God is holy. This is a major article of Christian doctrine that John takes up in the early part of his first epistle. It is, in a sense, his summary of the message that Jesus Christ brought to the world. It is a serious message, with consequences for all of humanity.
God's holiness stands behind the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The cross provides the means by which sinnersthe unholymay be reconciled to a holy God. God remains just even as he justifies the wicked because his Son has taken upon himself their penalty, enduring God's wrath on their behalf (Rom. 3:21–26) and, in turn, shielding them with the covering of his righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21).
The questions John raises are: How may the Christian continue in fellowship with a holy God? Once the relationship has begun, how can it continue if men are prone to sin? Is it possible for those who have a sense of God's supreme holiness, and their own wickedness, ever to come to a place of security and comfort in their Christian life? Can the Christian's life and communion with God be healthy and full if he remains uncertain about God's disposition toward him?
Here is John's answer: "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" (1 John 5:13). The Christian can be sure of his relationship with God. Such assurance of salvation is not out of reach, for at its core, assurance is not so much a matter of feeling or mood, as of knowledgethe knowledge that salvation is based exclusively upon the perfect work of Jesus Christ, and that it flows liberally to all who are united to him by faith.
In the opening words of his first epistle, John affirms two things: First, the eternal Word, the second person of the Trinity, has genuinely become incarnate in the world: Jesus Christ, God in human flesh. Jesus did not just seem to be there, nor was the man Jesus a temporary vessel who housed the divine Christ. No, says John, the true God became true man and, as he notes elsewhere, "made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14).
Second, John affirms that he and his fellow apostles are reliable eyewitnesses to all of this. In response to the false theology he is confronting (which taught that it was impossible for God to unite himself with "evil" human flesh), John recalls what it was like to be with Jesus. He says, in effect, "Don't tell me who Jesus wasI was there! I saw him every day. I ate with him and walked with him. I saw him up close and heard his voice. Jesus was as real a man as any of usbut he was also the eternal God."
This Jesus was the bearer of a message. It was a revelation from God contained in both the words and the character of his own Son. It was entrusted to the apostles, and now John announces it to his readers. "This is the message," writes John, "God is light." And, as if to nail down the point, he adds, "In him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). The message conveyed by the imagery of light is that God is bright, pure, and holy.
In chapter 4, John describes the supreme act of lovethe greatest sacrifice the universe has ever witnessed: God sent his beloved Son into the world to be the propitiation for sin (vs. 10). In this context, John writes that "God is love" (vs. 8), as if to say he is so much the perfect and true standard of love that he is, in fact, love itself.
So, too, God is lighthe is pure holiness. When one attempts to imagine righteousness, goodness, and moral purity, one's thoughts should fly directly to God. He is the supreme standard of holiness.
Now, this "message" may be a bit surprising. One might have expected something about the gospel. "This is the message," John should have written, "God loves the whole world and wants everybody to be saved!" Instead, "God is holy." This message is a bit unsettling, at least to sinners. Where is the word of comfort we want to hear?
Yet the message of God's holiness is, in a sense, the very beginning of the gospel. If God were not holy, there would be no need of a sacrifice for sin. Because God is holy, humanity is left in an utterly hopeless state, cut off from him by the pollution of sin, worthy of nothing but his wrath.
John takes up God's holiness like a sword in order to divide between two groups of people in the church. The first group, quite remarkably, claims to be without sin. These are the false Christians. The second group is made up of genuine believers, who are like sheep in the midst of wolves. They humbly rely on the grace and mercy of God for their acceptance and forgiveness. To the first group John says, "You are liars and blasphemers!" To the second he says, "God has made full provision for all of your sin. Do not be afraid!"
The first group heard the message, but despised it. They claim to enjoy a precious fellowship with the Father and Son, yet their lives are characterized by darkness and evil. "If God is light, how can those who walk in darkness have any sort of relationship with him?" John asks. Even more extraordinary is their claim to be free from sin (implied by verses 8 and 10). Somehow these men bold and self-assured about their purity, even before the blinding light of God's holiness.
