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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
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
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;
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
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
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
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
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"
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
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