We now come to 2:3-6, in which we find the first test of assurance of faith: the moral test, or the test of obedience. This opens a discussion which will occupy much of our study—assurance of faith as evidenced by obedience to God’s commands. But note the order in which John has approached his topic: keeping God’s commands comes not before, but after the cross. We are first justified by Christ’s sacrifice, only then are we given the ability and desire to keep his commands. God’s imperatives for our holy living always follow his indicatives of what he has done to make holiness possible for the believer. Because Jesus is our propitiation to atone for our sins, and our advocate when we do sin, we no longer need to perfectly obey every commandment of the Law of God in order to be saved. So, when John writes that our assurance is found in keeping his commandments, he must have something other than perfect obedience of the law in mind.
In our passage, John uses three different but parallel phrases for obedience: “keep(ing) his commandments,” which results in “know(ing) that we have come to know him (3); “Keep(ing) his word,” which results in “the love of God … perfected” in the believer (50; and “”walk(ing) in the same way in which he walked,” which is evidence that the believer “abides in him” (6). The results of obedience, says John, stated three different ways, are all about knowing that we truly know God, are loved by God, and are in fellowship with him in Christ. In short, obedience leads to assurance that we are his.
John’s focus in our passage is both specific and at the same time, broad. Specifically, there is one commandment in particular given by Jesus which we are to apply broadly to our entire life and walk of faith in general.
Reading ahead, John describes God’s and Jesus’ commandments (which are the same) as believing in Jesus, loving God and one another, and keeping his commandments, which result in receiving whatever we ask in prayer from him (that’s a future lesson), banishment of fear, and loving God (3:22-23, 4:18, 21, 5:3). This is so much simpler than the rules we invent for ourselves, isn’t it? Just look at the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They were so focused on the lists of laws given by God and the multitude of addendum which they had compiled over the centuries that they missed the Author of their Law when he lived and walked among them (John 1:10-11).
Jesus himself taught that love was the sum and substance of God’s commandments and the keeping of his word:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:36-40)
“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” . . . . “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” (John 14:21, 23-24)
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:10)
The phrase “the love of God” or, “God’s love,” could be understood three ways: subjectively, as in ‘God’s love for the believer;’ qualitatively, as in ‘a love of like quality to God’s love;’ or objectively, as in ‘the believer’s love for God.’ The commentaries I read differed on which interpretation they chose. John Calvin sees the objective sense in our passage: the believer’s true love for God as expressed in moral obedience. “To love God in sincerity of heart is to keep his commandments,” because this shows that “what God requires from us, and what is the holiness of the faithful. . . . For the law, which is spiritual, does not command only external works, but enjoins this especially, to love God with the whole heart.” John Stott takes the same view, asserting that the proof of one’s love for God is shown in one’s loyalty to God.
On the other hand, Kistemaker takes the subjective interpretation, that John has God’s love for man in view. He bases this on the immediate context of verse 4 in which the unbeliever whose disregard for God’s commands proves that “(God’s) truth is not in him,” is set next to the believer in verse 5 who keeps God’s word and therefore proves that God’s love is in him. “Both truth and love originate in God but not in man. . . . in the broader context. . . . John explains that “love comes from God” (4:7), “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (4:12). God is the source and giver of love.”
Karen Jobes, whose commentary offers a more thorough exposition of this passage, agrees that the objective interpretation makes sense in the logical flow of John’s argument overall, especially in view of 2:7-11, but makes the case that the transformative goal of God’s love is being expressed in verse 5:
God’s love, which is indeed perfect, must be lived out in the believer’s life; therefore, the goal of God’s love for believers is reached in the transformation of how believers treat others. . . . John points out that God’s love for us has a goal of moral transformation. . . . God in Christ has loved us by redeeming us from sin (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 4:10), and that love has a transformative goal in the life of the believer, that they should love God, both the Father and the Son, which is expressed by love for others.
Having shared these scholarly opinions, I must say that when push comes to shove, John was ambiguous enough in writing this phrase that theologians far smarter and educated than me can’t agree on the precise meaning. Whichever meaning John had in mind to convey, the point is: only those who have been so greatly loved by God that he has made them alive together with Christ are able to keep his word, loving God and one another. God’s love is perfect and transformative and is set upon imperfect sinners who desperately need to be transformed. As his love does his work in us, it overflows in our love being refined and perfected as it is returned to him in grateful obedience.
Love for God displays itself in obedience to God. This moral obedience and loyalty to God in the life of individual believers overflows into the covenant community of the saints, transforming relationships as we learn together what it means to love one another as Christ loved us. Love fulfills the law of God, preventing fellowship-destroying sins such as adultery, murder, theft, and covetousness from taking root (Rom. 13:8-10). Where this love is planted in the covenant community, the fruit of the Spirit flourishes among God’s covenant people as they walk in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23)
When we walk in imitation of God, loving one another as Christ loved us, bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice are replaced with kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness (Eph. 4:31-5:2). This is only possible once we are filled by the Holy Spirit and have tasted the encouragement and comfort which comes from Christ’s love, by which we are enabled to love one another well, counting others more significant than ourselves in a humility akin to Christ’s own when he set aside his glory to come live among us, clothed in our feeble flesh, humbly obeying his Father to the point of dying on the cross (Phil. 2:1-8). This new way of living is at least one reason why Christ redeemed us, as Paul writes in Titus 2:11-14:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Love for God perfects us (5) by motivating us to keep his commandments (Deut. 11:1), inspiring in us a deep love and desire for his word as a means to grow in holiness (Ps. 119:10-11), making us righteous—so righteous that we will gain a crown of righteousness when he appears again (2 Tim. 4:8), giving us a love for one another, and causing us to overcome the world through our belief in Jesus (1 Jn. 5:2-5).
