No one builds a building all at once. You need a blueprint or at least a plan or goal in mind to start. Then you survey, dig, and begin to lay a foundation, one stone or brick at a time.
So it is with formulating sound doctrine.
When you have a question about what the Bible teaches on any given subject – you have some groundwork to do.
In this case, the question itself sets the plan – but you don’t know what the building will look like yet – you just know you want to answer the question.
So you survey – you start reading the Bible with this question in mind – and you dig and dig and dig.
Then you start assembling the things you’ve found, sorting out how they fit together. And one by one, layer by layer, it comes together to give you a whole.
It is why theologians (sound theologians that is) never build a doctrine on only one verse or passage of Scripture. You need to see what the Bible says about things in toto. You need to find out if it is something just mentioned in passing or obscure, versus something taught about in some detail and in multiple places.
Loads of aberrant doctrines come out of not following this principle, and putting too much stress on just one verse, and at that, one that may or may not be really clear or interpreted properly.
A classic case in point is
The Mormons for instance have built an entire doctrine and practice around this verse based upon their interpretation of it.
Historically there have been about 42 major interpretations of it. And because it occurs only once in Scripture and in a slightly obscure passage, to make one’s interpretation binding on other people’s consciences is to abuse Scripture.
This is why we’re approaching 1 John the way we are. Since John wrote this letter in part to specifically answer the question of how one can have an assurance of their salvation – we survey his approach, dig through and put together the various foundation stones he gives us, until we build a cohesive answer.
So far, we’ve looked at 3 key foundation stones in helping the troubled Believer get a handle on truly being able to rest in their salvation.
We’ve seen them couched as questions – kind of like a doctor coming on the scene of an accident and examining someone to see if they are alive: He or she checks for 4 critical indicators: Heartbeat, blood pressure, respiration, and body temperature. Got those 4? Yep, chances are pretty good they’re alive alright. It may not tell you HOW healthy you are, but it does indicate genuine life. And this is John’s very approach.
One may be in pretty rough spiritual health, but if these vital signs are present – even ever so faintly – it’s a good indicator one is alive in Christ.
Once again, all of these are set in terms of relationship and are meant to be taken cumulatively:
What is my relationship to the Word of God? Is it my treasured final authority as coming from God?
What is my relationship to God? Am I reconciled to Him in Jesus – having believed the Gospel?
What is my relationship to sin? Am I recognizing and continuing to struggle against the remaining sinful tendencies within me? Do they grieve me, because I know they grieve my Heavenly Father and are contrary to His very nature?
And this morning we’ll go on to check another vital sign:
What is my relationship to the People of God? John will begin this with a simple statement:
And once again, understanding how John is responding to the Gnosticism of his day helps us get a grip on how we need to understand this aspect of Biblical Christianity and how it impacts or informs the Believer’s assurance of salvation.
The rubber meets the road in a powerful way here, challenging what may be a present day parallel to Gnostic thinking in the Church.
Something which can arise even in Evangelical circles is this problem:
As long as I do the right things personally or privately, hold the right doctrines and follow my personal walk with God, how I interact with and impact others is irrelevant.
Ethics gets divorced from spirituality.
And nowhere does this take on more importance than it does in the Body of Christ.
Paul addresses that way of thinking in head on.
What becomes powerfully apparent here is that to say we love God’s People – The Church, is not as simple as saying I have a mere affection for them or like them: It is not the love of just warm fuzzies. It is not mere sentiment.
It is an active, living, palpable love that makes its presence known in certain concrete ways.
With this then, we have to note John’s focus is particularly upon how Christians treat other Christians. We conclude that because of his use of the word “brother” in this passage.
A quick survey of the balance of the New Testament shows that there is no case where the word brother is used simply to refer to our “fellow man.”
It is always used either in terms of a true blood relationship, or the body of those who profess saving faith in Jesus Christ.
That, and the immediate context demonstrate clearly John is referring to other Believers.
Those who have been born again by the Spirit of God and adopted into His family are true brothers and sisters; and we have a unique relationship to one another which is palpable: One which must be recognized as including certain joys and responsibilities.
