BY THIS WE WILL KNOW
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Usually when we digress we apologize or say “but I digress” as if it were a bad thing all the time. Sometimes a digression can be very good. This is what we’re looking at this morning. Someone has called this “A digression on assurance.” It’s not always a bad thing to digress. It’s certainly a good thing to be assured.
It’s funny the things you remember from your childhood. I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 at the time. In the summer my family would go down to the Gaspe region of Quebec. We would spend a month there while my father preached in a church in a town called New Richmond and took part in other church activities. I remember one Sunday morning I was in the pew and my father was talking about hardness of heart. He was talking about actions like looking at the clock while church was going on, wondering how much longer it would be and what one would be doing afterwards etc. Now looking at the clock at the back of the church (surreptitiously I had hoped) was one of the things that I had been doing! I was a little bit mortified in my young mind.
I must have been of a mind to confess too. At Sunday dinner after church, I told my father “Dad I look at the clock sometimes – I hope I’m not hard-hearted!” He assured me that I wasn’t. The theological questions and concerns we have even as children.
“Little children” is how John addresses the beloved church to whom he is writing in v 18. This is where we ended up last week. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Good! After this, though John wants to give them a few words of encouragement. He wants to give them a few words of assurance.
The people to whom John was writing were facing threats. They were being told that what they were believing and the ways they were acting were wrong. From within the faith community, itself have arisen people who are teaching something other than the good news of Christ. They are not showing love for one another. How is this community to know that they are from the truth? How are they do know that they are actually in this thing?
This might not be an issue for you. If it’s not then you can think about something else until we get to v 21. But perhaps it is a question that arises within you from time to time. John is writing to a group of people who are following Christ after all. His use of “whenever” seems to imply that this will not be an unnatural occurrence. “Whenever our hearts condemn us…”
Whenever our conscience tells us that maybe we’re not of the truth. Rightly or wrongly. Our conscience may be speaking to us become of some ill that we have done. Our hearts may be accusing us wrongly. If this is the case it’s not really our hearts at all but the one we call the accuser who’s always going about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Whenever our hearts tell us that surely we are unworthy to receive so great a love from God; that we are unworthy of forgiveness; that we have done something from which there is no coming back; that there must be something more that we should be doing; that we’re not cut out for whatever it is that God is calling us to do.
Whenever this happens. We need to look at what “by this” means. John uses it a lot and the “this” always points forward or back. This time it points back. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
In other words look to how the love of God has been and is being made known in your life. Look to examples.
When our hearts are accusing or excusing look to what God says.
You are forgiven (1:9)
You are in him (2:4-6)
You know and belong to the truth (2:20-21, 3:19)
You are a child of God (3:1-2, 10)
You are loved (4:10-11)
Is it any wonder that Luther talked about this writing buoying up hearts?
“…by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” God’s grace; God’s mercy; God’s forgiveness is greater than our condemning hearts. And he knows everything. I’ve always loved the line from the story of the Samaritan woman at the well encountering Jesus. She runs back to her village and tells them “Come see a man who told me everything I had ever done.” In other words, someone who knows me completely.
And loves me. And calls me his child.
And if you had tuned out this is the time to come back in. What does this mean? It means we can approach the throne of grace confidently. With boldness even. “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.” Now we are not to think that God is some sort of cosmic vending machine there to give us whatever we ask; that God will do this as a reward for obeying and pleasing him. Someone has described it like this – “the covenant relationship of love between Christians and God, and the unity of wills brought about by living faithfully within that relationship, provides another perspective than that of mere reward. To live in fidelity to and dependence on God’s will is neither to keep a checklist of rules nor to enjoy uninterrupted prosperity. It is to ‘abide in God,’ and so to live with no other source of security in the world, to enter fully into the risk of turning away from the material… to rely on God alone… It is within this context of trust, risk-filled faithfulness, and mutual love the 1 John’s assertions about prayer are made.”
To remain in God boldly. To abide in God with confidence. Someone has said that the fruit of love is confidence. The fruit of God’s love for us. The fruit of our love for one another. Abiding confidently in God. The ground of our obedience is God. The ground of our reassurance is God. We’re not called to summon up our own feelings of reassurance. They are rooted and grounded in God. Who has revealed himself in the person of his Son.
Which brings us to the verse that really encapsulates the whole message of 1 John. The message that we’ve been looking at all these weeks. The combining of faith and action. What we believe and what we do.
Here it is. “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” His commandment as he has commanded. Believe in the name. In those times your name was more than simply what you were called (and I suppose in our times to a certain extent this holds true). Believe in the name. Believe in the person. Believe in the character. Believe in the authority of his Son Jesus Christ. This is combined with the command to love. Not a new command but an old one. One that is inexorably tied into what we believe. To have faith in God is not simply to agree to a set of beliefs. We agree to certain beliefs of course but it’s not simply that. Someone has said that faith is not simply static and creedal but it’s active and personal. It makes itself known in love for God and love for one another. You can’t separate them any more than you could separate living from breathing.
To obey this command to believe and to love is to abide in him. To rest in him. To remain in him. That word that’s used so well by the Gospel writer. I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me. This matter of belief is not just a one time assent to a proposition. It’s a continual remaining. It’s not static. It’s a continual trust. Ongoing personal communion. One of the reasons we’ve called gathering around this table of communion. To remember what Christ has done. To remember the love that God has shown for us in Christ. To look forward to that banquet table around which we will gather. While we wait to live in an ongoing, active, personal relationship with. We abide in him. He abides in us. Sealed by the Spirit he has given us. The Spirit’s always involved too of course. The first time the Holy Spirit is mentioned here so explicitly by John. The Spirit that unites us with that great cloud of witnesses that surround us. The Spirit that unites us with one another and with Christ’s followers all over the globe. The Spirit that unites us in that divine dance of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
May our hearts find reassurance friends as we gather around the family table.