“Every one that believeth that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God, and every one that loveth him that begot loveth also him that is begotten of him. Herein we know that we love the children of God when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God that we keep his commandments; and his commandments are not grievous. For all that is begotten of God overcometh the world, and this is the victory that overcame the world, our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Here the apostle lays bare the root of the matter in hand. There is in the case another relationship of far deeper significance than that of “his brother,” that is, of one brother to another. How is my brother related to God? For it is the same subject as in the last chapter carried into the present one. And it is very important to have all answer from God to the question now raised, Who is my brother? There are many serious and pious persons who seem to have great difficulty in answering this. No doubt the scattering of God’s children, who were once gathered together in one, adds to the perplexity. Are my brethren the persons who compose the same religious communion? For any that think so, the love that God expects goes out to those in the same community, whether right or wrong. The community may be wrong or according to God; but even were it right in itself, the present state of ruin in the church is a reproach Godward, and makes the path slippery for most. The reason is that it may shut one up to a party fellowship, instead of looking to God’s mind, the grief I ought to feel at confusion and disorder in divine things, and the danger of swerving from His will.
Let us not forget the essential feature of what becomes a saint is his separation to God, by His grace, from the world; not only from evil but to Himself in Christ. Sanctification is altogether imperfect if we leave out God, and only dwell on the avoidance of this or that evil. For clearly one might be separated from five hundred evils, yet in one thing drawn into fatal compromise, and thus not be truly in communion with God and His will. The separation might be ever so well intended, but not trustworthy, though likely to make the separatist self-satisfied. For when souls leave out God and His word as a whole, they are apt to have too good an opinion of themselves. But where Christ and God Himself are before the heart, what leads to more real humility?
This is exactly what we all need: to be perfectly happy by grace, yet nothing in our own eyes. Nothing but Christ for ourselves consciously in the presence of God harmonises these two blessings. You may find a person humble apparently but not holy, and a person apparently holy but far from humble. Neither is according to God. It is but affecting humility in one case, and sanctimoniousness in the other. They are self-deceived; Christ alone gives reality. Never trust those who accredit themselves as humble or holy. They remind one of the Old Testament description, “righteous over much.” We have such always with us, but we need not trust them. For the most part they are those who say and do not.
But here we have the all-importance of knowing who they are that one is called to love. The apostle answers the question when things were becoming more and more difficult; and we need to be assured of God’s will. Although the state was critical yet compared with our days orderly, where now it is anomalous, the test given is not that of outward communion. Today we see children of God, some here and some there, and Satan too successful in making them share ecclesiastically with almost every evil under the sun, so that real fellowship according to God’s word is utterly swamped. Even God’s children for the most part shirk the consequences of fidelity. So much the more do we want an absolutely unfailing, test who they are whom we are called to love, and here it is: — “Every one that believeth that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God; and every one that loveth Him that begot loveth also him that is begotten of Him.” He is God’s child, and my brother. We are to love every one begotten of God, even “whosoever believeth.”
Further, the way in which this faith is here described is remarkable too. The apostle John does not here look at Christ in glory, as he did in 1 John 4:17. He does not even dwell on Christ’s death and resurrection. There is no statement of redemption. It is the person of Jesus, and the person put in the simplest possible way as “the Christ.” How good and wise on God’s part! There are many that know a vast deal about the Lord’s sayings and doings, who overlook His person. Such are not true believers. Here much is made of the simplest believer, if true to His person; and he who does not believe that Jesus is the Christ is no believer at all. He who does truly confess and believe Him thus might be quite ignorant of His many offices, and ignorant of God’s purposes and counsels of glory, but he has the right object of faith before his soul as far as it goes. He might feebly apprehend Christ’s priesthood, or His advocacy, and not at all His headship of the body the church, and His supremacy over all things, and any other grand truths and ways of the Lord, of which the New Testament is full. Such lack of knowledge is no proof that he is not a child of God; he has gradually to learn these things.
