What About Carnal Believers?
Is 1 John 3:4-10 saying you can see the difference between a spiritual Christian and an unbeliever and you also can see a difference between a carnal believer and an unbeliever?
1 John 3
vs. 4 "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness."
vs. 5 "And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin."
vs. 6 "Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him."
vs. 7 "Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous."
vs. 8 "He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil."
vs. 9 "Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God."
vs. 10 "In this the children of god and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother."
Like many other passages of scripture, these verses must be considered in context with the overall truth revealed in the Bible. The subject of the actions of a person revealing whether or not they are a believer cannot be settled by this passage alone. In order to lay a proper foundation on the subject let me address this question in several steps.
The Identity of a Believer
What is the basis for one to be identified as a “believer”? The answer revealed by scripture is, “faith”. Actions and character are important as a result of one being a believer, but the overwhelming quality that marks a believer from an unbeliever is faith. I will only mention a few supporting scriptures, but the voice of scripture is definite.
John 3:16 – whosoever believes…have everlasting life
John 3:18 – He that believes…is not condemned…he that believes not…is condemned
John 3:36 – He that believes…has everlasting life
John 11:25 - …he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live
John 20:31 – These are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through His name.
Acts 16: 30, 31 – “…what must I do to be saved?” And they answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved…”
Romans 1:16–17; 3:21–22; 10:9–13; Galatians 3:22; Ephesians 2:8–10
The issue is, “believing”. That is faith — simple absolute trust in the promise of God, the character of God, and the love of a “Heavenly Father”.
The Character of a Believer
Scripture also has much to say about the character of the one who is a believer. In most of the passages mentioned above, there is also a “charge” to live what you believe. Salvation is the result of “believing”; our witness is a result of “living”. Consider the great proclamation of salvation in Ephesians 2:8–9. This tribute to the grace of God by which we are saved is followed in verse 10 by a proclamation of God’s purpose in bringing us to salvation.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them.
It is not just God’s desire that we should live a life of “good works” (doing things that please Him), it is also His plan. He has created us with the inner ability to work for His good—that’s part of the grace given us at the New Birth. Notice that these works follow salvation—before we are saved, all of our works are “unacceptable” to Him.
There are numerous other references to this very subject (I will only list a few):
Ephesians 4:1–3 –…that you walk worthy… - We are to walk in such a manner that our life “balances” the cost of what God has done for us—remembering that it is His ability that works in us.
Philippians 2:12–13 - …cultivate your own salvation with fear and trembling.
13. For it is God who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.
We are to “carry the salvation that is within us to its full purpose.” This is not as if we are earning it, but it is in order to show the world what God has done in us.
Colossians 3:1–4 – This admonition is for the believers to get their eyes off of the issues of this earth, and look instead at who/what they are in Christ. We should live our life from the power of life given to the “inner man” and not from our own human ability… which was not able to save us before we came to the acceptance of Christ as our Savior.
These and many other verses challenge the believer to “live out” the life that was given at salvation. The “good works” God has called us to do were not sufficient to save us, but they are to be a testimony to God, to us, to the world, and to the devil of what we now have through union with Christ.
The Reward / Judgment of a Believer
The gift of salvation is much more than a promise of Eternal Life. It is a “re-creation” of the believer into the image and likeness of God.
Ephesians 4:24 - And put on the new nature (the regenerate self) created in God's image, [Godlike] in true righteousness and holiness. (Amplified Translation)
While the “Eternal” character of this salvation is a reality for all who believe, the “temporal” character is a matter of our commitment to the Word and teaching of God. The “new nature” was created in His image, but the believer must “put it on”. Again there are numerous passages that refer to this process, but one that is very clear is:
Hebrews 10:14 – …For by One offering, He has perfected forever those who are sanctified [being made holy]
This verse tells us that the “perfecting” is a completed fact, but that the “sanctification” is an on-going process. We are “sanctified” as we “…put-on the new man” (Eph 2:24); as we “…renew our minds” (Rom 12:2); as we “…work-out our salvation” (Phil 2:12); as we “…let not sin reign in our mortal bodies” (Rom 6:12).
As we fulfill these things in our earthly life we are rewarded:
1. in this life with the peace of God, and the confidence of His presence;
2. in the next life with “gold, silver, and precious jewels” whereby we are able to honor the Lord at His appearing.
Of course, for those who do not follow these admonitions to “live” for God in this life, there is loss of reward, both in the temporal and in the eternal realms. This is the subject of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 3:12–15.
And if anyone builds on this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble
13. each one's work shall be revealed. For the Day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try each one's work as to what kind it is.
14. If anyone's work which he built remains, he shall receive a reward.
15. If anyone's work shall be burned up, he shall suffer loss. But he shall be saved, yet so as by fire.
We are to “build upon” the foundation of the salvation we received when we heard and believed the Gospel. The quality of what we build is in our power. Our actions will either be honorable to God enduring as a reward that we can present to Him, or they will be consumed in the fire of His Holy presence, and we will lose them. However, the life we have in Him will continue. Our desire should be to always live in such a manner that He is glorified on the earth, and honored in eternity.
