Monday, August 01, 2005

1 John: A Sermon on Christian Assurance

Bumper stickers. Fish symbols. Sloganeering bracelets. T-Shirts that adapt popular brand names with Christian words. I’ve seen a shirt where the clothing company “Abercrombie & Fitch” becomes “A Breadcrumb and Fish,” referring to the feeding of the 5000. These are the sorts of things that many people use to demonstrate their Christianity. Yet some polls indicate that a great number of self-professed born again Christians do not live differently than non-Christians. I don’t think bumper stickers and bracelets are wrong in and of themselves, but we must admit to ourselves that these are shallow ways to show Christ to people. It’s a sort of “non-committal commitment.” It allows us to soothe our consciences that we are publicly Christian without having to really invest in the lives of other people or say something considered offensive.

But what about things that seem less shallow? How about carrying your Bible to school or work? Or praying over your meal? What about a five minute morning devotion? Surely these are excellent ways to demonstrate you commitment to Christ! Well, though they are commendable on some level, they too fall short of demonstrating one’s Christianity and providing assurance for you personally. It would be easy for a non-Christian to do this, don’t you think? We could probably envision a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness doing these things.

Introducing 1 John and Establishing Context
Since we are running out of options, here, let’s go ahead and turn to the Bible for the true answer to how we demonstrate our Christianity to ourselves and others. Let’s turn to the book of 1 John. It’s my hope that we will be able to cover the book in its entirety tonight. I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but I really like the idea of preaching on a book of the Bible as a whole. When we do that we get a better picture of what the author, be he Paul, John, or whomever, intended to communicate in his writings. I think sometimes we read the Bible as though the verses aren’t connected to each other, and that’s a problem. It is very important to understand the context of a passage before we can fully understand what the human writer and God Himself wanted to say.

Something else I like to do for messages like this one is establish the historical context in which the book was written. What event or events motivated the writer, other than the urging of the Holy Spirit? For instance, we know the book of Philemon was written because Paul had met Onesimus, a slave of Philemon’s, and led him to Christ. Onesimus had wronged Philemon and Paul wanted to make amends. But what motivated John to write his letter? I’ll try to keep my historical remarks brief and then get on to the Word itself.

It is pretty well established that John was writing his first epistle at least partially in response to some false teaching, as well as the conduct of the teachers, who were once part of the church, and were spreading the aforementioned falsehood. These teachers, later called “Gnostics,” believed that anything physical was evil. The spirit, they thought, is good, but anything physical, like a human body, is evil. It doesn’t take long, if you claim to be a Christian, to run into trouble if you believe a physical body is evil. Jesus Himself had a body. For these Gnostic teachers it would be impossible for God to actually have a body, so they denied that He did. Some of them believed that it just seemed as though Jesus had a body.

Not only did they have problems with Jesus’ human body, they had trouble with what to do with their own bodies. “If the body is evil,” some of them thought, “then it doesn’t matter what I do with it!” Some Gnostics took advantage of the opportunity to indulge in their own sins, and John directly attacked the Gnostics on both of these fronts. Without further ado, let’s dive into 1 John.

How Do I Know I Am a Christian?
One major problem that arose from the error of the false teachers is that some people began doubting their salvation. For one thing, these false teachers had strange view of salvation, and since these were people who may have had a great deal of influence and charisma, it caused doubts to creep into the minds of the Christians to whom John was writing. He wanted to reassure them that they could know for certain whether they were truly saved or not. As 5:13 states, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” In fact these teachers who had left the church were demonstrating that they were not saved. John uses their actions as a “how to demonstrate that you’re a non-Christian” so we could know the sorts of actions that should provide assurance for a Christian. John chooses three areas to put his readers’ minds at ease. First, according to John, the Christian must hold to the basic doctrines of the faith. As we said, these false teachers did not believe that Christ came in the flesh. Second, the Christian should love his brothers and sisters in Christ. Finally, we must be obedient to the commands of Christ. Let me stress that John is not saying that these things are prerequisites for salvation, or that you must do these things to keep your salvation. The Bible is clear that we are not saved by works, nor is it our job to “keep our salvation” through our actions. God takes care of that. Incidentally, all three of these ideas are woven into the fabric of 1 John. They don’t appear in just one place, they appear and reappear as John writes, so we’ll be bouncing around in the text a bit.

