RPM, Volume 15, Number 20, May 12 to May 18, 2013

Being Sure

1 John 5:1-13

(Series on 1 John: No. 15)

By Robert Rayburn

Text Comments:

v. 1 'has been born' indicating faith in Christ is the consequence of the new birth. The faith by which we receive salvation from Christ is itself the gift of God.
v. 3 love not first an emotional experience, but loyal service and moral obedience. not so the pernickety regulations of the Pharisees; Christ's yoke is easy and burden is light.
v. 4 the commands are not burdensome also because we now have within us the desire to obey and the power to do so; 'love will make obedience sweet' 'overcome' here especially in reference to sending the false teachers packing, as at 4:4
v. 5 a daring claim for a Christian at this time in the church's history; so small and without influence in the day of Rome's glory.
v. 6 water and blood-- vs. Cerinthus Christ had said the Spirit will testify of me.

We have said over and again, that John's great theme in this letter is the assurance of salvation, both the confirmation of true believers in it, and the disabusing of hypocrites who comfort themselves with a false confidence concerning their standing with God. And in his consideration of this theme, John has set forth three great tests by which to measure the integrity of anyone's claim to belong to Jesus Christ and to have from him eternal life. The three tests are: fidelity to Christ as the incarnate Son of God; love for the brethren, and obedience to the commandments of God. He has considered each one several times over.

Now, in this concluding paragraph of the main body of the letter, John mixes the three together in one final statement of the case. We have the test of faith in Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God in vv. 1, 4, 5, 6; the test of love in vv. 1, 2, 3; and the test of obedience in vv. 2, 3. And all three are together in an essential unity; they all belong together; if one is present the other two must be; each one holds within itself the principle of the other two; he who truly believes in Christ will love and will obey; he who truly obeys will do so because he believes in Christ and so on.

And at the end of this paragraph, John states once again in a final and summary way, his great purpose, the point of his argument which he has just finished. 'I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.'

Today, I want to conclude John's treatment of the matter of the assurance of salvation by following him in reiterating the burden of his argument. I want to remind you of the importance of the question and of the main point John has made. And all to this end, that we may be a people rightly assured of eternal life, that we may live in the joy, the peace, and the boldness of that confidence, and that we may forever refuse to allow ourselves or to give to others any assurance of salvation except that which is based upon the sure foundation of Holy Scripture's teaching.

So let me say:

I. First, that there is such a thing as the assurance of being saved and of possessing, even in this world, the knowledge of one's eternal life.

John writes his letter, he says expressly, to give us this assurance; and, indeed, he tells us how and upon what grounds we might enjoy the certainty of our own everlasting salvation. And don't think this too obvious a matter to mention. It is part of the glory of our faith.

The great religions of the world apart from Christianity, do not characteristically offer their followers a confident assurance of salvation. Building salvation as they do on the works and the performances of man himself, the outcome remains always uncertain.

Islam has no assurance of salvation. According to the Koran, Mohammed himself had black dreams about the judgment day. Indeed, so foreign was assurance of salvation to his mind and thought that the Koran reports that he once said to some Jews, 'if you believe in assurance and know that your sins are forgiven--why don't you kill yourself and escape this evil world?' But, more than this, even some traditions of Christianity deny a real doctrine of assurance of salvation; that is, that one may know now and in this life that he has eternal life, that he is an heir of heaven.

Traditionally, Roman Catholic theology denied that it was possible to know for a certainty that you had received the grace of God. The Arminians likewise held that assurance was impossible, at least for the future; for, like the Roman Catholics, they held that a true believer, someone born again by the Spirit of God, could later lose his salvation. So, while one might know himself saved in the present moment, he could not know that he had eternal life in fact and irrevocably.

Nowadays, of course, assurance in most catholic and protestant churches is taken for granted; it has ceased to be a problem or a concern, because it is generally assumed either that everyone is going to be saved anyway or that the barest profession of faith, even the most half-hearted allegiance to God is all that is required to know that one is saved.

