Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
If you Love Me, Keep My Commandments
( John 14:15 - John 2:3-6 )
by J. Ligon Duncan III
We're going to be looking at 1 John 2:3-6 today as we continue to work our way through this great book of Scripture. In chapter 1, especially from verse 5 to the end of the chapter, John is responding to false teaching in the Christian congregation, especially regarding sin. The false teachers are teaching a number of incorrect things. They're teaching that you can have saving fellowship with God and still live immorally. They're teaching that once you become a Christian, you are a person who is without sin and they're teaching that once you become a Christian, you no longer, in fact, commit sin. And John is responding to each of these false teachings. He makes it clear in 1 John 1 that believers ? though we are new creations in Jesus Christ? we are still sinners, and we still need to deal with that sin realistically and biblically. And of course that means, as he tells us, confessing our sins and seeking the forgiveness of God. Though we have been saved by grace, though we have been forgiven of our sins and spared of their penalty, as believers we still continue to grow in grace by confessing our sins and having them forgiven.
It was very interesting. As I was flying back from San Diego on Friday, I was sitting next to a Christian lady who was reading a book? a book that perhaps many of you are reading or have read? and in this book, the author was arguing fairly strenuously that Christians were not to view themselves as sinners. "That," he said, 'would be unbiblical. And because we view ourselves as sinners, as wretched sinners, as merely sinners, we lack the energy to live the Christian life." And it was very striking because I had 1 John 1 open in front of me, and she had this book open and he was arguing that thinking of yourself as a sinner was unbiblical, and here was John saying that thinking of yourself in any other way than as a sinner saved by grace was unbiblical. And it was an interesting contrast. But John is dealing with just that kind of teaching here in 1 John 1.
Then in 1 John 2, he says, "Now, let me make sure that you don't misunderstand what I'm saying. By saying that we, as Christians, will continue to struggle with sin, and by saying that we as Christians will continue to need to confess and repent of our sins, I am not saying that sin is no big deal. I'm not saying that we shouldn't pursue godliness. I'm not saying that we shouldn't be active in the pursuit of holiness. Far from it! In fact, he makes it clear in verses 1 and 2 of 1 John 2 that his goal is precisely that we would pursue godliness. He explains to us the basis of pursuing godliness and righteousness in 1 John 2. It is in Jesus Christ the Advocate who is the propitiation for our sins. And, at the very end of that section in 1 John 2: 2, he goes on to explain the only, God-provided way of forgiveness, which is in Jesus Christ: trust in Him, in the salvation which is only gained through Him, because He's the world's only Savior. He's the only Savior provided whereby anyone's sins can be forgiven. That's what John means when he says, "He's the Savior of the world."
Now, from dealing with sin then, and false teaching about sin, and dealing with the proper view of sin in the Christian life, he moves to another subject. And his subject is "How one can know that one knows God? How can you be assured that you know God? How can you be assured that you are a Christian?" And in this section that begins with verse 3, he lays out three tests for knowing that you are a Christian. One of them is moral, one of them is relational, and one of them is doctrinal. That's the order that he takes. One is moral, one is relational? it has to do with how we relate to one another, and especially, with the way that we relate to fellow believers and one is doctrinal? something that we believe about Christ. Today, we're going to look at the moral test. Next week, Derek will look with you at the relational test. And then we'll follow up the following week or thereafter by looking at the doctrinal test. That's where we are today. Let's hear God's Word. Before we hear His Word read and proclaimed, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His blessing.
This is God's Word:
"By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. 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; but whoever keeps His Word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked."
How do we know that we know Him? How is it that a person comes to know that he or she really knows the Living God, really has a saving relationship, really has a fellowship knowledge of the Living God? doesn't just know things about Him but knows Him? is in relationship with Him? That's the question that John is asking here. And the tests that he gives are designed to help you come to a firm and certain answer to that question, to strip away any self-deception that may be in your heart, and to open your eyes to see the truth, to find out whether you don't know God or whether you do know Him.