James makes the same point in his epistle which John makes here, using a different term for obedience. (He also uses the term “justified” differently from other writers of the New Testament: for James it means “to prove genuine,” not “counted to be just” as in Paul’s usage in Romans 3:28.) Instead of “obeying,” or “commandment keeping,” James speaks of obedience as having “works” or doing “good deeds.”
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:14-26)
In this passage, James describes the relationship between faith and obedience in much the same way (though with lots more words!) as John does in his epistle. James challenges those who have no “works,” and yet “say” they have faith (14) with concrete examples of where their faith, if genuine, ought to be shown in observable acts of obedience, before declaring: “Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works!” (18). He gives the examples of Abraham, whose genuine faith was “active along with his works,” and “completed by his works” (22). If the father of the nation of Israel wasn’t proof enough, James then describes the genuine saving faith of “Rahab the prostitute,” whose faith was also proven to be genuine by her “works” of obedience (25). He sums his argument up by unequivocally declaring that “faith without works is dead” (26).
It seems that James has encountered some of the same characters in his church that John describes in his epistle. They both warn us against those who ‘talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.’ James’s one who “says he has faith but does not have works” (14) is the same liar John describes who “says, ‘I know him,’ but does not keep his commandments” (4). These hypocrites who don’t love others enough to provide for their obvious needs but only send them away with empty words (16) are certainly not walking in the same way Jesus walked (2:6).
On the other hand, whoever keeps God’s word displays the genuineness of their faith just as Abraham and Rahab did, with active and living faith in which the love of God is perfected, and may be sure that they are in Christ (5). For this obedience reveals the genuineness of my faith not to the God who knows my heart better than I, but to me, that I might be reassured!
The design of James was to expose the foolish boasting of those who imagined they had faith when by their life they shewed that they were unbelievers; … that faith, without the evidence of good works, is vainly pretended, because fruit ever comes from the living root of a good tree.
1 John 2:4 reminds us of 1:6, where John tells us by a negative example that mere lip-service does not give evidence for faith, but rather exposes the liar’s unbelieving heart. The emphasis we are placing on love does not exclude active obedience to God’s revealed will in the law. As Paul made clear, the law is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12). The love of God for us and our love for him enables and motivates us to obey in the specifics and in general as we love God and others. Because we love him we strive to obey him; unbelievers have no such motivation or ambition, and this shows clearly in their lives. Our very desire and attempts to obey—though done imperfectly—assure us that our faith is genuine.
High degrees of Christian assurance are simply not compatible with low levels of obedience. If Christ is not actually saving us, producing in us the obedience of faith in our struggle against the world, the flesh, and the Devil, then our confidence that he is our Savior is bound to be undermined, imperceptibly at first, but really.
John tells us in verse 6 that those who abide in Jesus should “walk in the same way in which he walked.” As we covered in question 3, Jesus summed up the commandments of God as loving God and loving others. Our Master’s footsteps are hard to follow without his help. Thankfully, he has given us the help we need by sending the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and makes it possible for us to keep his commandments (John 14:15-17). By the indwelling of the Spirit we abide in Christ’s love and are filled with the same joy shared by the Father and the Son and can love one another as Christ has loved us—sacrificially (John 15:10-13).
We aren’t called to lay down our lives in the same way Christ did, for only he could atone for sins, but we are called to love others to such a degree that we lay down those things which stand in the way of our love for one another—selfishness, pride, our own agenda, even our plans and dreams, if they conflict with love. When we love others with a self-sacrificing love we are transformed—perfected—by the love of God and we bear abiding fruit and our prayers are conformed to the Father’s will (John 15:16-17). Let us therefore become doers of the word, and not hearers only (James 1:22).
And that love of which Jesus spoke, the Father’s love in which we are to abide? He mentions it again in his High Priestly prayer, asking the Father that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them” (John 17:26). The love the Father has for the Son is an eternal love, enjoyed exclusively among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity before the foundation of the world. Here’s where our assurance of faith finds its resting place: this is the love that will not let us go. This love, this eternal love, knows no beginning and no end, and our Savior, the eternal Son of God, who only ever prays perfect and acceptable prayers, asks the Father to draw us into and fill us with this exclusive, eternal love. Oh, sisters, rest assured in his love.
Walking the Walk
We learned in our previous lesson that Jesus Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice on the cross fully satisfied God’s justice on our behalf, atoning for our sins and effectively turning his Father’s wrath away from us so that he poured it out upon out upon his sinless Son instead. Intellectually, it makes sense on paper, yet it may still be difficult to believe when we consider our own sins and wickedness which we know we have committed. Feelings of guilt may linger long after our Savior has washed us clean by his blood. Take a moment, dear one, to review your answers to questions 1-8 in our previous lesson (advocacy & propitiation) and consider the following: what difference does Jesus’ propitiation (the indicative) make for your obedience (the imperative)? Beloved, how have you been thinking and/or living as if you are still responsible to pay your own sin-debt to God? If Jesus really and truly paid your debt of sin in full—which, if you are a Christian, he did—what difference will that make in your life and walk of faith today, tomorrow, and ever?
I pray that you would know the love of the Father, and in knowing his love you would be filled to overflowing such that you would love one another with a self-sacrificing, humble, life-giving love.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the First Epistle of John, translated by the Rev. William Pringle, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2009), 175-176.
 Stott, 95
 Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of The Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986), 257.
 Karen H. Jobes, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1, 2, & 3 John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 84-86.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of James, translated by the Rev. William Pringle, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2009), 309, 312.
 Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 201.