Here is a test in order to set our relationship to God on its right basis, and give our love its due direction. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ — the Anointed of God — whom He sent into the world to give life and be a Saviour, he is our brother. The apostle was inspired to come down to the lowest step on which one could rightly look at our Lord. It is not at all the particularism of Christ in glory, any more than of appreciating what is presented to faith in His work for our sins. The apostle does not warrant the thought that those and those alone are true Christians who are led at once to the gospel of Christ’s glory; nor does he allow that those are the sole objects of love, who have believed as Saul of Tarsus did on the road to Damascus. John was inspired at the last epoch, when this Epistle was written to encourage the faith of the simpler souls who had never as yet heard of these things; but he would have them on God’s part recognised as His children, and entitled to that love which is here urged on every saint.
Narrowness here is precisely what the Spirit of God detects and sets aside as dishonour to God. It is divine life, not ecclesiastical fellowship, which commends him who is begotten of God to the love of all alike begotten by Him. He lays down a quite opposed principle of the largest grace. If God has opened the heart to believe that Jesus is the Christ, perhaps of one placed in difficult circumstances and rarely hearing the truth of God, we are to welcome and heartily own and love him as begotten of God. As Jesus the Christ has become the object of his faith, our place is to gladly acknowledge one thereby brought out of darkness and death to life everlasting. It may be very little in point of knowledge; but our duty is to make the most of a real work of God. For so it surely is if the soul rests on the blessed person of Jesus as the Christ. He is born of God just as truly as this brother who seems to have entered rapidly into some of the deepest truths of the New Testament. We are called to love the one no less than the other. We are to love them both simply, truly and divinely. Such is the manner of the love enjoined; though we dare not speak of our measure in it.
And this is of practical moment; for some Christians are by no means so pleasant or agreeable as others; but all such natural difference is quite outside this love of which the Holy Spirit speaks. Christ gives and forms the objects of grace independently of the old nature and character; and if love then prevail, it is all the more to God’s praise, where there was much to repel and dislike naturally. But life in Christ rises superior through the Spirit to all that is of flesh; and this is to God’s glory, not man’s. Many a Christian however has been misled by wrong thoughts instead of being properly confirmed in the truth. One soul has never been taught that we only begin, after conversion, to learn God’s mind in His word. Another has been unhappily led to admire, like a Jew, fine buildings, and grand music in His worship, and thinks his prayers are more acceptable in a cathedral. If you do not know any one, even as a believer, so dense and ignorant of gospel liberty, there is at least one here who remembers it in himself.
The fact is common and beyond doubt that there are very many children of God altogether unacquainted with the ways of God who know no better. Now am I to slight a soul in that condition? Certainly not. If he be one who simply and truly believes in Jesus as the Christ, my heart is to go out to him as unfeignedly and warmly as to another ever so familiar with the truth and faithful in the ways of God. Only love is to be exercised according to the state. It needs the Spirit’s guidance with discernment and consideration. Is he a weak one, easily to be hurt and east down? Is he so strong as to be able to bear plain speech and profit by it? It is rather a dangerous thing to uproot a habit of religion from a believer and destroy it without implanting the due truth to fill up the vacuum. They shall be all taught of God, says the Old Testament as well as the New. We need His guidance to act wisely as instruments of His grace in supplying the lack by a better knowledge of Christ and of God. Is not this the true way?
Perhaps if one began by attacking the pomp and show and natural attractions of the cathedral, it might shock the immature believer, used to these “beggarly elements” as the right thing. On the other hand one ought not to give the least appearance of accepting these Jewish things as Christian; that would be uncandid and unfaithful, mere pandering to the person’s flesh and superstition. But all shows how much grace one needs to meet a saint who knows yet but little grace. How often one fails here! If we have to do with those who really stand in grace, they bear readily with much weakness; but with those who have little sense of grace, we need much grace to treat them according to God. Since God loves them, there is no reason why we should not, and every reason why we should. God loves all that are begotten of Him. There is the ground of our love, and the clue to all the difficulty. “Every one that loveth Him that begat, loveth also him that is begotten of Him.”
