Category Archives: 1 John

Summarizing the Christian Life

In the final chapter of 1 John, the letter to the believers of Asia minor penned under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we arrive at essentially a summary of the entire book.  Verses 1-5 serve to tie up loose ends and bring to a close the tests of assurance that have been scattered throughout.  The style of this letter, as has been pointed out, resembles closely that of a spiral.  In one instance John may introduce a singular point and abandon it, only to circle around to it again at a later point, which he develops more fully.  In this way, the author certainly is logical in his writing, though the pattern is less linear, as with Paul.  Never is this pattern more clear than at the beginning of chapter 5, as seen below.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

Here, our focus is on three main ideas, seen in the passage above, which have been instrumental throughout the letter and often presented in a kind of test or measuring stick for professing believers.  They are, faith – sometimes expressed as an intimate knowledge of God, love – for both God and the brethren, and obedience.  Knowing God – Showing love – Growing in Obedience. (I write this just shy of a decade since I once preached these three themes at a fall youth retreat.)

Our first idea, faith, introduces the passage cited above.  Everyone who believes…that is those who have placed their faith in something, or better Someone.  This is the faith rooted in a knowledge of Who the object of faith is.  It is never a blind faith, never an ignorant faith, rather it is an informed faith, one that has come to know and believe that Jesus is the Christ.  Perhaps it should be pointed out that Jesus Christ is not our Lord’s first and last names.  Jesus is His name, Christ is His title.  It means Anointed One, or Chosen One, i.e. Messiah.  He is the object of the faith expressed here as the outcome, or evidence, of regeneration.  Without delving into a deep discussion on the ordo salutis (order of salvation), it seems most consistent to conclude that the Holy Spirit regenerates the heart giving a person the ability to repent and believe in Jesus, which is contrary to the idea that faith precedes regeneration.  The order in this verse describes those who have been born again are those who believe that Jesus is the Christ.  With this first summary point, John is wrapping up earlier  passages which expressed a similar idea, noteworthy among them are 1 John 2:22-23 and 1 John 3:23.

While being born again is the point of connection in the opening of this section, there is a transition from the evidence of faith to the evidence of love, our second major idea.  Expressing love for God the Father is a reality for those who have been born again.  This has been a prominent theme throughout the letter, most notably in 1 John 2:10-11; 3:1; 3:11-18; 4:7-21 and is really the central theme in the section before us today. The vertical love that a believer has for their heavenly Father is complimented by the horizontal love that they have for others who have also been born again, i.e. the brethren.  This common new birth creates a familial relationship.  Just as we have love for our physical, blood relatives, in a deeper and more profound way are we to have love for our spiritual brothers and sisters.  To love God without loving other believers is inconsistent, put more strongly according to 1 John 4:20-21, it is impossible.  We may conclude then that belief is the personal evidence of being born again while love for God and other believers is the outward, relational expression of that inward faith.

But this is not the only outward expression.  In verse 2 above, we are reminded again of the previously developed relationship between love and obedience, our third major idea or test in the letter.  To get there, we must circle back through the evidence of our love for the brethren, namely love for God, then arrive at obedience to Him.  In verse 1 we saw the order of:

regeneration –>faith–>love for God–>love for the brethren.

Here we see:

love for the brethren–>love for God–>obedience to God’s commands.

On a whirlwind summary of the Christian life, John has led us back to the starting point.  Faith and obedience are not contradictory, rather they are complimentary.  This isn’t a legalistic, external obedience, rather it is gospel obedience, obedience that comes from the heart.  Similarly, in 1 John 3:23 we see that the commandment of God is to “believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ.”  Furthermore, we have the commandment to love God and love the brethren (1 John 4:21, etc.).  Commandments to believe and commandments to love, neither of which can be accomplished in any meaningful way apart from the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, changing our heart’s affections and giving us the desire to obey.  In a sense, we are not blazing a new trail in this 5th chapter, we are backing up over familiar ground laid down throughout the book in order to drive home these points.

