Keep the Faith! (1 John 2:24-25)

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Is faith in Jesus a one-time event or an ongoing commitment?
In my ministry as a pastor, I have seen people’s faith wax and wane. I know of one young man, for example, who gave his heart to Jesus, became actively involved in church, and even participated in summer-long missions projects, only to reject Christianity in his college years. I could multiply stories like his, but I think you get the point. You also probably know people who at one point in their lives professed faith in Christ but now do not. Their faith, which once waxed, has now waned to the point of nonexistence.
Are such people saved? Charles Stanley thinks they may be. In his book, Eternal Security, he writes, “The Bible clearly teaches that God’s love for His people is of such magnitude that even those who walk away from the faith have not the slightest chance of slipping from His hand.” Also, “Even if a believer for all purposes becomes an unbeliever, his salvation is not in jeopardy.”[1] For Charles Stanley, faith in Christ for salvation is a one-time event: “Once saved, always saved”—even, evidently, if you renounce Christ.
In light of our studies of 1 John, I hope you see what is wrong with Charles Stanley’s reasoning. Remember the context of this letter. Former members of the church had embraced heresy and seceded from the church, attempting to drag others along with them. If Charles Stanley is right, those people—whom John refers to as “antichrists” in 2:18—are still saved, as long as they gave their hearts to Jesus sometime prior to their heresy and secessionism. Once saved, always saved, regardless of whether you currently have faith.
Notice how different from Charles Stanley’s position is John’s position as he states it in 1 John 2:24-25:
See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us—even eternal life.
Here faith is not a one-time event, it is an ongoing commitment to Jesus Christ. It is something that “remains in you,” and if it does, “you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.” The result of all this remaining is “eternal life.” Faith abides.
Now, before anyone sends me nasty emails because I have criticized Charles Stanley or the doctrine of eternal security, let me point something out. Abiding faith is consistent with both traditional Calvinism and traditional Arminianism. Like Charles Stanley, traditional Calvinism also teaches “Once saved, always saved.” Unlike Charles Stanley, however, traditional Calvinism teaches that backsliding or apostasy from the faith is proof that a person was never saved in the first place. Why? Because true faith abides. Unlike either Charles Stanley or traditional Calvinism, traditional Arminianism denies “Once saved, always saved.” Like traditional Calvinism, however, traditional Arminianism teaches that faith abides. If a person enters eternal life, it is because of an abiding faith in Jesus Christ, who graciously gives us eternal life.
So, either way, keep the faith!

[1] Quoted in Thomas R. Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 27.

The Real Jesus (1 John 2:20-23)

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Who is the real Jesus?
Last year, just in time for Easter, the National Geographic Society published its translation of The Gospel of Judas, a second century Gnostic writing that makes a hero out of Judas Iscariot. According to this so-called gospel, Judas betrayed Jesus at Jesus’ behest, in order to liberate the divine spark of Jesus’ soul from its imprisonment in Jesus’ body.
No reputable scholar that I know of thinks The Gospel of Judas is historically accurate.[1] But some scholars—not to mention many ordinary readers—think that historically accurate information about Jesus is hard to come by, if it can be come by at all. They are what I would call “historical Jesus relativists.” The canonical Gospels draw one portrait of Jesus, so their argument goes, Gnostic gospels (such as Judas) draw another, and who’s to say which is more accurate?
Throughout 1 John, John is responding to erstwhile Christians who have seceded from the church because of their denial of the truth about Jesus. What’s worse, they are trying to convince the remaining church members to follow their heretical lead. By way of reply, John writes this in 1 John 2:20-23:
But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
These verses contain three criteria for determining the real Jesus:
First, the test of spiritual experience: John writes of “an anointing from the Holy One.” Most likely, this refers to the baptism of the Holy Spirit that was the characteristic experience of Christians in the New Testament. As various passages in Acts make clear, this experience of the Holy Spirit united Christians despite their religious backgrounds, ethnicity, and geographical location (Acts 2:1-4, 8:14-17, 10:44-48, 11:15-18, 15:6-11, 19:1-7). And, as various passages in the Gospels make clear, baptism in the Spirit was the work of the resurrected Jesus (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5).
Second, the test of tradition: John writes, “all of you know the truth.” They learned the truth when they first believed the gospel. It was the heretical secessionists who were promoting novel ideas, not John. For John, the truth about Jesus had been handed down from Jesus through apostles such as himself. Faith involved receiving this tradition with grateful affirmation.
Third, the test of doctrine: For John, neither experience nor tradition alone guarantees access to the real Jesus. Experiences can be faked, and given enough time, traditions can become deformed. What is necessary are truth claims. According to John, the truth about Jesus is that he is “the Christ,” that is, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world. Deny that truth, and you have cut yourself off from access to the real Jesus.
So, who is the real Jesus? The One known for centuries through the common experience, unbroken tradition, and faithful doctrine of the church.