We have not far to search in order to see that principle in the case of a family. If one goes into a household where he has a great regard for the head of it, what effect will that have on him as to the children? Assuredly to love them all. One child may be rather trying and noisy, liking to tease and apt to be turbulent, and too often falling out with his brothers and sisters. Another may be gentle and attractive above all the rest. But the question is, Do I love them all? Certainly I love every one of the children if I love the parents.
Divine life discloses goodness in the children of God, viewed with a single and loving eye. Nor, as the rule, is there more than a little trial for the love that we owe them; but on the other hand also we have to remember the trial that our shortcomings may give to them. Yet if these were tenfold more than they prove in fact, here is His word to me and to you: If we love God, we shall surely love His children; not merely those that we see from day to day, but those that we do not see. Whatever the strange appearances, the mistakes or even the wrongs to be blamed, all that only alters the way in which we are to show the love. Never allow the thought for a moment that we should not love them. Perhaps circumstances may be so bad that we can only pray, but let us pray in love before God. Let us also reflect how far our love stands the test toward the saints we believe to be in the wrong. Do we seek their good? Are we earnest that the truth should reach them so as to deliver them from any prejudice or prepossession? We can always make good our love in God’s presence. There is little love if we be not exercised about these things and using means, both with God and ourselves, in whatever way He may lay it on our hearts. It seems to me that this is the clear consequence from the principle that the apostle here lays down in this verse.
Another principle comes before us in the second verse. “Herein we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments.” One can hardly conceive anything less logical according to the system of the schools. They would call it arguing in a circle, which is counted bad reasoning. But what has logic to do with the truth, with the grace of Christ, with the love of God and of His children? What has logic to do with life eternal? It is not a question of reasoning but of faith. Who can wonder that men who cannot rise above logic or learning or science are misty, yea, blind and lost before any characteristic truth in God’s word, and find His love and its fruits all unintelligible or false according to dialectic rules. For there is no food for the soul in disputation; and if man could find bread for this life, “man liveth not by bread alone, but by everything that goeth out of the mouth of Jehovah doth man live” (Deut. 8:3). The Christian has found the way of life and of divine love, and the workings of the Holy Ghost through God’s word. He therefore bows to this remarkable word. “Herein we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep His commandments.” Thus are the various truths bound up together in one. It is the reasoning of the heart purified by faith, not only down from God, but up to Him again, blending obedience with the love of God and of His children. This is a most wholesome guard against deceiving or being deceived.
If this way of apostolic appeal be going round in a circle and sounds strange to Peripatetic ears, what can be more truly divine and worthy of God? Man cannot understand it, “because love is of God;” and we must have the love in order to understand such words. Never can one understand the practical ways of God without having the new nature which He communicates to the believer, which lives in both obedience and love. The life in Christ is given to him that believes on Him. When the believer is assured of this, intelligence follows, of which the Holy Spirit is the power that works in the new man. But the more we appreciate such grace toward us, the more the truth strikes, and fills us with praise as we see how it comes of sovereign grace in Christ, and all the Godhead shares in it, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can see how grace passes from the simple believing in Jesus as the Christ to the depths of God’s nature, and constrains us not to take the truth without weighing the wonders of grace in it, nor to go on with our souls unexercised from day to day.
Is there any epistle more calculated to act on the believer’s heart than the one now before us? If read in faith, there is certainly nothing to disturb our abiding in love. Christ has made this to faith a settled thing for ever. The truth of the gospel is the basis for God’s abiding in us and our abiding in Him, no less than for the practice of loving the children of God which we know when we love God and keep His commandments. Divine love in Christ shines on a poor sinner, and gives him confidence that he is the object of perfect love, totally different from human affection at its best. For he is made not only a saint but a child of God. Only God could so love; and Christ His Son came to show it fully, and in order to do so, and blot out our sins, died as a sacrifice for us. This was not as man or the world gives; and it was made perfect, not only by the Holy Spirit coming to abide in us and with us, but in that we now in this world are as Christ is before the Father. For all the evils of us and in us are met and cleared by His death, and we have His risen life as our life, His Father our Father, His God our God; while we are in the world that crucified Christ. Soon is He coming to receive us to Himself that where He is we also may be. Meanwhile there are others who are God’s children as we are, and He calls us to love them as He does. As they are in the same relationship and position, all is made plain. If God loves, so do we His children; and He makes it a matter of command to love our brother and to love them all. If we love not them, we do not love Him but deceive ourselves. This then is an end of that question.
