How can you know if you are saved? / Article Fritz Wolf
What must I do to be saved?
Can a born-again Christian ever apostasize?
The foundation of our salvation.
Are we walking in the light or in the darkness?
Do we act justly?
Do we have love?
Do we have the Son of God?
The author of this contribution, Fritz Wolf was born in 1964 and lives in
Darmstadt. He is married with three children, and has been a member of the Christliche Gemeinde Darmstadt
[Christian Congregation of Darmstadt], a Free Evangelical Brethren congregation, since 1992. Mr Wolf grew up
in a Catholic family, was an active member of his church, and came into contact with a charismatic group, whom
he joined on leaving school. In view of his Catholic and charismatic background, the question how we can be
certain that we are saved frequently caused him problems and inner conflict. On the one side stood those who
in spite of their longing for a life pleasing to God could never be certain that they were saved, and on the
other those who imagined they had a sure “passport to heaven” in their pockets, but hardly worried about
leading a life pleasing to God at all. The question of the personal assurance of salvation is so important,
however, that it induced God to give us a complete book of the Bible that is solely and exclusively dedicated
to this question, “How can I know if I am saved?”
The exceptional quality of the author’s work, which we reproduce below, lies in its conformity with Scripture and in the clarity of its formulations. Although it may not perhaps appear so at first glance, one thing that he says seems to me to be of quite particular importance - namely, his urging the reader to “keep on trying.” This covers the entire spectrum of being a Christian, from conversion, by way of phases of doubt and the temptation to break away, through to the assurance that with the help of the Lord we will always continue to obtain the strength we need to “keep on trying.” (Fritz Horak)
+) This contribution has been taken, by the kind permission of the author, from the website
e-mail: Fritz Wolf
Together with others of the brethren, Fritz Wolf also supports a Christian Evangelical congregation in Romania (Crestin dupa evanghelie). Donations go to the support and upkeep of widows and orphans there.
Account for donations: Verein für Mission & Diakonie / Stichwort: Rumänien
[Mission & Church Works Society / key word: Romania], account no.: 4005023,
bank: Sparkasse Darmstadt [Darmstadt Savings Bank], sort code: 508 501 50,
IBAN: DE41 5085 0150 0004 0050 23, BIC code: HELADEF1DAS.
“Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are
not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the
Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” (Jn 20,30-31)
In these words the apostle John sums up the message of the fourth Gospel. It is impossible to summarize the 21 profound chapters of this Gospel in the scope of a single article, but they all have a definite theme - namely, how can a human being attain to salvation? And they have a single main actor - the Lord Jesus Christ. Getting to heaven is inseparably connected with the person of the Lord Jesus. If we read this Gospel, we do not find ourselves confronted with a “ten point checklist”; rather we are introduced to a person, the one person in the history of the human race who can be the means of salvation for us.
The way to heaven is through Jesus Christ, who tells us that he is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father but through him (Jn 14,6). The way to salvation is through our coming to grips with this person, Jesus Christ. So the answer to the question does not lie with a specific church or body of doctrine or with adherence to any specific rules, but in believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. Now there are many people who will say that they “believe in God.” But that is not what is meant by the faith that saves.
”Believing in the Lord Jesus” does not mean just accepting the existence of God: rather, it involves entering into a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. The first step is our recognition of our own unworthiness before God, our absolute incapacity to be well pleasing to God in the strength of our own resources. Every human being is guilty before God, there is none righteous, not even one! (Rom 3,10). Nor is God going to recognize our well-meaning efforts, for his standards are absolute ones. Only a person who has recognized that he is guilty before God and has deserved eternal death is in a position to recognize that if we cannot bear our guilt ourselves, there is someone else who must do it for us.
For this, then, the Lord Jesus came from heaven as a man and became the servant of all, and bore the necessary punishment in our place. “Believing in him” means personally accepting the sacrifice of the Lord for ourselves. But this also means that we make ourselves over to the Lord Jesus, so that he also becomes Our Lord and has the right to dispose of us. The covenant of God’s redemption that he has offered us in Jesus can only be completely accepted or completely rejected. It is immutable and not subject to negotiation.
Salvation is gratis - all we have to do is to accept God’s covenant, we are not required to bring anything on our side. It is gratis, but it is not cheap. It cost the Lord Jesus everything; nothing less than his sacrificial death on the cross was required for our redemption. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jn 3,16). We must take the Lord Jesus into our hearts, then he will gives us new life, which is the precondition for entry into his royal kingdom.
This is described as the new birth from water and the spirit, and the Lord Jesus speaks of it in Jn 3. Unless we are reborn, we cannot see the kingdom of God. In our natural state we are evil and sinful beings, without exception. In ourselves we cannot please God, and consequently we must receive a new life from God. Jesus paid the price for this new life on the cross: we must accept it, and then God can give us rebirth. It is not a rebirth of the flesh in the sense that a person returns to his mother’s womb to be born again: rather it is a new birth from the Spirit, in which we are given new life by God, though the process is not perceptible to the outside observer. Only one who has this new life can enter into the kingdom of God.
As I said before, one cannot provide a conclusive treatment of this topic in the scope available here. But I would recommend you to get to grips with the 21 chapters of the Gospel of John so that you may be able to see that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed, whom God has sent, and so that you may have eternal life in his name through believing.
