…the two guys who walked into the concession stand where I was working that summer and who started asking everyone, “Are you saved? Do you wanna know how to be saved?” I think I remember people getting up and leaving the picnic tables before they got to them, so I don’t recommend doing like what they were doing. But when they got to me, while I was working the cash register, I answered, “I used to think I was, but now I’m not so sure.” Because, four weeks after my response to an altar call, when I promised God everything, with great joy and certainty, I was not so joyful nor certain anymore. I had a few experiences under my belt to tell me that I was definitely not on the fast track to perfection; no halo was glowing around my head, and if I was disappointed in myself, how much more so must God be. Thirty six years later, I’m still not glowing with saintly perfection, and probably won’t be, not this side of the New Jerusalem. And I still have my moments of doubt. But like C.S. Lewis said, “As a believer, I have my doubts and they bother me; when I was an unbeliever, I also had my doubts, and they bothered me even more.” To my doubts about my status before God, the two witnesses (whoever you are, God bless you)pulled out their pocket Bibles and turned to the following passage from I John 5: 13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
“So does God want you to know if you’re safe and assured of his love?” The answer was unmistakably simple. Yes, according to John. And with that a wholly different way of life and faith opened up before me, one lived in confidence, based on God’s nature and power to keep his promises, not one lived in fear, based on my fickle nature and inability to keep promises perfectly. So here, below, is my message on this passage, and my attempt to reconstruct John’s reasons for assuring us of our assurance. Twenty centuries later, we’re still dealing with the same stuff.
A CELEBRATION OF ASSURANCE
What are we to think when we’re out on the street and we see that up ahead it has been blocked by police barricades, that blue and red lights are flashing atop police cars, yellow plastic tape has been drawn across the steps to the front doors of a bank building, police officers are standing around, some of them interviewing others, taking notes onto little notepads, while others are dusting the front doors with brushes while wearing rubber gloves? What are we to think? That your pastor has been watching too much CSI or Law and Order? Or more like, you’re coming onto the scene of a crime recently committed?
I’d vote for the crime scene, even though we weren’t there to see the crime. When I am watching TV, usually its America’s Funniest Videos or a fishing show on ESPN Outdoors.
Over the years that is how I have come to understand John’s First Letter, as evidence at the scene of a recent crime. We typically read I John for stirring, inspiring meditations on love, law and faith. And they are there. But I have to confess that two or three chapters in it also starts to seem like the thoughts about love, law and faith leave me feeling adrift on a sea of pious, positive platitudes with no direction or resolution.
Or I did until I came to suspect that what we’re reading in I John is also the aftermath to a crime scene. Then, when you read I John like a mystery novel, every reading gives you more clues into the criminals, the nature of the crime, and how John the writer helps the victims of the crime recover. Because that’s really what I think John is doing in his letter: guiding the victims of a crime toward healing and hope. The crimes: pre-meditated church-busting in the first degree, and aggravated spiritual abuse.
Here’s the first clue: Chapter 2: 19 “Many antichrists have come; They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” So obviously some group had left the church. In verse 26 John says, openly, “I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.” So obviously, the people who had left the church had been trying to lead the rest of the church astray. Or they were still trying to lead it astray.
Astray into what? Here are some other possible clues: 1) What am I to make of chapter 3: 6 “No one who lives in God willfully persists in sinning. No one who continues to persist in sin has either seen God or knows God,” but that some one, or some faction, lived in blatant immorality and tried to lead the church that way. In the verse before, John says, “Sin is lawlessness, but you know that Christ appeared so that he might take away our sins,” Could it be that someone, or some ones, were challenging God’s very laws?
Or what am I to make of 2: 9, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness,” but that these same people were hateful and spiteful toward others, maybe especially toward anyone who challenged or questioned them? Or what about 2:22 when John asks, “Who is the liar except the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” Either John is simply preoccupied with that issue, or more likely, his audience has actually been subjected to such teachings in their midst?
