RPM, Volume 15, Number 12, March 17 to March 23, 2013

'If they had belonged to us...'

1 John 2:18-27
(Series on 1 John: No. 8)

By Robert Rayburn

Text Comments:

V. 18: John is the only writer in the NT to speak of an Anti-Christ or of anti-Christs, but the idea is found elsewhere. Paul also speaks both of one figure at the end of history who, Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2, 'will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God. And Paul also, as John here, acknowledges that the spirit of that eschatological anti-Christ is already in the world and that he has many forerunners. John, in 4:3, says it again: 'This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

It is clear as John's argument unfolds, and as he explicitly says in 4:1-3, that these lesser antichrists are these false teachers and those like them who subvert the truth about Jesus Christ.

In the section we just read from 1 John 2, the Apostle returns to the main thread of his argument. He had, earlier in the chapter, introduced the first two tests by which to measure the genuineness of anyone's profession of Christianity and of life in Christ--the tests of obedience and of love. Now, following a digression in vv. 12-17--which we examined over the last two Lord's Days--he returns to his main theme and offers us the third and last of these great 'tests of life.' But, in introducing this last test, the doctrinal test, he makes a remark so important that we must stop this morning to pay some attention to it.

John reminds them that those who embraced and especially those who taught the falsehoods John is now exposing have left the church. They have, in effect, excommunicated themselves. It was made clear to them that they could not win the day and, failing to win the day, it was clear to them that they did not belong in a genuinely Christian church, and so they left--perhaps to found a religious society of their own.

And then he makes this most important statement in v. 19: 'they went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.'

John, with these words, gives expression to a very important teaching of the Bible, viz. that those who are truly saved, those who are, indeed, born again, justified, and in whom the Spirit of God dwells, will surely continue in faith and in the Christian life. So that, John can say, that if a person who was once numbered a member of the church and counted a Christian, defects and deserts the gospel and the church, his defection is proof that he was never really a Christian in the first place. The true Christian stays the course.

This is the doctrine of 'the perseverance of the saints' and John gives the most emphatic and explicit expression to it here. If a man bails out of the Christian faith after a time, we are to conclude that he never really belonged, that he was never really a Christian in the first place, appearances to the contrary. Because, genuine Christians endure!

This doctrine is based upon four items of biblical truth, four facts the Bible is at pains to teach, to illustrate and to apply:

I. The first is that all who begin in the Christian faith do not last.

This is a very distressing fact, but it is a fact and fact that almost every Christian congregation has had to face in her own experience. We have certainly had to face it here and we will no doubt have to face it again.

People we thought Christians, we counted as Christians; people who worshipped with us and worked with us, finally deserted the church and the way of the Lord and went back to the world from which they had come.

As painful as that is to experience, it is not as if the Bible has not prepared us for it. Judas was a most advanced Christian if you will; a preacher of the gospel, a member of the Lord's inner circle; a witness to the most breathtaking miracles; yet, at the last he left the Lord for 30 pieces of silver.

As Paul concludes his letter to the Colossians, he adds the greetings of his co-workers among whom is Demas. But only a few years later, the great Apostle must tell Timothy, 2 Timothy 4, 'Demas has deserted me, having loved this present world.'

And more than a few times Christ and the apostles warn the church that 'the love of many will grow cold.' These are the Christians which the English Puritans called 'Temporaries.' They are the ones Bunyan describes as 'promising well at the Wicket Gate and having run safely past many snares, at last sell all -- body and soul and Savior, in Vanity Fair.'

II. The second fact is this: that it is quite possible and quite common for people who are not, in fact, objects of God's saving work, to appear at least for awhile as if they were.

Jesus was at pains to make this point in his great parables of the kingdom, which we find in Matthew 13. In his parable of the sower he teaches us that the seed when it is sown in shallow ground, or stony ground, or ground infested with thorns, can spring up quickly only to be withered by the sun or choked by thorns. This is a picture, Jesus says, of people who respond to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, even respond with great joy, but, lacking roots, they last just a short time, when trouble comes or when the worries of life return or when the deceitfulness of wealth tempts that soul, he or she falls back into the old ways and no longer cares for Christ and his church.