The resounding “No” that the Brethren movement gives to this question is seen as
questionable and viewed with extreme skepticism by other Christians. The question can be answered either with
a “Yes” or with a “No”: “Yes” in that a born again Christian has been sealed by the Holy Spirit
and has received new life from God, and has God’s assurance that he will bring him to his final destination.
But on the other hand, not all who think that they have been reborn can be sure of attaining to
eternal life. Reciting a pious prayer, putting up your hand when your name is called or just having a warm
feeling is not enough to make you a Christian. Certain sins can exclude a person from salvation (Gal. 5).
Certainly Scripture substantiates the assurance of salvation (Jn 6,39-40, Jn 10,27-30, Phil. 1,6, Rom.
8,38-39), but there are also passages which stress the necessity of persevering and keeping on trying, and
these cannot be just swept under the carpet or theologically explained away (1Cor 10,12, Rev 3,16). The Bible
does not contain contradictions, but it does present contrasts, and these contrasts give us a set of
parameters for determining what certain statements mean and what they do not mean. And the Bible does warn us
of the possibility that one can be seriously deceived on this issue (Mt 7,21-23 and Lk 6,46).
Difficult as it may be to resolve the question whether one who has been born again can ever be lost, the outcome is the same: in heaven there are no unbelievers, and in hell there are no believers. The fact of a person’s having been born again shows itself in a corresponding mode of life, and we will go into this in more detail below. From my own experience I can say that a born-again Christian can go through severe crises, but in the last resort does not distance himself so far from the Lord that he falls into cursing or denial or becomes the sort of person who lives in the sins that are described in Gal 5. If someone turns away from the Lord so drastically as to turn his back on him completely and consciously deny him, then I would seriously doubt whether he has ever belonged to him, whatever testimony he may have had in the past. So the question whether one who is born again can ever be lost proves to be rather of a theoretical nature. We will find later on that there are further important criteria for the confession of faith, which rule out a “confession of faith without the associated way of life” from the very start. The Bible makes it clear that someone who is born again cannot be lost, but there are also significant injunctions to persevere and to keep on trying. As the Bible does not contradict itself, I would assume that someone who has new life in the Lord Jesus Christ is also a person who perseveres and overcomes.
A sinner does not go to heaven, any more than a saint goes to hell. Whether the sinner who goes to hell may have once confessed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (in external terms) or not, is a matter of indifference. It is equally a matter of indifference whether he was once a genuine Christian or was just deceiving himself and others. In the same way, a saint is certain to go to heaven. A saint, according to the Scripture, is someone who has been set apart for God, set apart for God through the new life that he has received, for this and nothing else is what it finally comes down to. Whether it is a case of clear conversion from the gutter, or of the eighth conversion after seven pseudo-conversions is also irrelevant here. The important thing is that you are converted, the question when you were converted does not have to be all that significant. We should take Scripture as it is given to us, and follow its instructions in practical terms. Theoretical discussions without practical effects are useless, wasting valuable time and energy, causing confusion and creating divisions. Rather than fighting over human dogmas, we should fight for the truth of Scripture.
The ones who should be questioning their certainty of salvation do not ever think to put such
a question; while others are constantly doubting if they are saved, although they should rather rely on the
promises they have been given that God will carry them right through to the end. To preach on this theme in
the congregation carries the danger that one group may lull itself into a false sense of security, while
others may be plunged into unnecessary doubts. And yet it is an important theme which needs to be addressed,
since after all it is a matter of our eternal life or our eternal death.
In Acts 16,31 we have the answer to the question of the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus,
and you will be saved, you and your household.” And in 1Cor 3: “For no man can lay a foundation other
than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”. Acts 4,12: “And there is salvation in no one
else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” And
Jn 14,6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me”.
The foundation of our salvation is not a sacrament, a religious ritual or a set of deeds or dogmatic pronouncements, but rather a single person, Jesus Christ. A major theme - or major ancillary theme - of the Bible is the foundation of our salvation, which yet is based on the major theme itself - Jesus Christ. But there is no “ten point checklist” which can be used as an acid test of one’s own salvation or that of others. The answers that Jesus and the apostles gave to their hearers varied in dependence on the given situation and the state of heart of the person who asked them. Not that they contradicted one another. So Paul, for instance, answered the jailer’s question with “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household”; Jesus on the other hand, when the rich young man asked him the same question, referred him to the commandments. When the young man said that he had always kept all the commandments, he told him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, and then follow him.
Are Paul and Jesus in contradiction here? No - their answers depended on the state of heart of the person asking the question. The jailer was aware of his lost state, he had capitulated and wanted only to die. So Paul was able to point him the way to Jesus, the giver of life. The rich young man, it seems to me, wanted the Lord’s confirmation that he was already on the right path. He stood in the midst of life, and wanted God’s certifying signature. First of all, the Lord Jesus was obliged to reveal the young man’s state of heart. He put to him the impossible demand, “Keep the commandments.” The young man made the presumptuous claim that he had always kept them. Jesus would have easily been able to prove to him that this was not the case; but in order to indicate to him the sore point in his life, he told him to give up all his possessions. This does not mean, of course, that we should sell all our goods as a general principle; but the heart of the rich young man was attached to his wealth, and it is not possible to serve both God and Mammon.
