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. (1 John 2:3-6)
John’s purpose is revealed in verse 3: by this we know we have come to know him. He does this throughout the letter and these tests or evidences of genuine salvation revolve around three points:
- The Social Test – Do I love?
- The Doctrinal Test – Do I believe?
- The Moral Test – Do I obey?
This passage is about the last test; the test of obedience. Verse 3 is the positive statement—keeping his commandments is one way we can know we have come to know him. Verse 4 is the negative—if we don’t keep his commandments, no matter what we claim about knowing God, we are liars. So the focus of this test is the moral direction of the Christian’s life and how obedience evidences genuine salvation.
What is Obedience?
Obedience is the fruit and evidence of regeneration which treasures God’s will inwardly and fulfills God’s will outwardly.
Here are some passages that speak to the role of obedience as evidence of salvation:
- But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed. (Romans 6:17)
- You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? (Matthew 7:16)
- “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
These and many other passages speak of the importance of obedience in the Christian life.
Please understand: obedience is not the condition to meet for salvation, but rather the evidence of it. It is so critical that this distinction is made or you may walk away either religious or legalistic. Religion celebrates obedience as the condition of salvation, or at least requires more moral obedience than disobedience. Legalism tries to prove salvation by performance. Both of these miss that a changed life of obedience is the byproduct of God’s grace. For obedience to be pleasing to God, it has to come from a heart made alive by him. Hebrews 11:6 says, Without faith it is impossible to please [God].
Real God-pleasing obedience is the evidence of salvation because apart from grace, that obedience will not last and the kind of persevering obedience, especially self-giving love, cannot be self-manufactured in the long term.
Here is a simple definition of obedience that acknowledges both the change that salvation will produce and the inconsistencies our sin nature reveals: obedience is a long walk in the same direction.
Before salvation, the sinful nature of our hearts led us directionally toward sin and self and idolatry and immorality and basically the worship of me. In salvation, God does in me what I cannot do. He places upon the throne of my heart a new king—Jesus—and puts in me a new heart with new desires, and these desires set my life in a new direction. Rather than living with the idolatry of me, a Christian’s God and Lord is Jesus and that transformation changes the overall moral and spiritual direction of my life. New heart. New desires. I begin walking in a new direction.
Obedience is the moral and spiritual walking in the will of God as outlined in his Word. His Word is his will and it is the hiking map for this new walking. It is direction, not perfection. Like any hike, I sometimes get off the path or take a wrong step. However, I am still going in the overall direction of the will of God. If I was to walk from here to Ohio, I may take a few wrong turns, but my direction is east.
As I make progress toward Ohio, I can look back and see that my direction has so definitely changed from spiritual west to spiritual east that I can know I have really changed. What is the explanation? God has saved me and set my life in a different moral direction and I am on a long walk in the direction of God and his glory and generally away from sin. This is how we can know we have come to know him; we observe ourselves inwardly wanting God and outwardly obeying him.
Similarly, if I say I am a Christian living with Jesus as the Lord of my life and yet I look at the hike of my life and it’s directionally NOT toward the keeping of God’s commands, but directionally (morally and spiritually) away from that, I should not have assurance that I am saved no matter what I claim and no matter what my past experiences are.
Remember, the outward change is the fruit of the inward change. It’s inside out, not outside in. This is why religion fails to save. Religion changes the outside by rules and principles, moralism and legalism, good works and acts of religious kindness that the individual hopes will save them in the end.
The last thing John would say is, do good works and redeem your past. He just got done saying that Jesus is the propitiation and atonement for our sins. We can’t propitiate ourselves and we cannot save ourselves and all the good works we may do will not save us and will not change us on the level God requires.
Real obedience that John describes begins on the inside and is the fruit of a regenerated heart. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15); NOT if you obey my commands, you will love me. One is the dog and one is the tail. One is the engine and one is the caboose.
As I walk in the same direction over a period of time on the path of the will of God, I can look back at the path of obedience and see it as evidence of the spiritual transformation that only God can produce.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
©2013 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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