December 13, 2020
I grew up in an independent Baptist family. Not quite hellfire and brimstone, but close. We were faithful to go to church Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday nights. I regularly participated in Tuesday or Thursday night visitation, when we would either visit people who had visited the church, or randomly knock on doors – canvass neighborhoods to invite people to church and share the gospel.
In fact, later after Bible College – an independent Baptist College in Missouri – my first job was a one-year internship at Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City, KS. One of my daily responsibilities was to visit new people to the area. It was an army town outside Fort Riley, so we had lots movement. I would actually get a list of names and addresses from the utility company and knock on doors of new people to the area – invite them to church – and share the gospel.
I became quite proficient. Of course, this was 35 years ago, and getting people to pray a prayer at the front door wasn’t that difficult. In fact, we had a Christian School at our church, and the high school students would wait till I returned to see how many people I had led to the Lord that day. It would not be an exaggeration to say I had dozens of people, perhaps hundreds, pray a prayer. I would always finish the visit, after the prayer, with I John 5:13 – These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. I left, giving them assurance of salvation, and notching my belt.
I’m not condemning the method, but I do wonder how truly effective it was. You see, the church didn’t grow by those dozens or hundreds. And I wonder how many people I told, you’re saved because you prayed a prayer, and they actually weren’t. And you say, but…I thought that’s all there was to becoming a Christian – praying a prayer – asking Jesus to forgive you come into your heart. And that’s true, but is that all there is to the Christian faith – and subsequent assurance? I prayed a prayer.
This practice, by the way, mirrored my own conversion experience, and subsequent doubt. Wondering. Lack of assurance. You see, I was saved at the age of ten at Ocean Springs Baptist Church in Biloxi, Mississippi. An independent Baptist church, they preached a lot about long hair, short skirts and rock music. And of course, they faithfully preached the gospel, and invited people to respond at the weekly altar call. I remember responding one Sunday – was baptized shortly thereafter. And I was saved – because in that movement, there was a lot of confidence placed in the prayer, remembering the date of your spiritual birthday. You would write the date in the front of your Bible, lest you forget.
Again, I’m not condemning a method. I believe there is the born again experience. I believe there was a time when you were not saved – and by repentance and faith, you become a believer – a follower of Jesus Christ. I believe it happens in a moment of time, and no doubt many of you can remember when you became a Christian, praying, repenting, asking God to save you.
But then, why the doubts? The fears. The wondering. The lack of assurance. I struggled greatly. I lived a fairly good life through high school, graduated and went to a military academy. I left and went to that Baptist college to prepare for ministry. And all along, I questioned my conversion. Was it really enough? Did I really mean it? Did I say the right words? Did Jesus really come into my heart and save me? Even if I can’t remember the details of the event? I didn’t have this dramatic conversion from a life of drugs, girls and rock and roll – I was simply lost, and asked Jesus to save me. Did He?
In fact, I can remember one time, after a significant period of doubt – in Bible college preparing for ministry, going through the process again, just to be sure – asking Jesus to save me – even being baptized again. I thought good, now I know for sure, and the doubts will forever be erased. And I can say, I have since trusted Jesus for my eternal salvation. Because I can remember more clearly kneeling in my living room? My prayer of confession? My subsequent baptism? The date in the front of my Bible that still sits on the bookshelf in my office?
Again, I’m not condemning a process. Undoubtedly, many of you can share similar conversion stories, prayers of repentance, baptisms and following Jesus. Where does the assurance come in? Did you know the Bible, while teaching repentance and faith, while teaching conversion, being saved, being born again; while teaching assurance of salvation – never points to a spiritual birthday as assurance of salvation. You prayed a prayer, you said the right words. I believe that is important – but is that from where assurance comes?