Another foundation of our salvation is the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus in our place, which is an absolute necessity for us. All the saints of the Old Testament were aware of this, and knew that without a sacrifice they could not approach God. We have deserved death through our guilt. So Abel sacrificed a lamb from his flock, that is to say, the lamb died for him as a substitute. Cain sacrificed the works of his hands, and thought that in this way he would be able to live up to God’s demands. Jesus Christ supplied the sacrifice that is generally valid for us all: it is sufficient, unique, unrepeatable and cannot be supplemented by anything offered on our part. We can either accept it completely or reject it completely. If we want to supplement it or add to it in the strength of our own resources, then we have no share in it. The sacrifice is only effective for us if we make ourselves over to the Lord Jesus Christ as his chattels. He has paid the price for us on the cross, so that we now belong him and no longer to ourselves. So we are obliged as a result to acknowledge him as the Lord of our life.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift
of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ
Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph. 2,8)
Saved by faith, without works, but created for good works - that is the frame that gives the clearest possible description of the role of works in the life of faith. This frame excludes the possibility of earning salvation by one’s own actions (as is taught by the Catholics for instance), and it also rules out seeing salvation in Christ as a free pass, which would entitle a person, as a Christian, to indulge in an undisciplined way of life. Obedience to God’s Word is not a means of salvation, but a demonstration that a person has been saved. If we belong to Him and love Him who laid down His life for us, there is nothing we will desire more than to please Him who has redeemed us. As a healthy apple tree in favorable climatic conditions brings forth apples, so the new life that a person who has been born again has received from God will bring forth divine fruit. The fruit is not the means to salvation, but is a result that cannot possibly be lacking.
“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you
may know that you have eternal life.” (1 Jn 5,13). The first Epistle of John is principally and thematically
concerned with this question. Anyone who has problems with this issue cannot be better advised than to read
the Epistle repeatedly and to examine himself repeatedly in the light of the points it rehearses. I will go
into the points one by way in detail. The importance of this question is very clearly thrown into relief by
the fact that there is a whole book of the Bible devoted specifically to this issue.
“Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” is the word that
God spoke to Samuel (1Sam 16,7), and it has not lost any of its relevance today. Jesus says, “You will know
them by their fruits” (Mt 7,20). Here too the Bible gives us a frame that is based on contrasting passages
in Scripture. We should examine, but we are not to judge. To judge human beings is an office that belongs only
to God, and he has not delegated it to anyone. On the other hand there are many passages where we are plainly
enough enjoined to examine the life of others, and to make distinctions depending on whether or not they are
qualified for the congregation or for specific services. But there can be no absolute certainty in our
assessments: we have been wrong in the past and will be wrong again in the future, seeing that insight into
the heart of man is barred to us. Yet there are some unambiguous criteria in the light of which we can
determine whether a person is definitively not saved, and so is not entitled, for instance, to join us in the
breaking of the bread:
• persisting in certain sins (Gal 5)
• false doctrine (2Jn 9)
• failure to bring forth fruit, or bringing forth bad fruit (Mt 7, 15-20)
• unclear testimony: someone who has not understood the way of salvation
cannot be saved either. The notion of “passive salvation”, whereby a responsible adult is saved without
reference to or even against his will, is foreign to the Bible.
All the same we must acknowledge that human beings see only what is in plain view, while the
Lord looks into the heart. We have been wrong on occasion in the past, and we will go wrong again in future,
because our faculty of judgment is limited. But often too we are prevented by misplaced awe or false human
respect from applying the criteria that we are given in God’s Word soundly and without any respect of
persons. If we were only to do so, God’s congregation might be preserved from a multitude of errors and
For a long time I thought that walking in the light amounted to a practically sinless way of
life. But this cannot be the case, because we are told at the end of verse 7 that the blood of Jesus cleanses
us from all sin. God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. One who is living in the darkness is
concealing his guilt. In the darkness all dirty clothes are able to pass for clean. If I put on a white shirt
and place myself in bright light, then every spot, however small, will be apparent; whereas dark clothes in a
dark room, even if they have spots, will still be able to pass for clean.
If we expose ourselves to the light of God, and constantly examine our lives in accordance with the injunctions of the Word of God, we will notice pretty quickly that we are sinful and unworthy. We will soon notice that we are not in a position to cherish any illusions about ourselves. If on the other hand we expose ourselves to rather shallow conversation, then we become increasingly insensitive to our own sinfulness and we may start to think that we really are not so bad after all. We lose interest in spiritual themes, and are increasingly unaware of what our way of life is like in relation to God. .
Even if in the lives of God’s children there may be phases from time to time in which one is less concerned to engage with the Word of God, preferring to enjoy shallow conversation; but all the same he will be drawn back ever again into the light of God’s presence. The righteous person falls seven times, but he gets up again, whereas the godless person remains wallowing in his guilt. One who walks in the darkness conceals his guilt, so that it does not become apparent. In such a state one easily persuades himself that he is without sin. You can always find people whose faults are reassuringly more obvious than your own.
Here we find a clear indication of the difference between a child of God who is suffering from doubts, and a professing Christian without true belief: a child of God suffering doubts will ask himself repeatedly to what extent his way of life is in keeping with God’s expectations. He longs to have a holy way of life, and examines his life in the light of the criteria given by Scripture. One who confesses Christ without true belief, on the other hand, takes his personal salvation so much for granted that he does not see the least necessity of subjecting his life to repeated examination in the light of the Word of God. He prefers to remain in the twilight, where his own spots do not become apparent, and so thinks he is pure. For such a person, the guilty people are above all the others. If a person stands in the light, all his spots can be clearly seen, even if the one who sees them is himself standing in the twilight. The one in the twilight is not conspicuous, his spots do not become visible, so that outwardly he gives an impression of purity - which brings us now to the next criterion.
