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A Word of Assurance

Series: 1 John

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 9, 2003

1 John 2:12-14

Turn with me to 1John chapter 2, as we continue our study through this great book. Now, it's been almost a month since we've been together in 1 John, so we should perhaps remind ourselves of what we've seen so far. This book is a book about the Christian life. In fact, John tells us in this book that to live the Christian life is to experience a fellowship with the Triune God. Or to put it another way around: Those who fellowship with the Triune God are Christians. And John is also concerned in this book to say that those who are Christians, those who know the Triune God, those who have a personal and corporate fellowship with Him, along with all those who trust in Him as He is set forth in His own self-revelation, the Bible–He is concerned to say that those who have that kind of fellowship will express that fellowship in various ways in their lives. In other words, you’ll be able to see it in their lives in different ways. You’ll be able to see it, he says, in what they believe: they will hold to a certain doctrine, especially a certain doctrine concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. They also will show it in the moral quality of their lives: they will love God's word and be obedient to His commands. And they will show it in their relationships to one another in godly, loving, self-giving fellowship within the Christian congregation. So, especially in those three areas–the doctrinal, the moral, and the relational–John is concerned to give us evidences of what true Christianity looks like in the lives of people in the various congregations of the Christian Church.

Now, at the beginning of this book, John makes it clear that there are certain false teachers who are disturbing the congregations to whom he is originally writing. And these false teachers see themselves as super-Christians; illuminati, people who have knowledge that the rest of us mere mortals don't have. They have knowledge that even the apostles don't have, and they’re going to enlighten the Christian Church to the deeper things of the Christian life. And John, in large measure, writes this book in order to make it clear that not only are those false teachers not super-Christians, they’re not Christians at all. In fact, he gives these marks–the doctrinal, the moral, and the relational marks of Christian experience–precisely to show that these false teachers are not Christians.

And so, John has a two-fold purpose in this book. He desires on the one hand to give true Christians a fuller, more rooted understanding of and experience of the assurance of salvation. To say it more simply, he desires that true Christians would have the assurance of their salvation. And at the same time, he is concerned that those who are not Christians but who think they are, would not be falsely assured of their salvation.

Now, that's a hard thing to do at the same time, and John knows that. So the passage that we come to today is actually a passage in which John pauses, and he recognizes that even as he undercuts the false salvation of false Christians, it can have an unintended effect: it can have the unintended effect of true Christians becoming insecure or uncertain about the own state of their hearts, about the state of their own salvation. And so he pauses here in 1 John 2:12-14 to give an important word of assurance to the humble, faithful believers of this local congregation.

And, of course, because John is speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his words are not only applicable to that local congregation to whom he first wrote, but to all Christians, in all ages, in all congregations, everywhere. This is God's word, and it's His word for us as well. And so we're going to look at this passage today and consider what John has to say to us about assurance. Before we hear God's word read and proclaimed, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His blessing.

Our Lord and our God, this is Your word, and You show us that it is Your word in many ways. Your Holy Spirit testifies to our hearts that this is the word of God. But You've also testified to us that this is Your word by many, remarkable signs which anyone with eyes open can see in your word. One of the ways that you testify that this is Your word is how strikingly applicable and relevant the truth which You wrote–some of it 2,000 years ago; some of it 2,500 years ago; some of it 3,000 years ago; some of it more–how applicable it is to right where we are today. In the passage before us, O God, we have such an instance where You address the issue of assurance, an issue which many, most, all of us have wrestled with from one time to another. And here You are speaking to us about it in Your word thousands of years, perhaps, before we were brought into being into this world. We thank You for Your ever-truthful and ever-practical word. Speak to our hearts by it. Enable us to receive it and believe it and to live by it, in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is God's word:

“I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name's sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I have written to you, children, because you know the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

John has been speaking to us about marks that we see in the lives of Christians, marks that we see in our own lives, which lend themselves to giving evidence of our having received the grace of God. Those marks are primarily things that we do in response to God's grace and mercy to us. And in this book he speaks especially of three marks: a doctrinal, a moral, and a relational mark.

He's hinted at the doctrinal mark, and we have seen him explain the moral mark of Christianity and the relational mark of Christianity. He said, for instance, that those who are true Christians delight in obeying God's will as He has revealed it in His word. And so we can see a mark of our state of grace by our attitude to God's word, and by it as our norm for living. If we love God's commands, and if we endeavor with all our heart to do those commands, we see then the evidence of God's grace at work in us. And if we love one another, he goes on to say, we are manifesting the grace of God in us.

