“Dear children, let us not love with word nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth. And herein we shall know that we are of the truth, and shall persuade our hearts before him, that if our heart condemn us, [it is] that God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not. we have boldness toward God, and whatsoever we ask we receive from him, because we keep hi,; commandments, and do the things pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, that we believe the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and that we love one another, even as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments abideth in him, and he in him. And herein we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he gave to us.”
We now enter on a new subject not touched before, but connected with the mutual love of the children of God which we have had already. The apostle appeals first to them in the quality of dear children, meaning here as always the entire family. There is no need for “My”: it is not supplied by the Spirit of God, and therefore is illegitimate. “Dear children” is his general term of endearment, and this is the reason why he calls them not merely children, but “dear children.” Both terms took in fathers, young men and babes, the whole family of God.
Here then he calls us to love not with word nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth. He is thus leading forward into the new subject. He adds “herein we shall know.” It is not “know” but “shall know.” This has its importance, because it does not refer to what they already were in Christ. For instance the eternal life which they now possessed in Him was settled knowledge; but here he looks on to the boldness or confidence of heart given by walking uprightly before God in daily practice, and very particularly in love. For this is a duty as to which many deceive themselves. Nothing is easier than to call for love and complain of others wanting it; but some that are loudest in the complaint are very short of it themselves. They are or count themselves desirous of being objects of love; but the right way is for ourselves to love, if indeed we would be loved. The going out of heart in goodness without a selfish aim draws out other hearts, whereas the lip too readily learns to talk about love and ends there. The Epistle is therefore guarded in these words that serve as a connecting link between what went before and that which follows. “Dear children, let us not love with word nor with the tongue.” This of course a Christian, no matter what may be his state, would know he ought to detest; but if not in a practically good state with God, his love must be shallow and powerless. Therefore it is here said “not with word nor with the tongue” — to give it as exactly as one can. There is a slight difference in losing the “with” in both places and the article in the second. We are to love, “but in deed and truth.” The natural man in Christendom talks of love in his way. Christ proved it in all its genuineness, and we who confess Him have to walk in the same simplicity and reality.
All this evidently flows out of the life eternal which we have if we believe on Him. This it is which is called in an unusual expression “the life of God” in Eph. 4:18, but “Christ our life” in Col. 3:3, 4, and similar language in Gal. 2:20. For that matter John so remarkably intermingles God and Christ, that one can hardly say which of the two is precisely intended. But this is done expressly and for excellent reason: the Son is as truly God as the Father; and we are not allowed to forget it. His so writing is not from any want of care. The apostle John knew well what he was doing, and meant to say as he wrote. Only foolish men that have great confidence in themselves would dare to think otherwise of an inspired man. It is because the Father and the Son are God. Christ though become man remains just as truly God as any other in the Godhead. By His humiliation to vindicate God and bless man He never forfeited His divine glory for an instant. He was the true God when He deigned to be born of woman. Yet we know what a new-born child is, how entirely dependent upon its mother or its nurse. Is there any creature in the world so indebted to loving care as a human babe? But Christ even then was the true God just as much as when He raised Lazarus or any other from the dead. And when He died He was just the same, though on the opposite side of circumstances. He could not cease to be true God; this was not touched, nor at all affected by His dying. Even in a man the soul and the spirit are not affected by death; it is but severing the link between the body and the inner man. So for the Lord Jesus, He was always the Son. Jesus Christ no doubt was His name after He became man; but He is over all, God blessed for ever, Amen; just as truly as the Father and the Holy Spirit, Who never became incarnate.
Now love is what characterises the energy of God: how blessed in itself and for us! Judgment is not His nature neither had it any exercise on man till sin appeared; there was no question of such a dealing but through sin. But He was always love. And when the fit moment came for Him to put in action His love, particularly in the incarnation of Christ and the work of Christ, all came out in ways beyond parallel. His beneficence to the creature was left far behind; His wise and kind arrangements, from the greatest to the meanest of animals, wondrous as they all are, were eclipsed; still more evident it became as we consider the goodness of His provision for man.
