John wants his readers to take a stand against sin in their lives. He has made the point that Jesus is not only without sin, but that he died to overcome sin. So, we are not able to claim Jesus as our friend and at the same time live in rebellion against him. In the passage before us John reminds us that Jesus' friend is not someone who tends to live in defiance of God's will, selfish and unloving, but rather someone who strives to lead a good life and this because its how Jesus chose to live.
v7. With affectionate words John warns his readers not to be deceived. Many people will claim to be righteous before God, but in the end, the righteous person is someone who strives to lead a good life, a life which reflects the life lived by Jesus. John uses rather stark language implying that a believer's life will be sinless, but he is probably describing orientation, rather than perfection. The righteous person, the godly person, is someone who strives to do the right thing; it is the person "in pursuit of righteousness who is righteous", Heinz Cassirer.
v8-9. The powers of darkness have infested God's beautiful creation, limiting human potential. To address this problem, Christ took on our humanity to be the created being we should have been, obedient to God, trustworthy, loving, and facing the prospect of eternity. Standing against the temptation to choose the path of self-fulfillment rather than service, Jesus took on the role of a suffering servant, and in so doing he overcame the powers of darkness for those who would seek the light. A person who lives a selfish life, giving little consideration to either God or mankind, is someone who lives under the influence of darkness, not light. On the other hand, a person who is Jesus' fiend, a person born anew through the indwelling presence of Christ, will find themselves compelled toward goodness. They will sin from time to time, but they will not practice sinning.
v10. John now summarizes his argument. It is not the business of a believer to assess a person's standing in the sight of God; that's God's business. It is important though, for our own sake, to understand what makes for a child of the light and a child of the dark, or John puts it, "the children of God, and .... the children of the devil." Faith is clearly the subjective essential, but genuine faith produces objective results - the fruit of love. So, a person who does not strive to lead a good life, who is devoid of love toward their brothers and sisters in the Lord, bears little resemblance to a child of God.
Depending on the version of the Bible you use, this little passage can be somewhat disturbing. You see, John literally says in verse nine "everyone born of God commits no sin." That's wiped us all out, hasn't it? This is why most translations soften John's words, not because they are intent on rewriting him, but because they want to emphasize his meaning. So, this is why the TNIV has "no one who is born of God will continue to sin", or as J.B. Phillips puts it, "the man" - Phillips writes before the introduction of PC language so you will have to make the appropriate adjustment - "the person who lives in Christ does not habitually sin."
I have to say I'm not overly satisfied with these, let's call them, concessions to the text. I mean, as believers we do continue to sin. At this very moment you may be thinking about lunch rather than giving your full attention to God's word and I have just undertaken some speck-removal to emphasize my own full attention to God's word. Our sins are also often habitual, sometimes seriously so. Recurrent sin can plague the life of a believer, undermining faith, even prompting suicide. The ESV version of the Bible has "no one born of God makes a practice of sinning", it's not something a believer wants to do, something we determinately set out to do - I went off the rails today, and I'm going to see if I can go off the rails tomorrow - I make it my practice to defy God. That sounds a bit better, doesn't it? So, a believer is not someone who "makes a practice of sinning."
I want to suggest that God does not expect perfection of a believer because we are already perfect in Christ. What he expects of us is that we try to be what we are in Christ. When we slip in the mud our God expects us to get up, clean ourselves up and set off again. It's likely that we will slip over again, someday soon, but if we really have Jesus as our friend, we won't be found wallowing in the mud. In the end, that's what sets the child of God apart from the child of darkness.
So my friends, be children of the light.
1. If, as John seems to imply, that the child of God does what is righteous and the child of the evil one does what is sinful, how do you explain the fact that sin is a constant in the Christian life?
2. Compare as many translations as you can find of v9a and discuss the intended meaning.
3. John, in this letter, explains what to do when faced with sin in the Christian life. Find his answers in chapter 1 and 2.