February 7, 2021
We’ve all heard it, usually alongside appeals for peace and unity. It typically goes something like this, “We are all God’s children.” But, is that true? It’s one thing when Oprah Winfrey, or other biblically illiterate celebrities, tweet, as she did in 2013, we are all God’s children. But, it’s another thing when the head of the largest Christian church says it. It was in his first prayer video, released on Epiphany, January 6, 2016, five years ago. Apparently, Pope Francis had been listening to Oprah, because he said in the video, “Many think differently, feel differently, seeking God or meeting God in different ways. In this crowd, in this range of religions, there is only one certainty that we have for all: we are all children of God.” That is shocking. It was a startling statement, but is it true?
In case there was any confusion about what the Pope meant, the video went on to feature representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, who proclaimed their respective beliefs in God, Jesus, Allah and Buddha. Later, after the Pope affirmed that all, regardless of religious profession, are children of God, the faith leaders stated their shared and common belief in love.
But is that true? Of course, there are a number of challenges with the video and its statement. First, how we think differently, feel differently, and seek or meet God differently, matter. Are there, then, many roads to God? Second, the implication is that representatives of different world religions all proclaim their respective beliefs in the same God – from just different vantage points. Is that true – it doesn’t matter whether you call Him God or Yahweh or Allah or Buddha – they’re all the same? Third, for today, does a common belief in love, regardless of religious profession, make us all children of God?
My intent today is not to call out Oprah or the Pope. They simply serve as illustrations of the widely held belief. My intent is to simply ask and answer the question, are we all God’s children? What does the Bible say about that? Indeed, what did Jesus say about that? If that matters – you see, an increasing number of evangelicals say it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe something – all roads lead to God, no matter what you call Him. Is that true? And further, if all are not God’s children, how does one become a child of God?
In John 8, it was right after the Feast of Tabernacles. After Jerusalem’s huge oil candelabras – there were four of them on the Temple Mount which illuminated most of the city for the holy week – after they had gone out, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life.” It was a stunning claim – notice, He said if you don’t follow Me, you are in darkness. It was one of the so-called seven I Am statements Jesus made in the Gospel of John. They go like this:
- I am the bread of life. (John 6:35)
- I am the light of the world. (John 8:12)
- I am the door. (John 10:7,9)
- I am the good shepherd. (John 10:11,14)
- I am the resurrection and the life. (John 11:25)
- I am the way, the truth and the life. (John 14:6)
- I am the true vine. (John 15:1,5)
And by the way, all of those are meant to be exclusive – He alone is the bread of life, He alone is the light of the world, He alone is the door, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life; the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me; and He alone is the true vine. Meaning…I am sad for and disappointed in Pope Francis. There are not many ways to God – only one.
Well, as you can imagine, Jesus’ claim, I am the light of the world, led to a conversation with the Pharisees. You see, His claim to exclusivity, and being the Christ, did not sit well with people then or today. So, He told them, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” To which they quickly answered, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free.’?” That’s interesting – I guess these guys forgot Egypt, the period of the Judges, the Babylonian Captivity, and their current enslavement to the Roman Empire. But who’s counting.
Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” Oh, we’re not talking about Egyptians or Romans. You’re not free – because you are sinners – and sinners are slaves of sin. (And I would say to you in this culture of diminishing freedoms, don’t think you’re free because you’re an American.) Then He made this cryptic comment, “I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.”
That’s interesting – as if His Father and their father were not the same. So they claimed again, I’m sure indignantly, “Abraham is our Father,” and then a few verses later, “we have one Father, God.” There you have it. They were claiming to have God as their Father. Not quite the same as, we are all God’s children – but they claimed to be God’s children. Were they? And if so, is it true that we are all God’s children? And if not, who then are not God’s children?
What did Jesus say? If we believe in His exclusive claims to be the Christ, the Son of God; if we believe the Bible is the Word of God; what did Jesus say? John 8:42-44:
42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.
43 “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.