We do well to consider what surrounds us. The Lord sometimes pointed to objects outside with an à fortiori to us. Witness the weighty lessons even for the disciples from what was seen in the birds of the sky, or in the lilies of the field. They do indeed show not merely divine power but wisdom, benevolence, and oversight that thinks of them to the least degree, goodness that pervades and abides in the face of man’s sin and wickedness. For when man fell, God might have turned the green of the field to an offensive red as an alarming sign of the judgment that was coming; but there was no such change. The green field remains the green field, and the flowers are still beautiful and sweet. We do not say that they are all that they were in paradise, for certainly all things here below were profoundly affected by the fall; but incontestably there remains an ideal beyond anything that ever man can reach. Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like the flowers of the field without any cultivation of man whatever.
But it is important to see that divine love is an affection entirely outside creation, and essentially above mere human nature. It is just as supernatural as the life which is the new nature on which the Spirit of God acts. There must be a nature to bear fruit fit for God’s acceptance. Indeed, you cannot have any fruit without a living spring. Whence comes this source of such new feeling and action as wholly to transcend in the exercises of the soul anything of which man as man is capable? What is the spring in the believer of all that is love Godward or manward? It is eternal life. Without this there is no nature to bear good fruit. Are not we ourselves ample witnesses of its truth? We once were men in the surprising qualities which God confers on man; for they are very great, apart from the new creation and its special privileges. Of these we had none then; and we could not have understood what has been spoken of grace. It would have seemed rant and nonsense to the natural man, as it always does, though there may be sense enough to hold the tongue and not to say so. But men feel that they do not enter into God’s mind, and cannot. Not even man’s spirit, the best part of man, can take it in. His spirit soars far above the lower nature of man, but the highest part of man’s nature cannot enter into the things of God (John 3:3-6).
The spirit of man cannot rise above the things of man (1 Cor. 2:9-11), any more than a dog can understand the working, say, of a watch. For the dog has only the nature of a dog, not the nature of a man, who has far superior intelligence improving itself, profiting by others, working to a new but definite end, and guided by reasons as well as mechanical power in the making of a watch. In course of time it may become mechanical enough; but there was no little exercise of thought and skill on the part of him who made the first watch. Probably it was big and clumsy too, and often required mending. Still the first was a greater effort of mind than the later skill which wrought up the best watch that England could produce. For its maker has the advantage of all the numberless improvements made ever since in this detail or that to make a record watch. Yet with all this activity of mind there is a consciousness of responsibility to God and a far higher moral sense than that of intellect, which belongs to man alone on earth.
The gist then is that the things of God are as much above the best man after the flesh and the highest part of that man as a watch or other such work is above the nature of a dog or any instinct it possesses. How morally debasing to forget it! This is surely an all-important difference, and cannot but, where it is truly felt, draw out our thanksgiving, whilst it also vindicates and displays the depths of God’s grace. For He has given us who believe a life capable of entering into His thoughts and His affections, into His counsels and His mind, enabling us by His Spirit to search all things, yea, the deep things of God.
For it is admitted that we need for this the Spirit of God also. It is not enough to be born of the Spirit. The Old Testament saints were so born; but they could not as yet receive the indwelling Spirit from on high. To no saints was He given till Christ’s redemption was effected. And only when the converted soul rests on redemption does one now receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The lack of this is the reason why converted persons are found spiritually dull. They cannot go beyond the elements of divine truth because, though having the new nature, they have not yet the power of the Spirit; and if probed, they would be found not to have settled peace yet. The real fact is that they are not really resting on Christ’s redemption, and so have not that fruit of redemption. They are looking for what they want. They are, as they say, striving earnestly to get what they have not got. They have to learn that liberty in Christ is only to be had by giving up altogether self and its efforts, to rest only and altogether on Christ and His work of redemption. The atoning work is done.
This shortcoming or shallowness of faith came in as a flood after the apostles passed away. In the early days it was not for anyone to enter the church except those sealed by the Holy Spirit. But when the church began to settle down in the world, and persecution became only a temporary outburst, when many wise and rich people came in, powerful and noble, there was an object in consequence to become acquainted with personages who in Christian love became more intimate than they ever would as in the world. It was an inducement to not a few to follow them; as some of late found from the same cause in their little history. Love soon decays in such circumstances. So that we readily understand the necessity for the words, “Let us love, not with word, nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth.”