In his parable of the wheat and the weeds he says the same thing.

And in his parable of the net, he tells us that as the kingdom of God is preached, the net draws in all kind of fish, and it isn't until later, when the fisherman bring their boat to shore that they can distinguish and separate the good fish from the bad.

And you have those parables illustrated time and again in the NT and in the history of the church.

It was so in the preaching of the apostles in Samaria, which received a positive response from many, including some who were much more interested in the razzle-dazzle of the apostles' miracles than they were in the word of Jesus Christ and did not last. And, it was so in the preaching of Jonathan Edwards during the Great Awakening in New England in 1742, to which many responded in apparent faith in Christ. But, by 1746, four years later, many of those had lost their spiritual interest and were no longer following Christ. It was in that year, 1746, that Edwards published his immortal Treatise on the Religious Affections--a book written to address these very questions: How can the true believer be distinguished from the false and how is it that some who begin so well do not continue? And Edwards, like his Master before him carefully distinguished between those who appear to be saved and those who really are:

It is with professors of religion, especially such as become so in a time of outpouring of the Spirit of God, as it is with blossoms in the spring; there are vast numbers of them upon the trees, which all look fair and promising; but yet many of them never come to anything... It is the mature fruit which comes afterwards, and not the beautiful colours and smell of the blossoms, that we must judge by!

III. The third fact upon which John's and the Bible's doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is built is the emphatic assurance from God that those he is saving will be saved to the end, to the uttermost, will not and cannot be lost.

This assurance is given in so many places in Holy Scripture and in so many ways and with such emphasis that it simply boggles my mind that earnest Christians have in the past and some still today deny that it is so. Some of the most magnificent passages in the Bible, such as the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John and the last half of the 8th chapter of Romans are devoted to this assertion that nothing can separate those whom God has chosen and whom he is saving from his love which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In Scripture there are at least five major pillars upon which this conviction of the everlasting security of the people of God rests.

First, the efficacy of Christ's sacrifice. Jesus said, I give eternal life to them and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.' And Paul said, 'Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus who died, more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.' And he also said that 'there is no condemnation for the man who is in Christ Jesus.'

If Christ died for your sins, your sins have been paid for and it is absolutely impossible that a God of such justice as our God, will require you to pay for them again!

If Thou my pardon hast secured,
And freely in my place endured
The whole of wrath divine.
Payment God cannot twice demand
First from my bleeding Surety's hand,
And then again from mine.

Or as Charles Spurgeon put it with his characteristic vigor: 'We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ's death not only may be saved, but are saved must be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.'

The second pillar is that of the enduring power of Christ's intercession. He says that he prays not for the world, but that he ever lives to make intercession for his people; an intercession backed up by and made all powerful by his perfect completion of the work his Father sent him into the world to perform. His prayer, the prayer of the Son of God and Son of Man, cannot fail to achieve its intended result. What Jesus said to Simon Peter he says to every one of us who are his true children: Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And his prayer was heard and it always must be.

The third pillar is that of the power and government of Christ at the Right Hand. God, the Bible teaches, has placed everything under Christ's feet and appointed him to be head over everything, for the church. Christ is the King, and as King he rules over his people to bring them to salvation, and no one can resist the will of the King of Kings. As he himself says: 'My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.' And, as King, he protects his people from all the enemies of their souls.

The fourth pillar, and perhaps the widest and the most deeply sunk into the earth, is the eternal and immutable electing love of God. The Bible everywhere teaches that the whole of salvation flows from the love of God for his people, his chosen ones; and that love cannot fail or change. It was that love that sent Christ to redeem us; the same love that sent the Holy Spirit to renew us; and that love will see every one of God's children to the eternal city; not one of them, as Jesus said, will be lost. Or as Paul put it in what has been called the 'acropolis of the whole Bible' 'if God is for us; who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?' And then, at the end of that great section in Romans 8: 'For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.'