44 “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
Well, that’s interesting. Jesus says very clearly to Pharisees, the leading religious party within Judaism, God is not your Father since you oppose Me. From which we can say if you do not accept Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the one and only way to the Father, then God – whatever you call Him, is not your Father. Even worse, Jesus says, you are of your father the devil. Mic drop. Wow. That doesn’t sound too loving, too kind. Unless, of course, truth, no matter how difficult, is loving and kind.
We need to stop right here and consider this claim. You see, I think the oft-repeated statement, we are all God’s children, makes people feel good about themselves. It soothes battered consciences. It bandages beleaguered souls who feel estranged from God, dead to God. And Jesus rips the band aid off when He speaks truth – you are not children of God, if you do not believe in Me.
By the way, let me take a moment to finish this story in John 8, because it happens to be one of my favorites. The Pharisees were a little irritable, so they resorted to name-calling. “The Jews answered and said to Him, ‘Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” A Samaritan was a racially-charged name – You’re a half-breed Jew – and demon-possessed. A little more conversation about Abraham followed, which prompted Jesus to basically say, “You keep claiming Abraham as your father. Just so you know, your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” That threw them for a loop – who do you think You are, Jesus? “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Drum roll – because Jesus’ answer was incredible. “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.”
Now, at first that seems rather innocuous – like maybe Jesus was just a little confused. But the next verse reads, “Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him” – to stone Him. To kill Him. Why? Because of what Jesus said. They didn’t try to stone Him because He was confused about how old He was. They didn’t try to stone Him for poor grammar – No, Jesus, before Abraham was, I was – not I am. No – they knew exactly what Jesus was claiming. Before Abraham was, I am. This is really another I am statement in the Gospel of John – but it was most unambiguous – and most blasphemous, unless it was true.
You see, every Jew knew the story of Exodus 3. There, God appeared to Moses in the burning bush to commission Moses to go to Egypt to deliver God’s people, the Israelites, from slavery. Moses starts making all kinds of excuses – but most notably, he said, listen God, when I get there to tell them You sent me, they’ll ask, “What is His name? What shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
You may know that is the covenant name of God – Yahweh. It was the most precious name by which He would be known to the Israelites. So, when Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I am” – they knew exactly what He was saying. He was claiming to be the God of the burning bush, the God of Moses, the God the Israelites – He was claiming to be I AM – Yahweh. So they picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy – and if it wasn’t true, it would have been the height of blasphemy. This is one of the clearest declarations of the deity of Jesus Christ in all the Bible. Oh, there are many more, but this is one of my favorites.
Back to the matter at hand. Jesus said to these religious leaders – interestingly, who claimed to follow Yahweh – who claimed Yahweh as their Father – you are of your father the devil. Why? Jesus said, you want to do the desires of your father – namely, he was a murderer from the beginning, and he is a liar – there is no truth in him. He speaks from his own nature. Undoubtedly, Jesus is referring to the devil’s work in the Garden of Eden when he tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. He lied about it, she believed it, and she died as a result – spiritually that day, and physically later. And as a result, all of their descendants – all people, are born spiritually dead, in need of being born again. And all ultimately physically die. The devil is a murderer – killing all his descendants.
All that brings us to our text today. The point is, we are either of our father the devil if we do what he does; or we are of our Father, God, if we do what He does. Like Father, like son. Remember, last week, John was amazed at the Father’s love for us – who caused us to be born again – born of Him – so that we would actually be called children of God. Does that mean all people are children of God? No – only those born again. Read the text with me, which John clearly got from Jesus in John 8 – our text is I John 3:4-10. Everyone who has this hope fixed on Jesus purifies themselves even as Jesus is pure. Conversely…
This has been called one of the most difficult passages in the NT. In all the reading I did – and I did a lot – there are up to seven, perhaps legitimate interpretations of the passage. Obviously, the biggest challenges are in verse 6, “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him,” and verse 9, “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.” Is John here suggesting that those who are born of Him – that is, born again, saved – is he suggesting that Christians do not sin – in fact, they cannot sin? That’s a challenge.
Some have taught that. And yet, that seems to go against what John said back in chapters 1 and 2 – if we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves; if we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar; if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. So we cannot say we have not sinned or have no sin; and if we sin – and the force of the verse is, when we sin, we have an Advocate with the Father – one who intercedes for us.