Upholding the Basic Doctrines of the Faith
As we’ve already pointed out, John was battling against the idea that Christ did not actually have a human body. Dispensing with traditional greetings, he wastes no time in attacking that idea in 1:1-2. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-- 2the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us--” John was leaving no doubts in the minds of the readers of this letter; he was there with Jesus, and Jesus really had a physical body. Later, in 4:2-3 John has chilling words about these false teachers.: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”

Some of you may be wondering, “what does it matter if Jesus had a physical body or not?” As it turns out, if Jesus was not human like us, then He could not have died for our sins. As Hebrews 2:17-18 states, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” What this is saying is that it was necessary for Christ to become like us, that is, human, so that He could reconcile us to God. So the denial of Christ’s humanity was no small matter. It means everything to our salvation.

Now let’s take this in a bit of a more general direction. Some people don’t want to bother with doctrine at all. Why not just, “love God,“ they ask. “Doctrine divides,” they say. They think that as Christians we should be unified, and we should, as John will point out. However, it is also vital to note that 1 John, which I think of as one of the most love and unity oriented books of the New Testament, actually encouraged division over essential doctrines. Why? Because when people reject the basic doctrines of Christianity they reveal that they were never a part of the family of God to begin with. Read 1 John 2:22-23: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” These false teachers denied Christ by trying to strip Him of His humanity. In the process, they lost the father as well.

I don’t mean to indicate that every little disagreement merits a heresy trial. For instance, if we have two hypothetical men, Mr. Thompson and Mr. Jackson, and they disagree over whether pastors should receive a salary from the Church or not, that they should declare each other heretics and never speak to one another again. That would be extreme because the doctrine is not central to the faith. Unfortunately, however, that sort of thing happens in far too many churches. So doctrine, we see, is quite useful in dividing the true Church from the false professors.

Christian Unity and Love
As we read on in 1 John, we begin to discover other things about these false teachers. For instance, their love for this false teaching had caused them to leave the Church. Ultimately, as we saw, their departure was a good thing. I’m going to take a chance and state the obvious here: It is never a good idea to have influential people teaching falsehoods in your Church, especially about the nature of Christ Himself. However, simply focusing on kicking the bad guys out does not reveal the sort of Christian character that can aid in giving us assurance of our own salvation. We can mentally assent to any doctrinal statement without having a truly regenerate heart. Have you ever run across someone who delights in finding reasons to run people out of a church? Such a person is dangerously out of balance in his or her spiritual life. Were I this person I would examine myself closely and carefully to make certain of my salvation, because John indicates a lack of love for Christian brothers and sisters is something to be taken seriously.

John states over and over that love for our family in Christ is an essential component of the Christian life. Chapter 2:9-11 reads, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

If we carry hatred in our hearts for Christian people, John indicates that the reality of our salvation is in doubt. But by the same token, if we love our fellow Christians, we can be sure of our salvation. This is a beautiful truth. Look at 3:10: “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.” It is manifest that we are God’s children when we love our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We’ve spent a decent amount of time talking about the love we should have for our fellow Christians, but we need to address what this love should look like. Should we follow the world’s perception of love and just let everyone fulfill their own desires? John reveals how we are to demonstrate our love in 3:16-19: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him;”

These verses can surprise a lot of people. “This is how we show Christian love?” they think. It seems incredibly unspiritual at first glance. Providing for physical needs? Of course John would encourage things like prayer for those in need, but giving to a brother who needs it is, I think, putting your money where your mouth is. Anyone can mouth words to someone, but it takes a real Christian, someone like Barnabas, to give away goods. Do you want to show your Christian brother you love him? Mow his lawn. Buy his dinner. Pay a bill he is late on, as long as that is not a habitual problem. These acts need to grow out of a compassion in your heart that only God can provide. I know, I’ve experienced it. God can put a love in your heart even for that guy who gets on your last nerve.

