Do Not Confuse Morality with Righteousness

Good Clean Living

I John is heavy on obedience. Frequently John tells us that if we claim to know God and believe in Christ then we must obey God’s commandments (I John 2:4, 3:22, 5:3).  When we read these verses we often think of being moral. We think of not getting drunk, refusing to cuss, not fornicating, or being generally a nice person.

But John has a different idea in mind. For him righteousness, obeying the commandments of God, means conformity to Jesus Christ. We see this specifically in two places, but it is woven throughout the epistle. In I John 2:6 John says that anyone who says he abides in God must walk as he walked. Anyone who claims to be a Christian must walk as Jesus walked. In John 3:7 he says that he who practices righteousness is righteous just as he is righteous. Righteousness is defined by Jesus.  This is important for us because there are many good people in the world. There are Muslims, Mormons, and atheists who all live clean, moral lives. They are faithful to their wives. They do good in the community. They are hard workers. So if we define “righteousness” as good clean living then there are a lot of pagans who fit.  The Bible however defines righteousness as Jesus. There will be some overlap of course. There are many things good people will do or not do that correspond with righteous living.  But there is a world of difference between being moral and being righteous.

A Righteous Man Worships God

Perhaps most important is that righteousness is about worshiping God. Being righteous means we obey the first four commandments.  We have no other gods, except Yahweh. We do not worship idols. We do not take his name in vain. We rest so that we might worship him. It is impossible to be righteous without worshiping God. Perhaps this is why I John ends the way it does (I John 5:21).

A Righteous Man Believes in Jesus Christ

In I John 3:23 John commands us to believe on the name of Jesus Christ. A man can be good in some sense without trusting in Jesus, but he cannot be righteous. He cannot be obedient to God if he does not believe in Jesus Christ. Belief in Jesus Christ is the foundation of a righteous life. Without faith in Christ a man is not righteous. By the way, this also means that a righteous man calls upon others to believe in Christ.

A Righteous Man Confesses His Sins

John begins his letter, which is so heavy on obeying, with a reminder that we are sinners and we need to confess our sins (I John 1:8-2:3). Confession of sin is essential to righteous living. A righteous man wants to be more like Christ. When he isn’t he repents of his sins and flees to the Advocate (I John 2:1). Here again is a great dividing line between good, moral living and being righteous. Moral men do not confess their sins. They may admit they made mistakes and did something wrong, but they do not confess that they have sinned. Righteous men do.

A Righteous Man is Concerned about His Heart, Not Just His Actions

Morality is concerned primarily about outward behavior. We must be careful here, a righteous man will be concerned about outward behavior. Learning to be more like Christ and confessing our sins when we aren’t will result in concrete action. We cannot just be righteous in our hearts. This is clear throughout the whole Bible. Even if we only look at Ephesians 4:25-5:7 we see that we shouldn’t lie, steal, fornicate, sin in our anger, etc. Anyone who defines righteousness as primarily internal is going against God’s Word. But when we define righteousness as primarily external then we sin the other direction. We are equating morality with righteousness. A righteous man knows that failing to love is like murder (I John 3:14-15). Murder is murder, but so is hate, which is internal. A righteous man knows that lust is adultery (Matthew 5:28). Adultery is adultery, but so is lust. A righteous man knows that coveting is idolatry (Ephesians 5:5). Idolatry is idolatry, but so is coveting. The righteous man understands that who he is on the inside matters as much as what he does on the outside.  A moral man does not understand this.

Taking all of these together we  can see that righteousness, as defined by the Bible, cannot be equated with good, clean living or being moral. There will be some overlap between the two, especially in certain outward actions. But righteousness is vertical.  It requires worship and belief in  God and His Son Jesus Christ. Righteousness is conformity to Christ. It requires confession when conformity is lacking. Righteousness is internal. It requires an inner spiritual life that focuses on movement of the heart and mind toward God, as well as what we do with our hands, feet, eyes, and mouth.

Morality is not righteousness. When John tells us that we need to obey the commandments of God we need to see a picture of Jesus, not a picture of a good, upstanding, moral citizen.

Book Review: Finally Alive

Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again?Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again? by John Piper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good book on understanding the new birth. He spends a lot of time in I John, which makes sense. He does a good job showing why regeneration in necessary, how it occurs, and what are the results of it. He also nicely balances God’s work and the necessity of means. God does not believe for us nor does God magically change people’s hearts apart from the Word of God. I especially enjoyed his last chapter on how to be more proactive in evangelism. A really good book on this topic and worthwhile read for anyone working through I John.

