Bibliotheca Sacra 146 (1989) 198-216.

          Copyright © 1989 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.



                                An Expositional Study of 1 John

                                          Part 5 (of 10 parts):


              An Exposition of 1 John 2:29—3:12


                                         D. Edmond Hiebert

                           Professor Emeritus of New Testament

               Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California


                  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 upon us, that we

            should 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 shall be.

            We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we

            shall 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. And 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, let no one deceive you; the one who practices

            righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who prac-

            tices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The

            Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might 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. For this is the message which you have heard

            from the beginning, that we should love one another; not as Cain who

            was of the evil one, and slew his brother. And for what reason did he

            slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother's were righteous

            (1 John 2:29-3:12).


            The conflict between the proponents of anti-Christian falsehood

and the adherents to God's revelation in His Son (2:18-28) is now shown




       An Exposition of 1 John 2:29—3:12                                  199


to be a conflict between the children of God and the children of the

devil. The two classes are rigidly distinct in origin and practice.

John presented true believers as children of God, characterized by the

practice of righteousness and by love as the bond that holds the mem-

bers of the family together. He set forth the marks of the children of

God (2:29-3:3), depicted the revelation from the practice of sin (3:4-

8a), held up the provision for deliverance from the practice of sin

(3:8b-9), and declared the distinctness of the two classes (3:10-12).


                           The Marks of the Children of God


            John pointed to the practice of righteousness as the mark of the

new birth (2:29), asserted the reality and dynamic nature of this new

life (3:1-2), and noted the purifying impact of Christian hope on

present conduct (3:3).



            The practice of righteousness reveals membership in God's fam-

ily. The conditional clause, "If you know that He is righteous" (e]a>n

ei]dh?te o!ti di<kaio<j e]stin), as a third-class condition leaves open

the readers' answer on the matter, but does not imply that John had

personal doubts as to whether they were aware of this fact. The

condition is an appeal to them to confirm openly their personal per-

ception of this reality. The adjective "righteous" denotes one who is

in full accord with what is right and just in character and conduct.

"He is righteous" expresses a well-known truth about the nature of

God. God "is righteous in all his ways: in his laws, his promises, his

verdicts, or a single act of his."1 Used without an expressed subject,

John's reference may be to God the Father, as in 1:9, or to Jesus Christ,

as in 2:1. Westcott holds that since Christ is the subject of verse 28,

"it is therefore most natural to suppose that He is the subject in this

verse also."2

            This identification is less certain if verse 29 is accepted as be-

ginning a new division. An obvious difficulty with this identifica-

tion is that the New Testament nowhere explicitly speaks of

believers as "born of Christ." In this letter they are referred to as

"born of God" (3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4), and in John 3:8 as "born of the Spirit,"

but nowhere as "born of Christ." In 1 John 3:1-2 believers are ex-

pressly called "children of God." Bultmann suggested that there is a


1   R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude

(1945; reprint, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966), p. 446.

2   Brooke Foss Westcott, The Epistles of St John (1892; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B.

Eerdrnans Publishing Co., 1950), p. 83.

200                 Bibliotheca Sacra / April–June 1989


sudden change in the meaning of the pronoun in this verse, from Jesus

to God.3 Marshall holds that the statement "He is righteous" refers

to Christ but that the words "born of Him" refer to God the Father.

"It was probably so self-evident to him and his readers that spiri-

tual birth was from the Father that he was not conscious of gliding

from one antecedent for au]tou? (Christ, 2:28-29a) to another (God,

2:29b)."4  But such a shift of meaning in the pronominal designation

within one sentence is not obvious. More probable is the view that

both pronouns refer to God the Father. But this uncertainty as to the

intended identity of his pronouns is characteristic of John. As West-

cott remarks, "The true solution of the difficulty seems to be that

when St John thinks of God in relation to men he never thinks of Him

apart from Christ (comp. c. v. 20). And again he never thinks of

Christ in His human nature without adding the thought of His di-

vine nature."5

            The conclusion, "you know that everyone also who practices

righteousness is born of Him," underlines that all members of God's

family display the moral nature of their Father. "You know"

(ginw<skete) may be taken as an imperative, "you must recognize,"6

but the indicative is more probable as stating their acquaintance

with the further fact that God's children are identified by their

righteous conduct. The presence of "also" (kai> )7 indicates that the

two aspects belong together. This understanding helps a believer

determine if another is a true Christian.

            The sure sign of the new birth is the practice of righteousness:

"everyone who practices righteousness" (pa?j o[ poiw?n th>n dikaio-

su<nhn). "Everyone" (pa?j o[) asserts that this sign is true of all with-

out exception, while "who practices righteousness" (o[ poiw?n th>n

dikaiosu<nhn), literally, "the one doing the righteousness") declares


3    Rudolf Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, ed. Robert W. Funk (Philadelphia:

Fortress Press, 1973), p. 45. In this supposed sudden shift Bultmann found support for

his view that the phrase, "clumsily appended," demonstrated the composite author-

ship of the epistle.

4    I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on

the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), p. 168, n.


5    Westcott, The Epistles of St John, p. 83.

6    Alexander Jones, ed., The New Testament of the Jerusalem Bible (Garden City, NY:

Doubleday & Co., 1969). It was taken as imperative in the Vulgate, by Wycliffe, Tyn-

dale, Cranmer, and the Rhemish version. The New Testament in Today's English Ver-

sion (New York: American Bible Society, 1966) renders, "you should know, then, that

every one who does what is right is God's child."

