The First Test of Life
1 John 1:5-2:6
September 12, 2010 AM
By Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
From: John's Letters Sermons
We have commented on these verses already, as this is the third time we have read 1 John 1:5-10 and the second time we have read 2:1-6. Accordingly, we can read the text with little comment this morning.
The word “know” looms large in 1 John because the false teachers, proto Gnostics we called them – “Gnostic” comes from the word “know” – claimed to have a superior, insider’s “knowledge” of reality, of God and of salvation. Hardly, says John. Here is a test by which anyone and everyone can know whether he or she knows God.
There is a longstanding debate as to whether “the love of God” means God’s love for his child or the Christian’s love for God. Is God’s own love perfected in the man or woman who obeys him or is the Christian’s love for God perfected, made more substantial and visible, by his or her obedience? It seems very likely that the latter is meant because in 5:3 we read: “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” We show our love to God and prove it by our obedience. That is the idea.
You remember that in introducing the Letter several Lord’s Days back we noted that John will set before his readers three “tests of life,” three ways of determining whether or not a person who professes to be a follower of Jesus Christ is actually a follower of Jesus Christ. It was a pressing issue for this group of believers for two reasons. First, some teachers had come into their midst with a message that the gospel they had been taught by the apostles was defective in some important respects. There were vital parts of the message that the apostles had omitted or misstated. Were they right? Or was the message as it had been delivered to them by the apostles the one and only authentic version of the gospel? Second, apparently unable to persuade the believers of the correctness of this new teaching these teachers had left them and left in a way to suggest that they regarded these believers as outsiders, not insiders like themselves. This inevitably raised the question: who is the true insider and how does one know? Who really does belong to the people of God and the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in truth, in fact and, still more important, do I belong? And John, determined to put their fears and doubts to rest, tells them that there are three sure ways to tell. We have the first of those three ways before us this morning.
It is interesting and important to recognize that the issue of ascertaining true and genuine faith, and with it the salvation of God, distinguishing it from its spurious substitutes, came immediately with the proclamation of the gospel to the world. The issue had, of course, long predated the New Testament. The OT prophets, for example, preached long sermons designed to sow doubt in the hearts of many who were, as Amos once put it, “at ease in Zion.” They were thinking they had the approval of God when in fact they were not. From the beginning of the existence of the church in the world to our own day it has been impossible to avoid the problem created by the existence of bogus or spurious faith. Many in the church have imagined themselves to be true and authentic children of God and they were nothing of the kind. In many times and places, in biblical times and in times since, the largest part of the church has been nominal only, Christians in name only, not in truth, not by living faith. It is the nature of the gospel and the nature of human beings to produce this effect: a presumption of salvation that is deeply held but utterly unwarranted. The church has never escaped the problem, the evidence of it lies everywhere on the pages of Holy Scripture, and it is addressed pointblank times without number in the Bible.
Think of the Lord’s terrifying remark near the end of the Sermon on the Mount to the effect that many will say to him “Lord, Lord” on the great day only to be told “I never knew you.” You thought you knew me, but I did not know you. Think of his parables of the last judgment where he describes the shutting of the door against many who imagined that they had a placed reserved at the banquet table. Think of Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to examine themselves to ensure that they are truly, really “in the faith.” Obviously it is all too possible not to be; to think oneself a Christian when one is not; to have the appearance of a child of God but only the appearance. And that fact, of course, has also led to much doubt and concern among serious devout, genuine Christians. “Am I one of these self-deceived people? Am I one of those who is going to hear the Lord say at the last ‘Depart from me, I never knew you.’” “If so many can be mistaken about their faith, perhaps I am too!” You can’t read the Bible; you can’t care about God and salvation without wondering whether that might be true of you. It is a natural concern. No wonder then John’s three “tests,” offered as means to assure oneself of salvation, of true belonging to the people of God and the body of Jesus Christ.
You also remember that in introducing the letter I said that each of the three tests is marked out or identified in 1 John by the use of the terms lie and liar. Here we have “Whoever says, ‘I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar.” That word group is used only at each point in the letter at which one or the other of these three tests is introduced. Later the same sort of thing will be said of those who deny the true doctrine of Jesus Christ, his incarnation and his death for sinners and, again, will be said of those who do not love their fellow Christians. The three so-called “tests” are each presented in this emphatic way. Obviously, the false teachers had lied in all three ways: they had claimed to be authentic Christians while denying the obligation of obedience to God’s commandments; they had claimed to be Christians but failed to love the brothers; and they had claimed to know God while concocting a doctrine of Jesus Christ that managed to deny that he was God the Son come into the world as a true man to save us from our sins.
