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Bible Commentaries
1 John 3

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This chapter embraces the following subjects:

I. The fact that Christians are now the sons of God, 1 John 3:1-3.

(1)We are the sons of God, and this will explain the reason why the world does not appreciate our character, or understand the reasons of our conduct,1 John 3:1; 1 John 3:1.

(2)The consequences of sustaining that relation to God, or of being regarded as His sons.

(a) We shall be like him when he appears, 1 John 3:2.

(b) We shall purify ourselves under the influence of this hope, 1 John 3:3.

II. The fact that he who is an adopted child of God does not commit sin, 1 John 3:4-10.

(1)All sin is the transgression of the law, 1 John 3:4;

  1. Christ was manifested to take away our sins, 1 John 3:5;

(3)He that commits sin is of the devil, 1 John 3:8; and,

(4)As a matter of fact, he who is of God does not commit sin, 1 John 3:7, 1 John 3:9-10.

III. True religion will be manifested by love to the Christian brotherhood, 1 John 3:10-18.

(1)As a man who is not righteous cannot be a true Christian, neither can he who does not love his brother, 1 John 3:10.

(2)It is the solemn command of the Saviour that his followers should love one another, 1 John 3:11.

(3)The importance of this is seen by the opposite conduct of Cain, 1 John 3:12.

(4)Love to the brethren furnishes the most certain evidence that we have passed from death unto life, 1 John 3:14.

(5)A man who hates another is in fact a murderer, and, of course, cannot be a true child of God, 1 John 3:15.

(6)We should be stimulated to the love of the brethren by the example of the Saviour, who laid down his life for us, 1 John 3:16.

(7)If we see a brother in want, and have the means of aiding him, and do not do it, we cannot have the love of God dwelling in us, 1 John 3:17-18.

IV. We may have evidence that we love God by the consciousness of our feelings toward him, as well as by outward acts toward his friends, 1 John 3:19-21.

V. If we keep His commandments our prayers will be answered, 1 John 3:22-23.

(1)There is an assurance that we shall receive what we need if we ask it, and keep his commandments, 1 John 3:22.

(2)The particular commandments on which the efficacy of prayer so much depends, are:

(a) That we believe on the name of the Saviour, and,

(b) That we love the Christian brotherhood, 1 John 3:23.

VI. We may know that we abide in God by the spirit which he has given us, as well as by keeping his commandments, 1 John 3:24.

This chapter, therefore, is occupied mainly with stating what are the evidences of true piety; and, in order to determine this question, there is perhaps no part of the Bible that may be studied with more profit than this portion of the writings of John.

Verse 1

Behold, what manner of love - What love, in “kind” and in “degree.” In kind the most tender and the most ennobling, in adopting us into His family, and in permitting us to address Him as our Father; in “degree” the most exalted, since there is no higher love that can be shown than in adopting a poor and friendless orphan, and giving him a parent and a home. Even God could bestow upon us no more valuable token of affection than that we should be adopted into His family, and permitted to regard Him as our Father. When we remember how insignificant we are as creatures, and how ungrateful, rebellious, and vile we have been as sinners, we may well be amazed at the love which would adopt us into the holy family of God, so that we may be regarded and treated as the children of the Most High. A prince could manifest no higher love for a wandering, ragged, vicious orphan boy, found in the streets, than by adopting him into his own family, and admitting him to the same privileges and honors as his own sons; and yet this would be a trifle compared with the honor which God has bestowed on us.

The Father hath bestowed upon us - God, regarded as a Father, or as at the head of the universe considered as one family.

That we should be called the sons of God - That is, that we should “be” the sons of God - the word “called” being often used in the sense of “to be.” On the nature and privileges of adoption, see the Romans 8:15-17 notes; 2 Corinthians 6:18 note, and practical remarks on that chapter.

Therefore the world knoweth us not - Does not understand our principles; the reasons of our conduct; the sources of our comforts and joys. The people of the world regard us as fanatics or enthusiasts; as foolish in abandoning the pleasures and pursuits which they engage in; as renouncing certain happiness for that which is uncertain; as cherishing false and delusive hopes in regard to the future, and as practicing needless austerities, with nothing to compensate for the pleasures which are abandoned. There is nothing which the frivolous, the ambitious, and the selfish “less” understand than they do the elements which go into the Christian’s character, and the nature and source of the Christian’s joys.

Because it knew him not - It did not know the Lord Jesus Christ. That is, the world had no right views of the real character of the Lord Jesus when he was on the earth. They mistook him for an enthusiast or an impostor; and it is no wonder that, having wholly mistaken his character, they should mistake ours. On the fact that the world did not know him, see the 1 Corinthians 2:8 note; Acts 3:17 note. Compare John 17:25. On the fact that Christians may be expected to be regarded and treated as their Saviour was, see the notes at John 15:18-20. Compare Matthew 10:24-25.

Verse 2

Beloved, now are we the sons of God - We now in fact sustain this rank and dignity, and on that we may reflect with pleasure and gratitude. It is in itself an exalted honor, and may be contemplated as such, whatever may be true in regard to what is to come. In the dignity and the privileges which we now enjoy, we may find a grateful subject of reflection, and a cause of thankfulness, even if we should look to nothing beyond, or when we contemplate the fact by itself.

And it doth not yet appear what we shall be - It is not fully revealed what we shall be hereafter; what will be the full result of being regarded as the children of God. There are, indeed, certain things which may be inferred as following from this. There is enough to animate us with hope, and to sustain us in the trials of life. There is one thing which is clear, that we shall be like the Son of God; but what is fully involved in this is not made known. Perhaps,

(1)It could not be so revealed that we could understand it, for that state may be so unlike the present that no words would fully convey the conception to our minds. Perhaps,

(2)It may be necessary to our condition here, as on probation, that no more light should be furnished in regard to the future than to stimulate us to make efforts to reach a world where all is light. For an illustration of the sentiment expressed here by the apostle, compare the notes at 2 Peter 1:4.