But how is the love to the children of God to be shown? It is inseparable from loving God and keeping His commandments. It is not true love to them, if we fail in love to God or in keeping His commandments. Is not this a remarkable and heart-searching turn given to loving them? Is it not a matter for serious consideration? What a cheek to easy-going indifference! Suppose a child of God to be entrapped in an offence against God, either in false doctrine or in any practical way, what then? Is it love to sanction the evil thing, to make light of it, or to join one in it though a brother? “Herein we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments.” It is not loving God’s children when we show how little we love God by indifference to His injunction. Thus we have the principle of obedience affirmed in a new way to cheek the abuse of loving those who are sinning and call for censure. If we trifle with sin, if we slur over evil and wrong against God under the pretext of loving the children of God, we cannot know that our love to God’s children is a reality, but a snare to us and to them. If through any cause we slip into disobeying God’s will, all is wrong in our souls, and we have no certainty in our paths; for we have ceased to enjoy communion with Him, and we are in danger of humouring instead of loving the children of God. It is no longer true that we love them in a divine way. But if on the contrary we by faith introduce God into the question as One that the heart loves, then keeping His commandments follows, which forbids human yielding where He is concerned, and we have confidence that we love His children as in His sight. This is therefore an important test to judge our souls before Him. It is a truth which goes deep indeed, and closes the question by His word.
“For this is the love of God that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not grievous.” Thus the Holy Spirit gives not only a test in ver. 2 but a counter-test in ver. 3. It is not the love of God, or of His children, if we are disobedient. True love of God obeys, while it also shows itself in loving His children, and not our set or party but all His own. We cannot separate obedience from love. If it is not obedience, neither is it love. If it is divine love, obedience accompanies it. “And His commandments are not grievous.” It is the estimate of the apostle and of all who are before God with confidence in His grace. It is the truth pronounced by the Holy Spirit. So the Lord Himself, in Matt. 11, declared His yoke easy and His burden light. But there is in the way of the children of God a constant hindrance, greater perhaps than anything else. At first sight you might think of the flesh. But no: near as the flesh is to us, there is a more serious difficulty. When the flesh in Christians breaks out, they are conscious of shame and sensible that they are wrong. But the world is a subtle malaria around us; and, when it affects us insidiously, we may remain unconscious what it is that produces spiritual dimness and inability to enjoy the Father’s love or to return it. This again is what alienates the children of God one from another in various ways, and corrupts in proportion as it influences. If the heart values the world, it is stolen away from God’s children as those whom God would bind together with the nearest of family ties, and would have love to be ever flowing in the Spirit’s power. This the world utterly forbids; for it loves its own in its poor selfish and heartless way. Thus no small danger arises for the saints who seek its ease and honour. It is a pitfall for these and other reasons. If a Christian wants to stand well with the world, he must please it to the grief of the Spirit.
Men cannot tolerate the love of God’s children, because it condemns the world. They are unwilling to associate with such as love the brotherhood, and ask if these low people are really your companions. How can you make such folk your special friends? If a saint wants to keep up a position in the world, the difficulty is at once felt. The gentlemen and ladies you court refuse to let you shame them with those of your intimacy they despise. This is and must be the spirit of the world. Yet you, a child of God and heir of heaven, wish to stand well in their eyes who crucified the Lord of glory! In their presence therefore you seek to avoid even a brotherly notice of poor children of God who are to reign with Christ and before the world too! Is this love to God and to His children? Is it loyalty to Christ, this anxiety of yours to be on good terms with the world? Then His commandments are more or less grievous. Is this not so? Where do you drift? These gentlemen and ladies, are they God’s children? You do not say so; but they are nice people! Even if you hope they may be God’s children, know you not that friendship with the world is enmity with God? “Whosoever therefore is minded to be friend of the world is constituted enemy of God.” Do they not pursue the same principles and the same practices which cast out the Son of God from the world?
