In John 13:34, Jesus commanded his disciples to “love one another.. Just as I have loved you, so you should also love one another.” According to John in his first letter, this is “the message you have heard from the beginning” (1 John 2:7). In this letter we refer to as 1 John, the disciple likes to repeat himself, and for a good reason: what he says is worth repeating. John hammers on the commandment of love and makes it the entire basis for what it means to live in community and be a follower of Jesus.
We’re three chapters into reading this letter together for the summer, and we now come to a turning point of the letter. Up to this point, John has had a lot to say to his hearers regarding false teachers and those who would seek to divide the community from the outside in. Now, he starts talking more about loving those who are already within the community and, specifically, standing strong in that love.
One of the questions you’ve probably heard if you’ve been around churches for an extended amount of time is the questioning of one’s salvation, that is, the eternal status of their soul. People will speculate as to whether or not certain people who have different sorts of beliefs are “saved” or not. Or, if someone sins egregiously, people will question whether or not that person was “saved” in the first place. People will even question their own salvation in different sorts of situations. So how do you know? How do you know if you’re really saved? How do you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you are “abiding in Christ” and “walking in the light” as we have seen John say? How do you not know that you, yourself, have not fell victim to false teaching like John has been talking about with his communities back then?
Apparently, John’s readers were asking similar questions, too.
“And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us” (1 John 3:19-20).
We don’t know what was causing their own hearts to condemn them, but with all this talk of disunity and false teaching, it isn’t too far of a reach to say that John’s readers could have been confused or even pulled astray by conflicting messages of the Gospel and this is causing them to doubt their own status as children of God. I think John’s advice to them is sound for us today, as well. He, essentially, tells them three things when faced with doubt or guilt in regards to one’s salvation:
1. God is still God, no matter what.
“God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything,” says John. This is a major part of overcoming the type of guilt that was plaguing John’s audience. There is a big difference between believing in God and believing something about God. One is a relationship; the other is not. Through Jesus, we have a relationship with God, and this gives us the confidence to reassure one another when we experience self-doubt, or we feel prone to condemn ourselves. God is bigger than what we think about him, and so God’s knowledge and the assurance that God knows infinitely more than we do can take precedence over our own insecurities. God has been revealed in Jesus, and we have confidence in this.
2. When you know God, you do as God says.
The commandment to which John has been referring all along is to love one another just as Jesus had instructed his disciples. To do this is to abide in Christ as he abides in us, continually. To abide is to put belief into action. That action says a lot about who we are and whom we follow. If it doesn’t match up, it can be pretty obvious. Jesus loved and gave himself up for his “friends” (1 John 3:16) and prayed for their unity. If one’s actions do not reflect this fundamental characteristic of what it means to follow Jesus, those actions can be questioned. John recalls Jesus saying in his Gospel, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). We have assurance and can live boldly because we are listening intently for the words of the shepherd and we follow and act accordingly.
3. As we abide, the Spirit abides.
On top of all this, John says we know that God abides in us “by the Spirit he has given us” (3:24). John doesn’t talk as much about the Spirit in his letters as he does in his Gospel, and we may see why this is the case in the next few posts. However, the reality of the presence of the Spirit is clearly a marker for him as to who is a part of the community and who is not. In a sense, the Spirit brings the first two points together. God is God, we do as God says, and God works within us to make that happen. This brings fruit, and this, to John, is evidence of faith at work and reassures us of our relationship with God.
That being said, if you are struggling with the status of your own salvation, maybe due to some sin you’ve committed, some wrong idea you’ve had of God or something else that you think is keeping you at a distance from God, know that God is bigger, loves you, and desperately wants you at the family table. The invitation is standing and every day is a new chance to accept it. So, maybe, instead of focusing on who is “in” and who is “out,” perhaps we should focus on the one keeping everything and everyone together in the first place.