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The First Epistle Of John by Augustus Neander

1 John iii. 1-3

FROM the conviction that believers are born of God, and thus are children of God, the Apostle derives the motive necessarily growing out of it, to avoid all that is sinful. This leads him to speak more at large of the dignity of the children of God, and of what is involved in it: |Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he [it] shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him, purifieth himself, even as he is pure.|

There can be no more intimate and endearing relation than that of children to their Father, when this fully answers to its nature. How much then must it imply, when creatures separated by an infinite chasm from their Creator, when men estranged by sin from a holy God, are taken into this relation to Him. How great the love he has manifested, by coming near and imparting himself to them, in order to close this chasm, to bring them into fellowship with himself! No higher evidence could be given of the love of God towards his apostate creatures. It pre-supposes the father-heart in God, towards those whom he adopts as his children. Far more is designated by it, in the sense of the Holy Scriptures, than the relation which God as Creator holds to his creatures. It is only in a more general sense that God is elsewhere called the Father of Spirits, from the peculiar relation of spirits as such to the supreme spirit, to Him who is called, absolutely, -- The Spirit; being in their nature as spirits adapted to reflect the image of the eternal, the supreme spirit, and therefore akin to Him, and susceptible of a fellowship of life with Him. It is oneness of race, a kindred nature, that unites children with parents; so spirits as such enjoy the special right, over all the rest of creation, of standing in this relation to God, and hence he is called in that more general sense their Father. But the race of man had through sin fallen from this relation to God; had forfeited that claim founded in their original nature, created after the image of God; were no longer partakers in that life by which they were akin to the holy God, and by virtue of which they might have been worthy to be called his children. It was therefore necessary that He, who from his nature is in the absolute sense Son of God, and who alone is such, should appear in their flesh and blood; that he should impart himself wholly to them, give his life for them, make himself entirely their own and unite them as one with himself; that as lie is the Son of God, so they, in fellowship with him and for his sake, might also become the children of God.

But the expression is here peculiar; not, they are children of God, -- but shall be so called. It is an indication, how much is implied in the right to bear this name. The name is the sign of the thing, the outward expression of the inward reality. The name may be conferred in advance; the right to bear it may be given, before that which is indicated by the name attains its complete fulfilment and realization. The son, destined to succeed to his father's whole property, his offices and dignities, receives with the right to bear the name of son, the certain pledge that he shall one day come into possession of all. So also in the right of believers to be called the children of God, there is more involved than in what they now, to appearance, actually are. It is their title, given to them of God, to come one day into the full possession and use of all which is indicated by this name, -- as assumed by the Apostle in what immediately follows. Since the outward condition of God's children does not here correspond to the dignity belonging to this name, to the glory indicated thereby; the Apostle therefore first directs the attention of believers to this incongruity, that when made aware of it by various painful experiences, they might not become unsettled in regard to what is thus conferred on them, but rightly understand that this must be so, -- that it could not be otherwise. They are the object of hatred and persecution to the world; they are in perpetual conflict with it. Are they to be disquieted on this account? No! This is nothing less than one of the vouchers for the great right bestowed on them by the father-love of God, the right to be called his children. It is one of the required testimonials, that they are truly standing in this relation to God. The dignity to which they are appointed, the glory of which they are now the depositories, is one which is hidden from the world. The world is far from surmising the exalted stand-point in the universe, occupied by the christian. The world understands nothing of that by which he is influenced and animated, and bestows on it only hatred and contempt. And wherefore? As the feeling with which we regard the father is transferred to the son, who follows the example and principles of his father; as hatred to the father is thus transferred to the son; so the disposition of the world towards the children of God, is the same as that towards God himself. As the world estranged from God cannot know Him; as even when professing a zeal for Him, it honors only that, is zealous only for that, which it has made its God, its own self-created idols; as it knows nothing of the true God, being estranged from him in the temper of the heart; so neither can it recognize the Father in his children, the image of God in those who bear it. It misapprehends the divine, for the very reason that it is divine. This temper, which separates it from God, is the source also of its hostility to the children of God. When, therefore, these are misunderstood, hated and persecuted by the world, they must not be perplexed and cast down on this account; but, perceiving the causes whence such treatment proceeds, must feel themselves ennobled by it. They must draw, from this encounter with the world, a more deep and living consciousness of that endearing and intimate relation to God, which places them in this position towards the world.