Anyone who thinks that he has no sin is deceiving himself. Now hardly anyone will be so
presumptuous as to think that he is absolutely sinless and perfect. One who remains in the twilight, though,
has diluted God’s demands to such an extent, in his own interest, that he thinks he will be able to get by
in this way in the eyes of God. At the same time he is the strictest judge of his fellow human beings. One who
walks in the light will find his own sins glaringly obvious. He can only rely on the promise that if he
confesses his sins, God is faithful and righteous and so will forgive him his sin.
A child of God will be constantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own guilt. He will repeatedly have to ask himself how it was possible for him still to commit this particular sin. In the flesh, every human being is capable of any sin. In daily life with one’s family, confrontation is unavoidable. This gives us a very clear indication as to who is a child of God and who is not: do we confess our sins, or do we only look to find sin in the other person? Does the Spirit of God convict me, or do I see it as my job to convict others?
It istrue that we do not become righteous through works, it is true likewise that we are
created for good works (Eph. 2,8-10). We do not keep his commandments in order to ensure our salvation, but we
keep them because we are saved and because we love him. The Lord Jesus himself says in Jn 14,21 that the
person who keeps his commandments is the one who loves him. For a couple who are in love, it is not a duty to
give pleasure to one’s partner - it is love that motivates them. A lover does not feel that it is an
obligation to look for ways of pleasing the other, rather it is a pure joy.
This does not mean some kind of sinless perfection, on the other hand - which in any case would contradict the rest of the Bible - but it is a frame nonetheless which makes it impossible for a person deliberately to live in all kinds of sin and at the same time to be saved. A child of God will fail on repeated occasions, but he will also repeatedly be aware of his failure, and he will then again find the longing in his heart to purify himself of this failing before God (1Jn 1,9). A professing Christian without true belief, on the other hand, hardly looks to see whether he is keeping God’s commandments or not. Perhaps he has his “hobby-horses” and enjoys riding around on them, but he hardly confronts himself with Scripture in its entirety. .
The love of God and the love of the world are mutually exclusive. It is impossible for a
person to serve two masters: he will either love the one or the other. You cannot serve both God and Mammon.
Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. What is our greatest concern? Our money, or even just how
we are going to make ends meet? Or our eternal state, and the way our life looks in the eyes of God? What do
we spend the greater part of our free time on? On the things of this world, or the things of God?
Anyone will find that he has an inclination to the things of this world, for so long as we live in this earthly body our flesh will be drawn to worldly things. But do we give it scope? Do we cry, with Paul, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom 7,24), or is it rather a matter of indifference to us? John describes the world under three aspects:
• the pleasure of the eyes
• the pleasure of the flesh
• the pride of life.
The precise meaning of this is hardly something that requires detailed commentary; more difficult, though, is to understand how we should relate to it. It is a struggle, and it will most certainly always continue to be a struggle, whether we incline to the things of the world or to God. An unbeliever does not experience it as a struggle, but just takes the world as it is and lives for himself. A believer endeavors to live for the Lord; an unbeliever lives for himself, sometimes even under the guise of piety.
What are our eyes drawn to? The world today offers the eyes many more attractions than it did in the past. Everywhere consumer culture is a lure, and the many images of advertising seduce people into buying products that they actually do not need and are not in a position to afford. The pleasure of the flesh finds expression in the list of sins in Gal 5 which definitely disqualify a person from salvation: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing. Covetousness is also described in another passage as a form of idolatry, so that no one who is covetous can expect to go to heaven.
While it is not the point here that someone who on one occasion becomes guilty of a sin like this, or who on one occasion proves weak and loses his nerve, immediately disqualifies himself for salvation, it is nonetheless the case, so Scripture tells us, that one who lives constantly in these sins cannot be saved. Someone who on one occasion bakes a cake does not automatically become a baker. In the same way, someone who is caught out once making a wrong move is not on the same level as one who lives in these sins as a matter of habit.
This criterion has to do with doctrine. One who has not understood the way of salvation cannot
be saved either, whatever endeavors he may make. At the time when John was writing this Epistle, there were
teachers around who falsified the doctrine about the Lord Jesus. Here we are given a clear criterion that
enables us to distinguish sound teachers from the purveyors of false doctrine. The essential criterion for
differentiation is a teacher’s doctrine about the Lord Jesus Christ. Who is Jesus for you?
Many take him to have been the founder of a religion, a philosopher, a moral teacher. But he is very much more than this: he is the Son of God, and Lord. He is God, as the New Testament testifies at many points. He can only be God if he is to supply the pure, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for our sins. An angel could never redeem us. If he were any less than God, he could not conquer death. More tragic, though, than the open denial of the divinity of Jesus (such as is practiced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example) is the acceptance of the Lord Jesus as a redeemer but not as Lord. People are happy to accept that their sins are forgiven, but they do not realize that as a result of the New Covenant they are likewise obliged to accept Jesus as Lord. Jesus himself says that not those who call him “Lord” will enter his kingdom, but only those who do his will. .
