The scriptures are full of truth that uncovers the differences between those who have been truly born of God’s Spirit and those who have only an empty profession. God has given us this truth with one aim in mind: that we might come to a place of assurance and rest concerning the destiny of our souls. It is never God’s desire that we live in a tortured state, full of doubt and uncertainty.
It is notable that the very willingness for honest examination is itself an important indicator. In John 3:20-21, Jesus told Nicodemus, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” If there is in you a great fear of this subject or an unwillingness to honestly pursue it you may be one of those most in need of it.
As we have already indicated, salvation is at its heart a personal relationship with an utterly pure and holy God and His Son, Jesus Christ. I John 1:5-10 makes this clear and also shows the difference between believers and unbelievers with respect to their attitude toward and their consciousness of personal guilt and their need for a Savior. The one covers up and denies; the other repents, walks in the light and finds forgiveness.
As chapter 2 begins John expresses the reason for writing as he has: that believers not sin. There is no room for a careless, permissive attitude toward sin. Still, to guard against the other extreme of bondage to an unrealistic standard he points to Jesus, who pleads our case before the Father when we do sin. God faithfully works in us that we might grow up in Him and overcome sin. Yet as long as we are in the flesh and this growth process continues we find times when we need forgiveness and cleansing. It is a wonderful balance.
I John 2:3-6 is a key passage setting forth many truths that are central to our subject. Verse 3 states the basic truth while the other verses serve to shed further light on what is meant: “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”
“We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.” Here is a direct statement from scripture meant to help us know whether we have come to know God or not. I trust that the Lord will help us to set forth what is and isn’t meant by this important passage.
The phrase, “that we have come to know him,” expresses a personal relationship between us and God. Note that this phrase implies that there was a time when we did NOT know Him. At that time we were strangers, blindly living in sin and unbelief. We may have heard about God. We may even have been religious but we did not know Him personally. Our hearts were unchanged. We were lost and bound for hell.
Then, at some point in time, all that changed. The veil was lifted and the eyes of our understanding were opened. We saw our need. We saw the Savior. We bowed the knee and believed in Him from the heart and everything changed. The greatest miracle of all occurred. We became “new creatures” in Christ Jesus. We entered into the most important relationship there is. We came to “know God” for ourselves and not merely as someone we heard others talk about.
On a human level we understand the difference between knowing about someone and actually knowing them personally. Perhaps there is someone of whom we have heard much. Others, who know him personally, tell us about him and we begin to learn about him and to form opinions based on that knowledge. Still, it is second-hand knowledge. It may even come from someone who himself possesses only second-hand knowledge. All you really “know” is what you have been told.
Then one day you actually meet him face to face. No longer are you at the mercy of the opinions of others. You see him with your own eyes. You hear him speak. You feel the warmth of his hand as you shake hands in greeting.
Words are exchanged, yet more than mere words. Every tone, every gesture, the very look in his eyes, conveys volumes of information about the man you have met. You begin to get an inner sense of what he is really like as a person.
As your acquaintance grows you spend time together, speaking often. You go through various experiences together, each seeing how the other acts and reacts. You may even share deeply personal thoughts and feelings.
Now when someone asks you about him, you will not have to say, “Well, I heard this or that.” You will be able to tell things about him from real-life person-to-person experience. That makes all the difference.
It makes all the difference when it comes to the Lord, too! Merely knowing “about” the Lord is the same as not knowing Him at all. That kind of “knowing” will leave you lost and headed for hell.
It has been God’s desire and intention from the beginning that we should know Him individually and personally. That was the kind of relationship enjoyed by Adam and Eve before they sinned. Somehow God actually would walk and talk with them in the beautiful garden He had made. It seems incredible when you think about it that a God great enough to create this vast universe would actually desire a personal acquaintance and fellowship with lowly creatures such as we are—but it’s true!
It amazed David so much that he wrote, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.” Psalm 8:3-8.