But we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him - It is revealed to us that we shall be made like Christ; that is, in the bodies with which we shall be raised up, in character, in happiness, in glory. Compare the Philippians 3:21 note; 2 Corinthians 3:18 note. This is enough to satisfy the Christian in his prospects for the future world. To be like Christ is the object of his supreme aim. For that he lives, and all his aspirations in regard to the coming world may be summed up in this - that he wishes to be like the glorified Son of God, and to share his honors and his joys. See the notes at Philippians 3:10.

For we shall see him as he is - It is clearly implied here that there will be an influence in beholding the Saviour as he is, which will tend to make us like him, or to transform us into his likeness. See the nature of this influence explained in the notes at 2 Corinthians 3:18.

Verse 3

And every man that hath this hope in him - This hope of seeing the Saviour, and of being made like him; that is, every true Christian. On the nature and influence of hope, see the notes at Romans 8:24-25.

Purifieth himself - Makes himself holy. That is, under the influence of this hope of being like the Saviour, he puts forth those efforts in struggling against sin, and in overcoming his evil propensities, which are necessary to make him pure. The apostle would not deny that for the success of these efforts we are dependent on divine aid; but he brings into view, as is often done in the sacred writings, the agency of man himself as essentially connected with success. Compare Philippians 2:12. The particular thought here is, that the hope of being like Christ, and of being permitted to dwell with him, will lead a man to earnest efforts to become holy, and will be actually followed by such a result.

Even as he is pure - The same kind of purity here, the same degree hereafter. That is, the tendency of such a hope is to make him holy now, though he may be imperfect; the effect will be to make him “perfectly” holy in the world to come. It cannot be shown from this passage that the apostle meant to teach that anyone actually becomes as pure in the present life as the Saviour is, that is, becomes perfectly holy; for all that is fairly implied in it is, that those who have this hope in them aim at the same purity, and will ultimately obtain it. But the apostle does not say that it is attained in this world. If the passage did teach this, it would teach it respecting everyone who has this hope, and then the doctrine would be that no one can be a Christian who does not become absolutely perfect on earth; that is, not that some Christians may become perfect here, but that all actually do. But none, it is presumed, will hold this to be a true doctrine. A true Christian does not, indeed, habitually and willfully sin; but no one can pretend that all Christians attain to a state of sinless perfection on earth, or are, in fact, as pure as the Saviour was. But unless the passage proves that every Christian becomes absolutely perfect in the present life, it does not prove that in fact any do. It proves:

(1)That the tendency, or the fair influence of this hope, is to make the Christian pure;

(2)That all who cherish it will, in fact, aim to become as holy as the Saviour was; and,

(3)That this object will, at some future period, be accomplished. There is a world where all who are redeemed shall be perfectly holy.

Verse 4

Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law - The law of God given to man as a rule of life. The object of the apostle here is to excite them to holiness, and to deter them from committing sin, perhaps in view of the fact stated in 1 John 3:3, that everyone who has the hope of heaven will aim to be holy like the Saviour. To confirm this, he shows them that, as a matter of fact, those who are born of God do lead lives of obedience, 1 John 3:5-10; and this he introduces by showing what is the nature of sin, in the verse before us. The considerations by which he would deter them from indulging in sin are the following:

(a)All sin is a violation of the law of God, 1 John 3:4;

(b)The very object of the coming of Christ was to deliver people from sin, 1 John 3:5;

(c)Those who are true Christians do not habitually sin, 1 John 3:6;

(d)Those who sin cannot be true Christians, but are of the devil, 1 John 3:8; and,

(e)He who is born of God has a germ or principle of true piety in him, and cannot sin, 1 John 3:9.

It seems evident that the apostle is here combating an opinion which then existed that people might sin, and yet be true Christians, 1 John 3:7; and he apprehended that there was danger that this opinion would become prevalent. On what ground this opinion was held is unknown. Perhaps it was held that all that was necessary to constitute religion was to embrace the doctrines of Christianity, or to be orthodox in the faith; perhaps that it was not expected that people would become holy in this life, and therefore they might indulge in acts of sin; perhaps that Christ came to modify and relax the law, and that the freedoM which he procured for them was freedom to indulge in whatever people chose; perhaps that, since Christians were heirs of all things, they had a right to enjoy all things; perhaps that the passions of people were so strong that they could not be restrained, and that therefore it was not wrong to give indulgence to the propensities with which our Creator has formed us. All these opinions have been held under various forms of Antinomianism, and it is not at all improbable that some or all of them prevailed in the time of John. The argument which he urges would be applicable to any of them. The consideration which he here states is, that all sin is a transgression of law, and that he who commits it, under whatever pretence, is to be held as a transgressor of the law. The literal rendering of this passage is, “He who doeth sin (ἁμαρτίαν hamartian ) doeth also transgression” - ἀνομίαν anomian. Sin is the generic term embracing all that would be wrong. The word transgression (ἀνομία anomia) is a specific term, showing where the wrong lay, to wit, in violating the law.

For sin is the transgression of the law - That is, all sin involves this as a consequence that it is a violation of the law. The object of the apostle is not so much to define sin, as to deter from its commission by stating what is its essential nature - though he has in fact given the best definition of it that could be given. The essential idea is, that God has given a law to people to regulate their conduct, and that whatever is a departure from that law in any way is held to be sin. The law measures our duty, and measures therefore the degree of guilt when it is not obeyed. The law determines what is right in all cases, and, of course, what is wrong when it is not complied with. The law is the expression of what is the will of God as to what we shall do; and when that is not done, there is sin. The law determines what we shall love or not love; when our passions and appetites shall be bounded and restrained, and to what extent they may be indulged; what shall be our motives and aims in living; how we shall act toward God and toward people; and whenever, in any of these respects, its requirements are not complied with, there is sin.

