Doubt is a common experience of believers. Christian faith is often challenged by the realities of a broken world, and the limitations of our own weakness. The apostle John knows this, but he also knows that our faith can be shaken by the spiritual abuse of false teachers. So, he writes with both realities in mind to the churches of Asia minor. He writes to encourage their faith, so that they “may have confidence and not shrink from [Christ] in shame at his coming” (2:28b). In order to help them, then, John gives the churches a series of tests to apply to themselves to encourage their faith. He outlines both doctrinal and moral tests, because it is not enough simply to believe the right things. True believers, John says, practice righteousness.
This can be an unsettling pericope in John’s first epistle. It essentially asserts that Christians don’t continue in sin. So, John writes:
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. (1 John 3:6)
This can be troubling for some of us to hear because, after all, we look at our lives and in our more honest moments we see patterns of sinful behavior. Here, again, we want to remind ourselves that John is not suggesting that only those who are perfect are true Christians. Perfection is not attainable in this life, we wait for glorification for such a reality. John has already indicated that we will sin; he writes in chapter 1 about the process of dealing with sin as believers, because he knows that Christians still struggle with sin. The idea here has more to do with the habitual pattern of unrepentant sin. In verse 4 he refers to those who “make a practice of sinning.” John MacArthur helps us understand the passage clearly here, he writes:
The continuing aim of this epistle is to set forth tests by which a person’s claim to salvation can be verified or rejected. In chapter one, John refutes the claim of the false teachers to have advanced beyond any struggle with sin (1:8-10). He goes on in chapter two to make it clear that no matter what anyone might claim to believe, if he does not obey Christ’s commands (2:3) and live righteously (e.g., demonstrate love [2:9-10]), he is not a believer. In this passage, the apostle John reinforces the tests of faith he has already established. In so doing he further refutes the false teachers who minimized or denied the significance of sin. He gives three reasons that Trinitarian Christians do not habitually practice sin: sin is incompatible with God’s law (3:4), it is incompatible with the work of Christ (3:5-8), and it is incompatible with the ministry of the Holy Spirit (3:9-10) (Commentary on James, 122)
So, while John does not argue for perfectionism in the Christian life, he does see an incompatibility between a genuine profession of faith and a life of habitual reckless disobedience. True believers practice righteousness.
John is very pointed in this passage. “If you know that [God] is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (2:29). He says in 3:7, “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.” Conversely he says of those who practice sinning, they are “of the devil” (3:8). Verse ten spells it out in no uncertain terms, John writes:
By this it is evident who are the children of god, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother (1 John 3:10)
For John, the practice of righteousness is most evident in the loving relationships a believer has with other believers. So he puts skin and bone on this idea of righteousness in the rest of the chapter by looking at “love.”
The moral test of spiral 2 is not any different from the moral test of spiral 1. John expands on the idea here, giving us more detail and more stark contrast between true believers and pretenders. The commands are still the same, so John says:
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (3:11)
He gives a contrary example in the person of Cain, from the Old Testament, the man who killed his own brother “because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (v. 12). John borrows directly from the teachings of Jesus here and says that if we hate our brothers we are just like Cain, we are murderers (v. 15; Matt. 5:21-22). You cannot call yourself a child of God while you hate your brother, for “no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (v. 15). To help us better understand love, then, John gives us a positive picture.
Love means sacrifice. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (v. 16). The example of Jesus fuels our understanding of love. Christ is the model. Do you want to know what love looks like in your own life, John says, then look to Christ and imitate His example. He applies it in other tangible ways in this passage too. Love is sacrifice in all of life, not simply dying for someone. He speaks in verse 17 of providing for the needs of others. He says:
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in Him? (v. 17)
Love is demonstrated in providing for the needs of the brothers. If you know you can meet a need, John says, but you refuse to do it how can you possibly claim to be God’s child? In particular, John says love is not just words it’s actions. “Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (v. 18). Love has hands and feet to it.
John’s desire is to give us confidence that we belong to God. The false teachers were saying sin doesn’t matter, but John refutes such nonsense. You can’t call yourself a child of God and live in sin. But even where our hearts my tempt us to doubt truth, to not believe, John wants to reassure us that we can know where we stand in relation to God. Submit yourselves to these tests and you can know with greater confidence. I love how he ends this section, though. Doubt is real and it can be devastating. Our own minds and hearts can bring us into bondage to slavery, so John gives us even greater encouragement here. He writes:
By this [that is by the evidence of our love] we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. (v. 19-20)
It is possible to use these tests to reassure our hearts of the truth, but sometimes our hearts continue to doubt. In those moments, John says, stand firm. Remind yourself of these truths. If you can pass the test, then even though your heart might condemn you, God is greater than your heart! He knows the truth even when you have trouble believing it.
These verses can be unsettling. It is possible to use these tests to beat ourselves up and create further doubt, but John’s intent is that we would examine our lives and see the fruit righteousness being applied, and that this would encourage us. True believers practice righteousness. They are not perfect, to be sure, but they never excuse sin and live at peace in it. Examine the way you love others, and so reassure your hearts. Doubt is real but God has designed these tests to encourage us; for His truth is greater than even our doubts.