1 John 4:13–16
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
The text begins with the words, "By this we know that we abide in him (i.e., God) and he in us." This is the burden of John in the whole letter: to teach us how to be sure that God abides in us. Are you sure that God abides in you today? He wrote this letter to help you answer that question.
John's Clear Goal
Consider how many times he has made us think about this. You might want to put a little "a" in the margin by each of these verses to stand for assurance.
- 2:3—By this we may be sure that we know him . . .
- 2:5b—By this we may be sure that we are in him . . .
- 3:10—By this it may be seen who are the children of God . . .
- 3:14—We know that we have passed out of death into life . . .
- 3:19—By this we shall know that we are of the truth . . .
- 3:24b—By this we know that he abides in us . . .
- 4:2—By this you know the Spirit of God . . .
- 4:6b—By this we know the spirit of truth . . .
- 5:2—By this we know that we love the children of God . . .
- 5:13—I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you might know that you have eternal life.
So one thing is very clear from this letter: John wants Christians to be sure of something. He wants us to be confident of something. He wants to help us get rid of our doubts about something.
What? What does he want us to be sure of?
Assurance That We Abide in God
Our text says (4:13) that he wants us to be sure that we abide in God and God abides in us. "By this we know that we abide in him and he in us." What does this mean?
Assurance of Salvation or Assurance of Maturity?
There are some today who teach that our abiding in God and God's abiding in us simply refers to an advanced stage of intimacy between God and the mature Christian. They say that you can still be a Christian and yet not abide in God and not have God abiding in you. They say that what John wants to give assurance of is not that you are truly born again but that you are walking in intimacy with the Father.
Here's a quote from one popular evangelical teacher:
The unsaved world does not know God . . . and the believer who harbors hatred toward another believer is stepping into a comparable sphere of spiritual darkness and death. This by no means calls his salvation into question, but it firmly negates every claim to intimacy with the Father and the Son. In the final analysis, it is this intimacy that the epistle of 1 John is all about (1:3, 4). (Zane Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege, 1981, p. 65)
The motive behind this interpretation is the desire to keep the assurance of salvation separate from the spiritual and moral condition of the believer's heart and life. In other words this teacher wants to be able to give people assurance of salvation even if, to use his words, they are "harboring hatred toward another believer." And he does this by saying that when John gives the test of love, he is testing Christian maturity not salvation.
He says that if we equate "abiding" with "being a Christian,"
the message of John's letter is hopelessly obscured. The theological deductions that arise as a result are fundamentally and irreconcilably hostile to the simple Biblical Gospel and to the offer of assurance of salvation based on the testimony and promise of God alone. (p. 66)
In other words, if you think that verse 13 of our text this morning has to do with salvation when it speaks of "abiding in God and God abiding in us," then (he says) your view is hostile to the gospel. Because for this teacher the gospel is the good news that you can be saved by a kind of intellectual faith that may not change your heart attitudes or make you into a loving person.
The reason I spell this out in some detail is that this is an amazingly widespread view, coming as it does from one of the (former?) bastions of evangelical orthodoxy (Dallas Theological Seminary). But it is a view of 1 John that as far as I know has no significant precedent in the history of interpretation. It is a tremendously important issue. You must decide whether you think the issue in 1 John (and particularly in this text) is the assurance of salvation or the assurance of Christian maturity and intimacy.
Either in the Vine or the Fire
What does John mean by abiding in God and God abiding in us? Is it an intimate second stage of Christianity or is it just plain being a Christian? Jesus said in John 15:6, "If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned." Abiding in Christ does not refer to a second level of maturity. It refers to whether you are in the vine or in the fire.
Confessing Jesus Is Basic Christianity
Or closer to home, consider verse 15 in our text. "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God." Are we really supposed to understand from this that the way you attain to intimacy with God is by confessing that Jesus is the Son of God? Surely not. When John says here that the evidence of abiding in God is that we confess that Jesus is the Son of God, he means that the confession is the evidence that you are saved. Confessing Jesus as the Son of God is basic Christianity, not advanced Christianity. When John says, "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God," he does not mean that whoever signs up for the softball team hits a homerun. He means that whoever signs up for the softball team is on the softball team. Abiding in God is being on the team. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God is saved.
Confessing and Believing
Here's another piece of evidence. Confessing that Jesus is the Son of God is the same as believing in the name of the Son of God. But look at what 5:13 says the issue is. It is not the issue of intimacy with the Father. It is the issue of eternal life. "I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life." 3:15 says that if you confess Jesus as the Son of God, you have God abiding in you. 5:13 says that if you believe on the name of the Son of God, you have eternal life. Therefore what John means when he speaks of abiding in God and God abiding in us is the possession of eternal life not the advanced stages of intimacy with God.