This will include everything in relation to which the law is given, and will embrace what we “omit” to do when the law has commanded a thing to be done, as well as a “positive” act of transgression where the law has forbidden a thing. This idea is properly found in the original word rendered “transgression of the law” - ἀνομία anomia. This word occurs in the New Testament only in the following places: Matthew 7:23; Matthew 13:41; Matthew 23:28; Matthew 24:12; Romans 4:7; Romans 6:19; 2 Thessalonians 2:7; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 1:9; Hebrews 8:12; Hebrews 10:17, in all which places it is rendered “iniquity” and “iniquities;” in 2 Corinthians 6:14, where it is rendered “unrighteousness;” and in the verse before us twice. It properly means lawlessness, in the sense that the requirements of the law are not conformed to, or complied with; that is, either by not obeying it, or by positively violating it. When a parent commands a child to do a thing, and he does not do it, he is as really guilty of violating the law as when he does a thing which is positively forbidden. This important verse, therefore, may be considered in two aspects - as a definition of the nature of sin, and as an argument against indulgence in it, or against committing it.

I. As a definition of the nature of sin. It teaches.

(a)That there is a rule of law by which the conduct of mankind is to be regulated and governed, and to which it is to be conformed.

  1. That there is sin in all cases where that law is not complied with; and that all who do not comply with it are guilty before God.
    1. That the particular thing which determines the guilt of sin, and which measures it, is that it is a departure from law, and consequently that there is no sin where there is no departure from law.

The essential thing is, that the law has not been respected and obeyed, and sin derives its character and aggravation from that fact. No one can reasonably doubt as to the accuracy of this definition of sin. It is founded on the fact:

(a)That God has an absolute right to prescribe what we may and may not do;

(b)That it is to be presumed that what he prescribes will be in accordance with what is right; and,

(c)That nothing else in fact constitutes sin. Sin can consist in nothing else. It does not consist of a particular height of stature, or a particular complexion; of a feeble intellect, or an intellect made feeble, as the result of any former apostasy; of any constitutional propensity, or any disposition founded in our nature as creatures.

For none of these things do our consciences condemn us; and however we may lament them, we have no consciousness of wrong.

(In these remarks the author has in view the doctrine of original sin, or imputed sin, which he thinks as absurd as sin of stature or complexion. His views will be found at large in the notes at Romans 5:0 throughout, and by comparing these with the supplementary notes on the same place, the reader will be able to form his own opinion. There does not seem to be anything affecting the point in this passage.)

II. As an argument against the commission of sin. This argument may be considered as consisting of two things - the wrong that is done by the violation of law, and the exposure to the penalty.

(1) The wrong itself. This wrong, as an argument to deter from sin, arises mainly from two things:

(a) Because sin is a violation of the will of God, and it is in itself wrong to disregard that will; and,

(b) Because it is to be presumed that when God has given law there is a good reason why he has done it.

(2) The fact that the law has a penalty is an argument for not violating the law.

All law has a penalty; that is, there is some suffering, disadvantage, forfeit of privileges, etc., which the violation of law draws in its train, and which is to be regarded as an expression of the sense which the lawgiver entertains of the value of his law, and of the evil of disobeying it. Many of these penalties of the violation of the divine law are seen in this life, and all will be certain to occur sooner or later, in this world or in the world to come. With such views of the law and of sin - of his obligations, and of the evils of disobedience - a Christian should not, and will not, deliberately and habitually violate the law of God.

Verse 5

And ye know that he was manifested - The Lord Jesus, the Son of God. “You know that he became incarnate, or appeared among people, for the very purpose of putting an end to sin,” Matthew 1:21. Compare the notes at 1 Timothy 3:16. This is the “second” argument in this paragraph, 1 John 3:4-10, by which the apostle would deter us from sin. The argument is a clear one, and is perhaps the strongest that can be made to bear on the mind of a true Christian - that the Lord Jesus saw sin to be so great an evil, that he came into our world, and gave himself to the bitter sorrows of death on the cross, to redeem us from it.

To take away our sins - The essential argument here is, that the whole work of Christ was designed to deliver us from the dominion of sin, not to furnish us the means of indulgence in it; and that, therefore, we should be deterred from it by all that Christ has done and suffered for us. He perverts the whole design of the coming of the Saviour who supposes that his work was in any degree designed to procure for his followers the indulgences of sin, or who so interprets the methods of his grace as to suppose that it is now lawful for him to indulge his guilty passions. The argument essentially is this:

  1. That we profess to be the followers of Christ, and should carry out his ends and views in coming into the world;

(2)That the great and leading purpose of his coming was to set us free from the bondage of transgression;

(3)That in doing this he gave himself up to a life of poverty, and shame, and sorrow, and to a most bitter death on the cross; and,

(4)That we should not indulge in that from which he came to deliver us, and which cost him so much toil and such a death. How could we indulge in that which has brought heavy calamity upon the head of a father, or which has pierced a sister’s heart with many sorrows? Still more, how can we be so ungrateful and hardhearted as to indulge in that which crushed our Redeemer in death?

And in him is no sin - An additional consideration to show that we should be holy. As he was perfectly pure and spotless, so should all his followers aim to be; and none can truly pretend to be his who do not desire and design to become like him. On the personal holiness of the Lord Jesus, see the Hebrews 7:26 note, and 1 Peter 2:23 note.

Verse 6

Whosoever abideth in him - See 1 John 2:6. The word here employed (μένων menōn) properly means to remain, to continue, to abide. It is used of persons remaining or dwelling in a place, in the sense of abiding there permanently, or lodging there, and this is the common meaning of the word, Matthew 10:11; Matthew 26:38; Mark 6:10; Luke 1:56, “et saepe.” In the writings of John, however, it is quite a favorite word to denote the relation which one sustains to another, in the sense of being united to him, or remaining with him in affection and love; being with him in heart and mind and will, as one makes his home in a dwelling. The sense seems to be that we have some sort of relation to him similar to that which we have to our home; that is, some fixed and permanent attachment to him. We live in him; we remain steadfast in our attachment to him, as we do to our own home. For the use of the word in John, in whose writings it so frequently occurs, see John 5:38; John 6:56; John 14:10, John 14:17; Joh 15:27; 1 John 2:6, 1Jo 2:10, 1 John 2:14, 1 John 2:17, 1Jo 2:27-28; 1 John 3:6, 1Jo 3:24; 1 John 4:12-13, 1 John 4:15-16. In the passage before us, as in his writings generally, it refers to one who lives the life of a Christian, as if he were always with Christ, and abode with him. It refers to the Christian considered as adhering steadfastly to the Saviour, and not as following him with transitory feelings, emotions, and raptures.