[1] Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Gospels (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2006); Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006); and N. T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006).

You’re Gonna Love Lakisha Jones!

My wife got me hooked on American Idol a couple of years ago, and this video explains why. Lakisha Jones is an assuming single mom from Flint, Michigan, who works as a bank teller. But holy cow can she sing! Here’s a video from Thursday’s American Idol, which starts with her bio and ends with her singing "You’re Gonna Love Me" from Dream Girls. As Simon Cowell puts it at the end of her song, she is truly in "a different league" than her competitors.


Love Jesus, Love His Church (1 John 2:19)

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Is it ever okay to leave your church?
When my father pastored a church in the 1970s and 80s, he calculated that 25-30% of the church left it every year. It had nothing to do with his preaching, which was excellent. Instead, the area in which he ministered was full of young, upwardly mobile families, whose jobs moved them around quite a bit. The other churches in the area had a similar rate of turnover.
Recently, an email correspondent of mine shared the story of why she left her mainline Protestant church. Although she had a long history in the church and loved the people there, its pastor had begun to teach doctrinal and ethical positions that contradicted the plain meaning of the Bible. She simply reached a point where she could no longer support the church’s ministry with her time, talent, and treasure.
One final story about leaving church: In the early 1990s, I enrolled in an evangelical theological seminary just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. While there, I began attending a church with a fantastic pulpit ministry, wonderful fellowship, and strong commitment to the community. Unfortunately, the choir attempted to bite off more Bach than it could chew every week, especially one male member whose pitch-challenged voice could be heard above all the others. After a few weeks of enduring this weekly musical train wreck, I left the church.
There are, it seems to me, legitimate and illegitimate reasons for leaving a church. Leaving a church because your job is moving you across the country is legitimate. Leaving for principled doctrinal and ethical reasons is (or at least can be) legitimate. But what about leaving due to matters of taste? I don’t know. I’ve always felt guilty about leaving that church in Massachusetts. So what that the choir—that one guy in particular—didn’t sing well! I’m sure the guy in the pew in front of me thought exactly the same about my weekly rendition of the hymns. (I too sing loud and not always in key.)
First John 2:19 talks about a group of people who left the church.
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; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
In verse 18, John refers to these people as “antichrists.” That sounds uncharitable, but it was an accurate label, for as verse 22 makes clear, they denied that Jesus is the Christ. They weren’t really Christians at all. After all, it’s pretty hard—downright impossible, really—to be a Christian without Christ. Unfortunately, they still considered themselves Christians in some weirdly attenuated sense. Even more unfortunately, they were trying to convert the real Christians to their errant religion.
For John, however, belonging is a key aspect of believing. If you believe in Jesus Christ, you’ll stick with his church. So, is it ever okay to leave your church? Yes, in certain circumstances, but here’s the basic rule of thumb: if you love Jesus, you’ll love the people he loves too.

