Throughout the letter John has focused on three tests for the believer – three tests of assurance. The child of God must believe that Jesus is the Messiah (2:18-27, 3:23, 4:1-6, 4:15), the child of God must obey God’s commands (2:3-6, 2:28-3:10, 3:24), and the child of God must love God and his brothers (2:7-11, 3:11-18, 3:23, 4:7-21). In these five verses he rehearses all three tests. The text begins and ends with belief and in between touches on love and obedience. Though this is a repetition of concepts stated elsewhere, this is the first time he has stated them so closely together and so clearly stressed their interrelation. By concentrating the message, he makes sure his readers fully understand the scope of his words and examine themselves in their light.
Remember that John is greatly concerned that his readers do not deceive themselves. He has pointed out already the antichrists who went out from the community because they were not really of us (2:18-19). He does not want the members of his churches to think they are children of God when they are not. He comes back repeatedly to obedience, love and belief, so his readers will examine themselves and test themselves to ensure they are His. No one who reads this book and thinks through it can come away from it ignorant of what marks the Christian. John repeats himself because of the gravity of his subject matter. We should be thankful that he does.
John begins by saying that the one who believes in the Son is born of God. In 2:29 he said that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him. In 4:7 he said that everyone who loves is born of God. These three verses list the three tests – the believer must believe, obey, and love.
John explained what being born of God means in 3:1-3. Those born of God are His children. They are adopted into the family of God and enjoy all the privileges of sonship. They are indwelt by the Spirit of God and so partake of the divine nature (II Pet 1:4). They are born again (Jn 3) and the evidence of their new birth is they believe that Jesus is the Christ.
He earlier said that whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God abides in God and God abides in Him (4:15). He also said that God commands us to believe in the name of the Son (3:23). When we believe, we show that we abide in God and are born of God and that we obey His commands.
Reading the verse as a whole we see that the one who believes in the Son loves the Father. Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature (Heb 1:3). To believe in the Son is to love the Father who sent Him and who is one with Him. If we love the Father, we will love others who – like us – are born of Him. A child of God (defined as one who believes in the Son) loves other children of God because they are born of the One he loves.
In verse 2 he makes a statement that is the mirror image of 4:20. There he said that we know we love God when we love our brothers. Here he says we know we love our brothers when we love God. Taking the two verses together it is evident the two loves are interchangeable. If we love God we love others and if we love others we love God – neither is ever alone. Loving God enables loving others but loving God never happens without loving others.
He does not simply say we will love God. He explains how we will love God. We will love Him by keeping His commandments. This corresponds to Jesus’ words in John 14:21 that those who love Him will keep His commandments. Obedience gives us assurance that we love God and are His children. But it is also a means of loving God. We love God by obeying Him and loving others.
This points to love always being active. John told us we know love because Jesus laid down His life for us – and that we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. He said if we love one another we will meet the physical needs of one another – our love will not be only in word, but in deed (3:16-18). Our love for God is not intangible – if we love Him we will obey Him – and our love for others is not intangible – if we love them we will meet their needs. There is no such thing as passive or inactive godly love – love shows itself.
Thus, since we love others when we love God and we love God by keeping His commandments, AND since God commands us to love one another, it follows that we love others when we keep the commands of God. We know we love others because we love God. And we know we love God because we keep His commandments.
Further proof of our love for God is our attitude toward His commands. One who is born of Him will not find God’s commands burdensome. The child of God may find the commands of God difficult – may find them to set a high standard (how can a serious reader of the Sermon on the Mount not come away humbled by the standard set for the citizen of God’s kingdom?) – but he does not resent the commands or find them to be a yoke around his neck (or if he does, a yoke that is easy and a load that is light – Matt 11:30). He may be acutely aware of his failure to keep them but he wants to keep them because they are the commands of the One he loves. He also knows that obedience is the path to becoming more like the Son.
So here is the test that we must all put to ourselves: what is our attitude to the commandments of God? Do I feel that the Christian life is a task, something against the grain, something to which I have to force and press myself? Do I merely attempt to keep the commandments because I am afraid not to; am I just playing for safety, or am I living this life because I enjoy it? Is it my desire to keep the commandments of God; do I recognize that they are essentially right, and do I long to conform to them increasingly? These are the questions, and it is my answer to them that really proclaim whether I am a Christian or not. (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ; 587.)
