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This Is How We Know That We Know Him

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1 John 2:3-6

3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

In this passage John returns to one of the most important themes of his book. He told his readers that his longing for them is that they would enter into and enjoy fellowship with God just as he had (1 John 1:3). But he also told his readers that fellowship with God is only possible in the realm of “light” which we said refers to the fact that God is holy and infinitely glorious, and therefore fellowship with God will always be impeded by the presence of sin. The last two weeks we have seen how incredibly deceitful sin is and how desperately we need the provision of Christ because of our sins.

At the beginning of chapter two, John’s tone begins to sound more like an exhortation to his readers than a response to his opponents who made various false claims about the extent of sin in their lives. And in this passage John wants to help his readers and us attain peace that we, sinners as we are, really do have fellowship with God. If even those who clearly are not in fellowship with God can claim that they are, how can we be sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? So John takes up the topic of assurance of salvation here for the first time. It is one of the reasons why he wrote this letter in the first place (1 John 5:13).

I think we can understand what John is saying in this passage by noting these three things:

  1. There is no fellowship with God without obedience to his commandments (v. 3)
  2. Obedience to God’s commandments is impossible without God (vv. 4-5a)
  3. We obey God’s commandments by following Jesus (vv. 5b-6)

There is no fellowship with God without obedience to his commandments (v. 3)

John says that there is a way that we can be assured of our fellowship with God. And he wastes no time telling us what this test of our fellowship is. We know that we are in fellowship with God if we keep his commandments. Conversely, if we do not keep his commandments, any claim to know God is a lie.

John wants us to be assured of our fellowship with God

Plenty of Christians struggle with assurance of salvation. Others do not struggle with it but should. Jesus told us that at the final judgment there will be plenty of people who thought they knew God.

 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt 7:21-23)

“Knowledge” of God in the biblical sense is not intellectual and speculative, but experimental and dynamic. Moreover, the context in which man’s knowledge of God becomes possible is not abstract, but historical. In other words, to “know” God is not a matter of correct thought-processes, but of a genuine spiritual relationship.[1]

The idea of relationship is also suggested in that John says this is how to “know that we have come to know him.” The grammar emphasizes the present state produced by a past action. We know God now because we met him in the past. It is important to note here that John is more interested in our present “knowing” of God than on some past religious experience with him. He does not say, “This is how we know we know him, by remembering our conversion experience.” He doesn’t even say that we will know that we know him by reflecting on our baptism. What John wants us to be assured of is that we are in relationship with God now. Assurance is to come, not from some action in the past, but from our present relationship with God.

Law-abiding is a way of knowing not a way of attaining

This text appears to give us a very objective way of knowing whether or not we have “come to know God.” We know that we have come to know him “if we keep his commandments.”

In John’s day there were some teachings that were gaining popularity and that later became known as “Gnosticism.” The Gnostics spoke a lot about a mystical experience with the divine and referred to such experiences as gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. But the Gnostics’ “knowledge” had little to do with moral behavior, and their teachings were denounced as heretical. Unfortunately, much of their ideas still linger even today. Even in the church we can encounter people who speak of knowing God solely by some religious experience without any attention to moral behavior.

The prophet Hosea argues that when there is no knowledge of God “there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery” (Hos 4: 2).

But John says to know God, or to be in fellowship with him, is to obey him. We know that we are in relationship with God when he commands and we obey. But this obedience is a way of knowing not a way of attaining. Our fellowship with God is proven by our obedience, but not gained by it.

Obedience to God’s commandments is made possible by God himself (vv. 4-5a).

It is important for us to make that distinction lest someone think that he can enter into fellowship with God by moral effort. This is a powerful temptation that we dare not ignore. We never—never!—earn our fellowship with God.