Most Americans think themselves saved, whatever their spiritual commitment may be. They will often put it to you more modestly; they will say that they think they will go to heaven; but it is clear they are not seriously entertaining the possibility of hell. If they thought or even suspected they might have cancer, they would spend sleepless nights worrying about it and they would immediately take steps to find out if it were so. But no fear of the possibility of the wrath of God against them worries them or stirs them to action. Most Americans are secure in their assurance of salvation; but Holy Scripture, in the most unmistakable terms, says that they are horribly and fearfully deluded and mistaken in this confidence.

In the Bible assurance is a reality based on realities!

God wants us to know not merely think that we are saved! He wants us to live in this world knowing that we will soon arrive in the city which has foundations. That is why John wrote this letter and why the Bible so regularly devotes itself to teach the grounds, the reasons, the bases for a true and genuine assurance of divine love, of the forgiveness of sins, and of eternal life: that Jesus is our Savior; that God is our Abba, our Father; that heaven is our home. And the Bible presents us time and again with Christians who are sure. From Abel and Enoch to John himself.

Adopted children especially, as we all are in the family of God, need to be assured of their Father's irrevocable commitment and unchanging love, and, indeed, our Father in heaven is always assuring his children of just these things. James Denney, the Scottish theologian of an earlier day, was only being faithful to the plain utterances of Scripture when he wrote: 'whereas assurance is a sin in romanism and a duty in much of Protestantism, in the New Testament is is simply a fact.'

Today, the word 'believe' is very weak. Indeed, it means something much less than knowledge or certainty. When we say in answer to some question: 'I believe so' we mean and are understood to mean, 'I'm not sure, but I think so!' But that is not the way the Bible uses that great word; nor the way Paul uses it when he says:

** 'I know whom I have believed...'

** 'Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved and your house...'

** 'that all who believe in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life...' And so on.

This 'belief' is knowledge plus certainty and conviction. And it is this belief, this assurance, this conviction of things that are not seen, which belongs to every Christian in some measure, and which the Scripture is always anxious to see strengthened and deepened in the heart and life of God's true children.

It is possible for a person to be a Christian and to struggle along with a little assurance of his or her place in God's family: but it ought not to be so, and the Bible is at pains that it not be so. As John Newton put it in one of his letters:

'[Even] if a traveller was absolutely sure of reaching his journey's end in safety; yet if he walked with a thorn in his foot he must take every step in pain.' Such a thorn is doubts about salvation troubling the heart of a genuine believer. And John wishes to resolve such doubts!

Assurance is real; it is quite possible to know in this life that you will live forever in heaven; indeed, it is what God wants to be the happy confidence of all his children. That is the first thing we must say.

II. Second, assurance is a difficult problem; it is not an easy and simple matter, however real, however important it may be.

It is precisely because assurance poses problems that John must write a letter such as this one devoted to the subject. It is precisely because genuine faith can so easily and successfully be counterfeited that it is necessary to discern between true and false Christianity and Christian experience. And it is precisely because real Christians can be mightily beset with doubts about their standing with God that it is necessary that we be taught exactly how to come to the full assurance of faith.

And that such doubts do beset real Christians is unquestionable. I know that they beset some of you; because you have, with tears in your eyes, told me of your struggles to know for sure that the Lord has numbered you among his children.

And you are in very august company! Robert Bruce, the great reformer of the Scottish church struggled with assurance, once saying out of his own heart and own experience: 'It is a great thing to believe in God.' Samuel Rutherford himself, once writing to a correspondent on the subject of doubting one's salvation, said, "I speak as an expert.'