7    It does not occur in the Textus Receptus, although modern textual editors generally

accept it as original. For the textual evidence see Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum

Graece, 26th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung, 1979).

              An Exposition of 1 John 2:29—3:12                      201


the visible sign. The present participle "denotes a habit of life, the

prevailing principle of one's life, not a single act, but a succession of

acts which make up the life."8 The article with "righteousness"

("the righteousness") may have a possessive force, "His righteous-

ness" as revealing God's character, or it may denote the righteous-

ness which is truly such.

            Such a lifestyle does not produce the new birth but is the visible

evidence of being "born of Him" (e]c au]tou? gege<nnhtai). The perfect

tense marks the past fact of the new birth and stresses the continuing

reality of the new life. The expression "of Him" (e]c au]tou?) marks

the source of this new life; it is derived from God. This concept of the

"new birth," first introduced here in 1 John, is prominent in the rest of

the epistle (3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18); it is a familiar New Testament truth.

Through this divinely imparted spiritual rebirth believers enter

into the family of God, so that they truly are "children of God." It

portrays a spiritual-life relationship with God and carries ethical

consequences. The reality of one's membership in the family of God

is revealed to others through the practice of righteousness. Other

signs of the new birth in this epistle are love of the brethren (4:7)

and faith that Jesus is the Christ (5:1).



            Having become members of God's family through the new birth,

this new life has deep significance for believers for the present as

well as the future. John called on his readers to contemplate the

amazing reality of present membership in God's family (v. la), re-

minded them that this explains the reaction of the world toward

them (v. lb), and stressed that this new life as God's children has

present and future implications (v. 2).

            The amazing love-gift (v. la). The aorist imperative "see"

(i@dete with the accusative of the object of consideration) calls on the

readers to take a heart-moving look at the amazing love which gave

them membership in God's family. They should note carefully "how

great a love" (potaph>n a]ga<phn) the Father has imparted to them.

The adjective rendered "how great" (potaph>n), occurring only seven

times in the New Testament,9 implies a reaction of astonishment,

and usually of admiration, on viewing some person or thing. The ob-

ject of contemplation is God's "love" (a]ga<phn), a love that ever seeks


8   William G. Moorhead, Outline Studies in the New Testament, Catholic Epistles—

James, I and II Peter, I, II, III John, and Jude (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1910),

p. 104. It is well represented in the NASB rendering who practices." For a discussion

of the Greek present tense see H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of

the Greek New Testament (New York: Macmillan Co., 1967), pp. 181-86.

9   It occurs in Matthew 8:27; Mark 13:1 (twice); Luke 1:29; 7:39; 2 Peter 3:11.

202                 Bibliotheca Sacra / April—June 1989


the true welfare of those loved. This love is indeed amazing when

one remembers the destitution of those loved. This love works visi-

ble, transforming results in the lives of its recipients. The perfect

tense "has bestowed" (de<dwken) marks the permanent gift; this love-

gift corresponds to the permanent nature of the new birth (2:29). The

added "upon us" (h[mi?n), after John's directive to the readers, indi-

cates that he included himself among the recipients of this amazing

love. To see that love "aright is to sink down in adoration before it.

It is beyond all comprehension."10 In the original "the Father"

stands at the end of the statement, giving emphasis to the fatherly

character of the Giver and suggests the continuing, intimate relation

He established in making believers His children.

            The subordinate clause, "that we should be called children of

God" (i!na te<kna qeou? klhqw?men) explains what God's love does.

The particle "that" (i!na) has been understood as conveying "the

purpose of His love, its tendency and direction."11 Addressed to those

who have experienced the new birth, the clause is definitive and

depicts the effect of God's love. The aorist verb "should be called"

does not point to an anticipated future recognition as being God's

"children," but expresses the fact, the passive indicating that the

name was given by the Father Himself. He thus acknowledged their

status as members of His family. Used without the article "children

of God" calls attention to their character rather than their identity.

The King James Version rendering "sons" does not adequately convey

the original. "John does not stress the legal relationship of a son

(ui[o<j) but the natural relationship of a child (te<knon)."12

            The words "and such are we" (kai> e]sme<n) emphatically declare

that believers are God's children not merely in name but also in

reality. They express a ringing note of assurance, "and we are." As

Cox remarks, "God does not call men His children until He makes

them so. God's very nature, which is love, flows into the heart of

the penitent believer and makes him a child of God."13 These words

are not in the King James Version, which follows the Textus Recep-

tus. Divergent evaluations as to their authenticity are advanced.

Some hold that they are "probably a scribal addition,"14  while


10    Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude, p. 449.

11    A. Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

(1883; reprint, Cambridge: University Press, 1938), p. 120.

12   Donald W. Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985),

p. 230.

13    Leo G. Cox, "First, Second, and Third John," in The Wesleyan Bible Commentary

(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 6: 339-40.

14    Zane C. Hodges, "1 John," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament,

              An Exposition of 1 John 2:29—3:12                      203


others regard their absence in various manuscripts as due to "scribal

oversight, perhaps occasioned by graphical similarity with the

preceding word ... or to deliberate editorial pruning of an awkward

parenthetical clause."15 On the basis of the textual evidence,16 tex-

tual scholars generally accept them as authentic.17

            The world's failure to understand believers (v. 1b). The amazing

fact of believers' membership in God's family explains the world's

attitude toward them: "For this reason the world does not know us,

because it did not know Him." "For this reason" (dia> tou?to, "because

of this") points back to the fact that "children of God" are radically

different from "the world" (o[ ko<smoj), the organized masses of lost

humanity in their estrangement from God. As such the world "does

not know us" (ou] ginw<skei h[ma?j), is utterly unable to gain a true un-

derstanding of the believers' new nature. To the world the mystery

of the new birth is incomprehensible (John 3:9-12); it can only regard

as deluded those who testify that they have received a new nature.

