“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).
The letter of 1 John is about assurance. John is concerned that his readers have assurance of the new life that they have in Christ. Some who first appeared to be part of their community have left and shaken up the community, proving that they were not really part of them. John penned 1 John to reassure them of the eternal life which they have already obtained, and to offer encouragement and provide tangible marks of what a genuine believer looks like. The life of genuine believer can be seen by their attitude towards sin, obedience, fellow Christians, Christ, and his apostles.
Attitude Towards Sin (1 John 1:6–7, 8–10; 3:4–10)
1 John 1:6-7, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
The first mark that John gives is one’s attitude and sensitivity towards sin. God is light, perfectly pure, and completely free from sin and darkness (1 John 1:5). Therefore, those who claim to have fellowship with him also walk in the light. Though Christians were once in the domain of darkness, God the Father has delivered and transferred them to the Kingdom of his beloved Son, where there is forgiveness and redemption. They have been given new birth (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18; John 1:13; 3:3–8), and therefore have fellowship with God. Light and darkness cannot have fellowship with one another—the light of the sun makes all the darkness flee. Therefore, one proves to be a false disciple if they make a practice of walking in darkness.
A life that practices righteousness is evidence of the new birth from above (3:9–10; 5:18). Jesus appeared in order to take away sins, and in him, there is no sin because God’s seed abides in him (3:5). Therefore, the child of God cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God (3:6, 9–10). Those born of God are protected by God and the evil one cannot not touch them (5:18; John 10:27–30). On the contrary, those who make a continual, unrepentant practice of sin prove that they do not know God (3:6). The evidence is in the fruit (John 15:16); a life defined by practicing unrighteousness is evidence of being born not of God but of the devil (3:10).
John also draws out the fact that what we say, or believe, about our sin is a mark of where we stand in relation to God. On the one hand, if a person seeks to justify themselves and claims to be sinless, their confession only proves that they are deceived, and the truth is not in them (1:8). They walk in darkness and not the light. Why? Because no one, except Jesus, was or will ever be (on this side of glory) free from sin. To say so is to blaspheme God himself and prove that his word is not in us, for he himself has born witness in his word of the sinfulness of all men (Genesis 6:5; Psalm 143:2; Ecclesiastes 7:29; 1 Kings 8:46; Isaiah 53:6; Ephesians 2:1–3; Romans 3:10–12, 23; 5:12–19; 7:18.)
So there is a tension here. We are not sinless, yet we are called not to sin! How does this work? The genuine Christian is not free from sin, but he does not make a practice of sin. To be a genuine Christian, by definition, is to be a sinner who has been cleansed by the blood of Jesus and forgiven of sin. The way we walk in the light is by receiving the righteousness that is not our own, through the confession of our sin and by believing in his work (1:7). When we do sin and “confess our sin with contrition, we may be certain it is not unpardonable, and that we shall obtain mercy through the blood of the cross.”[i]
Christians continue to sin after they are saved, but their attitude towards that sin is one of contempt and war. Their life is not primarily characterized by sin, but by humble repentance and obedience. A true Christian can look at their life and have an assurance of their salvation because they live a life of confession and repentance—longing to be more like Christ their Savior.
Attitude Towards Obedience (1 John 2:3–6; 3:23–24)
1 John 2:3–6, “And by this we know that we have come to 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.”
The second mark that John gives us is our attitude toward obedience to God’s Word. The test of a true believer is not only one who sets himself apart from sinning, but one who is devoted to heartfelt obedience to God’s word—devotion to God, means separation from sin. Truly, you cannot rightly have one without the other—they are two sides of the same coin. A person can know that they have come to know the Lord Jesus Christ if they can honestly say they are in submission to God’s Word. Here, John uses a few different terms to communicate the same thing: “keep his commands,” “keep his word,” and “walk in the same way which he walked.” A life of obedience is one that is in submission to God’s Word, and reflects our Lord Jesus Christ, the only one on earth who will ever live completely in submission to God’s Word.
Later in the book, John will show that part of keeping his commands means to have active belief in Christ and to love one another: “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him” (3:23–24).
A Christian life is an obedient life. It is one defined by a longing to submit our lives to God, and the fruit of faith and love flowing from that obedience. Obedience to God’s word is evidence of love for God and a mark of a genuine believer. Are we a people who love to be under the submission of the Lord Jesus Christ? If so, we may be assured that he abides in us, we know him, and that in us, the love of God is being perfected.
