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The Test of Righteousness

Series: 1 John

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jan 11, 2004

1 John 2:29-3:10

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 John chapter 2, as we continue to make our way through this great, short letter of John to the Church and to us. We've seen all along John giving us tests to show the marks of Christians. We have seen a doctrinal test, a test that pertains to the person of Jesus Christ: Does a person who professes to be a Christian embrace Jesus as the divine Son of God who existed in real, human form among us? John is concerned that those who call themselves Christians would embrace the glorious truths of the Scriptures about who Jesus was. He sees it as essential to being a Christian. But he also gives what we might call a social or a relational test: How do we love those who are also united to Christ? How do we love our brothers and sisters in Christ? How do we love the church? How do we show tangible commitment to and care for one another in the bonds of Christ? And he elaborates on that test from time to time. And we've also seen what we might call a moral test: Is there evidence of real righteousness in our lives? Do we love God's word? Do we seek to keep God's law? Do we follow after the ways of God, or do we follow after our own ways or the ways of the world? And John sets forth this test on several occasions in the book. And that is, in fact, the test that is before us in the passage today, in 1 John 2:29 through 1 John 3:10.

Now I want to say that John's sermon to us here is a one-point sermon. Its message is simply this: Christian, pursue righteousness; pursue holiness; strive to follow in the way of God's truth and righteousness. He's calling us to the permanent pursuit of holiness in the Christian life in this passage. But as he does so, he gives us an eight-part argument for that one-point sermon. As we look at this passage today, it will be important for you to remember that John is not telling you how to become a Christian, but how a Christian shows that she or he is a Christian. He's not telling us how to be right with God, how a person is called and declared righteous by God; he's telling us how we show that we are right with God. And so his concern is to show to us how we live the Christian life, not how we enter into the family of faith, or not how we are counted among those who are accepted by God. It's important to remember that, and we’ll emphasize this as we get to the final of John's points. Let's hear God's word in 1 John chapter 2, beginning in verse 29. Before we do so, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for God's blessing.

Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word. This word is meant for our edification. It reveals who You are; it reveals what You have done on our behalf for salvation. We pray, O God, that as You reveal in Your word not only these things but also Your way of truth, that we would follow after that way. Give us an understanding of this, Your word. Show us ourselves, our need, our sin, and our Savior. And get glory for Yourself. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is God's word:

“If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him. See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

John wants to stress, over against the false teachers who we heard about when we were studying 1 John 1, that pursuing holiness is important in the Christian life. Those false teachers, you remember, had dared to say that Christians didn't need to worry about mortifying sin. They weren't able to sin anymore. They didn't have a sin nature, and what they did in their bodies didn't matter because the spirit only mattered: the body didn't matter, and therefore following all the instructions of God's word for living out holiness in the body was unnecessary for these Christians. And over against them, John had said, ‘No, that's wrong. Christians do continue to struggle with sin. Christians are able to sin. They do, in fact, sin.’ In fact, John said in 1 John 1:8, ‘“If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves” and we are liars. But if that we would confess our sins (1 John 1:9), He would be faithful to forgive us.’

Now John wanted to make it clear that sin would be an ongoing struggle in the Christian life. But John also wanted to make it clear that Jesus did not only come to forgive us of our sins; He came to change us, to make us like Himself, to restore in us the fullness of the image of God so that we would be like our God in His moral holiness. John knows that we will never be perfectly like God in this life, but John also knows that every Christian desires to be like his Savior. He desires to be like Christ; He desires to be remade in the image of God. John knows that that reality begins the minute we become Christians, and it continues through the work of the Holy Spirit in accordance with grace, and it will be completed at the last day. And so in this passage he exhorts Christians to pursue holiness, to seek righteousness, and by living and practicing that righteousness to show that they indeed have experienced the grace of God.

Why we should live a life in pursuit of holiness.
Listen to his argument here in 1 John 2: 29 and following. Here's the first part of his argument. He says that, ‘Christ is holy, and the pursuit of holiness is therefore the mark of everyone who has been born of Christ.’ Look at verse 29. “If you know that He (that is Christ) is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him.” In other words, John is saying, ‘If you really know Jesus, one thing you know about Him is, He is holy.’ In Him there was no unclean thing to be found. In Him there was only perfection. In Him there was no sin. In Him we have the perfect, the only, human example of human perfection. And John says, ‘If you know Him, if you know Him as He is, you will know that He is holy. And if you have been born of Him, you have been born to holiness too.’ Do you remember what Paul says in Romans chapter 6? That we have died and been raised again with Christ in newness of life. Well, if His life was holy and we have been raised again in newness of life, what kind of newness have we been raised to? We have been raised to a life of holiness and righteousness like His. That's the first part of John's argument to us as to why we ought to live a life in the pursuit of holiness.