J. D. Greear, President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Summit Church in Raleigh, struggled as a young believer with doubt. He says he was saved when he was four, but then made multiple professions of faith through his child and teen years. In fact, he says he was baptized four times. He wrote a book in 2013 to deal with the issue, interestingly titled, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart. The book is subtitled, How to Know for Sure You are Saved. Audacious claim. In an article for Ligonier Magazine about the book, he wrote:
“If there were a world record for the ‘number of times asking Jesus into your heart,’ I’m pretty sure I would hold it. I’ve probably ‘prayed the prayer’ more than five thousand times. Every time was sincere, but I was never quite sure I had gotten it right. Had I really been sorry enough for my sin that time around?… So I would pray the sinner’s prayer again. And again. And again. And maybe get baptized again. Every student camp, every spring revival. Rinse and repeat.”
Has that been your experience? Have you ever felt like that? Asked Jesus repeatedly into your heart? Have you ever doubted your salvation? You are not alone. John actually wrote I John to a group of people – churches – who were facing this challenge. In a little different way, but still, this challenge. How do I know I believe the right things in the right way, and that I’m saved?
You see, there were those who had left the church claiming to have a superior knowledge. A specific experience that gave them confidence that they, and they alone, belonged to God. So those who remained in the church were troubled – do I really belong to God? Am I His? So John writes.
Indeed, he did tell us the purpose for writing the letter in 5:13, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Here’s the question – what were these things that he wrote? Is that verse to be wrenched from its context to give some weak assurance – you prayed a prayer – you’re in? Or did he tell us how we can know? I believe he did.
We have seen John writes to give three ways – three tests – by which you can know you have eternal life. How can you have assurance of salvation? Pass these tests. We called them the theological, the relational, and the moral tests:
The theological test goes like this: you must believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who came in the flesh – and in the flesh, lived a perfect life to die as a substitutionary propitiation for sinners. You must believe in Jesus and His work on the cross.
The relational test goes like this: having believed, you are born again – the first time physically into a physical family. The second time spiritually, into a spiritual family – born into the family of God. And you must love your other family members. Love is actually a major theme in this book, and we arrive at its first of many uses today. (52 times)
The moral test goes like this: having confessed your sin and believed in Jesus as God in the flesh, Lord of your life, you must pursue lives of morality. You must act like followers of Christ.
Now think of those. The first test is required to produce salvation. You must believe Jesus is the Christ, given by the Father to die and be raised again, for the sins of His people. For your sins. The second and third tests are not required to produce salvation – they are however required to prove salvation. To give assurance. You must pursue holiness; you must love God’s people. They are tests John gives us so we can know we have eternal life. I want to be clear – you don’t obey His commands, you don’t love other Christians to be saved – you do because have been saved.
Some have called these three tests the test of faith, love and ethics. You have faith in Jesus as the light of the world, you love because He first loved us, and you live walking in the light, as He is in the light. So, having introduced the letter in the first chapter in which he implies these truths, we arrive at the first of the three tests today – I John 2:3-6. Read that with me.
The moral test. John has just spent the last few verses lending balance to this idea of sin – sin in the life of a believer – of having sin, but pursuing holiness – of not sinning. You’ll remember in the second half of chapter 1, he tipped his hat to the false teachers and what they were saying. This is the message we heard from the beginning, that God is light, and Him is no darkness at all.
So, if we say, as the false teachers who had left the church were presumably saying, if we say we have fellowship with this God who is light, but walk in darkness, we betray ourselves. We lie, and we do not practice the truth. Remember, truth is not just something we know – truth is something we do.
Lending balance, if we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar – the one who has said all have sinned, and His word is not in us.
Then John writes in the next verses – last week – My little children, I am writing these things to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. Please notice the balance he brings. He calls us to walk in the light if we claim to have fellowship with God. He calls us to pursue holiness – to not sin. But, if anyone sins – because he had just said, we cannot say we have no sin – if anyone sins, we still have Jesus – the righteous one, our Advocate before the Father, the propitiation for our sin. This was not condoning sin, permitting sin. He simply says, when we sin, we have a gracious Christ to intercede for us through His faithful work, and we find ongoing forgiveness.
