Last week we looked at the first 2 verses of chapter 2, and how Jesus Christ is our advocate before the Father when we sin, as He pleads our case on the basis of His righteousness and His propitiating death on the behalf of His people. That was really all just straight gospel – what God promises us in Jesus. John stated his purpose for writing to be so that we may not sin. And so we saw that it is the person and work of Jesus Christ – the free grace of the gospel – that produces holy living in us.
Yet, so often, in the life of the Christian, despite the bold and strong promises of the gospel that we have in Jesus Christ, we don’t always know whether those promises are for us. We don’t always read these bold promises with confidence, but with worry and fear, wondering if we truly know the Lord Jesus Christ for ourselves.
While we never, for a second, want to give an unbeliever a false assurance of salvation, we want the true believer to be so sure that they never have a doubting moment of their life! That of course, a perfect assurance, just doesn’t happen. Yet, John lays out for us this truth, as he does in different places throughout his letter in keeping with one of the themes of the letter, that the true Christian may absolutely know that they know God, and know that they know, the Lord Jesus Christ and all of the promises wrapped up in Him to be theirs. John not only states that the believer may be assured of their salvation but later, on towards the end of the letter, in chapter 4, he tells his readers, that one of the purposes of his writing this letter is for just that reason, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”
Other religions and worldviews will keep you guessing, wondering, and worrying, never knowing whether you know the truth or not, living in abundant fears and doubts. But the Christian religion is distinct in this, that the true Christian can live with full assurance, knowing that they know the Lord Jesus Christ. Almost every time I’ve talked with Muslims and ask them how they go to heaven, they have almost all told me that if they do more good than bad, then they hope that their god will forgive them, the ones I’ve talked to and know anyway. And every time one of them has told me this, I have always responded by saying, “How can you know that your good out weighs your bad? And how do you know that you will be forgiven?” And their answer has always been, that they do not know. They just hope its true.
My friends, the Christian religion is not a religion of uncertainties; it is a religion of certainties. It is a religion of truth. Our Savior and Lord is Himself the embodiment of Truth. He is truth. We have a foundation of truth, and knowing, and certainty. One commentator put it this way, “How thankful we should be that this is the nature of true religion. It is not a speculation about which there is uncertainty. It is not a doubtful opinion. It is knowledge. It is a reality of which we may know ourselves.”
How Do We Know?
So how can we know that we know? What is the “by this” in verse 3 that we can know that we have come to know him? By what, can we know?
There are really 3 types of tests throughout John’s epistle that he gives us to know whether we truly know Christ. Three tests to test the genuineness of our faith. Those tests are the theological test, the moral test, and the social test. The theological test of course being whether or not we know and believe the right doctrine of Christ. If we believe false teachings about Christ, then we should not have assurance that we know Christ. Then there is the social test, referring to our love for one another, which we will see most clearly in chapter 3. Our test here today is the moral test, or the external test. And that is, as verse 3 says, “…we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.”
The Moral Test
So the moral test is very plain, straightforward, and simple. Are we living our lives in obedience to the commands of God and the ways of Christ? Do we live our lives according to the rule of God’s Word, heeding its commands in every area of our lives? If someone lives their life, or an area of their life in a way that is contrary, or that ignores God’s clear commands, they have no reason why they should have any assurance that they are saved.
This should be an obvious thing to the Christian, and yet in our day, there are innumerable professing Christians who say the right things, but then you look at their lives, and there are various areas of their lives that are disobedient to God’s Word. And in many of these cases, it is not out of ignorance, but knowingly do they live in disobedience to God’s Word. “I know God’s Word says fornication is a sin, but its not that big of a deal.” Then out of the same mouth, they profess to know Christ. “I know God hates divorce, but does he really.” Then out of the same mouth they profess to know Christ. This type of person should have no assurance that they know Christ. Simply saying the right things is not enough. There are many people in hell who said all the right things, many people who claimed to know Christ, yet, they did not.
A true knowledge of God through the Lord Jesus Christ, results in a changed life, and by changed life, I mean an obedient life to God. Someone who truly loves Christ, obeys Him. In many ways we can see here how John is again refuting the rising Gnosticism in his day. The Gnostics were all about knowledge and understanding. Of course their knowledge wasn’t an objective knowledge of truth derived from Scripture, but a special elite, intellectual knowledge. And that was how you were “saved” they taught, but ascending to a certain level of elite knowledge. And yet, many of their lives were marked with immorality, sinning, and direct disobedience to God’s Word. So John here is saying to the Gnostics, “You may think that you have a special knowledge of God, but if you don’t keep his commands, then you’re a liar and the truth is not in you, and in fact your knowledge is not knowledge of truth.
So John refutes the Gnostic false teaching, but at the same time here provides a comfort and assurance to the true believers to whom he writes, by telling them, that while the Gnostics are causing trouble and disturbances and spreading falsehoods and deceiving many, you, my little children, can truly know that you know God, despite what the Gnostics tell you, you can truly know God; and one of the ways you can know is by this moral test, if you keep his commandments, if you keep his word, by abiding in Christ, by walking in his ways.
