On the one hand, John boldly declares that we are already children of God
"See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are." v. 1
"Beloved, we are God's children now..." v.2In these verses we see the theology of the Gospel of John shining through clearly. There is an emphasis on the world's judgment having already occurred by way of Christ's incarnation. John describes salvation as something that is available now, in this life. The light has already come into the world, the darkness is already dispelled, and those who trust in Christ are already children of God. None of these statements are incorrect but they are incomplete. Without other statements of truth laid alongside of them, this sole emphasis on the already aspects of salvation easily leads to a Christian faith that is out of balance.
It is difficult to say with any certainty what heresy had arisen in the Johanine community that caused 1 John to be written. But it is easy enough to imagine the kind of problems that could arise if we believed that our salvation was already complete in this world. For one, it could lead us to believe that all of our actions, no matter how heinous, already have a rubber stamp of approval of God. If we are already completely and entirely saved then that must mean that everything we do is God's work. Or at the very least, if our actions are not good then they are simply of no consequence for God has already saved us and what we do or don't do isn't going to change that.
It seems this is at least part of that to which the writer of 1 John is responding in chapter 3. He says
"...what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is." v.2
"No one who abides in him keeps on sinning.." v.6
"Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous." v. 7Some of these statements, verse 7 especially, appear to border on being tautologous; they are so obvious and self explanatory that they don't reveal any new information. "Whoever practices righteousness is righteous? Really, John? Thanks for that gem! That's sort of like telling us that water is wet."
But this is likely yet another place we take for granted the vast Christian tradition which stands between us and the audience of 1 John for this connection may very well not have been obvious to them. In the ancient world it was usually not assumed that there was any connection between religion/spirituality and morals. Gentiles regularly worshiped at pagan temples without thinking there was any connection between that worship and how they lived the rest of their lives. Religion and ethics were simply separate categories that had little if any relation to each other. When this is combined with a belief that one has already experienced salvation in its entirety, that is one has already been made righteous, it is easy to see how these believers might have thought that being righteous had nothing to do with living righteously. They viewed it as something accomplished entirely by God because of their trust in Jesus.
Of course, that last line sounds quite a bit like a lot of modern day Protestant professions of faith. After all, we are saved by faith and not by works. While I certainly don't want to lose this emphasis of Protestantism, I also think it unnecessarily bifurcates the language of the New Testament, especially terms like faith and righteousness. As I never tire of pointing out on this blog, the Greek word pistis is the word often translated as faith in the New Testament but it can be just as easily (and often is) translated as faithfulness; in the language of the New Testament the two concepts are inseparable, to have faith is to be faithful. Much the same thing is true of righteousness. In many places, this word (dikaosune and its cognates) are often translated as justification which we usually take to mean something like forgiveness. But in the Greek of the New Testament the word is related to the word for justice (dikaios) and in the Old Testament righteousness (tsedek) often refers to covenant faithfulness (God's, Israel's, or an individual's) by which the world is set in right relationship. That is, to be made righteous is not merely to be forgiven but also to be transformed and empowered to live rightly and justly in the world.
John's words still speak to us today. Yes, we are saved. Yes, we are already children of God. Yes, we have been made righteous. And all of this has been done entirely by God's grace and not of ourselves. But that is not a pass to go on sinning. In fact, it is just the opposite. It is a call to work for justice and right relationship in our world because what we will be has not yet been revealed, the kingdom is not yet. There will be a day when "we will be like him because we will see him as he is" but until that day we are called to be a people who practice righteousness in this world.