In the epistles of John, we come across the concepts of abiding in Christ, what it means to be a brother, and what it means to love our brothers.
John uses the word “brother” to refer to both Christians and non-Christians, and it’s important to know this, so that we can understand who John is talking about when he says things like, “The one who does not love his brother, whom he has not seen, cannot love God”. John did not write this to condemn true Christians for not being loving enough, rather he wrote things like this so that true Christians would be encouraged to make a distinction between the deceivers and brothers – both of whom are called “brothers” in John’s lingo – and these people are still in “the church”, even though they separated themselves from the apostles.
There is a tangible example of “not loving” a brother in 3rd John, and we should use that as a reference for what it means to hate our brother, rather than assuming it’s the lack of ooey-gooey feelings. The example is Diotrephes:
The one who doesn’t love his brother is the kind of person who speaks evil of the apostles, puts people out of the church because they help Christian missionaries, and sets himself over the apostles. They claim to have more authority than the apostles.
Today these kinds of people would be called Cult leaders. They would be the kind of cultic “Christians” who are opposed to the true Gospel.
Think Jonestown. Think Waco.
They would be the kind of people who sin licentiously yet call it “not sin”. They would be the kind of people who walk in darkness yet claim to walk in the light. They would say they had no sin. But true Christians do claim to have sin. True Christians admit they have sin. In other words, these deceivers were hateful, mean, rotten people who did whatever they could to hurt the apostles and the true Christians, all while preaching some other message, saying they didn’t sin and still claiming to be Christian. This was obviously confusing for the “average Joe” Christians in the primitive, local assemblies. The Average Joe might have even feared a leader in the church like Diotrephes. The Average Joe in the primitive church might have even wondered if he himself was in fact saved after being excommunicated by Diotrephes. He might have lost his assurance of his own salvation.
When John spoke of “loving our brothers”, he wasn’t talking about people who don’t always have good feelings toward other people. John wasn’t talking about people who sin, or people who get angry sometimes… people who get frustrated with other people at times – it’s clear that Christians sin. John says so himself. But a distinction between true Christians in the church and the false Christians in the church is that true Christians “admit” to it when they sin.
There is a difference between people who sin and people who are “sin factories”. When John talks about a person who doesn’t love his brother – a person who hates his brother – he’s talking about these licentious people who are “sin factories” – people who are mean-spirited evil people. But, the letter of John has nothing to do with Paul’s concept of “doing what I don’t want to do”, and “not doing what I want to do” in Romans 7. John’s not writing about that kind of legitimate experience that every true Christian has. The people that John wrote about are the kind who would never have a Romans 7 experience because they wouldn’t admit to their sin in the first place.
“Repeating” a sin is not the same as “practicing” a sin.
And that’s important enough to repeat, I think.
Repeating a sin is not the same as practicing a sin.
Paul talks about the Christian who sins repeatedly, even though he doesn’t want to. John is talking about deceivers who practice sin – the word used for “practice” means “to produce sin” – kind of like a business owner who sets up a factory and hires people to come in and put together widgets – only these people’s lives are the factories… sin-factories. They walked in darkness because they had nothing to do with the Light. It wasn’t that they stumbled – we all stumble, and John’s answer for the Christian who stumbles is “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. No formulas. No confession booths. No walking around all day being super-conscious of your sins so you can confess them right away and get some sort of new forgiveness. Nope. Just… “we have an advocate” with the Father.
Abiding is not a mystical word. It simply means “to stay”.
It is popular in many Christian circles to consider this word as something that means “to experience”. But that is not how John uses this word. In John’s mind, there are Christians who remain or stay or continue in the faith and then there are also Christians who go out from the faith. A true Christian never stops abiding in Christ. If he were to stop abiding in Christ he would become a Muslim or a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness or an Atheist or an Agnostic or something similar. In the context of John’s letters, a person who did not abide in Christ would be a person who left the faith – a person who walked in darkness – a person who claimed to have no sin but still walked in darkness.
If we …
- interpret abiding as meaning “experience” …
- fail to properly interpret “brothers” as including saved and unsaved in the assemblies…
- realize John wrote so that we would make distinctions between deceivers and true Christians in the assemblies…
- don’t understand the difference between those who “practice” sin in John’s letters and those who “struggle” with sin in Paul’s letter to the Romans …
- We have mixed-up ideas about what it means to “love” and “hate” our brothers – basing it on feelings rather than the real-world example provided in 3rd John …
then we can only come to the conclusion that when we don’t experience God, when we’re not “loving” enough, or when we stumble, that we become “children of the devil”, since John wrote, “the one who does not love his brother is a child of the devil” (1 Jn 3:10 paraphrased)
This leads only to “spiritual schizophrenia”.
The Christian who approaches God with this misconception will never have peace with God and will therefore never receive the love from God that God wants them to receive.
The irony is this: “We love, because He first loved us.” (1 Jn 4:19)
If we’re not receiving God’s love for us, because of some sort of misconception, then we cannot love God, and if we cannot love God, we cannot love the children of God. So this misconception hinders the growth of the Christian, the peace of the Christian, the assurance of the Christian, and it hinders the practical outworking of love toward other Christians in this world. A person who has this misconception can never read the letters of John peacefully. He can never open his Bible and be comforted. He or she keeps getting hung up on the misconceptions and becomes fearful, yet John wrote:
There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear.