How can you be sure that you are a Christian

1 John 2: 3 – 11 Sermon in IREF on 9 March 2014,                       Niek Tramper

(baptism of Gening Hong)

‘How can you be sure that you are a Christian?’

 

Brothers and sisters, there are three important subjects about Christian life in the second chapter of John’s letter.

1. How do you know that you are a Christian? What are the marks of a Christian? How do you recognize him/her? The apostle John gives us clear indications in verses 3-11.

2. There are ‘seasons’ in Christian life! We are all not on the same level or in the same stage in Christian life. Some of us are young in faith, others are more experienced and mature. But there is a very strong basis for all (12): your sins have been forgiven on the account of Christ’s name. The apostle John also indicates that in verses 1 and 2. It is a great encouragement, if you feel weak and you seek to grow in faith (12-14).

3. How can we live without compromise? The apostle warns not to love the world and we should discern what is meant by ‘the world’ (15-17). Besides to that he warns for dangers of false teachers who work within the church (18-23). The anointment wit the Spirit of Christ helps us to discern and not to be discouraged (24 – 29).

Now I want to focus on the first part. It is an interesting and important passage, dealing with a crucial point: How do I know that I am a Christian?

 

Questions about the relationship with God

The other day I visited a lady, who has frequented the church all her life. She knew a lot about the Bible and about Christian doctrine. As soon as I asked her: do you consider yourself a child of God the Father, she looked at me with hesitation. ‘I hope’, she said, ‘but I am not sure about it.’ ‘Why cannot you be sure’, I asked. She said (and I could understand what she meant): ‘Because I often feel so imperfect. I pray but I don’t experience his presence, so my prayer seems to be only words. Often there is a voice in my head: If you were a Christian, you should live a holier life ‘.

Brothers and sisters, do you recognize this? Maybe you ask yourself: do I really belong to Christ, do I walk in the light of Him? Your idea is that the lamp of faith doesn’t shine brightly, because you are so occupied by your work, your study or all kind of concerns in your family. The apostle John wants to help us with a test. He gives us a check how we can be sure that God, the Father knows us and that we may know and love Him.

 

How do you know that you know the living God?

In verse 3 the apostle John says: Christian life is all about to know Him, the Lord. What does it mean ‘to know Him’? ‘Knowing’ for us is mainly an intellectual concept. So we know that God exists, we know something about Him. But that’s not what John means. He intends a close and loving relationship. When somebody asks you: ‘do you know this person?’ You may say: ‘I am acquainted with him/her..’ That is different from: ‘I know my friend very well’. (You indicate that you love him, that you have a special relationship with him). Jesus talked about the close friendship with his disciples: ‘stay in Me and I in you’ (John 15:4). It is even more than friendship, it is a close fellowship that is indicated by the little and still very important word ‘in’. We find this little word several times in verses 4 – 6.

How do you know that you are in this relationship with Jesus? Do you know it due to a deep mystical experience? Or do you simply say: ‘I have been born in a Christian family and that is enough.’ John gives another mark: you obey his commands (vs. 3). You obey his word (vs. 5). What does the apostle want to say, when he uses the word ‘obeying’? Most probably you and I are able to obey by applying a set of rules, like we usually do in cycling through the city. We respect the rules, keep right and wait for the red traffic light. But that is not the kind of obedience John indicates. It is obedience-of-love. Look to a father-child relationship. As a father I can force my young son to do what I want him to do. Most probably I will face problems when he grows older. If I am a wise and loving I want my son to obey with his heart, in respect and love. That requires a lot of investment in education, patience and love.

Obedience is not an easy word. It usually provokes some resistance in us and I am the first to understand why. We want to be independent, to live our own life, not being subject to somebody else that may take away our freedom. The obedience however that John mentions can be described as ‘hearing with our heart’. It is a commitment that brings growth in us. Obedience to the Word is not the end of personal freedom, it is the beginning of it. You should notice that ‘obedience’ comes from a Latin word ‘oboedientia’, w hich means:listen attentively, like a doctor with a stethoscope. The famous German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazi’s at the end of the Second World War, wrote a book about ‘Following Christ’ (Nachfolge). In this book he comments on what he calls: ‘Cheap grace’. He says: ‘You cannot take God’s grace for granted’. If you really understand God’s grace and believe in His forgiveness, you want to obey his word with all your heart. Only the one who obeys is a true believer.’ Bonhoeffer himself wanted to be obedient. He was a sharp listener to Gods word and sought his guidance. To obey Christ and to stay in his love brought him on the way to fight against the cruel system of the Nazi’s and it cost him his life in 1945. Jesus said: ‘If you keep my commands, you stay in my love, as I have kept the commands of My Father, and stay in His love’. (John 15:10). Also in verse 5 we notice that there is a close connection between obeying the word of Christ and staying in God’s love.

 

An old and a new command

Now we read on and discover that this obedience to the Word is explained in a deeper way in verses 7 – 11. John speaks about an old command and a new command. It sounds as a paradox in verses 7 and 8. What is the old command? It is the message of God, when He made a covenant with his people. As a sign of this covenant He gave Israel the Ten Commandments. These were Gods directions how to serve and obey Him. Why did He give these instructions? Because He delivered his people from evil. He rescued them from slavery. The commandments are a clear instruction how to use the freedom given by God thankfully. Jesus summarizes the Ten Commandments: ‘Love the Lord with all your heart and your soul and your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.’ Again we notice that the essence of the commandments is love. This is the message that the congregation knew already. But now there is something new. Because Jesus came! He lived according God’s commands completely. No human being could meet God’s demands. Jesus did it in full love, in complete unselfishness. He said that He came to serve, not to be served.

When we believe in Jesus and want to follow Him we are able to keep the commands in a new way. By his power, by his Spirit we are able to love God and to love our neighbour in a fresh way.

What does it mean in practice? I think that we all know how difficult it is to love every neighbour. It is possible to be nice for the people who are nice for us. But as soon as people are not nice with us the difficulty starts. You receive an email with some accusations. All of a sudden anger fills your heart and you want to shoot back with a peppered email. Or think about that boss that actually doesn’t show respect for who you are and what you are doing. Think about situations among your colleagues and in your family when suspicion creeps in, mistrust, jealousy, quarrels, hate, revenge…It happens often between people, groups of people, families, nations. Doe sit make a difference when Jesus governs our life, when his Spirit fills our heart? John says: certainly it does! You wait in sending the email back and reflect in your heart. You ask Jesus to help you not to cook anger and to be able to forgive even. You decide not to leave your father in law when he grow older and have physical problems, although he challenged you and humiliated you for many years…You are able to do it, not because of your soft character, no, because a new and great love came in your life: the love of Jesus that helps you to overcome barriers of animosity. There is a new law in our life: the law of love by Him. The apostle summarizes the test ‘How do I know that I know God?’ in verse 6:  ‘Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did’.

 

Baptism: the sign of a new life and a new love

Dear brother Hong, what does it mean to you, now you are baptized today? Baptism is a sign and seal that you belong to Jesus. Through the faith that you expressed clearly you are in Jesus. God the Father has accepted you as a son. Your sins are forgiven. Your old self has been buried with Jesus, and a new man has been risen by Jesus’ resurrection. But is also the other way round: Jesus is in you, He works in you through his Spirit. His love is in you. He gives you a new power to love brothers and sisters. Through the help of the Spirit your are able to do more: to love those who oppose you. It could be your former non-Christian friends and colleagues who might challenge you with their words and attitude. You realize now that you cannot blame them. They are still what you were in the past. They need God’s forgiveness in the same way you needed it. Christ will help you to be strong in obeying his word and to be patient with those who are critical and stubborn.