Despite the fact that sin entered and we became estranged from God, He has never abandoned His desire towards us. Sin so ruined us, so turned our hearts away from God that not a single man would ever seek or desire God apart from God first reaching out to him. What amazing love and grace! How we ought to worship and praise Him!
He could have abandoned us to our fate, cast us into hell. But how amazing are the lengths to which He has gone in order to open up a way for us to be completely redeemed from sin and restored to perfect fellowship with Him, even sending His only Son to live as a man and then suffer the awful agony of the cross! Can there be any excuse for not falling at His feet in repentance and surrender?
This amazing desire of God for fellowship with man is seen everywhere in the Bible. Enoch was a wonderful example of this, a man who stood apart from his generation and left a testimony that remains to this day. While the rest of the world was falling further and further away from God, this man’s life was defined in these simple words: “Enoch walked with God.” Gen. 5:22-23. So special was Enoch’s relationship with God that he was even allowed to bypass death, going straight to be with the Lord. Not only does Enoch’s life testify to the kind of a man he was, it also testifies to the kind of God he loved and served! While others were running from God and sinking deeper and deeper into a fatal rebellion, Enoch was daily experiencing the love of his Creator and Friend.
By Noah’s day, only Noah had a heart toward God. He was the only man with whom God could communicate and God was faithful to give Noah and his family a way of escape from the coming destruction of the flood.
Abraham was known as “the friend of God.” James 2:23. Throughout his life God led him, blessed him, and talked with him. God wouldn’t even destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah without first telling Abraham. And He even listened to Abraham’s questions and concerns about it!
What was it that made Abraham so special? Did he earn God’s favor by living a perfect life? Did he seek out and pursue a relationship with God? No! He was living with his family in Mesopotamia, minding his own business, when God initiated contact with Abram, as he was then known. The defining characteristic of Abraham’s life was incredibly simple: “Abraham believed God.” Romans 4:3. When God spoke, Abraham believed him! That was his secret.
And that belief went beyond theory, beyond mere mental assent. It resulted in unquestioning obedience. Unquestioning obedience is simply this: “trust.” Abraham came to know—and trust—God as a person. Faith enabled him to leave his family and homeland and follow God not knowing where He might lead. It enabled him to believe the wonderful promises of God to his unborn seed. It enabled him to believe he would father an heir by Sarah even when it became biologically impossible.
It even enabled him to raise a knife over the son of promise, fully intending to offer him as a sacrifice in obedience to God. Of course, we see that God intended this as a test of his faith and stepped in to prevent him from actually carrying out the sacrifice of his son by providing a ram as a substitute.
Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph in their turn followed in the spiritual footsteps of Abraham, enjoying a similar special relationship with God. Throughout the history of Israel as a nation other heroes of faith are singled out in the biblical record as people who knew and believed God.
They stand in stark contrast to the spiritual condition of the nation as a whole which was one of persistent apostasy and unbelief. Such things as faith and love for God were never in their hearts. At times they could, as a result of some external influence, seemingly serve God. However, when conditions changed, so did they. They never understood God’s loving intention and desire towards them. They never learned God’s ways. They never really believed. They rejoiced when God opened the Red Sea before them yet complained bitterly at the hardships of the wilderness journey.
One of Israel’s greatest prophets was a man named Samuel. He was the answer to the fervent prayers of his childless mother, Hannah. Hannah had vowed that if the Lord would answer her prayer and give her a son that he would be given to the Lord’s service all his life. And so there came a day, while he was still a boy, that Samuel was left at the tabernacle to help the priests who carried out the various aspects of tabernacle service.
I have no doubt that Samuel learned many things “about” God while still a young boy. However, there came a day when it was time for the Lord to begin to use him and the scripture record says something interesting: “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.” I Samuel 3:7.
Now I understand that Samuel’s calling was unique and special but his life at this time clearly highlights the difference between knowing about and knowing the Lord. From that day forward God was real and personal to him. He came to know God’s voice.