I am emphasizing this point because verses 4-5 contrast two different types of individuals. Both claim to be in fellowship with God. But one is a liar. The other one has the truth in him. The difference between the two individuals is that one of them keeps God’s commandments and thereby proves that he really is in fellowship with God. Notice only two kinds of people are contrasted. But isn’t there a third kind of person, the one who really doesn’t know him but still keeps the commandments? There are plenty of non-Christians who are morally superior to some Christians. Don’t they “keep the commandments”?

Keeping the Commandments

So the question we need to ask is this: How can it be true that the difference between the one who does not truly know God and the one who does is that the latter keeps the commandments?

Our answer to that question must begin by noting that “keeping the commandments” does not mean obeying the law of God perfectly. That would be sinlessness, something John has already told us is impossible. Even those of us who might be tempted to say that we do reasonably well at keeping God’s law have missed the point of the law itself: whoever keeps it all but fails in one point is accountable for all of it (James 2:10). Our attempts at keeping the law always end in the same way: failure.

I think Revelation 3:3 helps us understand what is mean by “keeping” the commandments. Speaking to the church in Sardis Jesus said:

“Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” (Rev. 3:2-3)

The church in Sardis was to “wake up, remember, and repent.” In other words, Jesus implored them to not be careless about what he had said to them but to pay attention to his instructions. What he wanted of this church was for them to quit ignoring what he said. That’s what is meant by “keeping God’s commandments.” It involves much more than external conformity to rules. It refers to our paying attention to what God has said.

Just this week I read an article that gives a helpful illustration of what kind of “commandment keeping” God expects of those who are in a relationship with him.

Picture the husband and wife who keep talking past each other. With growing frustration, one says, “Look, just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it. Be specific. Don’t make me guess what you are looking for.” The other responds, “No, I’m not going to tell you what to do. I don’t just want your grudging compliance. I want your heart.”

That’s the kind of talk that drives some of us crazy. But it’s what we need. Even God Himself doesn’t tell us exactly how to show our patience, self-control, and love for Him in the specific moments of our lives. He shows us how much He loves us, gives us general principles, and then asks us to respond to His heart from our own.[2]

Love has come full circle

This understanding of what it means to “keep” the commandments is not intended to make excuses for our failures to obey God. It is simply highlighting the fact that fellowship with God is a relationship and not a list of rules. Those who know God will obey him out of genuine love for him. Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” (Jn 14:15). Obedience, when it is motivated by duty rather than love, is not what God is looking for. But imperfect obedience, when it is motivated by love rather than duty, is “keeping the commandments.”

I say “imperfect obedience” because verse 5 says that love is perfected in the true believer. It does not say that the believer is perfected in love.

So we do not have to be sinless in order to have the assurance John is talking about. When John says our assurance is based on our keeping the commandments, he is not saying that assurance is based on our being sinless. But I think what he is saying is that our assurance is based on our being holy.

Holiness is not the same thing as sinlessness. The difference is explained very well in an article from Christianity Today last May. Listen carefully to these words:

At bottom, God’s call to be holy is a radical, all-encompassing claim on our lives, our loves, and our very identities. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ requires nothing less than death to our fallen, egocentric selves in order that we might live in and for him. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it,” says Jesus, “but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:35-36).

This question of our ultimate love, loyalty, and identity is what contemporary evangelicals must ask. At its most basic, holiness is the grateful submission to God’s claim on our entire lives—to accept that our lives are not our own. More than any other American value, the notion that we are the masters and proprietors of our own lives stands in direct opposition to our call to be set apart to God. To be holy means that all we are and all we have belongs to God, not ourselves, and that every aspect of our lives is to be shaped and directed toward God.[3]

This is the kind of commandment keeping that John has in mind because he says that the one who “keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” The commandment keeper is not the one who never breaks any of the commandments, but the one in whom the love of God has been brought to completion. It is this “love of God” that makes the difference between the true believer and the unbeliever, between the holy and the unholy.