            Believers understand the world's failure "because it did not

know Him" (ou] ginw<skei h[ma?j). The aorist tense, "did not know"

(e@gnw) records the historical failure of the world to understand di-

vine reality. The precise failure in view is determined by the

identity of "Him." If "Him" is understood as a reference to God the

Father, then John was summarily noting that "the world's whole

course is one great act of non-recognition of God."18 "The world

through its wisdom did not come to know God" (1 Cor. 1:21). But oth-

ers, like White, hold that the aorist tense more naturally refers to

the Incarnate Christ.19 The world failed to understand or receive

God's supreme revelation of Himself in His Son (John 1:10-11). It

haired and rejected Him. This helps explain the world's reaction to

the Son's spiritual brothers and sisters. Barker notes,


ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), p. 893.

15  Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London:

United Bible Societies, 1971), pp. 711-12.

16   For the textual evidence see Kurt Aland, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce

M. Metzger, and Allen Wikgren, The Greek New Testament, 3d ed. (United Bible Soci-

eties, 1975), p. 817; Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad, The Greek New Testament

according to the Majority Text (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982).

17   For a thorough discussion of the textual problem see J. Harold Greenlee, Introduc-

tion to New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing

Co., 1964), pp. 126-28.

18   Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Ex-

planatory, on the Old and New Testaments, vol. 2: New Testament (Hartford, CT: S.

S. Scranton Co., n.d.), p. 531.

19   R. E. O. White, Open Letter to Evangelicals: A Devotional and Homiletic Com-

mentary on the First Epistle of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,

1964), p. 248.

204                 Bibliotheca Sacra / April—June 1989


            The author wants his readers to know that approval by the world is to be

            feared, not desired. To be hated by the world may be unpleasant, but

            ultimately it should reassure the members of the community of faith

            that they are loved by God, which is far more important than the

            world's hatred.20


            The implications of God's love-gift (v. 2). Having enjoined his

readers to contemplate God's love-gift, John then gave personal ex-

pression to that love by addressing them as "beloved" ( ]Agaphtoi<)

(cf. 2:7). The recipients of God's love are also loved by the apostle.

He united his readers with himself in contemplating God's saving

love in the present and the future: "Now are we children of God, and

it has not appeared as yet what we shall be" (3:2a). The repeated

assertion that "we are children of God," with the added time ele-

ment "now" (nu?n), sets up the contrast with the future, again em-

phatically marked by "not ... yet" (ou@pw), while "and" (kai>) links

the two aspects of their new life as God's children. This God-im-

parted life "is not static but dynamic. A son grows, develops, ma-

tures. His goal of growth is maturity in the likeness of Christ Him-

self."21 While rejoicing in the present reality of their new life, be-

lievers also look forward to the undisclosed future. They know that

the best is yet to come! What that future holds "has not appeared as

yet." The verb "appeared" (e]fanerw<qh), a favorite word with

John,22 sets forth that the believers' future has not yet received open,

visible display. "A child of God," Lenski remarks, "is here and now,

indeed like a diamond that is crystal white within but is still uncut

and shows no brilliant flashes from reflecting facets."23

            While the destiny of God's children has not yet been openly dis-

played, John gave confident expression to its essence: "We know that,

when He appears, we shall be like Him" (oi@damen o!ti e]a>n fan-

erwq^? o!moioi au]t&? e]so<meqa). "We know" (oi@damen) points to a well-

assured recognition grounded in the very nature of the apostolic mes-

sage. That display awaits a future undated event: "if He should ap-

pear" (e]a>n fanerwqh?). As in 2:28, the condition is again stated hypo-

thetically, not that John had any question as to its certainty, but be-

cause the time, from the standpoint of those cherishing this hope, is

entirely unknown. Neither John or his readers, like each generation


20   Glenn W. Barker, "1 John," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids:

Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 12:330.

21   Edward A. McDowell, "1-2-3 John," in The Broadman Bible Commentary,

(Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972), 12:207.

22   It occurs nine times in 1 John, nine times in the Fourth Gospel, and twice in the Book

of Revelation.

23   Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude, p. 452.

                An Exposition of 1 John 2:29—3:12                      205


of believers since then, could be sure that it would occur during their

lifetime. But the condition expresses an attitude of expectancy.

            Since the subject of the verb "should appear" is unexpressed, views

differ as to whether to render "He," referring to Christ, or "it" as re-

ferring back to "what we shall be." Interpreters differ in their pref-

erence,74 but it seems more natural to understand "that John would

identify the time of the believer's complete Christlikeness as being

the second coming rather than the time when 'it is disclosed' (NEB)."25

            Members of God's family are assured that whenever Christ re-

turns "we shall be like Him" (o!moioi au]t&? e]so<meqa). God's purpose to

develop Christlikeness in all the members of His family will be ful-

filled when Christ returns and all the children are "conformed to the

image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many

brethren (Rom. 8:29). The indwelling Holy Spirit is already at

work in the lives of believers, inwardly transforming them into the

moral image of the Lord of glory (2 Cor. 3:18); that transformation

will be completed at the return of the glorified Christ, who will also

"transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the

body of His glory" (Phil. 3:21). But this glorious assurance must not

be misinterpreted to mean believers will become little gods. The ad-

jective "like" (o!moioi) denotes qualitative comparison, not equality.