This is how we ought to look at the world because God so looks at it. It matters not how long ago it is since the world crucified the Lord. The sin is just as fresh now before God as when the fatal deed was done. No real change has come for the world since that day of guilt. It either claims the Christian relationship, or it denies it to those who believe. “What presumption to call Him your Father!” “Righteous Father,” said the Lord, “the world knew Thee not.” They might think it serving God to persecute those presumptuous men whom Christ is not ashamed to call His brethren, and who claim God as their Father. “Worst of all, they say He is not our Father, only theirs.” What is more offensive to the world than drawing the line — presuming to have heavenly blessings and privileges which the world has not?
Do you plead that it is not exactly for yourself? But you have a son or daughter, whom you desire to have a fair place in the world: you have given it up for yourself, but there are the children! This is often the way in which the worldliness of a parent’s heart is shown. It is not the earnest desire for the child to be in Christ, and God’s own child. The practical aim first is to secure a good place in the world, though they pray that the child may be saved too. Meanwhile the unceasing effort is to advance the children in this present life. What is this but the world, no matter how it may be put in different shapes? It may not always be said, but the actions prove where the heart is. This seems to be the connection between vers. 3 and 4.
God’s commandments are grievous chiefly through the evil influence of the world. “For all that is begotten of God overcometh the world.” This is a searching appeal when we think how the children of God pander to the world. In general there is an utterly vague sense of what the world is. One has often been shocked among sober and real Christians to find on asking them what is the world, that they avow themselves unable to tell. Not a few think, since even the masses are baptized that, with the exception of open infidels, the world is gone and that Christendom has replaced it to the glory of God, if not for individual exactitude, at any rate in the moral sense of the expression. But let us not be deceived by Satin or appearances, were it incomparably better than it is. Christ is always the touchstone of truth. Is Christ now the life, the object, of mankind in any country under the sun? Where He is all this and more, simply and truly, it is not the world. Christ gives living consciousness of and rest in the Father’s love; and where this is enjoyed in the Holy Spirit, it is not the world. But where other objects than Christ attract and govern the heart, and the Father’s love is unknown or counted an impossibility, the world remains in unchanged opposition. Can any question be of greater moment, if we have not already decided it by faith, than that we should examine ourselves and test our conscience, heart and ways? For it is an easy thing to let the world gain advantage in detail, even where in the main we seek to be faithful. Is it not dangerous, if we feel ourselves hazy, to shrink from the scriptural test? Divine love assuredly binds us, if we see more clearly, to help one another, instead of yielding to the unloving habit of spying out inconsistencies in this one or that, is an excuse for being mixed up with the world in divine worship and ways. There is nothing of Christ in anything of the sort.
Here we have the assurance that it is not the mystic recluse, nor the highly spiritual only, but that “All that is begotten of God overcometh the world.” Does not this stimulate is well as encourage the simplest child of God? Have not all such been begotten of God? There is the principle laid down plainly. Not a single real Christian is exempted from the privilege any more than the responsibility. As every believer now is an object of God’s love and in the relationship of His family, so he “overcometh the world.” ”And this is the victory that overcometh the world (not service, not sacrifice, nor even love, but) — our faith.” Do you believe this, Christian? Be not faithless here but faithful. It is by faith in our Lord Jesus that we are brought to God; so too that we are kept of God; it is so that we discern and repel the enemy; and so do we obediently rest in His love who deigned to call us His friends.
