April / May 2018 - Vol. 97
man in forest
                  bathed in sunlight
The Children of God and the Pursuit of Purity and Righteousness
A Commentary on 1 John 3:1–6

by Daniel A. Keating
The following brief commentary from the First Letter of John, Chapter 3 is lightly edited with the consent of the author, Dr. Daniel Keating, from the book, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: James, First, Second, and Third John, published by Baker Academic, 2017. While it was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. – ed.

The Children of God (3:1-2)

³:¹See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world  does not know us is that it did not know him. ²Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  [1 John 3:1-2]

OT: Exodus 34:29–30  NT: John 1:12–13; 3:5; 1 Corinthians13:12; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6; 1 Peter 1:23

[3:1-2] In one of the most exhilarating passages in the New Testament, John speaks about what we are now, God’s children, in order to point to something even greater that awaits us: becoming fully like Jesus. He begins by bringing the theme of being God’s children to  center stage: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we  may be called the children of God. God the Father has loved us to such an extent that we have the immense privilege of being called his children. But John immediately adds, Yet so we are. We are children of God not in name only or merely as a title of honor. Christians truly have become God’s children in a new way through the saving work of Christ: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were  born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13 NRSV). 

John continues: The reason the world does not know us is that it  did not know him. The fact that we are the children of God explains why the “world” does not recognize us for what we are. Just as those who belong to the world failed to recognize Christ himself and his Father, so they clearly will not know or recognize those who are begotten of God. As children, we are like the Father and the true Son, Jesus Christ, and so we should expect to experience the same rejection that Christ received. 

In a remarkable and unexpected development, John speaks in verse 2 of what we will become when Jesus appears in his second coming. He begins by restating what we already are: Beloved, we are God’s children now. This is the starting point and a strong affirmation that we are already “like” him as children are like their father. Then he adds: What we shall be has not yet been revealed. Is John saying that Christians have received no revelation whatsoever about what we can expect in eternal life, in the kingdom to come? No, but he is pointing to the fact that we do not fully know the form of what our life will look like after Jesus returns, when we will live as children of God in our resurrected bodies. This is because “what  we shall be” is far more wonderful than we can now imagine: “Now  to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians  3:20–21).


Children of God

The title “children of God” is not found as such in the  Old Testament, though there are occurrences of the  title “sons of God” (Hosea 2:1; NABRE: “children of  the living God”), and certainly the revelation of the  people of Israel as God’s children is deeply rooted in  the Old Testament (Exodus 4:22–23). In the New Testament, Paul freely uses the title “children of God” of Christians: “The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs” (Romans 8:16–17 [see also Rom 8:21; Ephesians 5:1; Philippians  2:15]). He also employs the parallel title “sons of God” to designate all believers (Romans 8:14). John, however, never uses the word “sons” to designate Christians, reserving “son” for the only-begotten Son, Jesus. “Children of God,” therefore, is John’s special title to denote our adoption by God and close resemblance to  him (John 1:12; 11:52; 1 John 3:1–2, 10; 5:2). 

Though we may not fully know what our life will be like then, John assures us, We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Most translations have “when he is revealed,” referring to Christ.4 When Jesus comes again and brings in the fullness of the kingdom of God, we will be like him, for we will see him in his full glory. We are already God’s children right now; this is a present reality. Though we do not know  precisely the form that this will take in the next life, we do know that we will be “like him”: we will be sons and daughters who are like the Son of God (see sidebar, “The Deification of the Christian”). “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Corinthians13:12 RSV). 

John seems to make a connection between “seeing” Jesus and “being like” him. Paul speaks in strikingly similar terms: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18 RSV). “Seeing” or “beholding” the Lord in his glory is transformative. Just as Moses’ face shone because it reflected the glory of God as he stood in God’s presence (Exodus 34:29–30), so when we behold fully the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6), his life will be fully manifested in us, both spiritually and physically through our resurrected bodies.  


The Deification of the Christian

When John says that “we are God’s children now,” and that when Christ returns “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (3:2), he is speaking about what the later Christian tradition would call our deification or divinization. Deification does not mean that we “turn into God” or that we simply “become God,” but that we share so fully in God’s divine life and power that we become “like God.” Paul describes this as  becoming conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans  8:29). Our deification begins in this life — we are God’s children now — but it reaches completion only in eternal life, when we will be fully transformed into the likeness of God. All this is possible only because God has come to dwell in us and has granted us fellowship with himself. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662), an  outstanding teacher who suffered torture and exile in defense of the faith, describes the goal of our deification in these words:   

The fullness of God permeates [the faithful] wholly as  the soul permeates the body... He directs them as he thinks best, filling them with his own glory and blessedness, and bestows on them unending life beyond imagining and wholly free from the signs of  corruption that mark the present age. He gives them life, not the life that comes from breathing air, nor that of veins coursing with blood, but the life that comes from being wholly infused with the fullness of God.a
a. On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor, trans. Paul M.  Blowers and Robert L. Wilken (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 63.

Purity and Sin Contrasted (3:3–6)

³Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.  ⁴Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness. ⁵You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. ⁶No one who remains in him sins; no one who sins has seen him or known him. 

NT: John 8:46; Romans 6:2; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22 

[3:3] In this section John insists on the incompatibility between purity and sin. The opening verse states the positive goal: Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.  What is the logic at work here? John is saying that all who possess the hope of becoming like the Lord in the age to come purify themselves now in order to grow in our likeness to him. Just as he is pure, so we seek to become pure. Even now we have God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and the Spirit inspires us to seek the purity that Christ himself has. Our hope that we will be fully like him when he comes again gives us motivation in the present to press on toward the goal of purity. 

