This is a follow-on from the subject of Eternal Security deal with in another article. See under “DOCTRINES” if you wish to read that first.
THE ASSURANCE OF RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD
It is possible to know mentally that those who believe in the Lord Jesus with genuine faith are eternally secure, but what if we wonder whether we are among that number or not? How can we be sure that it applies to us personally? Are there any tests we may apply which help us to know experimentally whether we are truly those who are safe for eternity?
There certainly are some tests we may apply to ourselves, and we will look at them now. Each one of these tests is to do with our own personal reaction to the things of God. They are not theoretical tests, therefore, but intensely personal. Moreover, they are concerned with matters that cannot be counterfeited. They do not depend on the opinions of others about us, but our own inner convictions.
The desire to address God
We read in Romans 8:14, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For we have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, ‘Abba, Father’. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God”.
Notice the line of the apostle’s reasoning. He declares that those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. He uses the pronoun “they” in an emphatic sense, to highlight the fact that those who are led by the Spirit, they, and they only, are the sons of God, and are therefore true believers. We could therefore say that one definition of a Christian is “a person led by the Spirit of God”. So there are no believers who are not led by the Spirit of God. So whatever the apostle says is the work of the Spirit of God within a believer, is true of them all. Or to put it another way, there are not some believers who do not have the benefit of the Spirit’s work.
Sonship cannot be lost. The prodigal son may have lost several things by going into the far country, but sonship was not one of them, Luke 15:11-32. He went out from the father’s house as his son, and he came back as his son, and while he was away the Father thought of him as “this my son”. It was still his son that was dead and lost, for he is an illustration of a believer who lives carnally, and whose enjoyment of spiritual things has been interrupted. He was dead as far as the things of his father were concerned. But he was still the son of his father.
But how may a person be sure of this position of sonship? It is one thing to know in theory that God’s sons are eternally secure. But how can a person know that he is a son in the first place? The apostle tells us in the verse already quoted, for those who have become God’s sons have received His Spirit. That Spirit does not bring into bondage, but liberty, the liberty of those who are free to address God. They call Him “Father”, not in a merely religious way, repeating prayers parrot-fashion, but out of love for Him. And when this happens, the Spirit “witnesseth with our spirit that we are the children of God”.
Note that it is not the Spirit witnessing to our spirit, but with our spirit, for the Holy Spirit is witnessing, and so is the believer’s spirit. They are witnessing with one another in common testimony. The spirit of the believer, as it engages in approach to the Father, thereby witnesses concerning the reality of the relationship that exists. But that approach to the Father is only possible by the energy of the Holy Spirit, so in this way the witness of the Holy Spirit of God combines with the witness of the believer’s spirit. No external experiences are involved; nor are internal emotions involved either; it is the simple response of the spirit of the believer to the Father that confirms the reality of sonship, and therefore, of genuine and secure relationship.
The confidence to approach God
We turn now to the words of Hebrews 10:15-22; in particular verses 15, 17, and 22, which read, in part, “Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us…and their sins and iniquities will I remember no more…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith”. There are three important statements here, and as we look at them one by one, we shall see their connection with one another. Chapter 10:5-14 is taken up with the supreme and final sacrifice of Christ, by which He has effectively swept away the old order of things, namely the animal sacrifices on Israel’s altar, and established that which shall never be superseded. In those verses we have the testimony of Christ with regard to His determination to go through with that work of sacrifice, for He said “Lo, I come to do Thy will O God”. That He was successful is seen in the fact that He has sat down on the right hand of God, the God whose will He came to do, and the God whose will He has fully done.
But now we have the further witness of the Spirit, as He adds to the testimony of Christ. Whereas Christ’s testimony was concerning the sufficiency of His sacrifice in principle, the Spirit assures us of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice in practice. He bears witness to the fact that God has promised to not remember the sins and iniquities of His people for ever. It is not that God promises to forget, even though that would be wonderful; but if that was the situation, we might wonder whether He would start remembering again after a while. So to dispel all doubt He pledges to positively not remember His people’s sins.
Now it is with the consciousness of these things that the true believer draws near in spirit to God, and does so in full assurance of faith. The testimony of both the Son and the Spirit has been accepted, and in response the believer approaches God. And in so doing he proves the reality of the forgiveness he has received. This is a powerful proof that there is a real relationship with God, for the natural man has no inclination to worship God, nor has he any consciousness of sins forgiven and peace with God.
