1 John 2:28-3:3

We return to our series of sermons in 1 John having completed John’s first rendition of the three tests of authentic Christian faith: the moral test (does he or she obey the commandments of God), the doctrinal test (does he or she confess Jesus as the incarnate Son of God), and the social test (does the professing Christian love his or her brothers and sisters in the Lord). All of this material will be repeated and elaborated in the remainder of the letter. Indeed, the verses we have read this morning amount to the beginning of another account of the moral test, with new reasons attached.

Text Comment

I know that this way of speaking has virtually disappeared in evangelical and Reformed preaching in our time, but it is found frequently in the Bible and, especially, in the New Testament. What John says is that we must apply ourselves to holiness of life lest we be found wanting at the Day of Judgment. How does this comport with justification by faith, it is asked, or with the immutable love of God for his people, it is asked; how can we reconcile such a statement with the oft-made promise of the perseverance of the saints it is asked. And rather than work out a fully biblical answer to those questions, statements like these in 1 John 2:28 are simply ignored. Paul might have said that he beat his body and brought it into submission lest having preached to others he himself be disqualified for the prize, but somehow believers are left to think that we should not think similar thoughts. Surely this is a great mistake and a failure to take Holy Scripture seriously. What John has described for us is the attitude of a truly Christian heart and of a devout mind. That heart, that mind does not take salvation or the last Judgment for granted; it does not ignore or minimize the Bible’s repeated assertion that the people of God are and will always be those who love the law of God and strive to obey it. That heart does not quibble at but rejoices in the fact that the distinction between the saved and the lost lies not only in the forgiveness of the former and the unremoved guilt of the latter, but in the righteous living of the former and the sinfulness of the latter. More on this next Lord’s Day, Lord willing.
In most cases where the NIV and the ESV differ in translation it is my experience that the ESV is to be preferred. That is the primary reason we switched Bibles some time ago here at Faith Presbyterian Church. But here is an instance in which the NIV is, I think, superior. It reads “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God.” The ESV is more prosaic. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God.” Now there is no verb “lavish” in v. 1. It is, in fact, the word “give.” It is the adjective translated “what kind of” in the ESV that is the issue. It certainly means “what kind of,” but if you consult the standard lexicons or dictionaries of NT Greek you will read that the context sometimes requires a translation such as “how great,” “how wonderful,” or “how glorious.” [BAG, 701]  This is clearly such a context. That’s where the NIV’s “lavish” comes from, the adjective not the verb. John is obviously saying that it is a stupendous thing that we should be called the children of God himself and the translation in the NIV reflects that sense better than does the rather colorless translation of the ESV. One commentator speaks of John as here describing “the marvel of the Father’s love.” [Yarbrough, 174]

It is a fact of life that we have learned to take for granted that children and even grandchildren bear a resemblance to their parents and grandparents. In our family it was always the expressed hope that our children would bear a greater resemblance to their mother than to their father. Much as it would hurt my feelings my children would speak aloud of the great misfortune it would be if their children were to inherit my eyebrows or my nose! But like it or not, there will be, as we say, a family resemblance.

When our daughter Bryonie was four years of age, our family, there were five of us then not the seven we would eventually become, spent half a year in the Netherlands. And during those months we paid a short visit to Scotland, and to Aberdeen, where Florence and I had spent three very happy and fruitful years when I was doing graduate work at the University there. We planned our trip so that we could be in Aberdeen over a Lord’s Day and attend the church where we had worshipped for those three years and which had so warmly welcomed us into its fellowship. The pastor during our time in Aberdeen, William Still, was still the pastor of the congregation. He was in his seventies then, but still hale and hearty. He had never seen any of our children and it was an honor for us to introduce them to him. I can see the scene as if it were yesterday. He stooped down, that bald-headed old man – a great man and a great minister of the Word – and he took Bryonie’s head in his hands, stared intently into her eyes, and studied her features. “Aye. I can see your daddy there. Can I see your mummy? Yes, I must be able to see your mummy too; what a bonnie lass!”