The fifth pillar is that of the immutability of regeneration. When we were born again, our very natures were changed, and from that time we have begun to think, to feel, to choose, and to live according to that new nature God has given us. All men live according to their natures, the Bible says. The reason the world rejects God and rebels against him is because they have a fallen and sin-corrupted nature; we did as well; but God has now given us a new nature and it will never change.

Man cannot change his nature, even if he wanted to. And the gifts of God are irrevocable, says Holy Scripture. John himself says the same thing in 1 John 3:9: 'No one who is born of God will continue to live in sin because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.'

So far we have said then that the Bible's doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, that the true believer will stay the course, is built upon the fact that some who begin do not continue; but that it is possible to appear to be a Christian when you are not; and that God assures us emphatically in his Word that those he is saving will be saved to the uttermost. There is one more argument, a fourth, required to complete the doctrine as John as summarized it for us in 2:19.

IV. In the fourth place, God uses means to ensure the final salvation of those whom Christ has redeemed and the Spirit of God has reborn and whom he has called to himself; and especially the means of a continuing and active faith.

This is, of course, the burden of John's remark. Real Christians, he says, continue to practice their faith, continue to walk the straight and narrow way that leads to life, continue to take their place in the church of God, continue their whole-souled assent to the articles of the Christian faith, and continue to trust the Lord Jesus and follow him as their Lord and Savior. When someone stops doing these things as did these false teachers and their party, says John, it is proof that he was not genuinely saved in the first place.

It is not as if God simply guarantees that all of his true people will be saved, no matter what. No, what he guarantees is that he will see to their continued faithfulness to him, to their growth in his grace, and to their walking in his ways. And by this continuance in faith they will be kept safely in salvation. That is, God determines not only their safe arrival in heaven, but the way by which they will get their--the way of persevering faith in Christ and obedience to him.

As Paul put it: I am confident that he who began a good work in you, will perform it--i.e., will continue that work in you, until the day of Jesus Christ. And Peter says the same in 1 Peter 1:5: that we have an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade--kept in heaven for us, who through faith are kept by God's power until the coming of salvation.

God's people will all be kept in their salvation to the end because God will keep them in faith, love, hope, and obedience to the end, and so keep them joined fast to Christ their Savior to the end. Now this doctrine of the perseverance of the saints has been challenged in the history of the church from both sides. There have been those who claim that real Christians, born again, justified, new creatures in Christ, whose citizenship was in heaven, can and do lose that salvation and return from it back to sin and to death.

It is a large question and I don't mean to do it injustice; but I must say, that how anyone can read those numerous passages and such magnificent passages which seem to unmistakably and passionately to state that those truly in Christ will never be let go by him--I say, how anyone can read those passages and believe that a born again and justified man or woman can lose his or her salvation beggars my imagination. If true, Paul could not say that nothing in all the world can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ. The most dangerous enemy of your soul--your own sinful heart--in fact could ruin everything. And, if that is true, how can Jesus say that not one of his sheep will perish and that no one can snatch them out of his hand or his Father's hand and that he will raise everyone of them up at the last day. In any case, that doctrine is contradicted by John here--who does not say that their leaving meant they had lost their salvation, but that their leaving meant they never really belonged at all.

No, good men have held it possible for a genuine Christian to lose his salvation, but that view is, I judge, an outrage against the plain meaning of the Bible.

On the other side, many Christians have held to a doctrine--which they usually call 'eternal security'--by which it is taught that anyone who starts down the Christian road will surely be saved. This conviction requires the further teaching that it is possible to stop living the life of faith, to drift away or to walk away from the church of Jesus Christ, to return to the world and still, all the while, hold title to eternal life because of a profession of faith in Christ made long ago.

This is the doctrine of the 'carnal Christian' popularized in some circles of American Christianity by the Scofield Reference Bible and more recently by other published works. Here it is believed that there are two roads to heaven--the low road taken by those who have once professed Christ as their Savior but whose lives bear no marks of the new creation nor any fruit for the kingdom of God; and the high road, taken by those for whom Christ is not only their Savior but their Lord and who actually live for Him.