So where does that leave us? Forgiven sinners who continue to live lives of sin, because we have been saved? Many do that, don’t they. I prayed a prayer, I’m in, right? Is that okay? We’re born again, our eternity secure. This is apparently in some way what the false teachers were saying. Later Gnosticism said, all that is matter/physical is evil, only the spiritual is good. And since they had this special spiritual connection with God, they were good. They could live lives of sin – in fact, the physical was evil. So sin without repercussion, with impunity. It was no doubt tempting – it was at least confusing.
And it has challenged the church of Jesus today. As we talked about a few weeks ago, many are believing the gospel – at least the get-out-of-eternal-jail-free part. But we are just sinners saved by grace. At the end of the day, I’m still saved, my eternity secure. God will forgive me – it’s His job. And so many cannot tell the difference in the lives of believers and unbelievers. Survey after survey reveal there is little to no difference in attitudes and actions of believers as compared to unbelievers. Is that okay? Again, J.D. Greear writes:
“Countless people in our churches today are genuinely saved, but they just can’t seem to gain any assurance about their salvation. The opposite is the case, too. Because of some childhood prayer, tens of thousands of people are absolutely certain of a salvation they do not possess.”
How can he say that? Because, they don’t pass the tests – they don’t live for Jesus. John clearly begins his first argument – his first test with this outline:
- Assurance of Knowing God [comes from keeping His commands] (3)
- Assurance of the Love of God [comes from keeping His word] (4-5a)
- Assurance of Abiding in God [comes from walking as Jesus did] (5b-6)
So don’t miss that – salvation comes from a past confession, but assurance of salvation comes not from a past profession, but a present way of life. In fact, John takes it one startling step further. Not only is there no assurance of salvation if there is not a corresponding present way of life, there is no true past confession if it has not changed your life. I know this is troubling – some will say, you’re not preaching grace. Yes, I am – I am preaching biblical grace that changes lives.
John starts by saying, “By this we know that we have come to know Him [to know God is to be in covenant relationship with Him – it’s not just knowing about Him, citing some theological truths – it is being in relationship with Him], if we keep His commandments.” By this is forward looking – we know we have come to know Him – how? If we keep His commandments.
John is taking the battle to the false teachers. They claimed a special, spiritual knowledge of God – outside Scripture. John says, on the contrary, we know we have come to know him – using their word – if we keep His commandments found in Scripture. You cannot know God apart from God’s special revelation – His Son and His word.
He uses the word know twice – but with two different verb tenses. We know is in the present tense. We can know right now, presently, we can have present assurance that we know God. How? We know right now that we have come to know – that’s in the prefect tense, which speaks of a past action with ongoing effect. It’s a great tense – something happened in the past that has an ongoing effect to the present. We know, right now, we have come to know Him in the past, if the ongoing effect to the present is this: we keep His commandments.
Now, there is a lot of discussion about what these commandments are. Most agree they are not the OT Law – he would have used a different word. He’s likely speaking of all that Jesus taught. Remember the Great Commission – Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, and teaching them all that I have commanded you.
I’m not going to review all that Jesus commanded, but look over at chapter 3, verse 23, “This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.” So at the very least, His commandments, as identified by John, are that we believe in Jesus and we love one another. He says it over and over in this book in many different ways – my hope is we come to the end of this book and we love Jesus more – love His people more – and we love Him so much, we desire/passion to obey His commands.
This is quite in keeping with Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where He said things like, “This is eternal life, that they may know you and the one You sent.” And He prayed for His followers to be one, even as He and the Father are one. Paramount on John’s mind is a proper belief in Jesus and a proper, loving unity between His children. We must at least obey these commands.
If we don’t, verse 4, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him [same word, same tense],’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” This is basically what he said back in 1:6, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice [or do not do] the truth.” This time he’s a little stronger – if you don’t keep His commandments, you are a liar, and the truth is not in you. What is the lie? Simply that you know Him. This is the challenge I’m mentioned earlier. It’s not that you haven’t been a good Christian, rather, you have not been a Christian at all.