Now don’t get me wrong, this does not mean Christians can treat unbelievers any way we wish.
Galatians 6:10 reminds us:
We do good to everyone we can, but ESPECIALLY to those who are in the household of faith.
And what that looks like, John unpacks in 4 vital signs – similar to those physicians use to authenticate or verify life. –
In an arresting fashion, John is going to uncover what he means by loving our brothers in Christ, by looking at what it means to “hate” them, in 4 places.
In other words, we cannot claim to be Christ’s and to love His family – OUR new family, and carry on in these 4 things at the same time.
So what does that look like?
Vital life-sign 1 – We know we love the family of God when we are careful never to lead others into sin.
Whoever loves his brother abides or lives in “the light”: We looked at that last time – i.e. walks with God in uprightness.
John goes on to expand this by saying this is carried out by not being a “cause for stumbling” in others.
The Believer has a duty to their brothers and sisters in Christ, to keep from being an agent of exposing them to and leading them into – sin.
The idea isn’t to become the “sin-police” toward others, but being personally protective of one another knowing how dangerous and harmful sin is.
The Hippocratic oath which physicians have historically taken contains this statement: “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm.” Often misquoted as simply “First, do no harm.”
And if this is a sound maxim even within the realm of the lost, how much more when it comes to we Christians?
What a timely exhortation given the nature of the sexual revolution in America today.
To look out for one another’s sexual purity and not to “wrong his brother” in this matter, because it is ultimately to disregard God and the Holy Spirit He has given to us.
So we warn each other and exhort each other to watch out in this area of life. It is powerfully seductive and powerfully corrosive. And we do not want our brothers and sisters to be harmed by influencing them to ignore the call to purity.
Young men, don’t be found encouraging young women to be harmed by your desires – and young women, vice versa. Look out for each other’s souls – not just for your own gratification.
And don’t put yourself in the position of encouraging others to sin in anything, by living out sinful acts in front of them – as though it is fine.
Because we became members of one another when we were joined to Christ – we lost the ability to sin in isolation.
As members of the same Body, what we individually take in of sin – effects the whole.
If you were to have a medicine injected into you by a syringe, you know full well that medicine enters the entire system. The shot doesn’t bring its healing effects only to the injection site – it spreads throughout.
So it is with sin. When I sin, I become the injection point of that poison to the whole Body.
And how is that loving to the rest?
Whatever else John might be saying in this interesting and poetic passage – at least this much is clear: This issue is important no matter what stage of your Christian life you are in – from the youngest to the oldest.
There are sins peculiar to us at younger stages of life – due to foolishness, rashness, rebellion, inexperience and self-focus.
And there are sins peculiar to the more mature. Over-focus on career, creeping materialism, distractions of all kinds so that spiritual matters are neglected.
And for we older ones: Getting crotchety, over-opinionated, inflexible, fearful, forgetting our own struggles when younger, becoming intolerant and indolent.
Beloved, we want to be on our guard that we are never encouraging others to sin, either by our own example, by condoning it in others or by refusing to hold to the authority of God’s word in what He regulates as sin.
We simply cannot love the Body of Christ and encourage others to sin at the same time.
Life-sign 2 – We know we love the family of God when we are seeking it out and joining ourselves to it.
Genuine Believers want association with the larger body of Believers – even when it is uncomfortable.
To avoid being joined to God’s family is to show a hatred and disdain for it.
This, in at least 2 ways.
a. As Ed showed us in his sermon a few weeks ago, each of us has been given gifts by God for the express purpose of building up the Body of Christ. You can’t do that alone.
To say “I’ve got a gift, but I really don’t like being a part of a local church, so they can do with out it”, is diametrically opposed to loving God and His people.
b. The converse is also true: Since God gave all of these gifts for the benefit of the Body, to separate from the Body is to say “I don’t need what God has given to me through them.” I only need myself.
It is arrogant and hateful.
For years I’ve heard people say things like “I never read commentaries, I only read the Bible.” And it sounds so spiritual on the surface.
But then I read in:
And I realize that to reject those who have been given by Jesus as gifts to the Church – like teachers and shepherds to help equip me – is like saying to Jesus “I don’t need your stinking gifts!”
