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If We Obey His Commands (1 John 2:3)
3 And by this we know that we have come to know him if we keep his commandments.
This epistle seeks to assure us that we know God and have eternal life. For years, however, every time I read 1 John, the letter had just the opposite effect on me. I clearly did not love my brother perfectly and did not obey God’s commandments with absolute consistency. I feared, therefore, that I must not be a Christian. Many people, I have learned, have had that same reaction. Therefore, we must resolve this issue before this epistle will have the reassuring and comforting effect on us that the writer intended.
The key to understanding this letter is to realize that God used the letter to address an extreme situation. The Gnostics were claiming to know God through special mystical insight, but they were continuing to live in sin with no regard for holiness. The letter makes it quite clear that these false teachers had no reason to believe they were Christians. True believers may, however, think that its message is intended for them. They need to hear that the letter does not intend to cause Christians who are sincerely trying to live the Christian life to doubt their salvation.
Other Scripture passages help us see this more clearly. First Corinthians 5:1–5 lets us know that Christians can fall into terrible sin. A Christian in the church in Corinth was living with his stepmother. Paul did not tell this person he was not a Christian. Rather, he told him that since he was a Christian, he was going to taste the fiery rod of God’s discipline for his behavior. While God will let non-Christians get away with this kind of behavior, he will not let Christians do so.
Hebrews 12:5–11 teaches us that God will chasten us to discourage sin and encourage righteous living. This chastening can be quite severe. In 1 Corinthians 11:17–33 we see that flagrant, prolonged sin on the part of Christians brought about weakness and sickness from God’s disciplining hand. It got so bad that God even took the life of some people. This severe discipline does not result in the loss of salvation. Rather, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5:5, the sinning Christians will be “saved on the day of the Lord.”
Paul reiterates this in 1 Corinthians 11:32, saying the Lord disciplines us so we will not be condemned with the world. If we judge ourselves and repent, we will be spared further divine chastening (1 Cor. 11:31).
We can reasonably conclude, then, that all who have truly received Jesus are saved (John 1:12). Certainly, we love and obey imperfectly, but even that imperfect faithfulness, compared to the stark unbelief and disregard for others manifested by the Gnostics, can bring comforting reassurance of our salvation, assuming it is built on faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (2:22–23).
A person who has an exemplary life but has not committed his life to Jesus can take no assurance of salvation. The basic biblical teaching is that if we believe in Jesus as the Son of God, our Savior, then we can receive assurance from the quality of our lives that we do, in fact, have eternal life.