John gives us three tests beginning in this passage to help us ascertain whether we know God. We've already mentioned them. There's a moral test. We'll see it right here in verse 3. It's going to be put in two or three different ways in the course of these four verses. He'll give a relational test, and also a doctrinal test later. But his design is to give Christians something by which they may judge their claims of true knowledge of God. Primarily, he's not giving these so that we will begin judging the rest of our congregation as to how they stand with the Living God, but that we might look at ourselves and ask how we stand with the Living God.
If we were to outline this passage today, verse 3 would be his first expression of the test: Do you keep God's commands? There's the first test. Verse 4 would be a negative example of someone who claims to know God but who doesn't keep His commands. It would be a negative example. It would be an example of how you know that you don't know God, if you claim to know Him and don't keep His commands. The third part of this passage you'll find in verse 5. There again is another way in which John says the same thing that he's just said in verse 3, that is, that we know we know God when love to God comes to fruition in obeying His word. And so, he's getting at the same truth again in a different way in verse 5. And then, the fourth part of this passage you'll find in verse 6, and again, it's another negative example. It's an example of someone who says, "Oh, I abide in Christ. I abide in God. I'm resting in Him. I'm united to Him." But this person isn't living the way that Jesus lived. And so again, he says, "If you are abiding in Him, then you will live in the way that Jesus lived," that is, in accordance with God's word. If we were going to outline the passage that's how we would outline it.
But I'm going to draw your attention, especially, to the three ways that John expresses this vitally important truth. That is, that we know that we know God if we keep His commandments. And you will have already noticed, even in the way that we outlined it, that he expresses that truth in three ways. First of all, he says, "You know you know God if you obey His word." Secondly, he says, "You know that you know God if you love obeying His word." Thirdly, he says, "You know you know God if you're abiding in Him and your abiding leads you to live a godly life, to live in a way that Christ lived." Let's look at each of those things together today.
I. We know that we know God in our desiring to keep and keeping God's commandments.
In verse 3, John states his point. "By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments." Now again, I want to stress, John is not asking the question, "How do we come to know God?" He's not saying, "If you want to come to know God, here's how you do it: obey." That's not the issue that John is dealing with, how one is saved. He's not dealing with how one is declared righteous before God. He's not dealing with how one receives the grace of God. He's not saying, "If you want to receive God's grace, obey." "If you want to be justified, obey." He's not saying, "If you want to be saved, obey." He's not saying, "If you want to know God, well, then obey." He's saying something different. He's not saying, "If you want to know God, then obey."
He is saying, "Here's how you know that you know God: it's manifested in the way that you live. It's manifested in your obedience." So, it's very important for us to note that John is not saying that we know God by keeping His commandments. Rather, he is saying, "We know that we know God by keeping His commandments." Those are two, distinct questions, and we need to keep them distinct.
That is, John is not teaching salvation by obedience, nor is he even teaching assurance by obedience but John is teaching that salvation is evidenced by obedience, and, in turn, that obedience contributes to our assurance.
It's important that we understand, then, what he's up to. He's trying to give us a diagnostic to let us know how we know, or to know that we know, the Living God. So, in verse 3, he says that "we know that we know God in our desiring to keep and keeping God's commandments." He's concerned to supply tests that will distinguish those who simply claim to be Christians from those who claim to be Christians and who really are Christians.
And test #1 is very simple: Do you obey God's word. Look at this. "We know that we know God by keeping His commandments." Do you keep God's commandments? There's test #1. Is the Bible your final rule for faith and practice? He's saying here that "one way grace is evidenced in the life of a person who claims to be a Christian is in obedience."
The Nobel Prize-nominated Christian, Henry Shafer, who is a famous chemist who teaches at the University of Georgia, tells the story of how he came to reject Christianity. He had been raised in a nominally Christian home, attending a mainline Presbyterian church, and one day in the midst of a discussion in the kitchen, he made a point to his father about an ethical question by saying, "Look, Dad, the Bible says such and such." And His dad responded by saying, "I know what the Bible says; it's wrong." Henry Shafer said, at that moment he decided that Christianity must be bunk, because his dad claimed to be a Christian and yet rejected the teaching of the Bible. In God's mercy, God did a work of grace in Henry Shafer's heart and brought him to saving faith in Christ later on. And then, at that time, he realized that it wasn't that Christianity was bunk; it was that his father's profession of faith was bunk. You see, if you believe the Living God, you will believe His word; you will trust His word. You will acknowledge it as your final rule of faith and practice. And you'll not just do it in the abstract. You'll do it where it hurts; you'll do it where it's hard to obey.
