Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. – 1 John 3:7 ESV
There is a dangerous misconception within the church today that seems to believe that if we can increase the amount of good things we do while we eliminate our bad behaviors, we will become more holy. It works out something like this:
More good behavior – bad behavior = Holiness
It sounds so logical. It seems to make sense. But is it biblical? There is no doubt that believers in Jesus Christ are expected to live lives that are markedly different than those of the lost. The writer of Hebrews tells us to “Strive for … the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 ESV). Paul told Timothy to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness” (2 Timothy 2:22 ESV). This was a recurring theme for Paul. “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11 ESV). Peter wrote: “be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish” (2 Peter 3:14 ESV). He also said, regarding himself, “ I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (2 Peter 3:12 NLT). Paul encouraged the believers in Philippi, “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear” (Philippians 2:12 NLT). But the danger comes when we think that our growth in spiritual maturity is somehow up to us. Yes, we have a role to play, but ultimately, our holiness is the work of God, just as our salvation was.
The key is dependence. John writes, “And now, little children, abide in him” (1 John 2:28 ESV). That word “abide” means to remain or be kept. John is echoing the words of Jesus Himself. Over in his gospel, John recorded a lesson from the lips of Jesus where he taught about the vine and the branches. He used horticultural imagery to drive home a point about our need for dependency on Him. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5 ESV). A branch abide in or remains attached to the vine. It is kept by or maintained by the vine. In and of itself, the branch can do nothing. Apart from the vine, the branch is useless and, ultimately, fruitless. The same thing is true of us. We can do nothing apart from Jesus. He is the one who produces fruit in us and through us. The branch cannot bear fruit apart from the vine. We cannot bear fruit apart from Jesus and the Spirit that lives within us. When Jesus says, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8 ESV), He is letting us know that fruitfulness is a sign that we belong to Him. The very fact that our lives produce fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – is evidence of our abiding relationship with God. John puts it this way: “everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:29 ESV). We are children of God, therefore, we should act like children of God. It is part of our spiritual DNA. We have His Spirit within us. And while “what we will be has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2 ESV), we are His children right here, right now. That’s why we don’t practice sinning. That’s why John wrote, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him” (1 John 3:6 ESV). Continual, habitual sinning is anti-Christ. It is abnormal for someone who claims to be a child of God and has the Spirit of God living inside him. Which is why John says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9 ESV). He doesn’t say we DON’T sin. He says we can’t keep on sinning. It is against our nature. But the key is abiding. It is an attitude and lifestyle of constant dependence upon God. Our future perfection has nothing to do with self-effort. But it has everything to do with Spirit-dependence. Peter reminds us, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). Our very ability to “practice” or do righteousness is proof that we are children of God. Our good deeds are like a spiritual paternity test that reveals who our true Father really is. Jesus said of the Pharisees, “For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44 NLT). Their actions revealed their real father. And the same thing will be true of us. But we must abide. We must remain attached to and dependent upon Christ for all that we need. He not only saved us, He is sanctifying us, and “we know that when he appears we shall be like him because we shall see him like he is” (1 John 3:2 ESV).