This idea of obeying the commandments of God is further developed in verse 3, crystallizing the relationship between love for God and obedience to His commands.  This is one of the promises for believers in the New Covenant, that with the regenerate heart comes faith and obedience – a desire to obey, the law that has been now written on our hearts.  God says as much in His promise of the New Covenant found in Ezekiel, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Ezekiel 36:27

In the latter half of verse 3, we find, as is typical with John, a pithy commentary on a point he’s just made.  In effect he says, evidence of loving God is obeying His commandments, and by the way, His commandments are not burdensome.  They’re not tiring.  They’re not laborious and draining as were their Old Covenant, external, written on stone counterpart.  Rather, because we now have the law written on our hearts, having been given both the ability and desire to obey, we therefore obey not merely as a duty, rather as a delight.

Bringing this passage to a conclusion, verse 4 serves somewhat as a note of application, bringing us back to the practical realities of regeneration and faith.  Having already seen that faith, love, and obedience, are interrelated, and that those who have these qualities, have been born again, further we read that those who have been born again have “overcome the world.”  Added to this is the supporting clause acting again as a commentary, And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”  Then Finally, this passage concludes with, Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”   Three times we see the author’s use of world, cosmos, which is a key word used throughout the letter, as well as in John’s gospel account. 

In order to understand what is referred to by the use of world, we need to at least look at some previous uses of it in 1 John.  In 1 John 4, we read that the spirit of antichrist, those who do not confess that Jesus is from God, is in the world.  Following that, we find a parallel use of world and overcomer, Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”  Here we see that one aspect of the world is its universal denial of Christ.  In contrast, overcoming the world is directly related to our union with Christ, a point we’ll need to tuck away for understanding chapter 5. Furthermore, in chapter 2, we read of the exhortation to not love the world, nor the things in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, all of which are contrary to the Father, and that this corrupt world is temporary and passing away.  The world, that which we overcome by faith, via our union and communion with Christ, is replete with those things which are contrary to the person and work of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as contrary to those who have been born again.  Our victory comes because Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33) and greater is He, in me, than he that is in the world.  This victory is secured by the supremacy of Christ, through His finished work on the cross, and His gift of faith to the regenerated hearts of all of God’s children. 

This is the summation of the Christian life, and it is a grand encouragement in this present evil age.  In all of the things that this world brings, we are more than conquerors, through Him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)  

Considering the Love of God

In the first epistle of John, much like his gospel account of our Lord’s life and ministry, the apostle of love rightly earns this familiar title through his expositions on the love of God.  In many respects, several of these verses have become the most recognizable, most recited verses on the love of God in all of Scripture.  Surely a testimony to their simplicity, but moreso to the truths behind them.

One such passage is found in 1 John 4:10

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

In order for us to comprehend and feel the weight of a passage like this one, concerning the love of God for us in Christ, we need to first understand the love of God for His Son.  If we are to properly appreciate the love that God has for His adopted children, and similarly the love that Christ has for those for whom He died, and subsequently avoid a man-centered understanding of these truths, then we must begin with the love between the Father and the Son.

When we consider the love that the Father has for the Son, we have only limited, imperfect examples from which to draw upon.  For instance, the Father’s love for His Son far exceeds the love that a husband has for his bride.  A husband may care for his bride, love and cherish her, protect her, but this is an incomplete, finite love when compared to God the Father’s love for God the Son.  Additionally, the love that a parent has for a child, closer in relationship, but again inadequate.  God the Father’s love for His Son far exceeds both that of a husband for his bride and a parent for their child.  In fact, if you consider anything in this world that you love, so much that you would die for it, you have but a pale shadow in comparison to the love that the Father has for the Son.  It is an infinite, everlasting, and eternal love.  It knows neither beginning or end.  It cannot be exhausted nor measured.  Our language fails to properly describe it, though we may begin with the word, perfect.  The love of God, this intra-trinitarian love, infinitely exceeds any example of love that we could possibly imagine.