There is no place in the genuine Believer for lone wolf-ism.
We were born again INTO a family. And when we willingly separate ourselves from that family, or seek less and less contact with fewer and fewer, we show ourselves to be anything but loving.
Life-sign 3- We know we love the Family of God when we seek to serve them and give to them sacrificially.
There are 2 things to note here.
1 – The contrast between the World and the Church.
John references the murder of Abel by Cain to show how it is the Worldly heart responds to those it is jealous of or exposes their sin. They want them dead, out of sight and mind.
2 – But how are Christians to live? Not just tolerating others, but looking for ways to meet the needs of their brothers and sisters.
The text here specifically references the Body of Christ ministering to the material needs of other Believers.
How can we say we love our brothers and sisters in Christ if we turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to their most basic needs when we are aware of them and have the means to help?
This in fact is why having Deacons in a local Church is part of the fabric of the Church as a Biblical mandate. So that the resources of the Body can be dispensed to those in need at any time.
It is one of the things I love so about ECF in particular. Our deacons are men and women of wise, but also a generous spirit – to be quick to offer and supply help when aware of a need.
It isn’t done noisily and publicly, but it goes on quietly, behind the scenes – loving those among us in need in times of need.
But it’s evident this goes beyond mere material needs isn’t it?
What about other needs we might be able to meet?
Do I bring the Gospel to others? And if I have few opportunities personally, do I contribute to the ministry of the Church so that the Gospel is preached regularly and clearly – both to the saved and the lost?
Do we think of how we can bless, encourage, build up and continually point our brothers and sisters back to Christ as their all-in-all?
Am I about God’s business in His church? Giving. Praying. Living. Learning. Encouraging. Exhorting. Counseling.
Or once again, am I a loner, not involving myself in the lives of others for their good?
When one is genuinely born again, they seek to serve Christ and His people. And we must ask ourselves – how am I serving this Body, or anyone in it?
Or have I retreated into a private Christianity?
I cannot truly love a people I am neither a part of, nor live life with in any real way.
Life-sign 4 – We know we love God’s people when we are moved in prayer for them.
Prayer, Biblical prayer, may just be the single most other-worldly thing Christians do.
It is why we seem to struggle with it so at times.
It is true that virtually all religions incorporate prayer in some way – but whether or not it is prayer as the true son or daughter of Christ knows it – is a question.
For as Jesus taught us, we need no intermediary. Because of how He has reconciled us to the Father through His death on Calvary for our sins – we have direct access to the Father.
Secondly, we don’t go to prayer like mere supplicants or beggars, but as Children to a smiling, waiting, loving Father who loves to be sought by His own.
And 3rd, we don’t pray ritualistically – as though it is some special formula that moves His hand, nor that mere repetition or the numbers of those praying is magically effective.
We go to God as our Father, speaking from our hearts. Speaking naturally, freely and expectantly.
And as we know from other passages of Scripture, we bring to Him every care and concern of our hearts. Nothing is too small, and nothing is too big.
But what John notes here for us is an aspect of prayer that tends to get shuffled aside some. And yet it is a duty and a privilege which has extraordinary dividends attached to it. It is prayer like Jesus in the most extraordinary way: For it is prayer for our brothers and sisters especially as it has reference to sin.
I know – when we think of prayer for others we think of praying for financial needs, health, the resolve of difficult situations, peace, wisdom, guidance, etc. All legitimate. All right to pray for.
But here, John takes us somewhere else: Prayer for one another’s deliverance from sin.
Once again we’re met with this concern for one another over the issue of sin. And it brings us to a ministry we can do for one another whether we are young, old, infirm or unable to serve in any other way.
And it is such a necessary ministry. It is intensely personal, private and powerful.
Few promises in God’s Word are so stated with such certainty of response in prayer as this is.
Now John mentions 2 kinds of sin here – one we SHOULD pray for with an assurance of results. The other, we’re told not to pray for: What John calls “sin that leads to death.”
