The Lord commands us through the Apostle Peter, “As He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’” But have you ever wondered what that means? That’s something Christians have wrestled with since the very beginning. For example, during the 4th century hundreds of Christians believed that the world had become so evil that they had to withdraw from society, live as hermits, and deny themselves the normal pleasures of life. And the extremes they went to were amazing!
Besarion the monk refused to give into his body’s need for sleep. So for 40 years he slept standing or sitting up. Macarius the Younger sat naked in a swamp for 6 months until mosquito bites left him looking like a leper. Saint Maron lived 11 years in a hollowed-out tree trunk. But my favorite, Simeon the Stylite of Syria (pictured below), sat on top of various pillars for 37 years. The last one was a 66 foot pillar on which he finally died at the age of 72. Those are just a few extremes to which believers have gone to overcome the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life and become a saint of God.
What do you think of their efforts? Do you think they achieved the holiness they wanted? More importantly, have you achieved the level of holiness you want?
There are many misconceptions about holiness, but the Bible is clear. Every follower of Christ is a saint of God and called to live a life of holiness. But there are two extremes to avoid. One is the misconception that some believers by a super-human effort or special visitation of the Holy Spirit can attain a state of perfect holiness in this life. And that just isn’t true! Only Jesus was without sin in this life. As for the rest of us, the Bible says we all stumble in many ways. By the way I knew a Christian who once claimed that—that he’d come to the point in his life where he no longer sinned. And he was very proud of it which I think is a sin according to the Bible, is it not? The other extreme to guard against is the notion that sin is so powerful that we can never be like Jesus. So why try? That isn’t true either. As we’ll learn in this study, sin is powerful but we can overcome it, not by a great legalistic effort on our part or even by a special supernatural experience with God. Instead, the key to holiness is motive.
In particular, what I want to focus on is love-based obedience. The truth is many Christians spend their entire lives frustrated over their lack of holiness. But so often that’s because they’re seeking it in the wrong way or for the wrong reason—out of fear or guilt or pride or duty! That’s never worked for anyone, and it won’t work for us either. Instead, the Bible teaches that holiness of heart and character grows as our love for God increases. “We love Him because He first loved us!” So that’s what I want to focus on in this study. Here John gives us 3 incentives for holy living, each one wrapped up in love.
1. God the Father loves us.
1 John 3:1-3 is one of the most beautiful passages in Scripture. John says: “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”
The first reason to pursue holiness is because the Father loves us and takes joy in us just as He takes joy in Jesus His only begotten Son. And therefore, because He loves, our impulse is to please Him in all we do and say just as Jesus lived not to do His own will, but the will of His Father in heaven.
Can you feel the love of God flowing from the Father heart of God into your heart? Many people can’t for various reasons—legalistic misconceptions of God as an angry Judge instead of a loving Father, broken relationships with our own fathers that distort how we feel about God, as well as hurts we’ve suffered that make us doubt God’s love for us. That’s why John gives us the assurance he does. No matter how our earthly fathers felt about us, our Heavenly Father dances over us with joy. Have you ever had anyone do that? God does. Just as you stood by the beside of your little one, your heart overflowing with joy, that’s how your Heavenly Father feels about you except His love is beyond anything you can imagine! That’s why Paul prays as he does in Ephesians 3:17-18 –
“That being rooted and grounded in love, you may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Isn’t that amazing! In fact, the most amazing part is that we’re no longer innocent babes lying in a crib. We’re prodigal sons and daughters who have sinned against our Father’s love! And yet, what did Jesus say about it? While he was still a long way off, his father ran to him, fell on his neck, and kissed him. And then rather than giving him time for the full confession he wanted to make, he said to his servants, “Bring the best robe and put it on him and put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet and bring the fatted calf, so we can eat and be merry. For this my son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found!”
That’s the first evidence of our Father’s love—His joy in calling us His children. By the way, if God is a Great King and calls you His child, what does that make you? A prince or princess of the Most High King with an incredible inheritance ahead of you! That is the second evidence of His love: His amazing generosity to His children. No tight-fisted giving with our Father. The Bible says every good and perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. In other words, any good thing you’ve ever enjoyed has come from His hand. Nor will it end with that! If you truly love Jesus, you’re about to come into an inheritance that’s beyond your imagination.
