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1 John 2:4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
4 The one who says, “I have come to know him,” and does not keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him;
The one who says, “I have come to know him.” He who professes to be acquainted with the Savior, or who professes to be a Christian.
And does not keep his commandments. What he has appointed to be observed by his people; that is, he who does not obey him.
Is a liar, and the truth is not in him. Makes a false profession; professes to have that which he really has not. Such a profession is a falsehood because there can be no true Christian where one does not obey the law of God.
Apparently, some people in Ephesus claimed to know God, but they made no effort to keep God’s commands. The religion that came to be known as Gnosticism prided itself in knowing God through mystical enlightenment, though that knowledge had no bearing on their moral behavior. They had no understanding that sin was a barrier to their relationship with God. John set them straight about this claim: “If you know God, you keep his commandments, and if you make no effort to keep his commandments, but still claim to be a Christian, you are a liar.”
This distinction is comforting when we look at extreme sin, assuming we are not involved in extreme sin. It makes it plain that those who clearly live like the devil can make no claim to be Christian. However, it is very discomforting when we consider more subtle sin. How obedient do we have to be? I violated one of God’s commands just last night. Am I a Christian, or am I a liar? Must we obey all commands perfectly? If that is the case, are any of us saved?
Clearly, the Bible is not saying that we have to exhibit perfect obedience. First John 1:8 just told us that if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and make God out to be a liar. The issue appears to be whether or not we take God’s commandments seriously and are trying to keep them. We may not keep them perfectly. We may not even have a perfectly consistent desire to keep them. But if we are truly born again, we will not live our lives in disregard for God’s commands. The Gnostics, it can be assumed, weren’t even trying to keep God’s commands. It is their behavior that the Bible condemns. (See Deeper Discoveries below for a fuller discussion of this issue.)
If We Obey His Commands (v. 3)
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.
NOTE FROM EDWARD D. ANDREWS: It should be mentioned also that there is a difference between committing “a sin” and living in sin Unrepentantly. John makes a clear distinction between the two, and those living in sin do not have the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Mind you that committing “a sin” does not just mean committing it once only but once can happen many times due to human imperfection, but every time there must be a repentance process.
By David Walls, Max Anders, and Albert Barnes