He goes on to say in verse 1 that it is an enormous privilege to be called the children of God. Listen to his words. “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God.” His second point is to remind us that we have been adopted as children into the family of God. And he wants us to pause and reflect on the enormity of that privilege for a moment. So, do you realize that you, who are by nature children of wrath, have been invited into the family of God the Father Almighty, and that He has chosen to make you joint-heirs with His only begotten and perfect Son? That is the privilege that He has called you to.

Now, in his third part of his argument in this one-point sermon, he elaborates on that very point. Look at verse 2. He says, ‘If we understand the privilege of being adopted into the family of God, of being children of the living God, then we will also realize that it is one of the qualities of children to bear resemblance to their parents–and not just physically, but morally to be like them. And so he says that those who are children of God already do bear resemblance to their heavenly Father, and one day they will bear a perfect resemblance to Him. Look at what he says in verse 2. “Now we are children of God.” It's not just then one day we will be children of God, already we are children of God by His grace through Jesus Christ. But he goes on to say, “It is not yet appeared what we will be.”

In other words, though we are now children of God, we are not bearing the image of God perfectly, there is still weakness and sin and failing in us, but one day when He comes again, we will be perfect. We will be made fully like Him. “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” John says, ‘Think of it. Because we are children of God, we already have begun to bear resemblance to our heavenly Father, so that people can say, “Look at her. She looks like her heavenly Father. She reminds me of her heavenly Father. He acts like his heavenly Father acts. When I see him, I see something of the God who's revealed Himself in the Scriptures because that person's character has been molded into the image of God.”’

Now John, having made that third part of his argument, goes on to say this in verse 3; here's his fourth point: those who live in hope of being completely like Christ one day will pursue holiness now. If it's our hope, if it's our dream to be made completely like Jesus Christ, to be completely reformed into the image of our heavenly Father one day when He comes again, then we will pursue that holiness now. Listen to what John says in verse 3, “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” In other words, if your hope is that one day at the coming of Christ you will be made completely like Him, even now you will yearn to be like Him. You will want to desire the things that He desires. You’ll want to love the things that He loves. You’ll want to do the things that He has done. You’ll want to avoid and abhor those things that He avoided and abhorred. You’ll want to begin to be like Him now.

And, in fact, John tells us–and this is the fifth part of his argument–in verse 4, that the opposite, that not pursuing this holiness, but living in a life of sin is, in fact, an evidence that we don't know God and we haven't experienced grace. Look at what he says in verse 4. “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.”

John is saying that pursuing a life of sin is evidence of a rejection of God's word, God's word which is Christ's word–He wrote it; He obeyed it. And when we pursue a life of sin, we show that we prefer to do it our way as opposed to God's way. And he says that those who practice sin are practicing lawlessness. It's an evidence of a rejection of God's word and a rejection of Christ.

He goes on to make a sixth point to his argument in verses 5 and 6; you’ll see them there. He says, ‘Since Christ came to make us holy, the person who practices lawlessness, who lives a life characterized by self-will and autonomy from God's word…since Christ came to make us holy, the person who practices lawlessness shows that she or he doesn't really know Christ. Look at what he says in verses 5 and 6. “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” He reminds us there that Jesus came not only to forgive sin, but to take away sin, and that He Himself was pure, perfect, and without sin. ‘And so,’ he says, ‘the person who lives a life practicing sin, bent towards sin, a life characterized by a rejection of Christ's norms and God's word, a life characterized by deciding “we're going to do it our own way” over against what God has said in His word–that person shows that they do not know Christ. You see, John is speaking to people who were teaching in the Christian church that they were Christians but that you didn't have to follow God's word.

Friends of mine, yesterday, who were meeting to foster Christian publications were speaking about a person who had come up to speak to a major Christian speaker who you would know if I'd mention today. That Christian speaker had been speaking about what it meant to be a disciple of Christ. And this young couple came up to him fairly consternated after his message, and they said to him, “It seems to me that you’re saying that if we want to be disciples of Jesus, we have to follow Him.” They just didn't think that that was very reasonable. And the speaker responded by saying, “That's exactly what I'm saying.” If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’ll want to be like Him. You’ll want to do what He says in His word. You’ll want to love the things that He loves, and if we live a life that contradicts, that shows that we really don't know Jesus, even if we claim to know Him.

John gives us a glorious principle or two in verses 7 through 9, and this is his seventh point in his argument. First, he tells us that you do what you are. Listen to how he explains it in verse 7. “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil.” John is saying, ‘You do what you are. Your deeds reveal your heart. Your actions reveal your character.’