Again, as we’ve mentioned in the previous weeks, John of course talking about a general way of life, not a life of sinless perfection, but as a whole, the direction and the tenor and the effort and striving of their life is for obedience to God, even though the believer may and will fall into sin at different lives, in the end, they do continue on in truth and obedience.
So, by living this life of obedience to God and abiding in Christ, though we may fall and scrape our knees and bust our noses, we can know that we truly know Him. We can know.
While the believer can and ought to have a true assurance of their salvation, it is important we make clear distinctions between what constitutes a genuine assurance, and what is an unbiblical way of having assurance, that gives a false sense of assurance. Because just as the Gnostics thought they knew God, and yet did not, so there are many professing believers, who think that they know God, yet they do not. Just as the Gnostics had a false assurance of salvation, so many do today, for many different reasons. And so we want to break down all those false assurances, and build up true biblical assurance.
It is very important that the true believer has an assurance that they know Christ. And it is very important that that assurance have a solid, biblical foundation, upon which assurance is meant to be built. It is very important that that assurance, not be built upon things that cannot carry the weight of assurance, and are not genuine tests of knowing God.
One example is a fella that we all know, but he seems to come and go in our lives, he is fleeting, and transient; that is Mr. Feelings. Mr. Feelings, we all like this fella, he comes into our lives from time to time, warming our hearts with emotions and excitement. We tend to feel pretty good about our standing with God, when Mr. Feelings is around in our lives. He likes to come around sometimes when the music is playing just right, or when the sermon is on point. But he never seems to stick around. He comes and goes. Mr. Feelings is not a bad guy, necessarily. Sometimes it’s very appropriate to feel certain emotions when we are singing in worship or reading a passage. But at the end of the day, Mr. Feelings does not provide us a stable condition upon which to know that we know the Lord Jesus Christ. Afterall, Mr. Feelings, though he is right sometimes, cannot be trusted, because he comes from our own sinful hearts, that are deceitful above all things. And yet, you will find, many Christians, basing their assurance upon the presence or absence of Mr. Feelings, in their lives. And so their assurance comes and goes just as often as Mr. Feelings goes in and out. Though he may be an occasional friend, we ought to reject Mr. Feelings as a basis upon which to build our foundation of assurance.
Ah, but there is another fellow that we all know. He often likes to hang around with Mr. Feelings. You will often see them working to together. This of course is Sir Experience. Yes, Sir Experience loves to give us thrilling things to see with our eyes. In some circles it can be very devious experiences that he brings along such as supposed miracles, tongues, “glory clouds.” Or, Sir Experience could come along with good things like answered prayers in our lives, or things of that nature. The real sinister thing about Sir Experience is that he has a real way of fooling people to base their salvation upon him. And if he’s not around, people begin to wonder if God is no longer around. Sir Experience is no savior or god, nor is he true evidence of the Work of the Spirit, yet he is often put into that place by those who have based too much upon his presence in their lives. Though, like Mr. Feelings, he isn’t always a bad guy, he is certainly not one to base assurance upon.
Ah, but there is another who we are all probably a lot more familiar with experientially in our own lives. This fellow does not discriminate, he is virtually a friend to every man on earth. And he goes by the name of Captain Comparison. Yes, Captain Comparison can be found whispering in our ears, always telling us to notice how much better we are than that other person – even telling us how much better we are than our own brothers and sisters in Christ. He may have you looking at another’s lifestyle, or clothes; or he may have you holding up your religious accomplishments over others and your good works compared to others. Sometimes he’s obvious, sometimes he’s subtle. But he is never a friend, never one to keep around. Yes Captain Comparison is quite the Pharisee, getting us to say things like, “Thank God, I’m not like that person.” Or more subtly, “At least I’m doing this good deed, and that other professing believer is not, so I know that I am truly a Christian.” Yes, this is justification by comparison; or assurance by comparison, and this is no basis whatsoever that a Christian ought to entertain, let alone build assurance upon. Other people are not the standard by which God judges us.
Ah, yes, and there is another that we all know. It’s Brother Brains! Brother Brains is a good brother! He’s always reading thick theological books, and studying the deep things of Scripture. He is always contending for the truth. But poor Brother Brains only has one blind spot, and it’s a big one. The problem with him, is that he all brains and only brains. There is no heart transformation or obedient life. He’s the one, who inspired the Gnostics. He’s always going around puffing everyone’s own knowledge up, getting them to look down on others who don’t know quite as much as they do. He’s all talk, but no walk. While Brother Brains is absolutely necessary for the Christian, and in many ways, can bring assurance, if he is by himself, he cannot hold up the weight of assurance. So keep Brother Brains close, but don’t let him be alone.
But finally there is one more. This fellow as well is a good friend that we ought to keep close, however, when left alone, can be a real deceiver. Mr. Morality, likes to go around and work in the lives of those opposite of Brother Brains. Mr. Morality is all about doing the right thing and living the right way. Ah, but when left alone, loves to whisper in our ears, how much better our lives are then that other person. He loves to get his occupants to look down on those who love theology getting them to think thoughts like, “They are all talk, and all debate, but I’m the real Christian because I actually go and do, etc. etc.” Much like Brother Brains, he can give some real assurance, but never when he is by himself. In fact, the fact that he is so well-behaved makes him such a good deceiver. Let us keep him around, by never by himself.
