1 John 2:3
“And hereby we do know that we know Him,
if we keep His commandments.”
Simple as this verse appears to be, and as it really is, yet a careful and critical examination of it raises five questions, on none of which do the commentators return a uniform answer.
First, with what is its opening “And” to be linked, precisely what is the connection between verse 3 and those which follow with what has preceded?
Second, which Person in the Godhead is specifically alluded to by the pronouns “Him” and “His” —the Father or the Son?
Third, what is the meaning of the word “know” here, and what distinction are we required to make between its double usage?
Fourth, what is the precise force of the “if”—is it a calling into question, the testing of profession, or the drawing of a logical inference?
Fifth, whose precepts are referred to in the “His commandments,” and which particular ones are in view—those of the Law or those of the Gospel, or both? A hasty conclusion must not be jumped to on any of these points, but care taken to supply proof before definite answers are returned. Guesswork is impious where God’s Word is concerned.
If 1 John 1:5, to the end of 1 John 2:2, is read consecutively, it should be evident that we have there a complete paragraph, in which the apostle has covered the whole subject of sin in relation to believers. A close reading of 1 John 2:3, to the end of 1 John 2:11, also makes it clear that those verses are to be regarded as another distinct and complete section, wherein the obedience of God’s children is in view. But some may demur at the statement that a new division, treating of a different subject, commences at 1 John 2:3, seeing that it opens with the word “And.” While such an objection is not to be ignored, it must not be allowed to shake our impression that the two separate aspects of Truth are there set forth: rather must we seek the relation between them. That there is a connection and relation, and probably an intimate one, is certainly intimated by the conjunction uniting them, and it is a matter of no little importance to discover or trace out their coherence, otherwise we are liable to bring a legalistic element into our understanding of 1 John 2:3 & 5. Nor is the link, or links, between the two passages at all difficult to discover.
For a general statement, perhaps Calvin’s can scarcely be improved on, for he pointed out, “John here reminds us that the knowledge of God derived from the Gospel is not ineffectual, but that obedience flows from it.” Stating almost the same thing in another form, we may say that gratuitous remission of sin is not a thing apart, but is ever accompanied by those sanctifying operations of the Spirit which cause the pardoned to express their gratitude by subjection unto God’s revealed will. The grand truth of Christ’s advocacy and propitiation will not, when savingly apprehended, induce a careless walk or encourage a spirit of lawlessness. Where Christ is truly known as Lord and Saviour, His authority is gladly owned; if He is loved, there will be no question about obedience. A spiritual apprehension of what Christ has done and is now doing for us is the most effective means and motive unto a God-honoring life: as the heart is brought under the power of the same, it is blessedly disposed unto every good word and work. After mentioning the gracious provision which God has made for the sins of His people and the maintenance of their fellowship with Him, the apostle turned to consider the outward evidences of a spiritual knowledge of and communion with Christ.
But still more definitely: 1 John 2:3-6 is to be regarded as an amplification of 1 John 1:5-7, for the emphatic “This then is the message which we have heard of Him” must be steadily borne in mind as we go through the entire epistle. There the apostle summarized what he and his fellows had heard from the lips of their Master and had seen so perfectly exemplified in His own life, namely that “God is light,” and in order to enjoy communion with Him the darkness must be shunned. In 1 John 1:7, he had affirmed that “if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another,” and though the light will increasingly make manifest our imperfections and defilements, yet, if we duly confess the same, the blood of Christ will cleanse us from all sin. Now, here in 1 John 2:3-6, “walk in the light” is declared to be a keeping of the Divine commandments and a following of the example which Christ has left us; while the resultant fellowship is seen in the “we do know that we know Him” and the “abideth in Him.” Finally, the opening “And” confirms our interpretation that God’s people alone are referred to in the whole of 1 John 2:2.
