What is perfectly obvious to anyone who reads 1 John right through is that the first five verses of chapter 5 are a summation or wrap-up of the whole argument to this point. In these few verses John recapitulates what he has said so far. If there is a new idea here, it is perhaps the unity of these three forms of Christian identity (faith in Christ as the incarnate Son of God, love for one another, and obedience to the commandments of God): how they belong together, depend upon one another, and draw strength from one another. One cannot have any one of them without the other two because they are all three essential elements of the life the Spirit of God creates in those who are being saved. [Stott, 171] For example, as one commentator put it, “the road to love is paved with faith.” [Yarbrough, 269] You can just as well say that the road to obedience is paved with love and paved with faith and so on.
Here in a single sentence are found once more the doctrinal test and the social test of genuine Christian faith. It is a beautiful way of putting the test of love, however, and adds a new thought: “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” This is a principle of the Father’s own love so it is not surprising that it should become a principle of ours as well. It explains the wonderful promise God has made to us regarding our children: “I will be a God to you and to your children after you.” Whoever loves the father (or the mother) will love the father’s children too! God loves our children because he loves us!
By the way, to say that the one who believes has been born of God is to say that Christian faith in a heart and life is the result of not the cause of the new birth. We are used to hearing that faith is the condition of being a child of God. The Bible often says this and Paul in particular. But faith is also the result of being a child of God, the point John is making here. The condition we must meet is the very thing that God must create in us.
Here once again is the moral test and John expressly ties together love for God and obedience to his commandments as he does so famously in his Gospel. As Jesus said, “if you love me you will keep my commandments.” The two – love and obedience – are not different things but the same thing in different respects and so the one can be known by the other. As Calvin wisely observes, “the love of God is no idle thing.”
This point made in these verses and the failure to grasp and believe it “is perhaps the largest miscalculation of the world’s millions of nominal Christians (and of those who mislead them), who suppose that being nice to other people (and perhaps religious on occasions like Christmas and Easter)…is an adequate expression of faith. Such a minimalist understanding will find little validation in 1 John.” [Yarbrough, 273]
The sense of the connection between the last phrase of v. 3 and the first sentence of v. 4 – a connection indicated by the “for” or “because” with which v. 4 begins – is that one of the reasons why God’s commandments are not a burden to us is because we have a new nature, a nature that thrives on such obedience, and a nature that has the wherewithal to obey, even in the teeth of the opposition of our own flesh, the world, and the Devil. This has always been true for the faithful. Remember Moses telling the Israelites in Deut. 30:11: “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.”
You remember this language of faith in Christ overcoming the world from the letters to the seven churches in Rev. 2 and 3. John, of course, wrote that as well.
Ordinarily it is my practice in preaching to attend primarily to the main point of the paragraph of Holy Scripture that is before me. I think it is my responsibility to lay the burden of the text before you. What is the biblical writer after and how can I impress that point upon your hearts and minds? That is my challenge. But in this particular case, the burden of these five verses is to sum up the argument of the letter; to repeat briefly once more an argument we have considered in detail over the past number of Lord’s Days.
That being so I felt the more free to take up this morning a single statement that John adds as something of a detail in his summation. It is not even necessarily an entire sentence. The ESV makes it a separate sentence, but it is not so in the Greek text of 1 John. There it is a coordinate clause, an “and” followed by a few more words, seven words altogether. The phrase I mean is the last words of v. 3: “And his commandments are not burdensome.” This has always been a hugely important statement, very important to a Biblical understanding of the Law of God and its place in the life of God’s people, but I think its importance is even greater in our day and age and for that reason I think it is important opportunity for me to ring the changes on these few words. There has been in evangelicalism since the 17th century an antinomian streak. You know what antinomianism is. Anti-against, nomos the Greek word for law; so “against-the-law-ism,” any view that is negative toward the Law of God. It is the view, held in various forms to be sure, that maintains that Christians have been freed from obligation to the law, from obedience to the Ten Commandments and to the other commandments of the law. Various explanations are offered for this extraordinary conclusion, but an underlying conviction is that there is something hard, even harsh about the law, especially the OT law, which is invariably thought in some way to be different from the commandments of the NT, and that Christ has introduced a different principle for our living. We are no longer to live by obedience, an inferior approach to life, but by love. We are to be guided not by an external code, but by an internal virtue. Antinomians often claim that the result will be the same. If love for God and love for man is the supreme motivation of a human heart – as the gospel makes it to be – then that man will not steal, will not lie, will not be sexually impure, and so on. Whether that is actually the case is in dispute, of course. The American antinomian evangelical church does not today have a great reputation for its moral probity.
