Obedience Confirms Our Standing in God
Introduction: Two Reasons John Writes
Something had raised the issue of the assurance of salvation in the church that John was writing to. It runs through the whole letter. I can see at least two things that have forced the issue out into the open.
1. The Group of Professing Believers Who Left the Church
One is that a group of professing believers has left the church. In 2:19 John refers to this group in a way that shows how painful it was for the church and how it raised the whole issue of eternal security and assurance. He says, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us."
It's not hard to hear the struggle that John was responding to in these words. When he says, "If they had been of us, they would have continued with us," you can hear the question he was responding to. The church members that had stayed behind had probably asked, "John, I thought you taught that when a person believed in Christ, he had eternal life (John 3:16); I thought you said that when the sheep hear Jesus' voice, he gives them eternal life and no one can snatch them out of his hand (John 10:27–28). But now here they have gone out and have forsaken your doctrine! What are we to think?"
And John's answer to this question is to say: "I haven't changed anything I ever taught. The sheep are indeed eternally secure in the hand of Jesus. They do have eternal life. Therefore my interpretation of what has happened in the church is that this group never was part of the sheep. They were never "of us." If they had been of us—if they had been of the sheep—they would have continued with us." The sheep are eternally secure! And they prove it by persevering in faith".
It is precisely because John does believe in the eternal security of the sheep that he he must conclude that if a person forsakes the faith, that person was not really part of the flock. If he didn't believe in eternal security, he would have simply said, "Once they were of us, but now they aren't. It's as simple as that." But he didn't say that. Because he does believe: Once of us, always of us. Once a sheep, always a sheep.
So now the church faces the question: "Well, John, if some of our own church leaders can abandon the apostolic doctrine and be lost, then how are we going to know who is genuine and who isn't? How can we even be sure about ourselves?" So the departure of this group from the church is one reason the issue of assurance has forced itself out into the open at this church.
2. What the False Teachers Were Saying
The second thing that has forced the issue is what these false teachers (who apparently had left the church) were saying. You can hear their pitch behind sentence after sentence in this letter, especially behind the sentences which start with words like, "If someone says . . . " or, "The one who says . . . " or, "If we say . . . " Let's look at a few of these to get an idea of what the false teachers were saying.
- 1 John 1:6, "If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie."
- 1:8, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves."
- 1:10, "If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar."
- 2:4, "He who says 'I know him' but disobeys his commandments is a liar."
- 2:6, "He who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked."
- 2:9, "He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still."
- 4:20, "If any one says 'I love God' and hates his brother, he is a liar."
It's not hard to see some of the false teaching behind these statements. The false prophets (as he calls them in 4:1) evidently were saying that they have fellowship with God, know God, abide in Christ, are in the light, and love God; but evidently they also teach that the life they live has no bearing on this standing before God. Yet they claim to be without sin. ("If we say we have no sin . . . ") Now how does all that fit together? Who were these people who claimed to have no sin, but who said that sinning doesn't have any bearing on your standing before God.
1 John 3:7 gives a clue, because here John warns explicitly against the deceptive teaching of the false prophets. He says, "Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does righteousness is righteous." So when he says, "Beware of the deception," what's he talking about? What is the opposite of saying, "The one who does righteousness is righteous"? The opposite is to say: "You can be righteous even if you don't do righteousness." John says, "Don't be deceived by these false prophets that have gone out from you: he who does righteousness is righteous. When they say that a man can stand righteous before God while going on in an unrighteous life, they are liars. He who does righteousness is righteous."
Now we begin to see what is going on in this church. Evidently there was a group who knew about the doctrine of justification by faith. It's the doctrine that Paul emphasized in Romans and Galatians. It said that through faith in Christ we can be acquitted of all our sins and can stand righteous before God on account of the death of Christ.
But there were many in the early church who took Paul's doctrine and distorted it to teach things that Paul rejected. Some said, "Let us do evil that good may come" (Romans 3:8). Some said, "Let us sin that grace may abound" (Romans 6:1). And Paul corrected both of these abuses of the doctrine in the book of Romans.
Some said that faith can justify a person whether that faith gives rise to good works or not. And James responds in the second chapter of his letter, "What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?" And others said—these are the false prophets behind first John—"You can be righteous even if you don't do righteousness." To which John responds with this powerful letter, and especially 3:7, "Let no one deceive you: he who does righteousness is righteous." What you do is a test of what you are.
So you can see the second reason why the issue of assurance was forced into the open in this church. The false prophets were teaching that you can enjoy the assurance of standing sinless before God in righteousness and light, even if you walk in darkness, disobey God's commandments, and hate your brother. This did not square with Paul's teaching or John's or the Lord's. And so the issue had to be dealt with. That is why we have this letter. And why we have 2:3–6.
Exposition: Three Stages
There are three stages in the argument of 2:3–6.
- First, and most basic, there is the assertion that a necessary connection exists between knowing Christ and obeying his commandments. Knowing Christ necessarily produces obedience. Verses 4–5a: "He who says 'I know him' but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word in him truly love for God is perfected."
- Second, it follows from this that you can have assurance that you truly know Christ if you obey his commandments (since obedience is the necessary result of knowing him). Verses 3 and 5b: "And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments . . . By this we may be sure that we are in him."
- Third, it follows from this that anyone who says he abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. Otherwise you lose assurance and in the end prove that you never knew Christ. Verse 6: "He who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked."
So the argument is built on a firm theological fact: knowing Christ gives rise to obedience. From this fact comes John's doctrine of assurance: You can know that you know Christ if you obey him. And from these two truths comes the duty: walk like Christ.