How pathetic this claim to sinlessness appears to any who have read and believed the Scriptures. The holiness of God was proclaimed day after day in the tabernacle with its system of sacrifices. The priests were required to be very precise and careful as they approached God in their service.
The lesson of the altar was lost on Nadab and Abihu, who took it upon themselves to initiate a new form of worship, by replacing God's revealed standards with those of their own imaginations. Immediately they were incineratedwithout pityby fire from the Lord (Lev. 10:1–3).
There was also the experience of Isaiah. One day he had a vision of heaven. He witnessed the magnificent seraphim, covering their faces as they sang before the Lord: "Holy, holy, holy." This display of the radiant holiness of God left Isaiah in a quivering heap, fearing for his life. All of his own goodness and righteousness now seemed to him sickly and pale before the splendor of God. It is no wonder that one of his most frequently used titles for God is "the Holy One of Israel." His profound encounter with the sovereign and holy God caused him to preach to his fellow citizens, "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away" (Isa. 64:6).
God's holiness is sufficient enough in itself to rebuke those who live under the delusion of sinlessness. For men to feign perfection in God's world is as foolish as stepping outside at midnight and concluding there is no sun. Such men are leading themselves astray. They are trapped in the maze of their own minds, lacking a reference point. Worse, they blaspheme by calling God a liar, much as their father the devil had done in the garden (see Gen. 3 and John 8:44).
Only man can invent a theology so base and call it a religion. Men may boast all day long of their own goodness, but they shall never know God or enjoy the sweet pleasure of fellowship with him and with his Son.
John also speaks to the beloved of God. Their life is characterized by a twofold emphasis: holy living and complete dependence on God's grace. In a sense, these two concepts summarize the Christian life. In one way or another, the doctrines of justification, sanctification, and assurance can be found in these two themes. Healthy and vital spirituality requires the presence of an ongoing reliance on the work of Christ and advancement in personal holiness.
This point is established by the apostle John, but not in a crisp and systematic fashion. We might wish that he provided a clear and systematic explanation of how to maintain a proper balance between the two. The errors of legalism, self-righteousness, and insecurity would be avoided by properly emphasizing God's free mercy and grace. And the plagues of our day, antinomianism and easy-believism, would not be so common if the call to holiness held its rightful place in the churches.
John presents his view in an apparent paradox. "You are going to sin; everyone does," he says to the Christians, "but I do not want you to sin at all!" (1:7, 9; 2:1, paraphrased). It's as if John wants to be careful that his polemic against the false teachers does not appear to be some sort of endorsement of sinful behavior. It is up to the Christian, under the direc-tion of God's Word and Spirit, to work out the details of how the two come together in the experience of living.
Because God is holy, those who enjoy fellowship with him must also be holy. If he is in the light, his people must also walk in the light if they truly know him. This is an essential characteristic of the Christian life: a strict moral code. However, such a life is not rigid and legalistic, nor is it a superficial conformity to rules and standards. It is a moral code adhered to out of deep love and devotion, much the same as the fidelity of a loving spouse. True, marriage vows are taken and the laws regulating monogamous union are in place, but obedience to these by spouses is the product of genuine love, not of stubborn duty or a surrender to conformity.
This is what distinguishes true believers from false professors: "We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands" (1 John 2:3).
At first glance, commandment keeping may appear to contradict what has been said thus far. It may sound like the worst sort of image in any religiona dogged determination to obey whatever dull and dreary rules the deity has made. But this is not the view of John or, for that matter, the Scriptures as a whole. On the contrary, the little phrase "commandment keeping" is synonymous with loving God. For example:
Love for God is not something vague and ethereal. It is an active, warm, and visible thing that is proved by a genuine desire to do what pleases Godfor his glory! It is, simply put, living the sort of life that Jesus himself lived when he was in the world (1 John 2:6).
