A key struggle for new believers (and some not so new) is with assurance of salvation. How can we know that we are indeed the Lord’s people, kept safe in His almighty hands, and can be confident of entering heaven as a redeemed and justified saint when we die or the Lord returns? The Lord both commands and deeply desires, from the depths of His heart, for us to know we are His (cf. 2 Pet. 1:10; 1 Jn. 5:13). If we do not know we are God’s children, our work for Him will be poorer than it would otherwise be, as we will lack the confidence and Spirit-bestowed empowerment to make great sacrifices and endure much pain in the way of love for Him, His truth, and other people. The fruit we long to see will then be atrophied, and our struggle with assurance will only be increased.
This week’s message dealt with how believers can achieve and maintain the assurance of their salvation: Abiding in the light, awareness of sin, and relying on our Advocate.
A. Abiding in the Light (1:5-7)
The most basic aspect of salvation is arguably that the believer receives a new, spotless nature—the very life of God dwelling within them and which has created a new person. Because this is the life of God Himself, the believer now participates, or has a share in, something in common with, God Himself at the level of nature and being itself. “Fellowship” simply means to have something in common with someone else, to share in something. In this ultimate and most basic sense, the true Christian is never out of fellowship with God and it can never be lost, and salvation restores one from a state of deadness to God unto a state of warmth to Him and enjoyment of His very life. Here, to have fellowship with God is to do at least two things: to walk in the light (v. 7) and to practice the truth (v. 6).
John says he and the other men in the apostolic band heard from Jesus that God is Light, with no darkness whatsoever (v. 5). In Scripture, light can refer to doctrinal truth in contrast to theological error and lies (Psalms 43:3, 119:105, 130), as well as moral purity and righteousness in contrast to ungodly and sinful behavior and affections (Rom. 13:11-14; 1 Thess. 5:4-7). In some passages there does not seem to be a distinction, implying morality and doctrinal truth are intimately connected (e.g., Prov. 4:18). Light and darkness have nothing in common (2 Cor. 6:14), and this absolute contrast means one is either walking in darkness or light.
Given that assurance is tied to our fellowship, we need to ask this question: Can a believer ever be out of fellowship with God? It depends on what one means by “fellowship.” If you take it in the strict, narrow sense of nature shared, then no, believers are never out of fellowship with God. However, we can and do fail to live out this shared life and nature, and this often causes a loss of the sense of God’s presence, feelings of condemnation, and a loss of intimacy with Christ. In this sense, of living out a relationship, yes, a Christian can be out of fellowship with God. Fellowship is both an objective reality and a subjective relationship. Its practical emphasis is implied when John says a person’s claim to fellowship while they walk in darkness makes them a liar, which is further defined as one who does not “practice the truth” (v. 6). The practical test is further demonstrated in the next verse, where fellowship is defined as “walking in the light.”
We can explain it this way: Objective fellowship—whether one shares the life of God in their new nature—is revealed by whether one is characterized by subjective, practical fellowship—living out their new relationship to God as Lord and Savior by doing what He says out of a right heart. The two are tightly woven. The true believer who is in a period of disobedience often experiences a loss of assurance, and for good reason. God does not assure people who are walking in sin. Even the genuine Christian will face doubts about his reality if he is in prolonged disobedience. But such benefits come from walking in the light! We enjoy shared life with Christ and other believers and Christ’s precious blood continually cleanses us from sin. What is the relationship between fellowship and cleansing? Because if one is walking in the light, they are truly saved and have the perfect forgiveness of God. The continually obedient are the continually forgiven—not because their obedience merits anything or is in any way the ground of their justification, but because they demonstrate they know God and are justified people. God has given them a new nature because they are forgiven, and they live that out in joyful obedience and rich relationship with Him and His people.
