1 John 2:18-27

I said last time that we would read this paragraph a second time this Lord’s Day and devote special attention to v. 19, the best known of the statements in these verses that we have considered already so I won’t make any comment on the text for this second reading.

One of the most mysterious features of the work of divine grace and the progress of salvation in the world is the fact that so many who begin do not continue. It is God’s grace and power, after all, that bring a man or woman, a boy or girl to salvation, so it is natural to think that when God touches a human heart and life the change would be permanent. But, in many cases it is not. The Bible frequently refers to this dismal reality, sometimes from the human side and sometimes from the divine. We read of Judas, the Lord’s disciple, and of his eternal appointment to perdition; we also read of Demas who deserted Paul and the gospel of Christ because well along in his Christian life he discovered that he loved the world more than the Lord Jesus.

In the Lord’s parables he spoke of people who receive the Word of God with joy and whose spiritual lives begin to spring up like a new plant. But then the difficulties of the Christian life begin to bite, the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches begin to draw the heart away from the Lord, and his salvation and that good beginning comes to nothing. Making even a spectacular beginning proves not the decisive thing; remaining faithful to the Lord and bearing fruit in one’s life over the long stretch are the true marks of a saved man or woman.

It isn’t simply a man-made charade, a game of pretend, that we encounter in such situations where a good beginning in the things of God does not last. We are not speaking only of a person who, for whatever reason, tried out the Christian faith but then decided that he could do better with something else. It is the Word of God itself that creates such a situation in a person’s life. As we read in Hebrews there are people who have once “been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift and have shared in the Holy Spirit, have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come” who then fall away, lose interest, or actually turn on the Christian faith and repudiate it. In other words, the Lord himself drew these people to himself, gave them a taste of his salvation, shared with them the experience of being a child of God, but not in such a way as to make their faith permanent. Our Westminster Confession of Faith admits that there are people who share what it calls “the common operations of the Holy Spirit,” who don’t last and aren’t saved. This is a great mystery but it is not only the teaching of the Bible, it is the experience of our lives. This short-lived Christian life we have found can happen in a variety of ways.

Some begin with a bang and then relatively soon thereafter lose interest and simply slip away. I remember years ago a high school fellow “coming to Christ” through the young people’s ministry of our church. At least that is how we thought of it and spoke of it. He had come to Christ. I even remember him as an excited new Christian once saying that he thought that many of our Christian young people, his friends in the high school group, didn’t appreciate the gospel, the wonder of it all, as much as he did, because he hadn’t grown up with it. It had produced a revolution in his life. We had high hopes for that young man, but he didn’t last. Over time he gradually lost interest, stopped coming, stopped returning the phone calls of his minister and his friends. He had, as the Lord described it, received the word with joy, but he never got far enough to bear fruit.

In the case of others the end comes with a bang not a whimper. A man or woman has become a Christian, become a member of the church, has begun to identify with the people of God, and has made a good beginning at changing the behaviors of his or her life that loyalty to Jesus makes necessary to change. But then it is discovered that some behavior or another has not changed; some behavior continues that is wholly inconsistent with a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. And Christian folk point this out to him and the reply they get is that if being a Christian means one can’t do this then he doesn’t want to be a Christian any longer. The issue comes to a head and is decided on the spot. A few of you who are older may remember the stir that went through the evangelical Christian world when Mickey Cohen, the Los Angeles mobster, made a profession of faith at the Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles in 1949. A triumph of divine grace, so it was thought. A change as dramatic as the transformation of the life of the Apostle Paul. So it was said and thought. But over time Mickey’s Christian acquaintances noticed that he was still living and working as a mobster. They pointed this out to him and asked him about it. His reply became famous: there were Christian doctors and Christian lawyers and Christian cowboys, why couldn’t there be Christian mobsters! So ended the brief Christian life of a mobster. And we’ve encountered similar situations here. The Christian life comes suddenly to an end when it requires a choice between Christ and some favorite behavior forbidden in the Word of God.