So we have before us this morning the first of these three tests of true and authentic Christian faith. This ground or basis or reason for the assurance of salvation that John gives us here in the early verses of chapter 2 is known in the history of Christian theology as the syllogismus practicus, the practical syllogism by which is meant the syllogism that has to do with the practice, the living of the Christian life. You know what a syllogism is. It is form of argument, logical in nature, in which a conclusion is deduced from premises. A typical syllogism would be:
All who live in Tacoma live in Washington State.
I live in Tacoma.
Therefore, I live in Washington State.
Assuming the premises are true the conclusion follows by rigorous necessity. It must be true. It cannot be false. Of course, syllogisms can be invalid for a variety of reasons. Take this one.
All rabbits run fast.
Some horses run fast.
Therefore, some horses are rabbits.
Both of the premises are true, rabbits do run fast and some horses do as well, but the conclusion is invalid. In logic class one learns precisely why the syllogism is invalid. But in a properly constructed syllogism, the conclusion follows necessarily.
Well, we have a syllogism of a sort before us in vv. 4-5. It runs this way.
Real Christians, and only real Christians, obey God’s commandments.
I obey God’s commandments.
Therefore, I am a real Christian.
The syllogism is valid for both reasons: both premises are true statements in the case of a Christian and the conclusion follows necessarily from them. John doesn’t say simply that some Christians obey or that real Christians may obey God’s commandments. He says that if anyone claims to be a true Christian and does not obey God’s commandments, he is a liar. You cannot be a true Christian and be indifferent to the commandments of God or to live in active disobedience to them. So the first premise – real Christians obey God’s commandments – is true. It is simply another way of saying what John says here.
So, if you know yourself to be a righteous person, living according to the commandments of God, you are safe to conclude that you are a true Christian. When James said in his letter that faith without works – or faith without obedience – is dead, he was simply putting in other words the same point John is making here. No one can read James or John, or any other biblical writer for that matter, and not draw the conclusion that there is a characteristic mark or feature of true Christian faith: viz. it produces a life of obedience to God’s commandments.
Jesus made a point of saying that if the tree is good, the fruit will be good as well and by its fruit you will judge the tree to be good or bad. He said that he saved his people that they might bear much fruit and in his parables he described the true Christian as like the plant that grows up and bears fruit, some thirty, some sixty, some hundred fold. By fruit the Lord means the godliness, obedience, and service of a faithful Christian life, a life of love, a life of gospel work, a life of worship and so on. He showed them what a good life is and his true disciples would follow his example.
Paul reminds us that God’s purpose in saving us from our sins was that we might be a people of his very own eager to do what is good; that God prepared good works for us in advance that we might walk in them once we had been saved, that the whole grand work of salvation – both that done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and that done in us by the Holy Spirit – was to conform us to the image of God’s son, to make us like Jesus who, as we know, lived a life of perfect obedience to his Father. That is what John says here in v. 6: true Christians live like Jesus did. They follow his example. John tells us in his Gospel that Jesus himself told his disciples that if we love him we will obey his commandments, which is what v. 5 here is also saying. Frequently in the NT it is the people who love God who are treated and understood to be real Christians. The whole burden of the presentation of the gospel in the Bible is that faith in the Lord changes a person, changes him or her radically, which is to say down to the root. And out of that change will come a different life, different behavior, a different way of being a human being in relationship with others and in the world. The person now loves God’s commandments and wants to keep them because he wants to demonstrate his love for God
And, of course, what makes this obedience so revealing is that unbelievers do not live in obedience to God’s commandments. It is the defining characteristic of their lives that they do not. Talk to your unbelieving friends long enough and it will become very clear that one, if not the principle obstacle in the way of their becoming a Christian is the way of life they would have to embrace, the commandments they would have to keep. They know very well that becoming a Christian would require all manner of changes in their behavior, their lifestyle, and they are so far unwilling to make those changes.
That much seems clear. But there are nevertheless problems with this simple syllogism which explain why it has been more controversial than we might at first have supposed. One rather obvious problem is that Christians continue to sin, continue to disobey the commandments of God. Serious minded Christians in vast numbers have read vv. 4-6 and thought, “Well, I’m the liar, I must be the liar, because I certainly don’t walk as Jesus walked.” I am selfish very often and he was never selfish. I stumble all the time in my efforts to obey the commandments of God and he never stumbled, not once from Bethlehem to Calvary. I often think and say and do things that are the exact reverse of “keeping his word” as John puts it in v. 5. I know better, but I sin anyway. And, God forgive me, I love my sins in too many cases. So if failing to keep the commandments is the sign of a false Christian, I must be a false Christian, not a real, not an authentic one.
I know you have thought such thoughts. I have. I don’t suppose there is a serious minded Christian who reads the Bible who hasn’t had that thought at one time or another in his or her Christian life.