If you abide in the vine, you have life and bear fruit. If you do not abide in the vine, you are gathered with the other withered branches and thrown into the fire. The issue is salvation, not maturity. (Compare also 1 John 3:14 and John 5:24.)
Signs of Abiding in God
So let's look at our text now and see what the tests or signs of abiding in God are. Let's start with 4:12 because it is so closely related to verse 13. What we will see is that there are references to abiding in God and he in us in verses 12, 13, 15, and 16. Let's walk through it.
Love for One Another
"No man has ever seen God; [and so the problem: how can you be sure of a relationship with a God you can't see? Answer:] if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us." We can be sure of our relationship with him because the love we have for each other is the very presence of God in us. God abides in us. And since God is love, his presence in us is the perfecting or completing of his love in our love for each other.
The Spirit of God
Verse 13 repeats this same truth with slightly different words: "By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit." The love that you have for the children of God is a manifestation of the Spirit of God within you. The Spirit does not merely manufacture love like IBM manufactures computers or like an old man in Tarkpoima weaves a straw hat. The Spirit bears the fruit of love. Fruit is one with the tree. The Spirit is the love of God.
Abiding in Love
Verses 14–15 seem like a break in the flow of thought. So let's skip them for the moment and go to verse 16: "We know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." So here we are back where we started. The experience of abiding in God, that is the experience of salvation, is manifested and preserved through abiding in love. Which is the same thing verse 12 said: "If we love one another, God abides in us."
So the main point of these verses so far is that there is an aroma about God that can't be concealed. It's the aroma of love. When he comes into your life, the aroma comes into your life. The aroma is the sign of God's saving presence, and if you smell it, you know he is there. You have assurance. If you don't smell it, then you lose assurance and you cry out to God to cause his love to abound in your heart.
Paul's Labor Among the Thessalonians
Look, for example, in 1 Thessalonians at how Paul fought this battle for the sake of his churches. He came and preached the gospel. But how did he have assurance that those who responded to his message were really chosen by God and born again? He says in 1:4ff.,
For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you; for our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for you sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit; so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
Why Paul Was Sure About Their Faith
How was Paul sure that God had chosen the Thessalonian converts and that their faith was genuine? Verses 6 and 7: because he saw evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in the joy of faith even in affliction and in the exemplary life they began to live for all to see. He describes it in verse 3: We remember your "work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope." A faith that endured affliction joyfully and worked itself out in love was the mark of genuineness that Paul looked for.
How Paul Prayed for the Thessalonian Church
But 1 Thessalonians 2:10–12 shows us something very encouraging about the way Paul prayed for this church. He said, "I pray earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith." So the faith he saw was by no means perfect. Yet it was real. And he could see it.
He goes on to pray for their love in verses 12 and 13: "Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you; and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all men, as we do to you." In other words their love was not perfect either. Paul wants it to increase. So their faith had things lacking and their love needed to increase, but both the faith and the love were evident and real and gave Paul assurance that God had chosen the Thessalonians and begun a good work in them which he would complete at the coming of Christ.
The Thessalonians' Growing Faith and Increasing Love
Now look at 2 Thessalonians. Were Paul's prayers answered? He says in 1:3, "We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren, as is fitting, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing." His prayers were indeed being answered. There was still good evidence that God had chosen these people and was at work in them: their faith was growing and their love was increasing.
The evidence of salvation (that God abides in you and you in God) is not perfect faith or perfect love. The evidence is that the current of your affections flows toward God, so that God is your delight, even in affliction, and love is the labor of your life, even toward your enemies. Therefore when you look at your life and you see room for improvement, don't conclude from that that God does not abide in you. Do what Paul did: pray and send yourself a letter (like 1 Thessalonians).
Summary of Paul's Thinking About the Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians 2:13 gives a beautiful summary statement of Paul's thinking about the Thessalonians: "But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth."
Paul could know that God had chosen them to be saved because the way God saves is "through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth." So when Paul saw these two things: sanctification and faith, he knew this was a real work of God. When he saw faith growing under persecution and love increasing even for outsiders (1 Thessalonians 3:12; 5:15), he felt assurance that they were indeed chosen by God and saved and destined for glory (2 Thessalonians 2:14).
The Answer to the Question of Assurance
So whether we read Paul or whether we read John the question of assurance is answered in the same way: do we see the evidences of sanctification and belief in the truth? In fact it's amazing how close Paul and John are on this issue.
