Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
We are coming toward the end of our series on the new birth. What remains is to focus for several weeks on the effects or the evidences of the new birth: What are the signs in your life that God has caused you to be born again? Then, we will wrap it up by looking at its implications for evangelism. If God is the one who decisively causes the new birth in the hearts of spiritually dead sinners, then what is the role of those who love those sinners and want to see them saved? That is where we are going, Lord willing, in the next few weeks.
Now to focus on the effects of the new birth, we turn to the book of the Bible that is almost totally devoted to answering this question, namely, the first epistle of John. I have a 100-year-old commentary on 1 John at home titled The Tests of Life by Robert Law.1 It’s a good title. What it means is that John wrote this letter to provide the church with tests or criteria for knowing if we have spiritual life, that is, if we have been born again.
Tests of New-Birth Life in 1 John
One of the most fruitful things you could do with me in the next couple weeks is to read through 1 John as I preach several messages from this book. First John only four pages long in my Bible. If you immerse yourself in this amazing book with me, I think the Lord will use it, along these messages, to do a deeper work of faith and love in your life.
To encourage you in that direction, let me give you an overview of what I mean in saying that 1 John is written to help you know you have been born again. Today’s message is almost all overview and then a brief look at 1 John 5:3-4 near the end. The impact of the book as a whole has been for me very significant. I hope it may be for you.
Why Did John Write This Letter?
First, why did John say he wrote this letter? He gives his reason for writing in different ways. Let’s take them in the order that they come. Follow with me.
1 John 1:4: “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” John is an unashamed Christian Hedonist. The joy of their assurance will be his joy. And he wants it. It is good to want that kind of joy.
1 John 2:1: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” He hopes his book will give them fresh power to overcome sin. And part of his method in helping them overcome sin is to assure them that failures do not have to prove fatal to your eternal life.
1 John 2:12-13: “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.” In other words, he is filled with hope that the ones he is writing to are truly believers. They are forgiven. They do know God. They have triumphed over the evil one.
1 John 2:21: “I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth.” Same thing: My letter is not to get you started in the Christian life, but to confirm you in it.
1 John 2:26: “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you.” He is concerned with false teaching. This letter is meant to protect them from those who would lead them astray. In other words, the fact that we are born again does not mean we no longer need warnings.
1 John 5:13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” This is the one that dominates in this letter. Most of what is here is designed to provide tests of life: “I write these things . . . that you may know that you have eternal life.” That is, that you may know you are born again from death into life.
Summing up all these reasons for writing 1 John goes like this: I am writing because you are true believers, but there are deceivers in your midst, and I want you to be rock-solid confident in your present possession of eternal life as regenerate children of God, so that you are not drawn away after sin. And if this letter has that effect my joy will be complete. So at the heart of his reason for writing is the desire to help them know they are born again—that they now have new spiritual life. Eternal life.
Eleven Evidences of the New Birth
Consider one more overview before we focus on 1 John 5:3-4. I think God wants the totality of this book to have its impact on us. It is dominated by the concern to give “tests of life” or effects and evidences of the new birth. He gives at least eleven evidences that we are born again. We could probably boil them all down to faith and love. But for now let’s let them stand the way he says them. Here they are:
1. Those who are born of God keep his commandments.
1 John 2:3-4: “By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
1 John 3:24: “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him.”
2. Those who are born of God walk as Christ walked.
1 John 2:5-6: “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
3. Those who are born of God don’t hate others but love them.
1 John 2:9: “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.”
1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”
1 John 4:7-8: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
1 John 4:20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.”
4. Those who are born of God don’t love the world.
1 John 2:15: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
5. Those who are born of God confess the Son and receive (have) him.
1 John 2:23: “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”
1 John 4:15: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.”
1 John 5:12: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
6. Those who are born of God practice righteousness.
1 John 2:29: “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.”
7. Those who are born of God don’t make a practice of sinning.
1 John 3:6: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.”
1 John 3:9-10: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
1 John 5:18: “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.”
8. Those who are born of God possess the Spirit of God.
1 John 3:24: “By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”
1 John 4:13: “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”
9. Those who are born of God listen submissively to the apostolic Word.
1 John 4:6: “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
10. Those who are born of God believe that Jesus is the Christ.
1 John 5:1: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.”
11. Those who are born of God overcome the world.
1 John 5:4: “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
Two Wrong Conclusions
One of the effects of all those “tests of life” is to overwhelm us with the sense that John may be saying: “If you’re born again, you’re perfect. If you’re born again you don’t sin at all. There is no defeat in the Christian life. There is only victory.”
