Living as Children of God (preaching resource for Easter 3, 4/14/24)

This post exegetes 1 John 3:1-10, providing context for the 4/14/24 (Easter 3) RCL Epistle reading. This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary"), Stephen Smalley ("Word Biblical Commentary") and Leon Morris ("New Bible Commentary").

"Take My Hand" by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)


1 John examines the life that we share by grace with God, through Jesus, in the Spirit. This is the life that is real. In the first two chapters, John describes this life as fellowship with God. Now, in chapter three, he describes it as living as children of God and warns of beliefs and behaviors that keep people from expressing their true family identity. Note 1 John 3:10:

This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.

The gospel declares that, in and through Jesus, God has reconciled the world to himself—making all people his dearly loved children.  However, not all people participate in this divine sonship. Many continue living not as children of God, but as children of the devil. “No one who is born of God practices sin...he cannot…because he is born of God” (1 John 3:6a; 9b, literal translation). For John, sin is a force expressed in a settled lifestyle. His point is that unbelievers are devoted to a lifestyle of sinning.  In contrast, true believers, though imperfect in their behavior (they still sin), are devoted to living as God’s children—they actively embrace and express the Father’s love, the Son’ life and the Spirit’s indwelling.

The Fathers’ love (1 John 3:1–3)

1 How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.

Indeed, how great is the love the Father has showered on us!  While we were his enemies, he sent his Son to save us (John 3:16)—to reconcile us all to himself—making us all his dearly loved children.  Of course, not all people know, believe and thus experience this truth—not all know God to be the loving Father that he is. But those who have had their hearts and minds opened to this stunning truth by the Spirit, have personally experienced and, in faith, embraced the Father’s love. They know of and rejoice in their identity as God’s children. Their true identity has become for them an actualized reality.  

1 John 3:1 assures believers that they are God’s children right now, and 1 John 3:2 assures them that they will be his children fully and forever when they are glorified (fully perfected) in the resurrection at Jesus’ return. These declarations of present and future inclusion in God’s love and life bring believers great present hope. And 1 John 3:3 says that this hope molds their present behavior: Though imperfect, we have no desire to live habitually in sin. Rather, we reverence our Heavenly Father and seek to live in ways that are responsive to and expressive of his love, even as we look forward to the perfection yet to come.

So John begins by showing that we live actively as children of God by sharing the Father’s love. And next he addresses our sharing in the Son’s life…

The Son’s life (1 John 3:4–8)

Though living as God’s children, believers still commit sin—not as a settled lifestyle, but individual acts of sin out of the weakness of their flesh. But our loving Heavenly Father has this weakness covered. How? Through his Son Jesus who in his substitutionary and representative human life takes away our sins (1 John 3:4–6), and destroys the devil’s work (1 John 3:7–8). Notice each:

1. Jesus takes away our sins (vv. 4–6) 

4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Scripture defines sin in multiple ways: “Everything that does not come from faith is sin (Rom 14:23). “The schemes of folly are sin” (Prov 24:9). “Anyone…who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins” (James 4:17). “All wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17). But here in 1 John 3:4, John says, “sin is lawlessness.” Note that it’s “sin” not “sins” which John is addressing. He is referring not to individual acts of sin but to a settled trajectory of life that involves rebellion against God. But believers have renounced this way of life and have embraced the way (the life) of Jesus who has appeared to us through his incarnation, and in his sinless humanity (as our substitute and representative), takes away all our sins (see John 1:29, 36). 

We embrace and share the sinless/sin-bearing life of Jesus by placing our trust in him and following him as his disciple: “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1John 2:3). The sin, which is lawlessness, to which John here refers, is utter rebellion against God’s will and the Son’s life. This rebellious mind is set blatantly on self, rather than on God and his will for us. 

In contrast, believers embrace God’s will and the Son’s life. As a result, though not perfect in following Jesus, they do not practice lawlessness as a settled lifestyle. Rather, they identify with the One (Jesus) who alone is sinless—they live (“abide”) in Jesus: “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him” (1 John 3:6, NASB). To abide in Jesus is to “see” him and to “know” him—to experience intimate and continuing fellowship with him. This is living in the reality that we truly are God’s children. And this abiding in and with Jesus keeps us from deliberately disobeying God’s will (his “command”) for us. But a person who deliberately and habitually rebels against God’s will for them is proving that they do not know Jesus and therefore are not abiding in the Son’s life in fulfillment of the Father’s will. 