“And herein we shall know that we are of the truth;” that is, if walking in love. This is immense comfort to the believer; but what a mistake to put it before an unconverted soul as the way to get forgiveness! Who that knows the gospel could ask such to show these fruits of love? But it is what saints ought to feel in what is justly called the moral government of God. For, when brought to God, we become objects of God as Father to judge us every day (1 Peter 1:17). The Lord presented it figuratively in John 15, and declared Himself the true Vine, as the disciples were the branches. This is not the figure of being born again (which is really in John 3:3-6); nor still less has it to do with union, as many mistakenly imagine. In neither case is there such thing as losing life eternal or Christ’s members cut off. This difference suffices to disprove such misapplications. The Vine teaches the necessity of communion with Christ practically. To abide in Him, and He in us, is the power of fruit-bearing. For what enables the disciple to bring forth fruit? Is it not dependence on Christ, His words abiding in us, and prayer (ver. 7)? It is Christ who is the source of all the fruit, and the branches bear it by hanging on Him. Apart from Him they can do nothing. And it is the Father who prunes the branch that it may bear more fruit. But it is the Vine that supplies all the sap to the branches that attach to Him.
Our Lord did a great deal more; but for fruit-bearing this is what He does. If you disconnect the branch from the vine, what then? Will it bear grapes again? Can there be any more fruit? Not the least. There were those once following Christ who walked no more with Him. They cut themselves off. They were no longer branches of the Vine. It is not denied that one here and another there might repent and seek restoration. Far be it from us to deny or discourage a soul. But those that leave Christ in general become hard and antagonistic to a decree. In fact, it is comparatively rare for such as turn their back on the Lord to return to Him again. If real repentance work, who so ready to receive? There is no limit to His love. But those contemplated here, instead of self-judgment, have hard thoughts of Christ, and abandon all reverence, lowering His person, and trifling with His work, so as to manifest that they had only notions, and not life eternal.
Therefore it is of deep importance to remember that the moral government of God foes on with souls now and has a double action. On the one hand God watches over every saint, and judges every fault, but in faithful love. On the other hand, there are those who, distrusting Him, cannot bear His dealings. They resist or despise the trials which God employs as a means of recovery. For He chastens; and no chastening at the time seems pleasant. Joy would altogether deny His character; but it is for profit, and afterwards yields peaceful fruit of righteousness to those exercised thereby. It is God as Father now judging according to the work of each; in short, His moral government. He thus deals with those that are His children, or at most those that profess so to be. For God concerns Himself thus according to men’s profession; and in a way quite different with those who have never borne the Lord’s name.
It is therefore incumbent on everyone that names the name of the Lord to withdraw from iniquity, and thus wake up out of the snare of the devil lest he get a constant advantage over his soul, and an overwhelming advantage. The longer any wait the worse it becomes. It is bad enough for those who believe to remain units; and it is to be feared that not a few are content with isolation, as if they escaped responsibility, in the present growing disorder here below. They look at the faults of other Christians to justify their isolation, and shun the trials of walking together as brethren, whose shortcomings they are very quick to discern, and without mercy. But there is no real conscience as to God’s glory in their own state. How wretched it is to justify ourselves by the faults of others! But is their own walk really better than that of such as never made profession of Christ? Is it not sadly like walking in the light of their own fire and in the sparks of their own kindling? Let them beware lest they lie down in sorrow. Their course is one neither of righteousness nor of love; and Christianity unites both according to the truth of Christ.
Now, in our walk when we are brought to God, the secret of power is dependence on Christ. Does not the vine teach us this more than any other figure? It would be hard to find in all the realm of nature a tree so impressive as the vine to mark the need for the branches to keep up their place in the vine in order to bear fruit. And as certainly it is the same principle between Christ and the Christian. So it is here. If love be merely with word and with the tongue, if not in deed and truth, can it but displease God? Is it not an insult to the Spirit of God? If we walk as children of light, we also carry out the divine principle of love, i.e., we seek the good of one another without a selfish purpose. Such is the love we know in God; and Christ became man to show it in a way that even God as such could not. And who can wonder that He so deeply feels any slight to the name of His Son, Jesus our Lord? It was the humiliation of Christ in becoming a man, and bearing the sufferings which His sacrifice of Himself entailed, even to enduring God’s judgment of sin laid on Him. This could not be in God as God; but it is exactly what we have from God in Christ’s propitiation for our sins. Therein all the light and the love and the truth of God shine in a way beyond thought of man; and this is Christianity.