To rub salt in the survivors’ wounds, these teachers seemed to have claimed to be, “in the light,” a phrase John uses several times. And they claimed to know God, from all the times that John says, “Anyone who claims to know God must keep his commands” or “anyone who claims to know God must love his brothers and sisters.” I take it they even claimed to be prophets, because John says, “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” I take it they even claimed to be sinless, because of the times John says, “If we claim to be without sin,” as in, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
And if we should ask, How can they claim to be sinless, to know God and to be in the light even while they’re living in blatant immorality and are hating and brow-beating everyone who challenges them or disagrees with them? I think they had this answer: “Because we have knowledge. Special knowledge, a unique revelation of mysteries and secrets given to us as prophets.” Special knowledge that permitted them to live in sin but still claim to be sinless and to know God. It also seems that they resorted to their claim of special knowledge because of—and here’s a more circumstantial piece of evidence—because of all the times that John uses their words “know” and “knowledge” against them. Twenty-six times in John’s letter I find the word “know,” as in “by this we know,” or “so that you may know.” Then there are many uses of “knowledge” and “knowing.” What am I to think of that except that John is using their language against them, to tell his friends what they really need to know, that isn’t at all a secret?
Now any one of these things alone doesn’t stand as a clue to what happened to John’s friends. But put them together and a case begins to emerge that makes sense of the letter. I encourage you to read I John and see if the clues fall in place for you too. And how that might help you better understand the letter.
It also fits with what we know of church history. People who deny that Jesus came in the flesh, who claim to be saved by possession of secret knowledge that the rest of us ignorant uninitiated common people don’t have, secret knowledge that makes everything permissible to them, sounds weird and hard to believe, but actually it was quite common then. All the church leaders of the first few centuries had to deal with it. And its quite common yet today. Salvation through possession of secret knowledge is what books and movies like The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, celebrate. Mormons have successive levels of secret knowledge revealed in their secret temple rituals. A number of big-ticket Hollywood stars have put Scientology on the map. That’s another popular reboot of this tendency.
That approach to salvation, through secret knowledge of divine mysteries, is called “gnosticism,” from the Greek word, “Gnosis” for knowledge. You find that same word “gnosis” or knowledge in words like “agnostic,” “diagnosis,” and “prognosis.” If you’re wondering what the problem with gnosticism is, consider what it seems to have done to John’s friends. After their encounter with it, they seem to need a lot of encouragement and reinforcing. That’s what John gives them in his letter.
Now the reason I just spent 6 minutes building up a case for a gnostic invasion and division of John’s church is to explain why John would say to his disciples, in chapter 5: 13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Because they didn’t know anymore if they had eternal life. Not after what they had just been through. Because they didn’t know the allegedly saving secrets. And because they had probably just been treated to soul-numbing, spirit-crushing displays of sin and hostility within the church by people who claimed extraordinary spiritual authority, because of their secret spiritual knowledge, and yet who lived like crooks and libertines. It wrecked their congregation and constituted spiritual abuse. But John is saying, all you need to know, to know that you have eternal life is to trust in God through Jesus Christ. That’s all the knowledge, or gnosis, you need for eternal life.
John’s disciples weren’t the only believers to need a reminder of the assurance of God’s love for them. They weren’t the only ones to come out of crisis and confusion wondering if God still loves them. Or does the trial we’ve just undergone prove that we are outside the realm of God’s favor and grace? This is what we naturally wonder about whenever we are knocked down by disaster or disease, by lack or by loss: Why did God do this to me? Or why did God let this happen? Does he love me no more? Am I beyond the pale, outside the reach of his grace?
