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Remain in Him and Become Like Him

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28 And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. 29 If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. 1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

Last week we were warned by John about the danger of apostasy and were exhorted to persevere in our faith in order to receive the promise of eternal life. John has great confidence that many in the Church will persevere to the end because he believes that God’s “anointing” will help them to reject error and believe truth.

It is not hard to see the connection that this week’s passage has with what we read last week, for John begins here by repeating the command to “abide in” Christ. But whereas in the previous section he was more interested in right belief, the command to “remain in him” is now focused again on the topic of right behavior. John has addressed this topic already in 2:3-6. But now he will elaborate on it to demonstrate how essential right behavior is to true fellowship with God.

Perseverance in right conduct is required for final salvation

John urges his readers to persevere in the faith (“abide in him”) so that when Christ appears we may have confidence. Conversely, if we do not persevere in the faith, we will experience shame. That John is now speaking of perseverance in terms of right conduct is evident from verse 29: “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” In the previous passage John emphasized right belief. Now he wants to emphasize right behavior.

But the situation is just as urgent as it was in 2:18-27. There John wanted his readers to be aware of the deceptive lies of apostasy because it is now “the final hour.” Now, because it is the final hour of human history, John reminds his readers that Jesus could appear at any moment. This passage has much to say about the return of Jesus to the earth. When John talks about the “appearing” or the “coming” of Jesus, he uses a word that is often found in reference to the visit of a ruler or emperor to some part of his domain. Even today, people turn out in great numbers to see the rulers of the world. That’s the kind of atmosphere conveyed by this word.

The text literally reads, “abide in him, so that if he should appear we may have confidence.” What is in question is not the fact of his return but the timing of it. It’s like saying “you need an umbrella for if it rains.” One day you will need the umbrella. And you might need it today, so don’t wait to get one. John is telling us how urgent it is that we abide in him. If he should return today, and he might (the storm clouds are hovering), we will have confidence only if we are abiding in him. Whether we face him with confidence or shrink from him in shame will depend upon whether or not we are abiding in him when he returns.

For John, the fact that Jesus may return at any moment is the reason why he can say that it is now “the last hour” (1 John 2:18). But what John means by the “appearing” or the “coming” of the Lord is what the Old Testament described as “the day of the Lord.” And that day is equally glorious and dreadful. For those who are in fellowship with God, it is right for us to long for his nearer presence. But those who are not in fellowship with God, the return of Christ is not so great. Listen to the words of the Old Testament prophet, Amos:

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (Amos 5:18-20)

Christ’s return will be either our greatest joy or our greatest shame, depending on whether or not he finds us abiding in him when he comes. Again John gives two possibilities. Those who are persevering will have “confidence.” This refers to assurance and certainty of deliverance. Those who persevere will experience fearlessness in the presence of God, knowing that they have been reconciled to him. Those who do not persevere will experience shame.  And it’s not just psychological feelings at stake here. This shame may refer to being shamed by Christ by his forceful rejection of the one who does not abide in him. This fits with what Jesus said in John 15:7: “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

So this is a serious warning indeed, and one that we must pay careful attention to. Don’t confuse your feelings now for what John says your feelings will be when Christ returns. Just because you don’t feel shame right now does not necessarily indicate that you won’t feel it then. It’s easy to be bold when you do not sense any danger. But just because you don’t sense the danger doesn’t mean it is not there.

Perseverance in right conduct is a result of (and made possible only by) the new birth

So John exhorts his readers to persevere, to “abide in” Christ because at any moment Christ may appear and for those who are not abiding in Christ, his appearing will be their shame. So what then is the connection between verse 28 and verse 29?

First of all, in verse 29 John makes it clear that to abide in Christ cannot mean only to hold on to the theological truth of who Christ is. Right belief must manifest itself in right action. If we know as a fact that God is righteous, then the logical consequence of the fact is that when he returns he will expect righteousness.

But more importantly, we learn that those who “practice righteousness” do so because they have “been born of” God. Lest we think that we can achieve this righteousness that God demands on our own, John wants to remind us from where true righteousness originates. It comes from the new birth.