Love of the Word of God
The Lord said to some in His day who believed on Him, “If ye continue in My word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”, John 8:31,32. This, then, is another test, even the desire to carry out the teaching of the Word of God. And, of course, that involves the reading of the Word of God. After all, it is by the living word of God that life is obtained in the first place, for the apostle Peter writes, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. ‘For all flesh is as grass; and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth for ever’. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you”, 1 Peter 1:23-25.
So the life-giving word of God is the means God uses to enlighten us regarding the gospel, and when we believe that word, He graciously imparts life to us. But not only does the word of God live, but it also abideth. It is no surprise then that those who are born again through it abide also. And this is what the Lord Jesus was referring to when He spoke of disciples continuing in His word, for the words “continue”, and “abide” mean the same. Notice this does not simply mean the reading of the Bible. It involves the taking in and practice of what is read, by the power of the Spirit of God, as those who delight to do God’s will as found in His word.
Peter likens the love we should have for the word of God to the eager desire that a new-born babe has for its mother’s milk. He wrote, “as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious”, 1 Peter 2:2,3. Newly-born babies do not have to be forced to drink their milk, in normal circumstances, for it is their in-built instinct to do so. So the true believer will be attracted to the word of God so that his soul-hunger may be satisfied.
Obedience to God’s commands
The apostle John tests those who claim to know God and His Son. We read, “And hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments”, 1 John 2:3. We learn from John 17:3 that life eternal consists in knowing the true God, and the one who came that He might be fully known, even Jesus Christ. When a person is born of God, the life of God is imparted, and with it the capacity to know God. So having applied tests to show whether his readers are true believers or not, the apostle now sets out to tell true believers how they may know for sure that they know God in a meaningful way.
A very slight knowledge of God will tell us that He has claims over us, and genuine believers will want to submit to those claims. In John 17:2 the Lord Jesus contrasted men in the flesh with those who have eternal life. The life of men in the flesh is the expression of the life of Adam, whereas the life of true believers is the expression of the life of God as seen in Christ incarnate. Now Adam transgressed God’s simple command to him. God commanded him to not eat of the tree, and he did. Disobedience brought death, and men demonstrate that they are spiritually dead by constantly disobeying God; in fact the apostle Paul calls them children of disobedience in Ephesians 2:2. The true believer will earnestly desire to comply with all that God commands. After all, faith is an act of obedience, Romans 1:6; 16:26.
John adds, “But whoso keepeth His word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in Him”, verse 5. The word for keep involves preserving and not breaking. The nation of Israel failed to keep God’s commandments. Even whilst Moses was at the top of Sinai receiving the commandments, the nation was at the bottom of the mountain breaking them by worshipping the golden calf. No wonder Moses broke the tables of stone, for thereby he illustrated physically what the people had done morally by their rebellion.
What is kept is His word, meaning the sum total of all God requires of us. We are not to pick and choose what we obey, but are to abide by all God says. This the Lord Jesus did, for He could say “I do always those things that please Him”, John 8:29, and He is our example, as the next verse will say. God loves His people so much that He desires them to be His obedient children. When we obey all He commands us, then the love of God will have reached its goal, which is the idea behind the word “perfected”. Not only is God gratified by us reaching the goal He has for us, but our hearts are assured too, for obedience is a sign that we are “in God”, as opposed to being in the world. We are enfolded in God’s love and purpose, instead of being entangled in the world. To be in Him means to have a vital life-relationship with God.
Those who claim to abide in Christ ought to walk as Christ walked, for to abide in Him means to consciously and willingly remain involved in all that God is and does. It is the settled place that only a true believer can occupy. The walk of a person is the way they pass through life, whether as an unbeliever walking after the course of this world, Ephesians 2:2, or a believer walking with God. We are under obligation to walk in a certain way, and it is described here as “as He walked”. The way in which the Lord Jesus passed through this world is the pattern for us. As the apostle Peter wrote, “Christ also hath suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps; who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth”, 1 Peter 2:21,22. John tells us of two of John the Baptist’s disciples who, when he exhorted them to look upon Jesus as He walked, immediately began to do so; but they did more than simply observe, for they began to follow Him, thus walking where He walked, John 1:36,37.