But a necessary part of practical Christianity is not merely righteousness, as we have been seeing, or obedience. It is love; only let it be real, he says; and if it be so, “we shall know.” In this he classes himself with the rest, which contributes to the beauty of his words. “Herein we shall know that we” — you and I, the apostle and the saints — “are of the truth.” But when there is a bad conscience, the exercise of love and of everything else which flows from divine life, dwindles away. One does not in this refer to those who are not children of God, but only to those who are. It is they that are crippled by it; it is they that suffer from what they have lost; and there is always a suspension of enjoyment when communion with Him is thus interrupted. Some might think it remarkable that, while the life that God gives In Christ is eternal, the communion that we enjoy by it is most sensitive to any evil on our part; it immediately ceases through indulging in ever so little a folly. And why? Communion means that the blessing is shared in common. How could God share even a little folly with us? With any sins He cannot possibly have communion; nor can we be walking in Christ. Enjoyment of communion is “broken at once. Far from Him to say that it is so lost that it cannot be regained. But we can praise Him that there is no regaining life eternal, because it is eternal; yet there is the necessity that we be restored to the communion interrupted by evil of any kind. It might be only a bad thought or feeling; but communion is broken till it is judged. If it is allowed, it hinders no less than any outward or open evil.
So he says, “Herein we shall know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him.” To be “of the truth” is the basis of truthfulness in practice; to lose or neglect the truth is soon followed by untruthful ways, which expose one to love with word and with the tongue, instead of in deed and truth. It was not looking back to see that they were converted, still less that they were baptized. Neither is meant of God to give us comfort when He is thus dishonoured in such circumstances, but rather to put us to shame. Is it not grievous that I, who have been brought to God and not merely have its outward mark, should have behaved so ill? If on the contrary we are kept watchful and earnest before God, loving too and lowly withal, “we shall know that we are of the truth.” This inspires boldness or confidence before God. And such really is the sense here. The force intended is not standing, nor assurance of faith; but the heart’s boldness before God in a walk of unaffected and active love. “Therein we shall know that we are of the truth, and shall” — not exactly assure, but “persuade our hearts before Him.” This is the simple and literal meaning; which seems to me better to take as it is, seeking to understand what the Spirit meant by it. A different form of this word and other words express assurance, one of which would have been employed if “assurance” had been meant here; but “we shall persuade our hearts before Him” seems well suited to act powerfully on our souls, and to express the boldness inspired by simple-hearted sincerity in a living Christian walk.
There is much in these words to encourage and strengthen a godly Methodist. Their weak point is in not apprehending life eternal in Christ, and assigning too much to their own emotions. The grace of God in the gospel leaves ample room for the warmest and deepest affections. Spiritual feelings have a just place, but far more the grace and truth through Christ which create and elicit them; yet all saints should be sound according to the word and Spirit of God. Nor ought we to be like a rigid Calvinist, who thinks the one thing is to have come to the conclusion that we are the elect, and therefore entitled to all comfort. Thus he swamps the moral government of God before us by his absorption with election. Now election is an admirable truth for which to praise our God; but it is not meant to serve as security against the unhappy certainty that we have dishonoured God. Why should we want to be comforted in presence of the fact that we have displeased Him? He wants us to be humbled on that account; and this is what is brought in immediately after. “For if our heart condemn us”; this is just what our heart does, when we walk badly, and there is that which grieves the Spirit of God, and we have not duly judged ourselves before Him. And if we know that our heart condemns us, we infer rightly how much more God knew to blame. “God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” Some of the Calvinists turn it in this way: if our heart condemn us, God in His grace does not. How sad it is to lose the profit of His word by any systematic departure from its plain sense! His mind is that if I condemn myself, God is greater than I, He knows all where we only know in part.
They fear to shake our standing thereby. Now this has nothing whatever to do with our standing in Christ, but with our state day by day. It is a question of loss of communion; and we are called to judge ourselves in His sight, instead of falling back on election or standing. Election as well as standing abide; it is all wrong for a believer to doubt of either. But if his heart condemn him, we may be sure that God knows far more: he should be in the dust before Him, and thus have divine help to search all out and hate his carelessness, because he is an object of such grace. We are to judge our bad state while holding fast the standing in Christ which God has given us. This remains firm; but our state has been wrong, and God would have us, not to hide from it nor excuse it, but condemn ourselves unsparingly.
