by Leland M. Haines

Note: Some things in this article were written for a Mennonite audience, but I am sure others will find its theme is Biblical and worthwhile.

The First Epistle of John was written "that our joy may be complete." Its purpose was to explain how the Christian may have assurance. It was written "to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life" (I John 1:4; 5:13). Throughout the book John explains how one may know. The thought of the words "by this we may be sure that we know him" (2:3) occurs several times throughout the book.

This theme of First John is very familiar to Mennonites. The fact that the Christian may have assurance has been emphasized time and time again in our churches. The reason for this is that our forefathers "were opposed to the teaching that a person could know certainly his destiny before the end of his probation, which correctly meant to them the end of physical life" (J. Irvin Lehman, Sword and Trumpet, 4th quarter, 1948). Lehman goes on to emphasize that we can know our present spiritual condition only, and not the future situation of our soul at death. This emphasis has created some confusion in our churches about assurance. The line between "present assurance" and "future assurance" was not always made clear, and some came to believe that one could not have assurance at all. This made it necessary to stress the theme of First John: "That You may know that you have eternal life" (I John 5:13).

This theme of John's epistle may be familiar to Mennonites, but I am not sure that many Mennonites understand how the Christian may know that he has eternal life. In our preaching, the fact that we may know has been emphasized, but not the "how to know." The results of this one-sided emphasis is that many in our churches have a false security. They think they know that they have eternal life, but they fail to see if they meet the Biblical condition for true assurance.

How may we be sure that we have eternal life? The answer to this question is found in the second paragraph of First John: "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (I John 1:5-7). If we walk in darkness we do not live. Only if we walk in light do we live. The type of our walk, our obedience to God's word, determines if we can have assurance that we live. (Scriptural quotations are from RSV)

The importance of obedience as it relates to assurance is emphasized throughout the book of I John. Following are several of these passages:

By this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments (2:3).

By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked (2:5, 6).

Now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that every one who does right is born of him (2:28-29).

We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains death (3:14).

By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him... All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them (3:19-24).

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is love of God, that we keep his commandments (5:2-3).

We know that any born of God does not sin, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not him (5:18).

"Keep his commandments," "walk in the same way in which he walked," "does right," "love the brethren," "keep his commandments," "obey his commandments," "does not sin," are ways that we may have assurance that we have eternal life. One cannot have assurance of eternal life and live in sin.

Why does John place so much emphasis on obedience as a condition of assurance? Isn't the sinner justified by faith? Do we receive eternal life through faith or through obedience.

The sinner is justified by faith, but the faith must be of the type that produces obedience. If the sinner claims to have faith, but has not repented and has not been born anew, his faith is dead and it will not save him. Faith must be followed by repentance and the new birth, both which produces in the believer a desire to keep God's commandments. This is why John writes, "By this we may be sure we know him, if we keep his commandments" (2:3). If we keep His commandments, we must have repented and received the new birth, and thus are assured that we have a live faith that saves.

Can one have security in "believerism?" The words "only believe and be saved" are deceptive if obedience toes not follow. We must meet the condition of obedience if we are to have security in Christ, and assurance that we have this security.

By Leland M. Haines

From Sword and Trumpet (Sept., 1975 issue)
P. O. Box 575
Harrisonburg, VA 22801 USA


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June 22, 2000