His experience also serves to illustrate the transition from not knowing to knowing God. That transition was marked by Samuel’s first personal encounter with God. Not only that but the defining characteristic of that encounter was simply this: God spoke to him. And it wasn’t just a general word that Samuel happened to hear. Rather God spoke directly and personally to him.
Has God ever made Himself known by speaking directly to you? I don’t mean that you necessarily heard some kind of audible voice or had some great mystical experience. Most people don’t. But God knows how to speak to a human heart.
What we are really talking about is God’s call. On the day of Pentecost, the birthday of the church, Peter spoke of the promise being for all those the Lord would call. On that particular day about 3000 people not only heard God’s call—personally and individually—but they also responded to it in faith and repentance.
A large crowd heard Peter’s words, but more was at work than just Peter’s words. God’s Spirit was actively at work speaking to and convicting people in their hearts. They heard not only Peter’s voice—but God’s. Have you?
It is impossible to know God without first meeting Him. And it is impossible to meet Him apart from hearing His voice in one way or another. The critical moment comes when He does speak to us. How will we respond? What will we do? Will the entire course of our life be forever changed or will we go on as we are?
Consider the Apostle Paul. Saul, as he was then known, grew up in a Jewish home and displayed an unusual religious zeal from his youth. As a young man he sat at the feet of one of the great Jewish teachers, a man named Gamaliel.
His religion was that of the Pharisees and he was determined to be the greatest Pharisee that ever lived! The hallmark of Phariseeism was a self-righteousness built upon traditional interpretations of the law of Moses. In Saul’s mind, God had made His requirements for righteousness known through the law. It was now up to him, through his own efforts, to so honor and observe the law that God would recognize him as a righteous man. He certainly thought he was and was very proud of it! I have no doubt that had God not intervened Saul would have easily risen to the highest ranks of his religion. He loved God intensely—or so he thought!
Phariseeism produced a fanatical zeal in its followers. It was this zeal that brought about the crucifixion of Christ whom they perceived to be an affront to God and a threat to their religion. As the young church grew rapidly following the day of Pentecost they continued to oppose and persecute Christ’s followers by every means possible.
It was during this period that Stephen was stoned to death. He had, with a mighty anointing, given a ringing testimony exposing their true spiritual condition as God’s enemies until they could take it no longer. As they stoned him to death a young Saul held their coats so they could throw their stones more effectively and thus he collaborated in his murder. As others were persecuted and even killed, Saul was right in the middle of things. Acts 26:9-11.
What a classic picture of the condition that people can get in spiritually! Despite the outward appearance of righteous living and zeal for God, Saul was in the iron grip of satanic delusion. Although utterly sincere, he was totally deceived and on the road to hell.
Then one day Saul received reports of the church’s activity in Damascus and his indignation burned against it. How dare they oppose his religion and his God! Armed with letters from the religious council he led a band of men toward Damascus to do something about it.
But something happened as they went. Suddenly a brilliant light shone down on him and he fell to the ground, blind. Then he heard a voice that said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Acts 9:4. Dazed, confused, Saul knew he was being addressed by a supernatural being and so he called him “Lord” saying, “Who are you, Lord?” Can you imagine the shock and terror he felt when he heard these words: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”? In Saul’s wildest imagination nothing could have been more unexpected—but there it was!
The men with him saw the light and heard a noise but Paul alone heard the words. They were addressed only to him. The voice told him to go on to Damascus and await further instructions. Now blind, Saul had to be led by the hand for the remainder of the journey.
For three whole days he waited in darkness. I can only imagine what must have been going on in his mind during this time as he tried to make sense of it all. Everything he had believed and trusted in had been a lie. Here he thought he had been faithfully serving God and now it had turned out that he was really God’s enemy.
