“Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.”
– John the Elder (1st John 3:7b)
At first glance, this appears to be an unnecessary axiom. Yeah, if someone practices righteousness…they are righteous. Did we really need John to explain this to us? This is a short epistle, after all, not a lengthy discourse like Romans – and yet even Romans packs deep theology into every verse.
Of course, ultimately, God wrote this – so yeah this needed to be said.
If that is the case, what is really being said here?
If we look at the surrounding text, we see that John is talking about some heavy things. He is talking about what makes a person a child of God – and therefore an inheritor of eternal life, and what makes a person a child of the Devil – and therefore an inheritor of eternal punishment. Serious stuff indeed.
John sums it up in verse 10:
By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
So what is righteousness, and how do we know if we’re practicing it?
Many would say that righteousness is just being righteous – that is perfect and without sin. But this can’t be true for a number of reasons:
- John himself in this same epistle said that even Christians sin and need to continually ask for and receive forgiveness (1st Jn 1:8-10).
- It is logically inconsistent with the verse – if practicing righteousness is being righteous, then why is this distinction necessary?
There must be a different, more perfect, answer.
Matthew Henry, writing his commentary in the 17th century writes:
It may appear that righteousness may in several places of scripture be justly rendered religion, as Mt. 5:10 , Blessed are those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, that is, for religion’s sake; 1 Pt. 3:14 , But if you suffer for righteousness’ sake (religion’s sake) happy are you; and 2 Tim. 3:16 , All scripture, or the whole scripture, is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine—and for instruction in righteousness, that is, in the nature and branches of religion. To do righteousness then, especially being set in opposition to the doing, committing, or practising, of sin, is to practise religion. Now he who practiseth religion is righteous; he is the righteous person on all accounts; he is sincere and upright before God. The practice of religion cannot subsist without a principle of integrity and conscience. He has that righteousness which consists in pardon of sin and right to life, founded upon the imputation of the Mediator’s righteousness. He has a title to the crown of righteousness, which the righteous Judge will give, according to his covenant and promise, to those that love his appearing, 2 Tim. 4:8 . He has communion with Christ, in conformity to the divine law, being in some measure practically righteous as he; and he has communion with him in the justified state, being now relatively righteous together with him.
– Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, 1st John 3:4-10
In other words, practicing righteousness is practicing the Christian religion – and the Christian religion is running away from sin and running to God. It is the reverse of the Fall, where humans chose to reject God and His wisdom and run towards sin and destruction.
So practicing righteousness, then, cannot be the state of being righteous itself, because a righteous person would already be completely in God, that is perfect and having no need to confess his sins leading to forgiveness and cleansing, as in John 1:9. Rather, the practicing of righteousness is the duty of the Christian who, while saved, is still bound in the sinful World and remains under its influence. The Christian who is truly a child of God makes a practice of running from his or her sin, when they become aware of it, towards God for the forgiveness and cleansing mentioned in 1st John 1:9.
This is very encouraging, because it means that those of us who struggle against sin – those of us who fall into its trap countless times but fall on our face begging in tears for another chance from God – are righteous!
Going back to Matthew Henry above, he states that because we practice righteousness, or religion, or repentance, we show that we’ve been adopted by God and belong to His family. We show through this that we have been declared righteous through the bloody work of Jesus Christ – the only human who was ever truly righteous of His own merit – and have become “relatively righteous” as Matthew Henry puts it.
Here, now, we see the point of this verse from God to us through John the Elder. God is saying to us, “How do you know if you are mine? Do you hate sin? Does it make you sick? Do you revile your sin, and run to me each time you partake? Do you pray in tears that it be taken away, that you would be free? Then you are mine.”
This is because the natural man will not do this. The natural man who is dead in his sins and a child of the Devil will not repent. He will not run from his sin, on the contrary, he revels in it and is happy to be its captive and far from God.
John the Elder further explains why Christians are different in verse 9:
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.
Here we see the direct comparison between practicing righteousness and practicing sinning. These two are incompatible. One is either running away from sin towards God or is running from God towards sin. There is a difference between turning aside to sin for a moment or even a season and running toward it to embrace it as a friend, to embrace it as your dwelling place, your god.