Under an Eternal Deadline (1 John 2:18)

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As a writer, I am asked occasionally to submit an article for publication. Attached to these requests is a deadline, usually not far off. Having a deadline helps me focus my research and writing so that I can turn out a good article in a short time.
According to 1 John 2:18, we all live under the deadline of eternity.
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know that it is the last hour.
Let’s interpret this verse one phrase at a time.
First, dear children: John is the spiritual father of the people he is writing to. He is not a boss giving an assignment, a doomsday alarmist scaring the masses, or an end-times novelist selling books. He is, instead, a parent concerned about the wellbeing of his spiritual children. He has a parental sense of urgency about the eternal deadline under which they live.
Second, this is the last hour: First John 2:18 is the only place in the New Testament where the phrase the last hour appears. However, it is similar in meaning to the phrases the last days or the last times. According to Colin G. Kruse, “In some cases these [phrases] refer to the whole period begun by the first coming of Jesus and running through to his final parousia [i.e., second coming] (cf. Acts 2:17; Heb 1:2; 1 Pet 1:20). In other cases they refer to the last part of that period, just prior to the final parousia (cf. 2 Tim 3:1; Jas 5:3; 2 Pet 3:3; Jude 18). The last part of the period, it is said, will be marked by various difficulties and tribulations (2 Tim 3:1; 2 Peter 3:3; Jude 18).”[1] Whatever the specific reference is to in 1 John 2:18, it is clear that we are drawing closer to our eternal deadline.
Third, as you have heard: Evidently, teaching about the end times generally and the antichrist specifically was part of John’s apostolic teaching. It is part of the warp and woof of authentic Christianity.
Fourth, the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. The antichrist is the great opponent of God, Christ, and the church who will arise at the end of the last days. Elsewhere, the New Testament refers to him as the “man of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:3), the [false] “Christ” (Matthew 24:26, Mark 13:21), and the “beast” (Revelation 13:1). But John adds that the antichrist has many forerunners, who are also “antichrists” because they deny that “Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22).
Fifth, this is how we know that it is the last hour: We know we live in the last days because every advance of the gospel is met by a determined spiritual counteroffensive. As people who live under an eternal deadline, we need to keep our guard up. Nobody said that keeping our eternal deadline would be easy, only that it would be worth it.

[1] Colin G. Kruse, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 98.

If God Loves the World, Why Can’t We? (1 John 2:15-17)

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According to John 3:16, God “loved the world” enough to give his Son for its salvation. But according to 1 John 2:15, Christians are forbidden to “love the world or anything in the world.” If God loves the world, why can’t we?
In his commentary on 1 John, Colin G. Kruse helps us answer this question by teasing out four different senses of the word world in 1 John:
The word kosmos occurs 23 times in 1 John, and its meaning varies according to context. In one place it means the natural world (3:17), in several places it bears a locative sense—the place into which various ones go or in which they live (4:1, 4, 9, 14, 17; cf. 2 John 7), in other places it denotes ‘worldly’ values or attitudes that are opposed to God (2:15-17 [6x]; 5:4 [2x], 5), and in yet other places it denotes the unbelieving world—people who are opposed to God and believers, and who are under the power of the evil one (3:1, 13; 4:5 [3x]; 5:19).[1]
God loves the world in the first sense; the natural world is his creation. The world in the second sense—as a description of the place to which one goes or in which one lives—is morally neutral. God opposes the world in the third sense; he can hardly be expected to tolerate “values or attitudes that are opposed to [him].” But God loves the world in the fourth sense; he desires to save those who are under the power of the evil one.
First John 2:15 uses the word world in the third sense, and John 3:16 uses it in the fourth sense. There is no contradiction between God loving the world and our not loving the world because the word world means different things in these verses.
With this distinction in mind, let’s read 1 John 2:15-17 in its entirety:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.
We are mistaken if we interpret these verses as a commandment to hate the natural world, which God made, or the world of unbelievers, whom Christ died to save. Rather, they clearly have anti-God values and attitudes in mind: “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does.” The problem with such values and attitudes is twofold: They do not come from God, and they do not lead to eternal life.
If, then, we love God and love life, we will do well to avoid them.

