We have a number of medical professionals here, as well as troubleshooters in other fields like auto mechanics, software, etc. And they could each tell you that arriving at a correct diagnosis behind a specific complaint is not usually an issue of looking at just one symptom. You have to take a number of things into account and then see what it all adds up to.
A couple of years ago we were getting ready to take a trip to Myrtle Beach, but the “Check Engine” light came on in my car.
I took it to my trusty mechanic who couldn’t find anything obvious, so he hooked it up to the computer.
The computer said the problem was actually in my transmission, but he couldn’t find anything obvious there either, so he referred me to a specialist.
The transmission specialist hooked it up to his computer, but once again didn’t get anything solid, so he opened up the tranny just enough to see if the transmission oil showed signs of being burnt or if there were any particles of metal or other materials that might be coming apart and affecting how the transmission worked.
Mind you, at this point it wasn’t doing anything funny – the only symptom was the “check engine” light.
So to be double sure, we checked to see if maybe it was just the sensor that was bad, but that proved an empty route and the day of our departure was nearing.
The next step for the specialist was to pull the transmission to get inside and take a real look. But because this car was what it was, that was going to run me around $1,500.00 and that would not include what it might cost to repair it – IF it could be repaired and IF something were really wrong. If nothing were wrong, the $1,500 was blown.
Since it wasn’t acting up in any way, I decided to go on the trip and just see what happened.
Later, poking around on the internet, I stumbled on something. It turns out with this particular car, if you fuel the car without turning it off, and do not tighten the gas cap with at least 3 clicks – the system registers the error code we were all finding. And all you need to do is be sure you turn the car off before getting gas, and be sure you really tighten the gas cap to 3 clicks or more – and voila! No “check engine” light.
The point of this story isn’t to disparage the professionals involved. It’s simply to say diagnosing a problem can be difficult for even the best of us – especially when we only have one real symptom to go on.
And it’s no different when we are trying to diagnose whether or not one is really Christian, so that the one who struggles with an assurance of their salvation can arrive at a solid answer.
We want quick and easy answers. And some just want the one real indication – the single thing that puts it all to rest.
But the Bible doesn’t treat the issue this way. Instead, as John lays out in this letter, taking a careful inventory of all the key things that indicate genuine salvation is the surest approach.
He wants to help Believers get a true, settled assurance rather than something vague or based on unreliable factors.
We’ve looked at two “symptoms” of being a Christian so far:
#1 What is my relationship to the Word of God?
Do I cherish, honor and take as my final authority in spiritual matters – God’s Word? Is it precious to me and do I seek to submit to it? Do I trust that the Bible is God speaking, and giving me the truth especially about Jesus Christ and the salvation He accomplished on Calvary?
#2 What is my relationship to God?
Is my relationship to God one of having been once alienated from Him by my sin, but now reconciled to Him through the blood of Jesus?
Am I personally trusting in the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross for MY sins?
I must be able to answer – that I have been reconciled to Him through believing the Gospel as it is given to me in His Word, and trusting in the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross for my sins.
Which then leads us to our 3rd consideration:
#3 What is my relationship to SIN?
For those who wrestle with an assurance of salvation – those who have an earnest desire to follow Christ and live for Him, there may be no more troubling aspect of gaining a sense of the assurance of their salvation than what to do about the issue of remaining sin.
The questions come hard and fast: If I were REALLY a Christian could I think such and such a thing? Desire X? Act out at times by doing Y? Still fail so much in loving others, trusting God, putting away sinful habits, neglect spiritual duties and seem to make so little progress in the Christian life?
Behind those nagging doubts there is often the disillusionment of an unspoken assumption: The assumption that once I was born again and became a new creature in Christ, nothing of the old creature I used to be would linger.
But this is far from the truth. One of the crucial teachings which was recovered in the Reformation was that when one is born again – everything is new, but not everything is COMPLETELY new.
If you were to put a few drops of ink into a glass of water – the ink would soon disperse and the whole glass would take on the color. But the water wouldn’t cease to be water. The water doesn’t turn into ink. There’s a mixture. It isn’t what it was, but it isn’t completely something else either.
When one is born again having believed the Gospel, they are indwelt at that moment by the Holy Spirit. And His influence permeates the entire being so as to make one wholly new.
What has not yet happened yet – is sin being utterly removed, – even though the person is justified by faith and brought into a loving, right and permanently saving relationship to God.
Unawareness of this leaves some particularly sensitive souls in despair thinking they are not saved because they struggle with sin so much. When in fact, the presence of the struggle is itself one of the best indicators that regeneration has occurred.
