This morning we pick up the last four verses of 1 John. After several months studying this letter, we draw to a close. As John closes out his letter to the church, he is intensely practical—he uses his last words to communicate explicitly some of the truths he has mentioned earlier in his letter.
I imagine this is much like a parent who is sending their child off to school for the first time—they will seek to instill some final words of advice and wisdom before they leave the child. For example, when dropping the kid off at kindergarten, you might say, “You know I love you and I’ll be back to pick you up this afternoon, now play nice and don’t eat glue.” On the first day of college, you might say, “I know you’re ready for this, and you’ll do great. You know that if you need help, I’m still only a phone call away, and you know I’ll be praying for you. Don’t get involved with the wrong crowd; remember you’re here for an education first.” On your child’s wedding day, you might say, “You know, you’re finally going to be on your own now, and you will now have to take care of someone else in addition to you. I know you love this person and you’ll take care of him/her for the rest of your life. You know it won’t be easy, but you can make it through the tough times. Put God at the center of your marriage and defend your marriage from anything that can harm it.”
In each situation you want to be sure to communicate some important things. Usually there are some facts that you want to remind your child of—things like, I love you, I’ll be back for you, I’ll be praying for you, I’m only a phone call away, or marriage won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. You want to make sure that your child remembers these important facts. You also want to take this opportunity to pass along a warning, or advice on what to beware of, how to avoid the biggest temptation they will face—whether it’s play nice and don’t eat glue, or don’t get involved with the wrong crowd, or defend your marriage, we try to give an important last bit of wisdom before we part company.
It’s no surprise that John does the same thing here. John has spent all this time instructing these people, and now it’s time to go. But before he does, he seeks to remind them of a few truths—things they should already know, things he’s probably told them before, but things are important as they continue in life. He also seeks to warn them about the biggest temptation they will face, the thing that can cause them the most pain. So, much like a parent, John’s last words are very important and immensely practical.
We Won’t Continue in Sin
In this concluding passage, John uses the words “we know” three times. He is communicating three truths to us, things he shouldn’t have to explain to us, because we already know them. The first thing we know is found in verse 18,
We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.
This seems to be similar to what John said earlier in his letter in chapter 3, verse 9,
No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.
So, John is reiterating a truth he has already stated to them. He says that anyone who is born of God does not continue to sin. Why? Because the one who was born of God (which in this instance is Jesus) keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. The issue that we must address here is the same issue that we needed to address in chapter three, which is, is John saying that Christians do not sin? Or even stronger, that Christians cannot sin? There are many teachers today who would tell you that is exactly what John is saying. They would say that as believers, we have been delivered from sin, and as a matter of fact, we are kept from sin by Jesus, therefore we do not or cannot sin. This is an absolute corruption of this passage—and we should not interpret the passage that way.
In cases like this, I’m very fond of a simple axiom that, “a text out of context is a pretext for a proof text.” In other words, if you take some piece of Scripture and interpret without looking at the rest of Scripture, you are in grave danger of misinterpreting and possibly of building an entire doctrine (or worse, a religious sect) on a piece of misapplied Scripture. Many false teachings and cults have had their beginnings in this way. We certainly want to avoid that, and in this case it’s easy, because we really only need to go back a few verses to see that John isn’t saying that believers don’t sin.
Look at verse 16, which we covered last week.
If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life.
John says that if we see a brother (a Christian) commit a sin that doesn’t lead to death, we should pray that God restores him. So, if Christians can’t sin, or Christians don’t sin, why in the world does John tell us to pray for those Christians who do sin?!? Obviously, he must not be saying that believers don’t sin.
What John is saying is the same thing he said in chapter 3, that no one continues to sin. In other words, the governing rule of our lives before we were saved was sin, but now sin should not be the governing rule. Rather than sin being our primary desire, our default action, our primary desire is now to please God—we will not continue living in sin, because we desire to get rid of it. Now, we will certainly fall into sin, we will have times of weakness, but these times are the exception, rather than the rule.