(See the supplementary note at Romans 8:10. We abide in Christ by union with him. The phrase expresses the continuance of the union; of which see in the note as above. Scott explains, “whoever abides in Christ as one with him and as maintaining communion with him. ‘)

It does not of itself necessarily mean that he will always do this; that is, it does not prove the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, but it refers to the adherence to the Saviour as a continuous state of mind, or as having permanency; meaning that there is a life of continued faith in him. It is of a person thus attached to the Saviour that the apostle makes the important declaration in the passage before us, that he does not sin. This is the third argument to show that the child of God should be pure; and the substance of the argument is, that “as a matter of fact” the child of God is not a sinner.

Sinneth not - There has been much difference of opinion in regard to this expression, and the similar declaration in 1 John 3:9. Not a few have maintained that it teaches the “doctrine of perfection,” or that Christians may live entirely without sin; and some have held that the apostle meant to teach that this is always the characteristic of the true Christian. Against the interpretation, however, which supposes that it teaches that the Christian is absolutely perfect, and lives wholly without sin, there are three insuperable objections:

(1) If it teaches that doctrine at all, it teaches that all Christians are perfect; “whosoever abideth in him,” “whosoever is born of God,” “he cannot sin,” 1 John 3:9.

(2) This is not true, and cannot be held to be true by those who have any just views of what the children of God have been and are. Who can maintain that Abraham, or Isaac, or Jacob; that Moses, David, or Job; that Peter, John, or Paul, were absolutely perfect, and were never, after their regeneration, guilty of an act of sin? Certainly they never affirmed it of themselves, nor does the sacred record attribute to them any such perfection. And who can affirm this of all who give evidence of true piety in the world? Who can of themselves? Are we to come to the painful conclusion that all who are not absolutely perfect in thought, word, and deed, are destitute of any religion, and are to be set down as hypocrites or self-deceivers? And yet, unless this passage proves that “all” who have been born again are absolutely perfect, it will not prove it of anyone, for the affirmation is not made of a part, or of what any favored individual may be, but of what everyone is in fact who is born of God.

(3) This interpretation is not necessary to a fair exposition of the passage. The language used is such as would be employed by any writer if he designed to say of one that he is not characteristically a sinner; that he is a good man; that he does not commit habitual and willful transgression. Such language is common throughout the Bible, when it is said of one man that he is a saint, and of another that he is a sinner; of one that he is righteous, and of another that he is wicked; of one that he obeys the law of God, and of another that he does not. John expresses it strongly, but he affirms no more in fact than is affirmed elsewhere. The passage teaches, indeed, most important truths in regard to the true Christian; and the fair and proper meaning may be summed up in the following particulars:

(a) He who is born again does not sin habitually, or is not habitually a sinner. If he does wrong, it is when he is overtaken by temptation, and the act is against the habitual inclination and purpose of his soul. If a man sins habitually, it proves that he has never been renewed.

(b) That he who is born again does not do wrong deliberately and by design. He means to do right. He is not willfully and deliberately a sinner. If a man deliberately and intentionally does wrong, he shows that he is not actuated by the spirit of religion. It is true that when one does wrong, or commits sin, there is a momentary assent of the will; but it is under the influence of passion, or excitement, or temptation, or provocation, and not as the result of a deliberate plan or purpose of the soul. A man who deliberately and intentionally does a wrong thing, shows that he is not a true Christian; and if this were all that is understood by “perfection,” then there would be many who are perfect, for there are many, very many Christians, who cannot recollect an instance for many years in which they have intentionally and deliberately done a wrong thing. Yet these very Christians see much corruption in their own hearts over which to mourn, and against which they earnestly strive; in comparing themselves with the perfect law of God, and with the perfect example of the Saviour, they see much in which they come short.

(c) He who is born again will not sin finally, or will not fall away. “His seed remaineth in him,” 1 John 3:9. See the notes at that verse. There is a principle of grace by which he will ultimately be restrained and recovered. This, it seems to me, is fairly implied in the language used by John; for if a person might be a Christian, and yet wholly fall away and perish, how could it be said with any truth that such a man “sinneth not;” how that “he doth not commit sin;” how that “his seed remaineth in him, and he cannot sin?” Just the contrary would be true if this were so.

Whosoever sinneth - That is, as explained above, habitually, deliberately, characteristically, and finally. - Doddridge. “Who habitually and avowedly sinneth.”

Hath not seen him, nor known him - Has had no just views of the Saviour, or of the nature of true religion. In other words, cannot be a true Christian.

Verse 7

Little children - Notes at 1 John 2:1.

Let no man deceive you - That is, in the matter under consideration; to wit, by persuading you that a man may live in sinful practices, and yet be a true child of God. From this it is clear that the apostle supposed there were some who would attempt to do this, and it was to counteract their arts that he made these positive statements in regard to the nature of true religion.

He that doeth righteousness is righteous - This is laid down as a great and undeniable principle in religion - a maxim which none could dispute, and as important as it is plain. And it is worthy of all the emphasis which the apostle lays on it. The man who does righteousness, or leads an upright life, is a righteous man, and no other one is. No matter how any one may claim that he is justified by faith; no matter how he may conform to the external duties and rites of religion; no matter how zealous he may be for orthodoxy, or for the order of the church; no matter what visions and raptures he may have, or of what peace and joy in his soul he may boast; no matter how little he may fear death, or hope for heaven - unless he is in fact a righteous man, in the proper sense of the term, he cannot be a child of God. Compare Matthew 7:16-23. If he is, in the proper sense of the word, a man who keeps the law of God, and leads a holy life, he is righteous, for that is religion. Such a man, however, will always feel that his claim to be regarded as a righteous man is not to be traced to what he is in himself, but to what he owes to the grace of God.

Even as he is righteous - See the notes at 1 John 3:3. Not necessarily in this world to the same degree, but with the same kind of righteousness. Hereafter he will become wholly free from all sin, like his God and Saviour, 1 John 3:2.