Note here that there is more in the death of Jesus on the cross than deliverance from condemnation, as wonderful as that is. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus delivered us out of sin and death unto a full sharing in his own righteousness and life—the life that is real. That righteousness and life is ours as we abide in Jesus, who also destroyed for us the works of the devil… 

2. Jesus destroys the devil’s work (vv. 7–8) 

7 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work.

The logic is clear: our behavior (doing) flows from our identity (being). If our identity is in God, we will obey him; but if our identity is in the devil, we will obey him. The primary contrast here is between Jesus (who has no sin, 1 John 3:5) and the devil (who does nothing but sin). Satan is a rebel, but Jesus is God’s obedient Son. Jesus who is God, was willing to become a servant for us. Satan who was created a servant of God, rejected his purpose, wanting to become God himself. From the beginning, Satan has been a rebel—a sinner—and Jesus came to destroy the devil’s evil work. 

Destroy in 1 John 3:8 does not mean “annihilate.” Satan is still alive and at work. Destroy, here means “to render inoperative, to rob of power.” Satan has not been annihilated, but his power has been reduced and his weapons have been impaired. He is still a mighty foe, but he is no match for Jesus and for those who trust in Jesus to destroy the devil’s work. 

In one of his parables, Jesus speaks of Satan as strong man guarding a palace containing “goods” that represent lost men and women (Luke 11:14–23). The only way to release these “goods” is to bind the strong man, and that is what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus, in coming to earth, invaded Satan’s “palace.” When he died, he broke Satan’s power and captured Satan’s goods. Believers rest in this truth that, through Jesus, Satan is a defeated enemy. He may still win a few battles here and there, but he has already lost the war.  Sentence has been pronounced on Satan, but it will be awhile before the full punishment is meted out. A person who trusts in what Jesus has done to deliver them from the bondage of sin, has no desire to obey Satan and live like a rebel. 

“Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray!” False Christian teachers were trying to convince believers that a person could be a Christian and still practice sin. John does not deny that Christians commit acts of sin, but he does deny that Christians live in sin as a settled lifestyle. A person who enjoys deliberate sin and who does not feel convicted of sin needs to examine themselves to see if they are truly sharing the Son’s life. It may be that the trajectory of their life is about being a child of the devil, rather than a child of God.

We live actively as children of God by sharing the Father’s love and the Son’s life. And we also share the Spirit’s indwelling:

The Spirit’s indwelling (1 John 3:9–10)

9 No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.

Those born of God do not “continue to sin.” Why? Because they are sharing the Father’s love and the Son’s life. And because God’s “seed” (the Holy Spirit) “remains” in them. When a person embraces the Father’s love and puts their trust in the Son’s life, they also experience the Spirit’s indwelling—it is for them a “new birth.” This is not to suggest that the Spirit is absent from a non-believer’s life, for indeed, in God (who is Father, Son and Spirit), we all (believers and non-believers alike), “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  But through the Spirit’s illumination, which calls forth a personal and active response of faith, we experience in a personal sense for the first time our true identity as children of God—we are “born again.” Everything changes.  

John is not suggesting that believers are free from all acts of sin. But believers are participating actively in the Son’s transforming life, through the indwelling Spirit (God’s “seed” now “abiding” in them). The Spirit is bringing forth in them more and more of the life that is real. Because this is so, true believers “cannot go on sinning”—they cannot continue in a settled lifestyle of sin. Why? Because their lives are being transformed by the Spirit, who is conforming them to the love of the Father and the life of Jesus.  Through the Spirit, their true identity as God’s children is taking hold. And as a result, their lives are more and more characterized by doing “what is right,” which includes loving fellow believers.  

Conversely, non-believers, though children of God through their inclusion in Jesus’ life, are living out of a false identity as children of the devil. This is evidenced by their sinful lifestyles. False teachers in John’s day taught that a Christian did not have to worry about sinful behavior because only the body sinned, and what the body did in no way affected the spirit. But John exposes their dualistic claims as lies. God, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, is conforming us in body (outward behavior) and spirit (inner character) to the Father’s love and the life of Jesus. We are called to actively yield to the Spirit, cooperating with him as he does his marvelous transforming work in and through us.


Genuine believers embrace and express their identity as God’s children by sharing in the Father’s love, the Son’s life and the Spirit’s indwelling. Their behavior, though imperfect, gives positive evidence of this participation. They continually renounce sin and embrace the practice of what is right. In this way, they share in the love and purity of the Father, Son and Spirit. May our lives faithfully express who we truly are: children of God.