Burdick well remarks, "Believers can never be equal to Christ, since

He is infinite and they are finite; but they can and will be similar to

Him in holiness and in resurrection bodies."26 As the incarnate Son of

God, who died, and rose again in a glorified body, He will ever be

distinct as "the first-born among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29), and the

vast family of redeemed human beings, purified and transformed

into His image, will ever "be to the praise of His glory" (Eph. 1:12).

            The explanatory addition, "because we shall see Him just as He

is" (o!ti o]yo<meqa au]to>n kaqw<j e]stin), may indicate either the rea-

son for assurance that believers shall be like Christ, or the cause of

being like Him. In the former view "because" (o!ti) is taken as intro-

ducing a dependent clause relating back to the main verb "we know,"

giving the sense, "we know that we shall be like Him, because we


24   The rendering "it" is preferred by Henry Alford, The New Testament for English

Readers (Chicago: Moody Press, n.d.), p. 1719; Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, p. 121;

and Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude, p. 452.

The rendering "He" is preferred by Westcott, The Epistles of St John, p. 98; Marshall,

The Epistles of  John, p. 172, note 29; Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical

Commentary, vol. 51 (Waco, TX: Word Books Publisher, 1984), pp. 145-46; Simon J.

Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistle of James and the Epistles of John, New Bible

Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), p. 295, n. 5.

25   Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle, p. 233.

26   Ibid., p. 234.

206                 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1989


shall see Him." This assumes that only those who are like Christ

will then see Him just as He really is. If the clause is connected with

the immediately preceding words "we shall be like Him," John was

explaining that the future face-to-face vision of Him will complete

the transformation into His likeness. Thus the amazing assertion

that "we shall be like Him" received the needed explanation. In

the words of Bruce, "If progressive assimilation to the likeness of

their Lord results from their present beholding of Him through a

glass darkly, to behold Him face to face, to 'see Him even as He is,'

will result in their being perfectly like Him."27 The comparative

adverb "just as" (kaqw<j) emphasizes that beholding Christ will no

longer be the imperfect vision of seeing His reflection in a mirror but

beholding our glorious Lord "face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12).



            John returned to the thought of 2:29 that the reality of the new

birth reveals itself in daily conduct. Verse 3 states "an all-important

corollary of the Christian hope." 28 The opening "and" (kai>) marks

the connection: "And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him pur-

ifies himself" (kai> pa?j o[ e@xwn th>n e]lpi<da tau<thn e]p ] au]t&? a[gni<zei

e[auto>n). The comprehensive "everyone" again allows for no excep-

tions for some elite group. The expression (pa?j o[) occurs seven times

in verses 3-15, suggesting that John was refuting some who claimed

special privileges for themselves. John insisted that this purifying

impact is true of "everyone who has this hope fixed on Him."

            "This hope" (th>n e]lpi<da tau<thn), emphasized by the definite

article and the demonstrative pronoun, summarizes verse 2. The

word "hope," which occurs only here in the Johannine literature,29

concerns the unseen future but does not imply uncertainty or mere

probability. Christian hope is assured of future realization because

it is grounded in the Person of Christ. The familiar, "Every man that

hath this hope in him" (KJV), may be misunderstood as denoting a

hope the believer harbors in his own heart. John's expression "on

Him" (e]p ] au]t&?) describes this hope as reaching out and resting "on

Him" as its sure and unchanging foundation. It is based on the Person

of our glorified Lord who has promised to come again.

            John insisted that every individual who holds to this objective


27   F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1975), p.


28   C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, Moffatt New Testament Commentary (New

York: Harper & Row, 1946), p. 71.

29   The noun "hope" occurs 53 times elsewhere in the New Testament. The verb "to

hope" occurs only in John 5:45; 2 John 12; and 3 John 14 in the Johannine writings.

               An Exposition of 1 John 2:29-3:12                        207


hope "purifies himself" (a]gni<zei e[auto<n); he willingly and repeat-

edly exercises self-purification. In John 11:55, the only other occur-

rence of this verb in the Johannine writings, the reference is to cere-

monial purification; here the term denotes inner moral purification.

The present tense points to the repeated experience, while "himself"

marks his consciousness of his own need for purification. Because of

his hope he cannot live comfortably with sin. In 1 John 1:7 John

stated that the blood of Christ cleanses, while here he wrote of self-

purification. Both are true and necessary. As the begrimed workman

must personally apply soap and water to be cleansed, so the believer

must appropriate the God-given means of cleansing from the moral

defilement that may have been incurred in daily life. Theology

speaks of this repeated cleansing as "progressive sanctification" (cf.

2 Cor. 7:1). In 1 Peter 1:22 Peter used this verb in the perfect tense,

"seeing ye have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth"

(ASV) to denote the cleansing that took place at regeneration (cf. John

13:10; 15:3; 17:19). That initial purification with its transforming

result is the necessary antecedent to this personal self-cleansing in

daily experience. The more intimate the believer's fellowship with

God, who is "light" (1 John 1:5), the more aware he is of his need to

cleanse himself from all that is moral darkness (1:5-7). The more he

contemplates this assured hope of being conformed to the image of

Christ, the more eagerly he strives for present purity (Phil. 3:13-14).

