Society doesn’t know what to make of Christ-followers.

1 John 3.1.

John didn’t write any of his books and letters with chapters and verses. Medieval Christians did it: They gave every line in the bible an address, so we could more easily find it. It’s great for that. But every so often, it splits a sentence, paragraph, or train of thought, right where it ought not. As a result Christians tend to lose the train of thought, if not miss it altogether.

  • Don’t love society, which is passing away. 1Jn 2.15-17
  • Don’t be misled by antichrists; you know better. 1Jn 2.18-23
  • Hold on to what you learned in the beginning. 1Jn 2.24-29
  • After all, society doesn’t understand us, or God, anyway. 1Jn 3.1
  • Meanwhile clean yourselves up. Jesus is coming! 1Jn 3.2-3
  • And stop sinning, wouldya? 1Jn 3.4-6

And so on. But today’s bit is gonna zero in on that bit about society not understanding us Christians.

The word I translate “society” is κόσμος/kósmos, and I already explained why I’m interpreting it that way: The KJV renders it “world,” but that’s imprecise. It means the social order—which ideally would be harmonious, but you know how society gets.

1 John 3.1 KWL
Look at the kind of love the Father gives us: We can be called God’s children! And we are!
This is why society doesn’t understand us: It doesn’t understand God.

The Textus Receptus left out καί ἐσμεν/ké ésmen, “and we are.” (Somehow John Wycliffe, who translated the Textus, learned these words oughta be included, and rendered them, “and be [his] sons.” 1Jn 3.1 WYC But the Geneva Bible dropped ’em, as did the King James.) John included it ’cause it makes clear we’re not merely called God’s kids, as if it’s an honorary title: He adopted us. We’re legitimately his kids, and he’s legitimately our Father.

Yeah. We are. Us scumbags. Well, many Christians are in utter denial about being scumbags, but the cold hard truth is we totally don’t merit adoption by God; we merit hell. But God loves us so much, he graciously offers us a route out of hell, a place in his family, a room in his kingdom, his presence (he himself!) to live within us and empower us to do mighty things in his name. It’s a hugely disproportionate response to humanity. It’s a massive act of love.

And society doesn’t get it at all. Because society doesn’t do grace. It does karma. If we get anything approaching this level of grace from our fellow human beings and our governments, society insists there be some level of merit and reciprocity as part of the package. We should only give vast fortunes to deserving people. And if they don’t deserve it right this moment, they’d better bloody well earn it, by spending the rest of their lives making themselves worthy.

The only exception society recognizes, is inheritance: If a billionaire begets a kid, the kid inherits the billions. Doesn’t matter how utterly useless and stupid this kid might grow up to be, or how dangerous it might be to put such a mighty estate into the hands of an imbecile. He might hire immoral managers for his companies, and create poisonous products instead of healthy ones. Or he might implode the companies, destroy jobs, and ruin lives. Even so, inheritance is largely accepted by society; if a rich mother wishes to indulge her prodigal daughter, people shrug and say, “Well it’s her money.” But if that same woman wishes to adopt some ill-behaved stranger, make her a daughter, and enrich her? Society will figure she’s lost her mind.

Well, our heavenly Father is lost-his-mind gracious to us. And likewise, society doesn’t get it. They think any religion with sense should make us earn our spots in the kingdom, not just get ’em free. (And the gnostic groups of John’s day didn’t just make their followers earn heaven: They had to pay out the yin-yang for it too.) Free, unlimited grace?—you gotta be nuts. Buncha liberals.

Having God in the family.

Y’may not be aware of this: In the first century, when John wrote his letter, Greco-Roman pagans believed certain individuals were literally the children or grandchildren of the gods. ’Cause you remember their myths: Zeus was super horny and didn’t care that humans were a whole different species. Heck, he’d disguise himself as bulls or geese, and get freaky with humans that way.

Zeus wasn’t the only randy god. His daughter Aphrodite had sex with a Trojan prince named Ankhísis, and five years later brought him their son Aeneas. Julius Caesar claimed his family was descended from Aeneas, so this made him part god—and after he died, Julius’s adoptive son Augustus additionally had the Roman senate officially declare Julius a god himself. Which meant Augustus could include Divi filius/“son of god” in his official name. Many in the Roman Empire could claim to be related to gods… and be believed, by most people.