But it is just such a doctrine as this that John explodes in this verse 19. He says, if you do not continue to live the Christian life--it means you were never a Christian at all; because real Christians, those God is really saving by his power and Spirit--those people put on Christ and walk with him. He is only saying what Jesus himself said in so many ways: 'not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven.' Carnal Christians are not real Christians, they are only the apparent Christians that the Scripture warns us to watch out for, whose counterfeit character is manifest when they cease to walk with the Lord Christ and to serve him in his church.

So then, true, genuine Christians last! God keeps his true people in faith and in salvation until he has them safely in heaven. Those who fall away were never really Christians at all.

Now, let me conclude with some brief applications of this great truth.

First, we ought to learn from Scripture and from experience to be measured and careful in our judgment of the salvation of others. I do not mean that we should suspect everyone of being counterfeit; the Bible teaches us no such thing. But we ought at least to remember that the only true test of the genuineness of any person's salvation is his or her faithfulness to the Lord over time.

The greatest of the church's evangelists were careful about that. They didn't carve the notch on the handle of their gun until the converts of their preaching showed some God-given staying power. And they certainly did not make the mistake, so often made today, of giving prominence to celebrities as soon as they professed faith in Christ, who would later embarrass the church by defecting. I'm thinking of such folks as Charlie Schultz the cartoonist and Eldridge Cleaver and Bob Dylan.

Second, and this is a paradox, we ought to be grateful as well as terribly sad when false professors show their true colors. This is John's point when he says that 'their going showed they didn't belong.' It is a dangerous thing for a church to have harbored in her membership a number of people who are not really and everlastingly sincere in their allegiance to the Lord and his church. Those people will drag a church down, they will spoil the witness born to the church's children, they will dampen the zeal for the Lord's work, and so on. If they are not genuine, as terrible as that news may be, it is better for that to be known than for it to be kept a secret.

Third, this doctrine of John's and of the whole Bible ought to set every one of us after that constancy of faith and love that is the real measure of eternal life. We ought to agree with God's way of salvation, and knowing that only those who continue to love and serve the Lord, continue to trust in Jesus Christ and to take him at his Word, that only those are saved to the end; we ought, therefore, to set ourselves to be and remain just such people and ought to stand guard over our hearts against the entrance of anything that would weaken our resolve to follow the Lord to the last. As Augustine warned long ago: 'If once you say, it is enough, I've followed the Lord far enough, you are undone!'

And, finally, we who know the Lord, ought to worship God for this aspect, this part, this dimension of his grace as much as for the rest. What good, after all, would all the earlier works of God's grace do us, if it could all be lost and squandered at the end? And each one of us knows that, left to us, we could no more continue in the faith than we could have begun to believe in the first place:

If ever it should come to pass,
That sheep of Christ might fall away,
My fickle, feeble soul, alas!
Would fall a thousand times a day.

Worship God for loving you from before the foundation of the world; worship and love God for sending his Son and the Son for suffering and dying for you; Worship the Holy Spirit for your new birth and your new nature by which you first saw the light and believed in Jesus Christ. But do not forget to worship God also for keeping you in that holy faith until you have both feet firmly planted in the heavenly country. Worship God and thank him daily for this: that he has promised his people: Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. He will never permit the righteous to fall. The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me: your love, O Lord, endures forever.

Robert Bruce the great Scottish reformer, on his deathbed asked that his Bible be brought; and unable to see anymore; he asked that his finger be put on the words at Romans 8: 'For I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor anything else can separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus my Lord.' 'Now, is my finger upon those words?' he asked. And when they assured him that it was, he said to his family gathered round: 'I have breakfasted with you and shall sup with my Lord Jesus Christ this night.' and so he gave up his spirit.

It is a good way to die, with your finger and your heart on such a promise of God's immutable, eternal, and sovereign love for his chosen people; and it is a very good way, and happy way, and strong way to live with your finger always on that same promise and that truth always lively in your heart.

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