John picks up on his reference to the Lord Jesus Christ in the previous verse. The reference to the Lord having come by the water and the blood evokes our recollection of the blood and water flowing from the Lord’s side when he was pierced by a Roman lance to confirm that he was dead. There, in the account of the crucifixion found in the Gospel of John chapter 19, the effusion of water and blood was evidence of his death. But here, water and blood almost certainly refer rather to the two events that book-end the Lord’s public ministry: his baptism at the beginning and his death on the cross at the end. He came through the water and the blood
This interpretation depends upon the nature of the false teaching that lay behind the troubles that prompted John’s writing of this letter. That teaching was apparently associated with a man named Cerinthus, whom we know from other evidence was a contemporary and an opponent of John. We learn of Cerinthus chiefly from the writings of the church father of the 2nd century, Irenaeus, and the church historian of the 4th century, Eusebius. Cerinthus was a proto-Gnostic, a purveyor of a form of Christian teaching that was shaped or, we might say misshapen, by the two principles that would dominate all forms of Gnostic thought: the impurity of matter and the supremacy of knowledge (Plummer in Stott, 47-48).
Cerinthus held that the Christ had descended upon the human Jesus at his baptism but left him before the crucifixion. He thought that because in his philosophy a pure spiritual being could have had nothing to do with such physical suffering as crucifixion involved. The Christian proclamation of the forgiveness of sins through the bloody death of the Son of God on the cross was never going to fly with a man with the views of Cerinthus. Salvation for Cerinthus would be found in the realm of the mind and spirit, in knowledge, not by placing one’s confidence in a human death, still less a death as violent as Jesus’ was. The nub of the theological error as John has exposed it in the course of his letter was, then, that the human Jesus was severed from the divine Christ. In other words you no longer had a true incarnation. So it was not the Son of God who suffered on the cross, but simply a man named Jesus, who in Cerinthus’ view had not been born of a virgin and was not the same person who had come from heaven. And, of course, to be initiated into the knowledge of this mystery, Christ coming and going upon this man Jesus, was, for the followers of Cerinthus, the path to salvation.
In other words, those who deny the truth conveyed by “the water and the blood”, those who deny that Jesus the man is the same Son of God who created the heavens and the earth and who died on the cross of Calvary, cannot lay claim to the Holy Spirit who bears witness to both the water and the blood and even uses those great events as part of his witness to the incarnate Son of God. Remember, at the Lord’s baptism the Spirit descended upon him as a dove. And we read that it was by the Holy Spirit that the Lord rose from the dead after his death on the cross.
John and the other apostles bore witness to the truth as they saw it themselves, but behind their witness lay the still more important testimony of the Holy Spirit. You will remember that it is in the Gospel of John, chapters 14-16, that we read at length about the ministry that the Spirit would have after Christ had ascended to heaven. He would bear witness to the world concerning Jesus and teach the followers of Jesus the truth about him. You may remember how the apostles, very soon after Pentecost, replied to the Jewish Sanhedrin by reminding them that the very man they had executed God had exalted to his right hand. They went on to say:
“And we are witnesses to these things and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” [Acts 5:32]
Here is the same thought in 1 John 5, we have the witness of the apostles who were eyewitnesses of all that Jesus did and said, all that happened to him and the witness of the Holy Spirit backing that witness up.
I think the paragraph division by the editors of the ESV and the NIV translations is somewhat unfortunate. Verse 13 goes with the verses before more than it does with the verses after, or so I think. In any case v. 13 makes very clear what has been the theme or the subject of 1 John! Here, John says, is what I have been writing to you about. I want you to know that you have eternal life and I want you to know how to know that.
Florence was doing some preparation for a music class the other day, watching a documentary on the life of the late, great Louis Armstrong. Growing up as a boy and young man I knew, of course, who Louis Armstrong was; who in America didn’t? And like everyone else, even those, like me, who would not consider themselves fans of jazz music, I enjoyed listening to him play “When the Saints Go Marching In” on his trumpet, or sing “What a Wonderful World.” I confess that until listening to the documentary I didn’t appreciate what an original and significant figure he was and what a tremendous influence he wielded in the development of jazz. A few recordings he made with his Chicago band in the early 1920s apparently changed the face of that genre and are known today as the “Bible of American Jazz.” He also invented “scat,” the jazz idiom that Ella Fitzgerald was to make still more famous.
Anyway, the documentary passes over the sad story of his childhood. He was born to a prostitute mother, August 4, 1901. His mother continued to ply her trade after his birth in the New Orleans’ red light district and drank heavily as well. Louis, as a very little boy or 4 and 5 years of age, was with his little sister, often abandoned on the street to fend for himself. As a seven year old boy he found some work with a kindly Russian immigrant family, sometimes sleeping at their home at night because he had no where else to go. It was those folks who were the first to notice and encourage his musical talent.
