The Pulpit Commentary

1 John 3:1-24 (1 John 3:1-24)

(1) The evidence of sonship. Righteousness.

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1 John 3:4-12 (1 John 3:4-12)

Sin is absolutely incompatible with Christ's work of redemption and our union with him ( 1 John 3:4-8 ), and also with being born of God, as is shown by the presence or absence of brotherly love ( 1 John 3:9-12 ).

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1 John 3:9-12 (1 John 3:9-12)

Sin is absolutely incompatible with being born of God, as is shown by the presence or absence of brotherly love.

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1 John 3:11 (1 John 3:11)

Because the message ( ἀγγελία : see on 1 John 1:5 ) which ye heard from the beginning is this. Not merely in the beginning, but from the beginning; it was among the first announcements, and it had never ceased to be in force. Jerome, in his 'Commentary on Galatians' ( Galatians 6:10 ), tells us that when St. John became too infirm to preach, he used often to say no more than this, "Little children, love one another." His hearers at last wearied of it, and said, "Master, why dost thou always say this?" "It is the Lord's command," he replied; "and if this alone is done, it is enough."

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1 John 3:4-12 (1 John 3:4-12)

Sinning in every way incompatible with the Christian life.

Connecting link: The apostle had just said that every one with the Christian hope would purify himself" as Christ the Lord is pure." As if to guard this absolutely universal statement, "every one," against the possibility of question, he goes on to illustrate the varied aspects of sin—in its bearing on law; as regards the Person and work of Christ; as related to the new life of the children of God; and with reference to the everlasting statute of the gospel. Thus giving an overwhelming force to the doctrine indicated by the topic before us. Topic— Sinning impossible to the children of God. £ The apostle deals here, not with detailed sins, but with sinning; not with isolated acts (if, indeed, there can be any such), but with the continuous life of sinning. As ὁ ποιῶν τὴν δικαιοσύνην is "one who lives a life of righteousness," so ὁ ποιῶν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν is "one who lives a life of sin." Terrible thought (and yet how true to fact!) that of living a life which is all sin, without any righteousness in it at all! The man who lives for self-pleasing rather than for the sake of pleasing God—who consults his fancies, and not his duty; who cares only for himself, and not at all for his brother—is living in sin every day and all the day long, however glossy his external self may seem. It is to the manifold contrarieties of such a life that the apostle here calls our attention. Let us look at such a life—

I. AS IT CONCERNS THE LAW OF GOD . "Sin is the transgression of law;" literally, "lawlessness." "It is," says Westcott, "the assertion of the selfish will against a paramount authority. He who sins breaks, not only by accident or in an isolated detail, but essentially, the 'Law' which he was created to fulfill"—of right government of self, of concern for our brother, of loyalty to God. Hence the spirit of the Law is broken in its entirety, whatever form the details of his life may assume.


1 . As to his person. "In him there is no sin." How black does a sinful, selfish life appear by the side of the life of the Lord Jesus Christ!

2 . As to his work. "He was manifested to take away sins;" not only (as Paul shows in Romans 3:1-31 ) to demonstrate God's righteousness in forgiving sin, but also "to take away sins £ "(Revised Version)—to remove them altogether. To this end his whole earthly manifestation was directed, from the manger to the cross. And in thus doing, he would destroy "the works of the devil," who "sinneth from the beginning" (cf. John 12:31 ; Colossians 2:15 ; Hebrews 2:14 , Hebrews 2:15 ). Hence it is clear that one who is leading a sinful life is in constant opposition to the Person, will, and work of the Son of God!


1 . Sinning is altogether inconsistent with abiding in Christ ( 1 John 3:6 ; cf. John 15:5 ).

2 . It is altogether opposed to the true knowledge of Christ ( 1 John 3:6 ).

3 . It is contrary to the features which always mark God's children ( 1 John 3:10 ). God's children are re-born—born to a life of righteousness and love. Hence ( 1 John 3:9 ) whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for the seed of another life is in him.

4 . It is impossible to a child of God. "He cannot sin, because he is born of God." Impossibility of sinning is one mark of the new birth. "He cannot sin." Blessed inability! Cannot be sinning, or living a life out of harmony with God's will and Word. Cannot! Why? Because in the new product of God's Spirit the principle of righteousness is so active that a sinning life is entirely out of the question. Virtue is so strong that it expels its opposite. A true child of God cannot be in alienation of spirit from his Father in heaven, even for one moment. So an honest servant cannot steal, a faithful husband cannot be unfaithful. One passionately fond of accuracy cannot be systematically inaccurate. So, also a child of God cannot be opposed to his Father's will, simply because, ex hypothesi, the product of the new birth is a child who will will as his Father wills. Into errors of judgment he may fall, by sudden gusts of temptation he may be overtaken and so surprised into a fault; but from sin, from the sin of living alien to God, he was delivered once and for ever, when, by the change in his nature, he was born again! He was "renewed… after the image of him that created him."