No doubt all of his self-righteous trust in the law now turned on him with a vengeance, threatening to overwhelm him with thoughts of condemnation and despair. He stood guilty before the very law he had thought to honor. Saul realized with horror that he was a murderer in the eyes of God. And it wasn’t just any sort of murder. He had murdered a servant of God! What must God think of him? What would He do to him? He knew all about the penalty for breaking God’s laws!
And on and on his thoughts and emotions churned, thoughts of self-loathing, self-hatred, wishing he’d never been born, wishing he could do something—anything—to change things. He had never felt so helpless and low. Was all hope gone?
And yet there were fleeting thoughts that perhaps not all was lost. That voice—by Paul’s concept of righteousness, that voice should have thundered at him in unmistakable tones of condemnation! Considering the greatness of his offense, why hadn’t he been struck down dead on the spot?
Yet the voice—it hadn’t been so much condemning as it been—sad—almost—was it possible?—compassionate! How could that be? Perhaps he thought back to Stephen’s death. What had he said as the stones rained upon his broken body? “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60.) What power was it that could forgive at such a time? Could he yet find a place of forgiveness?
And then the guilt flooded in once again as he thought of how he had closed his ears and hardened his heart before Stephen’s prayer. How could there be any forgiveness and hope for such a sinner as he?
For three long days Saul remained in this terrible—but necessary—dark night of the soul, waiting, wondering. As the time for the glorious dawning of a new day drew near, Saul was transformed from a proud, confident, self-righteous Pharisee into a needy, trembling soul. All self-confidence was gone. He stood before God a helpless, unworthy sinner, naked and undone before the blazing light of His holiness.
Yet it was not God’s design in all of this simply to make Saul squirm and somehow “pay” for what he had done. Quite the contrary! God longed to wrap his great arms of love around the tortured soul and reveal His amazing grace and mercy. But He knew that no man is a candidate for that grace and mercy who has not first seen his need of it. The words to the great hymn—”Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”—are empty and meaningless unless God has revealed to us our true wretchedness before Him.
Even while Saul was experiencing a “crash course” in being an unworthy sinner, God was preparing to lift him from his prison house of despair. In view of Saul’s reputation, it took some convincing, but finally—at just the right time, when Saul was fully ready—a believer named Ananias was sent to bring him into the glorious light of God’s love and forgiveness. God’s timing is perfect. He is never even one minute late!
In a short time Saul had been saved, forgiven, healed, baptized and filled with God’s Spirit! A whole new world of wonder and amazement opened before his spiritual eyes. Forgiveness! Could it be true? Yet the awful crushing weight of sin and guilt was gone! Before, he hadn’t been able to escape it. Now, he couldn’t even find it! The soul so recently sunk to the depths of despair now soared to heights of joy and rapture. The love of God flooded his soul and provoked a love for Christ more intense even than his recent hatred had been.
Saul had met Jesus Christ—personally—and Jesus had lovingly brought him before His Father’s throne, a redeemed soul! No longer was God a distant Monarch merely to be feared and His laws obeyed. He was now a Father to be loved and pleased. As God revealed His plan for Saul’s life all of the zeal with which he had formerly sought to excel as a Pharisee was now applied to the incredible truth of the gospel. What a message he had to proclaim! Love, mercy, forgiveness! If God could save Saul, He could save anyone!
In Philippians, Chapter 3, Paul, as he came to be known, recounts the transformation that took place in his values, in his fundamental reason for living. He first lists all of his qualifications as a Jew and a Pharisee, all of the things in which he had proudly trusted. Then he tells what he thought of all those things after coming to Christ. In comparison to Christ he calls them “rubbish” (verse 8).
Imagine how he would have reacted before meeting Jesus to someone calling his religious qualifications “rubbish”! But everything changed when he met Jesus. His religion had honored a law that was without mercy. Now he had met someone who not only showed him a mercy he knew he did not deserve, but did it at the cost of an unfathomable personal sacrifice! That Jesus, the divine Son of God, should have even come to earth to live as a man was pretty amazing. But that He had willingly suffered the agony of crucifixion! There were no words adequate to describe love like that!
