RPM, Volume 15, Number 5, January 27 to February 2, 2013

The Theme of John's First Letter

1 John 1:1-4;5:13
(First in a Series on First John)

By Robert Rayburn

This morning we begin a new series of sermons on what is undoubtedly one of the most beloved and often-read books of the Bible, the First Letter of the Apostle John, or, as we usually say, 'First John.' This book is treasured by Christians for its simplicity, its brevity, and its warmth and gentleness, those lovely graces we have learned to associate with the disciple whom Jesus loved. It is a book full of love, and light, and fellowship, and brotherhood. But all of that is bent directly to a specific and urgent purpose.

The letters of John, as most every book in the Bible, are tracts for the times. They were called forth by flesh and blood events in the real world. And this is, no doubt, why the Bible speaks with such a living voice today. For human nature, sin, and salvation are all as they have always been, and the problem John addressed so urgently and so specifically in his letter still looms over the church and over Christian life today.

In the church or churches to whom John writes, false teachers had either arisen from within or come from elsewhere in Christendom, and had begun to insinuate serious errors, both theological and ethical, into the thinking and the behavior of these Christians.

John makes reference in 2:26, for example, to those who are attempting to lead these Christians astray. Their theological error could not have been more profound or deadly: it was a denial of the incarnation of the Son of God. Throughout the letter reference is made, as in vv 22 and 23 of chapter 2, to those who 'deny that Jesus is the Christ' or who 'deny the Son of God.'

Scholars of this period are in general agreement that these teachers were not denying that Jesus existed, or that he was somehow the Son of God or even somehow the Savior. But, under the influence of the philosophy of that day, which exalted the spiritual and despised the material aspects of life, these teachers could not believe that God, who is perfectly spiritual and perfectly good, could have defiled himself by becoming a true man--a man with a real physical/material life and human body. What they taught precisely cannot be discovered, but in general, they seemed to have denied that the Jesus Christ Christians worship was, in fact, the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Triune God, come in the flesh to live and die in the place of his people to bring them to God.

In various guises, of course, that denial has made its appearance throughout the history of the church and is as popular today as it has ever been. John's letter, however, is a broadside at this error, and a ringing affirmation of the truth he also expressed so forcefully in his Gospel, that the eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among men, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the One and only Son of the Father. And here in First John he puts the matter straightforwardly: 'This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God,' he writes in 4:2, 'Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.'

The ethical error of these same teachers was equally devastating and deadly. They were teaching what we today would call antinomianism--i.e., the doctrine that Christians, promised forgiveness for all their sins, could be, therefore, indifferent as to the kind of life they lead. The real and continuing reality of sin in a Christian's life was denied, as we read in 1:8; and the pressing responsibility of every Christian to lead a godly life was as well, as we read in 1:6. Against this delusion--that one could be a Christian and blithely continue to live as those do who do not know the Lord--John writes bluntly, as for example in 3:4: 'No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.'

Now, it appears that these Christians had weathered the first storm and had sent these false teachers packing. John refers to their having left in 2:19--no doubt because they were not able to win the church's leadership to their point of view. But in their wake many questions and uncertainties remained. And John's letter was written to answer those questions and put those uncertainties to rest. It was specifically and directly written, as John himself says in 5:13, to help these believers, in the face of conflicting teaching and the resulting doubts, to come to a solid conviction that they belonged to God through Christ, that they were saved and had eternal life--and to build that conviction upon the solid rock of God's truth and of genuine Christian experience.

He wants clearly as possible to distinguish for them between the genuine Christian and the spurious one; he wants to confirm the true Christians in the assurance of their salvation and of God's love for them, and, at the same time, he wants to expose the false assurance of counterfeit Christians.

This is a book then about assurance, about knowing for sure that you are saved, and about how to tell the difference between a person who says he is a Christian but is not from one who is a Christian in truth.

In the late 19th century an English scholar by the name of Robert Law wrote a commentary on First John which he entitled The Tests of Life. And that is a most appropriate title. Just as there are tests which medics and doctors give at the site of an accident or in a hospital emergency room to determine if a person is still alive--test for pulse, brain activity, breathing, and so on--so there are tests to give ourselves and one another to judge whether new life in Christ exists in you or in me.