            The added words, "just as He is pure" (kaqw>j e]kei?noj a[gno<j

e]stin) sets before the believer the pattern for self-purification.

"He" renders the demonstrative pronoun, "that one" (e]kei?noj),

referring to Christ. “We are not to judge our lives by other peoples,”

but by Christ's, who is the standard or goal toward which we are to

move."30 As a man among men, Jesus was "pure" (a[gno<j), morally

blameless, uncontaminated and sinless in character and conduct. John

did not say "just as He purified Himself," but rather "is pure," thus

asserting His unchanging nature. As such He is the perfect Model,

challenging believers constantly to purify themselves.


                        The Revelation from the Practice of Sin


            John now showed that the practice of sin is a serious matter

which cannot be ignored. Since the false teachers seem to have held

that knowledge was all-important and conduct did not matter, John

insisted that sin and its practice is irreconcilable with the very na-

ture of Christianity. He had already mentioned "sin" before (1:7-9;


30   Herschel H. Hobbs, The Epistles of John (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers,

1983), p. 81.

208                 Bibliotheca Sacra / April—June 1989


2:2, 12), but now in 3:4-9 he mentioned the concept of sin no less than

10 times. He pointed out that the practice of sin reveals its true na-

ture (vv. 4-5) and established the distinctness between the two

classes of humanity (vv. 6-8a).



            John stated that the nature of sin is lawlessness (v. 4) and is con-

trary to the very mission and character of Christ (v. 5).

            Sin as lawlessness (v. 4). Again John made a statement that al-

lows for no exceptions: "everyone who practices sin also practices

lawlessness" (pa?j o[ poiw?n th>n a[marti<an kai> th>n a]nomi<an poiei?).

It pictures a class that is the opposite of those practicing righteous-

ness (2:29). The articular present participle (o[ poiw?n) portrays an

individual characteristically engaged in the practice of sin. Burdick

notes that "the KJV translation, 'committeth,' is misleading in that

it suggests a point of action rather than the continuing practice."31

The definite article with both "sin" and "lawlessness" shows that

John was thinking of two inclusive concepts rather than single occur-

rences. In classical Greek the word "sin" denoted "to miss, to fail, to

fall short,"32 but in the New Testament this negative meaning is

largely lost sight of and sin is viewed as positive and active, a de-

liberate deviation from the standard of right. It is a willful rebel-

lion, arising from the deliberate choice of the sinner. "Sin is the

greatest tragedy of the entire universe. It's actually rebellion

against God."33 Thus by its very nature the practice of sin has the

character of lawlessness.

            The added clause, "and sin is lawlessness" (kai> h[ a[marti<a

e]sti>n h[ a]nomi<a), states the essential nature of sin. Since both nouns

have the definite article, the terms are interchangeable. Sin by its

very nature involves an element of lawlessness, and every form of

lawlessness is sin. "Lawlessness" (a]nomi<a) denotes not the absence of

law but the willful rejection of the law, or the will of God, and the

substitution of the will of self. It is thus the very opposite of righ-

teousness, which is conformity to the standard or law of right.

            Sin as incompatible with Christ's mission (v. 5). John's words

"and you know" (kai> oi#date) remind his readers that this further

revelation of the nature of sin will be obvious to all those who have

experienced the truth of the apostolic message about Christ's re-


31   Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle, p. 236.

32   Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 7th ed. (Oxford:

Clarendon Press, 1890), p. 72.

33   Quinton J. Everest, Messages from I John (South Bend, IN: Your Worship Hour,

1982), p. 90.

             An Exposition of 1 John 2:29–3:12                        209


demptive mission. The message, "that He appeared in order to take

away sins" (o!ti e]kei?noj e]fanerwqh i!na ta>j a[marti<aj a@r^), de-

clared that the practice of sin is incompatible with Christ's mission.

The use of the demonstrative pronoun "that one" (e]kei?noj) as the

subject of the verb points back to the unique Person who "appeared"

on the scene of human history. John did not say Christ "was born" but

that He "appeared" or was made visible to human eyes. This im-

plies His preexistence before His incarnate appearance among

mankind. He appeared "in order to take away sins," literally, "the

sins" (ta>j a[marti<aj), that is, the multitudinous acts of human sin.

The plural is in keeping with John's concern with the practice of sin

rather than the sinful inner nature prompting them.

            Christ came "to take away" (a@r^) those sins. The verb may

mean "to lift and bear" or "to take away." The latter is the meaning

here. That this involved His expiatory sacrifice on the cross is cer-

tain, but that is not the point here. In view is the effect of the

atonement on human practice. Bultmann remarks that this stated

purpose is parallel to the purpose in verse 8, "that He might destroy

the works of the devil."34

            The reading "to take away our sins" (KJV) follows the Textus Re-

ceptus (ta>j a[marti<aj h[mw?n a@r^). The manuscript evidence for "our"

is divided,35 and it is not easy to decide whether it is authentic. If it

is original, it adds to the forcefulness of John's reminder to the readers

that the practice of sin is contrary to Christ's purpose for believers.

For a professed believer to persist in the practice of sin shows that

he is still spiritually blind to the purpose of Christ, or demonstrates

that he willfully scorns and rejects the intention of Christ for him.

