1 John 2:4 & 5
“He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in Him. But whoso keepeth His word, in Him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in Him.”
Our title suggests that there is more than one kind of assurance, and such is indeed the case; nor do we refer to the difference between a genuine and a false one, but to those that are real and true. Like so many other subjects treated of in Scripture, Christian assurance has more than one side to it, though many are unaware of the fact. Broadly speaking they may be reduced to two: an objective and a subjective. The one is a firm persuasion resting on something without us, namely the Word of God; the other upon something within us—the work of God’s Spirit. Each is obtained by faith, and both are equally sure, though the latter is not attended with the same degree of certainty. The former is foundational, the other evidential. “Although hypocrites and other unregenerate men may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favor of God and estate of salvation, which hope of theirs shall perish? yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God; which hope shall never make them ashamed.
“This certainly is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion, grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the Divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirit that we are the children of God: which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption,” (Westminster Confession of Faith). It will be seen that that statement relates not to a simple assurance, but to a complex one, which rests on several grounds. There is an assurance conveyed by the direct action of faith, when it receives and rests upon Christ as He is freely offered in the Gospel, and His promise that He will never cast out such a one is relied upon. There is also an assurance which springs from the reflex action of faith, when the believer sees himself in the mirror of God’s Word and perceives in himself “the inward evidences of those graces” which are the Scriptural marks of a saving change wrought in his soul by the Holy Spirit. The latter cannot exist without the former, nor will the former be without the latter, except in those rare cases where regenerated souls are taken at once to heaven.
Whereas the unsaved are to be plainly informed that there is a sure ground in the Gospel for the chief of sinners to rest his faith and hope upon, and that there can be no spiritual experience or inward evidence to confirm his hope until he looks away unto Christ as his Saviour; on the other hand, those who profess to have done so are to be exhorted to make their calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10) unto themselves and their fellow saints, by bringing forth those fruits which manifest them to be trees of the Lord’s planting. Now in this epistle John enters into some detail in showing what those fruits consist of, the presence of which attests the saving nature of their possessor’s faith, and the absence of which demonstrates the emptiness of such a one’s profession. In other words, the fact of regeneration may be certainly inferred from the presence of those marks which according to God’s Word pertain unto those who have been born again. Conversely, of those who affirm themselves to be regenerate but tread not the highway of holiness, but instead “have corrupted themselves,” it has to be said “their spot is not the spot of His children: they are a perverse and crooked generation,” (Deut. 32:5).
Now it is this evidential assurance of which John treats in the passage before us. First he declares, “Hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments:” in this way do we obtain sure confirmation that our acquaintance with Christ is a saving one. Christians may be convinced that a new nature has been imparted to them if they clearly perceive themselves to have new thoughts, tastes, impulses, desires, and acts. “As light proves the shining of the sun, as movement proves the existence of life, so this new experience assures us that our faith is not in vain. It is not without works, and therefore it is not dead,” (L. Palmer). David could say, “I understand more than the ancients, because I keep Thy precepts,” (Ps. 119:100)—not because he lived in a later and “more enlightened” age, nor by mental industry and extensive reading, but by entire submission to the supreme authority of the Divine will. “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine,” (John 7:17)—obedience is the grand means for removing doubts. “He that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in [or “by”] God,” (John 3:21): he who acts uprightly and conscientiously fears not for God to scrutinize him and knows that Divine grace must be operating within him. So intimately connected are spiritual knowledge and obedience that it is most difficult to define that exact relation and interrelation between them. It has been remarked that the one is both the cause and the effect of the other, the root and fruit alike; but it would be more accurate to say they are completely interdependent. Thus we find David testifying, “Through Thy precepts I get understanding,” and then asking, “give me understanding, that I may know Thy testimonies,” (Ps. 119:104,125), yet there is not the least inconsistency between the two things. Paul prayed that the saints might be filled with spiritual understanding, in order that they should walk worthily of the Lord, thereby “increasing in the knowledge of God,” (Col. 1:9-10). “Let me give you an illustration of this point. When our Lord met the disciples at Emmaus and talked with them, they did not know Him while He talked with them. But when think you did they know that they knew Him? Why, not until they performed an act of obedience by offering hospitality to a stranger. Then He was known to them in the breaking of bread,” (Spurgeon). The lack of practical obedience to Christ lies at the root of the majority of doubts and fears!