Now, I want to begin this series of studies in First John and the apostle's great theme of the assurance of salvation and the certainty of our eternal life, by insuring myself that you recognize how important, how practical, how relevant this question is and always remains and why it is so important for us to master John's teaching on this point.

Let me then offer this morning several reasons why every Christian ought to be something of an expert in the matter of making sure of his or her own relationship to Christ, his or her own standing with God, why every Christian ought to know that he or she has eternal life, and what distinguishes a true from a counterfeit confidence and assurance of salvation.

I. First, the matter of assurance of salvation is important because of the attention paid to it in Holy Scripture.

Here is an entire book of the Bible devoted to teaching us how to be sure of our own salvation, how to be sure that our sins are forgiven and that we have peace with God and that God has done his saving work in us. But there is much more in the Bible on this theme than this one short letter of John.

Hannah Whithall Smith, the author of the famous book, The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, and a leader of what would later be called 'The Higher Life Movement,' once complained against the emphasis of some preachers on this matter of self-examination, of testing oneself to be sure that you are a genuine Christian and not a counterfeit, by saying that there were but two texts in the whole Bible on self-examination.

Her statement is true, only if the two texts she meant were "the Old Testament" and "the New Testament!" The Bible is full of this teaching, full of warnings to make sure that your faith is not counterfeit, full of the most solemn efforts to disabuse falsely confident people of an assurance of salvation to which they have no right. This is the great theme of the OT prophets. Their preaching was designed to convince their hearers that though they thought they were saved, in fact they were not. It is also one of the major themes of the preaching of our Savior as we read it in the Four Gospels.

How often his sermons are designed to blast the false confidence of his contemporaries--deeply religious folks as they all were--. The Pharisees thought themselves right with God and ready to face the judgment day, but Jesus again and again would say such things as 'Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.' Or, 'Many will come from the east and the west and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom--by which he means the many members of the church in his own day who, for all their religiosity, had no living faith in God--will be thrown into outer darkness.'

And think of his many parables, about the word being sown as seed upon the ground and the various kinds of temporary growth it produces, along side the genuine growth which bears fruit; or about the ten virgins who were awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom, but of whom only five had an adequate supply of oil in their lamps, and so were present when he arrived in the middle of the night, the other five coming later being refused entrance to the feast, and so on.

And then all there is about this crucial matter in the rest of the NT, in Paul's epistles especially and in the letter to the Hebrews.

John's first letter, Beloved, is devoted, I hope you see, to one of the major themes of the Bible. Once we have been taught that salvation comes only as a gift of God and is received only by faith in Jesus Christ--then, we learn that many men and women think that they have such a faith and such a salvation, when they do not. John's lovely letter is only a reprise in his own style and manner of the teaching of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jesus before him.

Surely, then, if the Bible devotes that much attention to the matter of assurance of salvation and to the matter of discerning the difference between genuine and counterfeit faith, then we ought to think it a matter of immense importance ourselves.

II. A second measure of the importance of John's theme in this letter--that of making sure and being sure of one's own salvation--is simply the stakes which are involved.

Some questions are of little importance and may be answered or ignored as you prefer. Our society has a penchant for devoting enormous energy to the answering of utterly pointless questions. From 'Who shot JR?' to 'Who will be the next NY Yankee manger?'

But, other questions in life, are altogether too serious to put off answering. A person--at least a person with any wisdom at all--should so want to know the answer to such questions that nothing would stand in the way of finding the answer. Such a question as 'What is this acute pain I have been feeling in my chest?' And looming over all such questions and dwarfing them all is this: 'Am I right with God?' 'Do I really have eternal life?' Is this not precisely Jesus' point when he so solemnly warned us: 'What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world, but loses his soul?'


Think at all about eternity; think for just a moment of the Day of Judgment, of the separating of those who are saved from those who thought they were saved, and it will not be hard for you to believe that John's letter should be studied by every Christian with great care, with a mind and heart wide open to its truth.

III. Thirdly, a measure of the importance of this theme of the genuine basis for the assurance of salvation is what the Scripture everywhere says about the deceitfulness of the human heart, how easily and how readily and how gladly we accept and then how tenaciously we hold fast to utterly untrue opinions about ourselves.