Verse 8

He that committeth sin - Habitually, willfully, characteristically.

Is of the devil - This cannot mean that no one who commits any sin, or who is not absolutely perfect, can be a Christian, for this would cut off the great mass, even according to the belief of those who hold that the Christian may be perfectly holy, from all claim to the Christian character. But what the apostle here says is true in two senses:

  1. That all who commit sin, even true believers, so far as they are imperfect, in this respect resemble Satan, and are under his influence, since sin, just so far as it exists at all, makes us resemble him.

(2)All who habitually and characteristically sin are of the devil.” This latter was evidently the principal idea in the mind of the apostle. His object here is to show that those who sinned, in the sense in which it would seem some maintained that the children of God might sin, could have no real evidence of piety, but really belonged to Satan.

For the devil sinneth from the beginning - The beginning of the world; or from the first account we have of him. It does not mean that he sinned from the beginning of his existence, for he was made holy like the other angels. Notes, Jude 1:6. The meaning is, that he introduced sin into the universe, and that he has continued to practice it ever since. The word sinneth here implies continued and habitual sin. He did not commit one act of sin and then reform; but he has continued, and still continues, his course of sin. This may confirm what has been already said about the kind of sin that John refers to. He speaks of sinning habitually, continuously, willfully; and anyone who does this shows that he is under the influence of him whose characteristic it has been and is to sin.

For this purpose the Son of God was manifested - Became incarnate, and appeared among people, 1 John 3:5. Compare the notes at 1 Timothy 3:16.

That he might destroy the works of the devil - All his plans of wickedness, and his control over the hearts of people. Compare the Matthew 8:29 note; Mark 1:24 note; Hebrews 2:14 note. The argument here is, that as the Son of God came to destroy all the works of the devil, he cannot be his true follower who lives in sin.

Verse 9

Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin - This passage must either mean that they who are born of God, that is, who are true Christians, do not sin habitually and characteristically, or that everyone who is a true Christian is absolutely perfect, and never commits any sin. If it can be used as referring to the doctrine of absolute perfection at all, it proves, not that Christians may be perfect, or that a “portion” of them are, but that all are. But who can maintain this? Who can believe that John meant to affirm this? Nothing can be clearer than that the passage has not this meaning, and that John did not teach a doctrine so contrary to the current strain of the Scriptures, and to fact; and if he did not teach this, then in this whole passage he refers to those who are habitually and characteristically righteous.

For his seed remaineth in him - There is much obscurity in this expression, though the general sense is clear, which is, that there is something abiding in the heart of the true Christian which the apostle here calls “seed,” which will prevent his sinning. The word “his” in this phrase, “his seed,” may refer either to the individual himself - in the sense that this can now be properly called “his,” inasmuch as it is a part of himself, or a principle abiding in him; or it may refer to God - in the sense that what is here called “seed” is “his,” that is, he has implanted it, or it is a germ of divine origin. Robinson (Lex.) understands it in the latter sense, and so also do Macknight, Doddridge, Lucke, and others, and this is probably the true interpretation. The word “seed” (σπέρμα sperma) means properly seed sown, as of grain, plants, trees; then anything that resembles it, anything which germinates, or which springs up, or is produced.

It is applied in the New Testament to the word of God, or the gospel, as that which produces effects in the heart and life similar to what seed that is sown does. Compare Matthew 13:26, Matthew 13:37-38. Augustin, Clemens, (Alex.,) Grotius, Rosenmuller, Benson, and Bloomfield, suppose that this is the signification of the word here. The proper idea, according to this, is that the seed referred to is truth, which God has implanted or sown in the heart, from which it may be expected that the fruits of righteousness will grow. But that which abides in the heart of a Christian is not the naked word of God; the mere gospel, or mere truth; it is rather that word as made vital and efficacious by the influence of his Spirit; the germ of the divine life; the principles of true piety in the soul. Compare the words of Virgil: Igneus est illi vigor et coelestis origo semini. The exact idea here, as it seems to me, is not that the “seed” refers to “the word of God,” as Augustin and others suppose, or to “the Spirit of God,” but to the germ of piety which has been produced in the heart “by” the word and Spirit of God, and which may be regarded as having been implanted there by God himself, and which may be expected to produce holiness in the life. There is, probably, as Lucke supposes, an allusion in the word to the fact that we are begotten (Ὁ γεγεννημένος Ho gegennēmenos of God. The word “remaineth” - μένει menei, compare the notes at 1 John 3:6 - is a favorite expression of John. The expression here used by John, thus explained, would seem to imply two things:

(1)That the germ or seed of religion implanted in the soul abides there as a constant, vital principle, so that he who is born of God cannot become habitually a sinner; and,

(2)That it will so continue to live there that he will not fall away and perish. The idea is clearly that the germ or principle of piety so permanently abides in the soul, that he who is renewed never can become again characteristically a sinner.

And he cannot sin - Not merely he will not, but he cannot; that is, in the sense referred to. This cannot mean that one who is renewed has not physical ability to do wrong, for every moral agent has; nor can it mean that no one who is a true Christian never does, in fact, do wrong in thought, word, or deed, for no one could seriously maintain that: but it must mean that there is somehow a certainty as absolute “as if” it were physically impossible, that those who are born of God will not be characteristically and habitually sinners; that they will not sin in such a sense as to lose all true religion and be numbered with transgressors; that they will not fall away and perish. Unless this passage teaches that no one who is renewed ever can sin in any sense; or that everyone who becomes a Christian is, and must be, absolutely and always perfect, no words could more clearly prove that true Christians will never fall from grace and perish. How can what the apostle here says be true, if a real Christian can fall away and become again a sinner?

Because he is born of God - Or begotten of God. God has given him, by the new birth, real, spiritual life, and that life can never become extinct.

Verse 10

In this the children of God are manifest ... - That is, this furnishes a test of their true character. The test is found in doing righteousness, and in the love of the brethren. The former he had illustrated; the latter he now proceeds to illustrate. The general idea is, that if a person is not truly a righteous person, and does not love the brethren, he cannot be a child of God. Perhaps by the phrase in this, using a pronoun in the singular number, he means to intimate that an important part of righteousness consists in brotherly love.