These are all different characters that we hear from, from time to time in our lives, and the ghastly thing about them, is that we often can be tempted to base our assurance of salvation upon them. Yet, these are all faulty foundations, when taken in isolation, or out of context, that prove to be no foundation upon which to look for our assurance.
So how do we have true assurance? Broadly speaking, Biblical assurance can be reduced to two categories, and here I quote A. W. Pink, “…an objective and a subjective. The one is a firm persuasion resting on something without us, namely the Word of God; the other upon something within us – the work of God’s Spirit. Each is obtained by faith, and both are equally sure, though the latter be not attended with the same degree of certainty. The former is foundational, the other evidential.” So in other words, biblical assurance is found in the objective person and work of Christ on behalf of His people according to God’s Word; and by subjectively examining our lives to see whether we are in the faith, to make our calling and election sure, to test and see whether there is the fruit of the Spirit manifesting itself in our lives.
Look again at how John words verse 3, “And by this we know that we have come to know him…” So he’s saying that our assurance comes from knowing that we know God. So how do we know God? One is of course the objective belief in the gospel and God’s Word, the other is by experience – experientially knowing God – of which is John’s focus in this portion of the letter.
How do we experientially know God? By walking in obedience to him, loving him, and learning to sin not. As John Calvin puts it, “We cannot know Him as Lord and Father, without being dutiful children and obedient servants.”
Verse 5: If we love God, we will obey him, and the more we obey God, the more we grow in our love for him, thus it is “perfected” – in the sense of sanctified or matured. A. W. Pink puts it this way, “Where there be love in the heart it will soon appear in the life; of all the affections it is the hardest to conceal.” And Pink again here sums up our thoughts, “God’s Word becomes everything to such a soul [a believer]: his delight, his food, his rule, his chart. In like manner, if the love of God be in my heart it will operate powerfully, so that sin is hated and holiness panted after, and therefore my greatest burden and grief is to sin against Him, as my supreme delight is to commune with and enjoy Him.”
How Does This External/Moral Test Give Assurance?
In thinking about one’s life giving evidence of conversion and thus providing an assurance of salvation, I have at times struggled with this thought. How is it that one’s life can give them assurance, when there are many people who live a very moral lifestyle, do many good things in the name of Christ, and yet do not truly know the Lord?
But you see, it is not simply the presence of good works in one’s life that brings true assurance, but it is obedience to Christ, and to be obedient to Christ, is to love him. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” That is something that you can hide from others who can’t look into your heart, or something that you can fake, rather; but you cannot hide it from, or fake it to God.
But even more importantly, the reason a true believer can gain assurance from their obedience is because of what is underneath the obedience – because of what the cause of the obedience is! If you have been born again, you have a new nature, new desires, and by grace, the ability to obey God’s commandments. When your obedience comes from the new nature within you – when it comes as the fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit who is at work within you, that is how you can know that you have come to know him!
The obedience we are talking about is not an obedience that comes from your own grit, determination, or will-power – something you muster up within yourself – that’s not true obedience. True obedience comes from a new heart, a heart of flesh that has replaced a heart of stone – it comes from a foundation of love for the Lord Jesus Christ, because of his life and his death and his living now above for the believer. If the foundation of your obedience is your own self, then it is not obedience. But if the foundation of your obedience is Jesus Christ, then you can know that you have come to know him.
We may know that we know, by our obedience, not because obedience is the foundation of our assurance, but because underneath our obedience is the work of the Spirit in our lives, which is an exclusive benefit to the believer. Our obedience points to something deeper. So in one true sense, it is not our obedience that we look to for assurance, but we look to our obedience, to see whether the Spirit of God is at work in us, sanctifying, disciplining, and growing us; so therefore ultimately, it the Holy Spirit that gives assurance. So our obedience is not the foundation of our assurance, but rather it is evidence, that the Spirit is indeed at work within us. That’s why I like the way A. W. Pink called it an “evidential assurance.” It’s proof that something else is there.
James Montgomery Boice sums it up, “There is no knowledge of God without an accompanying righteousness, for God is righteous… Why is the righteous life a proof that we know God? Because it is not natural to sinful man. Consequently, it is proof of a divine and supernatural working in our lives if we obey him.”
We saw in the first two verses of this chapter that the Lord Jesus Christ is our advocate before the Father when we sin, on the basis of his righteousness and his propitiation for us. And therein lies the greatest and surest motivation and foundation of all to live a life of obedience to God.
Because Christ is our propitiation, we don’t have to be afraid that God is angry with us; but instead, like a father, he may discipline where necessary, but does so in love for our benefit, joy, and good. Does that not make you want to return your gratitude in obedience and love toward him? It does for the true believer. Thus the true believer may know that they know Christ is their propitiation.
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