What is more, in my experience, in antinomian circles, there are always some commandments that don’t make the cut. Apparently if one loves God and man he will not necessarily keep the Sabbath day holy, he will not necessarily tithe his money, and so on.
But you see the point. In the antinomian mind there is something inferior, something unworthy, it is even often said something juvenile about living by keeping commandments. That belonged, so they say, to the ancient epoch, a more juvenile time in the history of salvation. We have in the new epoch got beyond the “do this and do that” of the Mosaic law. We have entered spiritual maturity. We now serve God out of love and, as it were, almost instinctively, without having to be reminded constantly what our duties are. The assumption that the OT saints did not serve God out of love is, of course, not supported by the evidence anymore than the assumption that we are not constantly reminded what our duties are in the NT. But we move on.
It should be a surprise to no one that the church has always been and is today beset by antinomian tendencies and that the law and the commandments of God have always had to fight their way into the affections of even devout Christian people. As the always perceptive John Duncan, Rabbi Duncan of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism, once put it,
“I suspect that, after all, there is only one heresy, and that is Antinomianism.” [Colloquia Peripatetica, 70]
He meant that lying at the foundation of every wrong idea that ever surfaces in the mind of the Christian church is the sinner’s quarrel with the authority of God, his absolute right to command our obedience absolutely. Sinners like us do not want to be commanded; rebels like us do not like to be reminded of our obligation to submit. Parents, you know this all too well. You struggle here with your children, do you not? They do not want to do what they are told, no matter how reasonable, how proper, how necessary that obedience may be? When you tell them to stop playing and clean up their room or to stop trying to take the other’s toy, do they reply, “Oh, thank you mother, I didn’t realize it was time to clean my room; I’m so glad you saw what I did not!” “Oh, thank you, daddy, for reminding me that I should share my toys. I want to be someone who shares and you have helped me with your commandment. I love you for that!” We want them to think that way in due time, but do they automatically think so? Do your children love to be told what to do? We learn as parents that obedience is an art and must be learned by our children because it does not come naturally.
Or what of you teachers? When you give your students a difficult or demanding assignment – phooey; when you give them any assignment – do they stop by your desk after class to tell you how much they appreciate the obligations you lay upon them because they know such requirements are imposed upon them only for their own good? Assignments, after all, are simply commandments by another name. What do they do? They groan. They protest. They complain. The assignment might be very well suited to their intellectual development, to their mastery of an important subject, but that matters very little to them at the time. You hope they will come to appreciate that they needed this, it was valuable for them to be told to do this, but at the moment they do not want to do what they have been required to do, period!
And little changes as we get older. We may have learned that we must obey certain commandments to keep our jobs or to avoid a speeding ticket, but it doesn’t make it more pleasant for us. We do not like to be put under orders; our rebellious natures protest. And it is precisely this spirit, this tendency that all men carry in our hearts that affects our attitude toward God’s commandments. So we bend our minds to justifying our desires to do something else than obey the commandments of God. We all do it, all the time, but when ministers do it in the pulpit and in books, the danger is much greater, for they are throwing gasoline on an already burning fire.