Now, John's marks are very helpful and very practical, but John knows that his pointing to those marks could have the inadvertent effect of unsettling the assurance of true believers. It's a difficult thing, isn't it, to simultaneously attempt to build up a believer's assurance while undercutting a false assurance? Those who are true believers are often those whose consciences are most sensitive to their own failures in precisely the areas of their delight in God's word, and in obedience to His commandments, and in the deficiencies of their love to one another. And so even as he attempts to undercut false assurance, he may well effect an undercutting of what ought to be a full and robust assurance in a true Christian. And so John hastens to assure Christians of his confidence of their standing with God.

And in this passage he points to the basis of that confidence, and then, consequently, points us to some of the objective grounds of their assurance. He's focused on these subjective evidences of their salvation, the moral and the relational; now he pauses to point to the objective ground of their assurance and the things that flow from that. And in this passage today, he tells us at least three things.

Now we're going to follow it in a little bit different order than it's laid out in the text. We’re going to take each of the discreet sections together, even though he does them in two waves of consecutive comment. You will have noticed already the words little children, and then the words young men, and then the word fathers. We’re going to take each of the two sets of comments on little children, young men and fathers and look at them together because they form a complex of ideas which John is explaining to us. You’ll see the first set in verse 12 and then at the end of verse 13: those are John's words to little children. Then in the middle of verse 13 and at the end of verse 14, you’ll see his words to young men. And then at the beginning of verse 13 and at the beginning of verse 14, you’ll see his words to fathers.

Now, you know that John uses the words little children, or dear children, to refer to all Christians. He does this several times in this book and also in other books which he writes. But here John probably means something more specific when he says “little children” than simply to be speaking of everyone in the congregation. It seems that in each of these three phrases, John is characterizing the whole of the congregation, but he is pointing to constituent parts of it. And little children isn't a phrase that refers to those who are chronologically very young, but rather to those who are new Christians. And young men doesn't simply isolate only the younger males in the congregation, but those who are young Christians who are growing in grace. They’re not yet old in the faith; they’re not newborn babes in the faith; they’re young in the faith, but growing and strong. And fathers is not simply referring to the over-75 crowd in the church; it's referring to those who are spiritually mature. And we can see this from the comments that John attaches to them. And so walking through each of these, I want you to see a message that John has for all Christians regarding assurance.

I. Christians are forgiven, for Christ's sake, and thus know the Father.
Let's begin by looking at verse 12 and at the end of verse 13. John says, “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name's sake.” He goes on to say at the end of verse 13, “I have written to you, children, because you know the Father.” Now John's words to his little children here are meant for believers who are new in the faith. And in those two phrases, in those two sections of verses here in 1 John, John teaches us three things about Christian assurance: that Christians are forgiven; that Christians are forgiven for Christ's sake; and that thus Christians know the Father.

He's pointing us to the objective ground of our assurance, and he points to God's work of forgiveness, not to something in us. Now this is important. So far he's been talking about something in us that is a response to God's grace–our love for one another. Our love for one another did not cause God to love us; it is the result of God having loved us. Our love for God's commands did not cause God to love us; it is the result of God having loved us. But when he points to our life and to our love as evidence of assurance–if those things alone are the basis by which we are assured, we're going to struggle with assurance, because our love fluctuates. Ask any husband or wife in the room today: the quality and expression of love in the best of marriages changes from day to day. So if my assurance of my standing with God is based upon how I love my fellow Christians, my assurance is going to radically fluctuate from time to time. And so John is pointing us now away from those subjective evidences to God's work in our lives to something objective, outside of us, that God does.

And he points in the very first place to God's forgiveness. Christians are forgiven people, he says, objectively. And that, that work of God in forgiveness, is the ultimate ground of our assurance. And it's something outside of us. Think of this: forgiveness is not something in you; God does forgiveness. And He does it in justification, when He pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in His sight: not for anything in us, but all for the sake of the righteous Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. And John points to that in this very passage: he says, “Your sins have been forgiven you for His name's sake.”

John's point here is that Christians are not forgiven because of something we do; we're not forgiven because we deserve it; we're not forgiven because we're different in some way from other people who do not receive the gracious merciful forgiveness of God. We’re forgiven because of Christ; we're forgiven because of God's mercy shown to us in Jesus Christ. In other words, the basis of our forgiveness is outside of us, and so the assurance of our forgiveness is outside of us, and it's in what God has done. And so he point us to this fact: we're forgiven, and to this fact: that we're forgiven because of what Christ has done as the basis of our salvation.

And our Christian hymns sing about the glory of this truth. When John Newton came to understand that he was a forgiven sinner, he sang “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” Or if you were to pick up your hymnals and turn with me to #500, you would see this same truth pressed home in Augustus Toplady's “Rock of Ages.” Maybe you know the whole hymn by heart–we all ought to–but if you don't, look in the hymn book at #500 and the second stanza: “Not the labor of my hands can fulfill Thy laws demands, could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou alone.” There was nothing that John Newton or Augustus Toplady or any of us could do in order to cause God's forgiveness of us. God's forgiveness had to be freely given to us in the just sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Savior.

