness. John says: The only people who are righteous are the ones who practice righteousness. Doing confi rms being.

That is what John says over and over again in this letter. For example, in 1 John 2:29, he says, “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” In other words, the doing of righteousness is the evidence and confirmation of being born again.

Or consider 1 John 3:9: “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.” The practice of sin is the evidence and confi rmation that one is not born of God. Doing confi rms being. Not practicing sin is the evidence and confirmation of being born again.

And the reason the new birth inevitably changes the life of sinning, John says, is that when we are born again, “God’s seed” abides in us, and we “cannot keep on sinning.” That’s how real the connection between the new birth and daily physical life is. The “seed” here may be the Spirit of God or the word of God or the nature of God—or all three. Whatever it is specifically, God himself is at work in the new birth so powerfully that we cannot keep on practicing sin. God’s new presence cannot make peace with a pattern of sinful behavior.

These false teachers who think they can separate who they are spiritually from who they are physically do not understand either the incarnation or regeneration. In the incarnation, the pre-existent Christ is really united with a physical body. And in regeneration, the new creation in Christ has real, inevitable effects on our physical life of obedience.

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The Regenerate Are Not Sinless

John’s third response to the false teaching is to reject any notion of sinlessness in born-again people. Evidently, the way this false teaching was working was that, by disconnecting “being righteous” from “doing righteousness” (3:7), they were then able to say, “Well, even if your body does some things that are sinful, that’s not really you. The real you is the born-again you; and that real you is so above daily physical life that it’s never defi led by sin.”

So this disconnection that the false teachers made between who you are and what you do had led them, evidently, to say that Christians never really sin. How could we sin? We’re born of God. We’re new creatures. We have the seed of God in us. So John levels his guns at this error three times. It’s important that you see them in the text for yourself, because they are meant for your personal use in defeating the accusations of Satan that your sins prove you are not born again.

First, 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” We! We born-again Christians. In other words, don’t let the deception of these false teachers work its way into your own self-deception. There are no sinless Christians.

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.” In other words, John does not assume that if you sin, you are not born again. He assumes that if you sin, you have an Advocate. And only those who are born again have this Advocate.

Third, 1 John 5:16-17: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one
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should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.”

Notice that last clause: “There is sin that does not lead to death.” This is why you can see your brother committing sin. He is your brother. He is born again. And he is sinning. How can this be? Because there is sin that does not lead to death. I don’t think John has particular kinds of sins in view, but rather degrees of rootedness and habitual persistence. There is a point of confirmed sinning which may take you over the line of no return and you will be like Esau who sought repentance with tears and could not find it (Heb. 12:16–17). He could not repent. If he could have, there would have been forgiveness. But the heart can become so hardened by sin that even its desires to repent are counterfeit.

Dealing with Our Ongoing Sin

Now we come to the question we raised at the beginning: How do people who have experienced the miracle of the new birth deal with their own sinfulness as they try to live in the full assurance of their salvation? My answer is: You deal with it by the way you use John’s teaching. John warns against hypocrisy (claiming to be born again when your life contradicts it), and John celebrates the Advocacy and Propitiation of Christ for born-again sinners.

The question is: How do you use these two truths? How do you use the warning that you might deceive yourself? How do you use the promise, “If we do sin, we have an Advocate”? The evidence of your new birth lies in how these two truths function in your life.

Here’s the way they function if you are born again:

Fleeing Presumption, Flying to the Advocate

One common scenario for believers is drifting toward sinful presumption. You are slipping into a lukewarm, careless, presumptuous
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frame of mind about your own sinfulness. You are starting to coast or be indifferent to whether you are holy or worldly. You are losing your vigilance against bad attitudes and behaviors— and starting to settle in with sinful patterns of behavior.

When the born-again person experiences this kind of drift, the truth of 1 John 3:9 (“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning”) has the effect, by the Holy Spirit, of awakening him to the danger of his condition so that he fl ies to his Advocate and his Propitiation for mercy and forgiveness and righteousness. He confesses his sin and receives cleansing (1:9). His love for Christ is renewed and the sweetness of his relationship is recovered and the hatred of sin is restored and the joy of the Lord again becomes his strength.

Fleeing Despair, Flying to the Advocate

Another common scenario for believers is drifting toward despair. You are sinking down in fear and discouragement and even despair that your righteousness, your love for people, and your fight against sin are just not good enough. Your conscience is condemning you, and your own deeds seem so imperfect to you that they could never prove that you are born again.

When the born-again person experiences this, the truth of 1 John 2:1 has the effect, by the Spirit, of rescuing him from despair: “My little children [he wants to be tender with our consciences], 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.”

John’s warning of hypocrisy calls us back from the precipice of presumption. John’s promise of an Advocate calls us back from the precipice of despair.

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The Redemptive Power of God’s Word

The new birth enables you to hear Scripture and use Scripture helpfully, redemptively. The new birth doesn’t use the promise “We have an Advocate” to justify an attitude of cavalier indifference to sin. The new birth doesn’t use the warning “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” to pour gasoline on the fi res of despair. The new birth brings a spiritual discernment that senses how to use John’s teaching: The new birth is chastened and sobered by the warnings, and the new birth is thrilled and empowered by the promise of an Advocate and a Propitiation.

May the Lord confi rm your new birth as you experience both of these responses to the word of God. May he grant you to embrace both the warning and the comfort. May you hear the word of God as God means it to be heard, and may God’s all-sufficient word preserve the full assurance of your salvation.