Let me illustrate this for you. It’s kind of like our immune system. Before we are saved, it’s as though we have no immune system—we are simply at the mercy of our environment. As believers, we have a fully functioning, healthy immune system. We are on guard against and actively seek to eliminate those things which are harmful to us, those things which are sinful. That doesn’t mean that we won’t still get sick, but we won’t be sick all the time because we’ll resist the harmful things in our environment.
We are Children of God
So, the first truth about which John reminds us is that no one who is in Christ continues to sin because God set us free and sustains us in our struggle against sin. The second thing we know is closely related—that we are children of God, and the world around us is controlled by Satan. Verse 19 says exactly that,
We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.
In order for us to best understand this truth, we should examine the second half of John’s statement that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” This seems like a pretty harsh statement, one that we may initially try to deny. You may say, “What an arrogant thing to say! How dare we claim that the world is evil, and that we are so much better than they! After all, aren’t we also sinners?”
Note that this is exactly the argument the world has conditioned us to make. Any sort of statement of absolute truth is politically incorrect, or as the current buzzword is, intolerant. This statement is neither inaccurate nor intolerant—it is an assertion of the truth.
Remember the person who is writing these words! It is John, the apostle who spoke more about love than almost anyone else. John’s statement certainly isn’t one of arrogance, because we also know that we have done absolutely nothing to merit adoption into God’s family—it is something God has done of his own accord. We have been taken out of the world, and as we can see it from the outside, we realize that it is under the control of the evil one.
Let me read you something that David Martin Lloyd-Jones, the mid-twentieth century Welsh preacher wrote on this subject.
“Men and women were made for God and were meant to serve God and enjoy Him; but they are in the grip of Satan. So they hate the name of God, and because of this they are unhappy. They are unhappy within themselves; they cannot find satisfaction; they are unhappy with other people because they blame them for their trouble. They do not say that it is in themselves—they are all little gods fighting with one another, jealous and envious of one another.”
John’s statement is not harsh, it is true. We see this attitude throughout the world, there should be a distinct difference between us and the world, because we are children of God. When the Church is indistinguishable from the world, it fails to fulfill its mandate to be salt and light. When the Church becomes like a club, only inviting those we think are worthy to join, we fail. When the Church becomes like the rest of the world, gossiping, slandering, and backbiting, we fail. When the Church looks at marriage as simply another relationship that can be ended when it becomes inconvenient, we fail. When the model of how we lead our church becomes a Fortune 500 company instead of the Bible, we fail. We are set apart, we are not part of this world, because the world is under the control of the evil one.
John reminds us that we have been set apart as children of God—so we are in the world, but we are not of the world. He’s also warning us that it will be a struggle to live in the world. He tells us this so that we can remember that we are supposed to be separate, even though it will probably be uncomfortable at times. We know we shouldn’t fit in, so we shouldn’t worry when we don’t.
We Have Understanding
So, we know that anyone born of God doesn’t live a life of continual sin, and that we have been set apart as children of God. In verse 20, John now gives us a third thing that we know.
We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
John tells us that God has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true. And how do we know him who is true? We are part of his family—he has saved us! Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, when we entered into God’s family, we also received the Holy Spirit, who works in us to give us understanding, and to help us discern the truth.
This is important, because the entire letter has been about the importance of knowing the true God. We can have confidence that if we are in Christ, we are his forever—He will sustain us to the very end. Jesus told us this in the book of Matthew,
For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. (Matthew 24:24)
False teachers will be inevitable, and they will be extremely deceptive, so deceptive that if it were possible to do so, they would deceive the elect (those who are true believers). But, Jesus tells us that it isn’t possible to lead those who are his away from him. Because of Christ, we can have this assurance, and we know that God will give us help and understanding if we ask for it.