In the case of others whatever Christian life they may have had comes to an end in outright apostasy, in the intentional rejection of the truth of the Word of God. The New Testament refers to such apostasy and we have encountered it in a number of occasions. In our modern Christian world we think of influential biblical scholars such as the Englishman James Barr and the American Bart Ehrman, both of whom lived for a time as earnest Christian people.  Ehrman, for example, was raised in a Christian home, had what he describes as a “born-again” experience at a youth rally, eventually attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College before doctoral studies at Princeton. But he lost his faith and became an outspoken critic of evangelical Christianity and now uses his academic prestige as a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to cast doubt about biblical Christianity as widely as he can. Barr, similarly, was active in Inter Varsity in his British university, but gave up his evangelical faith and thought it important to write a book explaining why. Many simply slip away, but others like Barr and Ehrman are determined to leave on bad terms. Billy Graham’s early associate evangelist, the Canadian Charles Templeton, filled arenas and stadiums preaching the gospel in the 1940’s and early 1950’s but lost his faith while doing graduate study at Princeton, and was no friend of the Christian faith afterward. One of his later books was an argument against biblical Christianity he entitled Farewell to God.

So there are various types of these almost Christians or, as the Puritans used to call them, temporaries. Some last for a short while, some for much longer, but the faith of all of them eventually comes to grief. Whether with a whisper or a bang their time as Christians ends and they return to the world. We’ve seen it to our dismay far too many times. For whatever reason, many who begin in the Christian life, and among them a good number who seem to be for a time very serious Christians, do not last.

To the preaching of Jonathan Edwards in New England in 1742 a great many responded with faith and joy. But by 1746, four years later, a good many of those had lost their spiritual interest and were no longer following Christ. It is usually so in revivals. The seed sown produces a great deal of growth but over time some of this proves to be weeds not grain. It was in 1746, in response to those defections that Edwards published his immortal Treatise on the Religious Affections, a book written to address this very phenomenon of temporary faith and almost Christians. And in that work Edwards carefully distinguishes between those who appear to be Christians and those who are saved and shall be forever.

“It is with professors of religion, especially such as become so in a time of outpouring of the Spirit of God, as it is with blossoms in the spring; there are vast numbers of them upon the trees, which all look fair and promising; but many of them never come to anything…. It is the mature fruit which comes afterwards, and not the beautiful colors and smells of the blossoms, that we must judge by.”

Wise Christian evangelists, as a result, have learned not to carve a notch on the handle of their gun until the converts of their preaching demonstrate some God-given staying power. Much better to say that we rejoice that a person made a profession of faith in Christ rather than confidently to assert their eternal salvation. The church will also less often make the mistake of rushing celebrity converts forward before taking the measure of their new faith. If we are more cautious we will be less embarrassed by later defections. I’m thinking of such people as Charlie Schultz, Eldridge Cleaver, Bob Dylan, and Jane Fonda whose so-called conversions all made a great splash the ripples of which never even reached the side of the pool!

But, side by side with this material in the Holy Scripture, with all of this about temporary faith and Christians who don’t last, we have the emphatic teaching that God will preserve in faith those whom he has chosen for salvation. This doctrine, known in Christian theology as the perseverance of the saints is founded upon a great many texts and a great many biblical arguments.

  1. We know that the elect of God will continue in the faith and love of Jesus Christ because God’s love is immutable; whom he loves he will love for ever. So Paul says memorably in Romans 8: if God is for us, who can be against us? And, “For I am convinced that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  2. We know that the children of God will not fail to reach the heavenly country because regeneration, the new birth, the new creation is an ineradicable change to human nature. “Make the tree good,” our savior said, “and the fruit must be good.” Our nature will assert itself, as natures do, and our nature is a new one, a holy one, a sanctified one.
  3. We know that those who truly believe in Jesus must be saved at last because of the enduring and perfect righteousness bestowed upon them at their justification: “there is, therefore, now no condemnation to the man who is in Christ Jesus.”
  4. We know that real Christians must continue and persevere in their Christian faith because Christ who laid down his life for them is now interceding for them at the right hand of God.
  5. We know that the elect must be saved to the end because of the infinite efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. “I give eternal life to them and they shall never perish,” he said. “No one can pluck them from my hand.” As Spurgeon memorably put it, “We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.” And that is what Christ himself said about those for whom he gave his life.