Several spiritually minded and scholarly expositors regard the pronouns “Him” and “His” in our text as relating to Jesus Christ, the nearest antecedent, but most of the more recent writers insist that they relate to “the Father” with whom Christ is the Advocate. After carefully weighing their respective opinions, we fail to see any argument which necessarily excludes either the One or the Other, and therefore we much prefer to follow the older commentators who included both Persons. Our present verse is speaking of a saving knowledge, and where that is in view, while the Divine Persons may be distinguished, they are not to be separated. None can approach the Father except by the Son (Johnn 14:6), and none can come unto the Son unless the Father draw him (Johnn 6:44). As Christ declared unto those who opposed Him, “You neither know Me nor My Father: if you had known Me, you should have known My Father also,” (Johnn 8:19), and as He told His disciples, “he that hath seen Me hath seen the Father,” (Johnn 14:9). The One cannot be known apart from the Other: “no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him,” (Matt. 11:27).
As pointed out above, there is an intimate relation between 1 John 2:3-11, and 1 John 1:5-2:2, and for exegetical reasons we consider the pronouns of 1 John 2:3, look back to the One spoken of in 1 John 1:5. There we are informed that “God is light”—here that we “know Him” as such and conduct ourselves accordingly, for it is not merely a notional but an influential knowledge which John treats of. Now “God is light” is to be understood of the Godhead, and particularly of the triune God made known through Christ, “for in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily [or personally],” (Col. 2:9). It is true that God is light in Himself essentially, yet not so unto fallen men—outside of Christ God is unknown, and man is in total spiritual darkness. In like manner, “God is love.” He is so essentially, yet not unto fallen men—outside of Christ “God is a consuming fire,” (Heb. 12:29). “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent,” (Johnn 17:3): here again the Two are joined together, for the Father cannot be known apart from the Mediator.
“Hereby we do know that we know Him.” As one eminent expositor said, “It must be so as He is Father in Christ, so that hereby is implied that the knowing of God absolutely is not saving: it must be relative, in the glorious dispensation and mystery which is by Jesus Christ.” But we must now inquire, What is meant here by our knowing Him, and particularly knowing that we know Him? We say here, for this is another term which is far from being used uniformly in the Scriptures. In some passages, as, for example, Ecclesiastes 3:14, and the words of Nicodemus to Christ, “we know that Thou art a teacher come from God,” (Johnn 3:2), “know” has the force of “believe,” as it has also in John 17:3. In other places it signifies “approve,” as in “They have set up kings, but not by Me: they have made princes, and I knew it not,” (Hosea 8:4, and cf. Matt. 7:23). In yet others it goes farther, and signifies “love:” “I am the good Shepherd, and know My sheep, and am known of Mine,” (Johnn 10:14, and cf. 1 Cor. 8:3). But its commonest meaning is to be sure or assured, as in “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see,” (Johnn 9:25) and “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God,” (Rom. 8:28).
As it is with natural things so also with spiritual: there is a radical difference between a notional and experiential knowledge. I may be theoretically assured that a certain thing would be helpful or harmful to me, but I know actually and factually that fire burns, that water refreshes, that food strengthens, for I have proved it for myself. In like manner, there is a very real distinction between knowing about the Lord and in knowing the Lord Himself. As one can see the one consists merely of information concerning Him and the other is a personal and a saving acquaintance with Him. In the Scriptures we are told that at first “many of the Samaritans ... believed” in Christ because of the testimony borne to Him by the woman at the well; but later, when they came into His presence and listened to His teaching, they declared, “Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard Him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world,” (John 4:39, 42). Thus too Paul bore witness: “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day,” (2 Tim. 1:12)—from what he had already received from Him, he could confidently trust Him for the future. Such knowledge is vastly different from mere conjecture; it is based on something more than a probability, namely a certainty.