It is this fact of family resemblance that John trades on in these beautiful verses. As it is true in physical appearance that children resemble their parents, so it is true in spiritual appearance. That is, in the moral quality or character of a person’s life he or she will also resemble the parent. Jesus, remember, in John 8, said that the Devil was the true and ultimate father of unbelievers and that they are liars because he was. But this family resemblance is supremely so for Christians, who have God for their Father and Jesus for their elder brother. There is, there must be a family resemblance.

John makes that point in v. 29 when he says that you can tell that a person has God for his father by the righteous life he lives because that righteousness is a family resemblance. You can tell that she was born of God because in her way of life she bears resemblance to her heavenly Father. There is, of course, an unspoken but inevitable assumption here: there is but one righteous life, one truly virtuous kind of living. That is how you can trace the righteousness of a child’s life back to the life of the parent. It is a distinctive family trait: when you see it in the children you can recognize it as the family resemblance. John is going to say more about that righteousness in the next paragraph. It consists of obedience to the Law of God. So sentimental views of human goodness abroad in our culture today do not count. That is not what righteous living is: being good as people nowadays are wont to consider goodness. Righteousness is living in conformity to the Law of God, nothing less. And the one who lives in that way, in obedience to God’s commandments, bears a family resemblance to his heavenly father. You can prove in that way that a person has been, as we read at the end of v. 29, born of God. Indeed, so close is the family resemblance and so tightly connected are the children to the Father that John can say in 3:1 that the reason the world doesn’t know us, that is, doesn’t recognize us for who we are and where we are going, is because it doesn’t know him, that is the Father. You can’t detect a family resemblance if you don’t know both generations! If the Christians to whom John was writing wondered how there could be a schism in the family of God, as there had been in their church family because of the departure of the false teachers, the answer, blunt as it is, is that the false teachers and their followers didn’t know God, were not like him, and so were not part of his family. That fact eventually made itself clear. There was no family resemblance which, in turn, proved at last that there was no family connection.

John makes a similar point again in v. 2 of chapter 3. When our salvation is complete, when we are finally in heaven, John says, we will be completely like the Lord Jesus Christ. The very act of opening our eyes on the exalted Lord Jesus, our elder brother, the very fact that we are enveloped by the glory of God our Father, will complete the process of our transformation. And when it is done we shall belong to God’s family and bear his resemblance perfectly and in every way. We are now growing more and more to resemble our heavenly Father and our elder brother, and one day that process will be complete and we will be as much like God as a mere human being can be. What a thought!

And, then, in v. 3 he makes that hope the basis of our obligation to live today as much like God and Christ as we possibly can, or, in other words, to be true to our family’s spiritual culture, our family’s moral commitments, our family’s loves and hatreds, all of which, of course, come from the head of the house, our heavenly Father.

I realize, of course, that all the more in our day the image of a loving home and of a healthy, happy, and altogether positive relationship between parents and children is problematic for many. They did not grow up in such families. Their relationship with their parents was troubled, difficult, in some cases even horrific. They don’t want to be like their parents and find it somewhat more difficult to appreciate John’s way of speaking here. When you were beaten by your father or abandoned or otherwise abused by him, the image of imitating him, of striving to be like him is repugnant, not attractive. When your father was absent and indifferent to you, John’s likening the spiritual experience of a Christian to belonging to a family is not immediately helpful and does not evoke the positive associations that it does for others. I grew up in a happy family. My father was a faithful man whom I admired greatly. I always wanted to be like him. John’s pointing out the likeness of a son to his father is a very attractive comparison or argument to me. But I know it is not nearly as accessible to others as it is to me.