And so, on a personal level, Paul expresses in verse 10 what his life came to be about: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Of the four things he mentions, the last three are really extensions of the first and most important: “I want to know Christ.” All of the amazement and gratitude he felt after meeting Jesus produced in Paul an insatiable desire to “know” him, the kind of knowing that only comes from an ongoing intimate personal acquaintance.
He saw this “knowing Christ” as a limitless thing and longed that other believers should enter into it. Listen to his prayer in Eph. 3:16-19: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Many other things could be said about “knowing God” but I hope that what I have written will help to show the difference between knowing Him and knowing about Him. We know that few have an experience of coming to know God comparable to Paul’s. God deals with people as individuals according to their need and His purpose. Nonetheless some basic principles can be seen. We see a man who knew—or thought he knew!—about Jesus. One day he met him and that confrontation resulted in Paul seeing his need as God saw it. Only then was he shown the hope of the gospel and brought to repentance and faith.
Of course, John’s purpose in I John 2 is to give us truth that will enable us to know that we know Him. He gives us a test that he expresses in simple terms: “...we obey his commands.” Knowing God is characterized by obedience.
A relationship between us and God is not a relationship between equals! When you consider who He is—a holy, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, loving God—and who we are—ignorant, weak, sinful, needy creatures, what other relationship could there be but one of obedience? Will we try to make Him our servant? Do we expect Him to use his power to serve our selfish ends? Or, could a man rightly claim to know Him while ignoring His instruction? Verse 4 tells us that such a man is a liar.
John’s statement clearly implies that we understand who we are, who He is, and what our proper response therefore ought to be when He makes His will known. It is not for Him to obey us but for us to obey Him.
Let’s consider for a moment, what the word “obedience” means. Wherever there is obedience there are two wills involved. And furthermore these two wills are at variance with each other. One wants one thing and the other wants something else. There is a built-in disagreement, a conflict, if each of the two parties clings to his own will. If the two wills are already in agreement what need is there for obedience?
Obedience is a way to bring about harmony where there would otherwise be discord. One of the parties is willing to give up his will and submit to the will of the other. That is what must take place between us and God. Our war with God will end one way or the other: our surrender or our destruction. Knowing God is not characterized by stubbornness and rebellion.
We have no greater example than our Lord, himself. Hebrews 5:8-9 expresses an amazing truth: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
Think about it! Surely no one has ever been any more in harmony with the Father than our Lord Jesus! He was there with the Father before the world was and it was through him that everything and everyone else was created. He was freely willing to come down and become our Savior. How then could the writer have said that he “learned” obedience?
Remember what we said about there being two wills involved in obedience? When Jesus lived on earth, he lived as a man and experienced many desires that were contrary to His Father’s will. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus wrestled in prayer with his human desire to escape the cross. Victory came as he found grace to say, “...not my will, but yours be done.” Luke 22:42. Do you see the two wills there? In order to carry out the Father’s plan Jesus had to give up his own will.
Never before had there been even the slightest inclination to be out of harmony with his Father. The days of his flesh brought him into a brand new experience. Part of him cried out to go another way yet he was able with God’s help to overcome every contrary desire and to serve Him anyway. That is the essence of obedience. And it was in dealing with those contrary desires that Jesus “learned” obedience.
It was only after Jesus had been fully tested and made perfect (complete) that “he became the source of eternal salvation.” But notice who this salvation was for: “all who obey him.” Once again we see the direct connection between obedience and salvation.
Satan loves to distort truth in our minds in order to cause us to miss what God intends. One way is to view divine truth through a filter of legalism. I can just hear some reader exclaiming, “See! I told you we have to keep the commandments!”
When the mind is governed by legalism it causes that person to view the things of God much as Pharisees like Saul did. They see God as a lawgiver and therefore believe that their standing before God depends on their efforts to keep His laws.