Our hearts should be moved by stories of our brothers and sisters in need. I think sometimes American Christians, because of the plenty we experience here, forget about the need of Christians around the world. Let me encourage you to forgo buying that latest gadget or beautiful skirt. Search your heart and see if you can find something better to do with that money. I’m not saying don’t buy anything nice for yourself, but if we’re honest we will admit that we have plenty. Open your heart to the needs of your fellow Christians.

The flip side of that is that sometimes we get too prideful to ask for help. Christian, if you are in some sort of difficult situation, don’t try to go it alone. We are called to bear each others’ burdens. Let go of your individualistic pride and give your brother the opportunity to serve you. Not only can this be a confirmation of what John said about Christian love and assurance, but it can also commend Christ to people quite well. We are to be known for our love for each other.

Obedience to the Commands of Christ
John has now provided two ways in which a person can gain assurance of their salvation. Do you believe in sound doctrine? Do you love your brothers and sisters in Christ? If you said yes on both accounts, that should provide a great degree of assurance in your own heart. There is, however, one final way which John indicates can be an avenue of assurance. Read 2:3-5: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4Whoever says "I know him" but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him:”

How many people do you know that tell you, “Oh, I’m a Christian. I prayed some prayer when I was seven,” or, “I went forward at a revival,” or something else of that nature, but when you take a look at their life they live no differently than they did before their conversion? I’ve seen a lot of that. According to John, that sort of thing should cause us to stop and think. Are such people truly saved? Ultimately we don’t know anyone else’s heart, so we can’t say for certain, but John’s words should be a wakeup call for everyone.

A life characterized by sin is good evidence against someone’s salvation. Listen to what John says to that effect in 3:4-6: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.” When reading these verses we have to be careful because it can sound like a Christian will never sin if we don’t take investigate further. I can hear someone say, “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not? Are you saying that a Christian will never sin?” Of course not, because that would contradict statements John himself made, such as this one in 1:8- “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” What, then, does John mean? In the original languages the word “sinneth” means “a lifestyle of sin.” It is someone who lives continuously in sin.

To be sure of our own salvation, and to demonstrate our salvation to others, we must be obedient to the commands of Christ. Since this is the case, it is only natural that we should go on to discover these commandments. Fortunately, John offers us some help. In 3:24 John says “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”

Conclusion and Application
How beautiful! John gives us three things; three seemingly separate areas in which we should be able to gain assurance of our salvation. But then he comes and shows us that these three things, doctrine, love for the brethren, and obedience, are really one.

I believe in the power of the Word of God. Whenever we dig into the Bible and ask God to change us to His standard, to make His character our character, these three things will grow in our lives and we will know that, to quote 5:13 again, “that ye have eternal life.” I want you to be encouraged, Christian. In your darkest moments reflect on your life. Is it characterized by sin? No? Be assured. Do you love your brothers and sisters in Christ? Yes? Be assured. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, both God and man, as your savior? Yes? Then above all else, be assured. Jesus has prepared a place for you in heaven.

Some of you may be thinking, “I don’t have all of these things. Are you saying I’m not a Christian?” That is not something I can know for certain, but I do know what John has said in this epistle, and you should examine your life to make certain of your salvation. This is too important to let pride or stubbornness stand in the way.

Still others of you may say, “I’m not a Christian at all, and I don’t claim to be. What does 1 John say to me?” Well, friend, you still need to take that first step. You need to believe the truth about Jesus. He is the Son of God, and He is truly man. He died to deliver His people from their sins, and this salvation is offered to you tonight.

If you take anything home with you tonight, take this phrase, which I think captures the essence of 1 John. It is our obedience to Christ in loving our brothers, and our love of true doctrine, that will demonstrate our Christianity. To God be the glory.

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