Thursday, June 29, 2006

Chastened Certainty

Even though last Sunday was my last 'official' Sunday at PBF I am speaking there this Sunday which gives me a chance to finish up my series on 1 John and Matthew. I am looking forward to teaching the Gospel of Matthew at TBS this fall as it is an important part of the New Testament Scriptures. However, sometimes it is easy to overlook smaller parts of the NT like the letter of 1 John. This is something we must not do because all that God has revealed and perserved for us in the Bible is necessary for our growth and development as Christians.

1 John 5:18-21 bring the letter, or what some believe was a sermon, to a close. When you read the verses you see that John goes out with a bang! From the beginning John has been writing so that we might have fellowship with God and with one another and so that our joy might be full. Here at the end he anchors these desires in three things that he knows about for sure about God and his salvation in Jesus Christ. There are people around today who tell us that we should avoid dogmatic statements about anything. They tell us that people will not trust us if we claim to know anything with absolute certainty. This is understandable under normal circumstances. We are very limited in our perspective and we are shaped by our assumptions more than we realize. But we must always remember that when it comes to the Bible we have certainty not because of who we are and what we know but because of what God has revealed to us. To 'hum and haw' when God has clearly spoken is not an act of humilty but of unbelief and cowardice. With this is mind let me mention the three things that all Christians can know for sure.

1. We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One born of God keeps them safe and the evil one cannot harm them. This is not sinless perfection but another indication of the kind of personal transformation that is experienced by the person who has known the salvation of God. Salvation is not just talk but power. It is not merely intellectual notions but liberation that sets a person free to serve the Lord.

2. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. Not only is there liberation from the enslavement of sin but there is freedom from the evil one. He controls those who are outside of Christ in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways but he cannot harm the Christian. John's prose also reminds us that there is to be a difference between the children of God and the world. This difference is not superficial but profound. It's a matter of what hold our hearts? Where do our loyalties lie? Are we driven by a desire for God's glory? Are we really servants, or more literally, slaves of Christ?

3. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. We do not need to be tossed back and forth by every wind of doctrine. We can know the truth. He has given us understanding. There is the possibility of a chastened certainty! We are not left in the dark. We need not cling to types and shadows. The reality has come and we know what we need to know to escape this world which is scheduled for destruction as we learn from God's Son, Jesus Christ.

Then finally John closes with the words Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. This says it all. If the truth is found in Jesus Christ, everything outside of him is an idol. He is the standard. The beginning and end of wisdom. Idolatry is more pervasive and deep-rooted than many realize. Our hearts are naturally drawn to idols. Only God is able to break their spell and set our sights on himself. John's exhortation is as necessary today as it was when he first wrote it down. This is the challenge of living in the world without becoming sinfully entangled in it. May our remembrance of all that God has done for us by making us his dear children drive us to run from idols and into the arms of the Savior who loves us and gave himself for us.


JLF said...

Prof. Wellum, I posted a link to this post on another blog and one girl had this to say:

In response to "This is not sinless perfection but another indication of the kind of personal transformation that is experienced by the person who has known the salvation of God. Salvation is not just talk but power. It is not merely intellectual notions but liberation that sets a person free to serve the Lord." - But what does this even mean? I agree that Scripture is true, and yet I can't understand how the passage cited, "We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him" is even true. And, how are we even born of God anyways? Is that our "rebirth" that = our "adoption" that makes us "born of God"? 'Cause "the one who was born of God" was Jesus, begotten of the Father, and we were MADE, not begotten. Ugh.

What kind of personal transformation do we experience? Some of us are lucky enough to have experienced some degree of evidence of this in ourselves when we choose to accept Christ's salvation; some of us just accept it in faith and don't see the fruit of it for some time, beyond some kind of perhaps peaceful trust that we have made a good choice, and even this often wanes.

I know that Jesus keeps me safe, although "safe" often looks very different from what I would expect it to be. I know that Satan cannot *ultimately" harm me to the point of death, and yet he certainly wounds me deeply on an ongoing basis. And, although I acknowledge the infallibility of Scripture, I do not in my heart believe or understand how anyone (other than Jesus) who is born of God could stop continuing to sin, and the commentary in question only really says to me, "Embrace the mystery of the fact that this makes no sense." Which I'm willing to do, since God makes no sense, but in the end, I'm back to not really believing what Scripture says.


You can reply to it here if you wish, or else I'll tell her to check back here. Or you can just not reply, since I'm the one stirring up the trouble :)

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Hi Julian. There are many good questions here and I will try to answer some of them.

First of all, the passage is true whether or not anyone understands it or has personally experienced what it is talking about. The rebirth that John is speaking about here and elsewhere in his writings is that power of God which brings people from unbelief to faith, from living for self to living for his glory, from autonomous independence to repentant dependence on God.

