I preached this morning at Massebah Church. Here’s the substance of the message:
KNOWING THAT WE KNOW GOD: THE MORAL TEST
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
John’s theme is joy in fellowship with God. When we belong to God and do our part to keep our fellowship with God unbroken we experience joy in the Christian life. However, how do we know whether a person who claims to know God truly knows him? How do we know if a professing Christian is really a possessing Christian? John gives us three tests which correspond to the character of God. These tests are premised on the truth that those who belong to God will manifest his character in their lives, in the same way that a child will manifest the physical traits and other characteristics of its parents. These tests are (1) the moral test, i.e., the test of obedience, which corresponds to the truth that God is light; (2) the social test, i.e., the test of love, which corresponds to the truth that God is love; and (3) the doctrinal test, i.e., the test of belief, corresponding to the truth that God is truth.
1. A POSITIVE PRINCIPLE: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. (v.3)
1.1. Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Mat 7:16-21)
1.2. Actually, faith itself is a form of obedience – it is obedience to the command “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Christian life begins with faith in Christ; therefore, the Christian life begins with obedience to God’s command. Obedience then characterizes the Christian life at its beginning and even all throughout.
1.2.1. Paul says, “Through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.” (Rom 1:5)
1.2.2. Paul also has this to say, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” (Rom 6:17)
1.3. It must be clarified, however, that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ (although faith is a form of obedience it is not a meritorious work). Our obedience to the commands of God is a result, a consequence, of our having been saved by faith; it is not the cause of our salvation. The presence of fruit on a tree goes to show that the tree is alive, but it does not cause the tree to become alive. Let us not put the cart before the carabao.
1.3.1. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)
2. A COUPLE OF EXAMPLES (verses 4-5)
2.1. Negative: “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (1Jn 2:4)
2.1.1. A person who claims that he is a Christian, that he now belongs to God who is light (i.e., perfect righteousness and holiness) and yet exhibits no sign of moral change or transformation whatsoever, was never a Christian in the first place. The Bible teaches that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come (II Cor. 5:17). This is not to say that a Christian never sins or that he never backslides. Just a while back John himself says that a person who claims that he has no sin is self-deceived and the truth is not in him (see ch. 1: 8). But we are saying that a true Christian has experienced genuine conversion or spiritual transformation. This doesn’t mean he becomes perfect all at once or that he is now beyond sinning. It does mean that there will be some evidence of genuine change in his life. Where there is no change whatsoever in that person’s life his claim to being a Christian is suspect.
2.2. Positive: “But whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him.” (1Jn 2:5)
2.2.1. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. Our love for God increases or decreases depending on how much we exercise it. Love for God is like a muscle: it grows by exercise, it atrophies through lack of exercise. Use or lose, goes another saying. The same principle applies to human relationships. When by acts of love we show our love towards our spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend or child or parent, our love for that person also grows. But when we neglect to exercise our love towards that person by failing to act lovingly towards him or her our love towards him or her also grows less and less.
2.2.2 Incidentally, subjective assurance of salvation depends greatly on our love towards God and our obedience towards him. Although the objective fact of our salvation is not dependent on our feelings (a fact is a fact regardless of our feelings), the fact remains that when we disobey God we sense that God has become distant from us. In the language of Scripture, he hides his face from us. “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” (Isa 59:2) When this happens, without a sense of God’s closeness to comfort and strengthen us, we become prey to all kinds of doubt. We begin to doubt whether we are really saved. This is what disobedience does: it weakens our sense of assurance of salvation. The flip side of this is, of course, the more we obey and love God the stronger our sense of belonging to him becomes.
2.2.3. “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (Joh 14:21)
“Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1Jn 2:6) After talking about obedience as proof of our knowing God John now proceeds to tell us that it is the obligation of all those who claim to abide in God (or in Christ) to walk (i.e.live) as Christ did. A few observations will make clear the connection between obedience and the example of Christ:
1. It appears that knowing God and abiding (dwelling) in him (or in his Son, Jesus Christ) are synonymous terms. To know God is to be in him, i.e., to belong to him as his child. “To know God” is not merely to know something “about” him. Knowing God is not merely acquiring or possessing information about him. Knowing God, according to the Bible, is about entering into and having a relationship with him: he as our Father, we as his children. He loving us and we loving him. This idea of relationship and fellowship between God and us is a far cry from the very intellectual approach towards Christianity that some people have. Unfortunately, Christians themselves have a tendency to fall into this way of dealing with God, as if he were nothing more than an academic subject to be studied and mastered rather than a person to known, loved and served.
2. John refers here to Jesus Christ (even though he does not mention him by name) as the model whom we should follow in the matter of obedience. Jesus Christ is the author and finisher of our faith on whom we must fix our eyes: “Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” (Heb 12:2). He is the embodiment of loving obedience towards God: “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.'” (Heb 10:7) “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luk 22:42) “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Heb 5:8)
3. Now we understand why John tells us to walk as Jesus did: Jesus walked in obedience towards his Father. He lived a life of obedience; therefore, to imitate him is to obey God as he did. But it is important to note that there is obedience and there is obedience. In other words, it is possible to obey someone mechanically, i.e., out of fear and without love. That is not how Jesus obeyed his Father, and that is not the way we should obey God. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom 8:15) John brings in Jesus as the model of our obedience as his way of telling us that we obey God as grateful children. We obey not because we’re afraid he’ll punish us if we don’t, but because we love him so much we delight in obeying him. And we love him because he first loved us and sent his Son to die for our sins.
4. In sum, obedience is only a proof of our sonship if we obey as sons (or daughters), i.e., when we obey out of love in the context of our relationship to God. So once again we return to the importance of relationship as the over-all context within which we understand what the Christian life is all about. Outside of the context of relationship, knowing God is nothing more than an academic exercise. Outside of the context of relationship obedience is nothing more than mechanical compliance with rules and regulations. Relationship makes all the difference.