John Bunyan, no less, considered a lack of assurance of salvation one of his besetting sins. And Thomas Shepard, the Puritan father and founder of Harvard, a more deeply spiritual man it would be harder to find or a wiser Christian, yet he struggled mightily with assurance of his own salvation most of his life. I have on my shelf a volume containing a brief Memoir and some collected writings of Donald Macfarlane, a Scottish minister who died in 1979 and who was the Uncle of Cameron Fraser one of our own Presbytery's ministers. Mr. Macfarlane suffered a severe nervous breakdown in the earlier years of his ministry--though by all accounts a most godly and committed Christian--because of his fear that he might have only temporary faith, such faith as Jesus describes in his parable of the sower, the counterfeit faith of a Judas or a Demas.

Now, in one way, we may well agree with what Spurgeon once said about these doubts in the hearts of such men. 'It has been said that in moments of despondency Shakespeare thought himself no poet; and Raphael doubted his right to be called a painter. We call such self-suspicions morbid, and ascribe them to a hypochondriacal fit; in what other way can we speak of those doubts as to their saintship, which occasionally afflict the most eminently holy of the Lord's people!'

And, no doubt, many genuine believers do suffer from such uncertainty at least in part because of their particular make-up or personality or background, which renders them more susceptible to doubt and uncertainty. But, the fact of the matter is that assurance is not so simple a matter that we should think it so easy a thing to obtain and keep.

After all, some of the most solemn teaching to come out of our Savior's mouth has to do precisely with how easily and how accurately true faith can be imitated. He told parables whose point was to teach the impossibility, at least in the short term, of distinguishing infallibly between genuine and counterfeit faith. And then what of examples such as Judas, or Demas and the like, who promised well at the wicket gate and, indeed, passed with apparent faithfulness through some trials, only to sell all, body and soul, in Vanity Fair.

We should not miss the fact that often those who struggle with assurance are some of the most serious minded Christians we know or know about. Part of their difficulty is precisely that the warnings of Holy Scripture have sunk so deeply into their souls, I mean those warnings touching a counterfeit faith and the fate of those whose imitation faith will not be exposed until the Savior says to them on the great day: 'Depart from me, I never knew you!' And we should not deny that it would be good for some Christians who think too casually about their great salvation to spend a sleepless night for their sins and for all of Christ's so solemn warnings about thinking oneself safe when one is not!

And we should not miss the lesson of the history of Christian theology and what it has to teach us of the difficulty, the complexity of the biblical teaching of assurance; at least as that teaching is applied to individual lives.

I just completed reading a 500 page dissertation on the subject of the Marrow Controversy, a theological dispute in the Scottish church in the early 18th century--a dispute all about assurance and its proper grounds and bases. And I think many of you, if forced to read that lengthy study might think that these men were arguing about mere words; but, in fact, this dispute about assurance was a battle for the soul of the church and for the true gospel in the church.

And it should not be hard to see what a minefield the entire matter of assurance can become in the hearts of people with natures like yours and mine. John says that obedience for God's law is one test of true faith. But how many times in the church's past, in how many people today, indeed, does looking to obedience as a sign or mark of grace soon subtley and secretly become looking to obedience as the basis or reason for grace. Works which were the evidence of faith have now become a substitute for faith. On the other hand, in our own day, a stress on faith in Christ as the true basis for assurance--as it surely is in John's teaching--has led multitudes to suppose themselves secure in their salvation--simply because they have professed themselves believers in Jesus--multitudes who are nevertheless clearly not saved because their lives betray neither of the marks of the children of God: love for the brethren and obedience to the commandments of God.

I say, assurance is a problem and a difficulty and a complex matter. Improperly taught and understood, it can either give false comfort and a dangerous peace to counterfeit and imitation Christians; or rob genuine believers of the peace and the hope and the joy which is their birthright and inheritance. We need John's and the whole Bible's doctrine of assurance which neither consoles the hypocrite nor overthrows the child of God whose faith is young or weak or whose conscience is very tender.

Assurance is a reality; that is true. It is to be obtained and deepened in every Christian life. But, we must not simplify the matter more than Scripture does, we must not omit any of the supports which Scripture insists upon or fail to keep those supports properly joined together in a gospel unity--or we may well find that our confidence is suspended on nothing when it is too late to put it right.

