If you know that he is righteous, you know this as well: Everyone who does what is right has been born of him.
An important break in thought occurs as John introduces a new topic – “the tests for knowing the children of God” – and brings his attention away from the false teachers and anti-Christs that he has been addressing to the beloved children of God for whom John’s paternal love is directed.
“If you know that he is righteous”: There is some ambiguity in the subject of this text as we ask who does “he” refers to? The answer to this question becomes apparent in the next verse when John writes, “see what great love the Father has given us that we should be called God’s children”. John is saying that we know that God’s children are righteous because we know that God our Father is righteous.
The dependent clause, “if you know”, suggests that the controversy that John is refuting from his opponents is not that God or Christ are righteous (cf. 1:5; 2:1, 20; 3:7) but rather, John’s opponents seemed to be refuting the significance of God’s righteousness in our life; does God’s righteousness translate into our life?
“You know this as well”: John tells us that if we accept the righteousness of God, we must also accept that those who are born of God will live in their Father’s righteousness as revealed through the Son (2:6; 3:7; cf. also Matt 5:48). We must keep Jesus’ commands, foremost of which is the command to love, which John offers as the test for distinguishing who is truly born of God.
John’s gnostic opponents, on the other hand, did not think of our spiritual rebirth in ethical or moral terms but in terms of nature; they may have said that because they possessed the divine nature they could not sin (1:8) and were consequently removed from any obligation to the commandments (2:3–4), or they may have believed that they could have fellowship with God while walking in sin (1:5-6) and hate (2:9-11). His gnostic opponents saw a clear division between their physical and spiritual natures that freed them from any spiritual consequences for whatever was done “in the flesh”.
The notion that one could be born of God and enjoy his fellowship by means of ascending in their knowledge of spiritual revelation while being totally free from his commandments led John’s opponents to the false conclusion that they could hate their brothers (3:17–20), forsake the community (2:19), and deny the commandment to love (3:10) while still being the children of God.
“Everyone who does what is right has been born of him”: as Oecumenius wrote, “it is obvious that the One who is righteous produces offspring who are also righteous.”
Clement of Alexandria wrote:
To be born of him means to be born again by faith.
And we know from John’s own testimony that we are truly born again by faith (1 Jn. 5:1) through the word of God (1 Pt. 1:22-23), and if we know that we are born of God by faith through the word of Christ – which we know is the Spirit (Jn 6:63) – then we also know that we are born of the righteousness of God and will abide in righteousness because of Christ who dwells within us.
John’s apostolic doctrine challenges the framework of many modern theologies today, which teach that grace is a means by which the Christian is freed from the righteousness of God and is not expected to grow in sanctification and holiness as the result of their abiding in Christ. But John’s epistle clearly refutes this false doctrine and gives us reason to examine our theology to make sure that we are knowing Christ in truth daily so that we will not be put to shame when he returns.