Scripture: 1 John 2:3-11
I’ve shared some of this before, but last summer a team of us from Toccoa First went into the community over the course of several weekends and deliberately shared the gospel with people—with strangers—people who were attending the summer music festival in town. We handed out information about the church as well as gospel tracts. And most importantly, we had meaningful conversations about Jesus and the gospel with at least three dozen people. Most of those three dozen or so said they were Christians, but… of those who said that, only a few expressed confidence that they would go to heaven when they die—and when we asked follow-up questions, they told us that they hoped that they were “good enough” to earn a place in heaven.
And I know from research that this isn’t only true in Toccoa, Georgia; this is true all over our nation—in big cities and small towns. We have a crisis of people who say they’re Christians, most of whom don’t go to church, yet who believe that the basis on which they’ll receive eternal life is their own personal goodness.
So… if they’re trusting in their good works to save them, rather than trusting in Christ, are they saved? Can a person be saved if he or she so badly misunderstands Jesus and what he accomplished through his atoning death on the cross?
So we have a crisis of unbelief in our hometown, in our state, and in our country: people who are Christians in name only, who have no assurance of salvation, or worse—they have false assurance.
And as I said last week, assurance of salvation is the main theme of the apostle John’s first letter. John is writing this letter to reassure the Christians in his churches that they are, indeed, saved. And we see that theme in today’s scripture, as well. Look at verse 3: “And by this we know that we have come to know him”—that is, to know Christ. So… do you see that? John not only wants us to know Christ, he want us to know that we know him. Which is the same as saying that he wants us to have assurance that we are reconciled with God through Christ, that we belong to him, that we are saved.
So the question of this sermon is, how do we know that we know?
Look at verse 3: We can know that we know Jesus… “if we keep his commandments.” Then in the next verse he says that if we say we know him and don’t keep his commandments, we are liars. Finally, look at verse 6: “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he”—Jesus—“walked.” To “walk” like Jesus means to “live your life” like Jesus.
So you want to know whether or not you’re saved? Here’s a simple two question test. Do you keep Christ’s commandments? And… do you live like Jesus?
Is anyone besides me starting to get nervous?
I mean, I just said that John is writing to reassure these believers, and now he seems to be setting the bar impossibly high. I’m not feeling reassured. After all, if the test for whether we’re saved or not is how well we measure up to Jesus, aren’t we all in trouble? I know I fall far short of the standard of obedience, and of faith, and of love set by Jesus! Don’t you?
As one commentator puts it, “All disciples want to do what Jesus says; not many of us will ever honestly feel that we fully do what Jesus says.”1
Does that mean we’re in trouble? Is John telling us, in so many words, “Keep Jesus’ commandments, and live the way he lived, and love the way he loved… or else”?
Well, the short answer is no—this is not what John is saying. But I need to spend a little time explaining it.
First, we remember last week’s scripture. John said that “walking in the light,” knowing Jesus, being saved, didn’t depend on sinless perfection. In fact, he said that if we Christians “say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”2 He went on to say that as we Christians commit sin, the blood of Christ continues to cleanse us, that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and that Christ is our advocate with the Father, ensuring our forgiveness.
So when John talks about “keeping Christ’s commandments” and “walking in the way of Christ” and “loving the way Jesus loved,” as he does in today’s scripture, he can’t be talking about doing these things perfectly, without sin. Otherwise he’d be contradicting what he just wrote a few verses earlier. So he must be saying something else.
Besides, when John wrote the words of today’s scripture, we know for sure that he was remembering something that Jesus himself taught him and his fellow disciples on the night of the Last Supper. We read about it in the gospel that John himself wrote, in John 13. There, Jesus talks about giving the disciples a “new commandment” in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” It’s likely that John has already taught the people in his churches this “new commandment” of Jesus so here, in verse 8, John is reminding his readers of this “new commandment” to love one another the way Jesus loves. He’s practically quoting what Jesus said in John 13.
And if that’s true, then we also have to remember the context in which Jesus gave his disciples this “new commandment”—immediately after he had washed his disciples’ feet. Remember what Peter said when Jesus went to wash his feet? He said, “You shall never wash my feet.” And Jesus said, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Suddenly it’s clear that Jesus was no longer talking about just a foot-washing. Instead, he’s using the foot-washing as a symbol pointing to what Jesus would soon accomplish for these disciples and all other sinners on the cross: Right now soap and water are washing away their dirt; then, on the cross, his own blood will wash away their sins.
So Jesus is saying to Peter, “If you won’t submit to the washing away of sin, to the cleansing of sin, that only I can give you, you can’t be saved”… at which point Peter relents and lets Jesus perform this washing.
As I said during my Maundy Thursday sermon, Peter had to swallow his pride in order to let Jesus do this for him: He had to admit to himself, to Jesus, and to everyone else that he had a problem with sin so large that it requires Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, to come into the world and die on a cross to solve it. Peter had to admit that he was so defiled by sin that he couldn’t begin to make himself worthy of this forgiveness. He had to admit that his sins were so filthy that only the blood of Jesus could cleanse him.