IV. THE SINNING LIFE IS OPPOSED TO THE EVERLASTING STATUTE OF THE GOSPEL . So the apostle argues here. The sinning life is one of lawlessness, one of selfishness. Unlovingness and unrighteousness are not of God. He who drifts away from loyalty to God will soon drift away also from consideration to man. Disloyal self-will Godward, breeds selfish isolation manward. And this is contrary to the commandment that we heard" from the beginning," i.e., from the beginning of Divine revelation ( Genesis 9:9 ), or from the beginning of our Saviour's teaching ( Matthew 5:44 ), or from the beginning of our Christian profession ( Galatians 6:10 ). Consequently, one who receives and obeys the gospel began to unlearn selfishness the moment he was won for God. He is bound by his Lord's precepts to do good unto all men. £


1 . H ow very serious a matter sin is! It is not a mere question of a few wrong deeds, but of a false bias of the will, which turns the entire life into a wrong channel. E.g. think of the prodigal son. During his guilty wanderings he may have been entirely faithful to the citizen who hired him, but he was sinning against his father all the while he was away from him. So the disloyal man. He may do acts that are right as towards A and B and C but so long as he is disloyal to God, he is sinning against him all the while.

2 . How manifold are the forces employed against sin! A Law to condemn it, a Saviour to redeem from it, a Spirit to destroy it, a gospel to testify against it, a whole family of new-born sons to be living witnesses of his deliverance from its power.

3 . How blessed and honourable to be a child of God, and so to be numbered among the forces which God would bring to bear against sin! God's children are enlisted on his side, that they may be workers together with their Father in declaring eternal war against sin. Even under the Mosaic economy this principle was recognized. Jehovah called for the united voice of the people to join with him in branding sin with a curse (see homily on Deuteronomy 27:1-26 ). But then the more prominent force was a law without; now it is a life within.

4 . How distinctively Divine is the life of the true child of God! and how clear and manifest a proof of the reality of redemption and of regeneration! Of the former, because he is redeemed out of the region of sin altogether; of the latter, because a new life, higher than nature knows, has been actually begotten in him, and is being sustained by the power of God.

5 . How sure the triumph of God's children! They have to fight against the world's selfishness and sin, and in doing this they fight along with One who was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil. The purport of that manifestation shall be realized; and when their Lord triumphs, his victory will be theirs.

6 . What a sorry outlook for those who are not the children of God! What can they be thinking of to fight against so much? But all I they do not think. They pause not to ask—What am I doing? How forlorn their prospect! Alien from God, rushing against his Law, neglecting his gospel, despising the Son of God: to what humiliation and destruction are they rushing on? Siding with the evil one, like him they must be cast down ( Luke 10:18 ) and cast out ( John 12:31 ).

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1 John 3:1-12 (1 John 3:1-12)

Righteousness and sin in relation to children of God.


1 . -Present inner nature.

2 . Future glory.

3 . Action in view of the future. "And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he [that One] is pure." The future glory is a matter of hope to us, arising out of our present consciousness of sonship, our present experience of assimilation to God. It is a hope that rests for its realization on God. It is for him to complete the assimilation, and, with that, to give us the direct vision of himself. But it has been said of God ( 1 John 2:29 ) that he is righteous. What, then, is the duty of every one who has his hope set on a righteous God—the hope of being made like to him in righteousness? It is to address himself to the work of self-purification. This implies that he has yet sin cleaving to him. It does not imply that he is to look to himself for purification, but simply that it rests with himself to use the appointed means, viz. as these have already been set forth—trust in the cleansing efficacy of Christ's blood, confessing sins, taking advantage of the services of the Advocate. We may think of these as associated with the exercises of prayer and reading of Scripture, and with the struggle after purity in the daily life. We have great assistance in the work of self-purification in the fact that we have a Model of purity set before us in that One, viz. Christ. That was purity attained to in the use of means, and within humanity, and in the midst of the world's defilements; and therefore meaning the goal of purity for us, while giving us direction and stimulus toward that goal. It is purity which is viewed as in the present, a gain which has come down to him from his earthly life, in parable from his being lost. Christ, at this moment, holds up before us an image of human purity, under the spell of which every one who hopes to get near to God should come.


