Sunday, June 14, 2015
Being IN The Christian Community
There is a lot of confusion in modern Churches about what it means to be "in Christ." Over the course of history, many scholars, theologians, and pastors have allowed themselves to either over-emphasize or under-appreciate certain aspects of Christian belief. As can be expected, such behavior has resulted in error and even heresy within the Christian community. One of the major issues confronting the Church today is the logical consequences of an over-emphasis on some forms of dispensational theology. In particular, the common belief that gospel and law are incompatible and that faith and works have no relationship whatever is a belief that has resulted in turning biblical Christianity upside down on its head. And today, the chickens are coming home to roost. In order to understand why this particular concept within dispensational theology cannot be correct, all one needs to do is look at the letter of 1 John. For purposes of this post, I want you to look at 1 John 3:7-10 specifically.
The first step in the exegetical process is to establish the text. However, for purposes of this post I will only mention that there are a minimal amount of insignificant variants that appear in this pericope or section of Scripture. This will allow us the luxury of jumping into the text and move to the immediate task of attempting to understand the meaning and subsequently, the significance of John's words to his original audience and to us today.
When reading 1 John, one must be always aware that John is dealing with an apostate group that has left the Christian community, went out on its own, and formed a competitor or alternative to the Christian group. Clearly, there are aspects of biblical Christianity that this rogue community chose to reject. Rather than submitting themselves to the authoritative teachings of the apostles, they embraced those elements of Christian doctrine they found gratifying, rejected what they did not like, and came up with an alternative system and subsequently, an alternative community. John is dealing with that community throughout his epistle and it is that context that sets the framework for how we approach our more immediate text.
First, it will benefit us a great deal to pay close attention to the style of John as he makes the main points that are at the forefront of his mind. He begins with the what is called a thematic address "little children." When an author uses this technique, he is seeking to do something very specific with the audience. By using thematic address in this way, John is putting his hands on the face of the audience like a mother would her upset child in order to get her attention just before she says what she desperately wants her child to hear. It would be similar to me saying "no one did anything wrong here" and me saying, "John, John, John, listen to me: you did not do anything wrong here." That is the effect John is seeking when uses the phrase "little children" at the start of this section or pericope.
Second, John employs a meta comment. A meta comment is another device used to grab someone's attention in a more serious, intense or profound manner. It is like a manager, instead of saying "there is to be no overtime" instead says, "listen carefully to what I am about to say on the subject of overtime: there will be no overtime at this time." The meta comment in this example is "listen carefully to what I am about to say on the subject of overtime." It sets you up for the more important message that is to follow. This is precisely what John is doing. Evidently John has something to say that he wants to make sure reaches its mark even more than some of the other things he had to say. This meta comment John employs is "let no one deceive you." The meta comment juxtaposed with the thematic address from a stylistic perspective strongly indicates that John desires to get the attention of the audience. He is profoundly concerned about a deceptive component that threatens this community. John seeks to protect the community from deception and he does so with the only protection anyone has against deception: truth, sound doctrine.
John then informs the community that the one practicing righteousness is righteous just as Christ is righteous. Stated another way, those who are righteous as Christ is righteous are practitioners of righteousness. If you want to test someone's claim to be righteous, that is, in Christ, examine their practice. If their behavior is predominantly defined by a lifestyle in pursuit righteous living, then they are righteous. That is the measure that John provides this small community of believers. This too, is a tool for us today for what it truly means to be in Christ.
Note, however, John is not finished. Just as behavior is used to identify those who are in Christ, it is also helpful in identifying those who are not in Christ, but who, by the very nature of the fact of not being in Christ, are of the devil. John continues this theme by saying "the one who practices sin is of the devil because the devil has been sinning, practicing sin from the beginning. The mark of true faith is seen in one's behavior. John is adamant about this truth.
John then employs a common forward-pointing reference, eis touto, for this reason. There is nothing more central to the Christian faith and message than what John is about to say. This use of eis provides us with the intention of Christ's entering the world. It is used in Jn. 18:37 where Jesus gives His reason for being born and coming into the world. This was the purpose of the Christ! "The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil." Notice that John links sin with the works of the devil. Christ came to destroy sin, to destroy the works of the devil. Sin is synonymous with the workings of Satan. If one intentionally or inadvertently defends sinful practice of any kind, he or she is ignorantly or even knowingly aligning themselves with the work of the devil. Hence, any contemplation regarding the Christian's relationship with divine law should be approached with great humility. The Christian liberty movement has more people aligned with the devil on this front than most people realize. Lawlessness has no place in the Christian community and has no part in gospel-preaching that is faithful to Scripture.
John then moves to the consequences of what he is driving toward. And what is the point? The point is that No one who is born of God practices sin because God's seed remains in in him. Sin cannot define the life of the righteous person, the believer, the one who has come to faith in Christ because God's seed, God's nature resides in him through the presence of the Holy Spirit. One must recall that this is being stated within a very specific context. It appears that some of the secessionists contend that they are without sin while others believe that sin is not a significant issue. These beliefs are tied to other philosophical commitments that are too complex to enter at this point. Suffice it to say that it would be in poor judgment to read our modern situation back into John's writings. We must move in precisely the opposite direction beginning with John's original audience moving outward toward our own situation if we are to understand John's concerns. The notion that men can be without sin or that sin is irrelevant is rejected and debunked entirely in John's letter. Any philosophy or theology that would lead us into such beliefs is seriously and thoroughly defective.
Now, there is a very interesting consequence to John's argument and we see that consequence stated plainly enough in v. 10. By "this" the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. I agree with Wallace when he says it makes better sense to take the phrase "By this" as referring to what immediately follows and therefore serving as a summary to the preceding section and a transition to the section that follows. John here is saying, as he has stated and implied as well as inferred in other places, that one's fruit, that is, how one conducts his life is the best proof of his claim to faith. John uses a term that is very interesting when he says it is phoneros who the children of God are and who are the children of the devil. Louw-Nida places it under the semantic domain of light. It means that something is clearly and easily able to be known. In summary, because the nature of sin is what it is and because the nature of the new birth in Christ is what it is, there can be no co-existence between sin and the children of God or between righteousness and the children of the devil. The two entities, sin and righteousness share no common ground, no familial relationship, no similar interests and no mutual character traits. They are as different as night and day, hot and cold, love and hate, peace and war. A child of God cannot happily exist among the children of the devil and a child of the devil will not happily dwell in the city of the righteous. Paul said it this way: what partnership does righteousness have with lawlessness or what fellowship does light have with darkness?
Bringing us back to the beginning of the post regarding some of the issues that an over-emphasis and under-appreciation of particular doctrines may potentially create, I realize that not all dispensationalists are guilty of such behavior. For instance, John MacArthur, who happens to be my favorite preacher, finds certain elements that lead to lawlessness within dispensationalism equally repugnant and works hard to counter those views. Nevertheless, it seems plain to me that a general reading of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, together as well as separate, clearly repudiate the idea that there is nothing to Christian living outside of trying to be a 'nice' person, and that faith and the gospel are nothing more than a shallow lip service where Christians can continue in lawless behavior and still have legitimate claims of love and devotion to God. The Scripture teaches nothing of the sort. The rogue community that John was dealing with clearly had ungodly and unbiblical conceptions of sin and the place of righteous living in the life of the Christian and the place of the law in the gospel message. We face similar misconceptions today when we deal with people who think Jesus was a soft-spoken, politically correct marsh mellow accepting everyone's sin as is and demanding nothing of anyone outside of being 'nice' to one another which is how Americans define love. We can see clearly that John's text is entirely incongruent with such interpretations of the Christian life.