Some well-intentioned people live without an answer to this question, and surely it must bother them. Some would even say that we’re not supposed to have an answer to this question, so that a healthy amount of fear will keep us on the straight and narrow path, supposedly. Otherwise, if we know that God’s favor and our destiny are secure, they ask, won’t we use such assurance as a license to do evil? Shouldn’t there be a stick of fear, as well as a carrot of assurance, to make us good and keep us that way? That’s what my Muslim friends have asked. They say that such knowledge of God’s favor and our eternal destiny is only for God to have, and that its prideful for anyone to claim to know that we’re eternally and safely redeemed. A lot of Christians believe that way, too.
If so, I hope they didn’t get it from me. That’s not the kind of life which John is offering to us in this letter. Not to people who are probably already wondering if God has hung up the phone on them. Think long enough about what he says, “that you may know that you have eternal life,” and a vision of another world, another universe, another entirely different approach to life begins opening up before us. Not a world nor a life driven from behind by the fear of punishment and rejection—that is childish. Its where we begin our moral reasoning as toddlers. We obey because Mom and Dad are bigger and more powerful than we are. We fear that if we misbehave, Mom or Dad will punish us. Or abandon us. Or they won’t love us anymore. But that fear doesn’t always help us do better. Sometimes toddlers act up, unconsciously, just to push their parents, to see if its true, if they will leave or stop loving us if we keep whacking our baby sister on the head. They have to learn that, while that’s wrong, Mom and Dad won’t stop loving them. But a life lived only out of the fear of hell is hell already, compared to the peace and assurance that God offers us.
While goodness based on fear is better than no goodness at all, it still falls far short of goodness born of confidence and assurance, a good drawn out of us by a holy love and desire for God and for everything God would give us. Instead of living in an infantile, servile, immature fear of punishment, the gospel invites us to grow and mature in love and confidence. And so John says, in this same letter, “Mature love casts out fear.”
And to those who would say that such assurance of salvation is prideful, and leads to feelings of superiority, because we made the right choice of faith and they didn’t, I would say, Yes, unfortunately that can happen. But when it does, its because we don’t really understand either the nature of God and the depth of God’s love, nor the nature and depth of our need. The assurance of God’s love for us does not rest on us and our being deserving of it. Anyone who claims to be more deserving of God’s love than the thief on the cross who simply said, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom,” understands neither the kingdom nor the cross. They know neither God nor themselves very well.
Our assurance of eternal life rests upon God, God’s love, God’s nature, God’s will, and God’s Word. And as John points out, if we don’t believe that God is capable of loving us and accepting us unconditionally, simply because we reach out for it by faith and grasp it by trust, if we don’t believe that God can finish what he began in us and bring us safely all the way home, and that God really wants to do that, whatever the cost, then we’re calling God a liar.
That still doesn’t make it always easy to trust in God’s love and God’s power to do what he says he will do and bring us safely into his kingdom. Not when disaster, death or disease, or when lack or loss can feel like evidence that God has turned his back on us. So John’s words require of us two things: 1) is courage, the other 2) is love.
The theologian Karl Barth defined faith as “accepting that we are accepted” by God. John, in his letter, is calling bruised, confused and broken people to accept, contrary to the recent evidence in their lives, that God accepts them, loves them, and that they are eternally secure in Christ, as long as they stick with him. That’s all they need to know to make it home, safely. To do so, to accept their acceptance after having been divided, defeated and demoralized, is either foolish, or courageous. I prefer “courageous.” So John has urged on us the courage to accept that we are accepted by God, whether life looks that way or not, whether we even feel that way or not. That’s what I would add to Karl Barth’s definition of faith: accepting that we are accepted, yes. But also having the courage to accept that we are accepted, even when the evidence of life seems to say otherwise.
That’s what “the lord of the pots and pans” had to learn. That’s what Brother Lawrence called himself, because he was the chief cook and dishwasher in a French monastery during the 17th Century. His testimony is recorded in the devotional classic, Practicing the Presence of God. That’s what Brother Lawrence did. He lived life as a constant running conversation with God.