Now, by the way, John is not saying that Christians are able to keep the law perfectly here. John does not suffer from short-term memory loss, sort of like Dori in "Finding Nemo". You remember, he's just told you in 1 John 1 that he knows that Christians continue to sin? When he says that you know that you know God because you keep His commandments, he is not suggesting that any Christian can keep God's commandments perfectly. He's just dealt with that issue in chapter 1. But what is he saying? He is saying this: "There are those who love God's Word, and who love to obey God's Word, and who by grace have been able to some extent to be obedient to God's Word, witness to their true knowledge of God. And that," he says, "is an evidence of really knowing God." His point is that fellowship knowledge of God? true knowledge of God, the knowledge of God in which we share a saving relationship with Him? always expresses itself in a transformed life. It never leaves us unchanged. To know Him changes everything. It changes us from the inside out, and one of the way that it changes us is it makes us love to obey His Word, to believe His Word, to follow His Word. So, there's the first thing he says.
II. We know that we don't know God if we do not desire to keep/keep in some measure God's commandments
Now, by way of contrast, in verse 4 he says, "The one who says, 'I have come to know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar." You see, there's the other side to the truth that he's already shared with you in verse 1. His point is, if you claim to know God but your life is not changed by knowing Him, that is a certain sign that you don't know God.
Now, it's so important for us to see what he says here. He doesn't say that the problem is that you're all caught up with truth. You've got all this head knowledge but you have no heart knowledge. Isn't it interesting that he says there in verse 4, "The one who says, 'I know God,' but doesn't live that way, the truth is not in him"? He doesn't say, "He has the truth, but he hasn't put it into practice." He doesn't say, "He has head knowledge, but he doesn't have heart knowledge." He says, "He has no truth," because the truth of God turns your world upside down. Once you have that truth, it fills you with a fire of rapture and love for the Living God; it changes everything. That truth always leads to love; it always leads to obedience; it always leads to a transformed life. And so, when that transformed life is not there, then you can be certain that that person has never had the truth; he's never met God. He's never met the Lord Jesus Christ who is "the way, and the truth, and the life." There is no knowledge of God that does not also lead to the keeping of His commandments. "True grace always reigns in righteousness," Paul says in Romans 5. "Grace-salvation always leads to obedience," Paul says in Ephesians 2. "Justification is always accompanied by sanctification," Paul says in Romans 8. "Faith always shows itself in works," James says in James 2. Those are just different biblical ways of stressing the point that John is making here in 1 John 2:3 and 4: Truth always expresses itself in action. Faith, trust, real knowledge of God are always expressed in action, and especially in the action of obeying God's commandments. And so, we know that we don't know God if we don't want to keep His commandments, and if we don't by grace do just that.
III. We know that we know God when love to God comes to fruition in keeping His Word.
Now, in verse 5, he expresses this test, this moral test, in a different way. "Whoever keeps His Word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him." You can tell that somebody has just said, "Oh, but John, I love God." And John comes back and he says, "Oh, do you? Well, everyone who loves God, loves His Word, and loves His commands, and longs to do His commands. And, in fact, in everyone who truly loves God, that love is perfected in his obedience to God's command."