What does it mean to make oneself pure, literally, “to purify  oneself”?5 In the New Testament, the verb “purify” (hagnizō) always refers to what one does for oneself, often through a rite of cleansing (John 11:55; Acts 21:24, 26; 24:18). The purpose of purifying something is to cleanse it so that it will be in the right condition to enter God’s presence. John does not specify what he means by purifying ourselves, but the wider teaching of the letter provides a basic answer: to be pure and righteous is to avoid sin (2:1), to obey  the commandments of the Lord (2:3–4), and to live in the way that Jesus lived (2:6).   

[3:4–6] The opposite of a life of purity is a life marked by sin: Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness. Sin by its very nature is a form of lawlessness.6 “Lawlessness” is one  of the most negative terms that the Bible uses to describe human conduct. It is the opposite of righteousness. To be lawless is to manifest active rebellion against God and his ways. For John,  Christians who persist in unrepentant sin manifest a serious disregard for God and his standards. The accent here is on the ongoing practice of sinning. The fact that John uses the present tense when speaking about sinning in verses 4–6 indicates ongoing or habitual sinful actions.7 The ESV translation, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning,” is preferable to the NABRE, “Everyone who commits sin,” because it brings out the ongoing practice of sin. John, then, is contrasting two ways of life, one marked by the practice of sinning, the other by the practice of righteousness: “Everyone who  practices righteousness has been born of him” (2:29 ESV).

John then turns our attention back to Christ Jesus himself: You know that he was revealed to take away sins. The eternal Son did not become incarnate to leave us burdened by sin, but so that we would be free from sin and live a life of purity. To make clear that Christ had nothing to do with sin, John adds: and in him there is no sin. The New Testament speaks with one voice about the sinlessness of Christ. Paul says that Jesus “did not know sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21),  Hebrews tells us that he was “without sin” (Heb 4:15), and Peter says that he “committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22). Just as Christ is “pure” and “in him there is no sin,” so we are to pursue a life of righteousness because we desire to be like him. 

John concludes with a sharp contrast: No one who remains in him sins; no one who sins has seen him or known him. The idea of an ongoing practice of sin is captured by the ESV: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning.” In other words, those who truly abide in Christ will not live in sin or lawlessness. If we are living a life that continues to be characterized by serious sin, this is evidence that we have not truly come into †fellowship with the Father and the Son. The more deeply we are in communion (koinōnia) with God, the more we love his will and aim to live a life of purity and righteousness.

Is John contradicting what he said earlier in the letter? There he stated, “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). He also explained the remedy for sin available to Christians: “If anyone does sin, we have an Advocate  with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one” (2:1). Now he seems to be saying that if we sin, then we neither truly see nor know Christ. How can these statements be reconciled? 

When John says here that “no one who remains in him sins,” he is not primarily concerned with an occasional lapse or even with habitual sins of personal weakness that we are making every effort to overcome through regular repentance. He is speaking, rather, about a pattern of sinful living for which we are not repenting. He is speaking about the person who claims to be a Christian yet continues to live a life characterized by sin.8 For John, the new life that we have received in Christ through the Spirit leads us out of sin: “I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin” (2:1). John expects that Christians will cooperate with the grace of God to lead a life of substantial purity and righteousness. 

Reflection and Application (3:1–6)   

John’s teaching on being children of God is, at one and the same  time, a profound revelation and a tremendous challenge. The revelation comes first. The Father’s love is so great that he has called us his children and genuinely made us his children. We do not have to wait for this; we are already the children of God. Do we know this personally? This is one of the deepest works of the Holy Spirit in us: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16 ESV). What will we become in eternal life? We do not fully know, but we have the assurance that “we will be like him” and “we will see him as he is.” These are momentous promises of transformation and life in God’s presence, both  now and in the age to come. 

God our Father, through his love, has bestowed on us a great privilege: to be his children. With this privilege comes a responsibility: to live as the children of God by living in union with and imitating Jesus Christ.


3. For the phrase “begotten by” referring to God the Father, see  1 John 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18; see also John 1:13. 
4. For example, the RSV, NRSV, NJB, ESV, NIV. The Greek text  permits either translation, as the NABRE footnote acknowledges. 
5. For the call to purify one’s heart, see especially James 4:8;  1 Pet 1:22.
6. This is the only occurrence of “lawlessness” (anomia) in the  Johannine writings, but the term appears in other NT writings  (e.g., Matt 7:23; Rom 6:19). Notably, Paul identifies the †antichrist  as “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess 2:3 RSV). 
7. Those who support this interpretation include John Painter  (1, 2, and 3 John, SP 18 [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002],  227) and Peter Rhea Jones (1, 2 & 3 John, SHBC [Macon, GA:  Smith & Helwys, 2009], 122).
8. Many scholars believe that John is directing this word against  his opponents, those who left the church, because they were claiming to be true disciples of Christ yet were still living in sin and lawlessness. 

illustration above (c) by Smileus at Bigstock.com

Dr. Daniel A. Keating (Doctor of Philosophy, University of Oxford) is professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, USA and an elder of The Servants of the Word, a lay missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord.

Keating Commentary on Letters
                                    of John
"Any observer of contemporary culture will recognize that Anderson's and Keating's lucid commentaries arrive at just the right time, when Catholics at the parish level and in undergraduate and seminary coursework desperately need resources that acquaint them with the scriptural text, the broader scriptural context, and the ways in which scriptural passages have been understood and lived within the Church's rich tradition. Well instructed in contemporary scholarship, Anderson and Keating put us all in their debt by focusing firmly on the heart of the matter -- namely, learning from the letters of James and John how to live and love as Christians in a fallen world."
Matthew Levering, James N. and Mary D. Perry Jr. Chair of Theology, Mundelein Seminary
Commentary on James, by Kelly Anderson, and Commentary on First, Second, and Third John by Daniel Keating, Baker House Publishing Group, 2017
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