But remember the context in which this first test is found. John has just forced us to acknowledge the continuing sinfulness of Christian people. He has, in fact, insisted upon our recognition of that dismal fact about ourselves. If we deny our continuing sinfulness and disobedience, he said in 1:8 we are lying to ourselves and in 1:10 we are virtually accusing God of lying. John knows very well that Christians continue to sin and do not obey the commandments of God nearly as faithfully as they should or as they wish they did. The grip of sin has not been completely broken in the life of Christian people; far from it. John knows that.
Indeed, one of the commandments that genuine Christians keep is to confess our sins to God that they might be forgiven! Faithfulness in a Christian life is in very large part the practice of the gospel of God’s grace day after day, taking Christ’s forgiveness to heart by confessing our sins to God and then thanking him for that forgiveness freely given once again. Another such commandment we read in the NT is that Christians must keep is to confess their sins to one another and to seek forgiveness from those they have offended. Another such commandment is to forgive one another, which, of course, we would not be required to do if we didn’t sin against one another. There is no suggestion anywhere in the Bible that the real obedience of Christian people is anything remotely resembling a perfect obedience or the perfect life of Jesus himself. Far from it. Read the Apostle Paul about himself in Romans 7:14-25 and then read these opening verses of 1 John 2.
What is more, throughout the Bible, the righteous and obedient are distinguished from the unrighteous and disobedient not by some wooden calculus according to which one cannot be righteous unless one is perfectly so and one cannot be wicked unless one is as bad as a person can be. The Bible always divides the human race in two. One is either righteous or not. David was righteous though he did some terrible things. Moses was righteous though he was punished for a very serious sin he had committed against God and others by his being refused entrance into the Promised Land. Peter was righteous though he betrayed the Lord at the worst possible moment. Paul was righteous though he absolutely despaired of the continuing sinfulness of his heart and life. Obedience or righteousness in the case of Christians is not perfect behavior; it is the fundamental commitment, the root direction, the truest characteristic of one’s life.
Of course you stumble. But when you do as a Christian you know yourself that in sinning in that way – whatever way it was – not only were you being untrue to God, you were being untrue to yourself! That capitulation to temptation: that is not the true you. That is what Paul said about himself and about his sin as a Christian man: “it is not I but the sin living in me that does it.” That is a daring thing to say. It sounds like an excuse; but it is simply the truth. And when he talks about the flesh warring with the spirit in a Christian’s life in Galatians 5, he is saying the same thing. There is, for Christians a true self and a shadow self left over from our old lives conceived in death and sin as we were before Christ made all things new. The obedience to God’s law is the mark of the new self, the true self of a Christian. But disobedience, indifference to God’s commandments, unconcern for his will, living in rebellion against his law, that is the true and authentic self of the unbeliever. It is the essential characteristic of his or her moral and spiritual self. But it is not of the real Christian.
I know you are not characterized by indifference to God’s commandments or by the love of sin, or at least the vast majority of you are not. Your desire, your deepest and truest desire, is to obey the Lord in everything. You agree with Thomas Boston, the deeply godly Scottish pastor and theologian who said this about himself.
“My soul is content with [Christ] for my king, and though I cannot be free of sin, God himself knows he would be welcome to make havoc of my lusts and to make me holy. I know no lust that I would not be content to part with. My will bound hand and foot, I desire to lay at his feet…” [Memoirs, 234]
You can say the same thing about yourselves. I think most all of you can. If the Lord were to appear to you some evening by your bed and said, “You will have to forgo the pleasures of this sin, but if you wish I will take it away from you completely and forever.” You would say in a instant, “Take it away! Make me righteous, holy and good before You.” That is the way Christians think, but unbelievers do not. So, then, although our disobedience as Christians may tempt us from time to time to think that we must fail this first test, the fact is we do not. No serious Christian who confesses his or her sins and tries hard to live and cares to live a life of obedience to God and a life in imitation of the Savior fails this test. No Christian who loves God and desires to demonstrate that love by serving him fails this test, however poor he or she may feel the demonstration to be. There is obedience in our lives and that obedience is the mark of our true selves.
But there is another problem posed by this practical syllogism that John sets before us here in his first test of true faith, the moral test, the test of obedience. Here the problem is more psychological. Christian people, including some of our own Reformed men, have suggested that there is an unintended but inevitable effect of this first test and it is deleterious, even dangerous. Their complaint is this: if you tell a Christian to look to obedience as proof of living faith in Christ, as the mark of the one who has obtained the salvation of God, it is a very short step to that place where the Christian finds himself looking at his works for his confidence before God instead of looking to Christ and to Christ’s work on his behalf. There is, they argue, an inevitable tendency in the syllogismus practicus to encourage navel gazing, to shift a person’s focus away from Christ to himself or herself, and to think more about one’s own works than about Christ’s.