Think of how often in the teaching of the Bible, and especially in the teaching of the Lord Jesus, people are represented as soon to be utterly astonished by the fact that they are not--as they had so confidently supposed--numbered among the true and genuine children of God. Think of those most solemn words near the end of the Lord's 'Sermon on the Mount': 'Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?" Then I will tell them plainly, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"

The people the Lord is describing were obviously very zealous in religion; they supposed that they were serving the Lord all the while and that they would be greeted with a divine bear-hug on the great day. And Jesus says that hosts of such people will--to their eternal shock and horror--discover that they were deluded about themselves. Trusting in themselves and their own religious efforts, they--far from serving the Lord--had, in fact, rejected him, preferring instead to seek to save themselves.

The Bible by precept and illustration is constantly illustrating the ease with which men and women delude themselves about themselves and about the most fundamental realities of God's Word. And so it becomes a chief responsibility of faithful pastors to expose these deceits and delusions to which souls so easily fall prey. [John Bunyan on John Gifford].

The very first time the elders of this church visited the membership--a practice which has been a regular practice now for a decade--our theme was 'the assurance of salvation.' Did the people in this church know for sure that they were saved, and was that knowledge based on solid biblical reasonings and convictions. We thought that a very good place to start.

But frankly, we were deeply disappointed with the the results. Everyone, without exception, was quite sure that he or she was genuinely saved, that each was an heir of eternal life, but quite a number of them could not give any clear explanation for that confidence.

And, numbered among those confident people--as your pastor and their pastor--I must say this, were some folk concerning whose salvation I had no confidence at all. I did not see in them the profile of a true believer in Jesus Christ such as John sketches it in his First Letter. The things which John says will be true of a genuine follower of Jesus, did not seem to be true of them, so far as I could tell. Many of these people that we visited that Autumn of 1979 have died in the years since, and while there were some sterling saints among them, there were others about whose present state I am profoundly disquieted.

I thank the Lord for the present condition of this congregation. I received a call yesterday from one of my dearest friends, Ian Hamilton, a minister of the Church of Scotland, whom some of you know and whose church, in NewMilnes, south of Glasgow, some of you have visited on your travels. He has a mixed congregation and knows every Sabbath as he steps into Christ's pulpit that many indeed a majority of the faces he sees staring up at him--though they themselves are sure of their salvation and blithely unconcerned about their souls--have no living faith in Jesus Christ. Here, it is my privilege to say as your pastor, that is not the case. The vast majority of you, I have every reason to believe, know and love the Lord Jesus in truth and are walking with him, as John says every true believer will. Though I will not deny that I have my own doubts about some of you.

But my opinion has no authority. The Lord looks upon the heart. And our deceitful hearts can fool us and others in an instant and keep us blind to the truth all our lives, if we let it. Vast multitudes in the church today are so self-deceived. We will not be only if we fear the deceitfulness of our own hearts and so take great care to apply to ourselves John's 'tests of life.'

IV. A fourth reason why we should deem of great importance John's great theme of assurance, what his apostolic colleague and friend Peter would call, 'making our calling and election sure' is the cavalier, insubstantial, and unbiblical views of this matter which so predominate in the church today.

The Bible's doctrine of assurance has blood and iron in it. It raises real fears for earnest people and causes them to search their hearts and face the facts about themselves. But, today, in all corners of the church, it seems that it is no longer, as the Scripture says, 'a hard thing for the righteous to be saved.'

It is an easy thing, so easy, that no one who thinks himself saved should trouble himself or herself to make sure.

This is, of course, true in liberal Christianity where it is generally assumed that everyone is saved. Assurance of salvation is, therefore, of course automatically given to everyone and a book like First John seems difficult to justify or explain.

But it is also true in large segments of evangelical Christianity where today almost anything is accepted as evidence of genuine belief and salvation--including and especially, a person's making some profession of belief in Jesus at a church service, or summer camp, or the like.