But it must become so. And here is why. As John puts it in 3:1 our adoption into the family of God, our becoming the children of God, as the theologian John Murray once put it, is “the apex [the summit, the highest point] of redemptive grace and privilege.” [Collected Writings, ii, 233] God could, of course, have forgiven our sins and then from that point kept us at a certain distance. We would be very grateful for the gift of eternal life, to be sure, but we would remain God’s servants. We would worship him, as it were, from afar. There would be nothing wrong with that. It has been in the past sometimes the great privilege of a people to have had a king that they loved and admired and to offer service to whom they considered it high privilege, even though they never met the king personally. They sometimes gladly gave their lives for their king, whom they loved but whom they had never met. They certainly were not and did not become the king’s sons or daughters; they were his people, not his children.

But that is not what God has done. He has not saved us to be simply his servants or the citizens of his kingdom. He has brought us into his family and made us his children. He did not do that for the angels. Perfect and worthy creatures that they are, they are not his children. They do not come as close to God’s heart as we do and will forever. John tells us in v. 1 that if we want fully to understand and appreciate the greatness of God’s love for us and the full nature of our salvation, we need to reckon with the fact that the heavenly Father made us his children!

J.I. Packer writes this. “What is a Christian? The question can be answered in many ways, but the richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who had God for his Father.” [Knowing God, 181] And accordingly, sonship or childhood is one of the richest ways of describing the Christian life. It is a life lived in the family of God as the children of our heavenly Father. To be God’s child says so much about what salvation is and what it means. When God adopts a boy or girl, a son or daughter into his family – for no one is a Christian merely by physical descent but only by the adoption of grace – he grants both the right and the privilege of belonging to the family and a nature or disposition that is agreeable to life within that family. The change of nature, the forgiveness of sins, the transformation of life, all that salvation means is summed up in this reality of sonship, that we have become the children of God, God has become our Father and Christ has become our brother.

Everything changes when one becomes God’s child, everything about you changes: your  commitments, your relationships, your aspirations, your behavior, your pleasures, your standards. They all change because you belong to a different family. Sonship was a controlling feature of the theology of John Calvin. But that would have surprised those who knew him before he became a follower of Christ. As a young man his nickname among his classmates was “the accusative case.” He had a reputation for an acid temper and a critical spirit. But he came to think that belonging to the family of God – that warm and loving fellowship – was the sum and substance of salvation. For Calvin, you do not know God unless you know his Fatherly love. [Ferguson, “The Reformed Doctrine of Sonship,” Pulpit and People, 82]  Being in the family profoundly changed Calvin’s view both of God and himself.

Theological Liberalism in Christianity over the past 200 years or so diminished our appreciation of the wonder of the family nature of God’s salvation with its teaching of the universal fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man. If God is everyone’s father, then there can be nothing very special about his being my father or yours. If he is the father of the one who doesn’t believe in Jesus as he is the father of the one who does, what difference does his fatherhood make? In the same way, if everyone is my brother, then belonging to the Christian family is little more than a subset of belonging to the human race. As a result, the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man became biblical themes evangelicals shied away from because of their association with teaching that denied the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ.

But the fact is, in the Bible God, if he is everyone’s father in the sense of being everyone’s maker, is not the father of all men in the richer sense of fatherly and family love, and all men are not brothers, at least not brothers in the deep, rich sense in which Christians are siblings in the same family. Rather, in the Bible the fatherhood of God and the sonship of the believer is a persistent feature in which the Scripture distinguishes us from other people. In the OT Israel was God’s son or child, but the pagan nations were not. She alone was chosen to belong to God’s family. And in the NT it is the same. In one of the most programmatic texts in all of the NT Paul tells us that the grace of God is transforming us into the likeness of Jesus Christ so that he might be the firstborn of many brothers (Rom. 8:29). Christ is saving us for his family. We are already sons of God – that is very clear – but even now, as J.B. Phillips’ translation of Romans 8:19 has it, the creation “stands on tiptoe” waiting to see the sons of God “come into their own.” The process of sanctification is simply the reproduction of family likeness; we are becoming more and more like our elder brother who is the express image of the Father. And this reality is made the basis of the Bible’s exhortation to us to live righteous lives for both reasons. In fact, we find both ways here in our text this morning. “God is your father, therefore…” and “You are God’s children, therefore…” [Ferguson, 87]