We also see here that the inclination of the Christian away from sin towards God is not self-motivated, but results from the new creation. The seed of God, that is the Word or the Holy Spirit, has been implanted into the Christian, and holds him back from being who he once was. Matthew Henry puts it this way:
From the connection between regeneration and the relinquishment of sin: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin. To be born of God is to be inwardly renewed, and restored to a holy integrity or rectitude of nature by the power of the Spirit of God. Such a one committeth not sin, does not work iniquity nor practise disobedience, which is contrary to his new nature and the regenerate complexion of his spirit; for, as the apostle adds, his seed remaineth in him, either the word of God in its light and power remaineth in him (as 1 Pt. 1:23 , Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever), or, that which is born of the Spirit is spirit; the spiritual seminal principle of holiness remaineth in him. Renewing grace is an abiding principle. Religion, in the spring of it, is not an art, an acquired dexterity and skill, but a new nature. And thereupon the consequence is the regenerate person cannot sin. That he cannot commit an act of sin, I suppose no judicious interpreter understands. This would be contrary to ch. 1:9 , where it is made our duty to confess our sins, and supposed that our privilege thereupon is to have our sins forgiven. He therefore cannot sin, in the sense in which the apostle says, he cannot commit sin. He cannot continue in the course and practice of sin. He cannot so sin as to denominate him a sinner in opposition to a saint or servant of God. Again, he cannot sin comparatively, as he did before he was born of God, and as others do that are not so. And the reason is because he is born of God, which will amount to all this inhibition and impediment.
1. There is a light in his mind which shows him the evil and malignity of sin. There is that bias upon his heart which disposes him to loathe and hate sin.
3. There is the spiritual seminal principle or disposition, that breaks the force and fulness of the sinful acts. They proceed not from such plenary power of corruption as they do in others, nor obtain that plenitude of heart, spirit, and consent, which they do in others. The spirit lusteth against the flesh. And therefore in respect to such sin it may be said, It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. It is not reckoned the person’s sin, in the gospel account, where the bent and frame of the mind and spirit are against it.
Then, 4. There is a disposition for humiliation and repentance for sin, when it has been committed. He that is born of God cannot sin. Here we may call to mind the usual distinction of natural and moral impotency. The unregenerate person is morally unable for what is religiously good. The regenerate person is happily disabled for sin. There is a restraint, an embargo (as we may say), laid upon his sinning powers. It goes against him sedately and deliberately to sin. We usually say of a person of known integrity, “He cannot lie, he cannot cheat, and commit other enormities.’’ How can I commit this great wickedness, and sin against God! Gen. 39:9. And so those who persist in a sinful life sufficiently demonstrate that they are not born of God.
Note that in Matthew Henry’s first point, he mentions that the new creation will have a “bias or disposition” against sinning. This, again, is evidence of God reversing the Fall in His children. After the Fall, humans gained a “sinful nature,” that is, we gained a bias or disposition FOR sinning. This is why John the Elder says that the children of the Devil don’t practice righteousness and why they hate the brothers, or as Matthew Henry writes:
As elsewhere sinners and saints are distinguished (though even saints are sinners largely so called), so to commit sin is here so to practise it as sinners do, that are distinguished from saints, to live under the power and dominion of it; and he who does so is of the devil; his sinful nature is inspired by, and agreeable and pleasing to, the devil; and he belongs to the party, and interest, and kingdom of the devil. It is he that is the author and patron of sin, and has been a practitioner of it, a tempter and instigator to it, even from the beginning of the world…The unregenerate person is morally unable for what is religiously good. The regenerate person is happily disabled for sin.
Unregenerate people don’t seek God or want God. All they want is their sin (whatever that person’s sinful tastes may be) all the time. This is why, in Romans 1, the Apostle Paul informs us that all of humanity is guilty before God. Not because humans make mistakes and occasionally sin (though this would be grounds enough) but because humans are totally affected by a sinful nature and are both happy to be sinners and encourage other humans to sin more and more.
Therefore John’s whole argument in Chapter 3 is that with the children of God it is not so. The child of God doesn’t practice sin and can’t go on living in sin because God has transformed him by the power of the death and resurrection of His Son and the child has passed from death to life. His nature has changed and he is now bent toward God rather than away from Him. Even if he should come to a difficult time and be frustrated with God for a season, the child of God finds that he cannot live apart from his Father for long and returns to His side again and again, even in tears and trembling, because he finds that he is only truly happy when abiding in His love.
Life can be difficult for the Christian, but don’t be deceived. If someone says they have no sin, they lie and the truth is not in them. But if you do sin, you have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. If you confess your sins, God is faithful and just to forgive you and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. If you are confessing your sins, you are practicing religion. If you are practicing religion, then you are practicing righteousness. And if you practice righteousness, then God has declared that you are righteous! So take heart, dear child of God, for that is what you are!