What a pity to fall under these systems of men, as one may call the peculiarities of Calvinists or Arminians! For one only blames their peculiarities, not the truth which they hold as Christians. There are dear saints of God among both; but they both suffer not a little, from the Arminian not giving sufficient glory to God’s grace in life eternal, and from the Calvinist not leaving sufficient value to communion, which is often followed by uncertainty about his own election. As one of them said, “If you do not doubt about yourself, I doubt about you.” Their tendency is to slur their sins or to set up a school of doubt. It was a pious man who so spoke, and he wrote many hymns; and I can but hope the hymns are better than the doctrine. For such doubting is abominable, unworthy not only of a Christian but of Christ still more. It practically denies the gospel, which proclaims salvation by God’s grace, and calls for our peaceful enjoyment of it. Hence in point of fact Calvinists generally, though with bright exceptions, are weak. as to the gospel. They are occupied with election, rather than with God’s love to the world, to say nothing of the provision of grace for their own souls. Election has a too absorbing place in their creed, which makes it a sort of servant-of-all-work. But all this falls miserably short of God’s grace and truth. In Christ there is room for everything true that both Calvinists and Arminians hold, and for a good deal more which neither holds. It is a pity that saints of God do not drop these partial schemes of doctrine, cleaving only to God’s revelation, accepting it wholly, and eschewing every substitute for it. Christianity has ample room for the widest feeling and for the soundest judgment, and in short for everything that faith is bound to receive from God, or that love is free to achieve for His glory.
The heart’s condemnation here is from the consciousness of failure in our ways, and the conviction of still more known to God in His moral government of our souls. This too is implied in “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgave our debtors.” Here too it is a question, not of plenary forgiveness in faith of the gospel, but of God’s watchful and constant oversight of His children’s ways. This has nothing at all to do with the poor sinner’s need; for it is plain that the gospel offers no forgiveness of sins on the condition of a forgiving spirit to others. Grace gives remission of sins on the faith of the Lord Jesus. Here is nothing to do with that; but if you — a Christian — fail to walk in a forgiving spirit with others, God is displeased with you. Thereby you no longer enjoy communion with Him, and He will not restore it till you truly judge yourself for the wrong. This lack is what produced the saint’s self-condemnation, and the indication of censure on God’s part.
Evidently then it is of great importance to distinguish between the ground of grace on which we stand for life eternal and redemption, and the application of God’s moral dealing with us every day, where He must judge our faulty ways, and He is chastising us that we may become partakers of His holiness. This leads us truly to condemn our inconsistencies and conform our practice to God’s mind in His hatred of sin, and in furtherance of what is loving, righteous, and true.
The apostle says, “Beloved, if our heart condemn not, we have boldness toward God” (ver. 21). His heart responds to those who walk normally before Him. It is no longer merely “‘Dear children.” He delights in seeing love realised, and encourages the activity of love in prayer where things thus go well. Where the Spirit of God has to occupy us with our failure, we cannot be free to ask new favours. We must submit to the humiliating sense, that if we condemn ourselves about our ways, God condemns us yet more. Where by His power there is quiet enjoyment of communion, our hearts can earnestly ask for more grace. “Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have boldness toward him, and whatsoever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments, and do the things pleasing in his sight.” There is nothing in this case to arrest the activity of love. Grace has its unhindered way in what is good, because we are walking happily in the light of God, so that the heart turns not to self-reproach. We can freely have done with self to enjoy Christ.
Such is clearly the right state for every Christian to walk in day by day. It is what we have to seek; but alas! where we sadly fall short perhaps; but assuredly it is that to which we are called by grace. A peaceful, single-eyed and confiding state can only be by walking before God according to our life in Christ. To comfort ourselves under failure, because we have life eternal, does not rightly meet what is due to God, any more than to our own state. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. There is not only faith but experimental reality in the soul’s following what the apostle tells us of what was wrought in him. “I am crucified with Christ, and no longer do I live, but Christ liveth in me; but that which I now live in flesh I live by the faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Tradition is vain, ordinances fall. The power of Christ’s cross is brought home. He for his old life was identified by faith with Him — who actually suffered it; and he now lives in Him who is alive for evermore; and it is a life of faith in His love. This individualising is not a very common phase in Scripture. Generally “Christ loving” and “Christ giving Himself” is said for Christians as a whole as in Eph. 5:1, 2. But it is very precious to have it personally also, though short indeed to have it no more than personal, whereby we fail to appreciate our communion with the Father and with the Son in the blessedness of all the family of God.