Whosoever doeth not righteousness, is not of God - In 1 John 3:7, he had said that “he that doeth righteousness is of God.”

If that is true, then what he here affirms must be true also, that a man who does not righteousness is not of God. The general idea is the same, that no one can be a true Christian who is not in fact a righteous man.

Neither he that loveth not his brother - The illustration of this point continues to 1 John 3:18. The general sense is, that brotherly love is essential to the Christian character, and that he who does not possess it cannot be a Christian. On the nature and importance of brotherly love as an evidence of piety, see the notes at John 13:34-35.

Verse 11

For this is the message - Margin, “commandment.” In the received text, this is ἀγγελία angelia - “a message brought;” in several manuscripts, and in later editions, it is ἐπαγγελία epangelia - “annunciation, announcement;” an order given, or a commandment, Acts 23:21. It is not very material which reading is followed. The word “command” or “rule” would express the sense with sufficient clearness. The reference is to the law given by the Saviour as a permanent direction to his disciples.

That ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another - See the John 13:34-35 notes; 1 John 2:7 note.

Verse 12

Not as Cain - Not manifesting the spirit which Cain did. His was a most remarkable and striking instance of a want of love to a brother, and the case was well adapted to illustrate the propriety of the duty which the apostle is enjoining. See Genesis 4:4-8.

Who was of that wicked one - Of the devil; that is, he was under his influence, and acted from his instigation.

And wherefore slew he him? - Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous.” He acted under the influence of envy. He was dissatisfied that his own offering was not accepted, and that his brother’s was. The apostle seems desirous to guard those to whom he wrote against the indulgence of any feelings that were the opposite of love; from anything like envy toward more highly favored brethren, by showing to what this would lead if fairly acted out, as in the case of Cain. A large part of the crimes of the earth have been caused, as in the murder of Abel, by the want of brotherly love. Nothing but love would be necessary to put an end to the crimes, and consequently to a large part of the misery, of the world.

Verse 13

Marvel not - Do not think it so unusual, or so little to be expected, as to excite astonishment.

If the world hate you - The emphasis here is to be placed on the word “you.” The apostle had just adverted to the fact that Cain hated Abel, his brother, without cause, and he says that they were not to deem it strange if the world hated them in like manner. The Saviour John 15:17-18 introduced these subjects in the same connection. In enjoining the duty of brotherly love on his disciples, he adverts to the fact that they must expect to be hated by the world, and tells them to remember that the world hated him before it hated them. The object of all this was to show more clearly the necessity of strong and tender mutual affection among Christians, since they could hope for none from the world. See the notes at John 15:18-19.

Verse 14

We know that we have passed from death unto life - From spiritual death (Notes, Ephesians 2:1) to spiritual life; that is, that we are true Christians.

Because we love the brethren - The sentiment here is, that it is an infallible evidence of true piety if we love the followers of Christ as such. See this sentiment illustrated in the notes at John 13:35. But how easy it would seem to be to apply such a test of piety as this! Who cannot judge accurately of his own feelings, and determine whether he loves a Christian because he bears the name and image of the Saviour - loves him the more just in proportion as he bears that image? Who cannot, if he chooses, look beyond the narrow bounds of his own sect, and determine whether he is pleased with the true Christian character wherever it may be found, and whether he would prefer to find his friends among those who bear the name and the image of the Son of God, than among the people of the world? The Saviour meant that his followers should be known by this badge of discipleship all over the world, John 13:34-35. John says, in carrying out the sentiment, that Christians, by this test, may know “among themselves” whether they have any true religion.

He that loveth not his brother abideth in death - He remains dead in sins; that is, he has never been converted. Compare the notes at 1 John 3:6. As love to the Christian brotherhood is essential to true piety, it follows that he who has not that remains unconverted, or is in a state of spiritual death. He is by nature dead in sin, and unless he has evidence that he is brought out of that state, he “remains” or “abides” in it.

Verse 15

Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer ... - That is, he has the spirit of a murderer; he has that which, if it were acted out, would lead him to commit murder, as it did Cain. The private malice, the secret grudge, the envy which is cherished in the heart, is murderous in its tendency, and were it not for the outward restraints of human laws, and the dread of punishment, it would often lead to the act of murder. The apostle does not say that he who hates his brother, though he does not in fact commit murder, is guilty to the same degree as if he had actually done it; but he evidently means to say that the spirit which would lead to murder is there, and that God will hold him responsible for it. Nothing is missing but the removal of outward restraints to lead to the commission of the open deed, and God judges people as he sees them to be “in their hearts.” What a fearful declaration, then, is this! How many real murderers there are on the earth besides those who are detected and punished, and besides those open violators of the laws of God and man who go at large! And who is them that should not feel humbled and penitent in view of his own heart, and grateful for that sovereign mercy which has restrained him from open acts of guilt - for who is there who has not at some period of his life, and perhaps often, indulged in feelings of hatred, and envy, and malice toward others, which, if acted out, would have led to the commission of the awful crime of taking human life? Any man may well shudder at the remembrance of the secret sins of his own heart, and at the thought of what he would have been but for the restraining grace of God. And how wonderful is that grace which, in the case of the true Christian, not only restrains and checks, but which effectually subdues all these feelings, and implants in their place the principles of love!

Verse 16

Hereby perceive we the love of God - The words “of God” are not in the original, and should not have been introduced into the translation, though they are found in the Latin Vulgate, and in the Genevan versions, and in one manuscript. They would naturally convey the idea that “God” laid down his life for us; or that God himself, in his divine nature, suffered. But this idea is not expressed in this passage as it is in the original, and of course no argument can be derived from it either to prove that Christ is God, or that the divine nature is capable of suffering. The original is much more expressive and emphatic than it is with this addition: “By this we know love;” that is, we know what true love is; we see a most affecting and striking illustration of its nature. “Love itself” - its real nature, its power, its sacrifices, its influences - was seen in its highest form, when the Son of God gave himself to die on a cross. For an illustration of the sentiment, see the notes at John 3:16; John 15:13.