But Jesus wasn’t going to force this washing on Peter or anyone else. He doesn’t make anyone get saved against their will.
All that to say, when John tells us that our assurance comes from “keeping Jesus’ commandments,” the most important commandment to keep is to receive the washing away of sins that Christ offers us.
See, all those people we met on the streets of Toccoa who are counting on their good works to save them are, indeed, wrong. Being a Christian, being saved, knowing Christ, is not about what we do. It can’t be!
For example, remember Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:
On that day [that is, on Judgment Day] many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”3
These are frightening words. The people whom Jesus describes here have done “many mighty works” in the name of Jesus. More than I have! I’ve never prophesied, as far as I know. I’ve never cast out demons. Have I done many mighty works… I wouldn’t bet my life on it!
And yet, I know I’m saved, and Jesus says these people aren’t. Why? What were they doing wrong?
They weren’t keeping Christ’s most important commandment: to receive the washing away of sins that Christ offered them.
Or consider the poor Pharisee in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. When the Pharisee is feeling all self-righteous and says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men,”4 we’re meant to believe that he’s not like many other men. To his credit, he’s not an extortioner, or unjust, or an adulterer—and he doesn’t rob and exploit the poor the way this tax collector did. His personal conduct, the way he behaves—at least outwardly—is unassailable. He tithes, which likely means he is generous to the poor.
If the Pharisee is merely comparing his life to the lives of so many sinners, he’s doing better than most. He had good works to show for himself. Yet Jesus says he’s not justified—that is, he’s not saved.
Because he was not keeping Christ’s most important commandment: He was not receiving the washing away of sins that Christ offered him.
Or how about this: While Jesus was washing his disciples’ feet, he told eleven of them—he wasn’t including Judas… but he told the other eleven that because they’ve received—in advance—the cleansing of sin that he would accomplish for them the next day on the cross, he told them,“You are already completely clean. You are now saved. You don’t need to do anything else. I have done it all for you.”
And he says this to them during the Last Supper… Within a couple of hours, Peter, James, and John will fall asleep while Jesus is sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. A few hours after that, out of fear and a lack of faith, Peter will deny even knowing Jesus three times. All the other disciples will flee the scene in fear—abandon Jesus in his hour of greatest need. And the disciples are mostly nowhere to be found for the next three days! Because they didn’t believe Jesus would be resurrected.
Where’s their faith? They are clearly not keeping Jesus’ commandments, nor are they walking in the same way in which Jesus walked.
But even before these failures, these weaknesses, these sins, these terrible lapses in their faith, Jesus says, they are still saved—and it’s not because of what they’ve done or will do, but what Jesus has done for them. Because they have kept his most important commandment: they have received the washing away of sin that the cross of Jesus has made available to them!
That comes first! That must come first!
So John is not issuing an ultimatum: “Live like Jesus… or else. Love like Jesus… or else.”
And I hope that does reassure us.
But make no mistake… John does give us a test in today’s scripture… A test to determine whether or not we have genuine Christian faith…
And the test is this: “If you have already come to know Jesus, here’s how you can know you know him: by what you do, by how you live, and by how you love.”
This is a message that we need to hear. Because there are mostly two types of people in this church—and I’m not saying one is any better than the other. But I have seen these two types in all the churches I’ve pastored.
First, there are the traditional Methodists. They grew up in a Methodist home. They got baptized as infants. They grew up going to Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, MYF, youth group, the whole nine yards. As far they know, they always believed in Jesus. They don’t remember one moment in which they made a decision to receive Christ and his gift of eternal life. It felt gradual to them. But when they reached a certain age, they went through confirmation class, they stood before a congregation, they stood before a pastor, they stood before God, and they told all of them that they believed in Jesus. They made a profession of faith. They didn’t necessarily feel any different after confirmation than they did before. But they were confirmed.
That’s the first kind of Methodist you’ll often encounter in a church like ours.
The second kind of Methodist you’ll encounter in a church like ours is called… a Baptist. And they probably started coming here against their will. They probably married into a Methodist family and didn’t want to fight about it! And you often distinguish the Bapto-Methodists on Sunday because they’re the ones carrying Bibles!
I’m kidding. But my point is, this type of Methodist does remember when they got saved; they remember their moment of conversion. It happened during an altar call at the end of a pastor’s sermon—maybe in church, but also maybe on a church retreat, or at a revival meeting, or “crusade” event. And they probably walked down an aisle and prayed a sinner’s prayer.
But there are faithful Christian disciples in this church whose experience corresponds to first type or the second type. And that’s perfectly okay.
But there is an equal danger for both types of people—and I have seen this lived out time and time again, and it breaks my heart.
See, either type can think of confirmation or baptism or walking down the aisle to receive Christ or praying a sinner’s prayer as the end of the process. It’s a rite of passage. Something to get through. Something to get over.
