There’s perhaps nothing more seemingly allusive for the genuine Christian than experiencing the full assurance of their salvation. Nearly every fellow Christian I’ve known personally for over thirty years has struggled to greater or lesser degree with doubts pertaining to the grand question, “Am I truly saved?” One reason I believe that salvation-assurance is a struggle for the child of God is because it is not something which belongs to the essence of faith. The Second London Baptist Confession speaks to this issue in Chapter 18, paragraph 3, by stating how “a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he [becomes a] partaker” of “infallible assurance.” Yet, despite such difficulties, the Confession exhorts that “it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make their calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance.” So, while a Christian may struggle with having assurance they are not to give up in their seeking after it since the Scriptures do plainly say that we are to “be all the more diligent to confirm [our] calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). But nevertheless, my point is, Christians struggle over having assurance of salvation.
Now when we turn to God’s Word under this struggle, there’s no larger divine treatment to aid us better in this conflict than the Book of First John. The historic occasion for John penning this letter was two-fold: first, he wrote to counter a rise of false teachers who were a precursor to the coming heresy called “Gnosticism.” These particular teachers had risen within the visible church (cf. 1 John 2:19) asserting themselves as the spiritual elite because they had “true” spiritual knowledge no one else had. Furthermore, by this claim of privileged knowledge they in turn sought to undermine and shatter any assurance held by Christians who were not privy to this special exclusive knowledge. John therefore aimed his guns at these heretics to expose them for the hypocrites they were and prove emphatically how their claim to “know God” was false.
But while John was beating back these wolves, he was at the same time striving to reassure these discouraged and confused believers that they had received eternal life. In fact, if there is one central theme to John’s first letter it is well summed up in 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” So then, John the apostle writes his letter to bring ordinary Christians the assurance that they really are Christians. As one writer put it, “[John’s] first concern is not to confound the false teachers…but to protect his readers…and to establish them in their Christian faith” [John Stott, The Epistles of John (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), p. 41].
But how does John go about helping believers gain a greater assurance in their salvation? John’s method is not to write a logical treatise on assurance, but rather he takes up a three-fold theme centering on the subjects of obedience, love, and truth – looking at them from three different cycles of teaching (2:3-5:5). The first cycle runs from 2:3-27. The second cycle runs from 2:28-4:6. And the third cycle begins at 4:7 and concludes at 5:5. Under these three themes John outlines three types of tests which apply to us all in this matter of examining whether or not we have come to savingly know Christ. These tests are as follows: (1) The Moral Test: Do we obey God’s commands? (2) The Social Test: Do we love God’s people? (3) The Doctrinal Test: Do we hold to the truth about Jesus?
In answer to these questions John nowhere advocates nor insinuates sinless perfectionism. I state this emphatically due to how many times 1 John has been used to promote sinless perfectionism by such statements like 1 John 3:9, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” On the surface, out of context, this statement sounds as if John is claiming that Christians never sin. But John has already established the fact in 1:9 that Christians do sin since a settled pattern in the believer’s life is an ongoing confession of sin. Moreover, in 2:1-2, while John exhorts his readers not to sin – yet, he quickly follows that with what they must do if they sin: be assured they have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous, who has placated God’s wrath against the believer’s sins. Thus, a true Christian does sin, but he is assured his sins are forgiven by virtue of Christ’s saving work. Hence, his continual confession of sin is always met by God’s faithfulness and justice “to forgive [his] sins and to cleanse [him] from all unrighteousness” – due to what Christ has procured. These facts alone from the beginning of 1 John make it patently clear that there’s no such thing as sinless perfectionism taught in this epistle.
But while sinless perfectionism is not taught, yet there is a clear teaching on a settled pattern of life in the Christian which stands in contrast to the settled pattern in an unbeliever. This settled pattern is built first on John’s repeated usage of the present tense verb in what he says about the one who truly knows the Lord. For instance, as just mentioned, in 1:9, when John says,”If we confess our sins…” – the verb “confess” is used in the present tense. This means that a Christian is marked by a life which is in a state of ongoing confession to the Lord for his sins. Such a life like this is in contradistinction to the unbeliever, whom John says are always confessing they have no sin (1:8,10).
