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 11:44-45; 1 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.
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?