But now, we get to chapter 3, and John talks about purifying ourselves – through the work of His Spirit – the anointing we have received. Now he says, that’s what Christians do – because as we abide in Him, we don’t sin. In fact, we cannot sin. Wow, what gives here? Let me outline the text and then we’ll make our way through it, trying make sense of what John is saying, because it is incredibly important.
The passage actually divides nicely in two very parallel sections – verses 4-7 and 8-10. Notice back at the end of chapter 2, John wrote, “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him.” Now he gets to verse 4 and says, “Everyone who practices sin…” and verse 8, “the one who practices sin…” He’s contrasting those who practice righteousness and those who practice sin. And he makes some clear statements about them in these parallel sections:
|Verses 4-7||Verses 8-10|
|The Nature of Sin: Everyone who practices sin practices lawlessness (4)||The Origin of Sin: The one who practices sin is of the devil (8)|
|He appeared to take away sin (5)||He appeared to destroy the works of the devil (8)|
|The one who abides in Him does not sin (6)||No one who is born of Him practices sin (9)The one who is born of Him cannot sin (9)|
|The one who practices righteousness is righteous (7)||Anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God (10)|
We’ll take those parallels one at a time as our main points:
- The Nature and Origin of Sin (4,8)
- The Purposes of His Appearing (5,8)
- The Result of Abiding in/Being Born of God (6,9) – those problem verses.
- The Practice of Righteousness Reveals Paternity (7,10) – sorry Pharisees, sorry Oprah, sorry Pope – the practice of righteousness or sin reveals who your Father is.
As I said, this is a very challenging text. Let me say at the outset I do not believe it teaches sinless perfection – that is, that Christians do not ever sin. But as I often say, God’s grace and the promise of forgiveness is not permission to sin. Rather, we will find that Christians do not sin as a way of life – and when they do it grieves them. Instead, they practice righteousness as a way of life. They seek to purify themselves through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Now, there are a number of ways people interpret this text. I’m going to narrow it down to two – and actually, they are complimentary, and so maybe both are true. John starts in verse 4 with the nature of sin – he defines it as lawlessness. This is a little technical and challenging, but I believe it’s important, so try to follow. Let me give you a literal translation of verse 4. “All who do the sin also do the lawlessness, and the sin is the lawlessness.” The word practices is not actually in the text, but is provided by translators for understanding. How do they get that? The word do or does could also be translated make or makes – the ones who make the sins. It’s in the present tense, and so many suggest the idea is an ongoing doing of sin – an ongoing making of sin. Hence, the word practice.
I think that makes sense, even though many modern commentators suggest that is stretching the present tense. And yet, even the ESV, recently translated by able scholars, have it translated, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness.” So again, the idea is not occasional sinning which grieves us, but a practice of sin as a way of life. I think that makes sense. All those who are born of Him, who abide in Him demonstrate the reality of a new life in Christ by not sinning as a way of life. Their lives are not characterized by a pursuit of sin. The overall character of their lives is a pursuit of purifying themselves, even as He is pure. And that’s a lifelong pursuit, such that I can say, as you grow in Christ, you should become more and more like Him – actually sinning less.
But notice, I translated the verse, all who do or make the sin do or make the lawlessness, and the sin is the lawlessness.” This is where it gets a little technical. You see, both sin and lawlessness have the definite article the in front of them. The sin is the lawlessness. And so, some suggest John is talking about a specific kind of sinning – that which he identifies as lawlessness. It’s the word anomia, the word law with the negative –a– before it. Meaning, no law – lawless. Now, this word is only used a few times in the NT, and never refers to the Mosaic Law. So John is not saying, sin is breaking the law of Moses, although generally, we could say that is true.