What did I not like? Piper is still too revivalistic for my tastes. Too many altar calls in the book. Second, he has a low view of the institutional church and the sacraments. Both of those are almost non-existent in this book. Finally, I do not think he adequately addresses the continued presence of sin in the believer. That was not the point of this book. However, with all the time he spends in I John he should have explained more clearly how a regenerate person can keep on sinning. His view of regeneration is so dramatic that a natural reading leads to perfectionism. But he does not believe Christians are perfect. I did not think this tension was adequately explained.

View all my reviews

Signs of the New Birth

John Piper in his book, Finally Alive, lists eleven signs of the new birth from I John.

1. Those who are born of God keep his commandments (I John 2:3-4, 3:24).

2. Those who are born of God walk as Christ walked (I John 2:5-6).

3. Those who are born of God don’t hate others, but love them (I John 2:9, 3:14, 4:7-8, 4:20).

4. Those who are born of God don’t love the world (I John 2:15).

5. Those who are born of God confess the son and receive (have) him (I John 2:23, 4:15, 5:12).

6. Those who are born of God practice righteousness (I John 2:29).

7. Those who are born of God don’t make a practice of sinning (I John 3:6, 3:9-10, 5:18).

8. Those who are born of God possess the Spirit of God (I John 3:24, 4:13).

9. Those who are born of God listen submissively to the apostolic Word (I John 4:6).

10. Those who are born of God believe that Jesus is the Christ (I John 5:1).

11. Those who are born of God overcome the world (I John 5:4).

I would add two more.

Those who are born of God know they are sinners and flee to Jesus when they sin (I John 1:8-2:2).

Those who are born of God believe that Jesus came in the flesh (I John 4:2).

I would also add to his number three that the emphasis in I John is on loving the brothers, that is other Christians. Of course, John is not excluding loving our enemies and pagans, but that is not the emphasis in I John.

A Declaration of Insanity

It is odd that a book that is usually the cornerstone of a doctrine of sinless perfection begins with an extended section on the nature of sin, which removes any doubt that we are sinners. I just finished preaching I John 1:5-2:2. Here are some thoughts from this great passage.

God’s character restricts who he fellowships with. God cannot have communion with darkness therefore we must be light (Ephesians 5:8) if we are to be in fellowship with God.

A man cannot be a Christian and live a life dominated by sin.

People can claim to be Christians and yet be lying. They are shown to be liars by their actions (walking in darkness) or by their theology (I am sinless). There is such a thing as a false profession.

When we have fellowship with God by walking in his ways we also have fellowship with other Christians. We cannot claim fellowship with God and live in bitterness and antagonism towards our fellow believers. Yet this does not mean that everyone who claims to be a Christian we must be in fellowship with. See point above.

A claim to be without sin is a declaration of insanity. Any man who believes this about himself is living in a fantasy land.

Few of us will say we are sinless. However, many of us function as if we are not sinners. When we are confronted with our sin our mouths drop open and we say, “Impossible!” So while theologically we may not claim to be sinless, practically we live as if we are.

The truth and God’s Word are equivalent (See also John 17:17). Notice this pattern
I John 1:6 We lie and do not practice the truth
I John 1:8 We deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us
I John 1:10 We make him a liar and his word is not in us

Truth is not just a person, Jesus Christ, nor simply a set of beliefs, though it is both of those. Truth is something we practice or do. True grasp of the truth produces actions formed by that truth.

Regular confession of sin is the antidote to an elevated view of our own holiness.

I John 1:9 is not an excuse to keep on sinning. Anyone who uses God’s mercy in forgiving sins as excuse to keep on sinning does not understand God’s mercy. (See also Psalm 130:4).

One goal of Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and sending of His Spirit is so we might not sin. Jesus, John, Paul, and Peter all believe we can make substantial progress in holiness in this life. We can never be perfect. We just begin to obey in this life, but it is real Spirit fueled obedience that is conforming us to the image of Christ.

Jesus’ blood is the key to our forgiveness and cleansing. It is easy, much easier than we would like to admit, to forget the cross.

God is faithful to his promises to forgive our sins and make us clean. He has shown this faithfulness in the death of His Son.

Christ is our propitiation, a covering our for sins that turns God’s wrath away from us. Trying to remove God’s wrath from the equation is a compromise.

Jesus Christ is our ever present intercessor. This means we always need intercession. There is never a day when we don’t need Christ pleading before the Father on our behalf.

Our Intercessor is righteous. We can put complete faithfulness in our High Priest. He will never do us wrong.

I John 2:2 does not teach that Christ’s death on the cross was a covering for all the sins of all the men who ever lived. But it does teach that he covered our sins at the cross.

Structure of I John 1:5-2:2

I will finish preaching I John 1:5-2:2 this Lord’s Day. Here is the structure for those verses, which form one unit of thought. John give us three different if-then statements that expose a false claim. All three are followed by the correction to that false claim, as well as pointing us to Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the cross. In these verses John expresses some glorious gospel truths with a wonderful literary structure. I end each section with a paraphrase.


