The elderly apostle John writes in his first epistle to remind believers of what it means to be a Christian. It means that we are trusting only in the atoning blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who took on flesh to pay for our sins. And it means that, when we indeed come to know Jesus, we will desire to be like him.
Thus the apostle, with his last breath to the Church at large, dispels any confusion as to the person of Christ himself and what he has done for us, as well as any erroneous notions we might have of being able to know Christ without following him. And so John provides at least two summaries of what it means to have genuine assurance of one’s salvation:
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. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us (1 John 3:23-24).
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments (1 John 5:1-2).
There are three elements common to each of these concise summaries. We know that we are born of God when we: 1) believe in Jesus Christ, 2) love one another, and 3) keep his commandments. We want, in this article, to consider what it means to be “keeping” the commands of God.
No One Keeps God’s Commands
The Bible teaches, from cover to cover, that no person is able to keep the commandments of God perfectly. This is, in fact, one of the chief purposes of the extensive Mosaic law that we find in the Old Testament: it reveals to us our sinfulness and guilt before a holy, wholly good God (Romans 7:7-9; Galatians 3:24). None of us meet God’s unbending standard of complete obedience.
The apostle John himself begins his first epistle with an acute awareness of the universality of sin: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). This is the same John who, just a few verses before, insisted that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). So John himself intends for us to be confronted with our impurity before a pure God and with our imperfection before a perfect God. He will use this truth to drive home the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for our salvation: “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). This is why faith in Christ is the first criterion for assurance of our salvation, as we see in John’s summaries above.
Clearly, then, John does not contradict himself later in this same epistle, when he repeatedly lists “keeping God’s commands” as also being a mark of God’s children. What can John possibly mean?
John is informing us, in no uncertain terms, that trusting in Christ’s righteousness for salvation will necessarily lead to reflecting Christ’s righteousness in our daily lives. We cannot embrace Christ without letting go of the wholehearted pursuit of sin that once characterized our lives.
Loving God Means Loving His Commands
It is impossible to have a genuine affection for God, who is holy, and not strive to be holy like him. To desire God is to desire holiness; to love God is to love his perfect goodness. And if we truly love his goodness, then we will seek to be good ourselves: “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4).
The untransformed profession of faith is a lie. These may seem like hard words from the apostle John, but they are actually useful words. The willful sinner who claims to be embracing Christ by faith, but without repentance, is deceiving himself. John is arming us against self-deception. John is forcing each of us to consider the implications of professing to be a Christian. We cannot love God, who is good, and still wholeheartedly embrace the sin that God hates. Genuine love for God means loving his commandments, which are a reflection of his character.
It is the one who is pursuing godliness—who is concerned about keeping God’s commandments—who is walking with God and has God abiding in him. To love God is to love his commandments also: “this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). As John writes in his second epistle: “this is love, that we walk according to his commandments” (2 John 6). True obedience, he would have us know, is much more than an outward observation of certain rules; true obedience is embracing the “rightness” of what God has commanded and therefore loving his commands. It means loving how right God’s law is, even when we see ourselves stray from it.
Obeying God Begins With Believing on Jesus
It is striking and revealing that John refers to “love” over twenty-five times in his epistles. As we’ve already seen, when John speaks of obedience to God’s commands, even, he speaks in terms of loving the commandments of God. John wants us to know that God cares about our affections.
God is concerned about, not just what we profess with our lips, but what—or whom—we embrace with our hearts. This is why John insists throughout his first epistle that to love God is also to love Jesus as God’s way of salvation:
- “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” (1 John 3:23).
- “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).
- “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15).
- “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1 John 5:1).
Without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and any action—even a seemingly good or righteous one—is a sin, if it is not flowing out of faith (Romans 14:23). Thus, there is no way to love or obey God while ignoring what God says about sin, about salvation, and about his Son Jesus Christ.
The apostle John says that to profess love for God, and to be walking in unrepentant sin, is to live a lie. Yet, even as we evaluate our walk and our own heart, John also teaches us to look to Christ as the ultimate expression of obeying God’s commands. How will we succeed as Christians? Not by steeling our wills, but by submitting to God in Christ. This is what real salvation, real and lasting victory, looks like:
“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5).
Those who love God desire to overcome sin. And the only way to overcome sin is through faith in Jesus Christ.