But how are we to reconcile with this the prayer offered by Christ as High Priest of his people (John xvii.22, ff.), that the glory bestowed by the Father upon him and by him upon believers, -- a glory consisting in the oneness of believers with him as he is one with the Father, -- may reflect itself in their life, in their fellowship with one another; that they may so testify of Christ, of his divine dignity and mission, as to lead the world to the knowledge of him; that the manner in which God reveals himself in the living fellowship of believers, may lead the world to perceive how much they are the objects of divine love? How are the two things to be reconciled, that what is cause of misapprehension and persecution to the world, should at the same time be the means by which the world is to be led to recognize the revelation of God in his children, to awaken desire after a participation in it? In order to this, we must distinguish a twofold character in that which is called the world. That which makes it such, the source of its hostility to God and his kingdom, -- this must be distinguished from that which forms in the world the transition-point to the kingdom of God, the still inherent capacity in man for receiving the divine image, the after-working of original relationship to the Divine. In virtue of the first, he is only repelled by the Divine in believers, and cannot recognize in it the Divine; while through the second, the divine glory, as mirrored in the fellowship of christians, exerts its attractive force to draw men to the Father, and to the Son who reveals him -- the point of connection whereby the Father draws them to the Son.

It is only in the first point of view that the Apostle here speaks of the world; and his words have a special reference to the then existing relations of Christians to the world. It was then as Jewish or as Heathen, that the world presented itself in opposition to Christianity and to the fellowship of believers, -- to the church of God. Something wholly new had made its appearance among men, standing in direct contrariety to the spirit by which the world was governed, to its convictions, its principles, its morals, its tastes, and to the organizations and arrangements of life originating therein. It must therefore be misapprehended, hated, and persecuted by the world. The recurrence of this same thing is still witnessed in heathen countries, where Christianity is first introduced by missions. But it is otherwise with those nations which have already long borne the Christian name; whose whole history and life, developed under the influence of Christianity, are bound up and connected therewith in an unseen, and to many, unconscious manner; nations sustained by Christianity as the life-element from which the national development and culture, the form of national life, originally proceeded. Christianity, when first appearing among a people, stands distinctly opposed to the prevailing opinions, principles, manners, and social arrangements, which had sprung from the root of a totally different religion. But this is not so with nations which have, as we have said, long borne the Christian name. Much which had its origin in Christianity, has become a part of the common national life, entering into its social institutions, customs. and modes of thought. Such is that general, world-transforming power of Christianity, forever at work in human history, as seen in a comparison of nations bearing the Christian name with heathen countries whether savage or civilized, especially as represented to us in the history of modern missions.

Do we now, in countries where Christianity has exerted its world-transforming power, find still existing this same opposition between Christianity and the world, and consequently an application here also of the Apostle's words? Or does that spirit, which fills and animates the children of God, here find a point of attachment in everything around them, thus developed from the all-transforming agencies of the Gospel? In regard to this it will forever remain true, that no one can become a child of God by natural birth, or in general, through anything performed externally, upon the body. On the contrary, this is a work which must be wrought from within, through personal faith, and the operations of the Holy Spirit. The saying of our Lord: |That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit,| declares a perpetual contrariety between the regenerate and the unregenerate; and consequently, the opposition between the children of God and the children of the world is one which will forever continue. It matters not whether the world arrays itself in open hostility against Christianity; or whether the latter has so far extended its all-transforming power, that the world itself has to a certain degree become affected by its influence, in many respects assimilated to it under the outward form of Christian culture, and now wages against it a more covert, unavowed, in part perhaps unconscious warfare. Those who belong to God as his children, in whom Christ has been truly formed, who in their whole life and being testify of him and reflect his image, whom he has chosen and consecrated through the Holy Spirit as his instruments in representing and extending his kingdom, these will ever feel constrained to maintain a conflict with all which is of the world and not from God, in order that they may make it subject to the kingdom of God, may through the sword of the Spirit subdue it to the obedience of Christ. Such cannot be deceived by that outward show of Christianity, in which the world, superficially affected by its all-transforming influence, has veiled its own true character. They will therefore have to contend with all that is unchristian here, not less than among a people never before brought in contact with Christianity. What then obtained when these words were written, when even externally the heathen world was distinguished from Christians dwelling in it, must ever continue even when that external distinction has been done away. Hence we see the genuine children of God, in all ages, involved in conflict with the world. In proportion as the Father is not recognized in his love and holiness, must the children, in whom that love and holiness are revealed, be misapprehended also. They cannot but be misunderstood. Often are they despised, or hated and persecuted; and they must then find their consolation in the words here spoken, pointing to that high dignity bestowed on them by the Father, as the true ground of this antagonism between them and the world.