It may surprise you to learn that there are very definitely antinomian tendencies in the Reformed and Presbyterian world of our own day. There are few who will accept the name, but the thing itself is alive and well in many of our churches. Few of our men will say that the Ten Commandments no longer apply or that we are no longer obliged to keep the commandments of God – indeed, they will often take umbrage at the suggestion that they teach any such thing – but obedience gets very short shrift in sermons, some congregations never hear the law of God read or preached, no matter the immense amount of space devoted to it in Holy Scripture, in the OT and NT alike. And as soon as the issue of obedience is raised, the subject is changed. They are grace people, so they say; and the unspoken subtext of that self-identification is often that they are not obedience people. One change I have noted, for example, is the disappearance in many of our churches of preaching on the Ten Commandments. Sermon series on the Ten Commandments used to be a staple of Reformed preaching. From Calvin to the Puritans, from the Great Awakening men to the 19th century Presbyterians, congregations were regularly treated to expositions of the Law. The Ten Commandments were read in worship and preached from the pulpit. In a good number of our churches this no longer happens and hasn’t for a long time. They would deny that they are antinomians, but, as we say, actions speak louder than words.
In the Reformed world this antinomianism-lite is usually motivated by the fear that if we speak of the believer’s obedience we draw attention away from the obedience of Christ. If we emphasize the importance of the commandments to our living the Christian life, we must inevitably place too much attention on what we believers do and take too much attention away from what Christ has done for us. But this is to be wiser than the Word of God!
Let me remind you that the Reformed church, basing its doctrine on the teaching of Holy Scripture, has always had a very positive view of God’s law and the commandments of that law. The Reformed church has loved the law of God, been grateful for it, and always taught its people that they were obliged to keep the commandments of God and that God’s blessing would attend them if they did. We were always taught that the law of God is good, wise, and immensely helpful. We need it. The law not only serves to awaken our conviction of sin, demonstrate to us how thoroughly we have failed to do God’s will and so drives us to Christ to find forgiveness with God. The law also serves to direct, even to motivate our life of faith when once we are Christians.
When once the fiery law of God
Has chas’d us to the gospel road,
Then back unto the holy law,
Most kindly gospel grace will draw.
Jesus, remember, not only said that he had not come to abolish the law – indeed, every jot and tittle would remain – but he said that if we loved him we would keep his commandments. Jesus laid down many laws in his teaching as we have it in the four Gospels, most of which were simply restatements of the ancient laws of Moses. Luther observed that in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus outdid Moses in searching and demanding commandments! Jesus himself was all about doing the will of his heavenly Father, living a life of obedience to God, and again and again he laid upon his disciples the obligation to do the same. “Be perfect,” he said “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He once said,
“For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” [Matt. 12:50]
Paul, remember, the champion of justification by faith alone, also said that his doctrine of justification, far from overthrowing the law of God or making it irrelevant or unnecessary, actually upheld it. It was Paul who reminded us that it is not circumcision or uncircumcision that counts but keeping the commandments of God. It was Paul who said that the purpose of Christ’s redemption was precisely that we, you and I, might fulfill the righteous requirements of the law. I could go on to wearying effect reminding you of the place obedience to God’s commandments has in the Bible’s account of the Christian life, the premium placed upon such obedience, the necessity of it, and the unending exhortations, warnings, and appeals regarding obedience in the life of the people of God. No one will be saved without that obedience the Bible teaches many times, however true it remains that no one is saved by it.
It has been chiefly Reformed scholars through the centuries who have pointed out that negative judgments about the law of God come very near to an accusation against God, as if infinite goodness and wisdom should be questioned by us or as if we should ever suspect God of having issued bad, unmerciful, or unwise commandments. Nothing is clearer in the Bible than that the Law of God reflects the nature, the character of God, and the order of God’s own mind. That character is beautiful, supremely beautiful. What should a man, one of God’s creatures, try to do but to reproduce it as much as he can in his daily life? He should strive to be like God and it is precisely the commandments of God that show him how to do that.