False doctrines and movements exalt humanity and diminish the Lord. Religious officiaries are highly regarded, being seen as the “anointed of God” and beyond criticism. Anyone who criticizes them puts himself off side, and is threatened with the wrath of God. While these false teachers hold that the grace of God is so great that he can bless whole guilty nations and exempt them from judgment, one who attacks “God’s anointed” is exposing himself to the wrath of God. But who is Jesus in this context? A “vicarious agent” who has nothing to do but jump in response to our proclamations. Without being fully aware of it, movements like the charismatic movement described here turn the Lord Jesus into a servant.
Many stress that Jesus is our friend and helper. Preaching is attuned to the needs of humanity, so we are given the impression that the only purpose of Jesus’ coming was to give us a fulfilled life. Certainly there is some truth in that, but the other aspect, that God has claims on us because he is our creator, gets left out of account. Jesus becomes our pal, the sort of pal you slap on the back. Yet when Jesus showed himself to his favorite disciple in Rev 1, he hardly appeared in the guise of a pal: John actually fell down in a dead faint when he saw him in his glory.
It is not just a matter of the gross denial of the Lord Jesus, as when his divinity is publicly denied; we also have to do with subtleties, as when a humanistic gospel is preached, one that puts human beings at center stage, in line with the motto that God can be thankful that he’s got us on his side. We would do much better to fall on our knees because he has chosen us in his grace. He could have destroyed us all, and would still be holy and righteous, but instead he gave his Son to the earth, he gave himself as a victim because he loves us. We have no claim to salvation, it comes to us as a free gift from God. At the present time, when humanity has been exalted to something approaching divinity, we too have a tendency to make the human being the central focus of our considerations. But that central focus should be the Lord Jesus.
This criterion is closely connected with adherence to God’s commands. We are not saved
through good works, but saved for good works. If we are followers of a holy and righteous God, it must be the
longing of every such follower to deal justly himself and to ask himself repeatedly what the Lord Jesus’
attitude would be to his current actions.
See what love God has shown to us in allowing us to call ourselves his children. We are
blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realm. God did not spare his own Son, and so he is all
the more willing to give us everything in him. In relation to eternity we have all that we could possibly ask
for. Even if the New Testament hardly gives us any promises with reference to life on earth (we have no
guarantees of health, riches or a long and untroubled life), all the same we have a glorious treasure laid up
for us in the heavens. All the sufferings and problems of the here and now are not to be compared with the
things that are prepared for us in eternity.
What is our attitude to this? We have the most amazing position - do we really appreciate what we have in him, or is it a matter of indifference to us? A person who is focused on the earthly dimension despises the good things of heaven. We, though, are entitled to enter a kingdom where there is no distress, no suffering, no pain and no crying - from which evil and unrighteousness, what is more, have been banished. As citizens of heaven we are therefore called to a way of life in keeping with our position. If we are conscious of the position we have been given, it will be a joy to us and not an obligation to purify ourselves, just as he is pure.
No one who abides in Jesus sins; a true child of God cannot possibly follow a sinful way of
life. Of course we will fall repeatedly, but we get up again each time. One who has received new life in the
Lord Jesus Christ has become free from sin and is no longer its slave. One who sins is in bondage to sin. If
we have new life from God, we are no longer the slaves of sin, that is to say, we are no longer under the
compulsion to commit sin.
This criterion takes up a fair amount of space. John dedicates 10 whole verses to explaining
it. In verse 10 he first of all makes it clear that it is by love of our brethren that it becomes apparent
whether a person is a child of God or a child of the devil. Anyone who does not practice righteousness is not
of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. He refers to the commandment of Jesus in Jn 13, that we
should love one another. John draws out the implications of this, and goes on to describe what this love
consists in and what it does not.
So verse 12 tells us that we should not be like Cain, who murdered his brother. A true disciple can expect the strongest resistance not from those who deny God, but rather from those who think to serve him, but like Cain only sacrifice the works of their hands. The greatest harm has been done to the congregation by those who thought they were serving God, but actually had not understood the Gospel. They vent their anger at the fact that God did not accept their sacrifice on those who truly follow the Lord and have confidence just in the sacrifice of the pure lamb. So professed Christians who do not have faith are frequently sowers of discord, who have words of criticism for everyone and everything and who like pointing fingers. Having no profound assurance of salvation, they try to convince themselves by telling off people who in their eyes are even worse.
In verse 14 John again stresses that one who does not love his brother abides in death. In verse 15 hatred is equated with murder, as it is by the Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Here we should take note that the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. One who does not act to relieve the material needs of his neighbor abides in death. The fact that in this short section John stresses the point by repeating it twice is a clear statement. If we have new life in the Lord Jesus, then it will find expression through love above all, seeing that God is love. Love is to such an extent bound up with God’s essential nature that it will also be the dominant characteristic of every child of God.
According to verse 16 our love is to go so far that we are to be prepared to lay down our lives for our brothers. How much more are we obliged, then, to love our brother not just in words, but in deed and in truth! This also includes relieving his material needs. John makes it quite clear that it is not fitting for a Christian to live in luxury while his Christian neighbor is in want. It is not just a fine thing for a Christian to help out his brother - John actually makes this virtue the characteristic sign of those who follow the Lord Jesus.