B. Awareness of Sin (1:8-10)
Because the true believer has the nature of God, he or she is sensitive to sin. Things they once did with impunity sting them; things they once believed horrify them; things they once felt break their hearts. As the true believer grows in walking in the light, the Lord’s purity and truth expose vast areas of lack of surrender, lovelessness, unbelief, self-will, and numerous other sins and strongholds of every kind. The new realities that are ours in Christ affect the way we view the sin in our hearts and lives. Do we admit we are thoroughly corrupted and tainted by sin in our flesh? Moreover, do we call our sin (and sins) what God does—not a hang-up, or a mistake, or a different belief, or an emotional response based on how we were raised (though there may indeed be elements of these things involved), but sin? Do we see it for what it is? An important caveat: Believers possess the flesh, and the flesh always hates God. It can never be changed; that is why it must be crucified (Rom. 8:13). But because of this constant possession, there will be times when we are dull, blinded, led astray, deceived, cold to the things of God and enamored by the illicit pleasures of sin. Genuine Christians, particularly those with sensitive consciences, should not expect sinlessness nor a perfect repentance. God already knows we will fail Him in these areas, which is why our only hope and righteousness must be Christ. A good spiritual exercise here is to acknowledge your failures for what they are, grieve over them, and repent—but then look to Christ alone to rescue you from yourself and the coming wrath of God. Here you are obeying the apostle by confessing sin—yes! But you are also demonstrating faith in Christ as your righteousness, your Advocate—and this will honor God. And He will honor you.
It should be noted that confessing sin in verse 9 and walking in the light of verse 7 are intimately connected, in that their results are very similar. Likely the effects of verse 9 are practical (confession unleashes the Spirit’s power to actually walk in obedience and be set free from unrighteousness), while verse 7 highlights the subjective and even experiential (there is nothing between our soul and the Savior because of the blood, so we are free to enjoy His presence, walk confidently and freely with Him in love, and see, through the written Word, and manifested in our own souls, the very “face of Christ” [cf. 2 Cor. 2:10, 4:6]).
C. Relying on our Advocate (2:1-2)
The center and substance of the Christian life is Christ. He is our Savior, our perfect righteousness, our personal and present Lord, our heavenly Husband, and our soon-coming King. Hallelujah! The old apostle who has just exhorted his people to obey their resurrected and ruling Lord now speaks tenderly to them when their fallenness asserts itself. Our Lord is not a harsh taskmaster or a slavedriver. He is worthy of our obedience and demands it as His right (for God has installed Him as the head of the New Humanity and the coming King of Israel and the world), but Jesus is a tender and sympathetic High Priest (Heb. 4:15), who runs to our cries to help us and rescue us (Heb. 2:18). John encourages believers to look to Christ as their divine defense attorney in the heavenly courtroom.
Because the blood cleanses you every day as you walk in the light, you can never be charged with any wrongdoing in God’s court—Jesus has taken care of it all. Moreover, since you never walk in the light perfectly, some might be tempted to fear, for if cleansing is dependent on walking, then isn’t our indwelling sin a mere setting up for failure? No! For Jesus has paid for our failures to walk in the light, too—His perfect righteousness covers that, for He never failed to obey His Father. He, and He alone, is our righteousness before God and makes us acceptable to His perfect holiness. Jesus can be our Advocate because He is the “righteous one.” This hearkens back to the OT idea of one being in line with the standard established by God’s revealed Word. Because Jesus is holy God and perfectly obedient Man, He has never and will never be out of conformity with that standard. Jesus has no flesh to compete with His bearing the nature of God, like we do (of course, His is inherent and perfect while ours is derived and limited). This, then implies the imputed righteousness of Jesus—for even if His righteousness makes Him perfectly acceptable to the Father, it does me no good—unless I too share His righteousness.
Second, Jesus is the propitiation for our sins. This is a beautiful word that must stay in our Bibles! It means satisfaction. Jesus has absorbed completely, satisfied utterly, the wrath of God against sin and sins. For those united to Him by faith, they have a compete atonement for sin atop their flawless imputed righteousness. How secure the believer is!
One final note: What is the meaning of “world” in verse 2? Does it mean Jesus has propitiated the sins of everyone who has ever lived? It cannot, because then no one would go to Hell (why would they, if the wrath has been in fact satisfied, not merely potentially averted?). Instead, it means (1) Jesus is the only propitiation for sin offered to the whole world; there is no other way; and (2) Jesus propitiates the sins of people from every tribe, language, and nation—the world, not just Israel. Jesus is the perfect and only satisfaction for sin for anyone, anywhere!
Do you want assurance? Walk in the light—follow after God’s holiness and truth. Acknowledge and own your sin nature and your sins. And, when you do sin, do not wallow in despair, but run to Christ—the One who knows you, purchased you, and who alone and in every way makes you perfectly acceptable to the Father.