Peace with God, peace of conscience, indispensable as it may be, is not all the blessing that His grace would have us enjoy; still less is the assurance that we are forgiven all our offences. This we have as believing God’s glad tidings; but it is not what is spoken of in vers. 19-22. It was a very necessary and great mercy for each soul at his beginning. Then in faith it is wrong to allow a question whether he really believes or not. Scripture knows nothing of such a doubt in one who believes in Christ; he is nowhere thrown back on what he finds within. It is because he is lost that God points to His Son as Saviour, as to whom no question of failure could arise with him. Here it is for Christians in their walk of every day; and the question now is of practical confidence in the heart. We are in such nearness by grace that anything unsuitable in us toward our God and Father is intolerable, and provided against with all care.
Many of us know in our own families what it is to have a child sometimes naughty. Does not this make a difference if the child has real affection? Even if the father and mother do not know why, the child is ill at ease. Instead of being able happily to meet its parents as usual, something has gone wrong; and the more upright the child, the more that is felt. It is just so with our God and Father; save that He never fails, and all is known to Him. Hence the vast importance of self-judgment, which we need because of what we are. Where this is applied to our failure, the soul returns into the enjoyment of the communion, which to our sorrow had been lost. The right state is the boldness toward God. It is not the standing which the Christian has permanently; but the heart’s state liable to interruption by carelessness. While we walk in the Spirit, this boldness God-ward is our happy state; and it is the only becoming state for a Christian. How sad to settle down into the lack of it habitually! Surely there ought to be an earnest crying to God to find what has taken it from the heart; if so, one will not have to cry long. It flows from the love of the Father that He would have us taste its comfort, and feel its deprivation through any unjudged fault. But we have in Jesus as Advocate with the Father the provided resource, instead of seeking an earthly director who supplants the Lord and cannot suffice for a function so delicate and difficult. It is our privilege readily and at once to repair through Christ to the throne of grace, nay to the Father’s love, assured that no failure can be there.
Hence here it is beautifully added, “Whatsoever we ask, we receive from Him.” It is another sample of the absolute way in which John loves to speak. He does not speak of any modification through occasional circumstances, or of any particular hindrance that may arise. He does not allude to a possibly inconsistent state. He assumes here that the heart does not condemn; that one has boldness toward God; that we are in the enjoyment of communion with Him. And what is the effect of communion? It excludes wrong petitions. We do not then seek anything alien to the will of God. We ask for that which is according to His will; and He grudges us nothing good. He delights in our enjoyment of all that is for His glory; and all this we have found in Christ; for He is the ever attractive and sustaining link. It is Christ who chooses everything for us. There is no light nor spring in our heart without Christ thus depended on. Accordingly this is just what God has given us. Whatsoever we ask we receive; for in that state we shall never ask anything amiss. Our apostle supplies here the reason, “because we keep His commandments.” Those who fail to see that it is a question of God’s moral government of the Christian’s state fall into the error of confounding it with the ground of salvation, and make it conditional. But this annuls sovereign grace in saving sinners. Here it is not grace, but government. And government is necessarily conditional. But God’s grace which saves our souls and effaces our sins is absolute, free, and sovereign. The only condition here, if it is to be called a condition, is to give up ourselves as ungodly, and receive what His love gives us freely in Christ.
Here is another subject altogether; and its mixture with grace is the common vice of so-called “theology.” Who can wonder therefore, that simple, sound, and intelligent Christians distrust and repudiate so unreliable a guide. They have good reason to beware, for it habitually darkens and perplexes many believers who, immature in the truth, thought themselves on the right line by listening to it. But systematic divinity is like what is called a hortus siccus; that is, flowers and leaves, or the like, plucked from the plant and dried, so that not a particle remains of freshness or life in one of them.
