1 John 5:18-21 (That You May Worship)

1 John 5:18-21 (That You May Worship)

Dear Church Family,

This week we come to the final four verses of 1 John and the conclusion of our study of this epistle. If you’ve been following along in our study, then hopefully by now you might remember the three main themes or emphases of this letter. The Christian life is comprised of: right doctrine (what you believe), right relationships (who you love), and right morality (how you live). And, just as John has consistently set these three themes before us throughout the letter, he rounds out the final closing of the letter with the same three themes.

In these last four verses, John marks off these three themes with the words, “we know” (verses 18, 19, and 20 all begin with these words). And, you guessed it, the three things that “we know, as Christians, are: right doctrine, right relationships, and right morality. As we conclude our study of this letter, hopefully, it will be very clear why it is that these three things are essential to a Christian life of worship.

Right Morality: We Know Our Righteousness (1 John 5:18)

18 We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.

There are two concepts in this verse that are related to the morality of a Christian’s life (how we live). In the first half of this verse, John is simply reiterating something that he taught earlier in this letter (1 John 3:6-8):

6 No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.  7 Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous;  8 the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.  9 No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 

When we looked at these verses, we derived three principles about the practice of sin and the practice of righteousness:

(1) The practice of sin and the practice of righteousness are defined by the Law of God. Sin is a transgression of the Law of God.

(2) The practice of sin and the practice of righteousness are mutually exclusive. The person who practices sin is of the devil, and the one who practices righteousness is born of God. A person is either a child of God or a child of the devil.

(3) The practice of sin and the practice of righteousness are habitual works. By “habitual works,” we mean that the one who practices righteousness makes it a habit to live according to God’s law. It does not mean that all sin is absent from the life of the believer, but it means that sin is no longer his or her master.

So, when John writes that “we know that no one who is born of God sins,” he is speaking of habitual sin and that how one who claims to be born-again lives his or her life matters. Righteousness and sinfulness are at polar opposites from one another. John is simply echoing the Word of God in both the Old and the New Testaments – “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44-451 Peter 1:16).

The second half of this verse speaks of how, while we are pursuing righteousness, we are to rest in the guardianship and protection of Christ, knowing that He keeps us and protects us from the evil one. Unfortunately, far too often, we fail to see the mutually exclusive nature of righteousness and sin. We sort of wink at sin in our lives and pass it over. Or worse, we give up the fight, shake hands and make peace with the sin in our lives.

We must remember, however, how Jesus taught us to pray about these things in the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” (Matthew 6:10) we are praying that we would do God’s will (obeying His commands, and walking in righteousness according to His will) on earth, just like His angels perfectly keep His commands in heaven (Psalm 103:20-21). We are praying that we would experientially know righteousness and not sin. Likewise, when we pray – “deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13), we are praying that we would experientially know that which John is talking about here in verse 18: if we are born of God, He protects from the evil one.

Right Relationships: We Know Our Standing (1 John 5:19)

19 We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

In understanding our to God, John says that “we know that we are of God.” Consider the many different ways that this privileged relationship to God is described in this letter: we are born of God, we belong to God, we live in God, we abide in God, we dwell with God.

One of my favorite hymns is John Newton’s “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.” Do you know what that hymn is about? The glorious things that are spoken of concerning God? Well, yes – but only indirectly. That hymn is about the glorious things that are spoken of believers, those who are born of God – the Church! Here’s just the first verse of that hymn:

“Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God!
He, whose word cannot be broken, Form’d thee for His own abode:
On the Rock of ages founded, What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded, Thou may’st smile at all thy foes.”

I sometimes think that the Church in general, and individual Christians in particular, have an inferiority complex. I’m not sure where it comes from. Perhaps it comes from a fear that if we think that we are in a privileged place that we are boasting – that we are somehow being arrogant or claiming to be better than others.

But, you see, if you’re going to boast in something – it ought to be boasting in God and in the glory that He has bestowed upon you! Of course, we have nothing in and of ourselves to boast about before God. The Scriptures tell us: “He who boasts is to boast in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 10:17). And, again, Christ was faithful as a Son over His house – whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.” (Hebrews 3:6).

Or, perhaps we think that we will be detracting from God in some way, if we boast about our privileged status of being born of God? But, how can that be? If God has taken up residence in His people, then when we boast about our identity and relationship to Him, then we are not boasting in ourselves, but in Him.

Then again, believers suffer from an inferiority complex sometimes, I think, because we look around us and we think that we are on the losing team! You look around and see the wicked prosper. You work and toil and labor for the Lord and wonder, “What’s the point?”

It’s kind of like how in one of my son’s baseball games, it was the final inning and the opposing team rallied and was racking up the points. So everyone on my son’s team was getting dejected and hanging their heads, thinking, “That’s it. We’re done for.” But, they were stuck in the moment, so the coach had to give them a little speech and remind them of the true reality of the situation: “Yes, they’re ahead. But, we’ve got the home-field advantage. We’ve got last ‘at bats’ and the top of the line-up is coming up to bat.”

The next time you are feeling down and out, like you’ve got nothing to boast about, remember these words: “We know that we are of God! We’ve got home-field advantage! Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God!” When you truly recognize this privileged status that God has bestowed on you, then as you look out upon those who are not of God (the world) you will have compassion and pity. For, as verse 19 tells us, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

That’s both scary and sad at the same time. There’s no in-between. Either you are “of God” or you lie “in the power of the evil one.” Jesus put it this way, “He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters” (Matthew 12:30). Either you’re with Christ and serving under His power, or you’re not with Christ and you’re serving under the power of the evil one. There’s no in-between.

Here’s the final verse of John Newton’s hymn, “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”

“Saviour, if of Zion’s city I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity, I will glory in Thy name:
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure, All his boasted pomp and show:
Solid joys and lasting treasure, None but Zion’s children know.”

Imagine how our relationships and interactions with other people would change if we actually came to experientially know this truth as John sets it before us: We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

Right Doctrine: We Know our Savior (1 John 5:20)

20 And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.

When we confess our faith by use of the Apostle’s Creed each week, we confess that we know our doctrine even as John presents it here. We confess to believing in Jesus Christ – the one who was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

Here in this verse, the Apostle John gives us a summary of that right doctrine about the Person and work of the Son of God which we also recite in the Apostles’ Creed. But, characteristically, John takes it a bit further to talk about how we experientially know right doctrine. Or, more to the point, how we experientially know the Person who stands behind the right doctrine. He speaks of us as not only knowing the Son of God, but also being “in Him.”

James tells us that even the demons believe and shudder (James 2:19), even the demons know God. But, they don’t experience the truth of God as we have. We are “in Him” who is true. We abide in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, He who is the truth, and the truth has set us free!

When we first began studying this epistle, we learned about some of the distinctives of Gnostic thought and belief. One key teaching of Gnosticism is that salvation comes by obtaining a special, secret knowledge that was only for an elite group of people who had the capacity to understand that special, secret knowledge.

John affirms that, yes, there is a special, secret knowledge by which we are saved, but there are three major corrections that he makes. First, that special, secret knowledge is no longer secret – God, in Christ, has revealed the good news of the gospel and salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not a secret anymore – the mystery has been revealed. Second, this good news of salvation in Christ is not only for the elite; it’s for all people. Third, and probably most importantly, in contrast to the Gnostics, John understands and teaches us that the truth is a Person! We are not saved by simply believing in a set of propositions. We are saved by a Person who is revealed by those propositions.

That Person is Jesus Christ. We are saved because “we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.”

The three strands of the Christian life guard us from idolatry (1 John 5:21)

At the beginning of this study of the last verses of this epistle, I said that, by the end it will hopefully become clear why it is that these three things (right doctrine, right relationships, and right morality) are essential to a Christ life of worship. Well, the answer lies in the last verse of this letter. Normally, letters of the first century would conclude with some final greetings; you see that throughout many of the letters in the New Testament. But, after summarizing these three themes once again, the Apostle John concludes his letter with one simple exhortation (1 John 5:21):

21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

At first, this seems odd. Why in the world would John conclude with this pastoral admonition to guard ourselves from idols? Well, the simple answer is that the three essential strands of the Christian life (doctrine, relationship, and morality) protect us from idolatry and the worship of false gods. If one of them is missing, then you will not be worshipping the One, True God, you will be worshipping a false god, an idol. Let’s flesh this out a bit.

Right Doctrine and Idolatry

In the first four or five centuries of the Christian era, the Church wrestled with formulating creeds of the faith – particularly with regard to the Person of Jesus Christ. Was Jesus God? Was Jesus Man? Did He really come in the flesh? Was He a human being that became God or God who became a human being? The reason that they wrestled and debated these things was because they understood the importance of right doctrine. If you don’t understand the Person of Jesus Christ as the perfect God-Man (fully God and fully human, the only Redeemer and way of salvation) then the Jesus whom you worship will be a figment of your own imagination, an idol that cannot save you.

Right Relationships and Idolatry

If you don’t understand right relationship such that you see the proper need to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself, then you will come to believe that you are the only recipient of God’s love and grace. Like the prophet Elijah, you will start to think, “I alone am left. There’s no one else who lives for Him” (1 Kings 19; Romans 11:3). That’s what inevitably happens to hermit Christians. Instead of seeing God as “the God of our salvation,” apart from the fellowship of other believers, they begin to see God as “the God of only my salvation.” And, again, the God whom you worship will be a figment of your own imagination, an idol that cannot save you.