[1] Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 74

The Multigenerational Church (1 John 2:12-14)

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The church is (and ought to be) a multigenerational community. Unfortunately, powerful forces in our society tend to pull the generations apart. But the gospel has a unique power to bring them back together again.
What are some of the powerful social forces that pull the generations apart?
The first is space. Many people don’t live near their extended families. They are cut off from day-to-day relationships with their grandparents, parents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Instead, they live in suburban neighborhoods where most of the people are strangers who occupy the same demographic niche as they do.
The second is time. Americans are very busy people. Between working itself and commuting to and from work, many people have little time for leisure. But that’s what multigenerational family time is: leisure time.
The third is desire. Marketing experts spend billions of dollars to create niche markets for their products, especially their media products. In the heyday of primetime television programming, the entire family could sit down to watch Ozzie & Harriet, Little House on the Prairie, or The Cosby Show. Now, however, television shows are narrowly marketed to the generations. Would you really want to watch The OC with your grandmother?
The fourth is style. Different generations dress differently, talk differently, listen to different music, and communicate differently. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but older adults don’t like loud music, and younger adults can’t seem to go without blaring their car stereos and iPods all day long.
As Christians, we are subject to these social forces as well. But the gospel is a spiritual force around which we can all unite. In 1 John 2:12-14, John addresses all his readers as “children,” but then he distinguishes between them based on their ages as “fathers” and “young men.”
I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.

I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.

I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father.
I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.
What are the spiritual forces that unite us? First, all of us are sinners whose sins God has forgiven because of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The next time you want to complain about the crotchety old guy in the pew in front of you or the disrespectful teenager wearing shorts to church, remember: Christ died for that person.
Second, all of us need to exercise faith in Christ for salvation. Sometimes, older Christians forget their initial enthusiasm for following Christ. That’s why John reminds them about the importance of knowing “him who is from the beginning.”
And third, all of us need to make progress in holiness. We need to “overcome the evil one” by obedience to “the word of God.” Sometimes, younger Christians think the Christian life is easy. That’s why John reminds them it’s an overcoming lifestyle.
Salvation, faith, and holiness: These bind all Christians together, regardless of their age.

Are Christians Haters? (1 John 2:9-11)

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I once had a conversation with a Christian man about interracial marriage. He strongly opposed such marriages and argued that our church should not publicly condone them. (As part of a series on marriage, we had photographed couples in the church and showed their pictures during a worship service. Several of the couples were interracial.) I replied that there was no room in the church for bigotry because God created us all equally and offers salvation to all freely.
Which one of us was right?
The man offered a laundry list of arguments about the evils of interracial marriage. (They were a hodge-podge of bad logic and false facts.) Noticeably lacking from his list was any biblical argument. And indeed, it would impossible for a Christian to root bigotry in the Bible. Consider, as just one example, 1 John 2:9-11:
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.
Hatred is incompatible with Christian fellowship. It is incompatible with God’s character, for as 1 John 4:8 puts it, “God is love.” It is incompatible with God’s desire to save us, for as 1 John 4:10 says, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” And 1 John 2:2 makes sure we understand that Christ is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Finally, hatred is incompatible with God’s desire to sanctify us, that is, to replace our sin with holiness.
Unfortunately, some people who claim to be Christians are haters. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ronald J. Sider reminds his readers that “during the civil rights movement, when mainline Protestants and Jews joined African Americans in their historic struggle for freedom and equality, evangelical leaders were almost entirely absent.” And he quotes the alarming conclusion of a study of evangelicals and race, which says, “White evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it.”[1]
If the conclusion of that study is accurate, then many professing Christians are still stuck in sin. They have not moved from darkness to light in their actions. They have not experienced the sanctifying power of God, his ability to liberate us from hatred and for love. And that, quite frankly, should alarm us.
Christianity, after all, is not just a creed to confess. It is also an ethic to be lived. Indeed, if John is to be believed, the truthfulness of our confession is demonstrated by the integrity of our lives. Christ did not hate, he loved; and if we claim to follow him, we too must love, not hate.
P.S. Check out Part 2 of my blog series, The God Delusion, here.

[1] Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 25, 26.

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