III. Third, and finally, we can say in sum, that according to John and all of Holy Scripture, assurance of eternal salvation is not only a reality for God's people in this world, and not only a complex matter which requires the most careful and biblical understanding and balance, but we can go on to say that its true basis, according to the Word of God, is the fundamental attitudes and commitments of any person.

True faith can be counterfeited; people can mistake their assurance--some having it when they should not; others doubting it when they need not. But this must not lead us to think that assurance of salvation cannot be confidently claimed and enjoyed by God's people.

The tests which John has given us you can give to yourself.

And they are tests of what is true or false about your life now and always and everyday. What John says to look for are things which are always present in those God is saving, in those he has made his children by a new birth. How different John's view of assurance than so many preachers today. They might ask you if you ever 'received' Christ--by which they mean, did you ever have a conversion experience and go to the front of a church. And multitudes of such ministers will boldly tell you that if you ever did that, you are and must remain a Christian. Horrible! The Bible so often is at pains to ensure precisely that we do not think that way about our salvation. It is possible to imitate the beginnings of faith and never be a Christian. It is possible to act like a Christian in an outward way and to think oneself a Christian and for the Lord, at the last, to say 'I never knew you.' Not -- I once knew you but know you no more -- but, I never knew you!

There is no standard or characteristic or definitive experience of salvation. People come to Christ in many ways, some in a sudden blazing moment, some more like the dawn in northern latitudes when it is impossible to tell precisely when night has become day; still some others have been Christians all their lives and their testimony is as David's: 'I trusted in the Lord from my mother's breasts.' In any case, John does not tell us to point to an experience, conversion or otherwise. He tells us instead to test our attitudes and our commitments.

** Are we really committed to Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God; are we content to have him, and do we in fact honor him, as our prophet--whose teaching has unqualified authority for us; as our priest--whose sacrifice in our place and whose intercession for us is our one and grand hope of peace with God; and as our King--to whose sovereign rule we cheerfully submit and whose ultimate victory we await with joy?

** Are we really committed to God's people? The question is not, as we said, do we perfectly love them; but do we count them our brothers and sisters, and is it a fundamental purpose of our lives to be true to the obligation of love on their behalf?

** And do we honor the law of God as the only rule of life, as the way we ought and the way we want to live to God's glory and our own blessing?

I do not deny that there are complexities here, and that the Bible addresses us with one part of this doctrine of assurance or another, depending upon our need. If someone is borne down with his sins and failures and wonders whether so unworthy a person could belong to the family of God, he needs to hear of Christ's free gift and of the Savior's righteousness which can separate our sins from us as far as the East is from the West. But, if a Christian is growing lax and taking comfort in his disobedience and self-centeredness from the fact that there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ; he or she must hear instead that there is forgiveness with God, as the Scripture says, that he may be feared; that Christ saved us to be a people for his very own, zealous for good works; that if we truly love and trust the Lord, we will do what he commands; and that without holiness....

But the Bible's whole doctrine of assurance is this complex commitment to the Lord--a whole-souled trust in Jesus Christ, who alone as the incarnate Son of God can save us from our sins; a trust whose after-effects will invariably be love for the brethren and walking in God's ways.

Is Jesus Christ your prophet, priest, and king? Do you want to be and strive to be--not perfectly, of course, but really--a true brother, a true sister to those who belong with you to the church and family of God? Is it the object and the commitment and the interest and the effort of your life to live according to the commandments of God? Is failure to do so a matter of sorrow and penitence with you; and is there a real obedience to those holy commandments already formed in you, such as to put a clear difference between you and the world around you?

Then, says John, you are a Christian, your name is written in the Book of Life, you are an heir of the Eternal City; your life in this world will remain a striving to fulfil and to perfect these three great commitments, and when you step out of this world, at the end of your days, your foot will land on a street of gold!

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