“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” — 1 John 3:1
We are the children of God.
For a lot of us today, this phrase, “children of God,” has been cheapened. It’s been universalized to refer to practically everyone. It’s become a way of saying that every person is worthy of respect, dignity and fair treatment.
I agree with that way of looking at the world. Every single human being has inherent value. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love everyone — especially our enemies, the people that the world has taught us to hate.
But when the author of John’s first epistle writes that we are the children of God, he’s talking about something distinct. For John, sonship and daughtership in the kingdom of God is not a matter of universal human dignity. It is not inherent to us that we are the children of God. For John, it is a very particular, contingent and radical claim.
When we read John’s gospel and John’s letter, it’s clear that he’s not writing out of a community that sees the world as a benign, loving and healthy place. John’s community is one that has has seen the evil of the world — the imperial rulers, the religious authorities and false teachers, and the everyday selfishness of ordinary people. They’ve seen the darkness of the world.
But they’ve also seen the light.
The Johannine community has seen the light of God in the face of Jesus. It is a community that testifies to the Resurrection — not just with words, but with transformed lives. This is a community that can say, “we have seen Jesus, and we know him. Because of him, we have moved from death into life. Because we are his friends, we have been called out of this world of darkness and hate. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of God. We are becoming like Jesus.”
John and his community knew from personal experience that sonship and daughtership is not our natural state. The original followers of Jesus failed miserably. They abandoned Jesus when he came to his time of trial. The disciples — especially the male disciples — ran and hid while Jesus was being tortured and tried as a criminal. Peter — who at that time was apparently the bravest of the Twelve and followed Jesus to the house of the high priest — denied Jesus three times before dawn. The early Christian community knew what darkness looked like, because they themselves had been moral failures.
The Resurrection changed all that. The return of Jesus on the third day, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the continuing presence of the risen Jesus throughout the months and years that followed — this guidance and power allowed the weak and fallible disciples to become the children of God.
John’s community knew Jesus. They had seen him and touched him with their hands. They experienced the resurrection, the living body of Jesus in their everyday life. And God gave them authority to live in life, power and boldness. To share the good news of the kingdom, inviting others to become children of God. And to speak into the darkness and confusion of this present world, even when doing so made them sound crazy.
The early church was not afraid to call out evil. They were not afraid to name the fact that we are not, by default, children of God. Living as we do in this fallen, rebellious and confused world, only the grace of our Lord Jesus can rescue us, can transform us from being children of hate, violence, greed and self-centeredness. Because of the Resurrection, because of the love and hope that we know in Jesus, we can become the children of God. We can become like Jesus.
A lot of Christians miss the point here. So often we’re taught to imagine that the gospel is about Jesus dying on the cross so that we don’t have to face the consequences of our sin — our greed, our aggression, our brokenness. According to this version of the gospel, Jesus conquered darkness so that we don’t have to. Thanks to his sacrifice, all we have to do is believe certain doctrines about Jesus and we will be saved — in heaven, after we die.
But that sad gospel is a pale imitation of the truth. It’s a Wonder Bread parody of the whole-wheat gospel that John and his early Christian community knew. This fallen world, and its version of Christianity, teaches that our faith is about damage control. Christianity becomes about avoiding punishment for our misdeeds rather than being reborn for justice.
But the real gospel is radical — it gets to the root of things. The true gospel message is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. It promises us — not through words, but through hope in action — that we can be transformed. Our lives can change.
We can become the children of God, the children of the light — sons and daughters, reborn in the image of Jesus. All of the old dividing lines are broken down — between men and women, citizen and foreigner, rich and poor, black and white. Even between God and us. The radical, incredible, scandalous message of the gospel is that we can become like Jesus. Through the power of the Resurrection, we can become sons and daughters of God.
So what does that mean? Concretely, what does it mean for us to become sons and daughters of God — brothers and sisters to Jesus? In 1 John 3:4-6, he tells us how we can distinguish between the children of this world and the children of the light.
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that [Jesus] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.
Have you experienced the resurrection presence of Jesus? Is he teaching you? Have you surrendered yourself, to be brought out of rebellion and lawlessness, hatred and fear? Have you allowed the Holy Spirit to draw you into a new life, one where you do the deeds of righteousness and become holy, just as our brother Jesus is holy?
I know I have some hesitation. Holy? Me?
On the one hand, we’re right to hesitate. Who am I to think so highly of myself? Sure, the writers of the New Testament refers to all the believers as “the saints” — the holy ones — but it feels like a big leap to apply that to myself. I know how far short I fall on a daily basis. I’ve got a long way to go, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get there. It seems a little premature to start saying I’ve made it.
The earliest Christians must have known this experience, too. The first generation of disciples knew so much failure — even after the Resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The saints made mistakes. They fought with one another, reaching a level of church drama that makes our modern-day disagreements look like softball. The early church was a hot mess.
But they were also the children of God. The brothers and sisters of Jesus. The saints.
For John and his community, the line between the children of God and the children of this world was clear. The children of this world live in darkness and rebellion. The children of God follow Jesus and do what is right.
Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous (v. 7).
Who here is righteous? In one sense, none of us should raise our hands. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
That’s one way of looking at it. And it’s true. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
But there’s another way of looking at sin and righteousness. The first way — the Paul’s-letter-to-the-Romans way — looks at our nature in terms of our past failures. But John’s way is to look at the saving power of Jesus, the resurrection that transforms us into a new creation. Rather than looking down at our sin, John says, “look up at the holiness of Jesus. He is present to heal you, transform you. He is your salvation.”
Little children, children of the light, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. And through the resurrection, through Jesus with us, we have received power and authority to do what is right.
This isn’t about perfectionism in the world’s sense of perfection. We don’t have to be the world’s greatest student, or worker, or parent or anything else. We don’t have to always be cheerful or be an inspiration to those around us. We just need to do what is right.
Do you do what is right? Do you follow the light of God in your heart? When God shows you that something is wrong, do you stop doing it? When he calls you into action, do you follow? Do you love the Lord with all your mind, heart, soul and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself?
Do you do what is right? Not perfectly, not with superhuman powers — but humbly and simply, even if no one notices?
Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. We are children of the light. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are salt and light in this dark and flavorless world. We are righteous when we do what is right. It’s a high bar, but with Jesus as our present teacher, guide and friend, we can be faithful. We can do what is right, we can follow as God leads us.
In Jesus, God became like us. He became a human being. He had a mother. He wept for friends who had died. He suffered humiliation and death. And God vindicated Jesus. God proclaimed him righteous by raising Jesus from the dead, and now we can become righteous like he is. Simply, humbly following in the footsteps of our brother and our Lord.
Little children, we are the sons and daughters of God. We are salt and light. We are the saints, the righteous ones that God has called out of the darkness to bless and heal the world.
Jesus asks the disciples, and he asks us: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Look at his hands and his feet. Look at Jesus. See that he is here with us.
We are the children of the light, the sons and daughters of God. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19).
Micah Bales is a writer, teacher and founder of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, a new Quaker community. Micah and his wife, Faith Kelley, live together with their children in Washington, DC. He blogs at micahbales.com, where this post first appeared.