Right Morality and Idolatry

Finally, if you don’t understand and experientially know right morality and the Lord’s call to live righteously before Him, then you will come to believe that God has saved you from the punishment of sin, but not the power of sin. If you live as you please, instead of seeking to live as God pleases, then the god whom you worship will not be a holy God. He will be a god who winks at sin, or one who just doesn’t care. And, once again, the God whom you worship will be a figment of your own imagination, an idol that cannot save you.

Conclusion

That is why we, as believers – those who are born of God – are exhorted in this letter to keep these three essential strands of the Christian faith ever before us. We need to maintain the balance of right doctrine, right relationships, and right morality because they are the means by which we guard ourselves from the false worship of idols. For without the balance of these three elements, we will manufacture idols in our own hearts. We will come to worship figments of our own imagination, idols that cannot save us.

So, as we conclude this study of 1 John, I want to leave you with two questions:

(1) Which strand (or strands) of the three-corded rope of the Christian faith needs the most attention in my life?

(2) How can I go about strengthening that weak doctrine, weak relationships, or weak morality in my life such that I may rightly worship the One True God of the Scriptures with all of my being?

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

1 John 5:14-17 (That You May Pray)

1 John 5:14-17 (That You May Pray)

Dear Church Family,

As we near the end of this first epistle from the Apostle John, God’s Word focuses us in on the power and privilege of prayer. And, if you give full weight to the meaning of these words, and take God’s Word to heart – it is, indeed, an amazing teaching about prayer.

In the verses that we come to now, there are two different kinds of prayers that are taken up – prayers of petition (prayers in which we ask for something and make requests of God), and prayers of intercession (prayers in which we intercede on behalf of another person). We’ll consider each kind of prayer in turn.

(1) Prayers of Petition (1 John 5:14-15)

14 This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.
15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.

The first thing that we learn about prayers of petition is that we are to approach the Lord with confidence because we, as His children, have been granted the privilege of free access to God. The word that is translated as “confidence” in verse 14 means boldness or assurance, but it also carries the connotation of free-speech – openness and frankness. It speaks of the privilege of free access to the Creator of the universe through Jesus Christ. As Jesus put it, “No one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).

In these verses, however, John takes the understanding of this confidence before God a bit further. He explains that this confidence before God in prayer – which is based on the free access provided by Jesus Christ and His righteousness – is also dependent on understanding two things about the nature of prayer.

The first thing that about the nature of prayer that we must understand is that we are to pray according to God’s will – “if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). When seeking to discern God’s will in our lives so that we might pray accordingly, we tend to ask all sorts of different questions. Is it God’s will for me to go to this college, or that one? Is it God’s will that I marry this person or that one? Is it God’s will that I take this job or that one? But, to think of God’s will in these terms misses the point. When we ask these questions, we run into this conundrum, but it’s a conundrum of our own making, not God’s.

This where it is essential to remember the three emphases of John’s letter as the context for this discussion on prayer. As we’ve seen throughout our study of 1 John, there is an emphasis in this letter on three essential parts of the Christian life: right doctrine (what you believe), right relationships (how you love), and right morality (how you live according to God’s commandments). You see, instead of wondering about what college to go to, whom to marry, what job to take, and so on…what we really ought to be doing is striving after are these three things: knowing and understanding Christ better in His Word, loving our brothers and sisters as Christ has loved us, and seeking to fulfill the requirements of our duties before our holy God.

When these three things (right doctrine, right relationships, and right morality) are at work in our lives, then finding God’s specific will actually become a moot point. As Martin Luther famously said, then you will be able to “love God, and do as you please.” For then, as you are loving God with the whole of your life, what you are pleased to do is that which is pleasing to Him.

Think of it this way. If you were going to a job interview, don’t you think that it would be a good idea to investigate the business to which you are applying in order to better understand their vision, goals, and philosophy? Wouldn’t you want to know what the boss was like? What are some things that he likes? What does he dislike? Most people I know who apply and interview for jobs, if their smart, do at least some of that.

Just so, as we read God’s Word, grow in our love for Him and His people, and seek to walk in His ways, we will come to know better God’s will. As we learn more of His will, we will discover come to better understand God’s vision, His goals, and His philosophy, what He likes and dislikes.

And yet, we make very little, if any, preparations for approaching our God! We take more time to prepare and ascertain the likes and dislikes of potential bosses, then we do trying to understand what God likes and dislikes before we go before Him in prayer. But, it ought not to be this way.

What I’m trying to make a case for here, is something that has been called “studied prayer.” As far as I have been able to ascertain, that phrase was coined by one of the members of the Westminster Assembly by the name of Philip Nye. As they discussed and debated whether written prayers or extemporary prayers were more proper in worship, Philip Nye said, “I plead for neither, but for studied prayers.”

In his book “Leading in Prayer,” Hughes Oliphant Old says:

“For many generations American Protestants have prized spontaneity in public prayer. I hope it will always be so. One has to admit, however, that the spontaneous prayer one often hears in public worship is an embarrassment to the tradition. It all too often lacks content. It may be sincere, but sometimes it is not profound. One notices sometimes that the approach that these prayers reveal is immature, if not simply misleading. Spontaneity needs to be balanced by careful preparation and forethought.”

So, first of all, in order to have confidence before the Lord in prayers of petition, we are to ask according to His will through studied prayer and He promises to hear us. Second, in order to have confidence before the Lord in prayers of petition, we must also have faith. But not a blind faith. No, we must have faith in God’s promise that a prayer request made according to God’s will is heard…and it is granted!

That’s what verse 15 actually says: “And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him” (1 John 5:15). As we study God’s will in His Word, we will also learn of His character. And part of His character is to grant the requests of His people – requests that are according to His will. We serve a God Who does not hide His will from His people. We serve a God Who cannot lie. We serve a God Who keeps His promises. This, then, should give us boundless confidence when we make our requests known to Him.

Let’s briefly summarize what we have learned thus far with regard to prayers of petition. In order to have confidence and boldness before God, (first) we must pray according to God’s will – and I have suggested the model of “studied prayer” for this. And (second), we must pray according to faith – not double minded (see also James 1:6-8), but with faith in God’s character that when He hears our requests, He grants our requests.

So, having learned about how to have confidence in our prayers of petition, let’s turn our attention now to prayers of intercession, or interceding on behalf of another person.

(2) Prayers of Intercession (1 John 5:16-17)

16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.
17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.

Verse 16 is probably one of the most difficult verses to understand in the whole of this epistle. There are a host of interpretations about what is “a sin not leading to death” and “a sin leading to death.” Personally, I find that it helps to first understand verse 17 before attempting to understand verse 16.

Verse 17 gives a simple absolute that is easy to understand: all unrighteousness is sin. If righteousness is the standard and is equivalent to holiness then the opposite is true, as well: all unrighteousness is sin. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin in a similar way when it says – “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” If the law of God is the standard of righteousness, then sin is both the lack of conformity to the law of God, and the transgression of the law of God.

Simple enough. John wants to make sure that we understand the seriousness of sin, which is by definition, not righteousness but falling short of, and not attaining to, God’s standard in His Law. At the same time, however, he wants us to know that there is hope. That’s the second half of verse 17: “and there is a sin not leading to death.”

That’s a difficult statement, and is at the heart of the difficulty of understanding verse 16. But, again, it’s helpful to start here in verse 17 because in verse 17, we learn what John is not saying. John is not saying that there are some sins that are mortal, and others that are not. Like, say, you may have heard of “the seven deadly sins.” Well, because of the absolute statement – “all unrighteousness is sin” – we know that John is not trying to draw a distinction between mortal sins and venial sins.

In understanding what John means by “there is a sin not leading to death” – it is helpful to know that in the Greek, it literally reads, “there is a sin not unto death.” Most translations add “leading” or “lead” to make the sentence more readable.

Here’s why that’s important. When John says, “there is a sin not unto death,” it seems that he is referring to a person who is spiritually dead, but physically alive – a person who is continuing in their sin, but has not physically died (one who has not repented of their sins and trusted in Christ). There’s still hope for them. You see, if your sins are forgiven by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, then when you die, you will not die in your sins, you will die in God’s grace and forgiveness. However, if you never experience God’s forgiveness and grace, then when you die, you will die in your sins.

Here, it seems that John is drawing on the words of Jesus when He was speaking to the Pharisees who did not believe in Him (John 8:24), “You will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He [that is, the Son of God], you will die in your sins.”

“The sin not unto death” refers to a person who is an unbeliever, one who has not yet physically died; therefore, there is still hope for them. “The sin unto death” then, refers to a person who has physically died, having never experienced the forgiveness and grace of God; therefore, there is no more hope for them. One is a living “brother” who has not yet been born again (“the sin not unto death”) and the other is a deceased “sinner” who was never born again (“the sin unto death”).

Now, we are better able to understand verse 16. In the first half of this verse, John encourages us to pray for our “brother committing a sin not leading to death.” But, we are not to pray for those marked by “a sin leading to death.”

You see, if we take these definitions and apply them to verse 16, then when John refers to “a brother committing a sin not unto death,” he is talking about a person who is still physically alive, but is spiritually dead in his trespasses and sins. The fact that he calls this person “brother” seems to imply that he professes to be a believer, but by his continuing in his sins, he is revealing himself to not be a true believer. He is still in bondage to his sin and has not yet been set free.