So we learn that only those who experience the new birth are capable of “practicing righteousness.” John is not suggesting that the apparent good works of unbelieving people justifies them before God. John’s concern is that faith without works of righteousness is a sign that such a person is not born of God. We have not really believed if we do not behave righteously.

But those who have experienced the new birth have been radically changed. When John brings up the new birth in verse 29 for the first time in his letter, it causes him to reflect a bit more on the significance of it. If we are going to abide in Christ, if we are going to practice righteousness, it will come as a result of something magnificent that has happened to us.

So in the first three verses of chapter three, John points out at least six things that are true of everyone who has been born of God. The first three verses of chapter three form a parenthesis to John’s expectation of righteous behavior. He will pick up in verse four where he left off at the end of chapter two.

1. Our relationship with God is a result of God’s lavish love.

The first thing we might note is how amazing it is that God would make us his children. Don’t take it for granted that God has done this. We should be amazed at what God has done.

So verse one says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us.” With the word see John is commanding us to stop and to take notice: God’s love is so great, so magnificent, that it is hard to even describe it in words. The NIV translates, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us.” The word that John uses here to marvel at God’s love comes from a word that was often rendered “of what country?” In other words, the only way John can describe God’s love is by saying that it is otherworldly. God’s love in making us his children is completely unknown to mankind outside of God.

Think with me about this for a moment: God making us his children is an act distinct from God justifying or regenerating us. God could have forgiven our sins and removed our legal guilt without making us his children. But he took the added step of not only getting us right with his law but also adding us to his family.[1] Now that is amazing love!

Our position as children of God is due to God’s initiative and not ours. It is due solely to God’s love toward us who were unlovely. So, it is no small thing to be called a child of God. Not everyone gets that title. Here’s how John outlines it in his gospel (John 1:11-13):

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

One of our core competencies is “Identity in Christ.” The creed says, “I believe I am significant because of my position as a child of God.” What I want to remind us all is that you cannot make yourself a child of God; only God can make someone a child of God. Your significance as a child of God is due to God’s lavish love. We are significant because God has declared us to be so by pouring out such amazing love upon us. With John let us stop and see and ponder how magnificent is God’s love toward us who have been called his children.

2. Our position as God’s children is a reality.

But John goes further. Not only are we “called” children of God; we really are God’s children. This emphasis he makes in verse 1: “see what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. This point is also brought out in verse 2: “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”

This feature of the new birth is a major reason why I believe in the perseverance of the saints. Those who have been born of God have become God’s children now. It is certainly an intended extension of the language of “new birth” to conclude that those who have become God’s children possess a new nature that is permanent. Something has happened to them over which they had no control. Those of us who have been born anew have experienced the lavishness of God’s love upon us whereby he has made us his children. He calls us his children because that’s what we are. It was God’s intention to make us his children. And it is his intention to keep us his children by enabling us to persevere to the end of our lives. Jesus said of his disciples, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction.” (John 17:12).

Such is the nature of God’s love for you, if you are a child of God. He loved us in spite of our unloveliness. He set his love on us and has radically changed us.

3. Our status as God’s children distinguishes us from the world.

I say God has “radically changed us” because as his children we have become unrecognizable to the world. Verse one concludes: “the reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” John seems to be saying that the effect God’s love has had on us is not only in making us his children but also in making us like him.

So the new birth has forged a dichotomy between those who are “of God” and those who are “of the world.” Some are “the children of God;” others are “the children of the devil” (1 Jn 3:10). Our status as God’s children distinguishes us from the world. We now have a different father.

And because the world does not know our Father, they also do not know us. The world does not “know” God or us in that they cannot comprehend either. The righteous ways of God and his children will raise the animosity of an evil world. John says a little later, “Do not be surprised that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). Cain killed his brother Abel because “his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12). Jesus himself predicted this: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).

This animosity between the world and the child of God is another sort of “test” of our fellowship with God. Those who are born of God will face the hostility of the world. We can expect to be treated similarly to the way Jesus was treated. If we experience this hostility it adds to our assurance. Fellowship with God puts us out of fellowship with the world that opposes God.

4. Our formation as God’s children is not yet complete.

John has reminded us that because of God’s lavish love we who are born again have become God’s children. We are not just called children of God; we really are God’s children. One proof of that is the animosity that now exists between us and those who are not his children. But if I really am God’s child, why is there so much of me that doesn’t resemble him?