And we could go on and on. Again and again and again in the Word of God the people of God are encouraged with the confident assertion that the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable. “He who began a good work in you shall perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

It is by no means easy to resolve the tension created by these two classes of texts and these two different biblical doctrines. Indeed, some of the present controversy in our Presbyterian Church in America results directly from these counter emphases in Holy Scripture. Some start and do not finish; others must finish because God has begun a good work in them. But do we not read in Hebrews 6 that it was God who was working in those who later gave up the faith? If Peter can speak of our being reborn by the imperishable seed of the Word how can Jesus speak of the case of those in whom the word of God, as a seed, springs up well enough but only for the plant to be choked and wither later? And on and on it goes. This is, of course, very typical of the Bible and should not trouble us. There are many teachings of the Word of God that create such tension. And we shouldn’t be overly troubled that the full reality is beyond our grasp, our minds are too small to take it all in. Our task is to take both teachings seriously and be loyal to both in our teaching of the Christian life and our practice of it.

Fact is, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints was never intended to lull us to sleep, as if, since God was going to guarantee our eventual entrance into heaven, we could relax and pay attention to other things than living a faithful Christian life. In the same way, the reality of temporary faith was never intended to leave the saints perpetually worried that they might stumble just before the finish line and, after long years as Christians, finally fail to obtain eternal life.

It is in the midst of this double reality – temporary Christians and certainly persevering saints – that 1 John 2:19 has always played a significant role. Indeed it is widely thought to be the crux, the clearest of all biblical texts setting out a particular doctrine. In this case the doctrine is that only a persevering faith is an authentically Christian faith. Defection from the faith, in other words, is proof that in the truest and deepest sense the person was never a Christian at all, never really belonged to the body of Christ. Not all Israel are Israel, as Paul would put it.

Most interpreters through the ages have taken the view that in 1 John 2:19 John is saying simply that the fact that the false teachers left the church in a huff, the fact that they did not continue in fellowship with the saints because the saints wouldn’t buy into their new teaching, the fact that they broke fellowship with the apostolic community meant that they had never truly belonged in the first place. Their failure to continue meant that even their beginning had been fraudulent at the bottom. They may not have known it at the time, but they were never the objects of God’s election, they had never been born again, and they had never been justified by the righteousness of Christ. They may have thought they had, others may have thought they had, but they had not. And the proof was that they didn’t last. There is an appearance of spiritual life that isn’t the real thing. There is a temporary spiritual life that in some respects may be impressive and convincing to the saints, but the genuine article is known by the fact that it endures. The fact that these teachers did not last was the proof that their Christian life was in fact spurious from the beginning. Time tells and in their case it told of a counterfeit Christianity, of faith that could not stand the test.

I should say, however, that there is another interpretation of this text that is held by good men; some of our own men. Could it be, they ask, that John is actually talking about something else altogether? When he says that “they went out from us, but they were not of us” perhaps he means only that these teachers claimed to have the support of the apostles but, in fact, they did not, or even that they did have the support of the apostles at the beginning because the apostles were unaware of what teaching they were bringing. They went out as if they were from the apostles, but, in fact, they really weren’t representing the apostles. If they had been a faithful unit of Christian teachers approved by the apostles themselves then they would have remained where they were and continued to teach the original doctrine. But they left on their own accord to teach a message the apostles did not approve. And that fact is the demonstration that their teaching did not have the imprimatur of the apostolic band. This is not apostolic Christianity that these people are teaching you, John is saying, and the fact that they left us is the proof. Their having left the apostles without authorization was the proof that their teaching was also without apostolic authority. In other words, 2:19 is about an unauthorized mission not about whether a person claiming to be a Christian has true and living faith in Jesus or not.

My own view is that the older interpretation is much more likely. In the context it seems to me that in the phrase “They went out from us…” the “us” clearly refers to these Christians to whom John is writing and with whom John is associating himself, not the apostolic band, of which there is no mention in the letter before or after. It is the departure of the false teachers from these believers, not from the apostles, that is the subject of John’s remark. Further, John proceeds not to discuss which teaching was authorized by the apostles, but which teaching is true. Elaborating his remark in 2:19 John goes on to say that their denial of the incarnation proved them liars, not their unauthorized mission. In fact, John never says that these men claimed to have been sent by the apostles or claimed to have the apostle’s authority for their teaching. What he says is that their teaching was false and their departure from the community of faith by that teaching proved their Christianity to be false as well. Most commentaries adopt this view of 2:19.