Now when John refers here to the “love of God” he does not intend to differentiate between God’s love for us and our love for God. He simply wanted to address the effect that God’s love has now come “full circle.” He loved us first, chose us and reconciled us to him by grace. But God’s love for us has worked to create a genuine love for God in us that is now expressed in obedience to his commandments. Now we obey because we want to obey. This is what the love of God is intended to do: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 Jn 5:3)

When the television stays off because the word of God is more delightful than the newest show, that is God's love in you. When you would rather risk your life for the gospel in Turkey than go after the American Dream that is God's love in you. Thank God for it, and enjoy the assurance that you know him.

So assurance of fellowship with God is found when we find ourselves conforming to the commandments of God because we find those commandments to be our desire and not merely our duty. That is the difference between the true Christian and the non-Christian. Only God can instill this desire into our hearts. An unbeliever may try to live morally or religiously, but he will be unable to do so from love so his obeying will be dry and lifeless.

We obey God’s commandments by following Jesus (vv. 5b-6).

The last half of verse 5 and verse 6 restates the “test” for our assurance but with different words. “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” The phrase “abide in him” is a favorite expression for John, found in several places in his Gospel, and denotes an inward, enduring personal communion.[4] So it is another way for John to refer to those who are in fellowship with God or another way to refer to those who truly “know” God.

Compelled to Obey

John says that those who abide in him “ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” Don’t be fooled by the word ought. It does not mean “those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did” (NLT). This is no mere suggestion. And neither is John giving us a command like the NIV rendering might be understood: “whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” Instead, the word ought refers to a personal obligation or a debt. And used here, as “proof” that one is in fellowship with God, the idea is that one finds himself compelled to follow Christ. This is not duty but compulsion.

Obedience by Following

So John is again saying that the way we can know that we are in fellowship with God is when we obey his commandments not out of duty but from a heart of love for him that compels us to obey. But he also adds one more word of explanation to this “test” for our assurance. He tells us something about what this obedience will resemble. It will resemble the life of Jesus himself.

Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17). So following Jesus is really another way of saying “keeping the commandments.” At the same time, the way Jesus fulfilled the law and thus kept the commandments surprised a lot of people. And whe Jesus interpreted what it was the law really required, he “upped the ante.” In other words, Jesus made law keeping a lot harder!

The whole idea of imitating Christ is exactly the difficulty we all face. That is, we don’t really know “what Jesus would do” in many circumstances. So when John says the assurance that we are in fellowship with God is in our imitation of Christ, we should ask ourselves, “How is it possible to “walk in the same way that he walked”?

Learning from a Young, Rich Man

For our answer we should consider Matthew 19:16-22:

16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Jesus’s answer to the man’s question about how to inherit eternal life was “keep the commandments.” But when the man asked, “Which ones?” Jesus, after going through a few of the Ten Commandments, and after the young man claimed adherence to those commandments, added one more. But this “commandment” is nowhere found in the Old Testament law. Yet it got right to the heart of what was keeping this man out of fellowship with God. God could have his moral obedience. But God could not have what the rich man treasured most. And that is why this man could not have the assurance that he was looking for, the assurance that he was in fellowship with God.

Those who truly are in fellowship with God are compelled by love to “sell out” and follow Jesus. They are those who listen to what Jesus expects of them and then do it. They get beyond a list of rules to something much deeper. They imitate their Savior’s life by gladly abandoning everything that keeps them from full devotion to him.

The question, then, is whether or not that is the life you live. Are you one who listens to what Jesus expects and then obeys him out of love? You cannot manufacture that kind of obedience; it only comes from the love of God himself. Or, are you one who walks away from Jesus’ demands because his demands require you to give up something else that you love more? The answer to those questions is the basis of whether or not you can be assured that you truly belong to him.


[1] Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1984), 45.

[2] Mart De Haan, “Been Thinking About: Listening,” received via email from RBC Ministries, July 8, 2008.

[3] Joel Scandrett, “Holy to the Core,” Christianity Today, May 2007. Available on-line at

[4] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), rev. and ed. Frederick William Danker, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 631.

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