Assurance through Obedience
April 22, 2012 / No. 3616
Dear Radio Friends,
Today we are going to look at a passage from I John 2:3-6. John wrote this epistle to the believers in the early New Testament church in order to encourage them and give them assurance. There were false teachers who were saying, “You cannot know for certain whether you are saved until you’ve had certain special experiences.” John counteracts that false teaching by saying that every Christian can know, simply by having a true faith in Christ and by living as he should.
John looks at this question of assurance from two points of view. First, the foundation of assurance, which is Christ: who He is and what He has done. John says, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins.” He means to say that if your assurance is shaken because you have fallen into sin, then turn to Christ. He is the answer. He is the covering for sin. He is the One who stands in God’s presence in our place. Faith in Jesus Christ brings assurance.
But then John also looks at assurance from the point of view of the circumstances of our life. He gives us in this book a series of tests of true Christianity. These are not the foundation for our assurance, but the necessary circumstances in our lives. If these things are true, you can have assurance. If they are not true, your assurance will be weak.
So John mentions walking in the light, confessing our sins, loving one another, and so on. These are evidences in our lives that we are truly the children of God, proofs that the Holy Spirit has done a work in us.
Now, in the verses we are going to look at today, John puts before us the test of obedience. He talks about assurance through obedience. This is what he says in verse 3: “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” In these words we have a biblical statement on assurance, a biblical definition of assurance. We do know that we know Him. Notice that John uses the word “know” twice. The first has to do with what you know in yourself, in your mind. John says, “We do know,” not, “we think,” or “we hope,” but “we do know.” There is a certainty in what we know.
What do we know? We know that we know Him. Now, in the second use of the word “know,” John does not have in mind simply knowing something in ourselves. But he is describing a relationship: I know Him. Here the word “know” expresses a communion of love. It describes the experience and the essence of salvation—to be loved of God and to love Him.
In John 17:3, Jesus says, “This is life eternal [He means: This is salvation, and this is heaven], to know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” In II Timothy 1:12, Paul says: “I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” Paul is expressing more than just a knowledge in his head, more than something he has grasped with his intellect. What he is expressing is the confidence that comes from a personal relationship of love with the Lord. That is assurance: to know God’s love and to love Him.
In verse 6 John describes assurance as knowing that we are in Him, and abiding in Him. “Abiding in Him” is a common New Testament expression of what it is to be a Christian. Jesus uses this language in John 15 when He speaks of the vine and the branches who are grafted into Him and rest in Him and belong in Him and find all their life in Him. Assurance is the ability to make this confession: I abide in Him; I am not my own, but I belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
We should see that John assumes here that it is normal for Christians to have assurance. Assurance is not just a possibility, but a reality. He says, “We do know that we know him.” He means that presently and continually we know that we have this relationship of love with the Savior. John does not say, “I hope that you know,” or “you can know,” but “we do know.”
Now, that brings up a question and a problem, really, that every believer faces at different points in his life—not so much a doctrinal question as a practical one. This is the problem. If my salvation is secure and certain in Jesus Christ, who is the propitiation for my sins, then why does my sense of that, my assurance of salvation, fluctuate? Sometimes, as a believer, you will have a great assurance and joy in your salvation. Other times, you will be troubled by doubt and you wonder whether you are truly a child of God.
There are different reasons why this can happen in our experience. Sometimes we lack assurance because of sin. Maybe the guilt of sins committed in the past weigh so heavily on us, or maybe the power of sin in our life in the present is so strong that we wonder about our salvation. Certainly when a person lives a sinful lifestyle, then he will not have the assurance of God’s love.
At other times we lack assurance because our faith in the promises of the gospel is weak. Maybe we have a wrong understanding of the gospel. Maybe we see God only as just and righteous, a God of anger and wrath, who hates sin and who will by no means clear the guilty. And we fail to see the mercy and the love and the grace of God in Jesus Christ to all sinners who come to Him in faith.