1 John 2:19 is a crux after all, the text of all texts in the Bible that demonstrates a doctrine: in this case the doctrine that only a persevering faith, a constant faith, a lasting faith is an authentic Christian faith. And the rest of the paragraph is more demonstration of that doctrine. What is John’s challenge to his readers?

“Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.”

Or, in other words, keep on believing in the gospel, keep on trusting in the Lord, persevere in your commitment to Jesus Christ as the God/Man and the savior of the world. Keep on! Don’t flag! Let nothing deter you. Persevere in the same faith in which long ago you began to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the same message we find in the book of Hebrews and we find often elsewhere in the NT.

It is obviously impossible to know ahead of time who will stick and who will not. God knows whom he chose for eternal life before the foundation of the world; God knows whose eternal salvation was purchased by the blood of Christ shed on the cross; God knows when the new birth has actually occurred; God knows whose sins he has removed forever; God knows in whom he has begun a work he will perform until the day of Jesus Christ; but we do not know. Salvation is God’s gift and God’s work. We cannot create it, we cannot cause it to endure and we cannot predict it in any human life. We know it and recognize it only by its effects.

But, mysteriously, at the same time, there is that we can do to ensure that our faith will never be the sort that flags and quits and either withers away or turns embittered against the Lord and his gospel. There is a way of authenticating our faith and proving it. And that way is simply the way of “abiding in the truth,” which is another way of saying living by our faith, keeping it the foundation of our thinking and acting, of remaining committed to the Lord in thought, speech, and behavior. Peter speaks of our working to make our calling and election sure (1 Pet. 1:10) and John is saying much the same thing here. He who is practicing his faith will not only continue in the faith, he will find that faith growing stronger and impervious to influences that would weaken or cripple it, much less destroy it. Do you want to know that you are among those who will last to the very end? Then abide in Christ and his truth; practice your faith, exercise it; and continue to be an out and out Christian. That’s what the Bible says and that is all it says!

We know we need the Lord to do this. We are weak and all too susceptible to temptation, to discouragement, to weariness, and to the allure of the world.

If ever it could come to pass,
That sheep of Christ might fall away,
My fickle, feeble soul, alas!
Would fall a thousand times a day.
            (Augustus Toplady)

But it remains true that the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable and the Lord knows those who are his. In his great book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken tells the story of himself and his wife, Davy, coming to faith in England under the influence of C.S. Lewis in his Oxford days. It is wonderful story, beautifully told.

Upon their return to the United States, however, Davy fell ill and died of an unusual liver disease, still a young woman. He had found Christ and lost the love of his life in short order and began to feel, as I think we can understand, that he had been had. If there were truly a God of love he would never have allowed this to happen; he wouldn’t have treated his children with such cruelty. This is, by the way, the very argument that Bart Ehrman uses today to prove that Christianity is not true and the Bible is not the Word of God. There is too much suffering in the world. If there were a God of love such as the Christians say, he wouldn’t allow it. The world would be very different than it is.

There came a time in Vanauken’s life, shortly after his wife’s death, when he decided that there was nothing to be done but to give up his faith in Christ. It couldn’t be true; it hadn’t worked. God seemed remote to him, uncaring, unconcerned.

“‘All right,’ I muttered to myself. “To hell with God. I’m not going to believe this damned rubbish any more. Lies, all lies. I’ve been had.’ Up I sprang and rushed out to the country. This was the end of God. Ha!

“And then I found I could not reject God. I could not. I cannot explain this. One discovers one cannot move a boulder by trying with all one’s strength to do it. I discovered – without any sudden influx of love or faith – that I could not reject Christianity. Why, I don’t know. There it was. I could not. That was an end to it.” [190]

And so it has been with multitudes of the Lord’s children. They have been tempted to leave him, but found they would not and could not. Christ at the right hand, their own new natures, the Holy Spirit within them made it simply impossible. What God does a mere human being cannot undo even in his own heart and life. And so they continued to abide in the Son and the Father. For others, perhaps a temporary faith; but not for us brothers and sisters; never for us. He who began a good work in us will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. We are in for the long haul; we are in to the end. God be praised!