And so we could go to many, many hymns which celebrate this glorious reality: that we were under our sins and when God forgave us, He did not forgive us because of something in us, He forgave us because of the person and work of Christ–Jesus, the sinless Savior, Messiah–living a life of perfect obedience to the Law in our place, dying the death of the cross, in which our penalty was given to Him and His righteousness imputed to us. This is the basis of our salvation, and hence this is the basis of our assurance.

And the result of this you see in verse 13: “I have written to you, children, because you know the Father.” As you know the forgiveness of your sins, you know the heavenly Father, because to know Him is to know Him in His benefits. And the forgiveness of sins is at the very first of a procession of benefits which are those which belong to those who are the heavenly Father's. Christians are forgiven: they are forgiven for Christ's sake, and they know the Father. And John is saying, I see your rejoicing over the forgiveness of your sins, and I want to say to you that this forgiveness of sins–something that is not in you–is the ultimate basis of our assurance. God promises to us in His word that He will receive us as sinners.

My friends, this is so important because, even in the Christian Church, people will attempt to justify themselves. They’ll want to deal with their sins by denying it; they’ll want to deal with their sins by diminishing the significance of it. And God says, “No, no, no, no.” The beginning of Christian life is in the forgiveness of sins, and that means that God saves those who are sinners. And all those whom God saves come to know that they are sinners and that they have no hope except through Jesus Christ. And so they glory in the fact that God has not saved them because they’re good, but He's saved them because of Christ.

How often have you spoken with a friend? And you've shared the gospel with that friend and you've asked that friend, “If you were to die and stand before God, and He were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you in My heaven?’” How often have you heard something like this, “Well, I've tried to live a good life”? Now exegete that statement, my friends. That statement is basically saying this: “I believe that God saves people who are basically good, who are trying to do well. They’re trying to do better; they’re trying to live right.”

And I want you to see that the gospel is not that. No, no, no, no. God saves wicked wretches! He doesn't save basically good people who are trying to do better. Jesus once said, “I have come not for the righteous, but for sinners.” See, those who think that it's enough to try hard have not seen their own sin or the gravity of their condition. John is saying, “Believers glory in that reality that God has saved them, not because they deserve it, not because they've done anything–even their faith and their repentance has not earned their salvation.” That's what Toplady's saying, “Not the labor of my hands could meet the Law's demand. Could my zeal no respite know; could my tears forever flow.” If I were the most repentant person on earth, my repentance couldn't save me. Christ alone can save me. And so I look away from myself and I look to Christ and I'm forgiven, not because of something in me, not because of something I do, but because of Christ.

And John points us there first. He says, Get that foundation. Get that foundation; everything else will be put in the right place. Yes, John says, those who have that forgiveness will manifest a love for God's word. Yes, those who have that forgiveness will manifest a love for one another, but their love for one another and their love for God's word will not create that forgiveness. Only God's mercy brings that forgiveness. And that's where he begins: Look at the forgiveness of God based on Jesus Christ. There's the objective reality that under girds all the things that flow from God's forgiveness and then evidence to us that we are the children of God.

II. Christians have “overcome the evil one”
Now he goes on. He’ll work out the implications of this in verses 13 and 14. Look at the middle of verse 13 and the end of verse 14 where he says, “I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.”

These are John's words to those that he calls “young men” in the faith. That is, he's speaking to growing but still young believers. And here's how he characterizes them: “you have overcome the evil one.” In other words, they have experienced a definitive break from the bondage of Satan. To put it in the language of Paul in Ephesians 2: “They had been dead in sin, but now they’re alive to Christ.” To put it in the language of Paul in Romans 6: “Once they were in bondage to sin, now they are no longer under the dominion of sin.” In other words, they've not only been forgiven; they've not only had the penalty of sin broken in their lives–that's what he talked about in verse 12–but they've had the power of sin broken in their lives.

Now, he uses strong words, doesn't he? He speaks of Christians as having “overcome the evil one.” Now, most of us don't feel like we've overcome the evil one 24 hours a day 7 days a week, do we? And so this sounds strange to our ears, but Paul's point is this: We have experienced deliverance not only from the penalty, but also from the power of sin. And so often we say, “But look, there's this besetting sin–” or “There's this set, this cluster of besetting sins, that I've been praying against and fighting against for 28 years! And I'm still fighting against them, and I don't feel like I'm having dominion over sin.” And John is saying, Even that besetting sin reminds you that you have been liberated from the bondage of sin, because there was a time when you were in bondage to all sin like you feel like you are to that besetting sin. You couldn't even see your need, and you couldn't even see the Savior until He came, and He lifted you out of your bondage and your sorrow and your night of sin. Christians, John says, are sanctified people. They've experience deliverance not only from the penalty, but the power of sin. And that's why he calls them “strong.” And that's why he says that they've “overcome the evil one.” Once they were weak and helpless before sin, and now by the grace of God they are fighting against sin.