Another reason the believer does not find the commandments of God to be a burden is because the power of God to obey is at his disposal. The reason why we do not find the commands of God burdensome lies not, however, only in their character. It lies also in ourselves, namely that we have been given the possibility of keeping them. (John Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; 176.). Whatever is born of God overcomes the world. The power that indwells the believer through the new birth enables him to overcome sin and obey the commands of God. There is no power aligned against us as mighty as that which exists IN us – greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (4:4). We have no excuse when we give in to the temptations of the world
John earlier defined the world as the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life (2:16). The world is anything opposed to God – anything that stands between us and our duty to glorify God. This is what the believer can and will overcome. And if the believer overcomes it, he certainly cannot love it or the things in it (2:15).
John goes on to make an astounding statement in the second half of verse 4. He says our faith is the victory that HAS overcome the world. Through faith we identify with Christ. Christ defeated sin and the world of sin on the cross. Through the Son we are already victorious over the world – we HAVE overcome it. We remain in the world but we are not enslaved to it. We also live with the knowledge that ultimate victory on the Great Day is ours. The battle continues, but the outcome is certain – the war is effectively over even as the fighting goes on.
Faith is the victory! Faith is the victory!
O glorious victory that overcomes the world.
In verse 5 he returns to belief (comes back to the opening statement of verse 1) and states clearly Who our faith is in. We do not have faith in ourselves or in faith generally – we have faith in Jesus who is the Son of God. It is only through the Son that we HAVE overcome and continue to overcome. Note that he goes back to present tense in this verse – the one who believes in the Son overcomes. The Christian continues in a sinful world; while sin has been conquered it has not been stamped out. And the propensity to sin has not been eliminated in the believer. But the power of sin does not rule the believer – and through the power of faith in the Son we overcome the power of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The life the believer lives in the flesh he lives through faith in the Son of God (Gal 2:20), and because of Christ the believer overcomes the world.
Thought: What does this look like? How can I say that I overcome the world – or that I HAVE overcome the world – when I feel like I fail all the time? It is easy to understand the principle and it is easy to say that I am victorious through Christ – but what about my problem with gossip or overeating or lust or temper? I fall so much to the same sins over and over again that I have a hard time believing that I am much of an overcomer.
Some things to consider:
- Overcoming does not mean perfection. John has already said that anyone who claims to be sinless is a liar (1:8) and that we are to confess our sins and ask forgiveness (1:9).
- Overcoming does not mean we never fall to the same sin twice. The life of Peter clearly shows someone who battled the fear of man throughout his life (denial of Jesus in the garden – denial of the gentiles in Antioch).
- Overcoming does not mean that we do not get discouraged or overwhelmed by our sin. Sin is defeated but that does not mean it is not powerful. The old man with its fleshly desires still resides in us – and its ability to lure us into what we otherwise hate is not gone (Rom 7).
- Overcoming DOES mean we see sin for what it is. While the Christian will fall to sin he will not be blind to it in his life. This does not mean that there are not areas in our life that God has not exposed to us yet – but we should not live under the ongoing deception of sin. The believer who lives in sin and can no longer see it or who rationalizes it because he is blind to its ramifications cannot claim to possess the power of faith.
- Overcoming DOES mean we do not want to sin. We fall to temptation because it presents something we want to do at the moment – but we regret our actions ultimately because we do not want to offend our Creator. The believer who overcomes is the one who truly hates sin and hates it all the more for its ability to attract. The overcomer hates sin in his own life and hates the sin he sees in others and the world.
- Overcoming DOES mean we do not have to sin. We will always commit sins – but we never have the excuse that we had no choice. We are not enslaved to anyone or anything but our Father. Lifelong habitual sins are hard to defend for the believer.
- Overcoming DOES mean we see the world as God sees it. As we live and grow in faith we more and more see the world as temporary and stained by sin – we are less and less attracted to its temptations and rewards.
- Overcoming DOES mean we understand that we cannot fight alone but that we do in fact have to fight. We cannot defeat the world on our own but we do not approach it passively. We both depend on the strength of the Son and work out our salvation. We fight remembering that we have limitless power at our disposal.
- Overcoming DOES mean that after we fall, we confess and repent and rise again. The Enemy loves to make us think about our sin after the fact and keep us away from God because we have blown it. But John says we are to confess and that God is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us. God invites us back and the overcomer is the one who comes back and does not allow his own sin to separate him from the Father. Part of overcoming is simply continuing.
Christian believers are God’s children, born from above. God’s children are loved by all who love God. Those who love God also keep His commands. They keep His commands because they overcome the world, and they overcome the world because they are Christian believers, born from above. (John Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; 177-178.)
The believer is one who is born of God and believes in His Son, loves God and the children of God, and obeys God’s commands. All three must be true – they do not exist in isolation.