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Knowing God By Our Works?
1 John 2:3-11

By Bob Wilkin


"Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments" (1 John 2:3)

Recently I was on a radio talk show and a caller asked me to explain how 1 John 2:3 could fit my view that salvation is a free gift and that assurance is based not on looking to our works but on looking to the Word which promises that whoever believes in Christ has eternal life. What follows is my reply.

There are two basic views on what the whole book of: 1 John is about. To understand 1 John 2:3-11, we need to know the purpose of the whole book.

One view is that John was writing to encourage his readers to examine their works to find out if they were believers or unbelievers. This is often called the Test-of-Life view of 1 John. Robert Law popularized this position with his commentary by that name. Many commentaries adopt this view.

A second view is that John was writing to encourage his readers, all of whom were already believers, to produce good works so that they might be in intimate fellowship with Christ. This might be called the Test-of-Fellowship view. John Mitchell, J. Dwight Pentecost, and Zane Hodges have commentaries advocating this view.

I take it that the latter view is correct. John tells us his purpose in the prologue of the book. In 1 John 1:3 John says, "That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ." Notice that John did not say that he was writing to tell his readers how they might have assurance of their salvation.

Those holding the Test-of-Life view of First John suggest, instead, that 1 John 5:13 is the purpose statement for the book. That verse says, "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life."

There are several problems with this view. First, the words "these things I have written"(tauta egrapsa in Greek) refer not to all that precedes 5:13 but only to the immediate context (i.e., 5:6-12). The same Greek expression occurs on only one other occasion in the book, in 2:26. There too only the immediate context (i.e., 2:18-25) is in view. Second, 1 John 5:13 denies the premise of the Test-of-Life view, that both believers and unbelievers are the designated recipients of the book. John made it clear in 5:13 and throughout 1 John that he was writing to believers (cf. 2:12-14, 25; 3:1-2; 5:19).

What, then, does 1 John 2:3-11 mean? It is talking about how believers have fellowship with God. Notice verse three, "And by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments." This same thought is found in 1 John 1:5-7, John 15:9-14, and throughout the Old and New Testaments. When John speaks of knowing Christ, he is using a term which can refer to one's position or one's experience. In this context the latter is in view. In other words, a believer knows Jesus Christ in his experience to the degree that he obeys Him.

The word "know" is as flexible in English as it was in Koine Greek. Imagine hearing this statement about a man who had just divorced his wife of many years, "They were married for thirty years and yet he never knew her." He certainly knew his wife in one sense. She had been his wife for thirty years. However, he did not know her in the sense of intimate fellowship knowledge. So it is with carnal Christians and their knowledge of God.

Verse four says that any believer who claims to know God in his experience and yet doles not keep God's commandments is lying. In other words, one who is not keeping God's commandments does not know God experientially no matter what he claims verbally.

Verses five and six say that we know that we are in Christ in our experience, that our experience is Christlike, when we abide in Him and walk in a life of love just as Jesus did.

Verses nine through eleven say that any believer who hates his brother is walking in the darkness and, conversely, that any believer who loves his brother is walking in the light. That is, the degree to which we love our Christian brothers and sisters (and unbelievers as well [see Matt. 5:43-48; Luke 10:27-37; Romans 13:9-10; Gal. 5:14; 6:10]) is the degree to which we are walking in the light and experiencing fellowship with God.

Eternal salvation is all or nothing. Either you have it completely or you don't have it at all. Whoever believes in Christ alone as his Sinbearer has eternal life (John 3:16; 5:25). Belief in Christ alone occurs at a point in time and is not a process.

However, fellowship with Christ, knowing Him in my experience, is not all or nothing. There are degrees of knowing Him. Fellowship is conditioned not upon something which occurs at a point in time, but upon a process which takes place over time: ongoing obedience to all of God's commands. Since no believer ever attains perfection in this life (1 John 1:8,10), no believer ever achieves perfect fellowship with and knowledge of Christ in this life.

The word fellowship actually means sharing. Fellowship with God is a sharing of His character and nature in our experience. The more we obey Him, the more we share His character and nature in our experience.

Those who look to their works for assurance will never find in them a firm basis for assurance. Only by looking to the Word can we have true assurance. The Word promises that whoever believes in Christ alone has eternal life (John 3:16; 1 John 5:13). While we can't ever say that we are living a life in absolute fellowship with God (1 John 1:8,10), we can say with certainty that we have eternal life if we have placed our faith in Christ alone.

I'm so glad that I know for sure that I am a member of God's family. Assurance of salvation is a precious thing to me. With it I can face whatever may come. Without it, I would be greatly hindered in my daily walk with God because I would be consumed with concern moment by moment as to whether or not I was living the kind of life that gave me some measure of hope that God loved and accepted me.

Absolute assurance of salvation is a powerful tool to help us obey God's commands and thereby walk in fellowship with Him day by day. Such assurance engenders a deep sense of gratitude and joy that really motivates.

God's grace motivates us who know Him (in a positional sense) to get to know Him intimately (in an experiential sense). Jesus said to His disciples, saved men at the time (cf. John 13:10), on the night in which He was betrayed, "You are my friends if you do whatever I command you" (John 15:14).

What a joy it would be if when we went to be with the Lord it was said of us, "My, how he knew the Lord! He really was a friend of God." (Cf. James 2:23; 4:4; 1 John 2:15).



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