You see, test #1 was "Do you obey God's Word?" Test #1 expressed differently here in verse 5 is this: "Do you manifest your love of God by keeping His Word?" You see, true love for God is expressed not in sentimental language. True love for God is not expressed in some claim of mystical experience. True love for God is expressed in moral obedience. The proof of love is loyalty. What would a wife think of a husband who said, "Oh, honey, I love you," but every week he engaged in an affair with another women? Well, that profession of love would ring hollow. True love is loyal. And, therefore, God says, "You truly love Me? You'll be loyal to My Word. You'll be committed to My Word." You see, the truth of God does not exist in order to promote merely right notions about God. The truth exists to promote an active and experiential relationship with the Living God. And that relationship, that fellowship? knowledge, always expresses itself in love to God, in obedience to God, in love and obedience to His Word. Love delights to do God's will. What is Jesus' refrain in the Gospels? John catches it so frequently. He says, "It is My meat; it is My food to do the will of the One who sent Me." Jesus loved to do God's will. And so, if we're like Jesus, then we will love to do God's will as well. If we love God, we will keep His commands, and that obedience will in turn evidence our true love to God.
Do you remember what Jesus said to His disciples on the night that He was betrayed in the upper room in John 14:15? "If you love Me you will keep My commandments." That's what He said. And so, the Christian who teaches that you can love Christ and not keep His commandments is contradicting the Master. Well, that's the second way He expresses this truth.
IV. We know that we don't know God when we claim to be abiding in Him and yet fail to emulate Jesus' life of obedience.
And then in verse 6. "The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked." In other words, here's somebody who's saying, "Oh, I'm abiding in Christ, John." And John says, "Good. Well, then if you're abiding in Christ, then one thing that will happen is you'll walk like Christ." In other words, you'll live like Christ. And how did Christ live? He lived in obedience to the Father.
So, John is saying that you'll abide in Christ. And what does he mean by "abiding in Christ"? Well, to abide in Christ is to experience a life-giving relationship of the deepest and closest sorts with God through Jesus Christ, a relationship that issues forth not in passivity and indifference and indolence and inattention to duty, but a relationship that issues forth in activity and commitment and effort and love for God's will and following after Christ's way of living.
And so John says, "Good. You abide in Christ? Well, then no doubt your whole life will have been transformed by that." If you're resting in Jesus Christ, if you've found Him to be the source of every spiritual blessing, you're trusting in Him for salvation, you're fellowshipping with Him in grace then your whole life will have been changed. You see, everyone who is united with Christ expresses that union with Christ by living like Christ, by emulating Christ's love for these to the Heavenly Father.
Oh, we'll never do it perfectly. If you're looking for perfect obedience as the answer to this test, then no one will pass this test. But by grace God always works some obedience and some love for obedience in the life of those who claim to be His disciples.
My friends, one of the great struggles we wrestle with in this congregation and community is a desire to follow Christ while at the same time following this world. And it's a strange encouragement to me that John's having to deal with the same problem right here in 1 John 2, 2,000 years ago, with a congregation that lived less than 50 years after Christ walked this earth. You see, they want to abide in Christ; they want to love Christ, they want to be Christians and yet, they're struggling to be faithful to living in accordance with God's will. And what does John do? Well, John, like his Master, says to them, "You cannot serve two masters. You must either serve God, or you must serve this world. If you serve God," he says, "this is how you know that you're serving God: you know that you're serving God because you want to do what He says in His Word. And in some measure, by His grace, you do just that."
Now, my friends, that message is important for us. It's important for at least two reasons. It's important because there may be some of us here today who profess to be Christians who are not living in accordance with God's word and really have no deep desire to do so. And what John is saying to you is, "You're not a Christian, friend. Come to grips with that. Realize that you need grace! You don't need to be brushed up and made to live it better. You need grace; you need saving grace!"
And there may be other Christians here today that are wrestling with a lack of assurance because of imperfections in their lives. And John is saying, "I'm not asking for perfect obedience to God's word; I'm asking you to look at your heart and answer this question: Do you long to obey God's word? If you answer that question 'yes,'" John says, "well, then I have some help for you here." He's going to give that help to you in the rest of this book. But, my friends, in that way, this message is for all of us today. May God grant us to answer rightly John's questions.
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is the Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and is a former professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. He is the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and served as president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals from 2004-2012. He studied at Furman University, Greenville, SC (BA); Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis (M.Div., MA, cum laude ); and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (Ph.D.). Duncan has edited, written, and contributed to numerous books. Ligon and his wife Anne have two teenagers and they reside in Jackson, Miss.