This relation of the world to the children of God may exhibit itself under two forms. Those who have been affected more or less by this general influence, diffused among a Christian people, may be clearly conscious of the source of that superiority by which they are distinguished from all who belong to pagan nations; or they may unconsciously imbibe this influence as an element once introduced into the national development, without acknowledging Christianity as its source. The former are indeed deeply penetrated by a sense of their obligations to Christianity. Though far from recognizing Christ in his divine dignity and glory as the Incarnate Word, they yet acknowledge him as author of the most salutary revolution in human society. They honor and are willing to promote Christianity, as the means of diffusing through the life of every people those general moral influences which they have themselves felt. But they are unable, notwithstanding, to recognize and comprehend those who attach so much importance to Christianity, as a whole, in its own peculiar nature; who claim for it the entire life, requiring that everything should give place to the holy condemnatory earnestness of the Gospel, that everything should bow before it. The animating and impelling principle by which such are governed, remains to them a mystery; it becomes to them a stone of stumbling. Hence arises an opposition between these two classes; an opposition all the more bitter for the very reason, that those who are conscious of that general influence of Christianity upon the formation of their character, suppose that with this they have all they need; resenting it as a heavy offence if more is required of them, if they are not regarded, on account of what they already have, as children of God. Those who confront them with the Gospel in all the earnestness of its demands, are accused of putting something else in its place, of making the way to the kingdom of God too narrow; just as the Jews, having received so much that was akin to Christianity from the Law and the Prophets, and deeming this all-sufficient, hated him in whom they were fulfilled, and reproached him as being himself an enemy to the Law and the Prophets.

If now we turn to the second case, this too we shall find may assume a twofold form. It may be that those who share in spiritual blessings, which the people to whom they belong have attained only through the educating influence of Christianity, do indeed acknowledge this agency; but they suppose, the possession once secured, the nation needs this influence no longer. Though recognizing it as a means ordained by Providence for bringing humanity up to this stage of development, they believe that Christianity has now accomplished its work. Its highest mission was to make itself superfluous, -- by cultivating the nations to that state of maturity and self-dependence which they have now attained. This is one case. In the other, not even so much as this is conceded to Christianity. It is not recognized as the source of those blessings, which through its world-transforming influence have become the property of the nations. Their connection with the agency of Christianity is regarded merely as accidental; and a release from its restrictive yoke would, in the view of such, be followed by a more complete and happy national development. But as the fruit of a tree can only prosper in connection with the trunk and root, and with the fruit-producing sap which diffuses itself from the root through the trunk and all its branches; so these fruits also will soon vanish, if connection with their root, which is Christianity, is no longer maintained and kept alive in the national consciousness. Here too will the words of the Lord be verified: |He that hath not, from him shall be taken that which he hath.| What is thus torn asunder from the root of Christianity, having become thereby something wholly different, having been deprived of its true nature and significance, will run more and more into the form of decided opposition to Christianity. The world, not being led up from that general reformatory influence of Christianity to its true inward nature, will throw off more and more even its outward appearance, and the concealed hostility will become an open one, -- a result which we see fast preparing in our own day. And thus, what is here taught of the warfare between the children of God and the children of the world, and should serve as a ground of consolation in this conflict, will again find its full application in the case of each individual, so soon as he has made his choice between these two adverse forces, which are every day coming into more direct conflict.

While thus contemplating the children of God at their present stand-point of conflict with the world, the Apostle marks the distinction between the present and the future. He leads their thoughts to that still concealed and undeveloped future, which they bear within themselves. We have already, he says, the inward assurance of that which to us is above all else, of which no one can rob us, that we are the children of God. Herein is contained the germ of all which is to be developed in the future, in eternal life, even to the completion of the kingdom of God; but the whole extent of what is thus bestowed, the fulness of the glory of the children of God, is as yet veiled even from themselves, much more from the world which knows them not. We indeed know already, would the Apostle say, what we ARE; but it is not yet revealed what we shall be. As it is said to be a revelation of Christ, when he shall show himself openly in his yet hidden glory; so of the children of God, it is said that they shall be REVEALED, when their glory, now veiled and hidden from view, shall be brought forth to light. Of what shall then follow, the Apostle says: |We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.|

The question may arise, to whom is the pronoun here to be referred, to Christ or to God? What the Apostle says would be strictly true, and might be said with perfect propriety, in either case. The two stand in close connection also, -- indeed each is necessarily involved in the other. For perfect likeness to God is inseparable from likeness to Christ, through which as a mediate agency it is produced; so also, to behold God stands in close connection with beholding Christ, through which in like manner it is effected. We must consider, however, -- not what the Apostle might in any connection have said, not what is in itself a truly apostolic thought and in the spirit of John, -- but what in this particular connection was present to his mind. The reference to God being here the predominant one, what is comprehended in the idea of his children being the subject of consideration, it is manifestly their relation to God which is here before the mind of the Apostle. To Him, therefore, the pronoun must be referred.