Here’s the amazing part – and this applies whether our definition of “the sin unto death” is accurate or not. God’s Word says that if you see a brother committing a sin of this nature, and you intercede on his behalf, God will give him life!

This, by the way, is another reason why it would seem that this “brother” is a brother in name only, and does not have true, saving faith. If he were a believer, he may need forgiveness, but he would already have life. But, the Scripture says, “Ask, and God will for him give life.” God will give him the gift of the glorious new birth!

In the second half of verse 16, then, it is simply an admonition against interceding and praying for the dead – for those who have died in their sins. John says, “There is a sin unto death” – there are those who have died in their sins – “I do not say that he should make request for this.” That is, it’s too late for them.

Well, if you’re confused by all this “sin not leading unto death” and “sin leading unto death” – I understand. It’s a very difficult passage and concept, and I may not be doing the best job of trying to make sense of it. But, regardless, don’t miss the amazing point about the power and privilege of intercessory prayer that lies smack-dab in the middle of verse 16.

John is saying that your prayers – your very words – are the means by which God actually gives life! It is God who saves. Eternal life is His gift to give as He pleases. But, if you grasp this truth, you will know the power and privilege – the boldness and confidence – of prayers on behalf others! Intercessory prayers on behalf of those who are still dead in their trespasses and sins are the effectual means by which God actually gives life!

Conclusion

Most believers have friends or relatives who confess to know God and profess to be believers, but by the way they live their lives, it’s obvious that they are not born again. So, you have prayed for them. You have prayed for years that God would remove the scales from their eyes and the hardness of their hearts. You’ve prayed that God would give them life!

Trusting in the authority of God’s Word and His promise, don’t give up! Don’t stop praying! When you bring your petitions before God, you can come before Him in confidence and boldness. You can have confidence and boldness that when you pray according to His will, God will hear. And when God hears the prayers of His saints – offered up in accordance with His will – He grants the request.

And, when you intercede on behalf of another – one who says that he knows God, but is still walking according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, and the lusts of the their flesh – When you intercede on their behalf, you can have boldness and confidence, knowing that your prayers are that which God uses to give the gift of life, and make them born again.

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

1 John 5:1-5 (The Order of Salvation and Assurance)

1 John 5:1-5 (The Order of Salvation and Assurance)

Dear Church Family,

As we enter the fifth and final chapter in our study of 1 John, we find that the Apostle John wishes to conclude this letter by encouraging and building up the assurance of faith of his readers, “those who believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:13). And so, we are encouraged in our faith in Christ and the assurance of eternal life (1 John 5:6-13), to pray to the Lord with confidence (1 John 5:14-17), and to worship our God rightly (1 John 5:18-21).

That’s where we’re headed in this final chapter, but in the opening verses of this chapter, John teaches us something about the ordo salutis (the order of salvation) – that is, the order of the events of redemption of the individual believer. At this point, you may be asking, “How in the world does understanding this seemingly esoteric doctrine of ‘the order of salvation’ give assurance to the believer?” Well, I’m glad you asked. Here’s how.

The Three Essential Elements of the Christian Life: Faith, Love, and Obedience

If you recall, we’ve found that in this letter, John provides us with basically three tests that we may apply to ourselves – three essential and necessary marks of the person who walks in the light – who is born of God: (1) Right Doctrine: what you believe – particularly, what you believe about Jesus Christ, the Son of God; (2) Right Morality: how you live – particularly how you live according to God’s commandments; and (3) Right Relationships – who and how you love – particularly how you love God’s people, His children, other Christians.

And now, in the opening verses of 1 John, chapter 5, we see all three of these elements – or tests – of the Christian faith tied together and intertwined. More so, than in any other part of John’s letter, in these verses, we see how these three: faith, love, and morality are inextricably linked. In these first five verses of chapter 5, the Apostle John talks about these three things in terms of faith (or belief), love, and obedience.

The Priority of the New-birth

We’ll get to those in just a moment, but first we need to understand – as John teaches us in verse 1 of this chapter – the priority of the new-birth. Consider the very brief, but important, statement at the beginning of this chapter:

1 Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,

The key to interpreting this statement is to understand the tenses of the two main verbs in this short sentence: “believe” and “born.” Now, normally, getting into the nitty-gritty details of verb tenses is not essential to understanding the meaning of a verse, but in this case it’s very helpful. The verb “believe” is in the present-tense. It’s happening right now – “Whoever believes (right now, presently) that Jesus is the Christ.”

The verb “born” is actually in the perfect-tense. Perfect-tense means that it is a completed action in the past with results that continue into the present. Some translations do a better job of conveying these tenses, but literally the verse could be translated – “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.”

If you never did well in grammar, think about it this way. If someone “is born of” something – by necessity – it had to happen in the past. If I said, “I am born of my father” you wouldn’t be confused and think, “Now does he mean he was born of his father in the past, or he is presently being born of his father?” It’s just common sense. If I am born of my father, that means that it happened in the past.

The New-birth Begets Faith

So, why is it important to understand the tenses of the two verbs in this statement? Here’s why: It teaches us that the new-birth precedes faith. Faith (believing that Jesus is the Christ) does not come before being born again. Some people think that they were born again because they believed; however, this passage (along with other Scriptures, e.g., John 1:12-13) teach that we believe because God has already caused us to be born again! God must first work in our hearts, or we will never believe and trust in Him. That’s foundational to understanding the rest of our passage – “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.”

Faith Begets Love

1 Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him.

In the first half of verse 1, we learn that the new-birth (God’s causing us to be born again) begets faith; in the second half of verse 1, we learn that faith begets love. Specifically, if you love God the Father, then you will love those who are born of Him, those of the household of faith, other believers.

This is a reminder that love for God and love for His people are so bound up with one another, that you cannot have one without the other. We’ve seen this already in this letter. Here are a couple of examples:

(1 John 3:1010 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.

(1 John 3:177 But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?

(1 John 4:20-2120 If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.  21 And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.

Love Begets Obedience

Look at all we’ve learned in just this first verse of chapter 5! We’ve learned of the priority of the new-birth (being born of God), that the new-birth begets faith. Then, we learned of how faith in Christ begets love (love for God and love for His people). Now, in verses 2-3, we learn that love begets obedience; in fact, love and obedience are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.

2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments.
3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.

Notice in verse 2 how the two different loves, as well as obedience are intertwined: love for the children of God, love for God, and observing – or doing – His commandments. And, in verse 3, John equates love for God with obedience.

This is nothing more than a restatement, or elaboration, on the specific teaching of Jesus regarding the relationship between love and the Law of God. When a lawyer asked Jesus, “Which is the great commandment in the Law,” Jesus responded (Matthew 22:37-40):

37 And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’  38 “This is the great and foremost commandment.  39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’  40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

You see, to love God is to keep His commandments. And, to keep God’s commandments is to love Him. Do you want to know how to obey God’s commandments, then love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Do you want to know how to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, then obey His commandments.

Instead of thinking of the Ten Commandments as a set of Laws that we’re unable to keep, Christians ought to think of the Ten Commandments as ways to love God and love our neighbor. This is precisely John’s point in 1 John 5. Those who have experienced the new-birth and been born of God must learn to think of the Law of God and Love not as opposites, but as one and the same thing. For His commandments are not burdensome!

The Victory of Faith: Overcoming the World

4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world– our faith.
5 Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

In these verses, as well, we see the priority of the new-birth. Those who overcome the world are victorious because of the gift of faith; and this gift of faith is a result of being born of God.

But, what does it mean that those who are born of God and believe that Jesus is the Son of God “overcome the world”? John uses that phrase twice, once each in verses 4 and 5, so it’s probably important. Well, thankfully, in this very same letter, the Apostle John gives us a definition of the world and what it means that our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ gives us the victory. Consider the definition of “the world” that we learned back in chapter two (1 John 2:16):

16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.

Here we have three descriptors of “the world.” The first descriptor is “the lust of the flesh.” The lust of the flesh is the desire of our fallen and sinful nature. The lust of the flesh is the sinful nature that we have inherited from Adam. But, your faith in Jesus Christ is the victory over this “lust of the flesh.” For those who have experienced the new-birth and received faith, you were born of devil, but now you are born of God. “Though you were a slave to sin, you became obedient from the heart to believe that Jesus is the Christ. Having been freed from sin, you became a slave to righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18). By faith, you have victory over the lust of the flesh.

The second descriptor of “the world” is “the lust of the eyes.” The “lust of the eyes” are the temptations and assaults that come from without – through the eyes. Faith not only gives you the victory over your own lusts of the flesh from within, faith also gives you the victory over attacks from without. God’s promise to those who are born of Him and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ is this: “He is faithful, and He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation, He will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

The last descriptor of “the world” is “the boastful pride (or arrogance) of life.” The boastful pride of life are those things in this world – what you have and what you do – in which you take pride. The one who is not born of God clings to all manner of worldly trappings: money, possessions, prestige, personal success, what-have-you. But faith is the victory to overcome the boastful pride of life. The overcoming man or woman of faith knows that he can let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also…because you have what no man or woman could ever earn or achieve: eternal life in God!

Conclusion

The principalities and powers of the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life – will wage war against the Lamb of God and those who are His. But we have this promise: “whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.”