We are not saved through works; one who is saved, however, will show his saving faith through works. One who does not do such works demonstrates that he does not have new life. How is it possible to be a follower of him who came from heaven to earth, became the servant of all, was derided, scorned, flogged and in the end put to death by the cruelest form of execution, if a person is at the same time an egoist who lives for himself alone? No one can be employed by a company if he never shows up to do a job of work - unless he is on leave or sick. Nor is it anything out of the ordinary if an employee goes to his company’s offices and gets on with his work. It is just something that is taken for granted.
Yet there are some who seem to think that we can be employed in the Lord’s vineyard without ever showing up at the vineyard to do our work. It makes no sense if we call Jesus Our Lord, but do not direct our lives in accordance with what he tells us. It is true that we do not have to provide anything from our side to become his disciples, but if we are his disciples, then we must live accordingly. If our master became the servant of all, how much more then should it be our endeavor to become the servant of all? It is the simple consequence of our transformed nature.
John concludes his admonitions with the words we find in verse 18: “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” This makes it plain to us that while it is a simple and speedy matter to make good resolutions or promises, it is hard to put them into actual practice. This calls for an investment of our time, energy and money, without our being entitled always to expect an immediate profit. Nowadays our first question when work comes our way is - What’s in it for me? It takes big poster campaigns to persuade people of the value of unsalaried honorary posts: in our time fewer and fewer people are willing to take them on.
So it should not be the case in God’s kingdom, as in a worldly society, that only a handful of people do all the work. What does it look like in our midst, when there is work to be done? Can people count on us when someone is in need of help? Or are we so preoccupied with ourselves that we do not spare a glance for our neighbor or for the community? It just isn’t on that we ourselves should live in affluence and luxury, travel round the world and always be in a position to afford the best, while in our own congregation, and in our very midst, someone has to think two or even three times before spending a few marks or euros. If we take the World of God seriously, we must also take seriously what we are told in 1Cor 6,10, that the covetous shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
We do not take covetousness all that seriously: acts of violence, adultery, unchastity, occultism and the teaching of false doctrine are more momentous in our eyes. But in the eyes of God covetousness is put on the same level as idolatry, and 1Tim 6,10 describes it as the root of all evil. So God does not only call on us to open our hearts, he also wants us to open our purses. Not so that the rich will become still richer, but in order to alleviate those needs with which a great many of our brethren in the Lord are still confronted. We should not treat our poorer brethren like the dogs who only get the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. In charity donation consignments, we have been practically smothered in the sacks of old clothes which were no longer any use to their owners, but donations of money and foodstuffs were comparatively limited. The best we have should be good enough for our neighbor.
So let us love not just in words, but in deed and truth.
John again makes a mental leap before coming back to the subject of love in verse 7. He
distinguishes between those who proclaim the truth and those who teach error, by the criterion of whether they
confess that Jesus has come in the flesh. This is not a question to be asked in a superficial manner, seeing
that a great deal more is at stake here than the simple asking of a question. It entails the correct
promulgation of the doctrine of the Lord Jesus. The true gospel exalts the Lord Jesus and puts humanity in the
background, while the false gospel exalts humanity and diminishes the Lord.
So the confession that Jesus has come in the flesh is likewise the acknowledgement of the fact that he is the eternal God and has come from heaven. Here certain groups, for whom Jesus is less than God (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance), will be screened out. For if Jesus is not God, then the very highest he could possibly be is an angel (as the Seventh Day Adventists teach - FH), and an angel cannot be the Word of God made flesh. Nor would he have been able to die for our sins in that case, if he was only a created being and not God. Other deviations are to be found in theories to the effect that Jesus was not really and truly human; but here again the testimony of Scripture is to the contrary.
John had in his time had to cope with a great variety of false doctrines. But the essential point about his reflections here is this: rather than getting into a lengthy polemical apologia in which erroneous teachings are described in detail and then comprehensively refuted on the basis of Scripture, he solely and exclusively keeps his gaze fixed on the Lord Jesus, as does Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians. We can recognize sound teachers on the basis of their confession that Jesus has come in the flesh.
A further criterion follows in verse 6: “We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us”. This statement is directed at those who hastily assent to the fact of Jesus’ having come in the flesh but do not really mean it. But who is meant by “we”? Here anyone can put himself forward who thinks he has some kind of apostolic authority: from the Vatican and the Watchtower Society to any number of self-appointed prophets and apostles. Scripture however makes it clear that here the apostles are meant, who had laid the foundations of faith as early as in biblical times. Even the later writings of the New Testament testify to the fact that the foundation in terms of doctrine had already been laid in the time of the apostles (Heb 1,1, Jude 3 and lastly Rev 22,18-19).
This “we” can only refer to the apostles who laid the foundations of doctrine. Today, this means the entire revelation of the New Testament: one who follows it is from God, one who does not follow it, but rather takes away from it or adds statements of his own, is not from God. This enables us to recognize the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. The truth always stands outside us: every individual must face this truth and measure his attitudes and way of life against it. No one can assert that he has the truth in the sense that everything that he says is true. We must allow ourselves to be repeatedly measured against the Word of God, which is the absolute standard of truth.