But still the law gets a bad rap in much Christian thinking and practice. A good bit of this stems from some serious misunderstanding of certain statements in the New Testament and it is precisely in regard to this misunderstanding that John’s statement that the commandments of God are not burdensome is so important.
Many Christians labor under the delusion that the law of God was in some way a burden, a yoke, a heavy chain that saints of the ancient epoch, believers before the incarnation, had to struggle under and drag along throughout their life. They take this idea from passages like Matthew 23:4 and Acts 15:10. In the former, part of the Lord’s Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees and scribes, we read this:
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”
The word “burden” there is the same word used here in 1 John 5 to say that the commandments of God are not a burden. In Acts 15:10 we read:
“Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers not we have been able to bear?”
Even our Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of the “yoke of the law” as if the commandments of the Law of Moses were somehow a heavy burden that, thankfully, the Lord Christ has lifted off us in the new epoch. The impression many have given was that the life of faith was drudgery in the ancient epoch because it was all about obedience to commandments but it is light and airy and full of freedom for us today.
But neither the Lord Jesus in Matthew 23 nor Peter in Acts 15 was talking about the Law of Moses or the Ten Commandments or the other commandments of the law such as we read them in the Old Testament. They were talking about the Pharisaic corruption of the law, the thousand and one rabbinical regulations that cannot be found in the law of God but were added by men and which utterly changed the nature of holiness. No longer was holiness of life loving obedience to the law of God in gratitude for his saving mercy. Now it was the subjection of one’s life to the minutiae of rabbinic regulation, many if not most of which regulations completely obscured the original point of the commandment of God’s law.
One has only to compare the Law of Moses to the Mishnah, that collection of rabbinical laws from about the time of the Lord Jesus, to realize what different worlds are described in each document. One is law as an instrument of God’s grace and goodness in a believer’s life; the other is legalism pure and simple. The one keeps the connection between God’s love and redemption and our obedience perfectly clear; the other turns them right around and makes a life of endless and picayune regulation the substance of our salvation.
Our Lord Jesus said that the Pharisees turned the law of God into a burden that no one could bear. It wasn’t God who had done that, it was the Pharisees. Peter said the same thing. But John comes along to remind us that the commandments of God themselves are not burdens and never were. And that is precisely what you find in the Old Testament itself.
“He declared his word to Jacob, his statutes and his laws to Israel. he has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his laws. Praise the Lord!” [Ps. 147:19-20]
Does that sound as if the Psalm writer thought God’s commandments were some intolerable burden?
“Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me.” [Psalm 119:97-98]
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to you word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!” [119:9-10]
Does that sound as if that OT saints thought God’s commandments were a heavy yoke, a cruel burden that turned their lives before God into drudgery? The fact is the commandments of God become a drudge only when they are separated from faith and love and removed from their proper context in a gospel centered life. Otherwise the commandments of God are love’s eyes, the way a man or woman who loves God and wants to live a life of love for others learns how to do that.
We experience this all the time in our society and culture. Why would a young man who falls in love and wants now to live his life with a particular young woman for the rest of his life, why does he feel under an absolute obligation to spend a great deal of money for a ring? Why? Because it is a law in our culture that this is the way the committed love of a young man for a young woman is expressed. It is the proper way to express that love and to declare the seriousness of your intentions and the gratitude that you have that she has come into your life. And that is just society’s law. What about God’s laws?
Do you want to know how to live a life of love for God and man? Do you really? Well scour the commandments, in the OT and the NT, and learn from them how to love. From the commandment not to steal or lie, to the commandment to leave in the field what your reapers missed the first time so that the poor will have some place to find food. From the commandment not to keep a man’s coat as collateral for a loan, to the commandment to turn your cheek to a man who has slapped you. From the commandment not to take vengeance on your enemies to the commandment to do something useful with your hands so that you will have to give to those in need. From the commandment to encourage one another in the Lord to the commandment not to let the sun go down on your wrath. From the commandment to husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church to the commandment to children to obey their parents. And on and on it goes.