Another effect that these tests might have in our minds is to make us think we can loose our salvation. That is, we can be born again for a while and then begin to fail in these tests and die and lose the spiritual life that we were given in the new birth.
Two Key Clarifications
John is very aware of that his words could be taken in these two wrong ways. So he is explicit as any writer in the New Testament that this is not the case: Christians are not sinless, and born-again people cannot lose their spiritual life and be lost.
He says in 1 John 1:8-10, “If we say we have no sin [present tense], we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins [present tense], he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” So John is at pains to say that “walking in the light” (1:7) does not mean walking flawlessly. It means that, when you stumble, the light of Christ causes you to see it and hate it and confess it and move forward with Christ.
And John is just as jealous to make sure we don’t infer from these “tests of life” that we can be born again and then later lose our life and be lost. First John 2:19 is one of the clearest statements in the Bible that there is another way to understand what happens when a person abandons the church. It says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
Notice three things John says to protect us from misunderstanding. 1) Those who seemed to be born again and forsook the faith never were born again—they never were of us. “They went out from us, but they were not of us.” In other words, the explanation is not that they lost their new birth. They never had it. 2) Those who are truly born again (“of us”) will persevere to the end in faith. Verse 19b: “For if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” Endurance is not the cause of the new birth. The new birth is the cause of endurance, and endurance is the evidence of new birth. 3) God often makes plain who the false Christians are in the church by their eventual rejection of the truth and the people of God. Verse 19c: “But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” It became plain. And it often becomes plain today.
You recall that one of the tests of life in 1 John 4:6 was that those who truly know God listen to the apostolic teaching. They love it and they cling to it. “Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us.” These people listened for a while. The seed of the word sprang up with joy (Luke 8:13), and it looked as though they were truly born again. But then hard times and the cares and riches and pleasures of life swept them away and they showed that they had never been born again.
A Three-Link Chain in 1 John 5:3-4
Now with that long introduction to 1 John we will simply look for a few minutes at 1 John 5:3-4 and set the stage for a fuller treatment next week. Look at the train of thought in verses 3 and 4. This is all we will have time to see today. Then we must unpack later how it actually works in practice. Here’s the three-link chain of thought: “[Link One] For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. [Link Two] For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. [Link Three] And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
Link One: Love for God is expressed in obedience to his commandments with a spirit that does not act burdensomely. Verse 3: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” The mark of love for God is joyful obedience, not begrudging obedience.
Link Two: The basis of this unbegrudging obedience is the power of the new birth to overcome the world. Verse 4a: “For [signifying the basis of what went before!] everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” Our love for God obeys him freely and joyfully because in the new birth the spell of the world is broken and it loses its power. When the world loses its powerful attraction because of the new birth, God and his holy will become attractive. Not burdensome. How does this work?
Link Three: This world-defeating power that breaks the spell of sin and makes the will of God beautiful, not burdensome, is our faith. Verse 4b: “And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
Gospel, New Birth, Faith, and Obedience with Joy
So the train of thought goes like this: The new birth happens as we are brought into contact with the living and abiding word, the gospel. The first effect of this new birth is that we see and receive God and his Son and work and his will as supremely beautiful and valuable. That’s faith. This faith overcomes the world, that is, it overcomes the enslaving power of the world to be our supreme treasure. Faith breaks the enslaving spell of the world’s allurement. By doing that, faith leads us into obedience with freedom and joy. God and his holy will look beautiful and not burdensome. The new birth has taken the blinders off. We see things for what they are. We are free to obey with joy.
May God confirm the spiritual reality of thousands of born-again people at Bethlehem by overcoming the power of the world in our lives. “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
1 Robert Law, The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, orig. 1909).