To draw our minds to even an initial comprehension of the love that the Father has for the Son, Puritan John Flavel offers the following

How this gift of Christ was the highest, and fullest manifestation of the love of God, that ever the world saw: and this will be evidenced by the following particulars:

(1.) If you consider how near and dear Jesus Christ was to the Father; he was his Son, “his only Son,” saith the text; the Son of his love, the darling of his Soul: His other Self, yea, one with himself; the express image of his person; the brightness of his Father’s Glory: In parting with him, he parted with his own heart, with his very bowels, as I may say. “Yet to us a Son is given,” Isa. ix. 6. and such a Son as he calls “his dear Son,” Col. i. 13. A late writer tells us, that he hath been informed, that in the famine in Germany, a poor family being ready to perish with famine, the husband made a motion to the wife, to sell one of the children for bread, to relieve themselves and the rest: The wife at last consents that it should be so; but then they began to think which of the four should be sold; and when the eldest was named, they both refused to part with that, being their first-born, and the beginning of their strength. Well, then they came to the second, but could not yield that he should be sold, being the very picture and lively image of his father. The third was named, but that also was a child that best resembled the mother. And when the youngest was thought on, that was the Benjamin, the child of their old age; and so were content rather to perish altogether in the famine, than to part with a child for relief And you know how tenderly Jacob took it, when his Joseph and Benjamin were rent from him. What is a child, but a piece of the parent wrapt up another skin? And yet our dearest children are but as strangers to us, in comparison of the unspeakable dearness that was betwixt the Father and Christ.——Now, that he should ever be content to part with a Son, and such an only One, is such a manifestation of love, as will be admired to all eternity.

Now, considering this love that the Father has for the Son, consider that He gave, out of love, His son to be the propitiation, literally the wrath-absorbing-atoning sacrifice, for us, disgusting and vile sinners.  Stained not only with the guilt of sin, but filled to the core with rebellion against this same God that loves His Son without measure.  Consider that this same God, loving His Son as He did, freely offered Him up for sinful man.  As we are told in the passage above, this free offering of His Son was because God loved us.  This is the manifestation of the love of God, in Christ, for sinners (1 John 4:9; Romans 5:8).  This is what it means that God so loved the world (John 3:16).  When the Apostle writes, God is love, this is the starting point towards untangling the complexity of this divine attribute (1 John 4:8).

In comparison with both the love of God for Christ and the love of God, in Christ, for us sinners, how weak and feeble are our own declarations of love for our Heavenly Father.  It is not that we loved God, but that He loved us (1 John 4:10).  Yet despite this, one of the very evidences of the love that God has for us in Christ, which we share in and experience upon being born again, is that we love one another, “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:12)  An evidence of the indwelling nature of God’s Spirit within us is love, for one another.  This outward, horizontal expression of love can only come from a heart that is oriented vertically with love from God and love for God.  As the Apostle exhorts,

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

Therefore, dear readers, come often to the fount of God’s love and consider, meditate, draw upon the love that God has for His own Son.  Allow this to frame your understanding of the love that God has for you, in giving His only Son to die in your place.  If after contemplating the magnificent reality of God’s love, your heart is not drawn to love Him more, hardly moved closer to Him by increased affections, then perhaps the love of God does not abide in you.  Perhaps you have not come to either  be born of God or know God.  In that case, repent of your sins, turn to Christ for forgiveness with a genuine desire to love God and be loved by Him.

When is Sin Habitually Prevalent?

One of the many challenges in the Christian walk is the due diligence necessary to recognize the prevalence of sin in our lives.  For some, this takes the form of unhealthy introspection, while for others it is a neglected duty altogether.  To this cause, there is much wisdom in the infamous quote of John Owen, “be killing sin or it will be killing you.”  As Owen’s pithy statement alludes to, there really is no gray area when it comes to the presence and activity of indwelling sin.  In other words, there’s no neutrality, there is simply making war and progress against it, or there is considerable and regular defeat.

The danger here is not simply that sin wins on a regular basis, rather it is the cumulative effect that the ongoing and active power of sin has in one’s life.  In this way, sin is much more than a deed one commits and then confesses, sin is a power, an operative force.  It’s primary goal is not to get you to sin today or tomorrow, but to collectively numb you towards its presence and then to spread like a cancer until it hardens the heart completely,  leading to a shipwreck of faith.