Or, it can be that as we go through severe trials in life we have a wrong understanding of the sovereignty of God in our trials. We think that because something bad is happening to us, then God must be angry with us and He is punishing us. And we fail to see that often God sends trials to us in life simply to draw us closer to Himself.
Another reason that a person may lack assurance is that he does not understand the way of salvation. He is taught that salvation is by our works, by our effort. He is told, “If you go to our church and if you follow our set of rules, then you’ll be saved.” And so a person is always striving to measure up to other people, to fit into a mold. And because he does not quite measure up, he lacks assurance. But our salvation, our justification, is never dependent on works.
Another false teaching that takes away assurance is that sin in your life does not matter; that you just need to believe that Jesus is your Savior and you can go on living as you previously did. And so this person who says, “I’m saved,” has no change in his life, and the guilt of sins committed just keeps piling up and following him and plaguing him and there is no assurance.
Then there is also the false teaching that tells you to pin your assurance on an experience or a decision that you made in the past at the moment and the time of your conversion. Then people, if they cannot identify such a moment, are not sure if he is saved. That is something like wondering if you are alive because you do not remember the day when you were born. But we must not look to the past to determine whether we are saved. What is important is the here and the now: Am I saved and converted and believing today?
Then, what complicates the problem is that there are those who seem to have assurance who should not have it. They have a false sense of assurance. You are going to run into people like that in your life. Ninety percent of people in the USA think that there is a heaven and that they are going there. These are the kinds of people that John is writing about in this book, people who say, “I know Him,” but their life says something different. That is an incredibly dangerous situation to be in. This person is living a lie, deceiving himself. Jesus says that on the Judgment Day many will say, “Lord, Lord, we have done this and that in Your name.” And He will say, “Depart from me. I never knew you.” You see, not everyone who talks about heaven is going there. Not everyone who says he is a Christian is truly a Christian. Not everyone who claims he believes in Jesus really does believe in Jesus. There is a false assurance.
So what is the true teaching of assurance? How do we come to assurance?
John says this: “Hereby do we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” Now, understand, this is not the complete or the only answer on how we come to assurance. But it is an important and a necessary part of the answer. The full answer is this: We come to assurance 1) by faith in God’s promises that are written in the Bible for our comfort; 2) by the witness of the Holy Spirit within us that we are the children of God; and 3) by a serious Christian life of obedience and good works. Here John is talking about the third of those: “Hereby do we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.”
This points to the importance of obedience in the Christian life. More important than a conversion experience, more important than a date or time that can be identified as the moment I became a Christian, is this: that I keep His commandments. What John says reminds us of the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” And in John 14:15, He says, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” John and Jesus are simply saying this: Obedience to God’s commandments will be important to everyone who loves God and to everyone who loves Jesus. This is something about which every true believer will be concerned.
Now, the word “commandments” here refers to every moral requirement in the Word of God. That includes the moral law of the Ten Commandments, and also all the admonitions and exhortations in the Bible. All of that is summarized in the one requirement of love, which Jesus gives as a summary of the Law. When Jesus says that love is what God requires, He is not replacing the commandments of the Law, but rather is raising the standard of what is required. He is saying that the obedience that God demands is not just external conformity, but it must be out of a heart of true love for God.
Being a Christian is not just following a set of rules. The kind of obedience that a Christian has is from the heart. The word “keep” describes something inward. It means to guard or protect the commandments by keeping them in your heart. Psalm 119 says, “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.” Paul says, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man.” I love it, I treasure it in my heart, I meditate on it. And because it is God’s Word and these are God’s commandments, then, because I love God, I obey them.
Then obedience does not mean proving to others that I live a better life than they do. I am not here to prove to others that I am a Christian. Rather, I live before God. He loves me and I love Him. God works in me by His love so that I love Him. In verse 5 John calls this the perfection of love when he says, “whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected.” God’s love in me comes to maturity when I, from a sincere heart of love for God and His Word, obey what He requires of man. And then I do not obey out of duty, but out of love before God.