Now many such people will readily admit that salvation is by grace through faith. After all, Ephesians 2:8-9 is still in the book! Therefore their legalistic mentality is applied to the Christian life. In effect they believe we are saved by God’s grace but kept by our works. They are made to fear that if they stray from the “straight and narrow”—usually thought of as things to do and other things not to do—God will then reject them and they will lose their salvation.
What a terrible place to be! No matter how much they use words like “grace” and “faith” the devil has them persuaded that, to one degree or another, the salvation of their souls depends on them and their efforts. But the truth is that there is absolutely nothing in the make-up of any member of Adam’s race that makes him capable of rendering the kind of obedience John is talking about. That’s why we need a Savior!
The obedience John is talking about comes only as a RESULT of salvation. It is the natural expression of a changed heart. It is the fruit of the inward transformation wrought by the Spirit of God. That is why obedience can be a test of truly knowing God.
It is true that someone who doesn’t know God at all might succeed to some degree in conforming their outward behavior to a set of do’s and don’ts, but their hearts will remain unchanged. Do you think God is satisfied with that? Is He only interested in enforcing certain standards of behavior on rebels? Of course not! The truth of the matter is that God knows how to make that unchanged, disobedient heart manifest.
Anyone not changed right to the core of their being will never be part of the eternal kingdom God is establishing. That puts the whole matter hopelessly beyond our reach. Salvation is not a do-it-yourself affair. It only comes when we freely and humbly recognize our need and put ourselves in God’s hands that He might produce in us the necessary changes. Then we become “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Eph. 2:10.
Another legalistic distortion occurs in the minds of those who tend to see everything as “black and white,” “all or nothing.” There is no in-between, no room for error. When they read a biblical statement like, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands,” it hangs over their heads as an absolute condition of divine favor.
This opens the door wide for Satan. All he has to do is to point to the slightest shortcoming, the smallest failure of obedience in us, to minister fear and doubt. “See there,” he will say, “there is a plain unmistakable statement of scripture. You believe the Bible, don’t you? Well, just look at how short you come! How can you claim to know God?”
Every statement of scripture is turned into an absolute law we must live up to—an impossible standard! What this mentality really does is to cause sincere souls to vainly try to live for God in their own strength. Paul’s experience in Romans 7 should be enough to show the impossibility of such an approach. It is difficult for such a person to truly see the grace of God. Anything short of perfection seems like compromise. After all, look what the Bible says!”
The Bible does indeed say many things and it does lift up a standard of righteousness that is not be taken lightly. The question is: how do we get there? In view of our weakness and inability, what is God’s plan for saving us? Once again the answer is divine grace that transforms us from the inside out. The new life that is begotten in a genuine born-again believer has the power to please God.
But we must again emphasize for the sake of legalistic “absolutists” that this is a lifelong process. We have already referred to the scriptural balance that would draw us away from all sin and uncleanness while at the same time offering us a place of forgiveness and cleansing for every shortcoming along the way.
In the natural world we understand that it takes time for children to grow up. If we’re good parents we constantly hold up as a standard what we desire them to become but we also understand that getting there is a long process with many failures along the way. In Psa. 103:8-14 David wrote, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Wow! What a glorious picture of the compassion and love of God!
It should be clear that obeying his commands is not set forth as an absolute standard of perfection. Rather, it is the pattern and rule while sin is the exception. The true believer has a desire to please God and do what is right that comes from the inside.
If the pattern of a man’s life is one of self-will and sin and he only does what is right as a result of some external influence then “the truth is not in him.” Such a man cannot rightly claim to know God.
Under the first covenant of laws the people were instructed how to live for God. It came from outside. The new covenant is not like that. Listen to these words from Heb 8:10-12: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” What a glorious covenant!
Has God written His laws in your heart? Are you merely conforming to someone’s concept of a so-called “Christian lifestyle?” What are you like when no one is looking? What do you think about? When you do wrong—even when no one else knows about it—does it bother you? Are you a Christian from the inside out?