His deep and constant spiritual discipline made him all the more aware of his sins and shortcomings. So for four years he said he was deeply troubled by the possibility that, at the end of his life, God would not accept him into paradise. But his anxiety lifted when he finally surrendered to the logic that God could be counted upon to do the most loving thing with him. Again, because of who and how God is, not because of who or how Brother Lawrence was. From then on he said he would simply place his faults and sins before God in honest confession and trust God to live up to his word, to forgive and to cleanse him.
But sometimes that’s very hard to do on our own. For very long, that is. And that’s where love comes in. As a pastor, I see this all the time, but rarely am I at liberty to tell all the stories I see about how someone’s love helps pick someone else up when they’ve nearly lost all hope or strength for the journey. That’s what we do with all our visits and cards and phone calls of encouragement and support, isn’t it?
So I’ll turn to fiction instead. John Bunyan demonstrated the need for this courage, and the strength we find through being loved, three centuries ago in his classic novel, Pilgrim’s Progress. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. He seems to have known the words to the hymn, “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Because that’s the plot of the story. The main character, Christian, encounters many “dangers, toils and snares” on his way home to the Celestial City. Pilgrim’s Progress is not only fantasy; its also, in some ways, autobiography. Bunyan had his own struggles with doubt, depression, persecution and guilt, all of which are reflected in his book.
One of the dangers Christian has to face by himself is the fire-breathing dragon, Apollyon, a symbol of Satan, the Accuser, who nearly overcomes him with accusations of his sin and failures. They are more true than not, Christian has to admit. But by clinging to the sword of God’s Word with his last remaining ounce of strength, he sends the fiend fleeing, wounded and bleeding. So he survived, by the skin of his teeth, by showing the courage to accept that he was accepted, in spite of the half-true accusations that Apollyon was flinging at him like flaming arrows.
There are other trials which he survives, but only with the help of friends. Christian would have succumbed to public ridicule in the public stockade of the City of Vanity Fair if his friend Faithful hadn’t endured it with him. After Faithful is executed at the stake, another friend, Hopeful, joins him on the journey.
Then they are both captured and locked up in the dungeon of Doubting Castle by the Giant Despair, where they are both beaten, starved and taunted. Again, Christian nearly gave up all hope and surrendered to despair. But Hopeful says to him, “My brother, Apollyon couldn’t crush you, nor the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And remember how you played the man in Vanity Fair. Don’t forget I’m in the dungeon with you, a far weaker man by nature than you are. This Giant has wounded me as well as you, and cut off the bread and water from my mouth. And, like you, I’m deprived of light. So let us exercise a little more patience, and bear up as best we can, and keep on praying.”
By the end of the journey, it is evident that neither Christian nor Faitfhul could have made the dangerous journey without the other. Their loving support gave each one of them the courage to accept that they were accepted by God, when their enemies and their setbacks kept suggesting otherwise. Critics of Pilgrim’s Progress have asked where God is in the story, he never really shows up anywhere to help, when the dangers are so terrible and the journey is in his honor. But I think Bunyan was making a point: by making God seem absent, Bunyan helps all of us who have felt at times like God was absent, though he never really is. But that absence also highlights how God shows up instead in the timely appearances of friends who help Christian get through and survive the “many dangers, toils and snares” in their path. Indeed, their loving support for each other was sometimes all the proof of God’s acceptance that they had. That rings true for me; it is how I have most often experienced the sustaining grace and the unconditional acceptance of God: through the unconditional love of others, who lent me some of their courage when mine was failing.
In this congregation are many stories of courage: courage to face disease, to face the losses of life and of family and friends as we age, the courage to face things like unemployment or to emigrate to a new country, to travel and serve in other countries, even to start a new church, or to join a new church. In each of these stories of courage no one knew what the immediate outcome would be. But it has to help knowing what the long-term outcome is: eternal life. All we need to know about that is “tis grace hath brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.” Not because of who we are, or how we are, nor what we have done, but because of who God is, how God is, and what God has done. Do we dare to believe that? It makes all the difference in the world, this world and the next.