Such is “theology”; whereas Scripture is “spirit and life.” So is the Lord Jesus, the living One who died but is alive again for evermore; and again the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of truth that quickens, the One given not only for life but to keep every truth fresh and powerful; and so it is in the ever-flowing love of God the Father. Man makes, or strives to make, revelation into a science. Can two things more thoroughly differ? Who ever found life or peace in systematic divinity? It is always guarding this and guarding that with human weapons, and framing its uncertain and defective doctrines into imaginary fortresses of the faith, which must be Christ’s working in us by the word and Spirit of God. Only in the Bible we have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; and we have the Holy Spirit who wrote all to guide us into all the truth. Therefore we have confidence in God and the word of His grace.
Scripture is the standard, and the Holy Spirit is the power sent down to abide in and with us for ever. What ample privileges, to say nothing of the gifts of Christ’s grace in ministry from the highest to the least! We are commended to this, and God would have us judge everything that hinders; and this is what occupies the apostle in these verses. And if we profit in faith and love, he says, “Whatsoever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” Only think of applying this to the gospel! The last clause is just what our blessed Lord said He always did (John 8:29). He is the perfection of all He undertook. “I do always the things that are pleasing to him.” But there is where we fall. We neither do nor say always the things that please Him. As God sees and hears everything, He takes special notice of His children, not as against us but for us; and if God be for us, who against us? Therefore, as He slurs over no fault, we need not take up John 17 or Rom. 8 as a hiding place, but do well to humble ourselves for all that has grieved the Holy Spirit of God by whom we were sealed for redemption’s day. Our hearts thus return to the enjoyment of boldness toward God. This gives liberty and impulse to prayer, as it is said here, “Whatsoever we ask.” Surely, if we ask for dependence on Christ God will hear, seeking more continuance in prayer, more profiting by His word: these are according to God’s will, as well as the means of exercising and enjoying eternal life. For that life is the substratum of all this Epistle.
“And this is His commandment, that we should believe the name of His Son.” This is here rendered “on”; but the Greek admits of no “on.” Now it maybe more difficult to understand it according to what the Spirit of God unquestionably wrote; but if we do not understand the phrase, are we not to receive it implicitly as written? We need not force a meaning on it, but be content to accept what is His word without understanding it, and wait till we do. But there it is written to the family of God, though it be an unusual phrase. In Scripture ordinarily it is “believing God and believing God about His Son; and, when Christ is introduced, it is “believing on or in Christ.” Such is the general language of Scripture. Here the form used, is “believing the name.” When it is said one believes God about Christ, it is believing God’s record of Christ; it is believing what God tells me of Christ. When then it is said “believe the name of His Son,” does it not mean believing what that Name imports? The Name is God’s revelation of the Lord, that is, of what He is, and has done, and a beautiful expression it is. It is not merely that His name as a man was Jesus, one need scarcely say, nor only His title is the Lord, or any of His offices. Here it is believing the Name, the divine revelation, or God’s testimony to His Son Jesus Christ. For He pre-eminently is the object of faith; and here and now it is that we shall believe His name, as if it personified Himself. It is not only what we begin with when once we believed. We believed on the Lord then; but the apostle loves to speak of the person and all that comes in and through Him is believed. Hence he employs this singular expression, “believe the name of His Son Jesus Christ.” There is dependence upon Christ; but here it is believing the Name of His Son Jesus Christ, what that blessed name conveys as revealed by God in His word. We believe His Name.
There is a difference of reading nearly balanced that is worthy of notice. The form of the word “believe” in the ordinary text with high authority implies continuance in faith; in others of great weight, it is believing once for all, the fact summed up in its conclusion. But when we come to “love,” it is the actual loving of every day. This is plain and sure. But the two things are blended into one commandment. It is the great commandment of Christianity in contrast with the commandment of the law. There it was to love God and one’s neighbour. Now it is to believe the name of His Son Jesus Christ and to love one another, even God’s children. How deplorable the blunder to confound the children of God with our neighbour! This is not its meaning; but those are to be loved whom the world knows not, as it knew Him not whose Name is believed. All this was far beyond the thoughts of man, What would you think of one who told you to love all the children in London in the same way as you love your own children? You would think such a person demented. This may help to show how much higher is “His commandment” here. As we said before, there is all possible difference between the children of God and the children of the devil. A man might be my next door neighbour and the greatest enemy to Christ. To such a one the command that I am here to love has no application. One ought to have the love of compassion for him, to desire and to seek from God that he might receive the word of truth, the gospel of salvation. His hardened opposition, his very defiance of God, might only the more draw out our supplication that he might become a monument of mercy. And God has hearkened to prayer in such a case, and has honoured the persistent cry that entreated in faith and humility for a guilty soul. It would require no little courage to enable one so to seek and labour for our next-door neighbour of such a character. Yet even so this neighbour in no way falls under the commandment before us, which applies only to loving “one another, as He gave us commandment.” It is strictly and solely mutual Christian love.