John Flavel notes, that 2 things: “Prosperity and adversity put sincerity to the trial; but nothing makes a deeper search into our [inner being], nothing sifts our spirits more narrowly, or tells us what our state is more plainly, than our behaviour towards that corruption which dwells in us; the thorn is [the closest] neighbour to the rose: Sin and grace dwell not only in the same soul, but in the same faculties. The [coal miner] and [launderer] dwell in one room; what one cleanses the other blacks. Of all the evils God permits in this world, none is more grievous to his people than this: They sometimes wonder why the Lord will suffer it to be so; why, surely, among other wise and holy ends of this permission, these are some.
They are left to try you, and to humble you: There is no intrinsic goodness in sin; but, however, in this it occasions good to us, that by our carriage towards it, we discern our sincerity. John Flavel, vol. 5, 550–551.
As Flavel notes – the question isn’t whether or not I still sin at times, or still have indwelling sin – the question is: How do I respond to it? What is my relationship to it?
Is it something I hate, even though I fall into it?
Am I stressed at seeing it still so active within me?
Do I grieve over it? Mourn it?
Seek ways to overcome it?
Feel the sting and guilt of it even when no one else even knows about it?
Is this my deep concern, when once I barely noticed it at all, and could have cared less about it?
Then dear one, you are in a good place.
Here is where things start to get interesting and where some background on what John is dealing with in this book is helpful even if we can’t deal with too much of that detail now.
Fortunately, what John gives us here is useful even if we’ve never heard of the Gnostic challenge his readers were facing.
Briefly – gnosticism was a system of thought that tried to insinuate itself into Christianity.
And while this is terribly reductionistic, it hung on 2 key ideas: Gnosticism
a. The Creator God of the Bible is bad. He was not the supreme God who is actually unknowable, but what they called the “demiurge” – who in rebellion to the “Unknowable” decided to create the physical world we inhabit.
And as physical as opposed to spiritual, creation is therefore corrupt. And so everything physical is bad just because it’s physical. This is why John hammers home the incarnation so forcefully at the beginning.
For the Gnostics, the idea that God could be united to physical flesh was unthinkable. For them Jesus had to only appear to be human.
a. The Creator God of the Bible is bad.
b. Salvation is simply gaining secret knowledge of these things.
To use a modern term – one had to be spiritually “woke.”
Because salvation is viewed as just escaping the physical realm and rooted in an elite group getting this secret knowledge, 2 kinds of Gnostics appeared.
One group said since everything physical is bad, we have to go to radical extremes to live like we’re not bound to being physical beings: Severe fasting, abstaining from all kinds of foods, no marriage, punishing the body all the time – living under an extreme set of laws and trying as much as possible to deny themselves anything physical.
The 2nd group reasoned that because thy had come to wake up to their true spiritual nature by this secret knowledge, therefore nothing they did in these bodies mattered anyway. So free sex for all, drunkeness, excesses of all kinds didn’t matter, since they were simply trapped in these bodies until death and they’d be put off anyway. So nothing was off limits and nothing was really sin. The only sin was not knowing you were really just supposed to be spiritual and non-material.
While not organized the way these folks were in John’s time, those 2 streams of thought are still with us in some ways.
I remember having a conversation with Jerry Bridges when he was here for our conference.
Jerry joined the Navigators in 1955, and his ministry was focused on college students.
The more than a dozen books he had written and that many of us here have benefitted from, came out of that context.
I asked him – in the years he had been in Campus ministry – what was the biggest change he had seen in evangelizing college students? He told me it had to be one thing – today’s average collegian had little or no concept of sin, or what it means to be a sinner.
It didn’t mean that none of them had any sense of guilt – many surely did. Though in truth even fewer and fewer had that.
Even if they DID feel guilty about anything, they really weren’t sure why – and didn’t attach it to anything like being guilty of sin before God, and surely not in terms of identifying themselves as “sinners.”
Sin is an archaic and ugly word that has slipped out of our cultural vocabulary and consciousness.
We all make mistakes, errors in judgment, goof ups, failures are broken and have shortcomings – but sin? That smacks too much of judgmentalism.
To call someone a sinner or to own myself as a sinner is to imply I’m a bad person in some way. And the last thing any of us wants to do is think of ourselves as “bad.”
This is Ted Bundy. He was executed in 1989 for murder. In fact, before his execution, he confessed to over 30 abductions and murders.