How have they been made strong? Well, John tells you: “The word of God abides in them.” Jesus says that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” And they've eaten the word of God; they've ingested the word of God; they've digested the word of God; the word of God dwells in them richly–and by this the Holy Spirit is building them up and making them strong. See, John can look at these Christians and he can see the power of sin broken in their lives, even if they can't.
You know, it's our tendency, isn't it, as Christians? When we're thinking about this reality, we think about all the areas where that power of sin doesn't look broken to us. And John is saying, It's almost impossible to appreciate the liberation that God has brought to us, because we couldn't conceive the world apart from that liberation that God has given to us in Jesus Christ. And that liberation doesn't mean that now we coast on home to heaven; it means that we're in a war. And that's why all this warfare imagery comes up here in 1 John 2. It sounds like Paul, doesn't it? When you’re saved, you’re saved into a fight. See, the Christian life is not just enjoying fellowship with God and the forgiveness of God; it's fighting the enemy. The world, the flesh, and the devil, Satan and our sins–the Christian life begins a fight.

How often have I had a person sitting in my office or at a coffee shop over a cup of coffee wrestling with a particular sin which is having great success against him or her during a certain season of life, and questioning whether he or she is a Christian, because of his or her wrestling with that sin? And I love it when I see the marks of grace in that person's life to remind them that the very fact that they hate that sin, and that they’re frustrated about it, and that they’re fighting against it is not a sign of spiritual death, but a sign of spiritual life. Dead people can't fight sin: only live people can fight sin. And that life comes through Jesus Christ. And so, John says, Christians have overcome the evil one and have inaugurated a war against sin and Satan in their hearts and lives.

III. Christians know the eternal Word, Christ Jesus, God incarnate who was from the beginning.
One last thing he says. Look at the beginnings of verses 13 and 14. “I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning.” This is the third thing that John says. He speaks to young children, and he points them to the forgiveness that we have through Jesus Christ and to the knowledge of the Father that flows from that forgiveness. He points those who are still young but growing believers to the reality that God has broken not only the penalty of sin, but also the power of sin, so that we can live to God and die to sin in the Christian life. Here he describes mature believers in the Lord, and doesn't he describe them in a beautiful way? They “know Him who has been from the beginning.” In other words, he's saying, “Here's a mark of grace: People who know the eternal Word, people who know Christ Jesus, people who know God Incarnate who was from the beginning–they are Christians.” Christians know the eternal Word, Jesus Christ.

You know, there's no better way to characterize maturity in the Christian faith than to say that a person has an experiential knowledge of Jesus: “That woman, that man knows Jesus.” “When I'm with him–” “When I'm with her, I feel as if I'm with someone who has been in the presence of the Savior.”

And John throughout his writings is concerned to stress the pre-existence and co-eternality with God of Jesus, and so he even does it in this phrase: “You know Him who has been from the beginning.” You see, the false teachers were teaching things about Jesus Christ that were in contradiction to what God had revealed about Jesus Christ in His word. And John says, Look, I can tell a true Christian because he doesn't believe what the false teachers believe about Jesus; he knows Jesus. And so he knows that Jesus is “Him who was from the beginning.” He knows that “Jesus was before anything else was.” He knows that Jesus was “from before the foundation of the world.” He knows that the Lord Jesus Christ is co-eternal with the heavenly Father. He knows that Jesus who is from the Bible: the Messiah of God, the Christ of the gospels, the One who is from the beginning. He doesn't know some Jesus who's the invention of his own mind.

And we know that today there are plenty of Christians, plenty of people who call themselves Christians, who say things like this: “Well, I know what the Bible says about Jesus, but I like to think about Jesus this way.” And John is saying, “No, no, no, no.” Those who know Jesus know the Jesus of the Bible; they know the Jesus of the gospels; they know the Christ who's revealed there–in the Old Testament and in the New Testament in all of His glory–that's the Jesus they know. That's the only Jesus there is. And if they love a Jesus who they like to think of like “X,” then they don't love Jesus. And so he can characterize those who are most mature in their Christian walk as those who know Jesus, the Jesus of the Scriptures. The true believers know Him.

And, you see, in the course of assuring Christians again in this passing comment, John has pointed us to a reality outside of ourselves: God's gracious forgiveness of us through Jesus Christ. But he's also pointed to things which result from that thing outside of us: a new life in which we war against sin; and a new and growing knowledge of who Jesus is; a desire to be like Him, to be with Him. May God grant to you the same assurance that the inspired apostle John sought to cultivate in the Christians who first heard these words. Let's pray.

O Lord and God, grant us by Your Spirit that we would not be fooled, but that we would be assured with a true assurance, a blessed assurance, that Jesus is ours. We ask it in His name. Amen.

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