Many years ago, I was on speed dial with a local funeral home. When someone died who did not belong to a church, and whose family did not belong to a church, but who, by tradition or background, was nominally Protestant, the funeral home would call me to preside over the funeral. (There was also a Catholic priest on speed dial for nominal Catholics!)
Anyway, as you can imagine, I used this as an opportunity to share the gospel and minister to unchurched families. But inevitably, I would ask about the person’s faith, and the answer was always the same: “Yeah, he grew up in this particular church, I think, and he got baptized, or he got confirmed, or he walked down the aisle, or he prayed the sinner’s prayer, or he joined this church… back when he was twelve. He dropped out at some point. And although he hasn’t darkened the door of church in several decades, he was a really good person. And of course he believed in God! So of course we know he’s in heaven!”
I would hear some version of that story again and again. And I wanted to say, “Faith without works is dead.” Being a Christian, knowing Christ, being saved, is not a one-time decision or event, or a rite of passage like getting a driver’s license or graduating high school. It’s not some hoop you have to jump through before you get on with the rest of your life…
Knowing Christ is your life. He’s your greatest treasure. He’s the One you live your life for! He’s your source of greatest joy. You should want nothing more than to please him, to glorify him, to share him with others!
Or at least… you’re becoming that kind of person… that’s the person that God is transforming you into—if you know Christ!
And this transformed life is a life that will necessarily bear fruit—like what the apostle Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.5 The fruit, by the way, does not make the tree healthy. You cannot hammer the stems of ripe bananas onto a dead tree, and expect the tree to come to life. A dead tree has to be transformed into a living and healthy tree first. And then that tree will naturally produce fruit. Jesus uses this analogy in the Sermon on the Mount:
A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. 6
Of course, Jesus is using this analogy to talk about us Christians: When we genuinely believe in Jesus and receive from him the cleansing of our sins, we also receive the Holy Spirit, who begins this transformation process… and as the Spirit changes us, guess what?
We will begin “keeping Christ’s commandments,” walking in the same way in which he walked, and loving others with Christ-like love.
A few weeks ago, my son Ian and I were laughing about some disastrous thing that happened at some point in my career as a pastor—disasters have happened so often I don’t even remember which one we were talking about now. But we were laughing about something that happened years ago, and I said, “I don’t think I would make that same mistake again. I don’t think I would fail so spectacularly as I did back then. I don’t think I would lose my mind about whatever it was that seemed so important back then.”
And Ian said something to me, off the cuff, that touched me. He said, “Dad, the reason you wouldn’t make that same mistake, or fail in that way, or lose your mind the way you did is because you are clearly so much closer to Jesus today than you were back then.”
And I agreed with him. And I said, “Yep! You are not wrong about that!”
Thank you, Jesus!
And I think I know why that’s the case, and maybe by telling you it will help you too. It took me a long time—decades even—to figure out that what I’m about to say is true—and is faithful to the teaching of God’s Word. But here goes…
Do you remember the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha in Luke 10? Jesus and the disciples are visiting their house. Like any good hosts, Mary and Martha were responsible for hospitality, for cooking and cleaning, for making sure their guests were comfortable. Except… one of them, Mary, wasn’t helping with these chores. Instead, she was sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him teach. Her sister was fed up: “Jesus, tell her to help me.” And Jesus tells Martha, “You don’t get it: There’s only one important thing that Mary needs to be doing right now, and guess what? She’s doing it! Mary has discovered the greatest thing there is”—the “good portion,” as Jesus calls it—“and I’m not going to take it away from her.”7
In other words, Mary had discovered that there was nothing better than what she’d found right here, in Jesus Christ. He’s worth everything to her. Being with Jesus is her life’s greatest treasure, her greatest source of joy, her greatest delight. There’s nowhere Mary would rather be than right there with Jesus. There’s nothing she would rather do than to spend time with Jesus.
It’s simple: Jesus made her happy… deeply, truly happy… happy in a way that lasts… happy in a way that doesn’t depend on circumstances. I want to be happy like that. Don’t you?
Here’s some good news: God tells us in his Word, “I want you to be happy like that, too. And I created you. I know what makes you tick. I know what you need to be happy. And I want to give it to you. And here’s the way. It’s with Jesus!”
I didn’t always understand this. There were long seasons in my life in which I secretly feared that being a Christian stood in the way of happiness, in which I thought, “Okay, God, I’ll do what you tell me… But I’d rather be doing something else.”
See, I feared that what God was asking me to do was standing in the way of my happiness.
Thank you, Jesus, for setting me straight! Thank you for knocking some sense into me—and at times it did feel as if you were “knocking sense into me.” But thank you for showing me that being faithful to you and your Word is actually the only path to true and lasting happiness!
Have you discovered this for yourself? I hope you will…
All that to say, this change that Ian noticed in my life… it only happened because I fell more deeply in love with him. Which meant I learned to love his Word. And I learned to listen to him in his Word. That’s what I want for you, too! Because I promise you this: if you fall in love with Jesus, or fall more deeply in love with him, he will change you… he will make you happy… and this test that John is talking about… it will take care of itself!