But we need to not only walk where He walked, (remembering that He did not walk after the counsel of the ungodly, not stand in the way of sinners, Psalm 1:1), but also walk as He walked, passing through this world in the same manner as He did. In this way the inward reality of abiding in God is expressed in an outward way, to God’s glory. This is only possible because we have the life of God within us. So when we keep God’s word and walk like His Son, our hearts are assured of a true relationship with Him.
The love of fellow-believers
The apostle John tells us why he wrote his gospel, for he said, “And many other signs did Jesus in the presence of His disciples which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name”, John 20:30,31. But he said in his first epistle, “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God”, 1 John 5:13. So in his gospel John tells us how we may obtain eternal life, whereas in his first epistle he tells us how to know that we have eternal life.
Now one of the ways John tells us how we may know we have eternal life is expressed in 1 John 3:14, where he wrote, “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you. We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren”. Notice that there only two categories in those verses. There is “the world”, meaning those who do not believe the gospel, and “the brethren”, meaning those who do believe the gospel. So we have to ask ourselves, who do we love, the people of the world, or the people of God? Are we happy and comfortable in the company of unbelievers, or believers?
The story is told about the Rabbis in Israel, who were asked to decide whether a particular bird was clean or unclean. Israel’s dietary laws banned the eating of unclean birds, so it was important to be able to recognise them. After much discussion, they were unable to decide from the look of the bird. So they let it go, and watched where it went. It immediately flew to company with birds the Rabbis knew were definitely unclean birds. So the question was settled. The lesson is clear, that we are known by the company we keep. ‘Clean’ believers will not want to keep company with ‘unclean’ unbelievers. They will find their conversation, attitudes, and behaviour to be contrary to their beliefs.
Now it is true that there are many “respectable” unbelievers, who, on the surface do not appear to be unholy; but as soon as the distinctive features of Christianity are made known, whether by word or conduct, the difference becomes apparent. This is not to say that a believer should have no contact with unbelievers, or should set out to be unpopular, but that when that contact is made, the differences between them will become apparent. True believers, then, will long to be in the company of those of like mind, and when they do, it shows that they are truly the Lord’s, having “passed from death unto life”.
Giving to others
In 1 John 3:17-22 the apostle is concerned that we express our love in practical ways. He writes, “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” The word “but” alerts us to the fact that we are going to be given a example of what not to do; of that which is the very reverse of “laying down our lives for the brethren”.
The phrase “this world’s good” as used here, is a reference to the means whereby life is maintained. Luxury goods are not in view, but the necessities of life. So there is presented to us the sight of a believer who has the basic things which the world furnishes in order to sustain his life. (Luxury goods will have no attraction for a spiritual believer. He will be moderate in all things, and not waste the resources God has given Him on the trifles of this life. He will want to invest them for eternity. See Luke 12:13-24). But there is another brother in the situation John is describing. He does not have the means to sustain his life. Why this is the case we are not told. The point is that the brother has need, and the first brother sees it; it is not that he is ignorant of the situation.
Sadly, he “shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him”. There are certain organs in our body which function without us prompting them to do so. John is here assuming that our compassion will not need to be prompted. We should be alert to need around us, and instantly seek ways to relieve it. Considerations of our own personal well-being should recede, and the need of others come to the fore. Sadly, the professed believer whom John has in mind is not like this, but holds back from doing good to others. The true believer will welcome opportunities to lay down his life for the brethren in this, and other ways.
Solemnly, John asks the question, “How dwelleth the love of God in him?” We may think of this question in two ways. Either, on the one hand, John is saying, in effect, “With what justification can it be said that this person has the love of God in his heart at all?” Divine love is ever ready to give, as John has reminded us in verse 16, yet here is one who is not prepared to give, and the question has to be asked whether he is a true believer, since a giving attitude is characteristic of Divine love. Or John is saying, on the other hand, “Is the love of God at home in this person’s heart, comfortable with the attitudes that it finds there?” In other words, is the attitude he is displaying a sign that the love of God is not appreciated, and is therefore not being expressed as it should? Whatever way we look at John’s question, there is a strong challenge for us.
John, as he proceeds, addresses his readers as “my little children”. Verses 13-17 were addressed to believers as brethren, because the negative example of Abel’s brother Cain had been mentioned for our warning. So it is that in that section we have, “love the brethren”, “loveth not his brother”, “hateth his brother”, “lay down our lives for the brethren”, “seeth his brother”. Now, however, the apostle is reverting to the idea that we are the children of God, because he is going to write further about our relationship with the Father and the Son.