            The added words, "and in Him there is no sin," underline the

sinless nature of the Redeemer. As "righteous" (2:1) and "pure" (3:3),

He who opposes sins in the lives of His people is Himself without

sin. His sinlessness, Smalley observes, "was a feature of his exis-

tence to which Christian witness was constantly borne (in the NT,

see 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 1:19; 2:21-22; cf. John 8:46; Heb. 7:26; 1

Pet. 3:18)."36 As such He is the perfect Pattern of what the child of

God should be.



            Viewed in the light of Christ's mission (v. 5), the moral quality

of their habitual conduct reveals two distinct classes of humanity.


34   Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, p. 51.

35   For the textual evidence see Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece, 26th ed.

36   Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, p. 157.

210                 Bibliotheca Sacra I April-June 1989


John wrote of their contrasted conduct (v. 6) and thus established

their distinctive character (vv. 7-8a).

            The practice of the two classes (v. 6). The distinctive practice of

the two classes is tersely stated: "No one who abides in Him sins; no

one who sins has seen Him or knows Him." In both statements "no

one" (literally, "everyone" combined with the negative, pa?j o[ . . .

ou]x) marks a distinct group with no exceptions.

            Everyone in the first class is characterized as "one who abides in

Him" (pa?j o[ e]n au]t&? me<nwn, "every one in Him abiding"). The po-

sition of "in Him" between the article and the participle marks his

intimate relationship with Christ as an essential part of his iden-

tity, while the present tense participle denotes the on-going re-

lationship being maintained. To "abide in Christ means to "obey"

Him (John 15:10). Of such a one John asserted that "not he sins" (ou]x

a[marta<nei); he does not continue in willful, habitual sin. John al-

ready indicated that the believer cannot claim never to commit an

act of sin (1:8-9; 2:1). Sin may enter his experience as an exception

needing confession and cleansing; he is not at liberty to make occa-

sional excursions into sin, but must seek to avoid any lapses into sin.

John's apparently contradictory statements concerning sin and the

believer reflect the inner tension Paul discussed in Romans 7.

            On the other hand, "no one who sins has seen Him or knows

Him." The construction again depicts a distinct class, all character-

ized by the practice of sin as the ruling principle of their lives. Of

each one in this class John asserted that he has not "seen Him," has

never experienced a dynamic visual encounter with Christ, nor

"knows Him," has never gained an intimate acquaintance with Hirn.

The two negations are not identical in meaning. "To see a person is to

view his external likeness, but to know a person is to become familiar

with the characteristics of his personality."37 The first verb, "has

seen" (e[w<raken), here does not refer to a literal seeing of Jesus in the

flesh, as in 1 John 1:2-3, but denotes a spiritual vision of Him through

faith (cf. Eph. 1:18; Heb. 11:27).

            The character of the two classes (vv. 7-8a). The moral identity

of each group is established by their characteristic conduct. John

first expressed a pastoral warning (v. 7a) and then presented a clear

character evaluation of each group (vv. 7b-8a).

            The tender address directed to the readers, "little children" (tek-

ni<a; see 2:1, 12), appeals to their consciousness that they are members

of God's family. The warning, "let no one deceive you" (mhdei>j pla-

na<tw u[ma?j), calls on them to be alert constantly to the danger from

the false teachers, apparently those who had left their assemblies


37   Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle, p. 240.

            An Exposition of 1 John 2:29—3:12                      211


(2:19) but were aggressively promulgating their false views. While

the negative (mh<) with the present imperative generally calls for ces-

sation of an action already in progress, John did not mean that his

readers were already being deceived. He called on them to be alert

against the danger. In 2:26 the warning was against doctrinal

deception; here the warning is against moral deception. John well

knew that "the false teachers with their sophistry were capable not

merely of condoning sin, but of making it seem virtuous."38 To avoid de-

ception they needed to discern the moral identity of the individual.

            The criterion for a true believer is stated in the words, "the one

who practices righteousness is righteous" (o[ poiw?n th>n dikaiosu<nhn

di<kaio<j e]stin). The test is not the believer's performance of an

occasional righteous deed, but rather his habitual practice of

"righteousness," literally, "the righteousness" which is the product

of the new birth (cf. 2:29). The practice of righteousness does not

make him righteous but reveals his inner nature. It is the test of

Matthew 7:16, "you will know them by their fruits." It refutes any

claim by the heretical teachers to be righteous because of their pro-

fessed esoteric knowledge.

            The opposite is also true: "the one who practices sin is of the

devil" (o[ poiw?n th>n a[marti<an e]k tou? diabo<lou e]sti<n). The prac-

tice of sin also reveals family identity. One who practices "the sin,"

as marking the realm of the devil, thereby reveals his diabolical

nature. John did not say such a one is "born of the devil" (contrast

2:29), but "is of the devil." The "of" (e]k) denotes source, not of his

existence, but of the evil that dominates his life and practice (John

8:41-44). By neglecting and rejecting the moral requirements of God's

Word the heretics clearly revealed that their priorities were rooted

in the realm of the devil.

            The words, "for the devil has sinned from the beginning" (o!ti

ap ] a]rxh?j o[ dia<boloj a[marta<nei), explain why the practice of sin

is diabolical; he is its originator. The phrase "from the beginning,"

placed emphatically forward, does not mean from the beginning of

the devil's existence; that would make God responsible for this evil

being. It rather points back to that primeval disaster when this au-

gust being arose in self-willed rebellion against God and thus became

the arch-opponent of God and His good purposes.39 Ever since his

fall the devil "has sinned" (a[marta<nei), "goes on sinning" as his un-

ceasing activity.


