A year ago I made a bunch of people mad by saying John never mentions the word “repent” in his gospel. To this day I still get messages from angry folks who say things like, “Well even if John didn’t preach it, you should! We need more preaching on repentance.”
Actually I think we need more preaching on Jesus, but hey, that’s just me.
The reason I mention John is because those of us who preach grace often get accused of not emphasizing repentance. My response: neither did John. Anyway, I’m not about to poke that hornet’s nest again. Perhaps it’s time to throw the angry folks a bone and swing the pendulum way back towards dead works. This ought to make them happy:
Jesus: If you love me, you will obey what I command. (Joh 14:15)
John: We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. (1 John 2:3)
“Aha!” says the angry man. “See? What did I tell you? You can’t wriggle your way out of this one. Stop preaching grace and start preaching obedience. John is clearly saying that you have to obey God’s commands if you want to be known by him.”
Actually, he says no such thing but I can see how one might jump to that awful and insecure conclusion: I had better obey God’s commands if I want to know him.
If this is how you read it, let me respond four ways:
(1) Your salvation is not based on what you do or don’t do for God. It’s based on whether he knows you. Jesus prophesied that in the end many will claim to have done good deeds in his name but he won’t know them (Mat 7:22-23). God wants you not your works.
(2) You cannot reduce the relationship that God desires to a set of rules to be kept. As we saw in Part 1 of this series, disobedience is a fruit of distrust and distrust has two faces. One way to walk in unbelief is to say, as the Israelites did, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” Many are looking for rules to keep and principles to follow and the result is faithless, lifeless churchianity.
(3) Genuine obedience follows trust, which is always based on love. (See Part 2.) If you are trying to obey God’s commands out of fear and insecurity – “I have to do this or else” – then you’ve missed grace and you’re wasting your time.
(4) If you trust Jesus but are still worried about this whole obedience thing, especially 1 John 2:3 above, then read the preceding verses where John lays a sure and secure foundation of God’s love for you. Understand that there’s a world of difference between saints who sin and sinners who sin. Since they are walking by sight and not faith, sinners sin naturally. They can’t help but sin (Rom 14:23). As a child of God you are able to resist sin. Yet even if you stumble, God won’t kick you out of his family. Instead, Jesus will speak to your defense because you are his.
All clear? Is your foundation firm? Good. Now let’s unpackage these words of John.
Jesus never threatens his bride
John, like Jesus before him, is not making threats but promises. The key difference between the two scriptures at the top of this post is their context:
Jesus: speaking to his beloved disciples
John: writing to the wider church
John is basically saying, “One way to tell if someone really knows Jesus is that they obey him.” John continues,
The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1 John 2:4)
The insecure believer reads this as a threat. I had better do what Jesus commands or else I’m not really a Christian. No, no, no! Christianity is not about impersonating Jesus. Christianity is Christ in us. It’s him living his supernatural life through us effortlessly (Gal 2:20). If you don’t have Christ you can’t reveal Christ – that’s what John is saying. In a world of phonies, a surefire way to recognize a genuine believer is that Christ lives through them. Without conscious effort, they do what he commands.
The axis of love
And what does Jesus command? Love, above all (John 13:35). Now I understand that some Christians get distracted to such a degree that they forget to receive and give love for a time, but that’s not what John is talking about here. He is referring to those who don’t have the love of God in them, period:
He who hates his brother is in darkness… (1 John 2:11, NKJV).
John is describing those who are following the way of Cain. As Brian Zahnd might say, John is talking about ungodly people who have not yet come into orbit around the axis of love:
But whoever keeps his word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in him. He who says he abides in him ought himself also to walk just as he walked. (1 John 2:5-6, NKJV)
Again, the insecure believer reads this as a conditional statement. I had better obey to earn my way into the kingdom. I have to walk as Jesus walked. But that’s not what John is saying. Read the passage again. John is saying that obedience is a fruit not a root. It’s a natural by-product of being connected to Jesus-the-Vine and allowing him to live his life through you.
Look closely at verse 5 and you will see two verbs or variables:
1. our word-keeping (or obedience)
2. God’s love perfecting
Which comes first? Answer: The love of God. John is saying, “This is how we know God’s love has done its perfect work in us – we keep his word.” Do you see it? God’s love always comes first. John hammers this nail again and again: “We love, and walk, and keep his commands, and do everything, because he first loved us” (see 1 John 4:19).
Receiving and abiding in God’s love is the foundation for everything in our walk. Who walks as Jesus walks? It is not the stressed out and fearful pretender. Jesus wasn’t stressed and fearful. Nor is it the one who is angry at those of us preaching grace and under-selling repentance. The one called Grace was never angry at grace!
So who walks as Jesus walks? It is the one who resting secure in his Father’s love.
The apostle John had a revelation of God’s love that perhaps went further than the other disciples. He was, after all, the one who went around calling himself the disciple Jesus loved (see John 20:2, 21:7). I am sure that Jesus loved all his disciples, but John was transformed by that love. He loves me! I’m special. I’m the disciple Jesus loves!
You need to see yourself the same way. You need to see yourself as “the disciple Jesus loves” or “my Father’s beloved son.” This is not arrogance. This is Jesus getting what he came for – your heart!