Here again is another example of the way in which John mixes up God and Christ. In the beginning of the verse the last person spoken of is God; and we were to ask and receive of Him, and to do those things that are pleasing in His sight. “And this is His commandment, that we should believe the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as He gave us commandment.” Now we know very well it was Christ who gave the commandment. Yet it is the same “He” apparently all through. Such a style could never have become possible unless Christ were as truly God as the Father. This is the secret of its peculiarity. And John’s writing is done purposely in honour of the Son even as of the Father, instead of a negligent slip. There is no inadvertence in Scripture; as there may be in the most celebrated classic. Divine purpose and perfect wisdom reign in the written word.
“And he that keepeth His commandments abideth in Him.” It is one of the drawbacks of our beautiful authorised version that the translators cannot let the same word go on unaltered even in the same context; so fond are they of, ringing the change on the same word. Most who know only the English version would suppose that there must be some shade of difference between “dwell” and “abide.” But the Greek gives only the same word. It is the more regrettable because there is a distinct word for “dwell” which has its own propriety of application. Is it not far better for the English reader also to have the same word? Here it signifies little save to remember that the “dwelling” and the “abiding” mean the same thing. In John 5 it is of much consequence to adhere to “judgment” all through, and not allow “condemnation” or “damnation” unless distinctly expressed.
Here we have the transition to the new subject of abiding in God, and God in us. There is no vagueness as to it. Without obedience this wondrous privilege cannot be. “And he that keepeth his commandments abideth in him, and he in him.” Exegetically, he abides in God, and God in him. But it is applicable to Christ also, and is so said elsewhere. In itself therefore it is perfectly true whether you say “abide in Christ” or “abide in God.” When you abide in Christ you abide in God; and when you abide in God you abide no less in Christ. But there may be a contextual propriety which chooses one rather than the other in strict interpretation. That is often important to see; yet it is simple. But it is helpful to avoid mistakes as to Scripture and seeing distinctions without a difference.
“And herein we know that he abideth in us by the Spirit which he gave us.” There the gift of the Spirit is the power and proof of God’s abiding in the Christian. It is in this way that God abides in him. He gave him the Spirit. But abiding in God is a matter of spiritual dependence on Him in practice; and it could not be unless the Spirit abiding in the saint wrought so as to keep in ungrieved looking to Him, and drawing from Him. If I were grieving the Lord at the time, I am no longer abiding in Him; I have slipped away out of His presence, and am for awhile perhaps pursuing my own thought and way and will. But whether it be but a passing slip, or for a certain time, I am out of the enjoyment of His presence, and not abiding in Him.
Yet it may be noticed that in the last half we hear, not as in the first half of the two truths, but only of God’s abiding in us, which is simply by the Spirit given to us. On this alone depends God’s abiding in us. It is founded on redemption, and abides as redemption also abides. But our abiding in Him is a question of spiritual state; and is only taken up for full explanation in the latter part of 1 John 4. The early verses, 1-6 are a parenthesis of the utmost moment as a basis for both the one and the other.
It is in 1 John 3:23 and 24 that the apostle enters on the exposition of the proper and full place of the Christian, and this with the least reference possible to the negative side, which had such prominence in the previous discussion. Here the positive blessedness of our privileges is set before all the saints with the same simplicity, but depth also, characteristic of his letter from first to last. In verse 23 it is the plain and easily recognised trait of the Christian; in verse. 24 it is the less cognisable but no less real inner exercise of life by the power of the indwelling Spirit of God working on or rather in that life. And special notice, as we have seen, is taken of the blighting influence of a careless walk on the enjoyment of the heart’s boldness before God which ought to be our portion habitually.