JOHN WROTE HIS GOSPEL so that his readers might learn how to obtain eternal life, 20. 31, and he wrote his first epistle that those who believed they had obtained it might be able to verify the fact, 5. 13. To that end he mentions several things which must exist as evidence that a person who alleges he has been born again is speaking the truth. Verbal profession without having the root of the matter within is easy and all too common. Three times John says in his first chapter ‘If a man say’ and three times in his second chapter he says ‘He that saith’, because John is not satisfied with words alone, he expects them to be accompanied by proofs that what is said is really true. A baby is known to be alive, altogether apart from anything that it might later say. Life is not proved by speech alone but also by actions which speak louder than words.
Seven times John uses the word gennao in his first epistle. It means ‘to beget’ and denotes the impartation by God to a believer of His own nature, thus constituting him one of His children. He uses the perfect tense which implies a past event the effects of which are abiding and permanent. Thus wrapt up in the very word and tense is the fact of eternal security. Once divine life has been received it cannot be lost; no one can be turned out of the family of God once he is in. But though, of course, God knows who are His, and though on the objective side ‘the Spirit himself beareth witness’ (in the Scripture) ‘with our spirit that we are the children of God’, Rom. 8. 16. R.V., how may the believer, on the subjective side assure himself and others that such is the case ? What external proofs are there ? John tells us what to look for.
I . CONFESSED FAITH IN THE PERSON OF CHRIST
‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God’, 5. 1. Mark well that word ‘believeth’. The test is not whether at some time in the past I decided to believe, but whether I do now believe. Do I here and now admit that the Lord Jesus is all that He claimed to be, and am I prepared to make verbal confession of that fact to others ? Note the verb is ‘is’ : he does not say ‘was’ for the confession relates not only to the past earthly life of the Son of God but to His present heavenly session also. Moreover, ‘confession’ with the mouth must accompany belief. Paul categorically states this in Rom. 10. 9 and 10, and John implies as much in 4. 3. No-one who denies the deity of Christ has eternal life. This must head the list of evidences, for it is basic. Men may appear in the sight of others all that they should be, good, kind, righteous, pure, and so on but if they do not believe that ‘Jesus’ – the virgin’s son, the Galilean carpenter, whom the Jewish people put to death, is God’s Son and the Christ they arc not born again and do not possess eternal life. Good qualities arc only as adjudged by men ; before God alt stand condemned as guilty of the gravest offence if they reject His Son.
If then the reader of this paper is in any doubt as to whether he has been born again let him ask himself what is his present attitude towards Christ. If his answer is ‘I do believe’ be may well advance to further tests in order to gain the added assurance that John wishes his readers to have.
II.RIGHTEOUSNESS OF CONDUCT
‘If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that everyone that doeth righteousness is born of him’, 2. 29. ‘He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous’, 3. 7. ‘Whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother’, 3. 10. Thus John gives both sides of the matter for he knows no neutral ground. He owns no grey, he only knows black or white, We are either born again or we are not, we are either alive or dead. It is only in a parable that a person is represented as ‘half dead’, but plainly doctrine cannot be based on such figure of speech.
‘Of Him’, ‘of God’ : the source of the river that proceed-eth out of the throne of God and of the Lamb characterizes the river itself : it is ‘bright, clear as crystal’, Rev. 22. 1 ; equally so ‘like father, like son’. Human fathers beget sons in their own likeness and in their own image as did Adam. It follows, then, that the children of God are born after the image of Him that begat them. No wonder then the sons of God should walk as the Son of God walked. Note the tense again which John uses. He is most particu¬lar and says ‘doeth’ denoting the characteristic of the life. The one who is born of God habitually practises righteousness, not occasionally. His lapses are occasional things, the norm of his life is righteousness.
But what is righteousness ? It has been defined as ‘consistency of actionwithany givenrelationship’, which means that if, for example, I am a husband 1 shall do all that is required of me by God to do as such: and so will all the children of God whatever may be their relationship, whether husband, wife, parent, child, master, servant or aught else. Each relationship, Godward or manward, whether spiritual, natural or social carries with it moral duties and the proper discharge of these is ‘righteousness’. It goes far beyond mere honesty in business, though that, of course, is obviously included. Therefore, in addition to having assurance because of the objective statements in God’s word to which we pin our faith (they are outside of ourselves), we should also apply this subjective test and see how we stand by considering what has been wrought within us and how it is displaying itself. Let us ask, how are we discharging our obligations in the setting of life in which God has placed us ? No child of God need despair because of a measure of failure : provision has already been made for such in the advocacy of the Lord Jesus. But it is the general trend of life, its governing principle, and normal characteristic that matters. It is easy to be deceived into thinking that mental faith in the person and work of Christ is sufficient to ensure our receiving eternal life. But such faith must have its accompaniments which are manifest in the life, otherwise ‘that faith’, that is that kind of faith which is devoid of works, can never save. It is this lesson which James drives home so forcibly in his letter.
III.LOVE TO THE BRETHREN
‘Everyone that loveth is born of God’, 4. 7. ‘We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren’, 3. 14. ‘Everyone that loveth him that begat, loveth him also that is begotten of him’, 5. 1. In a proper family the children, who of course love the parents will also love the new arrival: it is natural, normal, and just what one would expect. Love pervades the whole circle. It was so in the early days of the Christian era, when people used to say ‘See how these Christians love one another’. We need not, even in these days of sad divisions, despair, because there is still a very large amount of love existent among the people of God, a love that over-rides all ecclesiastical and other barriers. In so acting we display the nature of God as well as prove the genuineness of our profession.