Because he laid down his life for us - There can be no doubt that the Saviour is here referred to, though his name is not mentioned particularly. There are several instances in the New Testament where he is mentioned under the general appellation “he,” as one who was well known, and about whom the writers were accustomed to speak.

And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren - For the good of our fellow Christians, if it be necessary. That is, circumstances may occur where it would be proper to do it, and we ought always to be ready to do it. The spirit which led the Saviour to sacrifice his life for the good of the church, should lead us to do the same thing for our brethren if circumstances should require it. That this is a correct principle no one can doubt; for:

(1)The Saviour did it, and we are bound to imitate his example, and to possess his spirit;

(2)The prophets, apostles, and martyrs did it, laying down their lives in the cause of truth, and for the good of the church and the world; and,

(3)It has always been held that it is right and proper, in certain circumstances, for a man to lay down his life for the good of others.

So we speak of the patriot who sacrifices his life for the good of his country; so we feel in the case of a shipwreck, that it may be the duty of a captain to sacrifice his life for the good of his passengers and crew; so in case of a pestilential disease, a physician should not regard his own life, if he may save others; and so we always hold the man up to honor who is willing to jeopard his own life on noble principles of self-denial for the good of his fellow-men. In what cases this should occur the apostle does not state; but the general principle would seem to be, that it is to be done when a greater good would result from our self-sacrifice than from carefully guarding our own lives. Thus, in the case of a patriot, his death, in the circumstances, might be of greater value to his country than his life would be; or, his exposing himself to death would be a greater service to his country, than if that should not be done.

Thus, the Saviour laid down his life for the good of mankind; thus the apostles exposed their lives to constant peril in extending the principles of religion; and thus the martyrs surrendered their lives in the cause of the church and of truth. In like manner, we ought to be ready to hazard our lives, and even to lay them down, if in that way we may promote the cause of truth, and the salvation of sinners, or serve our Christian brethren. In what way this injunction was understood by the primitive Christians, may be perceived from what the world is reported to have said of them, “Behold, how they love one another; they are ready to die for one another.” - Tertullian, Apol. c. 39. So Eusebius (Eccl. His. vii. 22) says of Christians, that “in a time of plague they visited one another, and not only hazarded their lives, but actually lost them in their zeal to preserve the lives of others.” We are not indeed to throw away our lives; we are not to expose them in a rash, reckless, imprudent manner; but when, in the discharge of duty, we are placed in a situation where life is exposed to danger, we are not to shrink from the duty, or to run away from it. Perhaps the following would embrace the principal instances of the duty here enjoined by the apostle:

  1. We ought to have such love for the church that we should be willing to die for it, as patriot is willing to die for his country.

(2)We ought to have such love for Christians as to be willing to jeopard our lives to aid them - as in case of a pestilence or plague, or when they are in danger by fire, or flood, or foes.

(3)We ought to have such love for the truth as to be willing to sacrifice our lives rather than deny it.

(4)We ought to have such love for the cause of our Master as to be willing to cross oceans, and snows, and sands; to visit distant and barbarous regions, though at imminent risk of our lives, and though with the prospect that we shall never see our country again.

(5)We ought to have such love for the church that we shall engage heartily and constantly in services of labor and self-sacrifice on its account, until, our work being done, exhausted nature shall sink to rest in the grave. In one word, we should regard ourselves as devoted to the service of the Redeemer, living or dying to be found engaged in his cause. If a case should actually occur where the question would arise whether a man would abandon his Christian brother or die, he ought not to hesitate; in all cases he should regard his life as consecrated to the cause of Sion and its friends. Once, in the times of primitive piety, there was much of this spirit in the world; how little, it is to be feared, does it prevail now!

Verse 17

But whoso hath this world’s good - Has property - called “this world’s good,” or a good pertaining to this world, because it is of value to us only as it meets our wants this side of the grave; and perhaps also because it is sought supremely by the people of the world. The general meaning of this verse, in connection with the previous verse, is, that if we ought to be willing to lay down our lives for others, we ought to be willing to make those comparatively smaller sacrifices which are necessary to relieve them in their distresses; and that if we are unwilling to do this, we can have no evidence that the love of God dwells in us.

And seeth his brother have need - Need of food, of raiment, of shelter; or sick, and poor, and unable to provide for his own wants and those of his family.

And shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him - The bowels, or “upper viscera,” embracing the heart, and the region of the chest generally, are in the Scriptures represented as the seat of mercy, piety, and compassion, because when the mind feels compassion it is that part which is affected. Compare the notes at Isaiah 16:11.

How dwelleth the love of God in him? - How can a man love God who does not love those who bear his image? See the notes at 1 John 4:20. On the general sentiment here, see the notes at James 2:14-16. The meaning is plain, that we cannot have evidence of piety unless we are ready to do good to others, especially to our Christian brethren. See the Matthew 25:45 note; Galatians 6:10 note.

Verse 18

My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue - By mere profession; by merely sayinG that we love each other. See 1 Peter 1:22.

But in deed and in truth - In such acts as shall show that our professed love is sincere and real. Let us do the deed of love, whether anything is said about it or not. See the notes at Matthew 6:3.

Verse 19

And hereby - Greek, “by this;” that is, by the fact that we have true love to others, and that we manifest it by a readiness to make sacrifices to do them good.

We know that we are of the truth - That we are not deceived in what we profess to be; that is, that we are true Christians. To be of the truth stands opposed to cherishing false and delusive hopes.

