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1 John 3:4: The Meaning of Lawlessness

According to the Hebrew Roots Movement 1 John 3:4 shows that Christians are lawless sinners. The belief is that when John says “sin is lawlessness,” lawlessness is referring to “torahlessness.” And since we don’t follow the Torah, we are sinners. The thing is, the New Testament clearly teaches against this idea. We can see it in practically every New Testament book. This is simply another attempt at pulling a verse out of context to try and teach a man-made doctrine. I would like to show how John defines the meaning of “lawlessness” in the rest of 1 John 3.

1 Behold what manner of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! On account of this the world does not know you, because it did not know Him. 2 Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

John begins the chapter immediately setting the tone in love, speaking of the love of the Father. He continues with the distinction of Christians as “children of God,” and how the world doesn’t know us because it doesn’t know Him. In the Gospel of John Christ says, “25 O righteous Father! Indeed the world did not know You, yet I knew You; and these knew that You sent Me. 26 And I made known to them Your name, and I will make it known, so that the love [with] which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:25, 26). The world doesn’t know God because the world lacks love. Christ came so “that the love [with] which [the Father] loved [the Son] may be in [us].”

As John continues, he begins to speak about lawlessness and righteousness:

4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. 5 And you know that He appeared that He might take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. 6 Everyone who abides in Him does not sin; everyone who sins has not seen Him nor has he known Him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. The [one] who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. 8 He who practices sin is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. For this [reason] the Son of God appeared, that He might destroy the works of the devil.

9 No one who has been born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God. 10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Everyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. 11 Because this is the message which you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, 12 not as Cain who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his works were evil and the [works] of his brother were righteous.

In our key verse here (3:4), John clearly makes sin synonymous with lawlessness. And it only makes sense to say that if we are sinful, or lawless, then we aren’t righteous. As John says, Christ is righteous, and the one who practices righteousness is righteous like Christ. But what, then, is righteousness?

In Romans 4:3 Paul says, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’” That’s it. Abraham believed God and was deemed righteous for it. Just before that Paul says, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has [grounds for] boasting, but not before God” (v. 2). Had his justification came through works, then he could’ve boasted, but he couldn’t have boasted before God,  because it would have simply been by his own actions, not God’s. However, Abraham couldn’t boast because his righteousness wasn’t through any work that he did, but that he simply had faith in God. Works, especially works of the Law, can’t bring about any justification, but it is grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). As Paul says in Galatians, “I do not annul the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21).

And that is the exact problem that arises when someone from the Hebrew Roots Movement tries to use 1 John 3:4 to place sin and lawlessness as anything done outside the Torah, or the Law of Moses. As John mentions only three verses later, we are to be righteous, “just as He is righteous.” However, righteousness doesn’t come through the Law. Righteousness is only found through grace by faith.

As John continues, he teaches us that the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest; basically, they will become apparent. We will be able to see the division: the righteous and the sinners. This is identical in meaning as to when Christ says, “each tree is known by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:44). But notice that according to John, righteousness and love work together, they are both needed. Because love for another “is the message which [we] heard from the beginning.”

So we have righteousness which comes through faith, and we have love. John never mentions that those who don’t practice Torah are not of God, but simply those who are not righteous and do not love.

As John continues, he continues on love:

13 Do not marvel, my brothers, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed over from death to life, because we love the brothers. He who does not love his brother abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 16 By this we have come to know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives in behalf of our brothers. 17 But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother having need, and shuts off his compassion towards him, how does the love of God abide in him?

John makes it very clear that (eternal) life is dependent upon love. If we love the brothers, we have passed from death, and then he continues by saying that everyone who hates his brother is a murderer and doesn’t have eternal life in him. This is very similar to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5:21, 22. Again, John isn’t saying that we are to observe the Torah perfectly to gain eternal life, but to love the brothers, to lay down our lives for the brothers, to give to those in need, and have compassion on those who need it.

18 My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. 19 And in this we know that we are from the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. 20 Because if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and He knows all things. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. 22 And whatever we should ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and we do the things pleasing before Him. 23 And this is His commandment: that we should believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and should love one another, just as He gave commandment. 24 And the [one] who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, from the Spirit whom He gave us.

As the passage continues above, it is clear that love is more than just something you say, but something you do. Love is an action. And it is clear that John, when he is referring to “lawlessness” is speaking of the absence love.

He closes the chapter speaking of commandments. Notice however that the two commandments cover exactly what the whole chapter has been about. First, we are to “believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ.” And secondly, we are to “love one another.” That’s it. It is very, very simple. It isn’t complex and dependent upon following the Law of Moses, but simply the Law of Love. Righteousness comes through faith, and a true faith will produce an action—that action is love.

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