November 14

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

John 12:1-11; 1 John 3:7-10; Job 13; Ezekiel 23

Our passage in 1 John is part of a longer section that begins with the marvel of being a child of God (v. 1) and the implications of this for our moral lives. What comes first is not our behaviour or how good we are, but that we know God and are his children (v. 2). Knowing his love, we commit to a process that results in us becoming more like him. As we move into today’s passage, it is important to keep in mind that our behaviour is based on who we are in Christ, which is based on God’s grace and work in us, not our work for God. Only the blood of Jesus purifies us from sin and guilt (1 John 1:7), but we have a role to play in the process of purifying ourselves.

Our commitment to ethical living arises from God love for us as his children. We can then chose to live according to God’s ways or the ways and nature of the devil. Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work, and we should continue that work as part of his family. How inconceivable it would be for our father to build up a successful business and then for us to work for his competitors to tear down that business!

It is hard for us to think of the devil being involved in what we do. John states any sin involves us in the devil’s business. John defines sin as lawlessness, rejecting God’s moral law (v. 4). We hurt others because we reject God’s command to love our brothers and sisters (v. 10). Today, we may think we hurt others because we’ve had a bad day, or a bad life, or because they are too hard to love or don’t deserve our love. John reminds us that the problem is much deeper: we rebel against God, and Satan helps us in our rebellion. He encourages people to hurt others because he hates God and those made in the image of God (1 Peter 5:8).

Hence, living in sin is completely incompatible with being in Christ. That is going over to the enemy and rebelling against our own family. Some in John’s day were claiming you could be righteous without acting righteously; that ethics doesn’t matter. We hear similar things today from people who claim they are good people, even though they do wrong. Earlier in his letter John was responding to some who claimed Christians didn’t sin; not he responds to others who claimed their behaviour didn’t matter. John claims that Christians will not continue to sin, and cannot go on sinning (v. 9). This verse is highly controversial and has been used by some as an example of the Bible making false claims, by others to claim that true Christians are perfect, and by others to claim that those who sin habitually are not true Christians.

The controversy arises if this verse means that Christians are incapable of sinning. This interpretation contradicts what John stated earlier. He said it is untrue and deceptive to claim that we have no sin (1:8). This would make God out to be a liar (1:10). He wrote his letter to encourage these Christians not to sin (2:1), and reminded them that when they sin, Jesus is their advocate before the Father (2:1). This only makes sense if he believes that they do sin. So what could he mean in 3:9?

Looking at the Greek grammar helps here. The verb tenses here refer to on-going continual action, not an occasional event. John has in mind the person who keeps on sinning (v. 6), continues in sin (vv. 6, 9) and goes on sinning (v. 9). In contrast, the verbs in 2:1 are in the past tense referring to completed actions. John is arguing that on-going sin habits are inconsistent with being a Christian, not that it is impossible for Christians to sin on occasions.

There is a tension here. Because we are in Christ, our works and ethics do not impact our position in Christ. Because we are in Christ, our nature and allegiance have changed and we should act like Christ. Rebirth brings with it an impulse and desire to live ethically. As we grow in Christ, unethical habits are incompatible with our position in Christ. We should be sinless because Christ is sinless. John’s purpose is to give hope that we can and should change because of the great love God has for us. Our behaviour matters. The world should see a different way of life in us, one centred on loving others. How this fits with Jesus’ statement about the poor (John 12) is discussed under the May 26 entry (Mark 14:1-11) and in the following sections of John’s letter.

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