And shall assure our hearts before him - Before God, or before the Saviour. In the margin, as in the Greek, the word rendered “shall assure,” is “persuade.” The Greek word is used as meaning to “persuade,” e. g., to the reception and belief of truth; then to persuade anyone who has unkind or prejudiced feelings toward us, or to bring over to kind feelings, “to conciliate,” and thus to pacify or quiet. The meaning here seems to be, that we shall in this way allay the doubts and trouble of our minds, and produce a state of quiet and peace, to wit, by the evidence that we are of the truth. Our consciences are often restless and troubled in view of past guilt; but, in thus furnishing the evidence of true piety by love to others, we shall pacify an accusing mind, and conciliate our own hearts, and persuade or convince ourselves that we are truly the children of God. See Robinson, Lexicon, sub voce πείθω peithō, I. b. In other words, though a person’s heart may condemn him as guilty, and though he knows that God sees and condemns the sins of his past life, yet the agitations and alarms of his mind may be calmed down and soothed by evidence that he is a child of God, and that he will not be finally condemned. A true Christian does not attempt to conceal the fact that there is much for which his own heart and conscience might justly accuse him but he finds, notwithstanding all this, evidence that he is a child of God, and he is persuaded that all will be well.

Verse 20

For if our heart condemn us - We cannot hope for peace from any expectation that our own hearts will never accuse us, or that we ourselves can approve of all that we have done. The reference here is not so much to our past lives, as to our present conduct and deportment. The object is to induce Christians so to live that their hearts will not condemn them for any secret sins, while the outward deportment may be unsullied. The general sentiment is, that if they should so live that their own hearts would condemn them for present insincerity and hypocrisy, they could have no hope of peace, for God knows all that is in the heart. In view of the past - when the heart accuses us of what we have done - we may find peace by such evidences of piety as shall allay the troubles of an agitated soul, 1 John 3:9, but we cannot have such peace if our hearts condemn us for the indulgence of secret sins, now that we profess to be Christians. If our hearts condemn us for present insincerity, and for secret sins, we can never “persuade” or soothe them by any external act of piety. In view of the consciousness of past guilt, we may find peace; we can find none if there is a present purpose to indulge in sin.

God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things - We cannot hope to find peace by hiding anything from his view, or by any supposition that he is not acquainted with the sins for which our consciences trouble us. He knows all the sins of which we are conscious, and sees all their guilt and aggravation as clearly as we do. He knows more than this. He knows all the sins which we have forgotten; all those acts which we endeavor to persuade ourselves are not sinful, but which are evil in his sight; and all those aggravations attending our sins which it is impossible for us fully and distinctly to conceive. He is more disposed to condemn sin than we are; he looks on it with less allowance than we do. We cannot hope, then, for a calm mind in any supposition that God does not see our sins as clearly as we do, or in any hope that he will look on them with more favor and indulgence. Peace cannot be found in the indulgence of sin in the hope that God will not perceive or regard it, for we can sooner deceive ourselves than we can him; and while therefore, 1 John 3:19, in reference to the past, we can only “persuade” our hearts, or soothe their agitated feelings by evidence that we are of the truth now, and that our sins are forgiven; in reference to the present and the future, the heart can be kept calm only by such a course of life that our own hearts and our God shall approve the manner in which we live.

Verse 21

Beloved, if our heart condemn us not - If we so live as to have an approving conscience - that is, if we indulge in no secret sin; if we discharge faithfully every known duty; if we submit without complaining to all the allotments of Divine Providence.

Then have we confidence toward God - Compare the 1 John 3:19; 1 John 2:28 notes; Acts 24:16 note. The apostle evidently does not mean that we have confidence toward God on the ground of what we do, as if it were meritorious, or as if it constituted a claim to his favor; but that we may so live as to have evidence of personal piety, and that we may look forward with a confident hope that we shall be accepted of him in the great day. The word here rendered “confidence” - παῤῥησίαν parrēsian - means properly “boldness;” usually boldness or openness in speaking our sentiments. See the notes at 1 John 2:28. The confidence or boldness which we have toward our Maker is founded solely on the evidence that he will graciously accept us as pardoned sinners; not in the belief that we deserve his favor.

Verse 22

And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him - If we are truly his children, and ask in a proper manner. See the notes at Matthew 7:7. Compare Mark 11:24; Luke 11:9; Luke 18:1 ff; John 14:13; Joh 15:7; 1 John 5:14. The declaration here made must be understood with these limitations:

(1)That we ask in a proper manner, James 4:3; and,

(2)That the thing asked shall be such as will be consistent for God to give; that is, such as he shall see to be best for us, 1 John 5:14. See the notes at this latter passage.

Because we keep his commandments - Not that this is the meritorious ground of our being heard, but that it furnishes evidence that we are his children, and he hears his children as such.

And do those things that are pleasing in his sight - As a parent is disposed to bestow favors on obedient, affectionate, and dutiful children, so God is on those who please him by their obedience and submission to his will. We can have no hope that he will hear us unless we do so live as to please him.

Verse 23

And this is his commandment - His commandment, by way of eminence; the leading, principal thing which he enjoins on us; the commandment which lies at the foundation of all true obedience.

That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ - See the notes at Mark 16:16. Compare John 16:1; Acts 16:31.

And love one another ... - This follows from the other, and hence they are mentioned as together constituting his commandment. Notes, John 13:35.

Verse 24

And he that keepeth his commandments ... - See the notes at John 14:23.

And hereby we know that he abideth in us - That is, this is another certain evidence that we are true Christians. The Saviour had promised John 14:23 that he would come and take up his abode with his people. John says that we have proof that he does this by the Spirit which he has given us. That is, the Holy Spirit is imparted to his people to enlighten their minds; to elevate their affections; to sustain them in times of trial; to quicken them in the performance of duty; and to imbue them with the temper and spirit of the Lord Jesus. When these effects exist, we may be certain that the Spirit of God is with us; for these are the “fruits” of that Spirit, or these are the effects which he produces in the lives of men. Compare the notes at Galatians 5:22-23. On the evidence of piety here referred to, see the notes at Romans 8:9, Romans 8:14, Romans 8:16. No man can be a true Christian in whom that Spirit does not constantly dwell, or to whom he is not “given.” And yet no one can determine that the Spirit dwells in him, except by the “effects” produced in his heart and life. In the following chapter, the apostle pursues the subject suggested here, and shows that we should examine ourselves closely, to see whether the “Spirit” to which we trust, as furnishing evidence of piety, is truly the Spirit of God, or is a spirit of delusion.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on 1 John 3". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/1-john-3.html. 1870.
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