Today we’d consider such claims to be ridiculous. But not all of us. Some Hindu sects believe people can achieve godhood; you can have gods in the family. And of course pantheists believe everything in the universe is collectively God, so they’d say everyone has gods in the family.

Thing is, if ancient Greco-Roman pagans wanted people to believe they had gods in the family, they needed proof. So what they pointed to was their achievements. The Caesars were rich and powerful; isn’t that a sign of divine favor from their great-great-granddaddy Zeus? Isn’t it a sign the goddess Fortuna is smiling on them? And yeah, people assume Fortuna is the god of luck—namely dumb luck—but that’s not what the Romans believed. Fortuna only blessed people of good and noble character. If you had good luck, it was only because you merited it.

Yep, it all comes down to good karma. You were prosperous because you were worthy. Social Darwinism teaches much the same thing: Work smarter and harder, and the universe will reward you with wealth.

It’s not how the LORD works at all.

Christians aren’t identified as God’s kids because of our personal success. In fact ancient Christians had the worst of circumstances: Persecution, poverty, misery, disaster, death. Our Lord Jesus got crucified, remember? To pagans, this stuff didn’t identify God’s children at all. It identified someone who must’ve royally pissed off the gods. Someone worthy of being an outcast, not inheriting a kingdom.

God identifies his kids through our faith. If we trust him to save us, God considers us in right standing with him, and graciously does save us. It’s not by…

  • Our noble character: Our character might suck at the time we first turn to God. Stands to reason; we haven’t grown the Spirit’s fruit yet. But he’ll fix that.
  • Our wealth and success: The good news is primarily for the needy and poor, ’cause the wealthy and comfortable really don’t consider it any better than where they are.
  • Dumb luck, chance, or God’s mysterious whims. Determinists believe we’re not saved by grace; we’re saved by decree. God made some of us for saving, and the rest of us for destroying. We don’t deserve saving, which is why determinists claim it is so salvation by grace. But they themselves insist God’s sovereign determination comes before everything else. That’d include grace, right? His will alone would be his motive for saving us. Not his grace.
  • Our potential: God doesn’t save people because he foresees all the great stuff he can do through us. Some of us won’t achieve anything, ’cause we get saved on our deathbed. (Or our cross.) God isn’t a capitalist, who sees us as potential investments; he already owns everything, needs nothing, and saves us solely out of love.

All the things which’d make us merit salvation in society’s eyes? God ignores ’em and does his own thing.

Karmic Christians.

Not only does pagan society not understand this way of thinking, way too many Christians don’t appear to understand it either. ’Cause they don’t understand God. Whether that’s because they’re only going through the motions to fit in, or because the culture’s insistence on karma has overridden anything the Spirit’s trying to teach us, is debatable. (I’d like to optimistically think it’s the second thing. I might be wrong though.)

Hence many Americans think God’s kids are likewise identified by success, social standing, wealth, health, and other material blessings. It isn’t an idea which comes from Jesus, who shocked his students when he said it’s hard for the wealthy to enter his kingdom. Mt 19.23-26 But worship of wealth doesn’t just make it easy for some to ignore such scriptures; we’ve even invented a “prosperity gospel” which full-on swaps Jesus for Mammon. Follow Jesus and he’ll shower you with wealth. And the kingdom; but for now, wealth’ll have to do.

We need to watch out for such warped teachings. If God’s love isn’t at the center of everything we do, we’re not walking in light. We’re following a fake god, whether we call it Mammon or Fortuna or whatever. The rich use it to justify hoarding their resources instead of being as generous as God. The powerful use it much the same way. For the needy aren’t deserving; don’t have the proper karma. “If they only trusted God more,” or otherwise proved themselves worthy in some way, maybe their gods would enrich the needy too… though y’notice it’ll never be at their expense.

Such people’s churches don’t preach the good news, but libertarianism and social Darwinism. The needy get cursed for being a drain on society. The love of God is nowhere to be found among them. How sad for them: They’re not God’s kids, and despite their apparent riches they’re full of trouble, worthy of pity, fearful, blind, and naked. Rv 3.17

God’s love overcomes such things, and such delusions. If we’re walking in it, we’ll see the reality. If not, we’ll wonder why, despite our wealth, we lack peace. We’ll wonder about that nagging, in the back of our spirits, which warns us we’re not really God’s children. We’ll wonder if there’s something to it… but we’ll probably just try to drown it out by buying some Christian music and the latest devotional book. But I hope not.