Well did T. Scott remark upon this verse, “What then shall we say to the unguarded language of some persons who have argued or asserted that sanctification is not the proper ground of assurance and evidence of our justification, and that it is legalistic for men to look to their works as the proof of their being true believers? We can only say that they directly contradict the apostle, and that they are most certainly mistaken.” There is a vast difference between saying that the ground of assurance for acceptance with God is my obedience to His commandments, and declaring that the genuineness of my profession is to be tested thereby. As Calvin pointed out, “But we are not hence to conclude that faith recumbs [rests or reclines] on works, for though everyone receives a testimony to his faith from his works, yet it does not follow that it is founded on them, since they are added as an evidence. Then the certainty of faith depends on the grace of Christ alone; but piety and holiness of life distinguish true faith from that knowledge of God which is fictitious and dead: for the truth is that those who are in Christ, as Paul says, ‘have put off the old man’ (Col. 3:9).” The soundness of our knowledge is to be gauged by the obedience which it produces.
“He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him,” (v. 4). In those words the apostle declares that any knowledge of God which issues not in obedience to Him is worthless, and that the lawless one affirming a saving acquaintance with God is a deceiver. John’s immediate design was to expose the vain pretences of the Gnostics, who claimed to know God in a very profound and intimate way. They imagined that they understood the very essence of God’s being and the mysterious manner of His subsistence, and therefore acquired or appropriated the name of Gnostics, or “knowing ones.” But they kept not the Divine commandments, affecting themselves to be occupied with higher things, which raised them above God’s precepts; and therefore they disdained His ordinances. John was also refuting the error of Antinomians, who, under the guise of magnifying Divine grace, set aside the Law as the believer’s rule of conduct. Peter refers to them in his second epistle and declares that the “liberty” they preached was naught but “bondage,” (2 Pet. 2:19); while Jude branded them as deniers of our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 4). But in its wider scope, our text is an exposure of all graceless professors.
It is an easy matter for anyone to say “I know God,” but whether or not such be the case must be put to the trial. It raises the question, What kind of knowledge is mine? Is it merely a natural and notional one, or a spiritual and influential? Do I know Him with a filial fear and holy love, or just intellectually, as the demons do (Mark 1:24)? This calls to the duty of self-examination, and shows the importance of making sure that I really have a saving interest in Christ. It requires me to ascertain if that great change has been wrought in me which regeneration ever effects. The defects and deficiencies of the Christian’s life are indeed many, nevertheless the one who has been born again evidences it by habitually walking with God. Nor will the real children of God resent the challenging of their faith or the testing of their knowledge. Rather are they deeply concerned, and willing to go to considerable pains in order to be Scripturally assured that their knowledge is radically different from that of empty professors or conscienceless hypocrites, that their faith is a Divinely communicated one, that their experience is sound and genuine and not delusive and counterfeit, evidenced by a conscientious compliance with God’s will.
Whether our knowledge of God be a saving one is not to be determined by the soundness of our creed nor by the depth and liveliness of our feelings, but by a radical change of heart which has produced a new disposition, which moves us to a willing, steady and diligent compliance with and conformity to God’s perceptive will. It is in this way that we may confirm the sincerity of our profession and the reality of our state. Contrariwise, anyone who avows himself to have passed from death unto life, yet makes no conscience of the Divine authority, but is a self-pleaser, supplies evidence that he is a liar. Thus it is that the Lord’s people are both to identify themselves and to be known unto others. See this principle illustrated in the case of Saul of Tarsus: when in response to his inquiry, “Who art Thou, Lord?” Christ was revealed to him, he at once asked, “What wilt Thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:5-6). As soon as he knew Christ, he desired to obey Him, and unmistakably and lastingly was that desire exemplified to the end of his course. Nor was his in any wise an exceptional case, rather was it in this respect “a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting,” (1 Tim. 1:16).