Those who are careless about the matter of holiness tip their spiritual hand and reveal the secrets of their heart. They are false professors. (John seems strict about this, affirming the church's ability to discern such things and pass judgment.)
"But what does all of this mean?" someone may demand. "We have never been able to keep God's holy law! I thought Christianity was about grace, but you're dragging the law into it." Is there the taint of works-righteousness in commandment keeping? Are Christians now required to be sinlessly perfect to demonstrate that they are in the faith?
The answer to both questions is no. Certainly this is clear from the immediate context, where (as we have just seen) the denial of personal sin is tantamount to a denial of God and his Word. We shall consider this issue in a moment.
John is not describing folk who are completely free from sin. It is the disposition of the heart he is concerned withthe attitude concerning holiness that must characterize the one who has had an authentic experience of God's saving work. God's holiness is absolute, while the believer's is relative. Commandment keeping, then, is the fruit of faith and the evidence of election. It is the distinguishing mark of the true Christian (1 John 3:10).
We need only consider the purposes of God in salvation. He is concerned not only to save from the penalty of sin, but also to re-create an individual in holinessfrom the inside out. So he promised long ago in the prophets:
Jeremiah 31:33–34" 'This is the [new] covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,' declares the Lord. 'I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, "Know the Lord," because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,' declares the Lord. 'For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.' "
Ezekiel 36:25–27"I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws."
Here the purposes of God were set forth; now they are fulfilled in the church: forgiveness of sins, relationship with God, and a re-created humanity expressing its devotion through obedience. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).
John tells us at 2:5, "Whoever keeps his word, truly in this one the love of God has been perfected" (a literal translation). How are we to understand "the love of God"? Is it God's love for man or man's love for God? It could even be interpreted as "God's kind of love." In my judgment, the immediate context favors "God's love (for man)." Furthermore, 4:7–19 (especially vs. 12) suggests that we should interpret 2:5 to mean that commandment keeping is evidence of God's electing love for us. Thus, the purpose of God as set forth by the prophets is fulfilled in an individual who possesses love and holinessthe fruit of God's electing love. Also, love and holiness make visible the invisible work of the Holy Spirit, providing a measure of assurance to God's people.
Still, sin remains a chief obstacle in the believer's relationship with God. John writes his first epistle, in part, so that his readers will not sin (2:1). And yet they will sin, despite their best efforts. It will always be grievous and burdensome for the true Christian to disobey God; it will also be the Devil's opportunity to masquerade as a preacher of righteousness ("Don't you know how holy the Lord is? He shall never tolerate such evilespecially in so-called Christians!").
Here is where many doctrines come together. Healthy sanctification is founded upon a firm sense of justification. Assurance springs forth from these two. If any of these three links weakens, the chain itself becomes loose and ineffective. The result is a spiritually weak Christian.
That is why, in John's mind, "walking in the light" is not simply holy iving, though it is that. It is also the continual application of all the benefits that belong to those who are in Christ. It is to have fellowship and to be (continually) cleansed from sin by the blood of Jesus (1:7).
To continue our analogy, the chain of the Christian life must always be securely tethered to the cross of Jesus Christ. Sanctification, and the attending assurance that develops and flows from it, will prosper only when properly moored to that cross.
It is significant that when John says, "But if anybody does sin" (2:1), he straightaway directs attention to the Savior. Sin, repugnant and evil as it is, should not cause utter despair in the believer. John brings us back, in a sense, to the beginning: the believer is safe because of the aithful to himself. He will forgive their sins and cleanse them from unrighteousness by the blood of his Son (1:7, 9).
John further seeks to fortify weak faith by explaining that God's pardon is founded upon the work of his own Son on behalf of his people. "Here is your hope," says John. "It is first, last, and always in Christ! Look once to your own hearts to discover your sin, and then turn to Christ to find God's pardon."
It is a thorough and complete work that has been carried out by God's Son. He is the sacrifice for the sins of his people, as well as the heavenly intercessor who stands in the presence of the Father on their behalf (2:1). He is described as "the Righteous One," because all of his work depends on his holy and flawless character.