Some brief comments are in order concerning the word “commands” or “commandments.” Many of us, when we encounter words like these in the scriptures, tend to think of them the way we think, for example, of the ten commandments. We think of a list of “thou shalt nots,” edicts imposed upon us by a lawgiver.
But this is not the picture being painted by John nor is such a picture part of New Testament Christianity. Because Jesus went to the cross and bore the punishment we deserved the law has been fully satisfied and the door is opened for us to enter into the kind of relationship God has always wanted. He doesn’t want to be a mere lawgiver and judge but a loving Father.
The commands referred to by John are not the edicts of a lawgiver but the instructions of a loving Father to His children. These commands are not directed to the lost but to those who know Him. They are meant to instruct and guide His children that they might grow up and become all that He has purposed.
I John 5:3 says, “And his commands are not burdensome.” One example is found in John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Jesus was expressing the heart of His Father teaching us to be like Him and His Son.
True believers are the only ones with either the inward desire or the capability of obeying commands like this. We will understand I John 2:3-6 much better if we see “commands” as part of a Father-child relationship rather than viewing them through a veil of legalism.
Another key aspect of truth revealed in this passage is in verse 5: “But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him.” Did you see it? This gets to the heart of the relationship God desires with us.
The first thing that is revealed here is God’s motive for giving us “commands.” Is He just a great bully Who lords it over us because He can? Is it some kind of ego game? Does He derive a sadistic pleasure out of taking away all our fun? Is He an angry, impatient monarch just looking for an excuse to cast us into hell? What is His motive? This verse reveals it. The glorious truth is that His motive is love!
And this love is not like any earthly love. Do you want to know what it is like? In I John 4:8 he tells us that “God is love.” Then in verses 9-10 he says, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” In Romans 5:8 Paul puts it this way: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Far from being self-serving, God’s love is sacrificial. At great cost it is bestowed on the undeserving. No matter how vacillating we are in our affections, His are constant. Every thought, word and action towards His children is motivated by an unchanging love, an unflagging desire to deliver us completely from this present evil world that He might bring us to unending joy in the next.
Notice again what John says of the one who obeys God’s word: “God’s love is truly made complete in him.” Love that is not returned is a terrible and unsatisfying thing. But this is love that has been made “complete.” What does this mean?
It means that God expresses His great love towards His children by instructing them with needed truth. His children not only recognize their Father’s word as truth but they also know inwardly that it is an expression of His personal love for them. Unlike the world, which sees God’s Word as an unwelcome interference with what they want to do, the Christian, though his fleshly desires may fight to have their way, sees His Word as the expression of love that it is. The obedience that results, therefore, is the way God’s children “love Him back.”
This lifts “obedience” to an entirely different dimension. Surely we recognize that true obedience cannot be merely superficial. But an “obedience” that results only from fear or self-interest (what we hope to get from God as a result) falls far short as well. Only a new-born heart is capable of rendering obedience that is motivated by an inward love for God. He desires nothing less.
In Romans 5:5, Paul says, “...God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” In Galatians 5:22, Paul lists the various aspects of the “fruit of the Spirit.” The very first one is love. Perhaps the greatest witness of all that we truly know God is the inward knowledge—revealed to our hearts by God, Himself—that He loves us, together with the resulting capacity to love God as well as others.
The last phrase of I John 2:3-6 is a summary of John’s thought and holds up our Lord as an example. “This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” Surely we recognize that John isn’t suddenly holding up a standard of absolute perfection! Rather he is pointing out that Jesus is the perfect example of one whose life of obedience demonstrated his relationship with God.
Clearly, the proof is not in what we say or profess; it is in how we live. Real Christianity involves a supernatural transformation that brings about a changed life. I trust that the picture is getting clearer. God wants you and me to know. With His help I plan to continue painting that picture by drawing our attention to other important aspects of this truth.