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Is Your Faith Genuine? Two Helpful Tests from 1 John

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Can we be certain that we know Christ in a saving sense? It’s an age-old question, one that’s vital to our Christian experience. In his first letter, the apostle John writes on the theme of assurance. He states his purpose clearly: “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” (1 John 5:13).

Those who know God lead lives that have been and, indeed, are being transformed by Him.

John wrote that believers may “know” their hope for eternity—a particularly bold claim in light of his context. The church to whom John wrote faced the problem of Gnosticism, an early heresy that is named from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” Some teachers had crept into early church fellowships, describing knowledge of God as either mere intellectual awareness or some mystical experience. In either case, Gnosticism divorced godly knowledge from godly living. It is possible to know God, they would say, and to live however you’d like.

But those who know God, John argued, lead lives that have been and, indeed, are being transformed by Him.  First John 2:3–11 prescribes two tests to measure genuine faith; in order that we may enjoy the assurance that faith in Jesus brings, John invites us to measure our confession and conduct against God’s teachings.

The Moral Test: “Am I Obedient?”

In verses 3–6, John highlights two dimensions of the moral test, or the test of true obedience. Where faith-filled, grace-inspired obedience is present, the apostle reasons, assurance of salvation and love for Christ will also exist.

Obedience Assures Us of Our Salvation

“We know that we have come to know him,” John begins, “if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3). The language describes a past event with abiding consequences: we “have come” to know Christ. In other words, a believer can look back at his conversion and know that it wasn’t a sham. It is possible to enjoy assurance.

Importantly, however, this assurance is predicated on obedience. Stated negatively, when we’re living in disobedience, we don’t have strong assurance in our hearts—and we shouldn’t! Yes, our salvation is grounded in the finished work of Christ, but it’s also true that the evidence of our salvation is obedient living—not yet perfect obedience but a pattern of obedience to God. It is one thing to claim or to appear to know God. To substantiate that claim with godly living is another matter altogether.

The Old Testament book of Hosea illustrates this truth well. Writing to a people who profess to know God, the prophet challenges their claim, saying,

Hear the word of the LORD, O children of Israel,
 for the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or steadfast love,
 and no knowledge of God in the land;

there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery;
 they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. (Hosea 4:1–2)

How can Hosea be so sure that the people of Israel lack true knowledge of God? Because their lives are filled with swearing, lying, murdering, etc. The prophet illustrates the point John makes in his letter: our obedience to God supports our claim that we know Him. Verbal profession minus moral persistence is self-delusion (John 14:15).

Obedience Works Itself out in Love

Christian obedience is not mere drudgery. After all, God didn’t give us His law to burden us into some gloomy, legalistic existence. We obey because we love Jesus (John 14:15). Obedience to God flows out of love for God and an awareness of the inheritance we’ve been guaranteed (1 John 2:5–6; Col. 3:23–24), not out of some desire to earn our salvation, which we never can do.

When we talk about love for God, it isn’t sentimental language, nor is it a mystical or emotional experience. It’s the transformed disposition of a believer’s heart before the Lord. This becomes important given our fickle feelings. What are we to do when we wake up and think, “I don’t feel like a Christian today?” Thanks be to God, our relationship with Him isn’t based on the ebb and flow of our emotions! It’s grounded in Spirit-empowered devotion to Christ and His commands.

The test of faith consists not of feeling but doing. Are we obeying Christ? Are we walking as He did? Under Christ’s finished work, it’s the conduct of our lives, not merely the content of our lips, that helps to assure us we belong to God.

The Social Test: “Do I Love?”

The second test moves from the moral realm of true obedience to the social realm of genuine love. In verses 7–11, the apostle stresses the old and new nature of his teaching and then illustrates for his readers what passing the social test involves.

An Old and New Commandment

In verse 7, John says, “I am writing to you no new commandment,” and then in verse 8, “It is a new commandment that I am writing to you.” Which is it? It’s a both/and answer: the command to love one another is both old and new.

That the command is old, or established, is important given the context in which John writes. Against the new, deviant teachings that had infiltrated the church, the apostle says, “I’m not here to introduce some new innovation into your Christian expression. What I’m writing to you is an old commandment.” It’s as old as the first few books of the Bible. He references Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

Our Lord embodied what it is to love one’s neighbor, fulfilling the law’s social dimension in total.

At the same time, it’s new in the sense that Jesus took the command of Leviticus 19 and elevated it to a vastly different status. Our Lord embodied what it is to love one’s neighbor, fulfilling the law’s social dimension in total.  It’s a lot like the way an old piece of music strikes us as new when played on high-quality headphones versus on an old radio: the music itself is old, but our experience of it is new. For this reason, John Stott describes the newness of the apostle’s command in terms of its emphasis, quality, and extent.1

Since the command to love is both old and new, it’s enduring. There’s no getting around the basic charge to love, because God Himself is love (1 John 4:8, 16). The genuineness of our faith will be seen in whether or not we love like He loves.

An Illustration and a Demonstration

Verses 9–11 then illustrate what the social test ultimately entails. Using stark, contrasting language—light and dark, love and hate—John reasons that true faith is demonstrated in a right relationship with God and then with others. In other words, it’s a spurious thing to claim to live in the light while hating those around us.

It’s impossible to be filled with hate and walk in the light.

Loving and living in the light go hand in hand (1 John 2:9–10). Love sees straight. Love thinks clearly. It frees us from stumbling into unbalanced judgments and conduct. Conversely, hatred blinds men and women (v. 11). It obscures our judgment and clouds our vision.

Importantly, there’s no “twilight zone” in John’s paradigm. There’s no in-between. It’s impossible to be filled with hate and walk in the light.  Like those who claim to know God but do not obey Him, those who profess saving knowledge while being filled with hate are walking contradictions. The believer will enjoy little assurance if he lives opposed to the manner John commends.

Tests for Genuine Faith

John has shown that assurance of salvation is attainable, though not without careful self-examination. But what does this examination look like? Paul is helpful here. Writing to the Corinthian believers, Paul urges them, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Testing the credibility of our professions is in fact a biblical principle. And this examination doesn’t lead us to despair, for “perfect love casts out fear,” and “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 4:18; 5:4). If we are in Christ, humble self-reflection leads us to sing,

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.2

This article was adapted from the sermon “Keeping His Commands” by Alistair Begg.

John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 98. ↩︎

Fanny Crosby, “Blessed Assurance” (1873). ↩︎


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