What is the difference between the genuine and the spurious Christian? Why, John says, it is obedience to God’s commandments. Who can deny that there is a temptation here, a temptation that proud and self-centered people like ourselves are going to find particularly powerful, a temptation that people of sight and sense are going to find difficult to resist. You can see your obedience, you can see your acts of love, you can see your coming to church and worshipping God, you can see your bearing witness to an unsaved friend or neighbor, you can see your devotion of your resources to the Kingdom of God, you can see your effort to live a life of honesty and purity before God and man; but you can’t see the righteous of Christ on you. There is a danger here to be sure. But does that mean that we should not employ the syllogism? Does it mean that somehow the argument of 1 John 2:4-6 is invalid or must mean something other than what it so obviously seems to mean?
No, certainly not. Doctrines are dangerous in the nature of the case. Anybody who reads the Bible with care, concern and an honest heart realizes this is so. In some respect every doctrine is dangerous and susceptible to predictable misunderstanding and misuse. The biblical doctrine of election – God’s sovereign and gracious choice of a people can easily lead to pride and sloth, “Gee, I must be special because God chose me! And if it is all up to God I can relax and let him do it!” – and so the Bible warns us against drawing the wrong conclusion from this teaching. Justification by faith can lead to careless living on the assumption that since all our sins are already forgiven, how we live cannot matter very much. The doctrine of sanctification, that we are summoned to grow in the grace and the knowledge of God can lead to a spirit of self-dependence and a sense of personal accomplishment that forgets altogether the Lord’s reminder that “without [him] we can do nothing.” And so on. There is nothing at all unusual in the fact that a biblical teaching can be misconstrued and almost inevitably will be in particular ways. The Apostle Paul was always anticipating such misunderstandings and correcting them before they took root in people’s thinking. And John has done that too by putting cheek to jowl with his first test, the moral test of obedience, this acknowledgment that we are all continuing to sin and require daily forgiveness.
There has always been recognition of this danger in John’s first test of true and authentic Christian faith; in the practical syllogism. In his time Luther said that if he taught in a sermon that salvation did not consist in our works or our way of life but was entirely the gift of God’s grace some would draw the conclusion that they were free to live worldly lives. On the other hand, if he preached the necessity of a godly and obedient life others would begin to build ladders to heaven as if they could get there by their own effort. [cf. Works of Thomas Boston, vol. 7, 236] The pendulum swings from legalism to antinomianism, from a spiritual culture of self-effort and attainment, on the one hand, to one of indifference and carelessness on the other. And that is why in the Bible first the one and then the other is warned against repeatedly.
So, susceptible to misunderstanding though these verses may be, dangerous as they are in their likelihood to tempt us to pay too much attention to ourselves and our own efforts and not enough to Christ, as one wise man put it,
“…our sturdy fathers would not be put off the scent by the suggestion that in examining themselves they were pulling up the roots of their faith to see if it was growing.” [John Macleod, Some Favorite Books, 9]
They knew very well that their life was entirely in Christ, that salvation was of the Lord from first to last. But it was precisely because they cared so much about salvation and wanted so much to be sure of their own title to it that they searched the Scriptures to learn how a man or woman might know that he or she was in Christ by a living faith, in Christ for time and for eternity. They were serious enough to know that if a person took such a thing as the salvation of God for granted, comforted himself or herself with platitudes rather than real evidences, chances were all too good that the man or the woman was self-deceived, a Christian in name only. And what they found when they searched the Scriptures was that everywhere the Bible made it clear that real Christians, people who had embraced the Lord Jesus with living faith, people in whom the Spirit of God had made a new creation, were people whose lives were invariably marked by obedience to God’s law.
As one wise man observed, “Michael and Gabriel [the archangels] know that they will never be devils!” How do they know that? Well, among other ways because they are unalterably committed to that life for which they were made and that service which they love to offer to God. And the Christian is the same. We say, where there is smoke there is fire. You can gather the cause from the effect. When God remakes a man to love and serve him we should not be surprised that we find that man loving and serving God! Obedience to God comes from the salvation of God like smoke comes from fire.
And, in fact, that is precisely what we find and what the world has always found. Wherever the gospel of God has been proclaimed and believed in the world the practical duties of the Christian life have flourished. Wherever you find serious Christians you find men and women who are happily ordering their lives according to the Law of God, who intend to do that and nothing other than that, and who regret their every failure to succeed in doing that. It is their mark, their identifying sign, their brand as Christians in the world.
Remember this, when John said what he said in vv. 3-6 he obviously fully expected his readers, or almost all of them, to be encouraged, not discouraged; to find their faith proved and confirmed and validated, not discredited. When he wrote this letter, as he says in chapter 5, that they might know they have eternal life, he is telling us something about these tests and what we ought to think of them. He didn’t say he wrote these things to make sure that we would know we didn’t have eternal life. This is a test ordinary Christians like you and me will pass, not fail!