Yet, confession of sin is not the only fixed pattern of the Christian life. John goes further with the aforementioned tests which make up the bulk of his letter. First, there is the moral test. Here the question is: Do we obey God’s commands? This begins with the first cycle of teaching where John declares: “And by this we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (2:3-6). The best way to understand this passage is to see it in the light of its contrasts. There are those, John tells us, who claim to know God yet never do what God commands. This means that in the unbeliever there is zero obedience to God. They do not ever keep God’s commands in spite of what they claim. However, the true believer, the one who truly knows Christ – his life is fixed in a pattern where he is always striving to keep and obey God’s commands. And while such obedience is never perfect and without sin, yet it is the central character trait of his life. His life is not marked by a pattern of disobedience to God but obeying God despite how often he falls and stumbles into sin.
This is why John declares in 3:9 that those born of God do not make a practice of sinning. Disobedience is not the way of life for the true Christian. Does he sin? Yes. But sin is not his uninterrupted path. When he does disobey God there is godly sorrow leading to repentance. He’s not comfortable with sin. He’s not at peace with sin. He’s at war with sin. This is due to the fact that he has now a new life where “God’s seed abides in him.” He’s a new creation. It is for this reason therefore that John asserts, “Whoever says he abides in [Christ] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (2:6). How did Jesus conduct His life on earth? How did He walk? He did always and exactly what His Father commanded (John 14:31). In short, Jesus rendered perfect obedience to God. Does this mean then that a Christian is expected to render the same kind of obedience – perfect, without sin? Clearly and obviously not. However, what is expected and assumed due to our union with Christ is that a new pattern of life will be evident. A pattern which is none other than the pattern our Lord lived while on earth: keeping God’s commands. The point is: if the pattern of our life, the marked traits of our character are in the direction of and submission to God’s commands, then we can be sure we’re saved. This is the moral test.
The second test is the social test. And here the question raised is – do we love God’s people? Again, John uses the present tense verb to indicate his emphasis on a settled pattern of life. Thus, when he writes in 3:14, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers,” – the evidence here of a transformed life is one that goes on loving those who are born of God (see 1 John 5:1). This love is not a mere feeling or desire but an action. As John reminds us, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (3:18). This love is also indiscriminate in its treatment of fellow Christians. We don’t reserve this love for those we consider our “favorites” but we freely love all our brethren in Christ because they like us have been born of God. But this love like our obedience has Christ as our example: “By this we know love, that [Christ] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (3:16). Our service to one another as fellow Christians is to be selfless and sacrificial which are the marks of genuine Christlike love.
But should we expect to see this love in its full growth and perfection on this side of glory? No, of course not. However, if we’re born of God in union with Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, then this peculiar love for God’s people will be the general evident pattern in the life of a true Christian despite how weak and immature its fruit may be. In short, you can’t honestly claim to be a Christian if you have no love for other Christians. To be entirely absent of such love for Christians is only proving we’re children of the devil as opposed to children of God (3:10-12). This then is the social test: Do we love God’s people?
The final test John sets forth is the doctrinal test. The question under this test is – do we hold to the truth about Jesus? Commenting on this question, one writer summed up John’s teaching in this way: “The truth that we are to hold to is that Jesus is God come in human flesh, so that he is [truly] God and [truly] man in the same person. Once more John is pretty blunt: if we do not believe this about Jesus, we are not Christians…There is no nonsense about Jesus only seeming to be a man, or about the divine Christ coming upon the human Jesus at his baptism and leaving him just before his death. In the incarnation, the eternal Son of God took full humanity into union with himself. The Son became something he had not been until then, and he has never divested himself of our nature, so that, even in heaven, he ‘continues to be God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever’ ” [Rodger Crooks, One Lord, One Plan, One People (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), p. 440]. So what is pressed on all of us here is this: What do you believe about Jesus Christ? Do you believe what God’s Word reveals or do you hold to another Jesus and thereby embrace a different gospel (see 2 Corinthians 11:4). And yet, here again, we see in 1 John that settled pattern of life. In this case, it is an ongoing faith and hope and trust in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (5:20).
So, how does John the apostle help us gain a greater assurance? We must consider three realities and see if they are indeed true about who we are and how we live. Do we obey God’s commands? Do we love God’s people? Do we hold to the truth about Jesus? It’s not perfection we’re looking for but the presence of obedience, love, and truth which is progressing as the fixed pattern of our lives as God’s redeemed children in Christ.