Unto all who are in Christ is that promise made good, “I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts,” (Heb. 8:10), so that they understand, love and obey them. It is in this way that we are renewed in knowledge after the image of God (Col. 3:10). That knowledge is a practical and persuasive one, which powerfully influences its subject and produces a walking in the light. When God writes His laws upon our hearts, our affections and wills answer to every tittle in them, with a genuine desire and determination to perform the same. There is a complete harmony between the renewed soul and God and a correspondency of will. That correspondency was expressed by David thus: “When Thou saidst, Seek ye My face; my heart said unto Thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek,” (Ps. 27:8); and by Paul: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man,” (Rom. 7:22). And though he was harassed with another and contrary law warring against the same and bringing him into captivity to the law of sin which was in his members, causing him to cry for deliverance, yet he not only thanked God that he would yet be fully delivered, but could say “with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”
“He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” The particular design of these verses is to take forth the precious from the vile. In them the apostle describes one of the vital differences which there are between the sheep and the goats. Of the latter it is said, “They profess that they know God; but in works they deny Him,” (Titus 1:16). They adopt the same language as the saints, believe the same doctrines, claim to be resting on the finished work of Christ, and are quite sure of their salvation; yet evince little or no concern for His precepts. They talk glibly, but walk carelessly. This is exceedingly solemn, for those who tread not in the way of God’s precepts are strangers to Him. A man spiritually knows no more than he practices, for spiritual knowledge is radical and influential. It exerts both a restraining and a constraining power, causing its subject to loathe and shun evil and to love and pursue that which is good. Therefore they who keep not God’s commandments have no experiential acquaintance with Him. “We cannot know Him as Lord and Father, without being dutiful children and obedient servants,” (Calvin).
While John describes quite a number of distinct marks whereby God’s children may surely recognize themselves and also identify those who have a form of godliness but know nothing of its living and transforming power, it is both highly significant and deeply important to note that he has given the precedence unto obedience, for without it any other apparent features of spirituality are but spurious. Though this be by no means the only evidence of a saving knowledge of God, it is the first and foremost, and where it be absent it is useless to look for others. As Christ asked those whom He addressed: “Why call ye Me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). Habitual disregard of His commandments is utterly incompatible with the owning of Him as our Lord. A disobedient life is a blank repudiation of a Christian profession. To avow that I know, God savingly while self-will orders my life is a blatant assumption, for it is thoroughly lacking in reality. If I disregard that which Christ has appointed to be observed and done by His disciples, then that is absent which marks me as one.
He “is a liar, and the truth is not in him,” As John proceeds to develop his subject his language becomes increasingly emphatic. In 1 John 1:7, he had affirmed that those who walk in the light have fellowship with God in Christ, but in 1 John 2:3, he used a stronger expression of those who keep His commandments—thereby they “do know that they know Him.” So, contrastedly, in 1 John 1:6, it was asserted that if we profess to have fellowship with God and yet walk in darkness “we lie, and do not the truth,” whereas here the apostle roundly and positively declares of the one who claims to know God and yet “keeps not [observe the tense] His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” It should be pointed out that the final clause is much more than a bare repetition in a negative form of the preceding one, being explanatory not only of his being a liar but of his being disobedient: he kept not His commandments because he lacked the “impulsive power of a new affection,” which impels to holy action. And here we would answer the final question in the opening paragraph in our last chapter: “His” refers to God in Christ, and therefore the “commandments” include those of both the Law and the Gospel—amplification and verification of this statement will be given (D.V.) under our exposition of 1 John 2:7 and 8.
“He is a liar;” for he professes that which his life refutes. He may know much about Christ and have many ideas of Him floating in his brain, but it is a glaring falsehood for one who makes no conscience of His Law to say he has a saving knowledge of Him. As Spurgeon pointed out, it is more than a verbal lie, namely a doctrinal one, for it is horrible heresy to aver a personal acquaintance with the Saviour and live a life of self-pleasing; the two things are utterly incompatible. It is a practical lie, for he completely falsifies such a profession. One who poses as a Christian when he is not “hangs out false colors on Sunday and all through the week plays the liar’s part.” It is a corrosive lie, eating into the soul of its utterer and corrupting it, for he who has no compunction in testifying falsely of his relation unto God soon becomes inured to deceiving his fellows. Some of the most shameless trickeries and robberies have been committed by those posing as ardent Christians. It is a damning lie, for the one who is guilty of this God-dishonoring falsehood is signing and sealing her own death warrant, challenging the dread sentence of eternal perdition (Rev. 21:8).
