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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Work of the Son of God, the Work of the Devil (3:8-10)
The Work of the Son of God, the Work of the Devil (3:8-10)

This second section reiterates the Elder's understanding of sin and right eousness and their relationship to the work of Christ. Although the basic structure of thought parallels that of 3:4-6, the imagery differs. Here John develops the theme of family resemblance and parentage in order to underscore what he has already said about the believer as a child of God who cannot sin (v. 9). Behavior is a test by which one's basic orientation in life may be discerned. Note once more the threefold structure of the passage.

The character of sin (3:8a). In this verse John includes some of the strongest negative statements that those who are sinful are of the devil. Both the epistles and Gospel of John frequently speak of being "of" something, a phrase that points to allegiance or orientation. Sinning characterizes the devil, not God, and so those who sin cannot be said to belong to God (3:8, 10). In fact, the Elder writes that the devil has been sinning from the beginning. That is, the devil is characterized through and through, and has always been known to human beings, as one who challenged God's standard of righteousness and tempted peo ple to do the same. His identifying characteristic is sin.

Note that the epistle does not say that those who sin are born of the devil, which would give a neat parallel to the corresponding phrase born of God. But the opposite of born of God in Johannine thought is "born of the flesh" (Jn 3:6; Brown 1982:405). All people are created by God (Jn 1:10), but those who come to faith in Christ give evidence that they are also "born of God" (Jn 1:13). A new act of the Spirit's creation has taken place. On the other hand, those who refuse to come to Christ have chosen animosity toward God and allegiance with the devil. They are of the devil by virtue of their denial of Christ, deriving their orientation in life not from relationship with and orientation to God but to darkness, evil and sin. Again the Johannine dualism comes to expression. And it is clear from this passage that such dualism is a description not of the way human beings are created but of the choices they make (see Kysar 1986:81).

The work of the son of God (3:8b). If the devil is characterized by sinning, the Son of God is known by his coming to destroy the devil's work. This work is sin, for as righteousness characterizes God, the Son of God and the children of God, so sin characterizes the devil and the children of the devil. In fact, it is their sinning that marks them as the devil's children. Not only are the devil's sin and Jesus' sinlessness con trasted but so are their characteristic works: the devil sins, Jesus destroys the devil's works (Stott 1988:129). Jesus tears down the edifice of sin that the devil builds up, and so frees people by transferring them to the realm where they abide in righteousness and in Jesus (3:6, 14).

It is important to note that this transfer is viewed as effective and secure. If believers sin—and it is clear that they do (1:8, 10)—their sin does not indicate that they have temporarily moved into the sphere of darkness. The Elder does not threaten his readers that they are in danger of "losing their salvation," of backsliding or of falling in league with the devil. They are assured that they are the children of God. The call comes, then, to live so that the family resemblance will always be manifest. If there is exhortation here, there is also encouragement.

The implications of Jesus' work for the believer (3:9-10). The de struction of the devil's works of sin is so complete that we read a very bold statement in verse 9, No one who is born of God will continue to sin . . . he cannot sin (or go on sinning). Indeed, when Jesus' work both opposes and destroys sin, how can those who are born of God dwell in it? John continues with the explanatory statement that they cannot sin because God's seed remains in [them]. Exactly what this seed is does not receive further explanation, and it has puzzled commentators. Obviously we must take it here in a metaphorical sense. Some have suggested that it means the Holy Spirit; others, the Word of God; and others, that it means both. Perhaps, however, it does not so much symbolize some thing else, but merely continues the family imagery. As Kysar writes, "God has implanted in Christians that which makes them his children" (Kysar 1986:81; Brown 1982:411; Stott 1988:133-34). And that God's seed remains points to the permanence of that work. The seed that God plants cannot be uprooted.

Verse 3:10 takes us back to 3:1-3 and its contrast of the seen and unseen, the known and unknown. In 3:1-3 the Elder asserted that now we are children of God, although what we will be has not yet been made known. The passage under discussion, 3:4-10, has assumed that just as children have a likeness to their parents, and just as that likeness will and must manifest itself in behavior, so the conduct of the children of God makes it manifest to whom they belong. Specifically, being related to God has two manifestations: righteousness and love. Both are char acteristic of God; both are characteristic of the children of God. More over, both are and need to be actively expressed, and expressed in a way that conforms to God's standard and to the pattern set by Jesus.

Although the phrase nor is anyone who does not love his brother appears to be added almost as an afterthought at the end of verse 10, in fact it is integral to the author's argument. First, the secessionists whom the Elder chides manifest both a lack of righteousness and a lack of love. Thus the statement anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother summarizes John's rebuke to the dissidents. It can also be generalized, however, for the author certainly means to say as well that every Christian is to be characterized by love and righteousness. Second, those who are related to God as children are also related to each other as brother and sister. Therefore, it is impossible to be part of the family of God and not manifest love toward others in the family. As noted above, the vertical and horizontal relationships of the Christian are always integrally related to each other. Third, the theme of love has now been introduced, and it provides the substance of the rest of the epistle. Thus the argument of the epistle is shifting now from the nature of righteousness, sin and the work of Christ to the nature of love. Here we will see that no less important in understanding love is the person and work of Christ.

Summary: Transforming Power

In summarizing this passage, we must first underscore the author's emphasis on Jesus' own righteous ness. As the one who is righteous, Jesus effects atonement and forgive ness (2:1). He destroys the unrighteous works of sin and the devil. He provides a model of conduct for the believer (2:6; 3:5). And he will return to complete the work he has begun—to transform us into the image of the God who is pure (3:3). Both the initial manifestation of Christ and his return are spoken of in terms of the effect his work had on sin: in his first coming he took away sin (3:5, 8); in his return (2:28; 3:3) he purifies us.

Clearly, in all this discussion, attention should be focused not on our efforts to become pure or to attain a state of sinlessness, but on what has been done for us to purify us, to transfer us to the realm where righteousness, and not sin, holds sway. God's work through Christ has created a realm where the purifying and transforming power of right eousness, truth and love are operative. And if now we are children of God by virtue of that power, what we will be has not yet been made known. From beginning to end of our life with Christ, the power at work within and among us is the power of righteousness. That is the privilege and promise that is ours.

Inherent in that promise is an exhortation to righteous conduct. Those born of God no longer live without acknowledging God, but are fully aware of the responsibility incumbent upon them as God's children. Their orientation is toward the God who is light (1:5). Their direction in life derives from the character of God. Their responsibility is to live as Jesus did (2:6), in conformity with the character of a God who is righteous, loving and just. Those who say yes to God, whose orientation derives from the will of God, open themselves to God's transforming power. Although God's purifying work is yet to be completed, that trans forming power is even now at work among and in those who have been called the children of God.

In short, the statement No one who is born of God will continue to sin, and others like it, ought to be heard simultaneously at several levels: First, it orients us to our future hope, a hope that as the children of God we shall yet become more like God. Second, in directing our gaze to our future hope, the statement also assumes that the same power that will remake us at that time is already at work in us. Third, that power is now active in the world because it was manifested by Jesus himself in his work of breaking the grip of sin on us. And finally, in his own life, Jesus exemplified the self-giving love and obedience to God that is the respon sibility of God's children as well. If John's statement seems hyperbolic, it is because of his eager anticipation of the blessings of the future age, now being realized through the ministry of Jesus among his followers.

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