A few years later, on New Year’s Eve, in celebration he shot a pistol into the air. A policeman saw him do it and he was arrested and sent to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, effectively a juvenile detention center and almost an orphanage for black boys. Louis loved it there. It became home for him. They had a band in the home and it was there that Louis first picked up a horn and learned to play. He would go on from there to a place of great honor and influence not only in American music and culture but, indeed, in worldwide music and culture until his death in 1971. It is a fascinating story.
But there was one heart-breaking piece of Armstrong’s biography that especially caught my attention. As an adult, whenever he returned to New Orleans, for years after, he would pay a visit to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys. And on those visits it was his habit to go to his old dormitory, find his old bed, and lie down and get under the blankets and take a nap. As his biographer noted, it had been the one place in his boyhood where he had felt comfortable and safe and just to be there again brought back those warm memories.
There is a huge difference between those who live in this world knowing that they are safe and secure and those who do not. A great deal of human behavior, including much of what is most grotesque in human behavior, can be accounted for as either an effort on a man or a woman’s part to find that safety and security or as a distraction to prevent him from facing the fact that he has not found it. A great deal of human anger, of ladder climbing, of sexual adventurism, of substance abuse, of divorce, of television and internet use can be explained as a desperate search for that one bed where one knows himself safe and secure.
The problem of human life is precisely that most people never find that place because they continue to look in all the places where it cannot be found. In most philosophies of life, interestingly in most of the religions of the world, such solid assurance, that sense of absolute safety and security is actually thought to be impossible. No matter how comfortable life may be, and for those of us in western civilization it can be very comfortable, it remains short; brutishly short and still full of troubles and trials of very kind. Death is a specter that looms over every human being and what will we find on the other side? There is no assurance of Paradise in Islam. According to the Koran, Mohammed himself had dark dreams about the judgment day. Indeed, so foreign to his mind was the possibility that one could know that he was saved that he once said to some Jews,
“If you believe in assurance and know that your sins are forgiven – why don’t you kill yourselves and escape this evil world?”
In Islam, one hopes for the best, but who can know? God is inscrutable and his will is unknowable. None of the eastern faiths offer solid ground upon which a man or woman can stand assured of his or her safety and fulfillment and everlasting peace and joy. Secularism has, of course, no answer at all to the trials and tragedies of life and stands utterly helpless in the face of death.
Strange to say, given that this is one of Christianity’s utterly unique doctrines, even certain forms of Christian faith offer no real assurance of salvation, of heaven, of personal safety, and of eternal happiness, peace, and love. In Roman Catholicism, assurance may have been supernaturally granted to a few special saints, but generally it is impossible to know that you are and will remain a child of God. The same is true and for some of the same reasons in Arminian forms of evangelicalism. You may be safe and secure today, but there is no guarantee that you won’t forfeit your salvation tomorrow. Even in Reformed theology the possibility of real assurance has often been more one of debate and controversy rather than glad proclamation. John Owen, whom we rightly revere as a father of the Reformed faith, once wrote that he thought there were very few Christians who were ever granted the assurance of their salvation. To which the Scottish theologian James Denney tartly replied,
“Whereas assurance is a sin in Romanism, and a duty in much of Protestantism, in the New Testament it is simply a fact.”
Nowadays, alas, assurance is not much of a problem for most Christians, not because they have thought the issue through and not because they have it in great measure, but because they have been taught or at least allowed to take their salvation virtually for granted. We live in a day of profoundly superficial religious thinking and living and assurance as a question is not taken very seriously anymore and the sad result of that is that the power and the joy of assurance, of God’s love felt and known in the heart, is not widely experienced. For there is a great deal of difference between taking one’s salvation for granted and hardly ever thinking about the issue of one’s life and really knowing that you are a child of God and an heir of everlasting life.
As William Gurnall, the Puritan writer, once wrote,
“Many Christians possess assurance without knowing it, just as it is possible for a man to walk around the house, looking for his hat when it is upon his head all the time.” [Cited in Houghton, My Life and Books, 68]
But Gurnall’s point is missed if you travel through life without the conscious conviction of your own salvation. John Newton once wrote about those who do not have the assurance of their salvation this way:
“[Even] if a traveler was absolutely sure of reaching his journey’s end in safety; yet if he walked with a thorn in his foot he must take every step in pain.”