Now, it is a bit stronger here – before he said, you lie. Now he says, you’re a liar. That’s brutal, harsh. So some people feel the need to explain John’s personality. Remember, he was one of the sons of thunder. Remember, there was the time he wanted to call down fire from heaven and consume a Samaritan village. But his words are really not that harsh. If someone commits murder, what do we call him? A murderer. If someone commits adultery, what do we call him? An adulterer. If someone lies, what do we call him? A liar. I know God, even though I don’t follow His commands. You are a liar. Strong? Yes. True? Yes.
But don’t miss the assurance John is offering here. By keeping His commandments – the word speaks of guarding and obeying His commands – you can know right now that you have come to know Him. You need not doubt or wonder. You can stop asking Jesus into your heart. If you have, as the characteristic of your life, the desire, even the passion, to obey Jesus, you know Him.
Our second point, verse 5, whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. Again, we see this idea of keeping or guarding or obeying God’s word. In the one who does that, the love of God has truly been perfected. There is a lot of discussion about the love of God. As I said earlier – love is a key theme in the book, and this is its first use. Is this God’s love for His people, or is it the people’s love for God. A strong argument can be made for both – and the commentaries were equally divided.
In John 15, Jesus said, if you love Me, you will obey My commands. Meaning, obedience to His commands is directly tied to your love for Jesus. I’ve said it this way before – when you sin, at that moment, you love yourself and your sin more than Jesus. Jesus said, if you love Me, you will obey. Here, John says, if you keep or obey His word, then His love is perfected or matured in you. That’s not suggesting you’ll be perfect. It is suggesting your love for God is maturing – growing, being perfected. Which suggests the lifelong process of sanctification – as we grow in our love for God, we grow in Christ-likeness and sin less.
But this could also be His love for us. His love for us is perfected or matured in transforming grace. What does that mean? It means we see God’s love for us perfected when we are maturing in grace and obedience. Why do some suggest that? Because it is referenced the same way in 4:12, “No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.” So the idea is, we love – both God and one another – because He first loved us. And as His transforming love and grace is perfected in us, we grow in our love for Him, and one another.
Which one? I don’t know. But the truth is, we are unable to love rightly – either God or others, without His love being perfected in us. And that comes through true conversion, evidenced by keeping His word.
Our last point and conclusion – the last part of verse 5 pointing forward to verse 6, “By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He [that is, Jesus] walked.”
This being in Him, in Christ is found throughout Paul’s letters. It is the idea of being in Christ and Christ being is us by His Spirit. It is the indwelling and fullness of the Spirit by whom the fruit of the Spirit is evident in our lives – and we produce much fruit. This is consistent with what John said in his gospel – in chapter 15:
4 “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.
5 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
Here’s the point – those who are in Christ, who abide in Christ, will walk as Jesus walked, producing much fruit. We remember Jesus said many times, I do always those things that please God. That is what we do – we abide in Christ, in the love of God and our love for God, walking like Jesus as His followers. We walk like Jesus walked. One commentator said it is much more than asking WWJD, what would Jesus do, in certain situations. It is being in such vibrant, covenantal relationship with Him, that He lives His life in and through you.
I’ve done many funerals of people who once prayed a prayer. The family wants me to know that. When they were about ten, they were saved. Oh, they walked away and never really lived for Christ. But they prayed the sinner’s prayer, so they’re good, right? And I trust that they are. But I’m always concerned when someone has to convince me that a loved one was saved. Who are they convincing – me, or themselves?
Can I encourage you – live for Christ. When I do your funeral, or you do mine – I want to see Christ formed in you, in me. I want to say of you, and you of me – he lived for Christ. If we could ask the person who knows you best, would they say that of you, right now?
We moved communion from last week – the first Sunday of the month – to today, since we had special guests last Sunday. Remember, we talked about, when we sin, we have advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ the righteous, who is both the propitiator and the propitiation for our sin. He both the high priest who offers the sacrifice, and the sacrifice Himself. And so, we remember by way of this ordinance called communion or the Lord’s Supper what Jesus did for us.
We do believe He came in the flesh to live perfect life wrapped in human flesh as both God and man. And He died in the flesh, though He had no sin. He died for our sins – substitutionary atonement – so ours could be forgiven. And so, we remember through this practice.