Please notice, that the “judgment” of these works occurs at His appearing, and not in this life—nor by men here on earth. We cannot see clearly enough, nor test the works of a person perfectly enough to be able to make the proper judgment. God sees and knows the heart—He sees perfectly, compassionately, and without prejudice or favoritism. Some may present themselves as “living for God” when He knows the truth of their hearts. Others may be criticized and condemned by “self-righteous” persons, yet will be rewarded for their works in eternity. Thank God we will stand before a perfect Judge who knows our hearts—One who loved us before we ever accepted Him.
The Forgiveness of a Believer
But, we are not perfect in our application of this salvation to our life. And, this is the subject of John’s writing into the believers 1 John. In Chapter 1 John dealt with the attitude of those who say they can live in any manner they choose, and that God doesn’t care. They are wrong! They are either liars themselves, or they are trying to make God a liar—which cannot be.
John does not argue for “perfectionism” in the life of the believer, he simply asserts: “…if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son [continually] cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7) This is a powerful statement regarding the reality of “walking in fellowship” with God. As we actively pursue a life of following the leading of the Holy Spirit, and a life that honors His name, we are constantly being cleansed of any “unconscious” errors, failures, omissions, or unrighteousness. (Compare Galatians 5:16; and Romans 8:13)
Then in 1 John 1:9 he admonishes, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” When we do know that we have failed to follow His way (that’s sin), our responsibility is to acknowledge it (confess). The rest is up to Him—He will forgive and cleanse!
Please notice in the above passages the pronouns: we / us / our. The Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle John, as he was writing, to use these pronouns. He was to include himself—one who was known to be a believer— in these admonitions. All of us can, and do sin—and we need this assurance of God’s forgiveness and cleansing power.
Conversely, all of us can live free from sin. Look now at 1 John 2:1.
My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father--Jesus Christ the righteous One.
Of course, God desires that we live free from sin—and He has given us the ability to do so. But, because we don’t, He has made a way for us to continue in His living in the blessing of His power and presence—confession and forgiveness.
The Righteousness of a Believer
Now, what about the issue referred to in 1 John 3:4–9? As I stated at the start, this cannot be understood outside of the context of the volume of New Testament scripture addressed to the “born again” believer. It absolutely cannot be that John is saying that anyone who sins has not been born of God—and that anyone who does not sin is born of God… even though, on the surface, that would seem to be the message.
Further study of this and other passages will reveal the truth. John first asserts that all sin is a breaking of the law, and this was the very reason that the Christ was sent from God—to redeem mankind, who could not keep from breaking God’s Holy Law (verses 4 & 5). He was the only perfect One (…there is no sin in Him), and thereby He was qualified to be the payment for all of our sins (see 1 John 2:2 which is not only in reference to our past sin, but also the sins we have confessed since we have been born again).
Next, John makes the declaration that, “Everyone that abides in Him does not sin…” That is not what John stated in Chapter 1:6–2:2. The unseen truth of this verse is revealed by further study. The use of the word “sin” is lost by our English translations—it is simply a matter of grammatical construction that is often obscured by translating one language into another. The verb used here means “one who habitually/continually produces sin”. This same verb form is echoed in the words, “does righteousness—practices sin—commits sin” which are found throughout verses 6–9. What John is saying is that one who practices sin as a habit of his life is not showing the righteousness that is in Christ. And, if he is not showing this righteousness, then he may not truly be “born of God”. For, if he were truly, “born of God” he would cease from this habit of practicing sin, and confess his sins and be forgiven (1John 1:9).
Please do not think that I am attempting to change what the Bible says. This understanding of this passage is supported by the commentaries of well-accepted teachers:
Marvin Vincent’s Word Studies of the New Testament
A.T. Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament
Kenneth Wuest’s Word Studies in the Greek New Testament
John Phillips’ Exploring the Epistles of John
and many others.
What John is telling the believers is that there are those who seem to have no desire to practice righteousness, nor any conviction of sin and desire for forgiveness. These may not be “born of God”. We cannot determine that of certainty, but the “seed of Christ” abides within the believer, and it demands a life desiring righteousness and avoiding sin. We always get ourselves into conflict when we attempt to determine by someone’s actions whether he is a believer or not. That is why we are called, “Believers” not “doers”. James 2:17–18 says that “faith” will produce “works”. We should be confirming our “faith” by the “works” that we do. James 2:24 tells us “that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone”. However, notice the word, “alone”. Faith is absolutely necessary, for it is, “…by faith that we are saved”(Eph 2:8). The “justification” that James is referring to here is not the same as salvation. It is the justification that we have before ourselves, the world, and God—by which we are honoring God with our life.
Can we see the difference between a carnal believer and a true believer—Yes. Can we see the difference between a carnal believer and an unbeliever—not necessarily? The real question is one for them to answer: “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, that He died for you sins and that God raised Him from the dead? And, do you believe that Jesus Christ is Lord?” This is the basis of salvation. If they truly believe, then God is in them working toward the purpose He has planned for their life. When they “sin” the presence of His Spirit will lead them to repentance and forgiveness.
Let us set our hearts to live to the glory of His name, and to honor Him in all that we do.