In a recent documentary on Bundy, a journalist who has over 100 hours of interviews with him on tape played the following from him after his 1st murder conviction: “I’m not crazy, I don’t have a split personality, I’m just a normal person…I don’t feel guilty for any of it, I feel less guilty now than I’ve felt at any time in my whole life. About anything. I mean really. And it’s not that I’ve forgotten anything or I’ve closed down part of my mind or compartmentalized. I believe I understand everything that I’ve done. I am in the enviable position of not having to feel any guilt. And that’s it, guilt is this mechanism we use to control people. It’s an illusion. It’s this kind of social control mechanism and it’s very unhealthy.”
Bundy is not alone in that assessment. People are quick to tell one another that they aren’t perfect – after all, no one is and so that just makes us one of the crowd.
But rare is the one who will in all honesty admit or confess that they are a “bad person.”
Faulty, broken, messed up, – yup. But BAD? No way. Each of us wants to hold on to the idea that deep down, we are basically a good person.
Something the Bible will not let us get away with. Especially when it comes to salvation.
But what we will see here is that an assurance of one’s salvation is not achieved by hiding from our sinfulness through ignoring it or denying it or theologizing ourselves out of it.
The one who imagines they must be sinless in themselves in order to be a genuine Christian will end up in 1 of the 2 places the Gnostics did:
a. They will be driven to deny they have any sin at all.
b. They will fixate on trying to extinguish all sinfulness through rites, rituals, practices, isolation from perceived contamination and endless lists of laws and regulations.
It becomes a terribly destabilizing condition. And those caught in it live in perpetual – and needless – torture.
Instead, as John will show, assurance of one’s salvation comes through getting a handle on what our relationship to sin really is because of Jesus Christ.
And this is not some secret knowledge for a certain set of elite Believers – it is openly declared for all Believers in God’s Word and by the preaching of the Gospel.
Let’s let John build his case in the text.
John’s 1st point? Sin is wholly contrary to God.
Now why would John start here?
For one thing he wants to challenge the Gnostics. The God who created this world is not some rebellious sub-deity.
Genesis records the Creation acts and tells us at every step that God saw His work and that it was good. And in
But for the Believer struggling with assurance of salvation, this foundational fact cannot be more important – that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.
And this, for 2 reasons:
a. If we suspect God of having hidden motives, that He does not deal with us plainly in Scripture, but that somewhere in Him there is something dark that He is hiding from us, especially about salvation and being reconciled to Him and living in His favor – we can never be sure what His attitude toward us is.
We cannot have assurance of acceptance by someone we do not trust. And if God and His Word are not trustworthy, what hope do we have?
So Beloved struggler, you must go back to the Scripture to see how it displays over and over and over that God is good, and that there is no darkness, nothing untrustworthy in Him. So that if His Word says that all those who trust in Christ are His both now and for eternity – He can be trusted.
Suspicion of God having secret or nefarious motives behind His actions is the very thing which led to the Fall in
. Satan argued the reason why God did not want Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit was because He was petty and jealous and afraid they would become rival gods to Him.
And the echo of this distrust of God’s thorough and untainted goodness has rung in our ears ever since.
How many us who profess saving faith in Christ – when going through trials or difficult times inwardly wonder “is God really being good to me in this?”
Or looking back over some past trial or tribulation, perhaps the early loss of a parent, or a horrific accident, a congenital illness or maybe even past abuse – deep down we say to ourselves: “Where was God in this?”
And we reason, either He didn’t know, wasn’t able to stop or change it, or just didn’t care. There’s some bad motive behind His letting this happen to me.
And there you and I are once again, back in the Garden. Second guessing and judging God regarding things we do not understand. And worst of all, by our fallen reasoning, making God the untrustworthy one, instead of recognizing our inability to scrutinize His wisdom and love which are so far above ours as to be incomparable – and suspecting Him of some flaw, and especially of not being all good – and therefore trustworthy.
Assurance of Salvation MUST settle on the inviolable and eternal goodness of God, and His goodwill toward us in Christ:
If we doubt His love and goodness, we live in constant torment:
If we are sure He loves us, and is good, only good, we can rest. But if we will not take the testimony of Scripture and its evidence as conclusive of His love and goodness, we cannot rest in His love. We’re right back to asking ourselves, what IS our relationship to His Word?
When we doubt His love, that’s when we have to run right back to the Cross and see Jesus crucified for us, so that the Father might have us for Himself once again.
The 2nd reason why we need to know that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all – is so that we come to recognize how incompatible sin is, with our being reconciled to Him!
This is John’s 2nd point: Walking with God means going where He’s going.