Now let's take each of these three stages in the argument and look at them in more detail.
1. The Foundation of the Argument
The foundation of the argument is in verses 4 and 5, "He who says 'I know him' but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected."
1.1—What is meant by "knowing Christ" in verse 4?
The reason I think the verse is talking about knowing Christ is because Christ is the last one spoken of in verse 2. But it may be that the knowledge of God is meant. I don't think it would make any difference to John since in his way of thinking you can't know one without knowing the other (John 8:19; 1 John 4:15).
But now what is this kind of knowing that necessarily gives rise to obedience? There must be something very powerful about this knowledge. Its capacity to produce obedience is so certain that John calls anyone a liar who claims to have this knowledge but not have obedience. What kind of knowledge of Christ has power to infallibly produce obedience to Christ?
Judas knew Christ. Lots of unbelieving scholars today know more about Christ than many Christians. There must be a different kind of knowledge than this merely factual knowledge. The Lord said in Hosea 4:1–2, "There is no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery." So Hosea has the same view of knowing God that John has: there can't be knowledge of God where there is persistence in sin.
Jesus gives us a further glimpse into this kind of knowledge of God. In Matthew 11:27 he said, "All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." So there is a special knowledge of God that no one can have unless it is given him by the Son.
Here in 1 John 4:6 it says, "We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us." Notice how the opposite of knowing God is "not being of God". That is, knowing God means belonging to him, being born of him, being of his character (3:9).
When a soldier comes back from combat, he may say to the civilians who stayed at home, "You don't know what war is like." He means, "There is a knowledge that only comes from experience. There is a knowing that only come from taking a reality into yourself and tasting it fully."
So here in 1 John 2:4 John not only says that this disobedient person does not know God. He goes on to say at the end of the verse, "The truth is not in him." This is why his knowledge is not knowledge. It is not in him. He carries it on the surface. It has never sunk in. He has never tasted the truth he mouths so easily.
So the knowledge John has in view in 2:4 is an experience of Christ and God the Father in which they are taken into the depths of our life and change the way we live.
1.2—But just how does this knowledge of God produce obedience?
John's whole case hangs on the certainty with which knowing God produces obedience. If a person could know God and still live in disobedience, then John could not say to this disobedient man in verse 4 that he is a liar when he claims to know God. John would not be able to know if he is a liar or not if he might know God and yet live in disobedience.
So how does this knowledge guarantee obedience? 1 John 4:16 says, "So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love." Notice how he puts the two words together: We know and trust the love of God. To know the love God has for you is to trust it. For John it is unthinkable that a person could know the love of God and not trust the love of God. Not to trust it must mean that you don't think it is really love. All John can say to someone who will not entrust himself to omnipotent love is: You don't know it. You can't know it or you would trust it.
So when God commands you to do something and you ignore it or go against it, John can only conclude one thing: You don't believe that God is love. And therefore you don't know him. For if you believed that God is love, then you would believe that all his commandments were the very best thing for you. And you would follow them. When you turn away from the commandments of God, you say in effect, a loving God wouldn't command me to do that. And so our disobedience displays our lack of trust in the love God has for us. And it shows that we do not know God.
Isn't it ironic that today people say, "If you know the love of God, you don't have to worry when you go on in sin." But the apostle John said, "If you know the love of God, you won't be able to go on in sin." Because if you really believe the love that God has for you, then all his commandments will be the loving counsel of an all-wise Father.
As 1 John 5:3 says, "This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments and his commandments are not burdensome." If we know and believe the love that God has for us, his commandments will not be burdensome. They will be like a map that leads us safely through an unknown jungle to the beach where God waits with his 60 foot yacht to take us on an eternal cruise of the islands.
So the answer to our second question is that knowing God produces obedience because God is love. If you turn away from the commandments of God because you think you will find more happiness in disobedience, then you do not believe that God is love. You don't know him. Knowing him as a God of love must result in obedience to his commandments.
Recall the evil servant in the parable of the pounds in Luke 19:11–27. His master gave him a pound and said, "Trade with these till I come." But the man disobeyed and put it in a napkin and did not trade with it. When the master asked why, he said, "I was afraid of you because you are a severe man." And that is the reason behind all the disobedience of God's commandments: we don't believe that they are expressions of love that have our best interest at heart. We think that they are the word of a severe God who wants to withhold from us the happiness we crave. So we disobey. And we prove that we are liars when we claim to know him.
1.3—In what sense is our keeping God's word a perfecting of the love of God (2:5)?
The term "love of God" is ambiguous. The RSV takes it to mean our love for God. The NIV takes it to mean God's love for us. The NASB leaves it as it is in Greek: ambiguous—"Love of God." There are parallels in 1 John for both senses (God's: 3:17; 4:9, 12; ours: 2:15; 3:14; 5:3). It could be that John means both since in his way of thinking it is the love of God in us that is reflected back in love to him and others.
If John means God's love for us here in 2:4, then the sense is basically the same as in 4:12, "If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us." That is, loving each other, or keeping God's word, perfects God's love in us by completing it with action. If it is bottled up in us and not shared with others, is not completed, or perfected.
If John means our love for God in 2:4, then the sense would be basically the same as in James 2:22 where the same word (perfected) is used to say that "faith is perfected by works." That is, our faith in God, or love for God, is completed when that faith or love works itself out in obedient love to others.
In either case the point is that people who do not keep the word of God cannot claim to love God or have the love of God in them. As 4:8 says, "He who does not love does not know God; for God is love."
So the first stage of the argument is the foundational truth that there is a necessary connection between knowing Christ and obeying his commandments. Anyone who claims to know him and lives in disobedience is a liar.