1 . Sin in its essence. "Every one that doeth sin doeth also lawlessness: and sin is lawlessness." Every one who hopes to behold God's face in righteousness purifieth himself. What is to be said of every one who, instead of purifying himself, doeth sin? He is in conflict with law, or the Divine order. God lays down certain rules for our life, appoints certain means of purification. He who does not observe the rules, does not use the means, does not escape moral judgment or characterization. His whole doing takes the character of lawlessness: and sin, it is added, is lawlessness. Sin supposes a law which has authority over us, whether revealed simply in the conscience or in Christ; it is the fact of there being such a law that gives character to action. Righteousness has the approval of God, as being the observance of his Law; sin has the condemnation of God, as being the violation of his Law.

2 . Sin incompatible with the purpose of Christ's manifestation. "And ye know that he [that One] was manifested to take away sins." Christ had not only been proclaimed, but had been received by his readers; he could therefore appeal to their consciousness. The manifestation (in the past) here referred to covers the whole of the earthly history of our Lord; and it is important to note that, though its culminating point was his death, yet it all had a bearing on the taking away sins. The language seems to go beyond the taking of our sins upon him as our Substitute, and the procuring of forgiveness for us. He was manifested to take away sins out of our life. It is manifest, then, how incompatible sin is with God's thought. He who was in the bosom of the Father was manifested in flesh, endured hardness in this world, brought his earthly life to a close by a death of unmitigated anguish; and all that he might take away our sins. And are we, instead of carrying out the Divine intention, and having our sins taken away, to clutch at them as what we cannot part with, thus putting self before God?

3 . Sin incompatible with Christ's sinlessness. "And in him is no sin." The sinlessness (in keeping with verse 3) is carried down to the present moment. He is sinless now in heaven. No sin has come down to him from the earthly manifestation. "By his sinlessness is meant that he was filled at every moment of his life with the spirit of obedience, and with a love to God which surrendered itself unconditionally to his will, and with those powers which flow from an uninterrupted communion with God. The consequence of this was, not only that no distraction caused by sin could find a place either in his inner or his outer life, but, more than this, everything was both willed by him and carried into execution that the will of God appointed." The worldly minded judge of Jesus, who was a man by no means very susceptible of what is high and noble, felt constrained solemnly to recognize the innocence of the persecuted Jesus. And Pilate's wife, who, we may suppose, was more impressible than he, was so deeply convinced of the purity and blamelessness of Christ, that the thought of her husband imbruing his hands in the blood of that righteous Man haunted her even in sleep, and gave her no rest. A Roman warrior who commanded the guard at the cross was so overpowered by the impression that the Crucified made upon him, that he broke forth in words of deepest reverence, "Truly this was a righteous Man, this was the Son of God." And the malefactor who was crucified along with him, moved by his dying look, was made strong to give his whole confidence to his Person, and to apprehend the joy of a better life. Long and confidential intercourse had given Judas the most intimate knowledge of his Master; hence, if he could have found anything reproachable in his life, he would without doubt have brought it forward, in order to quiet his conscience in the view of the consequences of his treachery, and to palliate his crime. Among his friends, John the Baptist started back at the thought of baptizing him, saying, "I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?" Peter was so impressed with the presence of holiness in the miraculous draught of fishes, that he fell at Jesus' knees, saying, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord." As for Jesus himself, he was conscious of freedom from sin: "Which of you convinceth me of sin?" He claimed to be the Image and Reflection of perfect goodness: "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." What, then, is the meaning to us of the sinlessness of Christ? It means that we are not to sin. Did he loathe sin, and reject it in every form? did he feel the attraction of all that was highest, and cleave to it with his whole being? and are we to feel the charm of sin, and take it unto us? are we to be insensible to the beauties of holiness, and put them away from us?

4 . Sin incompatible with communion with Christ. "Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither knoweth him." "Abiding in Christ" is taken up from the close of the second chapter. It implies an entire surrender of ourselves to Christ. It is, in communion with Christ, getting into his thoughts and life. Whosoever finds his destiny in this sphere of things sinneth not; i.e., it is his principle not to sin. The principle is no doubt imperfectly carried out, and is accompanied with daily falls into sin, for which forgiving grace is needed; still, it is his principle not to sin. Whosoever sinneth, i.e., makes it his principle to sin, makes self the point of his thoughts and life— hath not seen him, neither knoweth him. He hath not yet truly east his eye on Christ, neither is he in the circle of his thoughts.