This is true of every Christian, no matter what your family life may have been, how happy or how sad. It is the essential truth for every Christian. You have been chosen by love to enter God’s family; you have the first person of the Godhead for your father and the second for your brother. This is extraordinary. You have been adopted into the circle of a family dominated by the love of its father for his children, the same mighty love and pure affection which the Father has had for his Son from eternity past. If you don’t understand and appreciate this, you cannot get God’s grace, the wonder of it, the stupendous character of it.

John Cotton, early pilgrim to New England, in his commentary on First John, wrote this about John’s statement in 3:1 “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God.”

“This reproves men’s squint looking. They do not look at God’s love, but at themselves and at their own corruptions and affections.”

In other words they are seeing too little. This doctrine of God’s great love for us, so great that he made us his children, is designed to correct our spiritual squint. It helps us to see things more clearly; it opens our eyes to see more than often we do. Yes, as John says in v. 2, what we will be has most definitely not yet appeared. Our living, our righteousness, true as it is, do not yet identify us as the children of God nearly as effectively as we wish they would. But God has made us his children, given us his nature, and promised in time not only to call us home, but to make us perfectly suited to the life of such a family, such a home as God has made ours to be.

A few of you were at Fred John’s service a few weeks ago. In my remarks I read a passage that I have always loved from Sheldon Vanauken’s great book, A Severe Mercy. It is in fact from the first few pages of the book. To set the scene, Vanauken, now a Christian, now a widower though only in his 30s, pays a quiet, unseen visit to the home of his youth. It is night, no one is about. He drives along the country lane that leads to the gates of what was formerly his family estate, Glenmerle. The house was some distance from the road, up a hill and hidden behind trees. He parked his car and walked up the lane.

“At length he came to a sturdy wooden bridge. Here, long ago, he had said goodbye to his brother and Davy [Davy was later to be his wife who would die shortly after both of them became Christians while studying in England] – Davy laughing with sunbeams filtering through the trees upon her brown hair – when he left to join the fleet. … The real farewell, not even dreamt of then, had been farewell to Glenmerle; for in the war years that were approaching, his youthful vigorous father had died and the estate had had to go. Now, more than a decade later, he stood again upon the old bridge; and Davy, unbelievably – especially here – was dead too. And Glenmerle, unchanged as far as he could see…lay serene and lovely under the moon.

He pictured the interior of the house as he had known it: the drawing-room with his mother half-reclining on the graceful old Duncan Phyfe sofa, the carved Chippendale chair that a great-aunt had brought from England, the oriental rugs glowing on the floor, the white columns of the mantelpiece. Past the fireplace, at the other end of the long room where the door opened into the study, was the piano: he could see his mother seated there with her auburn hair piled high on her head and hear her clear soprano voice singing the light-opera songs she loved. Or he might glance out a window and see her in the flower-garden cutting flowers or conferring with the ancient gardener.

…Through the study door, sitting under the ‘gothic’ lamp with its strange leaded shade, would be his father in the deep leather chair with books and pipes all around… Other images of his father came into his mind: his father with a book… or his father and himself out with the guns on a frosty morning…

Other people came and went through his mind, the aunts and cousins who had stayed at Glenmerle. The house was always merry with people.

From where he stood he could see the windows of his father’s room as well as his mother’s, and he felt a surge of gratitude to them both, just for being what they were.