The new-birth begets a faith that overcomes the world – a faith that enables you and me to love God and His people and obey His commandments

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

1 John 4:7-12 (The Perfected Love of God)

1 John 4:7-12 (The Perfected Love of God)

Dear Church Family,

Continuing in our study of 1 John, we come to a section in chapter four (1 John 4:7-12) in which John once again takes up the topic of love, specifically, a call for believers to love one another. In fact, that phrase, “love one another,” is repeated three times in these verses. In verse 7, it is an exhortation: “let us love one another.” In verse 11, it is a duty: “if God loved us, we ought to love one another.” And, in verse 12, it’s part of John’s main point of this section: “if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.”

In order to better understand the importance of what it means for believers in Christ to love one another, it’s important to first comprehend both the origin and the revelation of this love that we are to have for one another.

The Origin of Love: God’s Nature (1 John 4:7-8)

7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

There are at least two questions that arise out of these verses that we ought to answer.

What about when unbelievers love?

First, if “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” is true, does that mean that unbelievers are incapable of love? Aren’t all expressions of love – by believers and unbelievers alike – manifestations of God’s love in one way or another?

Well, there’s two ways to answer that question. On the one hand: yes, because God is love, and all mankind is created in God’s image, when a person loves, whether they be a born-again child of God or not, it is an expression of God’s love. On the other hand – and I think this is what John has in mind here – when unbelievers express love of one kind or another, they are not expressions of the true love of God in that they do not flow from a heart of faith – a heart that believes in God and seeks His glory. For the Scriptures tell us, “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).

So, yes – there is something good in the expressions of love by those who don’t know God and who are not born of Him. And, yes, those manifestations of love can have positive effects. But what is of the utmost importance (and the topic at hand in these verses) is the true love that is an expression of the love of God that is worked out through the love of His children, those who are born of God and who know Him. That’s why John follows immediately in verse 8 by saying, “The one who does not love does not know God.” He’s speaking in absolutes. Either you’re a child of God who loves, or you’re not a child of God who cannot love. John is not talking about things that look like love, but things that are actual expressions of true love, that which can only be accomplished by those who know and love Him, personally.

What does it mean that God is love?

The second question that arises out of these verses is: what does it mean that “God is love”? Simply put, it means that the origin of love is God’s nature. Love is from God because that is who He is. If God is love, then that means that everything that God does is an expression of His love. Love is not just one of the expressions of God’s character, it is God’s character. Therefore, there is nothing that God does which is not an expression of His love.

When God judges, He judges in love – as an expression of His loving nature. When the Bible declares that “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), that is not the opposite side of God – as if He were some yin-yang kind of God, sometimes loving and sometimes wrathful. No, even God’s judging of sin and consuming fire is an expression of His very nature – which is love.

In the words of John Stott… “He who is love is light and fire as well. Far from condoning sin, his love has found a way to expose it (because He is light) and to consume it (because He is fire) without destroying the sinner, but rather saving Him.” In fact, Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross in which He bore God’s wrath and judgment on our behalf is also the ultimate manifesting of God’s love. This revelation of God’s love is what John takes up next in these verses.

The Revelation of God’s Love: Embodied Love (1 John 4:9-11)

9 By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.
10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

In verses 7-8, we learned that the origin of God’s love is God’s nature: God is love. Here we learn that the revelation of God’s love “embodied” or “enfleshed” in His Son, Jesus Christ. And, here again, we should note two important things that we learn about the revelation of God’s love.

The uniqueness of the Son of God

First, we should note the uniqueness of the Son of God. The Son of God was “sent” by God the Father. And, if God has sent Him that means that the Son was in the presence of the Heavenly Father before He became man; He eternally existed with the Father. Also, notice that the Son of God is called the “only begotten Son” of God. You and I may become children of God, adopted by God’s redeeming love and power, but Jesus Christ is the only One of whom it may be said that He is the “eternally begotten Son of God.” There never was a time when the Son of God did not exist in relationship to the Heavenly Father as His one and only Son.

Lastly, with regard to the uniqueness of God’s Son, we read in verse 10 that God sent Jesus Christ to be “the propitiation for our sins.” This is the second time that John uses this phrase to describe Jesus. The first was in chapter 2, verse 2. The word propitiation means “to appease” or “to satisfy.” Propitiation for our sins…to God. Propitiation describes the appeasing of the wrath of God and the satisfying of His holy, righteous demands for justice. And, the thing that’s unique about Jesus’ propitiation for our sins is that it is effectual. It works; it works for you and for me.

Imagine if you were drowning in a lake. You’re flailing about, unable to swim, and about to go under. You’re completely helpless. Just then, someone sees you, and in order to show his love for you, he jumps into the lake and drowns himself in order to show how much he loves you. Did that person show his love for you? Maybe. But, what good did it do you? Absolutely nothing!

But, suppose that this person who wanted to show his love for you actually jumped into the lake in order to rescue you. And, in so doing – he saves you, but he himself drowns. Does that person love you? Definitely. And, what’s more, his act of love was effectual – it worked.

That’s what’s unique about Jesus’ death and sacrifice. It wasn’t merely an expression of love. It was an expression of love that actually accomplished the forgiveness of the sins of His people. If you are a child of God, He didn’t just open the way to heaven, He actually secured the way and carried you through it. That’s the fuller meaning of propitiation – He satisfied God’s wrath and punishment for all those who are born of God and who know Him.

The direction of God’s love

If I were to ask, “Where was the love of God manifested or revealed?” Most would probably say, “On the cross of Calvary, when God punished our sins in His Son, Jesus Christ.” And you would be right. But consider how that is described in verse 9, “By this the love of God was manifested *in us*, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.”

The direction of God’s love was to you and to me, more precisely: “in us.” I find it fascinating that God would put it that way. It sounds so strange to put it that way, and we have to ask: “What do the Scriptures mean in saying that the love of God was manifested in us.” Well, there are several clues in these verses.

In verse 9, we learn that the purpose of this manifestation of God’s love in us – was “so that…we might live through Him.” God’s love is revealed in us, in that His love gives us eternal and abundant life! No longer under the death sentence that we deserve! Verse 10 tells us that God’s love was revealed in us, in that even though we didn’t love Him, He made atonement for our sins despite our lack of love: He sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins; God revealed His love in us by forgiving we who did not deserve to be forgiven. And, verse 11 tells us that God’s love is manifested in us through a command – “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

So, yes, it would be right and proper to say that God’s love was manifested or revealed on Calvary. But, more to the point, God’s love was manifested or revealed as a directed, effectual love in us! Jesus’ death was a directed, embodied love, unlike any other.

So, the origin of love is God’s nature: God is love. The revelation of God’s love is the sending of His Son: through the death of the only begotten Son of God, He atoned for our sins, and God’s love was directed or manifested in us – the object of His affection. In the last verse of this section, we learn of the final terminus or perfection of God’s love.

The Perfection of Love: our love for one another (1 John 4:12)

12 No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.

Watch how this works and follow the flow. Love originates in God’s very nature, in His being: “God is love.” Love is revealed in us, through the sending of His Son to be the propitiation for our sins and giving us new life. And, now in verse 12, we see John’s ultimate point more clearly: since God is spirit and no one has seen Him at any time, the perfection (the telos, the conclusion and complete expression) of God’s love is accomplished…when believers love one another – when you and I love one another!

Of course, this does not mean that God is dependent upon us in order to love other people. It does not mean that God has voluntarily limited His own sovereignty and ability to do what He pleases. What it does mean, however, is that God has so loved us, and condescended to those who are born of Him and know Him, that He has chosen us as the “terminal conduits” of His love.

The way that God has chosen to use His people as the means by which He expresses His love is very similar, actually, to the way that God has chosen to bring people to saving faith through the preaching of the gospel. In Romans 10:13-15, we learn of the ordinary means by which people are saved: God has purposed to save people – to redeem them from their sins – by using we, His people, to bring the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to them.

Does that mean that God cannot save someone apart from this methodology of sending preachers of good news? Of course not! God is still God. He is still sovereign, and He can do whatever He chooses to do. Yet, God has condescended and esteemed us so much, that He has actually purposes to use us to proclaim His good news in order to bring others into His kingdom.

What’s true about God’s saving people through the proclamation of the good news through human agents (Romans 10:13-15), is also true of God’s loving people through the love of human agents: “No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12).

Conclusion

The implications of all this are staggering. If God is going to save someone, the primary and ordinary way in which He is going to save them is through human agents: bearers of the good news. And, if God is going to love someone, the primary and ordinary way in which He is going to love them is through human agents: bearers of His love. In this way, God’s love is manifested – and indeed, perfected(!) – in us!

In essence, John is saying: “If God wants to love someone, He’s going to do it through us, in whom He already lives.” How awesome – how gracious – how amazing – is our God?! Our God, who has chosen for us to be the agents through whom His love is perfected!

The world is a sin-sick place in great need of God’s love. God is love. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, is the embodiment of love. And, God’s love is perfected in us, when we love one another.

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

1 John 4:2-6 (Testing the Spirits)

1 John 4:2-6 (Testing the Spirits)

Dear Church Family,

The Apostle John begins the fourth chapter of his first epistle with a call for discernment, a call for believers to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). As we noted in our last lesson, John expects that this “testing of the spirits” be equally applied to both himself and his opponents, those false prophets whom he is warning us about. The question, then, arises: how do we know who to believe? By what criteria are we to test the spirits to see if someone’s teaching is from God?