It's the same thing that Jesus said to His disciples in the presence of the Pharisees in Matthew 15, verses 11 and 18. Do you remember when the Pharisees were arguing about the disciples’ obedience of the ceremonial law? They were questioning issues about unclean food and various other ceremonial observances, and in Matthew 15: 11, Jesus says to His disciples, “It's not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; it's what comes out of your mouth that defiles you.” Now, later on, He explains that in verse 18. He says, ‘What comes out of the mouth has come out of the heart.’ In other words, in this case the things that a person says are a reflection of what is already in the heart, and that is what makes you unclean. Jesus is saying that our actions are a public display of what we are like on the inside. And so, He says, you do what you are. And John is saying the same thing, “The one who practices righteousness is righteous.”

Now we need to pause there for a moment. John is not saying that we are saved by being righteous. He's not saying, ‘If you practice righteousness, God will accept you as righteous.’ He's not saying that ‘if you practice righteousness, you will be saved.’ Nor is he saying, ‘You must both believe and practice righteousness, and then you will be saved.’ No, what he is saying is this: if God has done a work of grace in your heart, if you have truly believed on Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, if by faith alone you have rested in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins–then this is the way you will live. The evidence of God's grace working in your heart will be seen in your life. Your righteousness wrought by the Holy Spirit will be evidenced in what you do, in how you talk, in how you live. “The one who practices righteousness is righteous.” So it's not that God will accept us as righteous as long as we make ourselves to be righteous, nor that God will accept us as righteous if we will both believe and do works, but that when we believe on Christ and are accepted by God, declared right because of what Christ has done, then it ushers forth into a life of righteousness.

But the reverse side is also true. Notice what John says: “The one who practices sin is of the devil.” A life which is bent towards sin, a life which is characterized by the rejection of God's word, by refusing to seek after the holiness of God in Christ–this life is a life which bears the mark of the devil. So John here says, ‘You do what you are.’ But he also says that ‘you do whose you are.’ Not only do you do what you are, you do whose you are. Notice again how he says this, verse 9: “No one who is born of God practices sin.” The child of God bears the marks of whose child he is in his life. “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” The one who practices sin shows that he is not of the heavenly Father; he is not born of God. And so you do whose you are as well. What you do reveals whose you are. Our lives show whose we are, whether we are of Christ or of Satan.

Now we need to pause right there and say that it would be very easy to read this passage and think that John is teaching something like sinless perfection or that you must be perfect in order to be a Christian, and John is teaching neither. He's already addressed in 1 John chapter 1 people who taught that Christians could be sinlessly perfect, and he has contradicted that. He said, ‘No, Christians cannot be sinlessly perfect.’ He has also addressed the issue of sin in the Christian life: Does a sin in the Christian life mean that one is not really a Christian? No. 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us.”

No, sin in the Christian life is not the issue that he is addressing; he is addressing fundamentally the issue of a person who claims to be a Christian but the bent or habit or characteristic of his or her life is one which is not in accordance with God's word. That person is not living in accordance with the grace of God, the truth of God, is not following in the way of righteousness. That's what John is dealing with here.

Do Christians sin? Yes. Do Christians sin more than once? Yes. Does that make them not Christians? No. But John is asking about the bent, the habit, the characteristic of a life, and he's saying that our lives reveal who we are.

And, finally, he says this in verse 10–this is his eighth part of his argument: ‘The children of God and the children of the devil are distinguishable by the contrast of their subtle habit and character.’ He says this: “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” John's concern is for Christians to have a concern for pursuing holiness. John is telling us that those who know what Christ is like want to be like Him.

Some of you are married. Can you remember early in your relationship when you began to see qualities in your spouse that you admired? You thought to yourself, ‘She is a woman of such upstanding integrity,’ and it made you want to be like she was. Or perhaps you said, ‘He is a man of such kindness and justice, and I want to be like that.’ Well, everyone who is born of God sees the qualities of the heavenly Father displayed in Jesus Christ, and in the depths of our being begins to say, “Lord, that's what I want to be like. I want to be like Him. Make me like Your Son. Make me want to be like Your Son. Against all the temptations of the world and the flesh and the devil, cause this desire to grow.’

That's what John is urging us to. John is telling us that we should not only relish the forgiveness of sins that we have in Jesus Christ, but recognize that He came to make us like Himself. “Conformed to the image of His Father, He who was the very image of the invisible God.” May God help us to pursue that righteousness by grace. Let's pray.

Our Heavenly Father, the gospel is not to pursue righteousness, but the gospel enables us to pursue righteousness. The gospel tells us that we have been forgiven and accepted not because of what we are or because of what we've done, but indeed in spite of it because of what has been done for us in Jesus Christ. And if we will but accept Him we will be counted the children of God. But the gospel also enables us not only to be counted as the children of God, but also to live like the children of God. Give us more and more that desire in this congregation, that we would be like our Savior who was like His heavenly Father. We ask it in His name. Amen.

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