Last week, in our look at 1 John 2:28-3:5, we reflected on how as a child of God, “be” comes before “do.” That is to say, according to God’s Word, we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And then, only after we have been made a new creation, are we enabled to do good works – out of thankfulness for what Christ has already done for us. Thus, we learned that as Christians, our present circumstance (between the first and second coming of Christ) defines our present position (we are loved and forgiven by God the Father).
So, having learned about the “be” of the Christian life, today we want to better understand the “do” of the Christian life. That is, what “practice” does the Lord call us to do in our daily lives. God’s call upon His children to live holy lives – to seek to live righteously – can be a difficult discussion. Unfortunately, it can be especially difficult for those of who are a part of the Reformed tradition.
“The Waltz of the Depravity Caveat”
Personally, I’ve found that we as Reformed folk will often live our lives according to a dance step that I have come to call “The Waltz of the Depravity Caveat.” It’s in ¾ time (we are Trinitarian after all), and it goes something like this: “I’m walking with God – but, I’m depraved, I’m depraved. I’m living for Him – but, I’m depraved, I’m depraved. I’m holy and just – but, I’m depraved, I’m depraved. Forgiven in Christ – but, I’m depraved, I’m depraved.”
When I was single, and still in seminary, I would meet with a fellow seminary student every Friday evening to pray together. One night, as we were getting ready to pray, I shared with my friend how I had just started dating this girl named “Stacie Boggs.” And, my friend said, “Oh, I know Stacie. She’s such a wonderful girl! A fine, Christian woman! She loves the Lord. She’s great!”
But, then he caught himself, paused; he got very serious and he said, “Well, she is depraved, you know.” That is “The Waltz of the Depravity Caveat.” – “Let’s not get too carried away with talking about holiness, righteousness, the glory of the new creation and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, without making sure that we always caveat everything we say with a nod to the doctrine of depravity! After all, Presbyterian and Reformed people are probably the only ones left who still believe in the depravity of man, so we need to make sure that we hold the line as the last bastion in defense of the sinfulness of man!”
Now, too be sure, the doctrine of the depravity of human beings – that we are born into this world separated from God by our sin, such that His wrath abides on us – this is an important and clearly biblical doctrine. The Bible teaches that apart from the work of the grace of God, man is totally lost – unable to choose God or seek His forgiveness. Because we were depraved and utterly sinful, God must initiate His work in us, or we will never come to Him.
At the end of 1 John, chapter 1, the Apostle John affirms these things. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” And, 1 John 1:10 says, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”
So, we must confess that we have sinned; and we must confess that sin still lives in us. But…that is not the same thing as continuing in your depravity. In fact, to say that a believer, a person who has been born of God is still depraved is inconsistent. If Christ did not die on the cross to rescue you from your own depravity – If Jesus does not deliver you from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life, then what’s the point?
Practicing Sin Versus Practicing Righteousness
Well, the Apostle John doesn’t do “The Waltz of the Depravity Caveat.” In fact, at the beginning of 1 John, chapter 3, he sets up two, very clear, and distinct categories: “those who practice sin and lawlessness” and “those who practice righteousness.” Consider these verses (1 John 3:3-10):
3 And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.
5 You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.
6 No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.
7 Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous;
8 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.
9 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.
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.
Here are three principles having to do with the practice of sin and the practice of righteousness that we may derive from these verses.
Principle #1: The practice of sin and the practice of righteousness are defined by the Law of God
Sin is a transgression of the Law of God. We find this truth taught in 1 John 3:4: “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.” As the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Question 14) puts it: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the Law of God.” Sin is not a random violation of the will of God. Sin is not unknowable. Sin is clearly defined as lawlessness, violations of the eternal law of God as He revealed His law to us in the Ten Commandments.
Principle #2: The practice of sin and the practice of righteousness are mutually exclusive
The person who practices sin is of the devil, and the one who practices righteousness is born of God. A person is either a child of God or a child of the devil. John uses very strong language in this regard (1 John 3:6): “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.”
Apparently, the false teachers who had infiltrated the church were of an antinomian bent. They were teaching that a new order had been ushered in such that the Law of God no longer had any value for the Christian. These false teachers were trying to redefine the Christian life apart from the Law of God. That’s why John gives a warning (1 John 3:7-8): “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He (God) 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.”
It would seem that some were trying to deceive Christians in the church into thinking that God doesn’t care how you live. Whether you practice righteousness or practice sin was inconsequential. So John says, “Don’t be deceived! The Christian life has everything to do with practicing righteousness!”
This is precisely the issue that we continue to struggle with as children of God today. But, John sets up two categories – two columns, if you will. In one column there are those who practice sin, which is lawlessness; these are of the devil. In the other column are those who practice righteousness; these are born of God.
If that sounds radical and out of accord with the rest of Scripture, then you don’t know how radical was Jesus’ teaching. In the Gospel of John, chapter 8, Jesus makes this astounding statement to the Jews who were questioning and opposing His claims as the Son of God. Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me…You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father” (1 John 8:42, 44).
Jesus draws a line in the sand – “Either God is your Father, and you therefore, love me and do as I command; or the devil is your father and you do his bidding.” Or, as Jesus puts it in that same discussion with the Jews who did not believe in Him: “…everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin…if, however, the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36).
Free to do what, you may ask? Free to now practice righteousness – to fulfill the Law of God. Freed from slavery to sin. Freed, in order to no longer walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
Principle #3: The practice of sin and the practice of righteousness are habitual works
Now, by “habitual works,” I mean that the one who practices righteousness makes it a habit to live according to God’s law. It does not mean that all sin is absent from the life of the believer, but it means that sin is no longer his or her master. Sin may still live in us, but the child of God no longer lives in sin.
That the practice of righteousness is a continuing and habitual work is evident by the way in which John speaks of the ongoing purification of the believer. The ongoing purification of the believer who has fixed his hope on his future glorification at Christ’s return (1 John 3:3): “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He (God) is pure.”
If believers were already perfect in righteousness, there would be no need for John to tell us to continue to purify ourselves, even as God is pure. So, to practice righteousness cannot mean that the child of God lives a life that is absent of sin. To practice righteousness means that the child of God is in the habit of practicing righteousness and not in the habit of practicing sin.
In formal dance settings, it used be, I am told, that a woman would carry a dance card. A dance card was the place where the woman would record the name of the man with whom she would dance each successive dance at a formal ball. Whoever’s name was on the dance card, that’s who the woman had to dance with. It was the rule of the formal ball.
Your dance card may have been stamped with the devil’s name all over it. At one time, you had to dance with him. But, no longer! If you are a child of God, then your dance card has been permanently engraved with the name of Christ – written in blood. He is Lord of your dance, and Lord of your life. You are no longer defined by your former ways – you are a child of God…a child of God who practices righteousness.
If Jesus is Lord of your life – if He is Lord of your dance – then stop singing “The Waltz of the Depravity Caveat.” Stop telling yourself, “I’m depraved, I’m depraved”! The children of God who are born of Him, are not depraved! The children of God who are born of Him, practice righteousness! Because He is the Lord of your life, He is the Lord of your dance! Yes, you were depraved, but, no longer. “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3)