In an effort to answer this question, John goes on in the following verses to give us three criteria by which we may test the spirits to see if a person’s teaching is truly from God: (1) the Christ of the message, (2) the Palatability of the message, and (3) the Apostolicity of the message. If it helps, we may think of this as the C.P.A. of testing the spirits.

(1) The Christ of the Message (1 John 4:2-3)

2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God;
3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.

In the first test, we must check the doctrine of Christ that is being taught. Theologians call this “Christology” or the study of Christ. In testing the spirits (testing teachers and their teaching), we must first check and see what is being taught concerning the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Does it comport with what the Bible says?

This is probably the easiest test to apply. Not always, but usually, this is the first one that jumps out at you because it is so glaringly obvious. Under this test, there are basically two kinds of false teaching: false religions and cults. In the category of “false religions” we have belief systems such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and the like. In each of these false religions, the pre-existent deity of Jesus Christ, His incarnation, death, and resurrection are denied, and thus – in John’s words – they are of the spirit of the antichrist.

In the category of “cults” we have all those religions that have broken off from the orthodoxy of the Christian church and formed their own doctrines and belief systems. Both false religions and cults are equally erroneous, but the cults are probably more deceptive because they tend to look like true Christianity, because much of the language sounds similar. Under cults, we have belief systems such as Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and the like. In each of these cults, the Biblical teaching concerning the Person of Jesus Christ as the unique Son of God is denied or twisted in some way.

Discerning the Christ of the message is the same criteria that Jesus applied (Matthew 16:15-17). He asked His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus commended Peter’s answer, “Blessed are you Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” This interchange teaches us that the sincere confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, cannot be apprehended apart from God’s revelation. And, that’s why John says in his epistle, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2).

(2) The Palatability of the Message (1 John 4:4)

4 You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.

By the “palatability” of the message, I mean – how does the message “sit” with you? When looking at the “Christ” of the message, it is very easy to see the objective standard: does the teaching about Jesus agree with what the Scriptures say? Here the question is about the palatability of the message and whether or not it is in agreement with the Holy Spirit inside of you. This is a much more subjective test; it’s important not to rely solely on your gut-feelings. Emotions and gut-feelings are not fool-proof; however, how something comports with the Holy Spirit inside of us and our sanctified thoughts and feelings, can often be the first tip-off that something’s not quite right.

John mentions in this verse that those to whom he is writing are from God; therefore, they have overcome the false prophets, these antichrists. He’s trying to encourage them that not only do they have the truth of God’s Word on their side, God Himself dwells in them. And the One who dwells in believers is greater than these false-teachers, greater than any who are in the world.

I refer to this as the “palatability” of the message because, as a believer, the Holy Spirit is in you, shaping your “theological palate,” if you will. He is training your “spiritual taste-buds” to notice things that taste bad, and therefore might actually be bad for you.

Think about this in terms of your physical taste-buds. Can you always, 100% of the time, count on your sense of taste to protect you from eating or drinking something that is not good for you? No, of course not, but your sense of taste can sometimes be of help.

For instance, you pour yourself a nice, tall glass of milk from the refrigerator, take a sip and suddenly discover that the milk is spoiled. How do you know? Well, it tastes bad. And, because you have learned that spoiled milk is not good for you, you throw it away and don’t drink it.

But consider another scenario. You’re hiking in the woods and you come upon a fresh mountain stream. It looks fresh, and according to your hiking buddy, it even tastes fresh. But then, you both notice that the stream is actually passing through a cow pasture where cattle are walking – and doing all sorts of other things – in the stream. The water may look and taste clean, but you don’t trust it. So, you fill up your canteen and treat the water with iodine tablets. Now, the water has been treated and is safe to drink.

I don’t know if you’ve ever drunk water that’s been treated with iodine tablets, but it tastes nasty. Your natural reflex is to spit it out because it tastes horrible. That’s an example of where you can’t merely trust your sense of taste to inform your discernment. At first, the water tasted good, but upon further investigation, you discovered that it was contaminated by cattle. Then, once you treated it with iodine, the water tasted bad, but based on what you know about the effects of iodine, you realize that you ought to over-ride your taste-buds and drink the iodine treated water, whether it tastes bad or not.

It is the same in the spiritual realm regarding doctrinal teachings. Something may “rub you the wrong way” or “give you a bad feeling” in your spirit – and that is certainly a reason for you to question the validity of the teaching. That “gut feeling” may be the Holy Spirit’s early warning system for the believer. At the same time, you can’t always rely on your spiritual “gut feelings” and you certainly shouldn’t rely upon them alone. That’s where the third and final test comes into play when testing the spirits.

(3) The Apostolicity of the Message (1 John 4:5-6)

5 They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them.
6 We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

The key to understanding this criterion for testing the spirits is to make sure that we understand who the pronouns of these verses are referring to. Note how the first word of verses 4-6 is a different pronoun:

Verse 4 – “You. You (believers, Christians) are from God, and you are over-comers, because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”
Verse 5 – “They. They (false prophets and antichrists) are from the world; they speak as from the world and the world listens to them.”
Verse 6 – “We. We (God’s chosen Apostles) are from God. Those who know God listen to us. Those who are not from God, do not listen to us. By this test, we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

Now that we have a better grasp of who the pronouns of these verses are referring to, let’s focus in on two important points that arise from verses 5 & 6: beware of worldly popularity, but listen to the Apostolic teaching.

First, notice that when John speaks of the message from the false prophets, those who are antichrist, he says that “they are from the world, they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them” (1 John 4:5). Believers often miss this part of the test, but basically, John is saying, “If the world – if unbelievers – receive the message and listen to it, then watch out.” You could go almost as far as to say that if something is popular and received by the masses, then you might want to be a little wary of it, because if something is palatable to the unbelieving world, then it probably isn’t from God. Unfortunately, many Christians believe that one of the church’s goals is to be to gain popularity with the world; however, the popularity of a teaching among worldlings is actually a red flag.

This is why you have to be wary about getting your theological reading material from the “best seller” section in the bookstore. That goes for secular or Christian bookstores; it doesn’t really matter. If the message resonates with the world, we ought to be wary. Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, the popularity of a doctrine often reveals the opposite – popularity often indicates that something is wrong with the teaching. You know what I’m talking about here. Take, for instance, the popularity of such things as “The Prayer of Jabez,” “The Davinci Code,” “Wild at Heart,” “The Shack,” or “Jesus Calling.” Very popular books that ultimately fail the test when compared with the apostolic teachings of God’s Word.

Second, it is of the utmost importance that believers know and listen to the teaching of the Apostles contained in Scripture. In verse 6, the Apostle John makes a very clear and definitive statement. The way to tell the difference between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error is this: does the person and his teaching follow and submit to the Apostles’ teaching in the Bible.

Verse 6 does not teach us that every individual believer can make a unique claim to truth and then say, “If you don’t believe me, then you’re not from God.” You see, John’s words in verse 6 would be arrogant if you or I uttered them. That’s because, you and I could never say, as John does, “Thus sayeth the Lord.”

But, what verse 6 does teach us is that the Scriptures are the ultimate and final authority, the only rule of faith and obedience. The Scriptures are the final test. In as much as a person’s teaching agrees with Scripture, we can declare their message to be from the spirit of truth. And, in as much as a person’ teaching takes away from, adds to, or disagrees with the Scriptures, we can declare their message to be from the spirit of error.

We could sum up this third criteria of Apostolicity this way: Is what I’m being taught compatible with the world, or is it compatible with the teaching of the Apostles in Scripture?”

Conclusion

We live in a very relativistic society. In fact, being a relativist is actually one of the core elements of our postmodern, post-Christian age. Unfortunately, relativism has made its way into the Church. And, it has snuck in under the guise of false-humility. You know how it goes. You read or hear of someone who adds to or contradicts God’s word, and you say, “Well, I don’t want to judge. I mean, after all, they mean well. Their heart’s in the right place.”

Or we say, “You know, we each have different opinions on that doctrine. Who’s to say who’s right? Each of us claims to hold to the truth, but there’s no way of knowing which interpretation of the Scriptures is right.”

Well, there actually are ways of knowing truth from error. That’s how John concludes this passage – “By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”

By this we know truth from error:

Does the Christ of the message look like Jesus as He is described in the Scriptures – as the eternal Son of God who came in the flesh?

Does the Palatability of the message resonate with your spirit? Does the Holy Spirit in you, put up red flags?

Third, and finally – and probably most importantly – test the Apostolicity of the message. Is the teaching received by the world with open arms, then be wary! Always, test the message against the Apostolic witness of the Scriptures.

Many false prophets have gone out into the world. Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.

Because it is true: Tolerance is the highest virtue for those who have no others. And, if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

1 John 4:1 (Test the Spirits)

1 John 4:1 (Test the Spirits)

Dear Church Family,

In our study of 1 John, we’ve taken note of how the Apostle John emphasizes the three key elements of the Christian life: right doctrine (what you believe), right relationships (who you love), and right morality (how you live). As we come to chapter four of this epistle, we find that he, once again, takes up the topic of right doctrine – this time from a different angle than he has before.

Back in chapter two, John drew a distinction between the false prophet (whom he called antichrist) and those who confess that Jesus is the Christ. His point there was simply: don’t be like those false prophets – “As for you, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24).