5 . Same truth emphasized. "My little children, let no man lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he [that One] is righteous." He addresses them as objects of his warm affection. His affection goes out to them as in danger. He cannot bear the thought of their being led astray. He has just been referring to knowing. That was a word which the Gnostic teachers used. Gnostic is literally "known." Those teachers said in one form or another, that, if men knew, it did not matter what their conduct was. Let no man, whatever his seeming authority, whatever his plausibility, whatever his use of the name of Christ, lead them astray. None can be placed above the demand for rightness of conduct. The only way in which a man can be regarded as righteous in the sight of God is by doing righteousness, i.e., carrying right principles into his whole conduct. It was so with that One; nay, it is so with him still. Even in his glorified life he can be thought of as held by Divine restraints. And, if we would maintain communion with him, we must love Divine restraints too.

6 . Sin connects with an evil source. "He that doeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil." Taking up him that doeth sin, i.e., acts without regard to Divine restraints, he advances to the thought of his spiritual genesis. He is blessed with no high origin. He is connected with the name that is most repellent. The devil, originally good, "stood not in the truth." Appearing on the scene of human activity, he was the means of introducing sin into the world. That was his flagrant sin at the beginning; and he has not recoiled from his position. It is still his thought to baffle God, to destroy human happiness. This, then, is the spiritual parentage of him that doeth sin. God is not owned by him. He revels in such ungodly thoughts as Satan revels in, engages in such ungodly designs as Satan engages in. It is evident that he cannot have communion with Christ; for there is a deadly antagonism between Christ and the works of the devil. He was the Son of God, naturally zealous (so to think of it) for the Father's honour. It was no matter of indifference to him to think of the fair creation as marred, of human happiness as destroyed. And in the depths of eternity he burned to retrieve our lost position, and to this end, in the fullness of time, he was manifested, tie came to be a destroyer too, but not like Satan a destroyer of good things, but a destroyer of Satan's works, i.e., all works that have this common bond that they are done against God, in disregard or defiance of his authority. If a man, then, is Satan's worker, Christ has a controversy with him; he is the deadly antagonist of his works, he aims at their utter destruction.

7 . Divine origin is shown in opposition to sin. "Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin, because his seed abideth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God." He starts here from the high origin. He takes a man who is begotten of God, and he uses the strong language regarding him that he doeth not sin, the reason given being that his seed, i.e., the principle of the Divine life, abideth in him. Nay, he uses the still stronger language that he cannot sin, the reason given being that it is of God and of no other that he is begotten. An animal (which is suggested) does not live, cannot live, but in accordance with the principle of life from which it has sprung, and which is being unfolded in it. So he who has received the Divine principle into his life, and is having it unfolded in him, is not as though he had only the seed of depravity in him. Though there is depravity remaining in him, coming out in sins for which he has to humble himself, yet it can be said that sin is utterly foreign to his life. A man can only have properly one principle in his life, and his principle is not, cannot be sin, because the Divine seed is there, and of God he is begotten.


1 . Mark of brotherly love. "In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother." So far as the principle of life is concerned, there are two, and only two, classes of men. We are either the children of God or the children of the devil. It becomes us to ask of ourselves to which class we belong. And, seeing Christ shall say of many who profess to have eaten and drunk in his presence, "I know not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity," we have need to be jealous over ourselves with a godly jealousy. Let us not please ourselves with illusions, but let us keep close to reality. The apostle gives us a mark here by which we may be helped to classify ourselves. According to his manner, he catches up the former idea of doing righteousness, but only to fix upon its most glorious form. He is not the child of God that loveth not his brother. Loving our brother, then, is that by which we are marked off from the children of the devil. This is the mark which we are to be helped to apply.

2 . Commandment of brotherly love. "For this is the message which ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another." It was of importance to consider brotherly love, because it was contained in the first message of Christianity. Did it announce the blessed fact that God made infinite sacrifice for us? Translated into a command that was that we should love one another. We have the command, with all the Master's authority. This contains the principle which is to operate in our life in our relations to one another.

3 . Exemplification of the converse of brotherly love. "Not as Cain was of the evil one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his works were evil, and his brother's righteous." He goes back to the first manifestations of evil for his example. Cain was the child of the devil. It is said here that he was "of the evil one." He was under the influence of him who was evil affected toward men. Being evilly affected toward his brother, he slew him. "And wherefore slew he him? Because his works were evil, and his brother's righteous." He disliked Abel's piety, not so much purely, as because it gave him a better standing with God. When evidence was given, in the most convincing manner, of what their relative standing was, Cain's dislike grew to hate and hot anger which could not be appeased - R.F.

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