Because I want you to love God, to love the Lord Jesus with all your heart, to love one another, and even to love your enemies, I want you to love God’s law and to love every one of his commandments. The way to the former is the latter. They are not picayune regulations. They are the furthest thing from a yoke. They are wisdom and goodness and every kind of help to a holy and fruitful life. The wiser you become, the holier your life, the more useful to others, the more you will treasure the guidance and the support of God’s law.
Parents you know this, but you must teach your children this a thousand times and show it to them by the example of your lives. They will never be happier for disobeying God’s law. It is sometimes difficult to obey his commandments when we are tempted so powerfully by our flesh and the world and the devil to disobey. But it is a simple fact, easy enough to demonstrate, that life is always better when lived according to the commandments of God and it is always worse, much worse, when it is not. They will learn this lesson to their misery if you do not teach it to them before they are forced to learn it the hard way.
A life of sexual purity, such as is required by the commandments of God, is always a better life, a more satisfying life, a more fruitful life, a life more valuable to others, a life without deep regret, a life without shame, an honorable life. We have been made by a God of purity for a life of purity and so God’s commandments naturally require that of us. It is the way life ought to be lived and the only way, therefore, that life comes into its own. And that is a wonderful, wonderful thing: when life comes into its own. When you are living what you know is the life you ought to live then you will know how valuable the commandment of God has been to you! And we need that commandment because often all that stands between us and sins of impurity is the knowledge that God has forbidden what we are about to do.
A life of hard work and industry is required by the commandments of God and so that life will always prove more fulfilling and more useful to others and more full of promise than a life devoted, as so many lives are today, to one’s entertainment, leisure, and pleasure. Our Lord Jesus, who lived a hard-working life, did not make you and save you to live an idle, inconsequential life. He made you to accomplish things in your own life and in the life of others. And his commandments hem you in on all sides when you are tempted to indulge your selfish laziness.
A life of generosity and charity is required by the law of God, a life of selfless investment in the lives of others is ordered by the commandments of God just as it is demonstrated in the life of our Savior. We need those commandments to cut away all our excuses and our pretensions and leave us with no way around our duty, because if we are not ordered to love others, our selfishness is such that most of the time we will not.
Parents, if you love your children, you will teach them how good God was to give us his commandments, how right and wise each one of them is, and how much happiness they will find in obedience to them and how much misery they will visit upon themselves by their disobedience to them. Teach them to admire obedience to God’s law in others. Of course, you will teach them that obedience is not what we were saved by but what we were saved for, but, then, if we were saved by the blood of Christ for a life of obedience, it must be very, very important to God and to our Savior, Jesus Christ, and so it ought to be very important to us.
Most people in this world and even Christians too much of the time adjust their duties to their desires. But Christians ought to know better. If they are wise and care for their own goodness and happiness, still more if they are care for the honor of the Lord, they will adjust their desires to their duties. What they will want for themselves is what God tells them to be and do. That and only that!
If you are wise you will not simply obey God’s commandments, you will school yourself to love to obey them and if you are wise you will teach your children not simply to obey, as if sullen and unwilling submission is all that is finally required. You will teach them to obey promptly, happily, and enthusiastically, sure, as the Scripture teaches us in a thousand ways, that in the keeping of the commandments of God there is a great reward.
A burden? God’s commandments are a burden in only that sense in which wings are a burden to a bird! A burden? They are the wisdom and goodness of our heavenly Father who knows infinitely better than we do how to live a life that he will bless, a life of happiness, of goodness, of fulfillment and satisfaction; the life we will want to have lived when our lives are done.
Fact is we were not born to be free. We were born to adore and to obey! [C.S. Lewis]