One who is not from God will find a willing audience in the world. If a person is popular and does not often experience criticism, he should be concerned - for the Lord says in the Sermon on the Mount (Lk 6,26), “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way.” When proclaiming the gospel, we should not just pay heed to our popularity ratings - to what is coming to us, rather than the thing on which it all depends! The proclamation of the gospel will always call forth resistance.
It is interesting to see that John regards love and correct belief as constituting a unity.
Today the two rather present a contrast. In congregations where doctrine is not so much emphasized as the
practical side of being a Christian, we frequently find greater love and a warmer reception than in
congregations where correct doctrine is stressed. We are told of the congregation of Ephesus that although
they are doctrinally orthodox and able to distinguish or to unmask false teachers, they have left their first
love (Rev 2,1-7).
If there is distress in the world, then the charismatics are always the first on the scene. Many good works and fringe group activities have been called into life by Pentecostals and charismatics: in spite of all that may be said about their doctrinal deficiencies, these groups are really conscious of their responsibility to the their fellow men. In doctrinally correct congregations, it is frequently and regrettably the case that all-round sound doctrine is taken to justify inaction and complacency. But the Bible makes it very plain, in the fourth chapter of John’s Epistle, that there is a close connection between love and correct belief.
A popular catchphrase today is “Doctrine divides, love unites.” The fundamental philosophy of our time, which takes the view that everyone should try to be happy after his own fashion, is making itself felt even in the congregations. The doctrine about the Lord Jesus is admittedly uncontested, but in connection with many other questions contrasting opinions and points of view will be left standing alongside one another, even if these are questions that are thoroughly central - like for instance the question what role the Holy Spirit plays in the life of a believer, or whether God still speaks today through prophecy. Does it show a lack of love if we want to know the truth on these issues as well?
Confrontations like those between charismatics and non-charismatics are described as damaging to the body of Christ. Any one who makes clear statements in connection with charismatic doctrine will be shouted down as a “keeper of the Ark of the Covenant”, a “Pharisee” or as one who rends the body of Christ. Is it really love, if we want to “cover over differences with the cloak of love”? This leaves the gates wide open for false doctrines to enter in. If we no longer have the confidence to call truth by its name, because we are afraid of treading on people’s toes, then truth becomes more and more diluted, so that in the end we will find ourselves asking, like Pilate, “What is truth?”
On the other hand, I would not want to lend support to any confrontations in the spirit of self-righteous arrogance. We must be aware of the fact that if we take a stand against attitudes and teachings, we are also personally injuring and attacking those who hold them. If for instance we take a stand against abortion or homosexuality, the homosexual or the woman who has had an abortion will feel personally attacked and injured. We could easily be regarded as intolerant. In this world we can believe what we like, but we had better watch out if we say that what we believe is not just our personal opinion, but is universally valid! Then we will be put down as intolerant, and no one will any longer be interested in discovering the objective truth.
Whereas just a few years ago people were looking for the objective and universally valid truth, nowadays people are prone to say that there is no such thing. We do observe certain universal conventions, of course, like waiting for the red light to turn green, or making murder, homicide, fraud etc. criminal offences. But with our relativism we deprive these conventions, more and more, of any kind of philosophical foundation. Even in the congregations this “new tolerance” is spreading, on the basis of such catchphrases as this one - “Doctrine divides, love unites.”
If in the world no distinctions are observed any longer between a view of life and the person who advocates it, the Bible at least distinguishes the two with great clarity. Homosexuality, unchastity, idolatry, excess, murder, covetousness etc. are all regarded as serious crimes, and anyone who lives in such sins is automatically excluded from salvation. But Jesus died for such people as well, and reaches out his hand to be reconciled with them. He ate with tax collectors and sinners, who may be compared with the Mafia of today, but he did not approve their practices. All the same he accepted them as they were. The orthodox-minded Pharisees were shocked at the willingness of the Lord Jesus to sit at table along with the Mafia of the time, who besides being a Mafia were also traitors to their own people. But the Lord saw into the hearts of these people, and saw in them human beings in need of redemption. One of these mafiosi who encountered the Lord would be privileged to become the author of the first book of the New Testament - the Gospel of Matthew.
Human beings see only what is plain to view, but God looks into the heart. We may see what a person does and how he does it, but in very few cases do we know why. If we take issue with the views of the charismatics, we will soon find them claiming that we are seeking to deny their salvation in Christ. Everyone, whether he is a charismatic or not, ought to examine himself repeatedly in the light of the Word, especially with reference to the Epistle of John, when it is a matter of salvation. But we are not judges: the role of judge belongs to God alone. On the other hand we must make distinctions, it is what is expected of us!
So we must make a sharp distinction between a doctrine or lifestyle and the people who adhere to it. Even if we do not approve of their lifestyle, we should love them nonetheless - and in fact all the more. Not in such a way that we call error truth, but in such a way that we accept them as they are, as human beings, and meet their needs. If we meet someone who differs from us in terms of doctrine, we should accept him as a human being, and also as a brother in the Lord, if he clearly confesses to be such. In the last resort we can never be certain whether our neighbor is converted or not: there are clear criteria, certainly, such as those I have described in this article, but in a case of doubt I would take it from somebody when he says he is a believer, in the first instance anyway, even if he differs from me in doctrinal terms.
But that does not mean that I approve of something that God’s Word condemns - even if our knowledge is limited, and we cannot claim to know everything. Love and truth are not a contradiction, for we find it written that “Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1Cor, 13). If we speak plainly, people will reproach us with lack of love; but all the same we should show our love in deed and truth. Even to our enemies, as Scripture instructs us: “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Rom 12.20).