“But whoso keepeth His word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in Him,” (v. 5). Here the apostle returns to the thought of verse 3, and describes those who know the grace of God in truth (Col. 1:6 and cf. Eph. 4:21), though the careful reader will observe the change from “His commandments” to “His word.” That was not simply for the avoidance of tautology, but because the latter is a more comprehensive expression, taking in the entire communication which God has made us. It is first and foremost a commanding Word, which demands the subordination of our reason and judgment to it, the submission of our affections and wills, the subjugation of our likes and dislikes. But it is also a Word of doctrine to be believed and held fast. We are required to be as jealous of God’s Truth as we are responsive to His will, to be as sound in our faith as holy in our conduct, to hate false teaching as we do the garment spotted by the flesh. It is also a Word of threatening, to be respected and treated with fear and trembling—as Joseph did (Gen. 39:9), and not trifled with as was the case with Adam and Eve. It is a Word of promise and consolation, to be embraced or appropriated (Heb. 11:13) and rejoiced in (Jer. 15:16). As such that Word is to be kept as a whole, and in all its parts.
The “love of God” is an ambiguous phrase, for it may be understood either objectively or subjectively, as the love which God Himself bears and manifests unto His people or as that which they exercise toward Him; but whichever it is it comes to much the same thing, since theirs is but the reflex of His—the outflowing of that which He has shed abroad in their hearts. As the expression comes before us again in chapter 4, we will reserve till then (D.V.) a fuller consideration of its precise significance, as well as what is intended by its being “perfected:” suffice it now to say that by God’s love being “perfected” we understand its having accomplished its design or reached its end in producing obedience. The aim of God’s love in choosing His people is to make them holy (Eph. 1:4). The purpose of Christ’s love in redeeming His people is that they may be “zealous of good works,” (Titus 2:14).
As Calvin pointed out with his usual perspicuity—greatly excelling that of most who have followed him—“this misunderstood clause intimates what a true keeping of God’s Word consists of, even love to Him.” “What doth the Lord thy God require of thee ... to love Him ... to keep the commandments of the Lord,” (Deut. 10:12-13); “therefore love is the fulfilling of the law,” (Rom. 13:10), for love is dynamical, the most effectual of all influences and motives. Love is intensely practical—seeking to promote the interests of its object—or it is an empty name. Where there is love in the heart it will soon appear in the life; of all the affections it is the hardest to conceal. Love for God and obedience to Him are inseparable. Love reaches its objective when we please God—as a grafted tree has when laden with fruit. Consequently the Word is precious unto those who love God because it is His Word, and therefore they treasure it in their affections and memories and give proof thereof in their daily walk.
In verses 3 and 5 the Christian is shown how he may test the nature of his knowledge of God and the reality of his love for Him, namely by the effects they produce. If my knowledge of Him be something more than a self-acquired and notional one, namely that which the Spirit has wrought in me, then it has subdued my pride, humbled my heart, and brought me into subjection to God’s revealed will. It will produce in me that spirit which was manifested by Cornelius when he said to Peter, “Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God,” (Acts 10:33). Our own wisdom and whims will be so subordinated to God’s authority that we shall be willing to be weighed in the balances of His Word, to bring everything to its touchstone, ready to be corrected and reproved by it; and that not spasmodically or only for a season, but constantly: “If ye continue in My word, then are ye My disciples indeed,” (John 8:31). God’s Word becomes everything to such a soul: his delight, his food, his rule, his chart. In like manner, if the love of God be in my heart it will operate powerfully, so that sin is hated and holiness panted after, and therefore my greatest burden and grief is to sin against Him, as my supreme delight is to commune with and enjoy Him: “Hereby know we that we are in Him” —belong to Him.