When he writes, “Let us not love in word”, John is not discouraging us from speaking words of love to our fellow-believers. The expression is to be taken in context. He is exhorting us not to love merely in word. That is, to simply assent to the word of Scripture which says we should love others. We may do that, but not let the word have any impact upon us. Neither is loving in tongue enough, when we just say that we love someone. Even voicing our intention to show love is not enough. John is exhorting us to love in deed, for actions speak louder than words. The Lord Jesus did not go around saying He loved people; He demonstrated it in action. His example should be followed by His people.
But John goes further, for he expects that our deeds be intelligent and focussed, so that they are in truth, that is, are governed by the truth of Scripture, as expressed by the life of the one who declared “I am…the truth”, and who gave expression to the truth in everything He did. Perhaps if we wish to narrow down what “in truth” means, we could say it is the word “we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren”. It is as we immerse ourselves in the implications of the truth that exhortation brings to us, that we can love as we ought.
Loving in practice has two immediate benefits for the one who loves. First, John writes, “And hereby we know that we are of the truth”. Second, “shall assure our hearts before Him”, 1 John 3:19. So giving to others has its compensations, even in this life, let alone the life to come. The believer who loves in deed and in truth is restful in mind about his relationship to the truth, for he has allowed it to have a profound impact upon him, resulting in practical expressions of love. And the second present benefit from showing love is that the heart is thereby confident about a relationship with God. In the previous verse John envisages one who merely talks in the presence of men about loving. Here he writes of one who can go into the presence of God and be assured of a vital relationship with Him.
John then goes on to write “For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things”, verse 30. John is very realistic, and knows that often, especially if we have a very sensitive conscience, even when we have put loving our brother into practice, our heart still condemns us; perhaps with the thought that our love is not great enough.
But God has the perfect grasp of the true situation. He is, as God, greater in knowledge than we can ever be, and knows all about us; our fears, our motives; our misgivings, our doubts. He also knows perfectly that we have sought to love our brothers. He is also greater in love, and is on our side in this matter.
If we appreciate the truth that God is on our side, then it will be true that “if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God”. Our heart will not condemn us when we see that our lack of confidence is because of our failure to grasp the true situation, which is the situation as God sees it. When this is the case, “then have we confidence toward God”, for we have seen things as God sees them, and have stopped tormenting ourselves for our supposed failures, (as long as they are supposed, and not real). When this then assurance of heart can be restored to us.
But John has not finished with this matter. He will now encourage us to ask for further opportunities to show love, and this will reinforce the assurance that we have already gained. He writes in verse 22, “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight”. This obviously is not a licence to ask for everything and anything, but is to be taken strictly in context. The confidence that our hearts have in the presence of God with regard to the reality of our love, (as expressed by love to others), encourages us to ask for further opportunities to show love, and also to be given the resources whereby we may do this. The apostle is sure that if we ask with this motive, then our request will be granted. He had heard the Lord Jesus say, “If ye abide in me, and My words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is My Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be My disciples”, John 15:7,8. So those in whose hearts the words of the Lord Jesus have found a congenial home, can safely be given the promise that anything they ask will be given, for they will not ask for anything contrary to His will as expressed in His words. And when this happens, the Father is glorified, for they have asked for help to bear much fruit, and this glorifies Him. So in John 15 the asking is so as to be fruitful. In 1 John 3 the asking is so as to be useful.
The apostle gives two reasons why he is confident that our requests will be granted. First, “because we keep His commandments”. Those who keep God’s commandments can be entrusted with resources, for they will be faithful in their stewardship of those resources. The second reason John gives is “and do those things that are pleasing in His sight”. This is a consequence of the first reason. Those who have a heart for the commandments of God are, by definition, those who have a heart for doing that which pleases Him, for His commandments enlighten us as to what pleases Him. So these are two strong reasons for God to grant us what we ask.
So we have see that it is possible to be sure about salvation. And this certainty comes, not from wishful thinking, or emotional feelings, (which may vary), but from the inward exercises of the believer’s heart; which exercises could not be found in the heart of an unbeliever, and which cannot be counterfeited.
Of course it is true that the spiritual exercises we have thought about will not be perfect and complete in any believer, since there is still the sin-principle within which resists spiritual desires and growth in Divine things. But those spiritual exercises should certainly be there, even if undeveloped. When they are present, this is a sure sign that spiritual life is there, with its consequent assurance of eternal security.