If we find ourselves involved in doctrinal discussions, we should exalt the Lord in word and in deed! In response to false teachings Paul and John invariably exalted the Lord Jesus. If we belong to the Lord, we belong to him whom the Bible describes as “love”. God is not just loving, he is love itself. So we cannot possibly be his children if our whole nature is not characterized by love. True Christian love, agape, is the biblical answer to “new tolerance”, for when we look closer this new tolerance is characterized not by love but by indifference.
What is the use of it if we say that wrong is right, or at least allow it to go uncontradicted? If a person thinks he is saved, but he is not, he is deceiving himself. If we notice this and yet say nothing, then our neighbor will feel we have endorsed his ways, and it will be as it is written in Proverbs: “Each one thinks his way is right, but in the end it leads him to death.” If we see someone going to ruin, but do not try to prevent him, then we are being tolerant in the modern sense, but at the same time we are acting without love. This is the paradox of the postmodern challenge to the followers of the Lord Jesus: if we show love in pointing to something that is wrong, then people say we are without love. If we set ourselves up as judges, the reproach may well be deserved! But even when we combat false teachings while loving the people who adhere to them, here again we are scolded for being without love - perhaps even more so than when we set ourselves up as judges. If we follow the line of least resistance and keep our mouths shut about abuses, then we may pass for tolerant but in the end we are actually acting without love.
At the end of his letter, in chapter 5, John lists the criteria once more. Whereas these
criteria are explained in detail in the first four chapters, here we are given a succinct recapitulation. All
the criteria are important: we cannot accept one while rejecting another: thus for instance practical love of
our brothers and sisters, and all our fellow human beings, belongs together with doctrinal correctness. We
cannot play off one against the other. There are model human beings who have dedicated themselves to love of
their neighbor, for whom no sacrifice is too great to relieve those who are in distress and who enjoy a high
reputation in view of their good works. But if they have not understood the foundation of our faith, then they
cannot attain to salvation either. Others stress the correctness of their beliefs, but the nature of the Lord
Jesus Christ finds no reflection in the lives of these people. Here the question again suggests itself whether
such a person has received new life in the Lord Jesus Christ. Here, then, is a recapitulation of all the
criteria, based on the fifth chapter of John’s Epistle:
•o Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God. (v.1)
• Who loves God and observes His commandments (v.2-3)
• For whatever is born of God overcomes the world (v.4)
• Who believes that Jesus is the Son of God (v.5)
We come back once more to the foundation of our salvation. It does not lie in ourselves or in
our good deeds, but in the Lord Jesus Christ. There are three ways in which God testifies that Jesus is the
Son of God and also the Christ: through the Spirit, the water and the blood. Water is a symbol of
purification, the blood is a symbol of the universally valid sacrifice that the Lord Jesus made for us. In
order to grasp the foundation of our salvation we must first of all grasp who Jesus Christ is. We must grasp
who he is, why he came into this world and what his assignment was. John has treated these matters intensively
in his Gospel, so in my view it is important to know the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, before
getting to grips with his first Epistle.
God himself testifies through the Spirit that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God, that is to say, that he has come from heaven, and that he is the Christ, the Anointed. He gave testimony of this while he was on earth, through the words that he spoke, through the signs he wrought, by becoming the servant of all and lastly and most importantly in his laying down his life as a ransom for our guilt, though sinless himself, and rising from the dead on the third day. He is the foundation of our salvation, and no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid already, which is Jesus Christ. We have four Gospels, each with its own emphasis.
Matthew presents the Lord Jesus as the rightful king who comes of David’s line. He points up the fact that he is the one for whom the people of Israel have been waiting. Mark shows us Jesus as the servant of all, for whom no distress is so small that he will not deal with it, and for whom no distress is so great that he cannot cope with it. Luke present Jesus as the perfect human being, with human feelings and emotions. John emphasizes the divinity of the Lord Jesus: he is presented as the one who has come from heaven: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
After John has once more reminded us of the testimony of God about the Lord Jesus, he sums up
all his reflections with the final conclusion: “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the
Son of God does not have the life.” In the last resort the question of our salvation depends solely on our
attitude to the Lord Jesus and his work. No other foundation can be laid than that which has been laid
In the light of these criteria we can check whether we have life from God in Christ or not. On the one hand we cannot do anything in our own right: the work of our salvation was accomplished solely by the Lord Jesus Christ for us on Golgotha. But on the other hand, the saving faith is not just a theory, not just a notional assent to the truth of certain events of salvific history. Faith that saves changes a person’s life, for one who has hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1Jn 3,3).
Jesus once said that a person who has been forgiven much, loves much, but a person who is forgiven little, loves little (Lk 7,47). One who loves God will keep his commandments, not out of duty but out of love. One who has received life will agree with the hymn-writer who wrote: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!” He will love, because God loved him first. One who lives in sin is in bondage to sin, and cannot have life. Thus the true confession of faith and the correct mode of life belong together. If just one of these is lacking, the testimony to a person’s having been born again needs to be looked into.
If you want to know if you are His, then let me put to you just one question:
(See also Discourse 70: “The Spread of the Pentecostal
(See also Discourse 85: “True and false rebirth.”)