Recently the magazine of a national young people's ministry came across my desk. One article was devoted to the story of a Christian grandmother who longed for the salvation of a teenage granddaughter. She had offered to talk to her about the Lord, but the offer was not accepted. And then the teenager was killed in a car accident. Before her death she had been accompanying a friend to the meetings of this young people's ministry and folks from that ministry had lead a memorial service for the girl in her high school gymnasium. The next Christmas, the grandmother met the leader of the Christian work in an ice cream shop and ask him if her granddaughter had ever accepted Christ. 'Was she saved?' she asked him. I'm quoting the article now: 'He grinned at me. "Oh, didn't you know? She gave her heart to God two years ago at one of our weekend retreats. She never really established a close walk with the Lord, but she's OK. Don't you worry about Kimberly." The grandmother continues: "Christmas bells began to ring out the joy of the season in my heart. I'd just received a most magnificent gift."

Here is a Christian worker, telling a grandmother that her granddaughter is in heaven, on the strength of the girl's having made some profession of faith in Jesus. But in the two years following that profession, this girl did not walk with the Lord, and what is more, there was nothing in her life, her conversation that had ever suggested to her grandma who knew her and loved her that she had become a Christian. I cannot say that Kimberly was not a Christian, God alone knows the heart. But, as often as the Bible warns that not all who claim to be Christians are in fact, that Christian worker certainly had no biblical basis for saying that she was. Her life, clearly, did not pass John's tests of life.

In a Christian world which takes salvation for granted, it is all the more imperative that we listen carefully to John, as he teaches us both the seriousness of this question and how alone it is to be answered.

V. Fifth, we should measure the importance of John's theme by the struggle that some believers have to obtain and then to keep in their hearts an assurance of God's love and of their own eternal life.

It is simply a fact that some believers struggle with self-doubts more than others, that full and permanent assurance of salvation remains for them a distant hope rather than the present possession it is for others. Some of the most eminent of believers have struggled for long periods, some for all their lives, to come to a full assurance that they have crossed over from death to life.

I recently read a biography of John Duncan, the celebrated 'Rabbi' Duncan of the 19th century Free Church of Scotland--famous at once for his eccentricity, for his massive learning, and for his profound godliness and tenderness of heart in spiritual things, especially for the passion of his love for Jesus Christ.

But eminent Christian though Duncan was, he struggled himself with assurance; seeing his sins and the weakness of his faith so clearly, he was hard put to come to a confidence that he was a new creature in Christ. Even on his deathbed he had occasional struggles--and would say such things as that he feared he was in a Christless state.

Now some of you are like him; perhaps not so severely. But I have spoken with some of you who have been worried about your own state.

Some of you don't concern yourselves nearly enough about your salvation; some others cannot get past that concern--and John is for both of you--to help you settle into a right, sound, and full assurance of salvation.

VI. Finally, we should measure the importance of John's letter and teaching by the joy and the spiritual strength and health which heeding it always brings to God's people.

It can sound somewhat negative to emphasize assurance, as if the chief object is to be sure that you are not a false Christian. And, without a doubt, that is an important aspect and emphasis of the Bible's teaching about the assurance of salvation.

But, assurance is a wonderfully positive gift of the Lord, which every Christian ought to aspire to and which every Christian ought to cultivate all his life long, for the blessings it brings.

What a great thing it is to know--really to know, to be sure and to live in the confidence that you have eternal life; that God is your father, that heaven is your home, that the Great Day will be for you the beginning of everlasting bliss and fellowship with the Lord Christ face to face! What boldness it gives us to speak and live as Christians! What patience it builds in us to endure the troubles of this short life. A man who knows that he is about to inherit a billion dollars, will not trouble himself too much over the loss of a ten dollar bill. And what joy, to have the sense of your own salvation, your own rescue, the love of God, and the joy of heaven resting and remaining in your heart. And what determination we will then have to live worthy of the Savior and the salvation we have got in the Son of God!

That is John's desire for you and his bequest to you in this great letter which we will study, Lord willing, in the weeks to come. And if God will use it to make us all very careful about our own salvation, to build in us a solid and biblical confidence of our interest in Christ, and, thereby, deepen our joy and our boldness as God's children and God's servants, then we will all have cause to give great thanks to God that he had us study this part of his Holy Book.

To take a glimpse within the veil,
to know God is mine,
Are springs of Joy that never fail,
Unspeakable! Divine!

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