- By James Brinkhoff -
Obeying God, loving others and holding to the truth; to the Apostle John these are the three tests of being a Christian and the main themes of his first epistle, 1 John.
It’s likely from the data in 1 John that false teachers had entered into the church of his recipients of this letter (2:26). They brought dualistic teachings that stressed that matter (specifically ‘flesh’) was evil; and ‘spiritual things’ were good (4:2). They also seemed to teach that salvation could only be found in dependence on certain teachers and special knowledge (2:20-22). Accordingly, John’s recipients were unsure that they had eternal life (5:13).
Into this situation, John aimed to give these believers confidence that they had been forgiven; they did know God and were in fellowship with his people; they had received eternal life (1:3, 2:12-14, 5:13). And in order to convince them, he gave three tests of being a child of God: obeying God, loving others and holding to the truth. This post hopes to give an explanation of these themes, along with the undercurrent themes through the letter on the nature of God and his Son.
The overriding message through 1 John is that those who know God will be like him (4:17). God is light, and so those who are followers of God will walk in the light; meaning they will walk in righteousness and love (1:5-2:11). Similarly, God is pure so his children purify themselves (3:3). He is righteous, so too is everyone who is born of him (2:29). God is love, and has shown his love by propitiating our sins in Jesus; so too we should love each other sacrificially (4:7-11).
The first of the specific proofs of being a child of God is righteousness. No one can claim sinlessness (1:8), but our sin has been dealt with (3:5). Consequently, a mark of a true Christian is that they do not continue in sin (3:7-8). Of course, as John makes clear, no one is perfect and we still do sin. But the Christian life is marked by not making a practice of sin. So John can say that we can have confidence that we know him if we keep his commands (2:3).
Another proof of true faith is love. Love has been initiated by God. He loved us by judging our sin in Jesus (4:10). John argues that since Jesus has laid down his life for us, we should do the same for each other (3:16). He stresses that this is to be an active love, which cares for physical as well as spiritual needs (3:17-18). This was in contrast to the false teacher who asserted that matter is evil. We will know that we have true life if we love God's people (3:14).
Finally, we can know that he is in us and we are in him if we have the Spirit who testifies to the truth. This intimate link between the Spirit and truth comes across very clearly in 1 John (5:6). The truth that the Spirit and those who have the Spirit testify to is that Jesus has come in the flesh as the Savior of the world (4:2-3, 13-14). Therefore, if this truth remains in us we can have confidence that we will remain in God (2:24). In addition, we should test to make sure our teachers are holding to this testimony of the Spirit (4:1).
These are the Apostle John’s three tests of being God’s child: If we are like God in this world, if we are obeying his commands, loving each other and holding to the truth, we can have absolute confidence that we are children of God.