by Vincent Cheung
We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did. (1 John 2:3-6)
In the context of this letter, to "know" God carries the equivalent meaning of to have fellowship with God. Just as sinners cannot have fellowship with God by their own merits and powers, sinners cannot come to know God by their goodness and initiative – they have no goodness in them and no desire or ability to initiate reconciliation with God. Instead, if anyone is saved at all, God chooses the person and changes him, injects life and faith into him, and causes him to forever attach himself to Jesus Christ.
So it is not that we come to know God by obeying his commands; rather, we realize that we have come to know God if we obey them. Obedience is the natural and inevitable outcome of fellowship with God, where fellowship does not mean to socialize, and fellowship with God does not refer to prayer or worship, as the term is often misused, but it refers to the objective commonness, partnership, and unity that we have with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Out of this faith necessarily arises a holy lifestyle and obedience to God's commands.
John again directs our attention to the issue of claim versus reality. A person can say anything about himself, but what he says might not be true. So a man can make the claim, "I know God," but if he does not obey God's commands, then this man is a liar, and he does not really know God. On the other hand, a man who obeys God's word shows that his love for God is genuine. As Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John , ESV). Love for God is impossible before regeneration, and Jesus did not say that we will come to love him by obeying his commandments; rather, if we love him, so that regeneration has already occurred, then we will obey his commandments.
Thus this biblical teaching does not contradict or compromise the doctrine of justification by faith. John writes, "This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did." He does not say that we come to live in him by walking as Jesus did, but we come to know that we are living in him when we walk as Jesus did. To walk as Jesus did is the natural and inevitable outcome of living in him, and we come to live in him when God sovereignly unites us to Jesus Christ through the faith that he gives us. So obedience, holiness, and to walk as Jesus did are just the natural and inevitable results of God's own action in our lives. It is God following through with what he has started. If there is this follow through, then we realize that God has indeed started a work in us. But if there is no follow through, then regardless what a man claims about himself, God has never started a work in him.
When we say that a true believer naturally performs good works or that he inevitably lives in obedience to God's commands, we ought to consider what these good works and divine commands are. And what does it mean to walk as Jesus did? When people talk about good works, they often have in mind works of charity. In itself there is no problem with this, since James himself says that true religion has to do with caring for orphans and widows (also 1 John ). However, this is not the Bible's main emphasis. Consider the works of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. How much emphasis is really given to works of charity? His works mainly consisted of teaching sound doctrine, confronting false religion, and performing miracles. The apostles also followed this pattern, not that works of charity were absent or neglected, but the chief emphasis has never been on charity, but on the advancement of true religion and sound doctrine. Thus our idea of a holy lifestyle that naturally arises from regeneration and conversion cannot become focused on charity works, kind attitudes, and the like, but it must first focus on distinctively religious activities, such as teaching the doctrines of the Christian faith, attacking non-Christian ideas and religions, worship, and prayer.
We arrive at the same conclusion when we consider what it means to obey God's commands. What are these commands? Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God, and after that, his commandment is for us to love other people. So our conception of a life of holiness, good works, and obedience to God's commands would be wrongheaded if we assume that such a life mainly or firstly means to love people. Certainly, if we love God, we will also follow his command to love people (1 John -21), but the love for God is the foundation for loving people, and loving people is a manifestation or expression of our love for God. Our faith becomes humanistic if this order is reversed, and in some cases it would mean that those who think this way have never been converted. Perhaps they are nothing more than non-Christian philanthropists, attempting to save men apart from repentance and belief in the truth.
In the Ten Commandments, God first issues commands concerning true religion, that he is to be exclusively worshiped, that no idols are to be worshiped or be used to represent him, and so on. After this foundation is laid, he then issues commands concerning human relationships. Thus when John says that if we know God we will obey his commands, those commands that are distinctively religious are assumed, and assumed to be primary rather than secondary or even irrelevant. What this means is that even if a person performs all kinds of charitable deeds such as feeding orphans and widows, as long as he remains a non-Christian, as long as he fails to offer exclusive worship to the Christian God and as long as he does not affirm the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he does not know God. Rather, if a man knows God, he will obey God's commands about worship, so that he will affirm the divinity and humanity of Christ and all other Christian doctrines, and then he will obey God's commands about how we ought to treat people, resulting in works of kindness and charity.
Originally posted at Vincent Cheung.com. Used with permission.