Scriptures: Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-10
God's Love, Our Response
As we look at the letter from John today as the focus of the Word, there are a couple of things that I wanted to mention – that are background, if you will – to our understanding some of what John is talking about. John's letter addresses a couple of heresies that were becoming common in his day.
The greatest one is called Gnosticism. That's a fancy Greek word. It means “knowing.” They were what you might call a mystery cult, that believed you had to have special knowledge beyond the gospel in order to get to heaven. They also had problems with the flesh overall. That is, Jesus' physical resurrection is something that most of them – if not all of them – did not believe in, believing that he was spirit only.
The second one was called Docetism, which is related to Gnosticism but it resembles more what today we would call hedonism. That is, you cut loose and you just live for sensual pleasure. Their take on it was twofold.
Number one, it showed mastery over their earthly passions, if you will, by the fact that they could do this and supposedly remain uncorrupted. The other perspective on it was that because they had been forgiven by God through Jesus Christ, they no longer sinned, so anything they did was OK, even if it might have been considered sinful elsewhere.
Without getting into too much detail, that is in a nutshell what John was facing and discussing when he went through this letter to the church. He calls the people in the church his children, and it's a sign of affection. It shows that he hasn't lost patience with the believers.
We won't see, that I recall, in the letters of John, his getting angry – which was quite a change, considering when he was the disciple of Jesus while Jesus was alive, he and his brother were known as the “Sons of Thunder,” because they were always ready to call down the wrath of God upon anybody who disagreed with them about Jesus. In fact, in the Scriptures, they even, at one point, ask Jesus if they can call down the lightning and the thunder of God on a town that had rejected him.
So he has not lost patience. But he does want to address the issues that are occurring with them. He writes that they might not sin; and in doing so, he says two things about sin. First of all, sin is universal. Elsewhere in this letter, he says the very phrase that I like to use as my Call to Confession: “If we say we do not sin, then the truth is not in us, and the only person we deceive is ourselves.” Everybody sins, and there is forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
So there are two things, two extremes, if you will, that we can take on that. One of them, as I noted with the Docetics, is to take sin too lightly, because of our forgiveness and the free gift of grace given in Jesus Christ. In Romans, Paul himself says, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” In other words, he was saying, because we have liberty in Christ and God's grace always abounds, does that mean that we can sin and count on His forgiveness? And Paul says no.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had some wonderful things to say about grace and repentance and forgiveness in his book The Cost of Discipleship. He had a concept called “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without the requiring of repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.”
To counter this understanding, John says that the Christian is one who has come to know God and is obedient to God. He is also a person who tries to live the same kind of life as Christ did, in imitation to him, and thus knowledge involves obedience, and union with Christ involves imitation.
So we look at a couple of different things in here. First of all, that we are God's children. Secondly, that we are sinful. Thirdly, that we are forgiven. And fourthly, that if we truly follow Christ and truly are his children, that there are going to be certain things that identify us, because of our response to God's love.
Obviously our first response is accepting Christ as Savior, to begin with. But Jesus says himself there there are many that would be called saying, “Lord, Lord,” and he's going to say, “I never knew you.” So what makes the difference? It's internal, and external.
Internally, we understand our sinful nature. We ask for forgiveness with repentant hearts. We once again begin to have grateful hearts and thankful hearts, as we understand what God's grace has done for us. That is the internal aspect of our adoption, if you will, and how we know we've been adopted by God by trusting in Him.
The external part deals with how we act – how we interact with other people, how we interact in our daily lives, both in the church and outside the church, as we respond to God's love with our very lives. And the fancy word that is frequently used for that is sanctification. It means to be sanctified. Sanctity, in its root, means to be separate, to be different. So we're called to be different. I don't know about you, but that makes me feel better, because I'm pretty weird.
C. S. Lewis wrote that too often we think that what sanctification is all about is sort of like taking a horse and training it to run a little faster than it used to run. In actuality, Lewis notes, what happens to us as believers, once we become grafted onto Christ, is not like taking a regular old horse and teaching it to run faster, but more like taking a horse, outfitting it with a pair of wings, and teaching it to fly. The saved life in Christ is not just any old life made a little bigger and brighter. It is to take a human life and transform it to a new mode of existence.
We are new creations in Christ Jesus. The old life is gone, and the new life has begun. We have something that others do not, and that is an eternal hope; because we have already seen the promises of God fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we have already received the adoption of God, by His own election, and the Passion and Resurrection that we celebrated just a couple of weeks ago. That hope cannot be taken away.