When Paul says that he looks at their sanctification and their belief in the truth, he means that he looks for the increase of love and the growth of faith (2 Thessalonians 1:3). But these are the very two evidences that John repeatedly draws our attention to. Recall that he sums them up in 1 John 3:23. "And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who keep his commandments abide in him and he in them." So if you obey the commandment to love and to believe, you can have assurance that God abides in you and that you are chosen by God and saved. This is just like Paul's "sanctification and belief in the truth."
(And just as Paul called it a sanctification by the Spirit, so John in the very next verse [3:24] says, "And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us." Both Paul and John trace love and faith back to the Spirit. That's why Paul gives thanks to God when he sees love and faith in his converts [2 Thessalonians 2:13], and that's why love and faith are the proof of God's abiding in us and we in God.)
How Confession of Christ Fits In
Now let's go back to our text and look at the verses we left out (1 John 4:14–15). I said that they seemed to break the flow of the passage. The passage begins in verses 12–13 with love and the Spirit giving assurance that God abides in us. And the passage ends in verse 16 with the statement that "he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." But in the middle John seems to drop the theme of our love for each other and pick up the theme of our confession of Christ.
He says in verse 14, that he and the other apostles "have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world." This is just what he said in 1:2, "The life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it." John was an eyewitness to the flawless life and miracles and death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Therefore he testifies to what he has seen and heard: "The Father sent the Son as the Savior of the world." That's verse 14.
Then in verse 15 John says, "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God." In other words the evidence of whether you abide in God and God in you is how you respond to John's testimony that the Father has sent the Son. If you respond with a hearty agreement, then God abides in you. It's the same thing he said in 4:6, "Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us." Therefore John can give his testimony in verse 14 that the Father sent the Son and then in verse 15 say that if you "listen" to this and confess it (i.e., heartily agree with it), then you are of God, you are indwelt by the Spirit of truth, God abides in you and you in God. Confessing Christ's sonship is the proof that God abides in you.
So when we stand back from our text and look at the whole, what we see is a double test of spiritual genuineness—the same double test we saw in Paul and in 1 John 3:23–24—namely, the test of love and the test of belief.
Verses 12 and 15 give the best summary statements of these two tests. Verse 12: "If we love one another, God abides in us." Verse 15: "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him."
Applying the Two Tests to Our Lives
Let's close by applying these two tests to our own lives.
- The test of hearing and confessing the truth of the apostles' testimony that Jesus is the Son of God.
- And the test of loving each other.
Let me suggest three questions for each test. Ask yourself these questions:
1. The Test of Hearing and Confessing
1.1. Does your heart incline to the testimony of the apostles and prophets? That is, do you have a persevering longing to read the Bible or to hear the Word of God?
The question is not: Do you never have dry times of indifference? The question is: Is the ongoing, customary desire of your heart to join Mary at the feet of Jesus and do the one thing needful, namely, listen (Luke 10:42)? "My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them and they follow me" (John 10:27; cf. 10:16; 18:37). Do you long to listen to the teaching of Jesus and his apostles' teaching about him?
1.2. When your heart grows cool and you begin to drift away from the Word of God, do you feel a godly guilt that humbles you and brings you back broken to the cross for forgiveness and renewal?
1.3. When you hear the testimony of Scripture that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world, does your heart confess this truth? That is, do you gladly affirm the divine greatness of Christ and how worthy he is of trust and admiration and loyalty and obedience? Does your heart exalt Christ as the greatest thing of all? For that is surely what it means to be "Son of God."
2. The Test of Loving Each Other
2.1. When you hear a description of love like 1 Corinthians 13 or when you contemplate the example of Christ's life of love, does your heart fill with longing to be like that, and do you make firm resolves to conquer unloving attitudes and behaviors?
2.2. When you fail in a resolve of love, does it grieve you and bring you broken to the cross pleading for forgiveness and seeking new strength to love again?
2.3. Is the current and pattern of your life to live for the eternal good of other people, or are your thoughts and dreams and daily choices generally aimed at merely making yourself comfortable and your name esteemed?
The Most Important Test
This test is more important than any other you will ever take. In the end your eternal life hangs on whether you pass or fail.
If these questions cause you to doubt that God is abiding in you, then pray with me the following prayer:
Have mercy upon me, O God, for I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. I am prone to forsake you and go after other things. The eyes of my heart have been blind and I have not seen or cherished your truth and glory as I should. I am helpless in myself, O Lord.
Deliver me, I pray, from the terrible deceitfulness of my own heart. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and give me a spirit that is willing to believe in the truth and beauty of Jesus Christ. Fill me with joy and peace through the forgiveness of his cross and through the promise of eternal life. And free me from selfishness and pride so I can love the way he loved.
Into your grace I commit my life, merciful God. From this day on I will never call myself my own. I surrender myself to Jesus Christ, my Savior and my Lord. Amen.