38   Bruce, The Epistles of John, p. 91.

39   For a survey of the biblical picture of the devil see The Zondervan Pictorial Ency-

clopedia of the Bible, s.v. "Satan," by D. Edmond Hiebert, 5:282-86.

212                 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1989


                        The Deliverance from the Practice of Sin

            The nature and results of sin make inevitable God's opposition to

sin and the work of the devil. John wrote of the divine provision for

deliverance from sin (v. 8b) and the human experience of deliverance

through the new birth (v. 9).



            Deliverance from sin is grounded in the work of the incarnate

Son of God. God took the initiative: "The Son of God appeared for

this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil." The

distinctive title, "the Son of God," underlines the true identity of the

One who "appeared" to crush the power of Satan and sin. The verb

"appeared," indicating His visible manifestation in the Incarnation,

points back to His preexistence as the eternal Son of God. His iden-

tity marks the supernatural struggle involved in God's purpose "that

He might destroy the works of the devil." His work was not accom-

plished through a dramatic act of divine omnipotence, but rather

was wrought by the incarnate Son who identified Himself with

mankind in taking on Himself human nature to be their Deliverer.

            The stated purpose, "that He might destroy the works of the

devil" (i!na lu<s^ ta> e@rga tou? diabo<lou), presents Christ's redemp-

tive mission as it relates to that great spiritual antagonist of God

and Mankind. The plural "the works" points to the massive activi-

ties of the devil in leading human beings into sin. All those works

have a certain coherence as being prompted by satanic hatred and

rebellion against God. The aorist verb "might destroy" (lu<s^) im-

plies a decisive occurrence and seems naturally to refer to Christ's

victory over the devil on the cross (John 12:31; Heb. 2:14). The verb

does not mean "to annihilate" but variously means "to loose, untie,

break up, give release," as when the disciples loosed the colt in

Matthew 21:2. In His victory over the devil on the cross Christ broke

the chains of sin whereby the devil had brought mankind under his

domination (Heb. 2:14-15). This undoing of the devil's works in

breaking the power of sin was effectively initiated at Calvary, is

now going forward through the Spirit-empowered preaching of the

gospel, and will be consummated at Christ's return and the

incarceration of the devil (Rev. 20:1-3).



            John gave a double statement of the human experience of deliv-

erance from sin as Christ's provision is apprehended and appropri-

ated by faith. The first statement, "no one who is born of God prac-

tices sin" (pa?j o[ gegennhme<noj e]k tou? qeou? a[marti<an ou] poei?,

literally, "Everyone having been born of God sin not is doing"), again

           An Exposition of 1 John 2:29—3:12                      213


expresses a universal with no exceptions. The articular perfect pas-

sive participle (o[ gegennhme<noj) points to the individual's experi-

ence of the new birth with the result that he is now a newborn being.

The full phrase "born of God" occurs here in 1 John for the first time

(cf. 2:29, "born of Him") and is repeatedly used hereafter. Concern-

ing everyone who is such a born-again individual John asserted, "sin

not he is doing" (Gr.). The NASB rendering "practices" adequately

gives the meaning. It is a restatement of verse 6. There the believer's

abiding in Christ explains his conduct; here it is his new nature.

            John explained what has happened: "because His seed abides in

him" (o!ti spe<rma au]tou? e]n au]t&? me<nei). The indwelling of "His

seed" motivates the believer's moral conduct. The metaphorical

designation "His seed" is variously understood. It may be taken to

denote the Word of God, or the gospel, as the regenerating agent that

produces the new birth (cf. James 1:18, 21; 1 Pet. 1:23-25).40 Others

take the term more generally as designating the divine principle of

life, the new birth, which God implants in the believer.41 Still oth-

ers hold that the reference is to the Holy Spirit as the life-giving

Agent.42 Though the term "seed" is not elsewhere directly used of

the Holy Spirit, this view is in keeping with John 3:5-8, where Jesus

associated the Holy Spirit with the new birth, and the fact that

"He is also the producer of Christian character in the believer (2

Cor. 3:18; Gal. 5:22-23)."43 In view of these varied views Smalley

holds that "the most satisfactory exegesis of this passage is one

which brings together the two concepts of 'word' and 'Spirit."'44 Ob-

viously the Word of God is the life-giving means which the Holy

Spirit uses to implant and develop the new nature in the believer.

            John further stated of the believer, "and he cannot sin, because

he is born of God" (kai> ou] du<natai a[marta<nein, o!ti e]k tou? qeou?

gege<nnhtai). It is often felt that these words are difficult, or even

inconsistent with John's teaching in 1:8-2:3, as well as the experience

of the most saintly believer. John's stated impossibility is grounded

in the moral incongruity between the practice of sin and the nature of


40   Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, pp. 77-78; William Barclay, The Letters of John and

Jude (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), p. 94; Lenski, The Interpretation of the

Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude, p. 463.

41   Westcott, The Epistles of St John, p. 107; Bruce, The Epistles of John, p. 92;

Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistle of James and the Epistles of John, p. 303.

42   Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle, p. 247; A. E. Brooke, A Critical and Ex-

egetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, International Critical Commentary

(New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1912), p. 89.

43   Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle, p. 247.

44   Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, p. 173.

214                 Bibliotheca Sacra I April—June 1989


the divinely bestowed new birth. Here again the force of the present

tenses as suggesting habitual practice must be kept in view. This

moral incompatibility between sin and the new birth reflects the

conflict between God and the devil. The new birth inevitably im-

plants this conflict between the two powers into the experience of

the believer. As Bruce observes,

            The new birth involves a radical change in human nature; for those who

            have not experienced it, sin is natural, whereas for those who have ex-

            perienced it, sin is unnatural—so unnatural, indeed, that its practice

            constitutes a powerful refutation of any claim to possess the divine life.