Christ can only be savingly known as we receive the Spirit’s testimony concerning Him, surrender ourselves fully unto His control, and trust in Him with all our hearts. Then shall we obtain inward evidence of His reality and the verity of His offer. It is said of Him that He “knew no sin,” (2 Cor. 5:21): there the term connotes experience: that He had no practical acquaintance with it—having no carnal nature as we have. Thus to know Christ savingly is to have personal proof of His redemptive power: to pardon and cleanse, to subdue our passions, to speak peace to the conscience, to draw out our affections unto things above, and to have a vital realization of other Divine influences of that Spirit which proceeds from Him. Finally, the word “know” also imports to acknowledge, as we are told of a certain Pharaoh “which knew not Joseph,” (Ex. 1:8), that is he had no regard for his memory, no sense of what Egypt owed to him, and therefore refused to be kind unto his people for his sake. In this sense, the term occurs in “the sheep follow Him: for they know His voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers,” (John 10:4-5): the sheep respond to Christ’s voice: they publicly own Him, but refuse allegiance to all impostors.
“The knowledge of Christ has become expressive of a personal and saving interest in His work and grace. There is great propriety in this use of the term. Knowledge is the result of observation and experience. It implies certainty. If we say we know a man, it supposes we have had intercourse with him, and have proved what sort he is. If we know a country we must have been there and seen it and become versant with its inhabitants, soil, and products. If we know a medicine, we must have used or analyzed it, and so become acquainted with its constituents and properties. Now this is precisely the force of the term when we speak of the knowledge of Christ. Hence it is the characteristic of believers in our text: ‘we know Him.’ We know His power, for we have proved it; we know His wisdom, for we have been guided by it; we know His love, for we have enjoyed it; and we know His truth, for we have ever found Him faithful. How thankful we should be that this is the nature of true religion. It is not a speculation about which there is uncertainty. It is not a doubtful opinion. It is knowledge. It is a reality of which we may know ourselves. They who attained it may say ‘we know him’” — (J. Morgan).
But is this really the case with all of God’s children, uniformly so in their consciousness? No! indeed, far from it. Some of them are often full of doubts and made to question the reality of their relationship to Christ. And there is no little occasion for them to do so. As they behold what shipwreck some have made who started out so promisingly, apparently progressing more swiftly than themselves, they ask, Shall I end thus? As they hear the pratings [foolish talking] of graceless professors who talk so fluently of Divine things, and behold their carnal and worldly lives, they wonder if their knowledge of Christ be only a theoretical and theological one. As they are frequently made painfully conscious of the risings of indwelling sin, and often have to cry “Iniquities prevail against me,” (Ps. 65:3), they are fearful of being deceived on this important matter. Yet none of these occasions affords a legitimate reason why any born-again soul should call into question his regeneration or saving knowledge of Christ. As Spurgeon said on this verse, “This ought not to be. It is too solemn a thing to be left to chance or conjecture. I believe there are saved ones who do not know of a surety that they are saved. They are raising the question often that never ought to be a question.
“No man ought to be content to leave that unsettled, for mark thee, if thou art not a saved man, thou art a condemned man. If thou art not forgiven, thy sins lie on thee. Thou art now in danger of hell if thou art not secure of heaven, for there is no place between these two. Thou art either a child of God, or not. Why say ye ‘I hope I am a child of God, yet I do not know; I hope, yet know not I am forgiven?’ In such suspense ye ought not to be. Thou art either one or the other—either a saint or a sinner, either saved or lost, either walking in the light or walking in the darkness.” We fully endorse those sentiments, for there is Scriptural warrant for the same. John tells us that one of the very purposes for which the Spirit moved him to pen this epistle was to give assurance to the hearts of God’s people: “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe [more confidently] on the name of the Son of God,” (1 John 5:13). Thus one of its chief designs is to resolve all doubts and displace them with certainty.
That declaration of 1 John 5:13, shows that it is of deep importance that the Christian should know he has eternal life. For to be in doubt thereof is to reflect upon the veracity of God, whose Word declares that he has (John 5:24). It is to call into question the gracious work of the Spirit within him. It is much to his own spiritual loss. It deprives him of the greatest comfort which any soul can experience in this life, for to be assured that Christ is mine and I am his is a perennial joy and unfailing consolation under the heaviest trial. As one has said, “you who are living on ‘perhapses’ and ‘maybes’ are living on dust and ashes.” Such knowledge as John here treats of inspires confidence. What assurance it gives in prayer to know that I am making requests unto my Father—we can never ask believingly until such be the case. What courage it conveys for meeting temptations—shall a child of God panic and flee before the Devil? It kindles the highest degree of love. To know that I know Him cannot but draw out my affections unto Him, and cause me to ask “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits unto me?”
