John is writing this letter so that his readers, who believe in the Son of God, might know that they have eternal life (5:13). In other words, it is possible to be a Christian and yet fear that you are not. My hope is that as we study this letter your sense of assurance will grow.
But it also possible to think you are a Christian and not be one. Being nice does not make you a Christian. Going to church does not make you a Christian. Saying you are a Christian does not necessarily mean you are. Getting baptised does not make you a Christian. In fact if any these things is the reason you believe you are a Christian then you have failed to understand the gospel.
So how can I know I be sure I am a Christian?
John offers three pieces of evidence that show people that they have been born again. Last week we saw the truth test - those who have been born again believe certain things about Jesus and his gospel (not that salvation is a reward for passing some sort of doctrinal exam, but because holding fast to the gospel is an evidence that God has healed your spiritual blindness and opened you eyes to the beauty of his truth). This week we will talk about the behaviour test. Next week we will talk about the love test.
It is important that we get things in order. Our behaviour does not make us a Christian. We are saved simply by placing our trust in the life and death of Jesus. Yet becoming a Christian changes how we behave. A changed life is not the cause of our salvation. However it is evidence of our salvation. Tozer writes, 'Every Christian wants to be good. He knows that he is not saved by his good deeds, but he knows also that good deeds will follow his salvation and be the practical proof that it is real.'
1. Christians behave because we are born again
Christians behave differently because they have been born again (2:29 and 3:9). Now you don't take any credit for you physical birth. Neither should you take any credit for you spiritual birth. You may think that you were seeking God, but actually God was drawing you to himself. You were dead in transgressions and sin, you have been made alive in Christ. This life comes with new desires and new abilities. God causes you to will and act according to his good purpose. Therefore we cannot keep on sinning (3:9).
2. Experiencing God's love inspires us to behave
As people who have had their lives opened to the beauty of the gospel we are increasingly aware of the love God has poured out for us. John seems to burst into a spontaneous outburst of praise. Behold what manner of love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are (3:1). Understanding what God has done for us changes us. John will later write, 'we love because he first loved us'.
3. Understanding what we will be inspires us to behave
Another thing that helps in our transformation is our sure and certain hope (3:2-3). The Christian delights in the fact that one day they will have a glorified body. When Christ returns our mortal bodies will be raised in glory. We will never again experience sickness, ageing or death. We will be morally without sin, intellectually without error and physically without weakness. Although thinking about Jesus' return stretches our belief, we should pray that God makes us increasingly aware of this reality. For contemplating the fact that we shall be made pure like Jesus, actually motivates us to live pure lives now.
4. We are being changed because we live in Christ
Being born again results in us living in Christ (3:6). He has taken away our sin (3:5). We no longer live under the condemnation or the power of sin. We are no longer children of the devil, we are children of God (3:10). Those who live is Christ keeps on sinning (3:6). A life of sin is incomparable with living in Christ. That is not to say that the Christian never sins. John has already told us that we are lying if we claim to be without sin (1:8). But our new nature in Christ will not let us treat sin as if it does not matter.
5. We know we are born again by the fact that we continue in the faith
Dear children, continue in him (2:28). Remember the false-teachers and their followers? They left the fellowship and faith because they never really belonged to it (2:19). Drifting from God may demonstrate that you were never truly a Christian. Drifting from God may harden your heart in such a way that we will be forever cold towards any call to repentance. So we must never be complacent. Hebrews tells us to 'encourage one another daily ... so that none of you may be hardened by sins deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly to the end the confidence we had at first' (Hebrews 3:13-14).
On the other side of the coin, as we pass through trials, and find that we are still holding on to God our sense of assurance will grow. As time goes by and we see that we are sticking with Christ our sense of assurance will grow. Indeed, eventually we will see evidence that we are persevering not because we are holding on to God but because God is holding on to us. After all God is a good Father who does not let go of any of his children.
6. Those who are born again seek to imitate Christ
We purify ourselves, as he is pure (3:3). Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous (3:7). But this is something far more profound than simply copying the example of Jesus. We live in him, he is in us, and his character is being formed in us. He is changing us in ways that we would be helpless to change ourselves.
7. Those who are born again love God's people
The one who refuses to love their brother or sister in Christ is not a child of God (3:10). Next week we will see that love for God's people is the third major test as to whether we have been born again.
The Bible scholar Don Carson explains that if someone comes along claiming that they are a Christian and yet they are shacked up with someone who is not their spouse, is cheating on their income tax, let's anger run their life, is constantly greedy, has no sense of brokenness or shame about their sin and no desire to be holy then they have no right to experience assurance. In fact he will seek to undermine any false-assurance they might have in order that God might bring them to a place of true repentance and faith.
Being born again results in changed behaviour. Christ's presence within us brings inevitable change. It may be slow but it is real. You will become more like Jesus as the years pass. God will make us less proud, more loving, more gracious, more patient, and we will more frequently use our words to build people up rather than tear them down.
But assurance does not depend on perfection. None of us is morally perfect in this life. John says has told us that if we say we are without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1:8). But the fact that we despise our sin, feel broken about our failure and want to become more like Jesus is a good sign. John writes so that we would not sin, but if we do sin we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence- Jesus Christ the Righteous One (2:1).
John Newton was a slave trader in the late eighteenth century. Now the slave trade was horrific. Slaves were chained and ill-treated. A huge portion of them died on the journey If a slave gave birth during the voyage the unwanted baby was simply thrown overboard. As a captain of the ship John would have raped many of the women. Yet he encountered the God who gave his Son to die for sinners. He eventually became an Anglican Vicar and famous hymn-writer. At the end of one his letters he we are being changed but remain sinful.
"I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to1 be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am”