It is suggestive that we are told that ‘God is light’ before ‘God is love’, and that John speaks of ‘doing righteousness’ before he deals with showing love. With him love is no spineless, unprincipled, sentimental kind of thing that has no regard for the claims of God and others. Love is always obedient to the commandments of God, 5. 2, and thus helps others into a similar path. It does not exercise itself at the expense of righteousness, nor is it any mere verbal thing, for true love is practical and wherever it is possible it helps those who are in need, 3. 16. There is safety in love for it can only lead to the good of others. There is an adage that says ‘Love is blind’, yet in matter of fact it is hatred which is blind. Love has sight but the one who hates another can never tell where it will lead. ‘He that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes’, 1 John 2. 11.
Here then is a salutary test which we may apply to ourselves. How do I regard the children of God, specially those who do not see e}'e to eye with me ? – and those who irritate me ? It is one of the surest signs of new birth when we are instinctively drawn toward fellow-Christians, simply because they belong to Christ. There is a recogni¬tion of family relationship and a bond of brotherly love, which cannot be extinguished however different the natural temperaments of each may be, and however discordant their view-points.
IV. FREEDOM FROM HABITUAL S I N
‘Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin : for his seed remaineth in him, and he cannot sin because lie is born of God. In this the children of God are manifest and the children of the devil’, 3. 9,10. ‘We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not, but he that was begotten of God keepeth him’, 5. 18. Clearly John does not imply by these statements ‘sinless perfection’ for he has envisaged the possibility of a believer sinning and spoken of the provision already made for it in the advocacy of Christ, 2. 1f. But, as always, the tenses are important. He uses the present continuous tense and means that the one born of God does not and cannot, as a matter of habit, go on sinning. He has within the very seed of God, i.e. the divine nature, a nature which, like everything else, can only produce after its own land. The impossibility here spoken of is one of the nature of things, a moral impossibility. Smoke cannot do other than rise though a gust of wind may deflect it downwards. The needle of the compass cannot but point to the north though under some strain it may be diverted. In like manner, it is morally impossible for a believer to ‘continue in sin’. This very point was raised by Paul and dealt with in Romans 6. The basis of his conten¬tion is that the believer has died to sin. This same matter is dealt with by John though the basis of his argument is that the believer is alive – he has been born of God.
It is not John’s line to speak of the two natures and their mutual conflict; Paul does that. But the ‘seed’ here de¬notes the divine nature and that abides in the believer resulting in his inability to sin habitually. He has a nature that cannot at any time sin, for it is the very nature of God and it is unthinkable that He could sin. If a person makes a profession of having been born of God but he continues in his former sinful manner of life, then we may safely assume the profession to be spurious. A life of sin is utterly incompatible with the nature of God. Onesimus was an altogether different man after his conversion, and though once unprofitable yet Paul observes he ‘now is profitable not only to me but also to thee’.
Thus the subjective test now to be applied is, what kind of life am I living? Am I continuing in sin, utterly in¬sensitive to its unsuitability to the life which I aver I possess? ‘He that was begotten of God’, that is the Lord Jesus, ‘keepeth him’ so that we are without excuse. He, as ‘begotten of God’ was not merely able not to sin, but was unable to sin, and the very nature which He possessed, ‘that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us’ He has communicated to us. He that hath the Son hath life, and this life is in His Son. We do not have it independently of Him for He is the great reservoir from whom it flows.
V. VICTORY OVER THE WORLD
‘Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world’, 5. 4. This is not the world of sinners, nor the world of nature, the former of which we are to love and the latter we may enjoy. But ‘the world’ is that system which Satan has led man, exiled from the garden of Eden, to build up in order to counteract the effects of the fall, ft is that which man arranges in order ‘to make the best of a bad job’. In such a system the child of God cannot expect to avoid tribulation, though he can draw comfort from the fact that the Lord Jesus has overcome it. He, therefore, should not be overcome by it. He belongs to an altogether different system of things, a system of life, light, purity, holiness and all that is the very opposite of the world. ‘The world’ would seek to prevent our obeying the commandments of God, 5. 3, but the believer possesses, as another has said, a nature which overcomes it and a principle which enables him to obey God. ‘The world’ regards the commandments of God as restrictive, depressing, unreasonable and fails to understand anyone who gladly obeys them. But the believer has no such difficulties. To him the commandments of God are not grievous, and he is happy to obey leaving in faith the issues with God. For this reason the world cannot understand us, and regards us as odd. But we need not be troubled, we are in the best of company.
All truly born again persons are ultimately ‘overcomers’ and will have their rewards commensurate with their faithfulness and diligence. But in so saying we must beware lest we be like Gad and ‘troops overcome us’ from time to time even though in the last instance we be victorious, Gen. 49. 19. It is better to overcome all along the line.
Apply then these tests in the presence of God and, while you may expect to be humbled and searched, you will learn your Father’s heart and your Saviour’s work in such a way that you will never doubt Him though you may have doubted yourself.