Verse 2 continues: “Beloved, now we are children of God and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He (Jesus) appears, we will be like Him because we’ll see Him just as He is.” In other words, the best is yet to come! These mortal bodies which are dying more and more every day are about to be changed into the likeness of our Risen Lord who’s going to share all the glories of heaven with us forever. And therefore, what’s the only thing that makes sense in light of His love? Do you see it? Verse 3: “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies Himself just as He is pure.”
Like many of you, I’m a proud father whose greatest joy in life is the two beautiful Christian girls God gave me. Cheryl helped each of them ask Jesus in her heart at an early age, and both of them have faithfully followed Him ever since. Oh, they have their faults, just like the rest of us. But neither one has ever wandered far from the Lord for very long. I think there are two reasons for that. One is God’s amazing grace in answering our prayers and the other is how close we’ve always been to our girls. For though we made lots of mistakes as parents, the one thing they’ve always known for sure is that we love them more than anything else on earth, and for that reason, neither one of them has ever wanted to disappoint us.
In fact, the biggest challenge we had with either one was when they turned 18 and fell in love with what we felt was the wrong guy. Both were Christian young, but we didn’t feel they were equipped to lead them in the right direction. So we asked them to break up with them and trust the Lord to bring them the right guy. And though they strongly disagreed with us, they loved us and trusted us enough to comply. And sure enough, before long God brought them both wonderful Christian men. Becca and Aaron celebrated their 5th anniversary in September. Heidi and Ben will celebrate their 10th anniversary in January.
My point is as faulty as our love is as earthly parents, if it can motivate our children to give up what’s harmful to their spiritual health, then what about us who are children of the King of Kings, loved beyond imagination and about to inherit a kingdom that’ll never end? Shouldn’t we be just as motivated to please Him in all we think, do, and say? That’s our first incentive for holiness. God the Father loves us. The second motive follows in verses 4 to 8 where John says—
2. God the Son Died for Us.
Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, was regarded as one of the most brilliant thinkers of his day. And though I disagree with much of what he taught, there is one thing he said that I loudly “Amen!” Once while teaching here in the States, a seminary student asked him the question: “Dr. Barth, what is the greatest truth that has ever crossed your mind?” All the students sat on the edge of their seats waiting to hear what the great philosopher would say. Very slowly he raised his great head and surprised them with his answer: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Amen? That’s the greatest truth in the world and our second reason for holiness. God the Son died for us.
John refers to this in verse 4 where he turns from the future appearance of Jesus to His first appearance, reminding us why He came into the world. “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.”
John says there are two reasons Jesus came into this world. First, He came as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. How did He do that? By taking them to the cross with Him and burying them in the tomb, which means if you sincerely love Jesus, where are your sins today? Gone forever! As the hymn puts it, “Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me; Buried, He carried my sins far away; Rising, He justified freely forever; One day He’s coming—O glorious day!” Do you believe that? Then let it fill you with love for the One who did it and a determination to live for Him no matter what!
By the way, just a word about verse 6 before I go on, because I find it often worries people. John says, “No one who abides in Him sins,” and that makes people worry, “Uh-oh! I sin sometimes. So does that mean I’m not a real Christian?” No, the word “sin”in the original language is in the present tense indicating ongoing action. John isn’t saying you’ll never sin if you love Jesus. You remember he said in chapter 1, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” What John is saying is that we’ll no longer continue in sin if we love Jesus. For the Holy Spirit very quickly convicts of sin when we do what’s wrong, and the Lord very firmly and faithfully disciplines His children so we don’t wander too far off the path. In other words, I think the best way to translate the verse is to say, “No one who abides in Him persists in sin.”
The second reason Jesus appeared, according to John, is to free us from the power of sin. Verse 8 continues: “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” The logic here is very clear. The reason we don’t continue in sin is because sin is the devil’s work, and Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil. But don’t miss this. The word “destroy” here doesn’t mean to annihilate. One day soon Jesus will do that. He’ll crush the serpent’s head, cast him into the Lake of Fire, and put an end to all of his works. But for now, Satan is alive and well on Planet Earth! So what does it mean when it says He “appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil?” The word means to render powerless. In other words, you and I now have a choice to make. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the power of sin has been broken. But the victory doesn’t come automatically. It requires a choice on our part. Will we continue to fight in our own feeble strength? Or will we surrender to the Lordship of Jesus and win the victory over sin?