A brief survey of related passages in Scripture demonstrates that Jesus' sacrificial death and priestly advocacy are uniquely bound to each other. Romans 8:31–35, Hebrews 7:23–27, and Hebrews 9:24–26 all describe this twofold and interrelated work. The first two passages discuss the believer's assurance, which is the product of that work.
Christ's sacrifice, offered once, has appeased God's wrath and removed the sin of his people (1 John 2:2). Christ's intercessory work continually applies all of the benefits of that death to his people. Most Christians today understand the purpose of Christ's death, but how many are aware of his perpetual intercession? It continually restores us to God's favor. (This verse raises the question, For whom did Christ die? It is briefly addressed in the sidebar at the end of this article.)
So, because of Jesus Christ, God's fellowship with his people can never be destroyed (cf. Rom. 8:28–39). Here is the ground for true assurancea treasure so precious that it is, as the Puritans saw it, a taste of heaven while still on the earth. Assurance is the certain knowledge that one is in a state of grace and may, as the Westminster Confession puts it, "rejoice in the hope of the glory of God."
The apostle Peter serves as something of a case study to illustrate all of this. There he was, on the night when Jesus was betrayed, boasting about the strength of his faith and his resolute determination to stick close to Jesus no matter what the consequences. Not even the threats of imprisonment or death would weaken his commitment.
But that night Peter not only failed to keep his word, but actually abandoned his master. Trembling with fear, he went so far as to deny he ever knew him. His boldness, along with all of his good intentions, evaporated in the heat of persecution.
What sort of assurance could Peter have had that night? He thought he would find it in his own stout heart, as many do today. Yet no one finds security within his own heart.
Where then was Peter's hope? It was in Christ. Luke provides the answer in his record of the upper room: "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:31–32).
The assurance was in Christ! It's as if he had said to Peter, "You are going to fail in your duty, but I have prayed that you will not fail in your faith. My prayers will avail for you, Peter, and my death on the cross is sufficient to atone for the sin of your denial." Again, in the words of John: "If anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defenseJesus Christ, the Righteous One" (1 John 2:1).
In all of this, God sees fit to glorify himself. For there is never a time when his children find any cause within themselves to be securetheir reliance is ever on God. Because the Christian always relies completely upon God for his spiritual health and well-being, God must continually be at the center of his attention.
The Christian lives his entire life in the shadow of the cross. He never "matures" to a place where he can stand on his own two spiritual feet. Indeed, the believer should never wish to do so. He is secure only as he embraces the full work of Christ on his behalf on a daily basis. No degree of progress in sanctification will ever pry him away.
Further, in this the Christian fulfills his own chief purpose in lifeto glorify God and to enjoy him forever. For there could be no enjoyment of God if there were no assurance of safety before him. And, as we have seen, dependence upon God brings him glory.
Thus, the Christian lives with an attitude of humble confidence. He is humble because he is ever aware of his own moral wretchedness and his inability to merit the favor of God in any way. Yet he is confident, because God has acted in Christ on his behalfand continues to act. He is welcomed by God, even to confess his sins. The work of Christ provides the believer with an opportunity to approach God with confidence, knowing that he is accepted because Christ has made him acceptable.
When he looks within himself, the Christian senses a new heartnew, but not of his own making. It is a heart that is created and sovereignly planted by God in a lifeless sinner. It is a warm, beating heart that aspires (despite failures) to be like Jesus. This enhances his sense that all is right with God. All the while there bubbles within him a sense of satisfaction and wholeness, for he now lives with a wonderful purpose: to glorify God.
This is a healthy and hearty brand of Christianity. This is what John wants for his "little children." And it is what God wants for all of his children, wherever they may be.
Mr. Smith is the pastor of Parkwoods OPC in Overland Park, Kansas. This article is a shortened version of an article he plans to turn into a pamphlet. Reprinted from New Horizons, December, 1995.