In verse two John writes that although we are God’s children now, “what we will be has not yet appeared.” In other words, although our status as God’s children is a present reality, we have not yet experienced completeness as God’s children. God has initiated real change in making us his children, but he has not finished his work in us. We really are God’s children now, but there is still so much more to come.

I don’t think John is saying that we don’t know what we will be but simply that what we will be is not yet a present reality. Our future experience depends upon his future return. What we will be will appear when he appears.

Final salvation is not experienced until Christ returns. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor 15:22-23). What those verses describe is the resurrection of the body to be united with the soul. “Then comes the end” the next verse says (1 Cor 15:24). So it is the return of Christ that all Christians are waiting for, even those Christians who have passed on from this life in death. They, too, are eagerly awaiting the return of Christ in order to experience final salvation (Rev 6:9-11). Only then will we experience the fullness of what it means to be a child of God.

5. Our expectation as God’s children is to become like him.

But we do know what the ultimate goal of our salvation is. Our great expectation as God’s children is that we “shall be like him.” Paul said in Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” This has always been the goal of God’s redemptive work, to make us like Christ. This is why we had to be “born again.” We cannot be like him unless we have his nature imparted to us.

But what does it mean to be “like him”? John does not tell us exactly. Some of the early church fathers called this becoming like God “deification.” But they did not mean with that word that we would become God ourselves. They meant that we come to share personally in the communion that exists between the persons of the Trinity.[2] And this understanding makes perfect sense in John’s letter where he has been emphasizing the joy of entering into eternal fellowship with God.

This eternal fellowship with God will be ours when he appears because then “we shall see him as he is.” As Moses was radically changed by seeing God, so we will be changed when we catch a glimpse of Jesus as he really is.  

6. Our response as God’s children is to imitate him.

There is one more observation I wish to make about the new birth. John says that at the appearing of Jesus we will be made like him. Then in verse three he makes this astounding statement: “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

Let’s see if we can follow John’s thought here. He is saying that those who are born of God have a new nature inside them that sets them apart from the world. And he is saying that the new birth has not yet brought about its final results, namely, making us like Christ in that we enjoy the endless, sinless communion with God that he enjoys. Then he says that when Christ appears we will receive the final results of our salvation because we will see Jesus as he really is and will forever be changed by what we see.

So what then does he mean in verse three, when he says that “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure”? I think the answer is indicated by those final four words: “as he is pure.” That’s the connection to verse two, where our final salvation is achieved by seeing him “as he is.” We will miss the entire force of this passage if we don’t follow John’s assumption here, namely, that those who are born of God and have his nature will yearn to become just like Jesus. And knowing that the only way we will become like Jesus is by seeing him, we, who have this hope of becoming like him, will now be purifying ourselves in order to become just like he is pure.

In other words, those who are born again are the kind of people who are moving toward perfection, though they will not be there until Christ appears. Conversely, those who are not God’s children are moving away from the purity of Christ.

But remember that the way to become like Christ, according to the implication of verse two, is by seeing him. When John talks about “purifying” in verse three he comes at it another way. The meaning of the word “purify” in the Bible is to cleanse and so make acceptable for religious use. One commentator notes: “Although John has just told us that seeing Jesus will make us like him, it is also true that the condition for seeing Jesus is that we should be morally fit to come into his presence.”[3]

So what John is saying is that those who have this hope in Jesus, the hope that his appearing will be our final salvation as we become like him, will follow the typical Christian behavior of striving to become like him now by striving to see him. That’s what perseverance is all about. It’s about wanting to become like Christ and so striving to see him and to know him. And all of that becomes a sort of “prerequisite” to seeing him on that final day as one of his children.

In closing I remind us all that our only hope of seeing Jesus now is by looking where he has revealed himself. We ignore the disciplines of Bible study, prayer, service to others, and Christian community to our peril. Let us take up these disciplines and the others so that we might catch a glimpse of Jesus and there find the full and everlasting joy of communion with him.


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[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 738.

[2] Donald Fairbairn, “Patristic Soteriology: Three Trajectories,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50, no. 2 (2007): 293.

[3] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 173.

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