What is that? What is the sin that leads to death? We aren’t entirely sure. Guesses and theories abound. But what seems most in keeping with other Scripture is that sin which Jesus says in Matt 12:31 WILL not – not CANNOT, WILL NOT be forgiven.
And what was this? In the context of that passage, it is to KNOWINGLY, attribute the miracles of Jesus to the power of the Devil in order to turn people away from Him. This, Jesus says, God refuses to forgive. And John says we ought not go beyond Him and ask for forgiveness on behalf of those who have sinned in that particular way.
BUT! For all other sin – love dictates that we ask on behalf of our brothers and sisters, and that God will hear us.
If we ask on behalf of our brothers in Christ, that they would be delivered from certain sins – “God WILL give him life!” God will deliver them so that such sin does not completely overcome them.
And how very many sins there are! Lust. Greed. Envy. Fear of man. Faithlessness. Lack of courage. Compromise. Materialism. Racism. Self-pity. Lovelessness, foolishness, bitterness, unforgiveness, gossip, backbiting, grumbling – etc.
There’s nothing more contrary to a condemning spirit regarding others who fall, than to take up their struggle with them in prayer. Especially if they have sinned against us.
But I want us to see this on an even deeper level – as it is displayed for us in a most amazing fashion in Christ. And it really unlocks this ministry of love for us. In fact, it will radically change our entire prayer life once we grasp it.
On the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, He tells Peter something astounding.
Satan had “demanded” had petitioned God to test Peter, to sift him like wheat. The word demanded there carries with it the idea of having both demanded, and of having received permission.
You are about to be tested like you never dreamed possible Peter – supernaturally. BUT!
I have prayed for you that your faith will not ultimately fail. And I am so certain I’ve been heard, I tell you this – after it is all over and you get your legs back under you – use this experience to strengthen your brothers.
What is the point here? Jesus didn’t pray that Peter would NOT be tested, but that he would survive to serve another day.
In other words, Jesus is more interested in Peter coming out of his trial spiritually for the better, than He is about simply enduring the trial or being spared it altogether.
And what then of us in this passage in 1 John? That our prayers go beyond the mere legitimacy of wanting to see our brothers and sisters spared trials – and press on to praying that they will come through what they face better for the wear for their own spiritual health, and that of other Believers.
Now that is prayer of an entirely different order.
Lord, I’m not as concerned that Aunt Gertrude come through her surgery well, as I am that she will grow nearer to you, and grow more in the likeness of Christ having gone through this time.
How our prayers center on the circumstances and the surface aspects of our loved one’s trials, more than they do that they will face their trials with an unfailing faith, and with wisdom to seize the occasion to grow in Christ’s likeness and spiritual maturity. That they will learn how to redeem their trial for the good of others in Christ.
This is what John is after. This is a love that many of us have never begun to really enter into.
Beloved, if you can’t do a single other thing to contribute to the spiritual growth and health of your brothers and sisters in Christ – you can do this: Pray for their success in their struggle against their sins. And that in what they face, their faith won’t fail. Their hope in Christ will remain strong and even increase. That they will grow nearer to the Lord. That they will plunder their trial for all it is worth, and treasure up their experience to minister to others later on.
Well now, what are we to do with all of this?
Let me give you just one takeaway based on all we’ve examined here: A radically new definition of love from God’s point of view.
Loving the brethren is: Always acting in the other’s best interest before God, because of Christ.
What is best for them spiritually?
How will my words and actions help them know God better, know the truth of His Word better, and grow into Christ’s likeness more?
This is summed up in John’s words in:
How did He love us?
He did not simply feel love toward us, but He loved us, by acting on our behalf.
He did not love us by leaving us in our sins, but by leading us OUT of them!
He did not love us from afar, but came in the likeness of sinful flesh, sought us out and joined Himself to us.
He did not love us by leaving us to ourselves, but served our best interest before the Father, even to His substitutionary death on the Cross of Calvary.
He loved us then, and He loves us still by praying, interceding for us before the Father’s throne – even this very moment.
And He calls us into this very same kind of love for the brethren:
Those who have the sparks of this love burning in them, even ever so faintly, have one more evidence that they are truly Christ’s.