            John's antitheses are clear-cut. While they are to be understood in the

            context of his letter and of the situation which it presupposes, any at-

            tempt to weaken them out of regard for human infirmity, or to make

            them less sharp and uncompromising than they are, is to misinterpret


            John's present tense "he cannot sin" (ou] du<natai a[marta<nein)

does not declare a perfectionism that insists that the believer no

longer commits an act of sin. Rather, as Barclay, states,

He is demanding a life which is ever on the watch against sin, a life

which ever fights the battle of goodness, a life which has never surren-

dered to sin, a life in which sin is not the permanent state, but only the

temporary aberration, a life in which sin is not the normal accepted

way, but the abnormal moment of defeat.46


                                    The Sign of the Children of God

                                       and the Children of the Devil

            In verses 10-11 John restated the sign of the children of God and

the children of the devil and emphasized the significance of brother-

love. In verse 12 he appended the negative illustration of Cain.



            The words, "By this the children of God and the children of the

devil are obvious," mark a summary of the discussion of the two

classes of mankind. "By this" (e]n tou<t&) may refer either to what

precedes or what follows. The plural adjective "obvious" (fanera<),

meaning "visible, plainly to be seen," calls attention to the visible

deeds of each group as establishing their spiritual parentage. "A

man's principles are invisible," Plummer notes, "but their results are

visible."47 This test reveals only two classes, "the children of God

and the children of the devil." John knew of no intermediate class.


45   Bruce, The Epistles of John, p. 92.

46   Barclay, The Letters of John and Jude, pp. 96-97.

47   Plummer, The Epistles of S. John, p. 128.

             An Exposition of 1 John 2:29-3:12                        215


The children of the devil (v. 10b). The designation, "children of

the devil," occurs only here in the New Testament (but compare "son

of the devil" [Acts 13:10] and "your father the devil" [John 8:44] as

synonymous). "Of the devil" (tou? diabo<lou) does not mean unbe-

lievers owe their existence to the devil, but rather that "a creature

endowed with free will can choose his own parent in the moral

world" 48 (cf. John 1:12).

                                                                                                                                                                                           John restated the evidence from personal conduct: "Anyone who

does not practice rightousness is not of God" (pa?j o[ mh> poiw?n

dikaiosu<nhn ou]k e@stin e]k tou? qeou?). The universal negation al-

lows for no exceptions. His deeds lack the quality of righteousness.

            The added characterization, "nor the one who does not love his

brother" (kai> o[ mh> a]gapw?n to>n a]delfo>n au]tou?) makes clear that

the love of the brethren is an important aspect of the practice of

righteousness. Love is righteousness in relation to others: "For all

the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy

neighbour as thyself" (Gal. 5:14, KJV). "His brother" here denotes a

fellow believer. His failure to love another member of the family

was tangible evidence that he lacked the inner bond uniting the

members of the family. He was motivated by a different spirit.

            The children of God (v. 11). The opening word "For" (o!ti) intro-

duces a verification of the preceding negative assertion. The absence

of love in the life of a professed believer, is inconsistent with the

apostolic message proclaimed to them. That message declared "that

we should love one another" (i!na a]gapw?men a]llh<louj), that the

practice of mutual love was fundamental to the Christian faith. The

reciprocal pronoun "one another" (a]llh<louj) stresses the mutual op-

eration of love in social relations, each lovingly seeking the welfare

of the other. It was the command of Christ Himself (John 15:12, 17).



            John cited the illustration of Cain as evidence that absence of

love marks a child of the devil. This is the only reference to an Old

Testament event in John's epistles. It established that love and ha-

tred, characterizing the children of God and the children of the

devil, have been operative since the earliest days of human history.

            The opening negative, "not as Cain, who was of the evil one," in-

troduces a contrast to verse 11. Cain is identified as "of the evil one"

(e]k tou? ponhrou?), another name for the devil marking his malignant

and destructive nature. Cain "drew his inspiration from the evil one,

the devil, who is himself the archetypal murderer (Jn. 8:46)."49


48   Ibid.

49   Marshall, The Epistles of John, p. 189.

216                 Bibliotheca Sacra / April–June 1989


            Cain's evil deed, "and slew his brother," demonstrated his evil

character. The verb "slew" (e@sfacen) portrays the violence of his

action. It occurs in the New Testament only here and in the Book of

Revelation (Rev. 5:6, 9, 12; 6:4, 9; 13:3, 8; 18:24). Used of the slaying

of sacrificial animals, it points out the coldblooded, vicious action of


            John's unexpected rhetorical question, "And for what reason did

he slay him?" elicits the motive for his vicious deed. It brings out

more strongly the diabolical nature of the act and its agent. John's

own answer, "Because his deeds were evil, and his brother's were

righteous," stresses the contrast between the deeds of the two broth-

ers as manifestations of their character. The righteous deeds of Abel

evoked Cain's jealousy and hatred and led to murder. "Jealousy-ha-

tred-murder is a natural and terrible sequence."50

            It is still true the believer's righteous character and conduct

arouse the world's hatred. And, as in the case of Cain, that hatred

is often expressed in vicious and violent action against the righteous.


50   J. R. W. Stott, The Epistles of John, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries

(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), p. 140.




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