That is how Newton thought the Christian life must be without real assurance in the heart; like walking the whole way with a thorn in one’s foot. And what is clear is that the Apostle John thought that Christians could know that they have eternal life. What does that mean? It means that you can know that right now, at this moment, and throughout your life in this world, all is ultimately well, that you are safe and secure, that after the struggles and difficulties of life in this vale of tears, there awaits for you a life of measureless and endless bliss, a life that you have had only glimpses of in the most wonderful moments and experiences of your sojourn on the earth. You can know that! You can relax and rest in the knowledge of that! You can live aware of that and convinced of that!
And John’s letter has told you how to know that you have eternal life. He has given you three different methods by which to test the genuineness of your connection to the Lord Jesus Christ and his salvation and so have the certainty of it yourself. We have discussed in some detail the moral test, the social test, and the doctrinal test. Wrapping them up together they amount to this: one can be sure that one has eternal life – has it already – if the fundamental commitments of his heart and life are to Christ the incarnate Son of God and only Savior of sinners, to a life of obedience to the Lord, and to a life of love for God and man. John has made clear that the requirement is certainly not that one always and in every way lives in consistency with these commitments, he knows our frailty, he knows our continuing sinfulness; but that the commitments are real and that they shape our lives, John says, this is the way to know. This is how the Holy Spirit bears his mighty witness in a believer’s heart.
Now it is not John’s interest in this letter to deal with the problems that even devout Christians can sometimes have gaining the assurance of salvation. Or to deal with the very different measures of spiritual experience that Christians have. He is dealing with a problem created by some false teaching and setting the record straight as to the basic grounds or foundations of the assurance of salvation, grounds and foundations one can find taught in many other places in the Word of God. What John has said so clearly throughout his letter is this: Jesus Christ is not dessert, a tidbit after the main meal. Christ is the meal itself or he is nothing. He is not the decoration of one’s life; he is one’s life or he is nothing. Believing in Christ must dominate life or one does not really believe. And so to believe in Jesus is not only to offer intellectual assent to the message of the gospel, it is to love him and honor him by your own love of others in his name and your obedience to his commandments.
It is, alas, certainly true that many Christians through the ages and today struggle to know that they are saved, struggle to be and remain confident of the Father’s acceptance, of their forgiveness in Christ, and of the witness of the Holy Spirit. I know some of you struggle to be sure and you are in august company!
Robert Bruce, the great reformer of the Scottish church struggled so much with his own assurance of salvation, he once admitted that his experience had taught him that “It is a great thing to believe in God.” Samuel Rutherford wrote to a correspondent who had doubts about his salvation, saying, “I speak as an expert.” John Bunyan considered a lack of assurance of his salvation one of his besetting sins. Thomas Shepard, the pilgrim father and founder of Harvard, had a life long struggle to obtain assurance of his salvation.
I have on my shelf a volume containing a brief Memoir and some collected writings of Donald Macfarlane, a Presbyterian minister in Scotland who died in 1979 and whose nephew was for a time a minister in our presbytery. Mr. Macfarlane suffered a severe nervous breakdown in the earlier years of his ministry – though he was at the time by all accounts a godly man and deeply committed to the gospel – because of his fear that he might have only temporary faith, such faith as the Lord Jesus describes in his parable of the sower and the soils, the counterfeit faith of a Judas or a Demas that would last for awhile but would finally come to nothing.
Spurgeon, once commenting on the fact that even Christians eminent in godliness have struggled to be confident of their own salvation, said,
“It has been said that in moments of despondency Shakespeare thought himself no poet; and Raphael doubted his right to be called a painter. We call such self-suspicion morbid, and ascribe them to a hypochondriacal fit; in what other way can we speak of those doubts as to their saintship, which occasionally afflict the most eminently holy of the Lord’s people!”
John is not taking about such problems experienced by some men and women of real faith, but he is giving us the way forward, no matter our spiritual state and condition. Whether we are inclined to doubt or are rarely afflicted by doubt, the way of assurance is the same. Assurance is, of course, like everything else in the Christian life, a gift of God’s grace and like all other graces it is sovereign. That is why some have more of it than others. There is nothing we can do about that; we are face to face with the inscrutable will of God. He allows some to suffer doubts and many others scarcely ever to have one. As a result, John’s three tests will prove more of a struggle for some than for others, just as other aspects of the Christian life are easier or more difficult for some than for others.
In the same way that there is no characteristic or definitive experience of salvation – some have no recollection of becoming Christians – they have been Christians all their lives so far as they know –, others, who come to faith in adolescence or adulthood, come to Christ very gently and even now cannot tell you precisely when it was that they passed from darkness into light, while others come dramatically, suddenly and even violently into the kingdom of God in powerful experiences of conviction and ecstasy – well, I say, in the same way there is no definitive experienceof becoming a Christian so there is no definitive experienceof being one. Some are sure of their salvation from the first moment; others have doubts all the way to the end. But there remains but one way to be sure and that is this way, the tri-partite way John has given us here: confidence in the saving life and work of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God and the demonstration of the transformation of your heart that is found in a life of obedience and love. Those things are how the Holy Spirit bears his witness; they are the visible, measureable effect of his presence.