Beware of False Prophets

But now, as we come to chapter four, John takes it a step further. Not only are we to beware of those who are opposed to Christ and be like them, we must be discerning, discriminating, and even intolerant of those who lie and teach false doctrine (1 John 4:1):

1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

This fourth chapter of 1 John opens with a call to discernment, followed by some application concerning how believers are to specifically apply their discernment in “testing the spirits” and figuring out who to believe. But, for now, let’s just think about this call to discernment in this first verse.

John warns: many false prophets have gone out into the world; therefore, don’t believe everyone or everything, but test everyone and everything to see whether they are from God. That sounds simple enough, right? If only it were so simple! You and I, we fall for many things that at first sound right and seem to be in accord with sound doctrine; however, once you get down the road a little ways, by God’s grace, suddenly you realize, “Wait a minute! I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid, and I didn’t even know it!” It’s happened to me, and I bet it’s happened to you.

In fact, I would venture to say that this call for discernment is probably even more important for us today, than it was for the first century church when this letter was written. It’s not because the “spirit of the antichrist” that stands behind false prophets has changed. No, what makes this call for discernment even more important for us today is the fact that more time has elapsed since Jesus’ first coming and the writing of the New Testament. And, with more time, there has been more opportunity for false prophets to replicate themselves, to gain footholds, to adapt their message in order to make it more appealing. And that’s why John’s admonition is so important for us to hear, today – “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God.”

You see, both John and his opponents (these false prophets who were seeking to lead people astray) claimed to be inspired. Both John and the false prophets claimed to be from God. Both claimed to be teaching truth as it had been revealed to them. John knows this. So, when he says, “test the spirits,” he is talking about himself and his own teaching, as well.

Fear of Making Judgments

Unfortunately, there are too many Christians today who resist testing the spirits for fear that they might come across as judgmental or mean-spirited. Of course, God’s Word calls us to maintain a spirit of gentleness in all things and with all people (2 Timothy 2:25Titus 3:2). At the same time, we are also admonished to test the spirits, make judgments, and then guard against false prophets.

For instance, perhaps you’ve heard – as I have on several occasions – that to be critical of the abuses of the charismatic movement puts one in danger of committing “the unforgiveable sin” of blaspheming against or speaking against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32). Jeremiah Johnson has helpfully written about these false accusations here: https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B171016, but let me just say a few words about that.

Again, we ought always strive to be peaceable and gentle in our demeanor, even and especially when we are seeking to test the spirits and discern true from false teaching; however, that does not give everyone who claims to speak in the Lord’s name a free pass! Simply because someone claims to come from God or is propped up by others as teaching divine truths, does not make it so. Personally, I fear that many of the false teachings of the Pentecostal and charismatic movement have found footholds in the broader evangelical church, and even among Reformed Presbyterians, because of this fear of seeming critical or judgmental. We should never be judgmental; yet, we still need to make right judgements and test the spirits.

Toward a Rightful Intolerance

G.K. Chesterton once said, “Tolerance is the highest virtue for those who have no others.” What Chesterton meant was that if your highest virtue is tolerance, then you cannot have other virtues. If tolerance is your highest virtue then you cannot have any other virtues because any other virtue that you would hold to, would come into conflict with the virtue of tolerance. If tolerance is one’s highest virtue, then you cannot discriminate or make any other value judgments.

If you’ve never heard that quote from Chesterton, perhaps you’ve heard someone say something like this, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” That pretty much sums up the problem with having tolerance as your highest virtue. If you believe that every doctrine, every idea, every religion, every thought, every teaching, every cultural world-view has equal merit – and thus ought to be accepted merely for the fact that it is important to someone, somewhere – then you are opening yourself up to believe anything and everything, regardless of whether or not it has any resonance with God’s objective truth.

You see, there are at least two problems with having tolerance as your highest virtue. First, the person who has tolerance as his or her highest virtue is necessarily going to be inconsistent. For example, he or she would probably not be able to tolerate the person who is intolerant.

Second, and more importantly, if consistent, the person who has tolerance as his or her highest virtue is going to end up in a very dangerous and absurd place. He or she would have to accept Hitler’s desire for Arian superiority as “just another way of looking at life.” If the newly released serial-killer applied for a job baby-sitting your children, as a tolerant person, you’d have to say – “Fine. Come in, Mr. Serial-killer. Welcome to my home. Here are my children. See you in three hours.” If you turned them away, simply because they happened to have murdered ten people, you’d be intolerant.

The point is that even though many people consider intolerance to be a dirty word, everyone is intolerant in one way or another. The question is: by what authority, and according to what doctrine, are we going to be intolerant? What are the criteria by which we as Christians ought to judge and discriminate truth from error?

That’s what the following verses are about, and next time we’ll begin looking at those criteria by which believers ought to test the spirits.

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

1 John 3:21-22 (As You Pray, Walk Close to God and Obey His Word)

1 John 3:21-22 (As You Pray, Walk Close to God and Obey His Word)

Dear Church Family,

How would you answer this question: “As a child of God, what gives you confidence before God in prayer that He will give you what you ask for?” I suspect that there are many answers to that question, but I doubt that I would get the answer that God’s Word gives us in John’s first epistle (1 John 3:21-22):

21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God;
22 and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.

John says, “Because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight, whatever we ask we receive from Him.” In other words, “Obedience to God is a condition for receiving what you ask for.” Commenting on this verse, John Stott writes, “Obedience is the indispensable condition, not the meritorious cause, of answered prayer.”

Now, at first blush, that may sound odd. How can that be? God only answers the prayers of the obedient? Well, first of all, whether we believe it or not, we have to confess that the Bible says it to be so. And, as we’ll see in a little bit, John is simply reiterating Jesus’ teaching on this subject.

An earthly illustration

But first, just consider the human relationship between a father and his son as an example of this truth about our relationship with our Heavenly Father. If a son lives in rebellion to the rules of the house and betrays the loving relationship with his father, and then, in the midst of that rebellion says, “Dad, will you please buy me a car?” What should the father do? Would it be the loving thing for him to reward his son’s disobedience, or should he withhold the car as a means of shaping the character of his son?

Remember, the condition of obedience is not meritorious. A son is not given good gifts because he earned them, but obedience is still a condition. The difference is in the intent of the father. If I withhold good gifts from my son and tell him that he must earn them by his obedience, then I am treating him not as a son, but as a servant or a slave who must earn his keep. On the other hand, if I withhold good gifts from my son, requiring obedience from him with the intent to shape and mold him into the man that he should be, then I am loving him and treating him as a son.

That’s looking at it from the Father’s side – from God’s side. But, let’s look at it from the son’s side. If a son knows that his obedience will get him what he asks for from his father, he may obey for the wrong reasons. A human father may be fooled for a while by that kind of ruse, but eventually, when the difficulty of the obedience outweighs the reward, it will become obvious that the son was obeying for the wrong reasons.

With God, however, there is no fooling him. Remember, “He is greater than our heart and knows all things” (1 John 3:20). If I think of my obedience to God as a way that I can get stuff from Him, rather than simply obeying because He is my Heavenly Father who loves me, He will know.

The key is in the two ways that John speaks of obedience at the end of verse 22. There, he defines obedience as “keeping God’s commandments” and “doing the things that are pleasing to Him.” Our hearts are right before God – we can have confidence before Him – not just when we keep His commandments, but when we do so from a desire to please Him.

A biblical example

Consider the obedient faith of Abraham as he took his only son, Isaac, up onto the mountain to sacrifice him based on the Lord’s command to do so (Genesis 22). Why would he do that? Was Abraham thinking about the reward that he would get from his obedience? Certainly not! He was simply walking with His God in obedience to the Lord’s command.

In his book Finding the Will of God, Bruce Waltke has some great insights into what we learn about the Divine-human relationship in the story of Abraham:

“The faith it would take to obey God in this situation amazes me. The fact that God stayed the hand of Abraham, arranging for a replacement sacrifice and blessing the descendants of Isaac, fascinates me. But the idea the Lord will specially intervene when He must, to shape the character of the man teaches me. Abraham did not seek a special message from God. He didn’t ask for a sign or demand confirmation from the Lord. He simply walked close to God and obeyed His Word. Those two elements continue to be the essential ingredients of a vibrant faith.” (Waltke, Finding the Will of God, 40).

That’s it, isn’t it? Walk close to God and obey His Word and you will have confidence that you will receive from Him whatever you ask. Think about this: there’s a phrase – a promise – from the Psalms that believers often cling to. And, rightfully so; it’s a good promise: “The Lord will give you the desires of your heart.” But, don’t miss the context. That phrase comes from Psalm 37:4-5:

4 Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it.

Did you notice the context of that promise? The point is simply this: If you are walking close to God in obedience, then He will give you the desires of your heart because your desires will have been shaped and formed to match His desires. Then, whatever you ask of God, you will receive it.

Jesus’ teaching

Above, I mentioned that this teaching in John’s first epistle is simply a reiteration of Jesus’ teaching on this subject. In John 15, Jesus teaches about the relationship between His disciples, Himself, and the Heavenly Father. He uses the imagery of a vine and its branches. Jesus is the true vine, God the Father is the vinedresser (or gardener), and we are the branches. Based in that imagery, consider Jesus’ teaching (John 15:5-7):

5 “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
6 “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.
7 “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

There it is, exactly what John teaches in his letter; Jesus says, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Bearing fruit or abiding in God’s Word – both refer to obedience. And, if you are walking close to God in obedience, you can have the confidence to go to Him in prayer, knowing that what you ask for is in keeping with His will.