As the image of the father is presented in the son, and the son is recognized by his likeness to the father; so the Apostle makes the full revelation of the children of God, as such, to consist in perfect likeness to their Father. It is implied, therefore, that the dignity of the children of God is still imperfect and obscured, because their likeness to God is not complete, -- because they do not yet perfectly reflect the image of God their Father. This likeness to God as their Father, must indeed be gradually developed in their entire nature, after the model image of Christ, whereby everything human in them is to be transformed and glorified into a revelation of the divine nature, is to be made divine. All that has its origin in the old man, and is not yet wholly overcome and rooted out, stands ever opposed to this assimilation of believers to God. The perfected glory of the children of God is therefore identical with perfect likeness to God. That which obscures the one, stands opposed also to the complete realization of the other. In that one thing all is included. Complete likeness to God is, moreover, represented by the Apostle as the consequence of our seeing the Father as he is. We have here a promise, transcending all that the human spirit is able to conceive or hope; as that which is promised answers to the profoundest longings of the spirit thirsting and fainting after God. The immediate, perfect knowledge of God as he is, -- this bewilders and confounds all finite conception. It seems irreconcilable with the infinitude of the divine nature, and the narrowness of finite creatures. Under the old dispensation, it had been said that no mortal could behold God; the vision of God was regarded as something, before which the elements of human nature must dissolve away. But now the Eternal Word, -- He who was with God and was himself God, the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father and has alone known or could know him, -- He having taken upon himself our nature, and God having thereby entered into this most intimate and endearing union with it; the chasm is now closed, which divided between God and the created spirit. Like Christ himself, shall they who stand in fellowship with him, attain through him to the immediate and perfect vision of God, to whom even here below they are united in faith and love.

What we possess, in this glorious prospect, we best learn from contrast with two opposite errors of human opinion, between which Christianity alone shows us the proper medium. The one bearing the name of Deism, is seen in the vain effort to reach, through the idea of an unknown and far off God, the true conception of that felicity, a longing after which is so deeply implanted in the spirit of man. While allowing to the glorified soul progressive development in perfection, to move onward from world to world, it still leaves it forever at an infinite distance from God; the idea of such a perfect, immediate vision of God is far beyond its flight. The other error is that of Pantheism; which, knowing not the God who is at once near and afar off, the God everywhere present who is at the same time God in Heaven, mingles God and the universe into one (as does also a false mysticism); annihilating the personality of the created spirit, it resolves it wholly into God, thereby destroying likewise the idea of the living God himself, who is not a God of the dead but of the living.

On the contrary, the promise of the Gospel presents to us, as the aim of the created spirit ripening to perfection, an immediate and perfect intuition of the Divine Being, with the removal of all those temporal bounds in which our present consciousness is yet confined. It will be a knowledge of God no longer fragmentary, no longer borrowed from the imperfect mirror and the broken rays of this our temporal consciousness, but as He is in himself, in his essential nature; a knowing of God so immediate that, as the Apostle Paul says, we shall know Him as we are known of Him, as He is known of himself. Still, we shall remain forever distinct from him, in a glorified personal existence; otherwise, it would not be eternal life, but mere annihilation. What John here certifies is this: that in the perfect intuition of God lies the ground of our own personal perfection; that as personal existences, created in the image of God, we are to become perfectly like him. The two are placed by John in the closest connection; the perfect intuition of God and, as proceeding therefrom, a perfect transformation into his image, the oneness of life between the beholder and the beheld. The beholding of God must react upon the beholder, transforming him into that which is the object of contemplation, assimilating him to that which he beholds, -- and the perfect perception can proceed only from affinity of life. It implies the removal from the life as from the perception, of all which might separate, a perfect unity between the two. Life and perception are here entirely one. So in our Saviour's words: it is the pure in heart who shall see God; by which he too expresses the sum of all blessedness. And as progress in the knowledge of God, proceeding as it does from fellowship of life with God, is dependent upon the progressive purification and development of the christian life, the life of likeness to God; so at the last consummating point, are perfect intuition of God and perfect likeness to God made coincident with each other.

Throughout this Epistle promise, and exhortation to that which is made the condition of the promise, engrafting themselves one upon the other, are found constantly in close connection. So also here, upon this highest promise follows the exhortation based on the condition of its fulfilment. The present and future, the beginning and end, are united by an indissoluble bond. All which is to be perfected in eternal life must already be possessed here in the germ; and by an ever-progressive development out of the germ, must it attain to that final limit of complete maturity. Since now perfect likeness to God consists in perfect holiness, it is through progressive sanctification in this life the way must be prepared for that final consummation, the unobstructed vision of God in perfect likeness to him. Hence John says: that he who has this hope towards Him, the Father, -- the hope that through Christ's promised grace, he shall attain to that glory of the children of God, which consists in perfect likeness to the Father and in the perfect vision of Him as He is, -- he will be impelled by such a hope to become holy as Christ is holy, after the model image of Christ which is ever before his eye. He will purify himself, more and more, from all that obscures the reflection of that holy image; that when made like to him who is the perfect likeness of the Father, he may attain in him, through him, and with him, to the vision of the Father as he is.

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