The "one who is born of God" in the passage is Jesus but that is not all that John says. When he says "we know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin..." he is obviously not refering to Jesus because Jesus never sinned. In the Bible Jesus is the unique Son of God, but wonder of wonders believers are also regarded as "sons" of God because by grace through faith they have come to share in the life of the Father and the Son. Elsewhere John says, "This is eternal life, that they may know you and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John 17:3).

In terms of what kind of personal transformation we experience as Christians the New Testament is full of examples. The book of Acts, for instance, tells us of the difference that Jesus made in people's lives. Peter went from being a coward to a bold witness. Paul went from being a persecutor to a man who suffered greatly in order that Jesus might be loved and worshiped. Add to this the change that overtook the 3000 on the day of Pentecost and the love and boldness that marked the early Christians, and the transformation that John speaks about becomes clear and tangible.

Beyond Acts, the letter of Paul to the Romans speaks of transformation all the way through and especially in chapters 12-16. 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians do likewise often following a typical Pauline pattern of doctrine first and then practical application of the doctrine to the life situations of the people.

More to the point I suppose since I was talking about 1 John is the letter itself. In it John talks about three main tests or evidences that we have experienced the grace of God. First, we must hold to the biblical presentation of Jesus; second, this in turn must produce in us Christian righteousness; and third that must be joined to deep and sincere love for the other members of God's family. In other words, there must be and there is personal transformation in at least these three major areas of our lives.

Now this does not mean that we have arrived or that we are beyond the reach of sin. In fact, sin unfortunately attaches itself to everything we do. And yet... there is a world of difference between imperfectly worshiping God and not worshiping him at all. Or imperfectly loving God and not loving him at all. Or imperfectly serving God and not serving him at all. While we are not the people we will be when we see Jesus neither are we the people that we were before we met him... if we are really Christians at all. And the New Testament is clear that in the end many will be surprised that although they considered themselves Christians, Jesus does not (Matthew 7:21-23). This is a sobering reality that does not get enough attention today.

But having said that we do not need to live in fear. We can know God and know that we know God. That is one of the reasons First John was written. To claim otherwise is to call God a liar and no Christian wants to do that.

I hope this helps. This are vital issues that no one can afford to be unaware of. We all need to pray that our experience might more and more be conformed to the biblical standard.

Lookupover said...

Hi Prof. Wellum, I wrote the last post which Julian pasted. thought I'd respond to some of your responses:

Since the dilemma I described is more about reconciling what I intellectually know to be true with what my heart feels, I don't feel that pointing out said evidence in Scripture is any more convincing for me. As I said, I know in my head that the Bible is infallible, therefore I know in my head that everything it says is true, including all the lovely stories about personal transformation described in Acts and elsewhere - these stories are sources of my greatest hopes for this life, and I long to see those kinds of transformations happen before me. But those passages aren't enough for my heart's satisfaction, because I need those things evidenced in the present, or if they can't be evidenced right now, then at least an explanation of why, for now, hen I know that people I love (including me) call Jesus "Lord" (and I believe very much that they love him in a way that will make him say "I know you precious one" on the Last Day) while engaging in repetitive, addictive sin, I can't help grieve the seeming incongruency of this with the passage in 1 John. Are you saying you believe that the transformation you speak of is just a powerful and ongoing decrease in sin, and increase in righteousness?.. 'cause I could buy that...

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Hi Lookupover. Thank you for your honest response. Yes, in one sense I'm saying that Christians will experience a decrease in sin and an increase in righteousness as time goes on. But I would also want to say more than that. A key NT passage in this regard is Romans 6 where the apostle speaks about a definitive break with sin. Again, this is not to suggest anything close to sinless perfection. But I believe it does tell us that when we put our faith in Jesus and become Christians the dominating power of sin is broken in our lives.

Please notice carefully the word "dominating". Before we were Christians sin had it's way with us. We were it's slaves and did it's bidding. When we became Christians we were liberated from sin's enslaving power. Now we are in a new position with regard to sin and righteousness.

This doesn't mean that we will necessarily "feel" liberated. Sinful habits and ways of living are sometimes very difficult to give up. And sometimes it can seem like we are still slaves to sin. However, this is where we must act in faith. We must believe what God's word tells us about our new position in Christ and act accordingly. We must say "no" to sin and "yes" to righteousness. Daily we must remind ourselves who we belong to and of the power that God has made available to us in Christ. And this does not rule out seeking help from others. Sinful ways of responding to certain situation can become deeply entrenched and we may need the help of other Christians to overcome sin's power. But the key point is that there is help available. We are not in a hopeless situation. We can make real progress towards conformity to the image of Jesus.

I hope this helps. May God encourage and strengthen you as you seek to walk with him.

Lookupover said...

Thanks for your response Prof Wellum. I think for now, however, I'm in a place where I feel more peace embracing the mystery of this seeming incongruency and waiting for God's revelation. I'm glad that your post brought this passage to my attention so I can walk with this a while.