There was a person who wrote
I was leading a Bible study at the women's prison a few years ago. There I stood, waxing on about different takes on heaven, and a woman from the back row raised her hand. She told me it was all well and good that I had time to play around with those ideas. But she believed in a place and time where there will be no more hunger, no more thirst, and no more tears. And she counted on it.
That person then said that she ended up being the preacher that God put into our midst that day. And she definitely was a saint. She might not fit the idea that many modern minds have about what a saint is, since the term is more commonly used to mean “a best-ever super-great person” (though that's not Scriptural). But she does fit into the saints who are “a great multitude”; a saint who defiantly bears hope in the face of all things to the contrary, and tries to live a life that glorifies and honors God.
One of the preachers that I was looking at had some questions that I thought were very pointed (questions that may show up in our Facebook group).
Do you hold on to hope even when things seem to point to the contrary?
Do you hold on to hope in the middle of this pandemic?
Do you hold on to hope when a loved one dies?
Do you hold on to hope when finances become tight?
Do you hold on to hope when it seems like nothing is going your way?
You see, we can hold on to hope, because we are loved, and we're loved so much by God that we have been adopted by God.
My best friend Allen, the friend who was best man at my wedding, was adopted. His parents didn't think they could have a child. They had been told that they couldn't. So they went through the adoption process, and after they had been OK'd for it and they were preparing for it, naturally – as sometimes happens in these cases – they found out that they got pregnant. But they still adopted Allen, and then they had their other son Tom. So they're seven months apart. (That confused some people at school - “How do you have a brother that's seven months younger than you are?”)
Later on, somebody asked Allen, “Do you ever outside, or left out, or lesser, because you were adopted instead of being born into your family?” He said, “No, it's the opposite.” He said that his parents, by natural process – as well as by the grace of God, of course – had his brother Tom. But they chose Allen. They selected him. And they sacrificed for him.
You may not be aware, but the average domestic adoption process these days takes three years and almost $40,000. It's one of the reasons, frankly, why people like to get non-domestic adoptions. It's less expensive, and they're less likely to be in a good situation, so you can help somebody more. But it also speeds up the process.
We've been adopted. We've been chosen. We've been sacrificed for. So even though we may not have that physical resemblance that the liturgist spoke about, because of God's love, we will have a resemblance to Him in our lives. This will mark us as His.
One of the marks of a child of God that we see is that we have the Holy Spirit, which marks us as belonging to God. All of God's children bear the same mark. We all have the same Holy Spirit as a marker of our belief. Romans 8:16 says “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit, that we are God's children.”
This is not something that is physical on the outside, but again is a change and a presence on the inside of a person, which marks them as God's child. Because we know that we have been adopted, because we have that hope, because we have experienced that love, because we have invited the Holy Spirit within us, and He indwells us, we have been changed.
From that comes the second mark. The children of God are not only marked by the Holy Spirit; but the presence of the Holy Spirit in us creates a desire to be obedient to our heavenly Father. As children of God, we want to be like our Father who adopted us.
Thank you, Bob, for the music you played before the worship service, one of the songs I've sung at baptisms and such, by Phillips Craig and Dean, called “I Want To Be Just Like You.” If you have online access and you want to listen to that, you can go to YouTube and look for it.
We want to be like Him. We want to look like Him. We want to sound like Him. Ephesians 5 commands us, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Later in this epistle of John, he says, “This is how we know that we love the children of God, by loving God and carrying out His commands.” And it does not come from our own efforts alone. That would create self-righteousness, like the Pharisees. Rather, it comes of being born of God. We trust Christ with our life. We are born again, born into the new family. And we experience the change in His righteousness.
Those marks may not be appreciated by the world. John says “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” So we see that, even as they didn't recognize Christ, even as Christ told his disciples, “They're going to hate you because they first hated me,” they may not appreciate or know – that's in a Biblical sense, that is of intimate recognition and understanding – who we are. They may not grasp it. They may not appreciate it.
That's OK, because we're children of God. What we will be when we are perfected has not yet been made known, but in the end we shall be like Christ. And in fact we are commanded to become more like Christ each day. We manage to do that through our hope, and we manage to do that through our obedience, as we follow what God calls us to do in loving one another.
As we go through our life, as the children of God, depending on the love of God, experiencing the love of God each and every day, there is an unspoken, unwritten call to respond. And how we respond lets the world know whose we are.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.