Is that how you obey? Is that how you think of obedience to God and His Word, so that you delight in the will of God? Or do you resist what God’s Word tells you and find His commandments a burden? John is saying that if you truly know God, then you will, out of gratitude and delight, keep His commandments. And as you serve God that way, you will know, from your own life and heart and from a testimony of the Spirit within you, that you are a child of God. Sincere obedience is one of the ways that we come to know that we are His.
Then, you see, assurance is not an extra. It is not something that is added to our faith. But as we live a life of faith in this world, as we live and walk with God day by day, believing, following Jesus Christ, then we will have assurance. Assurance is something that arises out of a genuine life of faith.
Then, even if others laugh at the way you live, even if others think that you are different and odd because you are concerned about obeying the Word of God, that will not matter to you, because your concern is to love the Lord. The true believer obeys the commandments of God. And anything else is not genuine Christianity.
In verse 4, John says: “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” You can say that you are a Christian. You can say that you know Him. But the proof is in your deeds. A man may say he loves his wife, but she wants to see it. If a man has an affair and then says to his wife, “but I love you,” she is going to say, “Really? I need to see that.” His love is proved by his works. And so it is with God. If you say that you know Him, but do not keep His commandments, that is a lie.
In this obedience, we follow the pattern of Christ. In verse 6 we read, “He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.” That is, we ought to walk in obedience as Jesus did. The word “walk” refers to our conduct. We should meditate on the walk of Jesus and follow Him. Jesus was glad to submit to God’s way and purpose. Over and over He said, “I come to do the will of my heavenly Father.” And He did that, even though it cost Him. There was a price He had to pay. Think of what it cost Him. His obedience cost Him all His earthly friends. In the end, it cost Him His very life. And He even had to pay the price of suffering in hell and of losing the knowledge of His Father’s love. Christians, believers, listen. Obedience is costly. The gospel does not set us free from God’s commandments. But this is what it does: it enables us to keep them even though it may cost us.
Then also, the obedience of Jesus was perfect and complete. He was without sin. He never wavered from God’s law. We are not going to achieve that. But that is the standard for which we aim. We should not excuse or overlook sin because, well, we are sinners. No, we strive to keep all God’s commandments. We want to learn obedience because this glorifies God.
That was Jesus’ concern, too. He loved God. He was jealous for the name and the honor of God. Looking heavenward throughout His life, His motive was the glory of God through His life on earth. It was this that gave Him the ability to stand in the face of opposition and temptation.
And think, too, of how His obedience showed itself in relation to others. He was a man of compassion for the needy, a servant to others. After He had washed His disciples’ feet, He said, “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done unto you.” Even though He was hated, He never repaid evil with evil, but rather with good.
As we meditate on the obedience of Christ, we could go on and on. It seems intimidating to compare ourselves to Jesus’ walk. Yet, we should not shrink from it. The comparison is not to cause us to despair because of our sin. But in ourselves we see the small beginning of this obedience, this faint reflection of what Christ is like. That is God’s work in us. That is His eternal purpose for us. Romans 8:29: “Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his son.” In eternity God loved and chose His elect people in order to make them like His Son.
That is what God is doing in the life of every true believer. That is why we love God. And that is why we want to keep His commandments. God has begun a good work in us.
And we can have assurance, because He will perform that work until the day of Jesus Christ. He will perfect it when finally we are taken to glory. Then we will be transformed and be made like Christ, without sin.
Let us pray.
Father, we give thanks for our salvation in Jesus Christ and all the blessings that come with that. We pray that the Holy Spirit may continue to give to us hearts of love for Thee and Thy Word so that we do keep Thy commandments, so that we walk as Jesus walked. And then give us to know that we know Thee and to know that we are not our own but that we abide in Christ. For His sake we pray, Amen.