So, if one professes to be reconciled to God, joined to Him, in that partnering fellowship of vs. 7, but lives a life that consciously persists in the things which ARE dark and contrary to Him, in sin – we are liars. We are not walking with Him, we have not given ourselves over to practicing righteousness as a life pursuit.
And here is where we see the radical change in our relationship to sin – the Believer doesn’t ignore or excuse their sin –
Because sin is antithetical to God, we cannot embrace it and walk with Him at the same time.
And yet we know that sometimes we still DO sin – so what do we do?
We continue to walk with Him in the truth about sin and how contrary it is to Him – and in so doing, He promises to continue cleansing us from it.
Amazing! If we walk in the light, facing the real sinfulness of our sin, not ignoring it or making excuses for it or pretending its not a big deal or even not there at all – but walk in the light of His undefiled holiness and goodness – He’ll gladly, wonderfully, unbegrudgingly keep cleansing us every step of the way.
This “walking in the light as He is in the light” is a picturesque way of saying we must be headed in the same direction as He is headed. And He is never headed toward sin – but always toward the day when He will rid us of all sin altogether.
Have we set our course to coincide with His? Or are we headed somewhere else?
So it is John comes to his 3rd point: Ignoring our sinfulness is self-deception.
Note the text carefully. It is not just that we sin, but we HAVE sin. It’s part of us.
The Gnostics wanted to say that since they now knew they were really spiritual beings and not physical, therefore they weren’t really sinners. And there is no shortage of professed Christians today who want to pretend they no longer HAVE sin because they are in Christ.
They just don’t want to think of themselves in that way any longer.
It’s true that the Believer’s identity is one of being a “saint” now, a holy one in Christ. But at the same time we have no permission to think of ourselves as without sin any more. We still HAVE it as the text says here. Sin is not our identity, it may not characterize us any more, but it’s not absent either.
No, indeed, daily recognizing, confessing and bringing our sin to Christ becomes part and parcel of the Christian’s lifestyle.
This is precisely why Jesus taught us to pray in specific reference to our sin: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
We never abandon this state until our death or Jesus’ return.
Christians do not bury their heads in the sand over their remaining sinfulness – we face it head on – all the time.
Assurance doesn’t come from ignoring the obvious.
But we are not defeated by sin, nor put away from God by it. It no longer separates us from Him because we are in Christ.
Our relationship to it has radically changed.
We do not have be artificially sinless in our own eyes – we walk with Him in the light, in the truth, and trust Him in it every step of the way.
How many people undermine their own assurance of salvation because they imagine they have to somehow be magically sinless – and when that illusion cannot be maintained, live in a terrible torment that they cannot be as good as they think they need to be to loved by Him.
This, instead of seeing that we do not need to deny our sinfulness, but rather bring it to Him constantly – and rest in His provision in the Cross of Jesus – always faithful and just to forgive us our sins as we confess, and to go above and beyond what we are even aware of, and to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness – even our secret sins.
John’s 4th point then? If we make sin not to be sin, we make God a liar.
The Gnostics would say people’s problem isn’t really sin, just ignorance. Once we know who and what we really are by this secret knowledge, we don’t even have to think about sin. We weren’t sinners as in being bad people – we were just ignorant.
But John tells us this makes God a liar. How?
To teach that our problem isn’t really sin but just ignorance – such as the teaching of Christian Science and other sects – is to say God was lying when He said that Jesus was sent to die for our sins and destroy the works of the Devil.
Man is forever wanting to avoid the sin problem, and if we can do it by somehow fabricating a system that simply says we aren’t sinners after all – then we’re fine: Just like Ted Bundy dismissing guilt as a harmful social construct.
You can clearly see this same mechanism at work in parts of evangelicalism today as well. We just “confess” what we want to be, and that settles it.
John’s 5th point: The true Believer hates the sin he/she loves.
And here we have to make a very necessary distinction.
There is a world of difference between the one who knows that indwelling sin remains, and confesses that sin and seeks cleansing and freedom from it daily, and one who professes to be Christ’s and either just ignores their sin, or even practices it as a part of their life, making excuses for it and justifying it.
The first, is the plight of the genuine Believer.
The 2nd, as vs. 10 notes, makes themselves evident as a child of the devil and not a child of God.
What does it mean to practice righteousness?
1. To study how to do it well. Reading on it. Examining your failures for where you went (go) wrong. Trying again and again in problem areas.
2. To observe others who do it well and emulate them.
3. To repeat it over and over.
4. To make it one’s vocation, like the practice of Law or Medicine to walk in the Spirit.
It is whoever practices righteousness, whoever sets about to mortify the deeds of the flesh by The Spirit and follow Christ in putting off sin – whoever studies to live righteously and applies themselves to it IN Christ.