Now here in our text we are supplied with a sure recipe for the attainment and preservation of this sound state of the soul’s health. It is the first of seven passages in this epistle wherein are made known how a Scriptural assurance is secured (for the time being we will leave the reader to search for the other six), namely by a keeping of the Divine commandments: “hereby we do know that we know Him.” Here is another instance where the same word occurs in a passage with two distinct meanings. To make them clearer we would paraphrase our text thus: In this way may God’s children be sure that they have a saving faith in and acquaintance with Him—by fulfilling His precepts. It is by means of a willing, impartial and habitual compliance with God’s will that we obtain evidence of the genuineness of our profession and supply proof that we really love Him. It is by a walking in subjection to Him that we may be sure we are in the narrow way that leads unto life. It is for this reason that we have entitled our chapter “Obediential Assurance,” for the validity of their persuasion is attested by a practical subjection to God’s authority.
It is to be duly noted that the apostle was here emulating his Master, for He had clearly taught the same thing: “Ye are My friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you,” (John 15:14). Friendship entails obligations—the pleasing of and promoting the interests of one another. As to the design of the “if” in our text, we regard it as being threefold. First: as investigative, a testing of profession or putting to the proof of those who averred a saving knowledge of God. Then, as now, there were many who claimed to know God in Christ, but their knowledge was a barren one. Second: as discriminative, supplying God’s people with a criterion which if put to use would preserve them from being imposed upon by hypocrites. Third: as demonstrative, the sure evidence by which a Christian may determine his own state before God. The tree is known by its fruits, and if mine be bearing that which is spiritual and heavenly it cannot be one of nature’s planting. Thus the force of the “if” is double: hereby we may be assured that we truly know God spiritually providing we keep His commandments, or/and inasmuch as we do so. There cannot be real fellowship with God without its having a vital influence on the heart and a transforming effect upon the life.
But who is there who really keeps God’s commandments? All of His people, for whereas the unregenerate are designated “the children of disobedience,” (Eph. 2:2), the regenerate are addressed “as obedient children,” (1 Pet. 1:14). There is a twofold keeping of God’s commandments: a legal and an evangelical. The former pertains to the Covenant of Works, wherein an absolute and perfect obedience, without failure or cessation, is demanded on pain of death. The latter marks the Covenant of Grace, wherein a filial and sincere obedience, though full of defects, is accepted by God—its blemishes being blotted out by the blood of Christ and its inadequacy covered by His merits. God looks at the heart, and where it beats true unto Him with a genuine desire and determination to please Him—grieving over and confessing that which displeases Him—He accepts the will for the deed. Love fastens not its eyes upon defects. Thus we find God testifying of David, notwithstanding his sad lapses, “he kept My commandments and My statutes,” (1 Kings 11:34); Christ declaring of His apostles, despite their failures, “they have kept Thy word,” (John 17:6); and the Holy Spirit bearing witness to the patience of Job (James 5:11), though he had not a little impatience.
The keeping of God’s commandments signifies and includes that we make His will the rule of our lives, using His Word as a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. That it works effectually in our souls, inclining our hearts and governing our wills. That we hold it in our memories and delight to meditate daily thereon. That we genuinely endeavor and prayerfully strive to perform God’s precepts. That we obey them implicitly, simply because they are God’s commandments, and not because they commend themselves to our reason, are agreeable to our inclinations, or conducive to our interests. That we obey them impartially, for if we be regulated by what God commands, then we shall be by whatsoever He enjoins—without any picking or choosing. That we do so cheerfully, regarding each commandment as an expression of the will of Him who loves us and whom we love and long to please. That we do so perseveringly, for if we really love Him we shall not stop obeying Him. Such obedience is not in order to salvation, but from gratitude for having been saved; nor is it performed in our own strength, but by grace duly sought from above.