False Claim #1 (I John 1:6-7)
If we say that we have fellowship with God, but walk in darkness
     We lie and do not do the truth

We cannot live a life dominated by sin and still claim to be saved. 

Truth #1
If we walk in the light as he is in the light. 
      We have fellowship with one another
      Jesus cleanses us from all sin.

A life dominated by righteousness will be seen by our fellowship with one another and with Christ. 
           
False Claim #2 (I John 1:8-9)
If we say that we do not have sin 
     We deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us

A claim to be without sin (or possibly without a sin nature) will cause us to live in a fantasy land. We will be living a lie. 

Truth #2
If we confess our sins 
     He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness
                       
Regular confession of sin is one of the antidotes to believing ourselves sinless. We can confess our sins with confidence because God has promised to forgive us. 

False Claim #3 (I John 1:10-2:2)
If we say that we have not sinned
      We make him a liar and his word is not in us.

A claim to be without sin blasphemes God and shows that his word does not live in us. 

Truth #3
These things I write so you might not sin
If anyone might sin
         We have an advocate with the Father Jesus Christ the righteous 
         and He is the propitiation for our sins and the sins of the whole world. 

We are to strive to be without sin. The previous verses (I John 1:5-10) are not meant to encourage loose living. However, we will sin and when we do we have a present righteous intercessor whose past blood-sacrifice covers all of our sins. 

What Does It Mean to Be Saved?

John loves to use simple, everyday words to get across grand truths. Words like light, darkness, bread, know, walk, all have deep meaning within John’s writings. Here are the different ways John describes our salvation in his first epistle. I did not try to list all the ways John writes of our salvation. Nor do I list all Scripture references for each concept. Many of these he mentions several times. I also understand that some of these are causes of our salvation and others are effects of our salvation. We often view our salvation in a narrow way. The different ways John describes our salvation can help open our eyes to what it means to be saved. Rather than comment on them I am going to list them to show the variety he uses.

Being saved means we have eternal life and have passed from death to life (I John 1:2, 2:25, 3:14, 5:11, 13).

Being saved means we have fellowship with the apostles, with the Father and the Son, and with each other (I John 1:3,7).

Being saved means we walk in the light (I John 1:7, 2:10).

Being saved means that by the blood of Jesus our sins are cleansed and forgiven (I John 1:7, 9).

Being saved means that Christ is the propitiation for our sins (I John 2:2).

Being saved means we know God and know the truth (I John 2:3, 21).

Being saved means we keep the commandments of God (I John 2:3-4).

Being saved means we abide/remain in God and abide/remain in the light (I John 2:6, 10).

Being saved means that God abides/remains is us (I John 4:4, 13).

Being saved means we are anointed (I John 2:20, 27).

Being saved means we are children of God, have been born of God, and God’s seed remains in us (I John 3:1, 9).

Being saved means we believe on the name of Christ (I John 3:23, 5:13).

Being saved means we love God and the brothers (I John 3:17, 4:7, 19).

Being saved means we have the Spirit (I John 4:13).

Being saved means we confess that Jesus is the Son of God (I John 4:15).

Being saved means we have overcome the world (I John 5:5).

Being saved means we believe the witness/testimony of God (I John 5:9-11).

John Murray on Regeneration

I have been enjoying Redemption-Accomplished and Applied. I have not read it before. Murray is not the most exciting writer on the planet. But he is precise and clear. All of these quotes come from Part II, Chapter III. Here is his definition of regeneration.

God effects a change which is radical and all-pervasive, a change which cannot be explained in terms of any combination, permutation, or accumulation of human resources, a change which is nothing less than a new creation by him who calls the things that be not as though they were, who spake and it was done, who commanded and it stood fast. This, in a word is regeneration. 

And later in the same chapter

Regeneration is the beginning of all saving grace in us,  and all saving grace is exercise on  our part proceeds from the fountain of regeneration. (emphasis his)

And later commenting on several verses in I John (2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 4, 18)

This simply means that all of the graces mentioned in these passages are the consequences of regeneration and not only consequences which sooner or later follow upon regeneration, but fruits which are inseparable from regeneration. 

Finally:

Far too frequently the conception entertained of conversion is so superficial and beggarly that it completely fails to take account of the momentous change of which conversion is the fruit. And the whole notion of what is involved in the application of redemption becomes so attentuated that it has little or no resemblance to that which the gospel teaches. Regeneration is at the basis of all change in heart and life. It is a stupendous change because it is God’s recreative act. A cheap and tawdry evangelism has tended to rob the gospel which it proclaims of that invincible power which is the glory of the gospel of sovereign grace.