Conclusion

We could sum all of this up this way: God’s sons and daughters are called to live obedient lives of faith – walking close with their God – such that finding His will, will become a moot point. Because when we abide in Him, and He in us, we will know His will, and pray accordingly.

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

1 John 3:19-20 (Semi-transcendence)

1 John 3:19-20 (Semi-transcendence)

Dear Church Family,

When C.S. Lewis’ wife died, he kept a journal of his grief. Later, these observations were published in a book, A Grief Observed. In that book, Lewis describes how God feels so very distant in times of mourning and loss, something with which most everyone can relate:

“Go to [God] when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”

The Dark Night of the Soul

But, there doesn’t have to be a tragic event in your life, such as the death of a loved one, to experience what some have referred to as the “dark night of the soul.” Believers – children of God – can have their assurance shaken by their own actions. We neglect the call to persevere by nurturing our relationship with the Lord; we fall into some special sin, wounding our conscience and grieving the Holy Spirit. We give in to temptation – and then suddenly, the God of our Salvation – the One who seemed once so near and dear – is very distant.

And, our own hearts accuse us, “Now you’ve done it. God could never forgive what you’ve done. A person who sins in such a way was probably never even a Christian. How do you know that God is even real? What you experienced once was probably just an emotional upheaval. There is no God.” So says your own heart in the midst of doubt and despair.

You may think that that only happens to you. But, you are not alone. It’s not a happy experience. It’s not a good experience. It’s not an experience that any person would desire. But, the dark night of the soul is an experience that you can expect at one point or another in your life.

In fact, this experience of the dark night of the soul is so prevalent among Christians, that the Word of God teaches us how to prepare and defend against such attacks. Consider the Apostle John’s words from his first epistle:

19 We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him
20 in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things.

The first thing to notice about verse 19 is that it begins with a look to the future. The verb “to know” is in the future tense. That may not seem that important, but it is of great importance in understanding these two verses. John is looking forward to a time – a time that he knows will come for all believers – when their own hearts will condemn them.

When those times come, believers are to cling to two truths. In essence, the Word of God here explains to us: “Be forewarned, at some point in the future your heart will condemn you, but there are at least two assurances that you ought to cling to during those times.”

The first assurance that believers ought to cling to when their own hearts condemn them is designated in verse 19 by the words “by this” – “We will know *by this* that we are of the truth, and will assure our hearts before Him…”

So the first question that we must ask is this: What does “by this” in verse 19 refer to? If it is “by this” that we will know that we are of the truth, then if we want to be assured that we are indeed of the truth in the midst of being condemned by our own hearts, it is imperative that we grasp what “this” is. Well, there are actually two parts to the answer.

First Assurance: self-examination (a heartfelt generosity)

The first part of assurance that John wants us to cling to in times of despair is that we “love the brethren in deed and truth by giving of our worldly possession.” That’s the point that he just finished making in the previous verses (1 John 3:17-18):

17 But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?
18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.

But, remember, it’s not just the act of loving a brother or sister in Christ by giving of your worldly possessions that John is talking about here. It’s the act of loving a brother or sister in Christ by giving of your worldly possessions with a sincere heart. In deed and in truth – with action and sincerity of heart.

John points to your heartfelt generosity, as a testimony that you can cling to in times of despair – a testimony of your own love – in deed and in truth – for the brethren. So, first of all, when personal doubts as to the validity of our faith arise, we are directed inward to examine our own hearts and motives to gain assurance.

Second Assurance: God-examination (God’s sovereignty and omniscience)

Second, we are directed outward to examine the greatness, the sovereignty, and the omniscience of God. That’s in verse 20. In whatever our heart condemns us, let us remember that “God is greater than our heart and knows all things.” God is sovereign – more powerful than, even and especially – your heart. And, God is omniscient – He knows everything, even and especially – your heart. He knows your heart even better than you do.

Semi-transcendence

To find assurance in these two things – assurance that will carry you through the dark night of despair when even your own heart condemns you – takes discipline and preparation before the dark night comes. It takes the discipline of self-examination and God-examination. But, ultimately, it takes dependence upon the truth of what God has revealed about Himself. It takes trust – a trust in a God who will never let you go, a God who loves you beyond all that you can even comprehend – trust that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

This kind of assurance comes as a result of reminding yourself of who you are and who God is. In a sense, when your own heart accuses you and through your self-talk, you begin to actually call into question your own faith, you have to be able to be both in yourself and outside of yourself at the same time. This is what I’m calling “semi-transcendence.”

To better understand this concept of “semi-transcendence,” consider how the Apostle Paul gives expression to this idea in his first epistle to the Corinthians. There he speaks of being both subjectively inside yourself and objectively outside yourself at the same time (1 Corinthians 4:3-4):

3 But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.
4 For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.

Think about what Paul is saying here. He’s basically saying that when he examines himself, he is conscious of nothing against himself. But he’s learned that whether he is guilty or innocent, is not based on his own conscience (he is not acquitted by his own conscience). The one who examines him is the Lord! He is acquitted or found guilty based on God’s examination of himself, and nothing else.

That’s semi-transcendence. You have to be self-aware enough to know that you cannot always trust your own heart. And, at the same time, you have to be outside yourself enough to be able to view yourself (and your heart) with the objectivity of God’s examinations.

Conclusion

This concept of semi-transcendence may sound strange or perhaps even impossible to do; however, it is precisely what the Bible teaches us to do each and every time we partake of the Lord’s supper together. In Paul’s instructions concerning the proper administration of the Lord’s supper, he explains how this holy meal is supposed to lead us to semi-transcendence so that we may be disciplined and sanctified by the Lord.

First, we are called to look outside of ourselves. When partaking of the Lord’s supper together, as often as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). In the signs and symbols the meal, we recognize who Jesus is and what He has done for us in His death and resurrection.

Second, we are called to look within ourselves. As we partake together, the Scriptures tell us that we must also examine ourselves (1 Corinthians 11:28). Do we have faith in Christ, trusting in Him alone for our salvation? Is there sin in our hearts or in our lives that we have not confessed and for which we have not repented?

Then, as we examine Christ and examine ourselves at the same time, the Lord disciplines us (1 Corinthians 11:32); He convicts us of our sin, forgives our sins, and teaches us how to love and obey Him.

Every time we partake of the Lord’s supper, let us practice this semi-transcendence. And, when the dark night of the soul comes, when our own hearts condemns us, we will be more prepared to find assurance for our hearts as we examine both ourselves and Christ. For He is greater than our hearts and knows all things.

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

1 John 3:17-18 (How God’s Love in Christ Causes Love)

1 John 3:17-18 (How God’s Love in Christ Causes Love)

Dear Church Family,

We’ve seen how God’s love in Christ for His people causes hate (1 John 3:11-15) – how the world hates those who are born of God. And, we’ve seen also how God’s love in Christ for His people causes change: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). Jesus’ sacrificial love for us changes us and then teaches us how we ought to sacrificially love our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now, let us consider how this change that God’s love causes, also causes us to love as He loved us (1 John 3:17-18):

17 But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?
18 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.

There are two reasons why we went to such lengths in describing the love of God in Christ for us from the previous versus, why we talked about Agape, Affection, and Friendship in such detail. First of all, it is so that we can try to get past all the clichés and the language that has become so common among us; so that we can better understand how much God loves us.

The other reason that we examined the various aspects of the love of God in Christ for us, though, is this: For those who have experienced that love, God calls us to love our brother in that exact same way.

God did not – and does not – love us in words only – but in deed and in truth. And, we are called to do the same. Do you see that last phrase of verse 18? “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and in truth. “To love in deed” means to take action, to do something. God in Christ took action to love us, and so should we. “To love in truth” means to be sincere – to be genuine, and not hypocritical. God in Christ was sincere in His love and so should we.

So, what does this “in deed and in truth” kind of love look like? He tells us in verse 17. True love sees the need of his brother, and if he has the “world’s goods” – material possessions to help – he does not “close his heart against him.” The King James Version renders that phrase about closing one’s heart in verse 17 in what I find to be a very interesting turn of phrase: he “shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him”!

You see, if the love of God abides in a person, this compassionate love cannot be closed off. It causes a person to love, even as God loves – with Agape, Affection, and with Friendship Love – by giving to that need.

Becoming like the Father

I have a painting in my study – a print, really – of Rembrandt’s painting called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” It’s a wonderful and fascinating rendition of the scene from Jesus’ parable in which the prodigal son returns home and is embraced by his father. In Rembrandt’s rendition, you can clearly see the prodigal son, kneeling before his father in a humble embrace. The father is affectionately holding his son to himself. And, off to the side, standing erect and judgmental is the elder son, looking on in spite.

I have come to really love that painting, but one of the main reasons that I love the painting is because of the insights that I learned in a book by Henri Nouwen called The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. In that book, Nouwen describes his own life and spiritual transformation through the story that is depicted in the painting.

In the final chapter of Nouwen’s book, as he concludes his examination of Rembrandt’s painting and of his own life, Nouwen strikes upon a truth that is also taught in 1 John 3:16-18: Just as Christ has loved us, so ought we to love one another.