Writing in his first epistle, the Apostle John intimates as much when he says,

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”

In this enlightening passage, John confirms there is no gray area in the Christian life.  For him, as a divinely inspired author, there is either the practice, i.e. regular pattern, of sinning or their is the practice of righteousness.  To engage in both is inconsistent, in fact it’s an impossibility and leads to a rather schizophrenic condition.  The challenge, for us then, is to determine whether one’s life is marked by a regular pattern of habitual sinning or whether one’s life is marked by bad habits that lead to temptation and sin.  Said another way, the Author of Hebrews exhorts us to lay aside every besetting sin, or the one that so easily entangles.  There is a snare that appeals to each of our flesh, a proclivity we might say, towards a particular sin.  Of this, we need to be alert and aware, not allowing it as an excuse to sin.  We need to know the ways and means, the pattern or principle, as it were, that these particular sins like to maneuver and operate in our lives.  However, this is not to say that a particular besettting sin is to be equivocated with a regular pattern of sin, which the apostle exhorts against above.  How then are we to know the difference?

In a discourse, sharing the same title as this post, John Owen addresses this very topic.  Writing in volume 9 of his works, Owen lends a hand towards untangling this particular knot when he says,

“Brethren, I take it for granted the vilest of those lusts which our Saviour and his apostles warn us against, to mortify and crucify, may be working in the hearts and minds of the best of us; and that a particular lust may be habitually prevalent, where, for particular reasons, it never brings forth outward effects: therefore, look to yourselves.  I say, then, when the mind and soul is frequently and greatly, as there are occasions, urged upon and pressed with a particular lust and corruption, this doth not prove that particular lust and corruption are habitually prevalent; for it may be a temptation.  This may all proceed from the conjunction of temptation with indwelling sin; which will make it fight and war, and use force, and lead captive.”

Owen has summarized the situation that we presented above.  There is a distinction to be made in our lives with regards to sin, whether we are under the influence of temptation of our flesh to sin, or whether there is within us the habitual prevalence to sin.  How then are we able to distinguish whether we are subject to a particular sin which so easily entangles, perhaps taking advantage of bad habits, and when a particular sin has become habitual and prevalent in our lives?

Turning to Owen again, he deduces three ways in which we may see that our sin is NOT from its habitual prevalence in our lives:

  1. If the soul be more grieved with it than defiled by it, it is a temptation, and not a lust habitually prevalent.
  2. It is so, when the soul can truly, and doth, look upon that particular corruption as the greatest and most mortal enemy.
  3. It is so, also, when a man maintains his warfare and his conflict with it constantly, especially in those two great duties of private prayer and meditation.

If these things be true of us, that we be grieved over the sin, a mortal enemy of the sin, and maintaining war against it through prayer and meditation, then, at least according to Owen, it is not a habitual sin, rather it is the effect of temptation with indwelling sin.

He then lists four ways which show that a habitual sin IS present:

  1. When a man doth choose, or willingly embrace, known occasions of his sin, that sin is habitually prevalent.
  2. Let a man fear it is so, when he finds arguments against it to lose their force.
  3. When a man, upon conviction, is turned out of his course, but not turned aside from his design.
  4. When the soul, if it will examine itself, will find it is gone from under the conduct of renewing grace, and is, at the best but under the evidence [influence?] of restraining grace.
  5. Lastly, when there is a predominant will in sinning, then lust is habitually prevalent.  Sin may entangle the mind and disorder the affections, and yet not be prevalent; but when it hath laid hold upon the will, it hath the mastery.

Owen’s words here are sobering.  Generally speaking, when we willingly choose and embrace sin, make arguments to support our sin, can be convicted, but not to change the direction of our sin, are completely reliant upon God’s restraining grace, and have our wills mastered by sin, then it may be said that we are under the habitual prevalence of sin.

If this be the case, we are in dangerous waters.  If this be the case, we have much to be in fear of.  If this be the case, we need to reassess, as per the exhortation of the Apostle above as to whether or not we abide in God as one of His children.  If sin be habitually prevalent in our lives, we lose all assurance and are indeed in danger of making a shipwreck of our profession.  Therefore, we ought to seek God in repentance and faith, turning from our sins with a desire to kill them; turning towards God asking for mercy for how we have grieved Him and neglected the grace of salvation through His Son Jesus.

Give glory to God. Repent and Return.