I’ve been saved thousands of times. I know this because of a nightly routine I followed for years as a kid. Each night, just before I’d fall asleep, I would remember some of the sinful things I did that day. Afraid that everyone would be raptured while I was asleep and that I would wake up to find myself walking with the damned, I would ask for forgiveness for my sins. Then, just to be sure, I would ask Jesus to come into my heart again—just in case what I did that day was horrible enough to drive him right out. (It’s no coincidence that Psalm 139:7-12 is one of my favourite passages of scripture.)
While I see the absurdity of that now, I still hear people ask,
How do I know that I am saved? John provides a simple answer: obey by walking like Jesus. My frantic “plan B” for personal salvation—getting re-saved every night—could have been replaced by an easy confidence that comes by walking like Jesus.
. . .
Let’s get specific here. I used the expression
saved above, but John used the verb
to know to describe salvation. In fact, the two verbs that are translated
to know (ginōskomen and oidamen) are used 40 times in this short letter. This was obviously a very important idea for John.
This emphasis on knowledge came from John’s context. In the Hellenistic world, you gained knowledge of the gods via a mystery religion. First you would go to the mystery cult, participate in their initiation ceremonies, and then receive their secret knowledge of the divine. John is determined to exorcise this Hellenistic path to enlightenment from his churches. Knowledge of God is not gained through some secret ceremony—it is achieved through obedience. Let me put it simply: doing trumps thinking.
It’s also important for us to understand the relationship between obedience and knowledge. The NIV is a little misleading here:
We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. (v. 3)
if makes obedience sound like a condition for knowledge. This is simply not the case, as Kruse points out:
The NIV mistakenly renders this as a conditional sentence. In fact it is a statement.
Theological heavy-weight, Bultmann, also clarifies the relationship between obedience and knowledge:
It is doubtless more nearly correct to say thatkeeping the commandments. . . is not the condition, but rather the characteristic of the knowledge of God.
We don’t try to obey the commandments in order to know God. The fact that we obey God is evidence that we know him. The difference is subtle, but vital: in the former, obedience is meritorious; in the latter, obedience is a grace.
. . .
Verses 4 and 5 expands on the issue of knowledge and obedience with some interesting logic (NRSV):
- If anyone says,
I have come to know him
does not obey his commandments—> that person
is a liar
obeys his word—> in that person
the love of God has reached perfection
That last phrase is quite unexpected. John contrasted two types of people: those who don’t obey and those who do obey. The one who doesn’t obey is a liar. You would expect the obedient person to be
full of truth. Expectation for this is heightened because truth is such an important concept for John. He uses it often to refer to reality. Instead of truth, though, obedience here results in having God’s love perfected in you.
love of God is quite an ambiguous expression. It can be understood in three different ways:
- God’s love for us
- Love like God’s love
- Our love for God
In this case (because of a similar statement in 5:3) it’s best to understand the
love of God as our love for him. It sounds a bit odd in English, since you have to replace
for, but it’s a commonplace in Greek.
Here’s the result: If we claim to know God, and that knowledge is demonstrated in our lives by obedience, then our love for God is maturing.
. . .
There’s a couple ways to apply these verses:
- Personally. Have you ever questioned whether or not you were saved? Ask yourself whether your life exhibits obedience. The obedience John has in mind is not mere adherence to the rules of the Torah, or even Paul’s various moral lists. John makes it clear in 3:23:
This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.It’s simple: trust Christ; love each other.
- Externally. John explained this to his church in order to give them a measure by which to test the itinerant teachers who would frequent his churches. While we’re never to judge other people, we are certainly called to turn a deaf ear to their teaching, if they don’t walk like Jesus did.