Faith is the victory that overcame the world; but how? This he next adds. It is “he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God.” It is now not as “the Christ” simply. It is the same Jesus, but the apostle goes farther in the expression of His personal dignity. And it is always so with the real soul. One might well begin with believing that He is Jesus the Christ, or one might have had presented to faith yet more than this, — though it was glad tidings to hear on divine authority that God anointed Jesus, having sent Him into the world for the everlasting good of those who believe; and this is the Christ. But here we are told of His glory above the world as the eternal Son of God. Is not this far beyond His being the Christ or Anointed on the earth? He was Son of God before the world, and however the world or His earthly people reject, His glory as the Son of God will survive heaven and earth. He that came down was God humbling Himself in love; and He that went up was Man after redemption exalted above all the universe, Jesus the Son of God. He, who is God and man in one person fills the Christian’s heart, and shall fill all things. We no longer look at Him only as the Anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power who went about doing good and healing all those domineered by the devil. We see Him in heavenly glory, we are. enabled to appreciate Him in His eternal relationship to God, no less than to ourselves and to all else.
This is His title to explain the character of the faith that overcomes the world. How could it be otherwise? Grace in Him attracted our hearts when lost, gave us life, and died for our sins; then the new life is called into exercise in the knowledge of a divine glory that dims and annuls the false glory of man and the world, and of a love that brings us into actual relationship with the Father and the Son, creating kindred duties, according to the entirely new place into which sovereign grace has now brought the Christian. The life we receive cannot but rise to its source, and as the grace better known gives it more power by the Spirit, we rise in our appreciation of Christ and of His word. Hence is seen the bearing of the truth that He is not only the Anointed coming into the world on His errand of divine mercy but the Son of God with a personal glory irrespective of any such mission, which is only enhanced by the world’s ignorant contempt of Him to its own ruin. He is the Son of man who went down into all the depths to glorify God even as to sin and to save the lost. But as He was the Son of God before the earth and the heavens, so He abides when they shall perish. Hence this glory of the Lord Jesus is brought forward as that which strengthens faith against all difficulties from the world. For “Who is he that overcometh the world but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?”
It is a soul that did not settle down in the truth received when first converted, but having tasted its preciousness was led on by the Spirit to know Him better in relation not only to its own circle but to God and His glory. “To him that hath shall be given”; and the diligent shall be made fat, yet better still have the joy of apprehending His love and His perfections. This therefore gave power over all the world could do in hatred and frown, any more than in its attractions, ease, or honour. Faith ever sees in the world the murderous hatred of the Son of God. Are we then to fear what we must abhor? “In the world ye have tribulation; but be of good cheer (be courageous): I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
The ever deepening faith in the glory of Christ is the main preservative against the world. As Satan is its prince with no end of wiles to mislead and injure, we need all that our Lord is even as Son of God to overcome in the conflict to which our very blessing in Him exposes and commits us. To be assured that the God of peace will bruise Satan under our feet is excellent; but to rest on that final victory alone would be a snare for our souls. We are here to defeat him now and always, as Joshua exhorted Israel; and we must be faithful in little things every day if we are to overcome in great difficulties.
Hence we may see how the Lord in His epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia expects it in every one of them, and gives special and suited promises to invigorate the faithful individuals when He could not count on the declining assemblies. See too how, when it was not only the Balaam spirit with Nicolaitanism as in Pergamos but the yet more audacious Jezebel in Thyatira, it is there that He presents Himself as the Son of God, the rock on which He builds His church superior to the power of death. It is life in Him that fits us for fellowship with the Father and Himself; but in order to overcome the world and enjoy the fellowship, faith in the Son of God must be fresh and firm by grace, and the Christian world so-called (as many are not ashamed to call it) becomes more painful and disgusting than the gross and open heathen world. So it is to the Father and the Son. The Patristic corrupters of the truth used to teach that if people got baptized, even if living wickedly, their sufferings in hell would be mitigated through their baptism; but the Lord had ruled the contrary if they had only an ear to hear. “That bondman who knew his own lord’s will, and had not prepared [himself] nor done his will, shall be beaten with many [stripes]; but he who knew not and did things worthy of stripes shall be beaten with few” (Luke 12:47, 48).
Oh let us see to it that, simple and strong in the faith that Jesus is the Son of God, we too may overcome the world!