Most you have read about the Japanese soldiers who refused to quit fighting at the end of World War II. The longest hold-out was Lt. Hirro Onada who was left on the Philippine island of Lubang in 1944 and told to “carry on the mission even if Japan surrenders.” So he did. For the next 29 years, he hid in the jungle, shot at and killed several Philippine nationals, and continued to ignore every attempt to convince him that the war was over. In fact, it wasn’t until his former commanding officer arrived on the scene and ordered him to stop that he finally surrendered his sword. And then his only comment was: “Nothing pleasant ever happened during my 29 years in the jungle.” What an understatement!
And the same thing is true of your battle with sin. Nothing good will ever come of it until you recognize that you can’t win it on your own, surrender your life to Jesus, and start living in the power of His Spirit. For that’s why He died! He died to break sin’s power and rose again to give us the power of His resurrection. And finally, one more motive for holy living—
3. God the Spirit Is Changing Us.
Verse 9 says, “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.” What’s the reason John gives for our victory over sin? He says it’s because we have a new nature! That’s what he means by His seeding abiding in us. You didn’t realize it at the time, but the moment you believed in Jesus, a miracle took place in you—the miracle of regeneration. “Generation” means birth and “re” means again, referring to the miracle of the new birth. As Jesus explained to Nicodemus, the only way to enter God’s kingdom is by being born of the Spirit. But having completed that initial work, the Holy Spirit now has an additional mission – to change you until you become just as holy and loving and kind as Jesus Himself!
Paul describes it like this in 2 Corinthians 3. He says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.”
That’s why we also go through the trials we do! When you first begin to follow Christ, He probably gave you the power to overcome the biggest sins that had enslaved you. So you may have assumed that the worst was behind you only to run into all sorts of problems you never expected—physical illnesses, financial hardships, family conflicts, as well as spiritual attacks that take you by surprise, making you wonder, “Why, when all I want to do is to serve Christ, do all these trials come my way?” The answer is clear! God is forcing us on to a higher level, putting us in situations where we have to be more patient, more loving, and more courageous than we intended to be. All of which seems unnecessary to us! But that’s because we have no idea of the great thing God is making of us.
C.S. Lewis likened it to remodeling a house. He said, “Imagine yourself as a living house that God has come to rebuild. At first, you can understand what He’s doing. He’s getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on. You knew those jobs needed doing. So you’re not surprised. But presently he begins to knock the house about in a way that hurts abominably and seems to make no sense at all. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage. But He is building a palace, for He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
You may have noticed that I skipped over two of the most important verses in this book when I began this study. That was intentional. I wanted them to finish with them so they would be the last thing on our minds. They are the last two verses of chapter 2 where John sets the stage for everything he has said about holiness. 1 John 2:28 says, “And now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming. If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him.”
Can you think of a more important reminder to finish with? Jesus Christ is coming again, and when He does, He is going to reward us for everything we’ve done in these bodies, whether good or bad. Therefore, how should we live according to John? We should live holy and righteous lives so that we’re confident and not ashamed at His coming.
That’s something I think about every day now because I know I’m so much closer to standing before Him now than ever before, and I don’t want to be ashamed. What about you? To help us all make sure we’re ready for Heaven, let me pose two simple questions before I finish: 1) Do you see an ongoing pattern of change in your life? For example, are you experiencing victory over the unhealthy habits that once enslaved you and becoming more like Jesus in all you think, do, and say? Because if you’re just treading water, satisfied with how far you’ve come, you’re actually fighting the Spirit of God within you because His goal is to make you just as patient, loving and courageous as Jesus Himself!
2) What’s your motive for becoming holy? Is it guilt, duty, fear of punishment, or maybe even pride? Because if it is, that’s won’t work either. The only motive that will get you where you want to be is love. “We love Him because He first loved us.” So keep it simple, saints, and focus on love. “For now abideth faith hope and love—these three. But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)