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Reflections on Righteous in the First Letter of John

January 14, AD2017

Recently, we heard selections from the First Letter of John at daily Mass. St. John writes with boldness and clarity but also with a degree of paradox. In this letter, he makes fierce pronouncements about salvation. He makes it clear who will get into heaven and who will not. He talks about the children of God and the children of the devil. Despite the clarity of St. John’s language and the forcefulness of his message, there are many things left for us to ponder and explore through the letter. For me, hearing the readings at Mass gave me a chance to think about what it means to truly be a righteous person. I asked myself whether righteousness was something that was attainable to all or if it were something that only a holy few merit.

Righteousness and Self-Righteousness

Often righteousness is associated with self-righteousness. Righteousness in this light savors of exclusivity and self-assuredness. It is a state defined in part by its opposite, unrighteousness. St. John’s use of the word righteous invites a discussion about the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. On the one hand, his use of the word might be seen as a support of predestination and complete exclusivity among the elect. On the other, we might interpret righteousness in this letter as something to be achieved through hard work and prayer. In either case, as Christians, we strive for righteousness and condemn modes of living that are unrighteous. We have to find a way to seek personal righteousness without condemning others.  

Righteousness through Birth in God

To be righteous, St. John says we must be born of God. If we are born of God, we do not and cannot sin because, “any one born of God does not commit sin; for God’s seed remains in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God” (3:9). Being born of God implies being righteous; our actions show that we belong to God and indicate our origin in him. However, how we come to be born of God is not explicitly explained by St. John. Likely, to be born of God means in part to have received the message and the anointment of Christ. St. John explains that those who are anointed have no need of further teaching for “the anointment which you received abides in you” (2.27).  Whether our remaining and abiding in Christ is a choice or a destiny is the principle question I have upon reading this letter. St. John implies that the righteous have no need of instruction or guidance in order to avoid sin. In fact, they cannot sin because they are born of God.  Their holiness is predestined from the moment of their birth in God.

Conversely, St. John clarifies that although he is writing this letter so that his audience will not sin, if they do sin they have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (2:1). As I attempt to define what it means to be born of God, I find myself thinking of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Confession. These sacraments require anointment and rebirth in Christ. Baptism signifies rebirth from death into life through the saving power of Christ’s death and resurrection. Through anointment at Confirmation, we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit that notably include a wisdom and prudence. Finally, in Confession, we find forgiveness through the advocacy of Christ. Far from being a free ticket into Heaven, these sacraments necessitate a response from us. We must remain in Christ by keeping our Baptismal promises and frequenting Mass and Confession.

Our loving response to our new life in Christ determines our righteousness. Ultimately, we must become co-redeemers in the image of Christ. St. John says as much when he calls us to imitate the sacrificial love of Christ: “By this, we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (3:16). Much of the letter describes what a loving community of followers of Christ should look like and how we can follow in the footsteps of Christ by carrying our own crosses. Filled with Christ-like love for each other, the brethren should be willing to lay down their lives for one another. To paraphrase a well-known Christian song, the faithful will be recognized through their love for one another. For Catholics, this love is ultimately rooted in the sacraments which convey the saving power of Christ to us.

Those who Deny Christ

Why some people embrace the sacramental life and the message of Christ is a mystery that lies beyond our comprehension. In the Parable of the Sower, Christ indicates several reasons for rejection of the Gospel including earthly cares and desires. Those destined for heaven are those who resist the temptation of the devil and the world, but why they manage to resist and others do not will always mystify us. We can move closer to an explanation though we may never attain it. Thus, I see merit both in the characterization of righteousness as a gift from God and something that we strive for and attain through Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. Put another way, all of us are called to be saints, but it is our choice whether we respond to the calling.

St. John speaks of those who have rejected the message with something close to scorn. Mentioning some of the Christians who have left the community, he says “they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (2:18).  Instead of petitioning his audience to seek the lost sheep, he proclaims that those who deny the Christ are antichrists; they should be avoided for their proclivity to deceive. He goes on to say that all those who deny Christ are liars. He writes “who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist” (2:22). This harsh condemnation of the deniers of Christ is juxtaposed by the new commandment from Christ to love one’s neighbor. As St. John explains, “he who hates his brother is in the darkness” (2:11). Apparently, the Christian community must do battle with the heretic while maintaining this love for others. This is unless St. John thinks that it is only necessary to love those who belong to the Christian community, which is out of the question given Christ’s message.   

Christ brought the means to salvation to mankind; he came to redeem the world. Moreover, he gave us the new commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves while making clear that we are to be neighbors to all people. Of course, as Catholics, we are in the right, but this does not mean that we can judge the righteousness of others or even ourselves. The teaching of salvation through the Church is a nuanced and controversial topic even today. The deniers of Christ that John mentions likely received instruction that made their decision to leave the community truly a knowing betrayal. Other cases have more complexity. Undoubtedly, St. John knew many upright Jews who either had heard the message of the Gospel and rejected it or were still waiting to hear it. In our own day and age, we can hope for the salvation of those who follow Christ without knowing they do.

Ultimately, we may never know the degree of someone’s culpability in rejecting Christ. Nor are we held responsible for their rejection.  Although Christ tells us to love the sinner, in Matthew 10:14, he instructs his apostles to shake the dust from their feet when leaving a town or home that refuses to hear the good news. Clearly, Christ sees a realistic response as one with an attitude of love and compassion for the sinner. The rejection of others can arouse our own doubt and lead us into temptation. On our own, we do not have the power to change someone’s will. This does not mean that we should give up on the sinner. Through our prayers, we can continue to hope for the redemption of the world.  

Righteousness through Faith and Works

As we pursue our righteousness, we should also remember that our own salvation is not guaranteed through inclusion in the Church. St. John’s letter emphasizes the importance of confession of the Father and the Son (2:23). It also emphasizes the importance of righteous actions. Many Protestants argue that confession is significant with or without works. For Catholics, to truly confess belief, a person has to live in a righteous way. In our day and age, many call themselves Catholics while openly living in a way that contradicts the teachings of the Church. For me, the faith of such people is suspect since it obviously does not sufficiently influence their actions.

The relationship between simply being born of God through faith and proving one’s faith through love and deed is a paradox in St. John’s letter. Through faith, we can move mountains and cast out demons, but we cannot expect to have faith without prayer, reception of the sacraments, mortification, and good works. If we assume our righteousness, we risk becoming hypocrites. Christ was the only truly righteous man to exist, but he never acted self-righteously towards sinners. Rather, Christ offered forgiveness and love to those who came to him for healing. The people who received the strongest condemnation from Christ were the Pharisees. These were men who assumed their righteousness through the law. The Pharisees lacked the spirit of love that both Christ and St. John advocate. The Church teaches us to beware of pride, the root of sin while also cautioning us against spiritual tepidity. St. John warns against these twin vices by instructing his audience to walk with Christ in love and humility while taking a fiery stance against sin.

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About the Author:

Currently living in the Boston area, Paul recently completed his Masters in Teaching English as a Second language. Raised in Catholicism, he deepened his faith by completing his undergraduate degree at a Catholic liberal arts school. There he became familiar with inseparability of faith and reason even with a deeper realization of the ideological warfare faced by the faithful. A passionate educator and learner, Paul has taught in Mexico and Chile, as well as Boston. Faith and obedience to the teachings of the Catholic Church remain the core of Paul's life. Encouraging others in their walk with Christ, he hopes to share the joy and peace of the Gospel by following in the footsteps of Pope Francis who reaches out to sinners with humility and compassion.

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