These are Christ’s. They are not sinless, but their relationship to sin has been radically and permanently changed.
If you are not fighting with your sins, but instead have found some secret place with a sin that you think you can go on indulging and allow it to remain unchallenged along with your profession of faith, you deceive yourself. You are not His.
Maybe you disagree with God in His Word about what constitutes sin – and so refuse the Bible’s authority over you because it rules out or requires something you don’t like. You may be proving you truly aren’t His after all.
J.C. Ryle once wrote: “The saddest symptom about many so-called Christians, is the utter absence of anything like conflict and fight in their Christianity. They eat, they drink, they dress, they work, they amuse themselves, they get money, they spend money, they go through a scanty round of formal religious services once or twice every week. But of the great spiritual warfare,—its watchings and strugglings, its agonies and anxieties, its battles and contests,—of all this they appear to know nothing at all. Let us take care that this case is not our own. The worst state of soul is “when the strong man armed keepeth the house, and his goods are at peace,”—when he leads men and women “captive at his will,” and they make no resistance. The worst chains are those which are neither felt nor seen by the prisoner.
We may take comfort about our souls if we know anything of an inward fight and conflict. It is the invariable companion of genuine Christian holiness. It is not everything, I am well aware, but it is something. Do we find in our heart of hearts a spiritual struggle? Do we feel anything of the flesh lusting against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, so that we cannot do the things we would? Are we conscious of two principles within us, contending for the mastery? Do we feel anything of war in our inward man? Well, let us thank God for it! It is a good sign. It is strongly probable evidence of the great work of sanctification. All true saints are soldiers.” J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots, 81–82.
William Gurnall goes on to remind us that this battle is a costly and painful one: “The Christian is to proclaim and prosecute an irreconcilable war against his [dearest] sins; those sins which have lain nearest his heart, must now be trampled under his feet…Now what courage and resolution does this require? You think Abraham was tried to purpose, when called to take his ‘son, his son Isaac, his only son whom he loved,’ and offer him up with his own hands?.. yet what was that to this? Soul, take your lust, your only lust, which is the child of [your] dearest love, [your] Isaac, the sin which has caused most joy and laughter, from which [you have] promised [yourself] the greatest return of pleasure or profit;.. lay hands on it, and offer it up: pour out the blood of it before me; run the sacrificing knife of mortification into the very heart of it; and this freely, joyfully, for it is no pleasing sacrifice that is offered with a countenance cast down; and all this now, before [you have] one embrace more from it. Truly this is a hard chapter; flesh and blood cannot bear this saying; our lust will not lie [as] patiently on the altar, as Isaac, or as a ‘lamb that is brought to the slaughter…, but will roar and shriek; yea, even shake and rend the heart with their hideous outcries. Who is able to express the conflicts, the wrestlings, the convulsions of spirit the Christian feels, before he can bring his heart to this work?..Now what resolution doth it require to break through such violence and importunity, and notwithstanding all this to do present execution?” The Christian in Complete Armour, 3–4.
Listener, if there is some form of lawlessness that you have made peace with, you demonstrate yourself to be unregenerate and will one day find yourself cast out of the Kingdom.
Repent! Fight your sin. Make no treaty with any sin. Be found contesting it, and thus also be found in Christ.
Believer, do not be cast down that you still have sin, still sin, need daily confession and continual cleansing from your sin.
The change in your relationship to sin is a powerful indication of your regenerate state.
Only the redeemed mourn their sin. And feel the burden of it simply because it IS sin and displeases the Father.
You know it is true that:
Sin is wholly contrary to God.
This is why your own sin pains you so much.
And you know that –
Walking with God means going where He’s going.
You want holiness and victory over sin even though it sometimes seems to elude you tragically.
But you long for the day when sin is no more!
But assurance cannot come through ignoring it.
In fact, ignoring our sinfulness is self-deception.
We might deceive ourselves for a time, but not Him.
And don’t try to construct a world where sin isn’t what it really is – heinous rebellion against the rights of God over your life.
Don’t try to make anything God calls sin not sin. If we do, we make God a liar.
But be of good cheer if this is your case
The true Believer hates the sin he/she loves.
The battle, is part of the very proof of your salvation you long for.
What once you did and participated in with no conscience at all, now brings excruciating pain.
You’ve begun to share in the Cross of Christ who died that you might have full and free forgiveness, and final cleansing from these very sins.
Take heart – if sin is a great grief to you, you have great reason to trust you are His.