Rather, when we look at this word and how it’s used, is speaks of a specific kind of lawlessness. Let me just sum it up by saying this: lawlessness as used in the Bible is an active, willful rebellion and disobedience against God and His right to rule. It is willfully shaking your fist in the face of God and saying, I know You say don’t, but I’m doing it anyway – I defy You. John Stott calls it “a defiant violation of God’s moral law….an active rebellion against God’s known will.” Karen Jobes says, “Anomia is the rejection of God’s authority and the exaltation of the autonomy of the self.”
Given that understanding, John is saying, Christians who seek to follow Jesus do not sin in this way. We certainly don’t sin as a way of life – practicing sin as a lifestyle – but nor do we shake our fists in the face of God. Sin grieves us, because we are disobeying our Father who loved us, gave His Son for us, caused us to be born again, who calls us children.
A couple of years ago, several pastors here at Alliance read a book together called The Reformed Pastor. It was written in the 1600s by Richard Baxter, an English pastor who thought pastors needed reformation – their ministry needed reform. One of the things he advocated in the book was that pastors should visit their people in their homes at least once per year. Can you imagine? And the visit wasn’t just to talk about the Superbowl, March Madness, or the latest election. No, rather with each annual visit, he would intentionally ask his people the following two questions:
- Can you truly say, that all the known sins of your past life are the grief of your heart, and that you have felt that everlasting misery is due to you for them; and that, under a sense of this heavy burden, you have felt yourself a lost man, and have gladly entertained the news of a Saviour, and cast your soul upon Christ alone, for pardon by His blood?
- Can you truly say, that your heart is so turned from sin, that you hate the sins which you once have loved, and love that holy life which you had no mind to before; and that you do not now live in the willful practice of any sin? Is there no sin which you are heartily willing to forsake whatever it cost you; and no duty which you are not willing to perform?
I believe Baxter gets at the heart of the issue. When we love Christ and are children of God, we want to forsake sin and pursue righteousness. I’m almost out of time – let me summarize quickly the next three points.
How can we pursue sin, when Jesus appeared to take away sin, and He did so by dying in our place on the cross, bearing our sins in His perfect body? Verse 5, you know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. There are many verses that proclaim the perfection of Christ – that although He was tempted in every way as we are, He never sinned. He was and is the perfect Man and God – such that He could die for us. If we claim to be His followers, how can we follow the sin He came to take away?
Further, verse 8 says He appeared to destroy the works of the devil. Of course, that refers to the devil’s work in the Garden when he successfully tempted our forebears, plunging them, and us, into spiritual and physical death. Jesus destroyed his works, and acts as our example and protection against the one who would seek to lure us to sin, to devour us, to destroy us. Why would we pursue the evil one that Jesus has already destroyed?
You see, as I said earlier – point three – those who abide in Christ, who have been born of God, do not make a practice of sin as a way of life. If you do, verse 6 says you have not seen Him with the eyes of faith, and you do not know Him. Further, verse 9 says God’s seed – I believe that’s another way of referring to the Holy Spirit or perhaps our new nature implanted by the Holy Spirit – it’s in keeping with being born again – God’s seed of regeneration and sanctification remains in you. So that, you cannot make sin a practice of your life. It grieves you – and you have a newfound desire, by the Spirit who dwells in you, to pursue righteousness. Such that, John can say, you cannot sin – not in the sense of lawlessness – in the sense of pursuing it as a way of life, more than pursuing Christ. And when you sin, it grieves you.
And the result is – our last point – your life reveals your true paternity. The truth is, we are not all children of God. Some say so, supposing I guess denying that many are seems so unkind and unloving. But the truth remains, by our pursuits – by our practices – we prove whose children we are. Those who pursue righteousness as a way of life prove to be children of God. To be clear, we don’t make ourselves His children by our pursuits – we prove our paternity – who our true Father is.
Similarly, any who do not practice righteousness is not of God. They have not been born of God, God’s seed is not in them, they do not abide in God, they are not of God – they are children of the devil. Harsh? No – truth. And our desire is for such people to change fathers. To repent of their sin, believe in Jesus as the Christ – who He is, and what He came to do through His death and resurrection. That’s how you become children of God – remember John 1 from last week, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” You see, you were not a child of God until you believed in Jesus. And you are not now a child of God, if you have not believed in Jesus.