Studies in 1 John: Spiral 1 (Part 2)

1johndesign“By this we know…” It’s a powerful and hopeful phrase that the author John uses in his first epistle. In writing to a church beleaguered by doubt, confusion, chaos, and uncertainty John wants to assure them of their standing before God. He does that primarily through pointing his readers to doctrinal truth and practical living. Do you want to know if you belong to God, then evaluate what you believe and how you live.

We have broken this complex, if short, letter down into four spirals, each giving a “test of salvation.” Each spiral involves a doctrinal test and moral test. We have already examined the doctrinal test of spiral 1 (the truth about God and about man), and now we must consider the moral test of spiral 1. In this particular case John focuses on love. Our love for others reveals how we relate to God.

In the first four verses of this section John connects “knowledge of God” with “obedience to Christ.” So, he says:

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:3-6)

We can know that we have “come to know” Christ by examining our obedience to His commands. John is pretty strong on this relationship. If you say you know him but don’t keep his commandments then you’re a liar. Those are strong words from the apostle, but they reflect Christ’s own mind. For, it was Jesus who first established this relationship. He said, “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). Obedience to Christ reveals relationships to Christ. John even says that “by this we may be sure that we are in him” (v. 6). Again, his language is strong. John believes that confidence in our salvation can be found as we examine our lives.

This is a troubling word to me, perhaps it is to you too. After all, my life does not always evidence obedience. Far more often than I am comfortable with my life reflects disobedience, selfishness, stubbornness. So, how can I take confidence, how can anyone, in my salvation when my life reveals disobedience? We should not assume that John means here a sort of perfection. He has already stated, rather plainly, that we are sinners. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). John knows we are sinners and he urges us to accept that truth. He urges us to accept it because there is hope for the sinner. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9). Furthermore, he tells us, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (2:1b). John is not suggesting, then, that we must be perfect to claim that we belong to God. So, what then is he claiming?

John tells us what obedience looks like in these verses when he communicates it as (1) Keeping his commands, (2) keeping his word, and (3) walking like Jesus. Keep his commands carries the connotation of individual precepts. We are to obey Jesus’ specific commands. Keep his Word carries a general submission to God, as He is. The idea of “walking,” however, communicates the idea of pattern of life. Paul uses the word often that way, and it became a way of talking about the Christina life in the early church. It’s this idea that saves us from despair. When I consider the idea of walking as a pattern of life I recognize that there may be times and seasons of disobedience, but as a Christian that will not mark my life. The general pattern of my life is one of striving for obedience. Perfection is not John’s benchmark, but a general striving in the right direction is.

But for the apostle, there is a more specific application of this principle: love for others. To keep Jesus’ commands, to evidence our faith in Him, means particularly to “love his brother.” Again, John’s words are pointed:

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.

You cannot claim to be following Jesus while harboring hatred for His followers. John states that this is not a new command. Loving others has been part of God’s command for humanity since the Ten Commandments. Jesus states that the whole law is summarized simply as “love God and love others” (Matt. 22:34-39). Yet, because of Christ’s death and resurrection there is something new about it, John says (v. 8). I believe John is alluding to the possibly for fulfillment. That is, prior to Christ’s death we could not fulfill this law of loving one another. Sin made obedience to this command impossible. But, “the darkness is passing away” (v. 8). Christ in particular, fulfilled this law. He is the “true light” who is “overcoming the darkness” (John 1:5). Christ fulfilled this law for us by “laying down his life for the brothers” (John 15:13; 1 John 3:16). “In Him” we too can fulfill this law. Our love for the brothers, then, evidences that we belong to Christ.

True believers understand the principle of grace: grace received results in grace extended. Hatred is rooted in a “love of the world.” People who love the world – that is the sinful world system and sinful worldly values – cannot extend grace. They can’t extend grace because “the desires of the flesh, desires of the eyes, and the pride in possessions” has no room for grace. The love of world results in selfishness. But the true believer knows that just as God, in Christ, has loved us so we are to love others. So, John tells us we can know we are in Christ when we love others.

How do you love? It’s certainly true that loving others is hard. Some people are exceedingly difficult to love. The believer reminds himself, however, that he too is hard to love. That God did not love him because he was worthy, but rather loved him when he was “still a sinner” (Rom. 5:8). We love because we have been loved, and God’s grace will help us to love well as we seek Him. Do you want to know if you are a true follower of Jesus? Ask yourself: do I love others.

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