Glenmerle, he thought, had been a place to come home to, home from Kentucky or Florida or England, home from schools and home from college. He pictured coming home from boarding school, perhaps for the Christmas holidays, perhaps with snow all about – the woods full of snow. It would be winter dusk with the big blue spruce a-twinkle with tiny white lights like stars, the big car sweeping up the hill to the house. Then his mother’s cries of welcome and her kiss, his father’s handshake, and his brother grinning in the background. And of course, as always, the cheery fire in the drawing – room, and through the French doors the dining-room alight with preparations. Upstairs, waiting, would be his own room, just as he had left it. Heaven itself, he thought, would be – must be – a coming home.” [11-19]

Some of you listen to that and think of your own happy families and the pleasure it is to remember your childhood in your parents’ home. I do; perhaps that is why I love that passage so much. Others, I know, are perhaps thinking how much you wish your childhood had been as that man’s and your family home as welcoming and warm, as beautiful and full of love, as chock full of happy memories as his had been. But one way or the other, it is perfectly clear that family love and the warmth and happiness of a cherished home are among the Bible’s supreme images of salvation and of the life of heaven. What did our Savior say: “In my father’s house are many rooms; I go to prepare a place for you! So that where I am you may be also.” What memories we will accumulate through endless years of life in that grandest of all houses and homes!

For in the final analysis, even such a lovely picture of a happy childhood and a much loved home as Shelden Vanauken paints for us can only serve us as an image, a metaphor of this far greater family life, this far more precious childhood and sonship, and this infinitely more beautiful home that is ours because God has so loved us that he didn’t simply take away our sins, he made us his children. I heard recently, by the grapevine, that it is possible that my childhood home, a home around which for me swirl so many happy and beautiful memories, irreplaceable memories, is perhaps to be torn down and something else built in its place. Such is the life of this world even at its very best. It ends; it must.

But the Lord has not conferred on us a family life or a home that must eventually end or decay to ruins. Because we are God’s children what we are, truly are and always will be, has not yet appeared. You have not yet seen the true beauty of your new home, the home of your eternal years. You have not yet laid eyes on the family circle that will be the happy setting of your life forever. You are already the heavenly Father’s child, but you hardly yet know what a marvel it is to be so.

At Leona’s service I recalled for those who were there Walter Hooper’s recollection of an incident near the end of C.S. Lewis’ life. After he had already suffered from a heart attack and coma in July 1963, his health was delicate. One afternoon when he was still convalescing in a local nursing home in Oxford, Lewis woke up from a nap and asked Hooper for a glass of water. As Hooper went to a basin at the side of the bed, Lewis suddenly pulled himself up and stared intently across the room. Hooper saw nothing but felt that Jack must have seen something or someone “very great and beautiful” near at hand, for there was a rapturous expression on his face unlike anything Hooper had seen before. Jack kept on looking, and repeated to himself several times, “Oh, I never imagined, I never imagined.” The joyous expression remained on his features as he fell back onto his pillows and went to sleep. Later on he remembered nothing of this episode, but he said that even speculating about it gave him a “refreshment of the spirit.” [Downing, Most Reluctant Convert, 162-163]

Everyone who has this hope in him, everyone who has this father, who belongs to this family, and has this home to look forward to, purifies himself or herself. Of course they would. And for those of us who are parents, what greater gift could we give our children than such a home and such a family as will represent to them the far greater home and the far more wonderful family that is theirs because God has made them his children. Indeed, I don’t hesitate to say that one of the most important reasons for parents to create a happy, loving, secure, and memorable home life for their children is to teach them what to expect of God’s salvation, to make them appreciate the wonder of God’s fatherly love, and to help them anticipate the splendor of life in the house of the Lord forever. A godly home is a great engine of Christian hope.

Perhaps someday, an old minister whom you love and revere, will say that he can see the family resemblance in your children. But, what is a grander prospect, what is a nobler hope, and what is a more important expectation, is that as they grow up in your home, and as they put on maturity in Jesus Christ, many others may see the family resemblance between them and their heavenly Father. “Like father, like son or like daughter” they will say.

This is what John has told us: there is no greater privilege, no more wonderful aspect of God’s great salvation, than that we, you and I and our children, should find ourselves at home in the Father’s house.