 

Fruits of love reveal the tree of faith

To love the brothers and sisters is a clear fruit of the tree of Christian faith. How do you know that you are a Christian? That you are walking in the light? By the love for your neighour. That’s why John opposes the so-called Gnostic teachers severely (vs. 9). They claimed a lot of deep spiritual insights. ‘If you claim’ or ‘if you say’…sounds a lot in this passage. John cites some of these leaders. They claimed spiritual illumination, but they despised others who were not that far in their eyes. They considered themselves more sublime, established separate groups with ‘holy people’ and by doing this they chattered the church. John says: you are neglecting your brothers and sisters. You think that you are holy, but actually you walk in the dark. John describes it in verse 11: walking in darkness means that you don’t know where you are going, you stumble. It is worse even: you are blind. Even when there is light such a person is not able to see. It is an inner blindness, an inner darkness that let him go astray. You hate… the word ‘hate’ has a strong connotation, but in Greek we also can explain it as: leave aside. It is a lack of concern, disinterest. Actually it is a sign of self-love and hate for others. I once heard a metaphor of heaven and hell that it explains it well. People sit at dishes full of delicious food, but they all have extended and stiff arms. In hell they starve because they want to feed themselves, but they cannot. In heaven they have joy because they want to feed the other and everybody tastes the nice food! (If you want to have a clear example from the prophets, look at Isaiah: 58 verse 6-8!)

 

What about us? You recognize the three by its fruits. On the Bible College where I was on staff in the past we insisted on it. ‘You should demonstrate your growth in knowledge of Christian doctrine by your readiness to do the dishes. You spiritual growth is mirrored both in partaking in prayer meetings and in showing up to help in cleaning the toilets!’ Dear brothers and sisters, why not giving time and energy to others when they ask it? Why not serving the fellowship by assisting in care taking for example? Why not giving away your money and material joyfully if others need it? It is because of Christ, because God has given the most precious He had to you. Because He loved you so much, He moves you to love those around you. ‘The love of Christ moves us’, says the apostle Paul (2 Cor. 5:14). Love that sets into motion is a sure proof of your Christian faith.

 

We need a check up

In our daily life we do a lot of checks ups. We check the battery and the petrol, before we drive away in a car. We check the foundation and the condition of the walls and windows before we buy a house. We check all conditions before we start a test in the lab. The apostle Paul indicates this when he says: ‘Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith’ (2 Cor. 13:5). Let us search ourselves with this test, the test of love, which is one of the most important fruits of the Holy Spirit. John summarizes this in verse 6 ‘Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did (1).

The baptism of our brother Hong is a clear illustration of what we have learned from this passage Summarizing: the water that our brother will experience refers to a double truth:

  1. The blood of Christ, showing that He Has given Himself as a full reconciliation for all our sins (and be sure: it is enough for the whole world!). There is a new life in Him. We are set free from eternal judgment because He did everything what was needed to remove our sins. Christ opened the access to the Father. There is no accusation any more. The water of baptism is the blood that washes away all the dirt of sins. Praise God for the wonderful gift of reconciliation every day of your life.
  2. The Spirit of Christ. The water of baptism is an indication of the Holy Spirit who works in us en helps us to obey his Word, to live in it, and to take it as our daily food. He helps to maintain our daily relationship with God in prayer, and to love others with the love of God. He brings to us the power of Christ to walk as He did. He leads us into the Christian fellowship. He convinces us to show the forgiveness of Christ to everybody who needs it and to bring the light of Christ to those who walk in darkness, in revenge and who are addicted to their selfish patterns. Don’t forget to pray for the help of the Holy Spirit to walk in the light of Christ every day of your life. Amen

 

(Addendum) 1. How did Jesus walk?

  • He lived a life of obedience to His Father. It was his only will, his only joy. ‘It is my eating and drinking to do the will of my Father’. That was why He came on earth. He was very attentive to the Word of his Father. His whole life was directed by the Word, including the cross and resurrection.
  • To understand and follow the will of the Father, He always prayed. His obedience was a prayerful obedience. Several times Jesus sent away the disciples and the crowd to be alone with his Father. He spent time to enjoy the presence of the Father, to speak about his mission. The nearer He came to his cross the more he needed his Father.

He showed God’s love to the people. He who shared the heavenly glory came down to a world full of sins and sorrow, to live among us. His love was a love for sinners and suffering people in particular. He didn’t serve himself. He came to serve others. He came to give his life in order that others should live. This is the complete unconditional, unselfish love that He showed when He washed the feet of the disciples. Note that Jesus’ love was not a ‘soft love’, but a love that searched for truth. Jesus accepted public sinners and dealt with them, but he openly criticized the hypocrites: people who were proud about their (spiritual) efforts, but didn’t show any compassion to their fellow-citizens.