No doubt, if you’ve ever read or heard Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, you have identified with the rebellious son. The rebellious or prodigal son went off and spent all of his inheritance, only to be driven by his own sin and destitute condition to go back to his father and plead for mercy. I think we all can identify with him, and we all have been grateful that our heavenly Father welcomes us back with a warm embrace.

At other times, perhaps you, as I have, identified with the son who remained. You take your privileged status as a child of God for granted. You start to think that your status in God’s household is due to the fact that you earned it somehow. And so, you scorn those whom you deem to be less worthy.

But, have you ever considered that as a child of God you are called to identify with the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son? Now, obviously, I don’t mean that you become God. What I mean is that God wants you to emulate the love of the father as is expressed in that parable. We are to love one another, even as we have been loved by our Heavenly Father. Listen to how Henri Nouwen puts it at the end of his book. It’s a bit lengthy, but so insightful and well said. These are Henri Nouwen’s words…

“I am amazed at how long it has taken me to make the father the center of my attention. It was so easy to identify with the two sons. Their outer and inner waywardness is so understandable and so profoundly human that identification happens almost spontaneously as soon as the connections are pointed out. For a long time I had identified myself so fully with the younger son that it did not even occur to me that I might be more like the elder. But as soon as a friend said, “Aren’t you the elder son in the story?” it was hard to see anything else. Seemingly, we all participate to a greater or lesser degree in all the forms of human brokenness. Neither greed nor anger, neither lust nor resentment, neither frivolity nor jealousy are completely absent from any one of us. Our human brokenness can be acted out in many ways, but there is no offense, crime, or war that does not have its seeds in our own hearts.

“But what of the father? Why pay so much attention to the sons when it is the father who is in the center and when it is the father with whom I am to identify? Why talk so much about being like the sons when the real question is: Are you interested in being like the father? It feels somehow good to be able to say: “These sons are like me.” It gives a sense of being understood. But how does it feel to say: “The father is like me”? Do I want to be like the father? Do I want to be not just the one who is being forgiven, but also the one who forgives; not just the one who is being welcomed home, but also the one who welcomes home; not just the one who received compassion, but the one who offers it as well?

“Isn’t there a subtle pressure in both the Church and society to remain a dependent child? Hasn’t the Church in the past stressed obedience in a fashion that made it hard to claim spiritual fatherhood, and hasn’t our consumer society encouraged us to indulge in childish self-gratification? Who has truly challenged us to liberate ourselves from immature dependencies and to accept the burden of responsible adults? And aren’t’ we ourselves constantly trying to escape the fearful task of fatherhood? Rembrandt certainly did. Only after much pain and suffering, when he approached death, was he able to understand and paint true spiritual paternity.

“Perhaps the most radical statement Jesus ever made is: ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.’ God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive me my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing to me.” (The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, 141-142).

Every time I look upon Rembrandt’s rendition of “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” I am reminded – “I can identify with the rebellious prodigal son who came crawling back to his loving father. And, yes, I can identify with the prideful elder son who remained.” But, then, I am reminded – “But what of the father? Are you interested in being like the father?”

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

1 John 3:16 (How God’s Love in Christ Causes Change)

1 John 3:16 (How God’s Love in Christ Causes Change)

Dear Church Family,

Last week, in 1 John 3:11-15, we saw how God’s love in Christ for His people causes hate. That is to say, the world will hate those who are loved by God, those who are born again and thus love Him. John goes all the way back to the first example of fratricide wherein Cain slew his brother Abel because Cain’s deeds were evil and Abel’s deeds were righteous. God’s love for Abel (a love that changed Abel such that he was able to walk in righteousness) caused Cain to hate and murder his own brother. And so, John says, “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story. The love of God in Christ not only causes hate, but it causes change, as well (1 John 3:16):

16 We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.

The Indicative Leads to the Imperative

Notice that there are two parts to this verse – there’s an “is” and there’s an “ought.” The first half of this verse gives us the “is” (an indicative or statement of fact). Love “is” this: Christ laid down His life for us. The second half of this verse gives us the “ought” (an imperative or a command). Love “ought” this: Lay down our lives for the brethren. That’s how the love of God in Christ causes change: the “is” of God’s love, changes the “ought” of our love.

Perhaps you’ve heard that in the Greek language – the original language of the New Testament – there are several different words for “love.” C.S. Lewis explores the different kinds of love in his book The Four Loves. The first is Affection (or Storge). Affection is the natural love which is attributed to a parent’s love for his or her children. Then, there’s Eros (or Romantic Love). Eros is that love which is marked by sensual passion. There’s Friendship (or philia love). That’s like a brotherly love. And, finally, there’s Charity (or Agape Love) – the kind of love that describes God’s love for us.

So, those are C.S. Lewis’ four loves: Affection, Eros, Friendship, and Charity. This last one – Charity, or Agape Love – Lewis says is the highest of loves. And, of the four, he says that it is the least natural. And, it’s this word in the Greek (Agape), which John employs in this and the surrounding verses.

This is love – and you know this love, you have experienced it – Christ laid down His life for us. But, let’s explore this love for just a moment. What do we learn about the true nature of love when we come to a saving knowledge of God’s love for us in Christ? Well, there are many ways we could talk about this, but let me just point out four aspects of God’s love for us in Christ.

(1) Jesus’ love is sacrificial.

First, Jesus’ love is sacrificial. That should be obvious from verse 16 – “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us.” Of course, most of us probably can understand – at least on a superficial level – what Jesus’ sacrifice entailed. It meant suffering excruciating agony and pain in His body. It meant having his very life forced out of Him until He breathed His last.

But, in His sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary, we must recognize that Jesus sacrificed His intimate fellowship with the love of God. In those final hours, He cried out – “My God, My God. Why have you forsaken Me!” (Matthew 27:46)

But, there’s more. Have you ever thought about Jesus’ forty days and forty nights of wilderness temptation in light of what He sacrificed? At the beginning of His earthly ministry, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. There, the devil tempted Jesus by appealing to His desire to be filled– “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread” (Matthew 4:3). Also, the devil tempted Jesus by appealing to His desire for protection – “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you’; and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’” (Matthew 4:6). And, the devil tempted Jesus by appealing to His desire for power – “All these things [the kingdoms of the world], I will give You, if You fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9).

Jesus sacrificed His desire to be filled, His desire for bodily protection, and His desire for earthly power…for us! His life, His experience of that perfect relationship with His heavenly Father, and all those things that He could have had…for us! The Love God in Christ is, first of all, Sacrificial!

(2) Jesus’ Love is Unearned

Second, the Love of God in Christ is Unearned. By that, we mean, it is not based on the worth of the one who is loved. It is undeserved, and in fact, cannot be earned. Later in John’s letter, He reminds us, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Romans 5:8 tells us, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. The unearned nature of God’s love speaks to the complete and utter lack of anything which was loveable in us.

So, God’s love – Charity, or Agape Love – True Love – is sacrificial. It’s the giving up of all deserved rights and privileges for another. And, God’s love is unearned. It’s the giving of rights and privileges to another, though they be undeserved.

(3) Jesus’ Love is Freely Chosen

Third, God’s true love of Charity is Freely Chosen. Let me show you what I mean by that. Consider how Jesus speaks of the covenant or pact which He made with the Father (John 10:17-18):

17 “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again.  18 “No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.”

In some strange, seemingly paradoxical way, God the Father commanded His only begotten Son to sacrifice Himself; at the same time, Jesus freely chose to lay down His life. It’s almost too much to wrap our minds around how those two things could go together, but it speaks to the unique relationship between the loving Father God, and His obedient Son. And, it teaches us of how Christ’s love for us is not compelled or compulsory, but freely chosen.

(4) Jesus’ Agape Love is also Affection and Friendship Love

I find this last aspect of God’s love for us in Christ truly fascinating. When God’s Agape love – this love that is sacrificial, underserved, and freely chosen – when this love comes to a point in history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it takes on two other forms of love – namely Affection and Friendship. Affection and Friendship don’t displace God’s Agape love, but they are added to it.

Let me explain. God still loves with the sacrificial, underserved, and freely chosen love of Agape Love. In Christ, though, we see very clearly that because we receive God’s Agape love, we are then adopted into the family of God such that now the Affectionate love of God – the Fatherly love of God for His children – now abides on us.

You know how you sometimes feel compelled to love someone even though you don’t like them. You think to yourself, “I’m a Christian, you’re a Christian” so, through gritted teeth, you say, “I love you in the Lord.” With God’s love in Christ, there is none of that. To put it colloquially, because you are in Christ (an adopted child of the Heavenly Father) God not only loves you, He actually likes you! His Affectionate, Fatherly Love is directed toward you!

And, so is the Friendship love of Jesus. Jesus Himself, said (John 15:12-14):

12 “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.  13 “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.  14 “You are My friends if you do what I command you.

When a man of great stature – say a king or a president – says to you, “I love you so much that I lay down my life for you. You are my friend” – it elevates you to a different status. But imagine this! The King of kings and Lord of lords – the Creator of the universe – says to you: “You are my friend!”

The sacrificial, underserved, and freely chosen Agape Love of God comes together with the parental Affection and the elevating love of Friendship. And, all of this, we learn in the simple words from 1 John 3:16: “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us.”

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch