Pristine Grace

What is John Getting At?
1 John 3:4-10
by David Bishop

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous. - 1 John 3:4-10

     Earlier in his first letter, John tells us that anyone who says they have no sin is a liar and the truth is not in them. In the second chapter he tells us that we know that we have come to know Christ if we keep His commandments. Here in the third chapter he tells us that anyone who is born of God cannot sin. What is John getting at?

     To answer this question, John draws a comparison between Cain and the one who practices sin. Cain sought to establish himself in righteousness by the work of his own hands. God had demanded the offering of a blood sacrifice. This sacrifice did not redeem, but it did typify the blood sacrifice Christ offered to God on behalf of His elect. Cain’s brother, Abel, offered a blood sacrifice in this respect from the first fruit of his flock. This showed that he understood his need for Christ’s sacrifice. Cain though, offered some vegetables he had managed to grow with much toil and sweat.

     The Scriptures tell us that God had no regard for the work of Cain’s hands, and this angered Cain. It angered him also that Abel would not take his side against God. So Cain rose up against his brother Abel and murdered him while they were in the field.

     The only righteousness God accepts is Christ’s sacrifice. To practice this righteousness is to rest from all our works of righteousness and rest in His sacrifice alone for righteousness. This is what Abel did, but not what Cain did. Cain had no regard for Christ’s sacrifice, because he did have regard for the sacrifice of the work of his own toil and sweat instead.

     Self righteous people think of righteousness the same way Cain did, so they read passages like 1 John 3 with respect to their performance. They think outward morality, the work of their own toil and sweat, is righteousness. They think God is unjust not to accept their work. This self righteous way of looking at works trains these folks to assume that the sin John is talking about is poor outward morality.

     Self righteousness is the sin John is talking about though. Self righteousness was Cain’s sin. Everyone who practices self righteousness practices lawlessness. This sounds like a contradiction to the ears of the self righteous, because if anything they think they have more law rather than none. This is why self righteousness is so deceptive though. It sounds right to the natural man, but the end thereof is the way of death.

     The holy law’s standard of righteousness is absolute perfection. We cannot satisfy this standard. No man can, self righteous or not. No man can keep the law perfectly. This leaves the self righteous man without a place to rest from his works.

     Anyone who looks to their performance for righteousness is lawless. They are lawless, because they are living by a law that is not God’s law. God has no regard for any other law than His own. The man without a place to rest sets up his own law in opposition to God’s. This is why he is lawless. God’s law demands perfection, but no one can perfectly obey. The self righteous man knows this, so like Cain, he sets up another standard that he can obey, and this he calls righteousness.

     Those who rest in Christ’s sacrifice alone for righteousness are not lawless, but nor are they legalists. They rest for righteousness in the Christ whose sacrifice has fully and forever satisfied the perfect standard of God’s law. They do not look for righteousness in themselves and their futile attempts to obey the law.