But, take note. There is a priority here, an emphasis. When John finally sums up his entire argument, as he does in 5:1-13, the matter that receives by far the most attention is faith in Christ and the matter that culminates that summation in vv. 11 and 12 is the same: eternal life is found only in God’s son and whoever has him – and that means whoever has faith in him – has eternal life. How do you know for sure that you have crossed over from death to life? How do you know that death for you will be but one short, dark passage to eternal light?
Well, eternal life is the achievement, the accomplishment of Jesus Christ and whoever has him, whoever is the follower of that Jesus Christ has life, must have it, and cannot fail to have it. It is this special emphasis on the gospel offer and its embrace in faith that has led good men through the ages to say that, as important as the moral test may be and the social test as well, assurance rests most firmly and finally on a person’s trust in the promise of God and the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Rabbi Duncan, John Duncan of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism, was an extraordinarily perceptive theologian and spiritual advisor. Maybe one of the reasons for that was he also struggled with doubts all his life. And having thought as hard about the assurance of salvation, about our safety and security in Christ, as almost anyone in the history of the Christian church, he knew of what he was speaking when he said,
“Let us seek to have well-grounded marks of saintship [he is speaking of love and obedience to God’s Law], but when the push comes, nothing but imputed righteousness will stand the day. It was there we began, and it is there we must end, with God as a sin-forgiving God through the obedience unto death of his only…Son.” [Just a Talker, 6-7]
Samuel Rutherford said something similar 200 years earlier. He was writing to George Gillespie. If you remember, Gillespie was one of the five Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, and the youngest of them. Indeed, he was the youngest man to serve as a delegate to that august assembly of churchmen. He was brilliant and learned far beyond his years. It is of Gillespie that the story – almost certainly apocryphal – is told that when a committee of divines charged with writing the Shorter Catechism came to having to construct an answer to the question: What is God? they found themselves struggling to know how to begin. So they asked Gillespie to pray and he began his prayer this way: “O God, Thou art a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in Thy being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” And it was from his address to God in that ex tempore prayer that the famous catechism answer was taken. That such a story should be told about Gillespie at least indicates the admiration, almost reverence in which he was held by those who knew him or of him at the time.
When Rutherford wrote his last letter to Gillespie, the latter was on his deathbed, though only 35 years of age. And his advice to his young friend was the same as Duncan’s two centuries later: he said that in the hour of death, and I think Rutherford would say in any hour of great trial, difficulty, pain, or disquiet, a Christian should concentrate not on what he or she has done for Christ – even if the Lord enabled him or her to do many things – and George Gillespie had done many great things that stood as evidence that he had passed the moral and social tests. He was a man who had loved and served the Lord and kept his commandments and he was beloved by multitudes of Christians because he loved them himself. But still, Rutherford wrote him, a Christian should concentrate not on what the believer has done for the Lord, however much, but on what the Lord has done for him or her.
“All your wants, dear brother, be upon him…grace must subscribe your accounts as paid [in full]. … cast yourself on him who justifies the ungodly.” [Letter CCCXXIV, 644-645]
Rutherford is saying: the main thing is Christ, the main assurance you have is that you know him who has done for you what you needed to have done and what no one else but the God/Man could have done. By trusting yourself, your life, your future to him, you are placing yourself in a position of perfect safety and security. You are placing yourself in the hands of the Son of God. If you are trusting in Christ you can have nothing to fear. You’re as good as home!
And where does this faith in Christ, this sure and certain connection to him come from? Do you believe because you are smarter than those who don’t? Do you believe because you are a better person? No. As we read in v. 10: you believe because the Spirit of God has borne his testimony in your mind and heart. God himself has revealed his Son to you and taught you of both your need for him and his perfect meeting of your need. As he wrote in v. 1:
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…”
You can read back from your faith in Christ to God’s work in your heart and life changing your nature. The Holy Spirit bears witness to Christ just as the Lord Jesus said he would. And we have heard that witness and have believed it with all our hearts, as we should have when God himself has spoken!
There are a great many things, even most things in your life concerning which you cannot be sure. There is nothing to be done for that. We know so little. We have no idea what tomorrow will bring or why. But among all the things we do not know and cannot know stands this one great thing, the greatest thing of all, the one thing that it is supremely and infinitely important to know for sure and that we can know for an absolute certainty: in Jesus Christ our living Savior, we are going to live forever in that world where everlasting joy rests on everyone’s head. We can live ignorant of many things, if only we know that for sure!