These three assurances lead us into John’s final warning. It seems like a strange way to end a letter, but much like a parent—who says “study hard” or “don’t talk to strangers”—John seeks to communicate one important point, a warning against the greatest temptation his children will face—and that is to keep ourselves from idols.
Now, these idols could be a number of different things. It could be a graven image—a god made of stone or wood or metal—and that is certainly included, but it probably wasn’t his primary aim. Idols aren’t limited only to these graven images. An idol is anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God. John uses his closing words to remind us to put God at the forefront of our lives.
As I said, the three things we know actually lead to this warning. He says, “You know that as a believer your life has been changed and you will no longer live a life of sin, and you know that you are set apart from the world because of Christ’s work in your life. And you know that God will sustain you and give you the understanding you need to discern truth from falsehood. Let me now warn you of the greatest danger that still remains—let me tell you why these truths are important. Your greatest temptation will be to take your focus off of God. Remember what he’s given you and that He alone is the source of your strength. Don’t get distracted, because it will only lead to pain.”
John’s warning is important, because idols—things that take our eyes off of God are everywhere. Idols can take the form of false teaching, something John was very concerned about—teaching that distracts from God and puts the focus on us. These teachings are very appealing, but they are idolatrous. Any number of things in our lives can become idols, anything that gets the focus that God should get.
When we become primarily concerned with money it can become an idol. When we are fixated on getting more stuff, when we descend into debt to get what we want, when we constantly work more and more so that we have more money, it becomes an idol. When we become primarily concerned with our activities they can become idols. When we find ourselves missing church every week because of something we “have to do” it could be an idol. When we run ourselves ragged so we don’t have time to pray or to read our Bibles, our activities could be idols. When we are so busy that we never have time to serve God, our activities become idols. Any time our activities steal our focus from God, they become idols. We can even make religion or theology into an idol. When we go to church just because we don’t want to face the questions about why we weren’t there, or because we want to be seen there, it becomes an idol. Going to church is good, but going to worship is what we should be doing.
John warns us of the danger that is going to be the easiest for us to fall into. He tells us to avoid these idols at all costs. Just like Jesus did in Matthew 22, John tells us that this is the most important thing.
37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22:37,38)
So, what can we take away from John’s final words to us in this letter? Well, we can take away assurances. We can be assured that if we are believers, we have been set free from the bonds of sin. God has delivered us from slavery and we will be able to escape the sin that tempts us. Paul gives us a similar assurance in 1 Corinthians 10:13.
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
John also reminds us to be set apart from the world, because we are not part of this world. He dares us to be different and not to be a camouflage Christian. The world should be able to tell that we are different.
John also tells us that God has given us understanding. We will be able to discern truth from falsehood, and we can rely on Him as our strength.
And John warns us that we must fix our eyes on God alone and not allow ourselves to be distracted by the things of this world—a tall order to be sure, but because of the truths he already reminded us of, it is an order we can fill if our eyes are fixed on Christ.
Of course, the assurances all assume one thing—they all assume that you are born of God, that you are already a Christian. John has concerned himself with this throughout his letter. He wants us to be sure that we are in Christ. So let me ask you, have you acknowledged that you can’t save yourself and that you must trust Christ alone as the only one who can save you? Do you find yourself continually growing in love for God and for others? Do you find yourself slowly but surely becoming more obedient to God and his commands? If the answer to any one of these questions is no, then you are not a believer and these assurances do not apply to you. Trust Jesus now, admit to him that you need him to save you, because you cannot do it. Commit to follow Him, to fix your eyes and place your focus upon Him. You will begin to see the fruit of these promises come to bear in your life.
John looks at us like a loving parent looks at his child. He has taken the time to instruct us in all sorts of things throughout his letter, but now it’s time to go. When you send your child out, you give them final words because you know they are true and you know they’re important. You hope your child heeds your advice. John does the same thing, and he hopes we will heed his advice. John’s assurances and advice are important, and putting these words into action will save us from pain, but more importantly, they will bring glory to God.