Attitude Towards Christians (1 John 2:9–11; 3:11–15; 4:7–12)
1 John 2:9–11, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
A third test that John gives is the test of love toward brothers—closely related and inseparable to the first two. In speaking of the love for brother, he specifically means fellow Christians (Matthew 12:49-50; Matthew 25; Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:11).
According to John, there is no such thing as a Christian who does not love other Christians. Here, John contrasts loving one’s brother with hating them, showing that there is no neutral ground. A person who does not love is in darkness (2:11). His lack of love for his fellow Christian proves that his eyes have not been opened, he has not been transferred from the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of light. He still abides in death, but those who love do so because that have passed from death into life (3:14). The one who does not love his brother is compared to a murder who does not have eternal life (3:15).
Love is the commandment of Christ (3:11) and a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22; cf. 1 John 4:13). Love is from God, and we love Him because we have been born of God who is love (4:7–8, 16). His love is shown in Christ’s propitiating, self-sacrificing death for us while we were at our worst (4:8–10). Our love is a fruit of his love for us (4:11). Those who love have God abiding in them and his love is being perfected in them (4:12).
How we treat other Christians is of tremendous importance because it reflects who we are and whose we are. The way we treat believers is evidence of how we see Christ. Loving other believers is evidence that we are genuine believers, and walk in the light. The one who says he loves God but hates his brother is deceived and a liar (4:20). Hate for God’s children is not compatible with love for God. Loving God and loving the brothers goes together (4:21). For “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (5:1).
Attitude Towards Christ (1 John 2:22–25; 4:2–3)
1 John 2:22–25, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.”
A fourth mark that John uses is what a true believer confesses regarding the person and work of Christ. In other words, it is a doctrinal test.
One must confess that Jesus is the Christ (4:2). To deny this essential reality is to disqualify a person as a Christian and prove a lack of saving faith. John’s use of the term “Christ” in all of his writings is synonymous with Messiah, the Old Testament savior who would deliver God’s people from the bondage of slavery and restore God’s presence to them forever. Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectation. As the Christ, Jesus is the only way to the Father. To accept Jesus is to accept the father, to deny the son is to deny the father (2:23), it is impossible to know God without knowing and confessing the Son. If someone does not make this confession, they cannot be from God (4:3).
One must believe in Christ as the Son of God (5:13). The term Son of God shares similarities with Messiah/Christ, but focuses more on the divine nature of Christ, his relationship to the father. The cross is precisely the means by which Christ destroys the works of the devil (3:8; cf. 1:29 3:5). He was sent by the father, in love, to be the propitiation for our sins (4:9–10) that we might be cleansed for our sin (1:7). Only those who have the Son have life (4:15; 5:5, 11–12).
Attitude Towards the Apostles (1 John 4:6)
1 John 4:6, “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
A fifth test that John gives us is one’s attitude towards the apostles. True believers listen to the apostles, the foundation of the church of which Christ is the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 3:10–14). Jesus promised them that through the Spirit, they would be reminded of Christ’s words (John 14:26) and that they would continue to speak Christ’s words after his ascent (John 16:12–15). The church is built upon their teaching—because it is not their teaching, it is Christ’s. They have his authoritative words, the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). Therefore, those who know God listen to the apostles, because the apostles are from God. If someone does not listen to the apostolic authority, they do so because they are not from God and they do not know him.
The life of a genuine believer is marked by their attitude towards sin, obedience, fellow Christians, Christ, and his apostles. These are not marks that should lead the believer to doubt, but to be assured of the eternal life won for them by Christ. Any Christian should be able to read the book of 1 John, look at the fruit of their lives, and feel an assurance of their faith, not because they are sinless, but because new life brings a new nature and a tree is known by its fruit. We shouldn’t pick and choose one or two of these marks; faith, obedience, love for other Christians, right doctrine, all together show a portrait of the children of God.
On the other hand, 1 John helps us to point out false believers. John uses these marks in a way that closely overlap to leave no room for justification like the lawyer, who asked: “Who is my neighbor?” A false believer might outwardly have the right confession, but if their life does not bear the other fruits, their testimony is invalid. One might outwardly “love” their brother, but without the right confession of the person of Christ, and the rest of the marks, their confession is invalid. By studying John’s Christian vision in 1 John, we can come to a better understanding of what it means to truly “believe in the name of the Son of God.”
[i] Andrew Fuller, Backslider (Peterborough: H&E Publishing, 2018), 58.