Normally on this blog I focus on issues that should be of interest to skeptics, people who are not convinced that God exists or that Christianity is a belief system to be taken seriously. Today I’d like to instead discuss Christianity directly. Lately as I’ve read the Bible some interesting themes have popped out, particularly in the book entitled 1 John.
To those who are skeptical about the Bible, please feel free to remain skeptical. I’m just going to consider what 1 John seems to teach. You need not necessarily believe, with me, that the teaching of 1 John is in fact true. Let this be an exercise in exploring the essence of Christianity, whether or not it happens to be true.
Arguably, 1 John was written by an early Christian leader to a church (or churches) who were facing a worldview threat from Gnosticism, “a religious mysticism that pirated Christian motifs to propagate an understanding of salvation based on esoteric ‘knowledge’.” Unfortunately, two millennia later many professing Christians still misunderstand salvation along gnostic lines.
God, however, is not knowledge. Rather, God is light (1:5) and love (4:8, 16). Accordingly, “salvation (or redemption) is not anchored in one’s passing a mere informational test.” Merely knowing about God does not amount to knowing God. Neither does thinking oneself a Christian entail that one indeed has come to know, love, and trust God.
Who then will be saved? Who belongs to God and on what basis? How can one know whether one knows God? 1 John provides the needed clarity. Confusion inevitably results from being unwilling to accept what he teaches, not from ambiguity on John’s part.
What is God like?
John writes that God is light (1:5) and God is love (4:8, 16). Light seems to be connected to love: “Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light . . . but anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness” (2:10-11). Light is also related to truth and purity. Those who “walk in the darkness . . . do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1:6-7).
Accordingly, one cannot know God in truth without knowing his love and purity. What does such a God require of us? John is quite clear. “And this is [God’s] command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (3:23). Later John writes, God “has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (4:21). So it would seem that God requires both belief in Jesus and love of neighbour.
Why so? Jesus shows us what love is, God’s love in particular. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (3:16) To reject Jesus is to reject the God who sent him, to maintain that God is not like him. Anyone who would love God inevitably would also love Jesus (5:1).
However, mere belief in Jesus can be misleading. We must “love one another as he commanded us” (3:23). One can believe things about Jesus without actually believing that Jesus shows us what God is like. “Whoever claims to live in [God] must live as Jesus did” (2:6). To summarize, if you love God, you’ll love Jesus. If you love Jesus, you’ll love others.
Don’t be deceived
John is painfully clear that there are no exceptions. One cannot have God without Jesus. “No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (2:23).
Neither can one have God without loving others as Jesus does. Recall that Jesus gave two love commands: love God (Deut 6:5) and love your neighbour (Lev 19:18). In 1 John, we see that these two commands are inseparable. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (4:20).
Neither can one know God without facing one’s inadequacies concerning love of God and neighbour. God challenges each person with Jesus’ example. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us . . . If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”(1:8,10) More alarmingly, “ No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (3:6).
Who then can be saved?
Jesus sets the bar far too high for anyone to reach. Who among us consistently loves as Jesus did? Who among us even consistently desires to love as Jesus does rather than pursuing selfish interests at the expense of others? Apart from God’s intervention, a proper response would be one of despair.
Recall that the Father sends the Son to show us what God is like. The Son shows us that the Father is trustworthy by personally obeying the Father to the point of death. The Father honours the Son’s obedience, raising him to life again. The Father and Son then send the Holy Spirit to empower believers to live as Jesus lived and to love as God loves, having cancelled our moral debt. Those who trust Jesus and pursue transformation into his image, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are no longer condemned but rather reconciled as beloved friends of God.
1 John powerfully reminds us that one cannot know God without depending on his power to love others by the Holy Spirit. “This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit” (4:13). Alarmingly for Gnostic Christians, possession of the Spirit, rather than mere theology, is mandatory for salvation. God’s power to love, rather than mere intellectual assent, church membership, religious experience, etc., is the needed evidence of salvation.