006. Truth and Lies

“Truth and Lies”

1 John 2:4

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him,

As a still immature, but growing Christian, I had solidified my understanding of the gospel of free grace in Christ, Romans 4:5 playing a decisive role. Yet I was still troubled by what my Christian friends and I had come to call derisively “Orange County Christianity:” miles wide, inches deep. While others fretted about legalistic fundamentalism (no smoking, drinking, or going to movies), I was disturbed by antinomian fundamentalism, cheap grace and easy-believism.

I had encountered far too many professing believers who were confident of their salvation because of a “decision” they had made years ago at an evangelistic meeting, who yet were carnal. They showed little regard for Christian disciplines (church attendance, Bible reading, prayer) and little concern for holiness. They were morally sloppy. They had little integrity. They were indistinguishable from the world and, at times, compared with worldlings unfavorably. They were less honest, more materialistic, obsessed with cars and houses, and wardrobes, and physical beauty, as likely to divorce, and living for temporal rewards as much as any pagan.

What was I to make of them? Though they claimed to have “accepted” Christ (their favorite way of expressing their Christian experience), I knew they could not be real Christians.

Significant clarification came while attending the Grace Community Church in Panorama City, California. The pastor, John MacArthur, was preaching in the evenings through 1 John. The messages were overwhelming. I had never heard preaching like his: simple, but profound; biblical yet theological; textual yet personal; expository yet applicatory; intellectual yet fervent. Every week I walked in one person and walked out another, with new eyes, new outlook, a new perspective on life. At the time he happened to be hammering away at 1 John 2:4.

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him,

As his exposition unfolded (none of the particulars of which I can remember), the pieces began to fall into place.

The adversaries

The Apostle John seems to be quoting the opposition. Who are these “whoever” who say what he rejects? They are professing Christians. They are or were members of the church. The historians identify them as gnostics or proto-gnostics. They placed a premium on knowledge, particularly mystical, or speculative knowledge. At the same time, they deprecated the body and the physical world. The body and its appetites were seen either as a barrier to spiritual progress and consequently to be suppressed, or as irrelevant and so safely indulged. Either way, knowledge was thought to be crucial, yet it was knowledge or experience unrelated to moral conduct. Religion, in their handling, was divorced from ethics. This separation, this gap between the religious and the ethical, was commonplace in the ancient world. Religion was one thing, morals something quite different.

We are seeing a revival of a form of gnosticism today in popular western culture. There is a short step between saying that the physical is secondary, which is true, to saying the physical is irrelevant, that it’s only what’s inside that counts. We vehemently disagree that the physical is without any significance! The hedonist is wrong in saying it does not matter what one does with one’s body because it’s “only physical” and doesn’t touch the “real” me. Secular forms of gnosticism clearly are evident in the transsexual phenomena and gay marriage. The body is treated as something external to the person, a mere tool of self-expression. Identity is seen as wholly located in the internal self, a self uninformed by the body. The physiology of the body is treated as irrelevant, hence, I may see myself as a woman trapped in the body of a man, or as a man made for erotic relations with other men, again, despite the biology. Even such relatively innocuous phenomena such as scarring, piercing, and tattooing reflect the new outlook. The body is seen not as a sacred and integral part of who I am (the Christian view), but as a mere billboard for self-expression and self-gratification.

The relevance of our passage is obvious. The new gnosticism is infecting the Christian community. Alarming rates of promiscuity can be found even in the so-called conservative churches today. The commands of Christ are being approached cafeteria-style, with self-identifying believers picking and choosing which they will honor. “It’s what’s inside that counts.” What matters is loving others. That is what matters, not what I do with my own body.

Their false claim

The fraudulent claim the Apostle John identifies is that “I know him.” But I don’t “keep the commandments.” I know God. I know Christ. I have personal, experiential knowledge of Christ. I have a relationship with Christ. Yet I don’t bother to obey God’s commands. Oh, I keep some of them. But I’m not troubled with others. Obedience to commands is not a priority. It is not characteristic of my life. I don’t “keep” them, the Greek present tense indicating habitual conduct. Rather, disobedience is typical and commonplace. I obey what suits my preferences. I ignore the rest. Whereas Jesus says, “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” I say I love Him and disregard the commandments (John 14:15). Whereas Jesus says that whoever keeps and teaches event the least of the commandments shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I say that the minor, secondary commands can be relaxed or ignored (Matthew 5:19). Whereas Jesus calls for extraordinary measures, the cutting off of the right hand and plucking out of the right eye in order to avoid sin and hell, I find that to be excessively serious and legalistic (Matthew 5:29, 30).

The Apostle’s verdict

The Apostle’s verdict? Such a one “is a liar.” John is that blunt and categorical. He leaves zero wiggle room. Miss the point? He adds: “and the truth is not in him.” The commandment- breaker’s claim to know God is false. It’s fraudulent. It cannot be true. It is not credible. He is, says the Puritan commentator Matthew Poole (1624-1679), “a false, hypocritical pretender.”

We might wonder at this point how can the Apostle make such a judgment. How can he be so emphatic, so sure? Granted, he’s an apostle. Still, how can he know what is going on inside people’s hearts?

Behind the Apostle’s certainty is an infallible connection between the knowledge of God and obedience to God. He is arguing from effects (obedience or lack thereof) to causes (true knowledge of God or lack thereof). Listen to the verse before the 4th:

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. (1 Jn 2:3)

John would appear to be concerned about both self-doubt and self-deception. He wants to strengthen the faith of the former and undermine the presumption of the latter. “By this we know,” he says. Here is how we can be certain. Here’s how those who might be anxious, or unsure, or confused about the Christian experience can be sure. Am I a real believer? The Apostle John’s response is do you keep the commandments? Are you a commandment-keeper? Obedience is being utilized by the Apostle as one of the “signs of grace,” as our Puritan forefathers would call them (Westminster Confession of Faith). Obedience is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in a person’s life, a sign of His gracious work. Do I obey God, not perfectly, not flawlessly, but characteristically, or typically? This is what the older commentators call the “evangelical keeping of God’s commandments,” as John Trapp (1601-1669) puts it, in which God measures “the deed by the desire, and the desire by the sincerity thereof,” when our obedience is rendered through Christ who is our propitiation. Is this the pattern in my life? Obedience should be understood as a condition not to be fulfilled, but as a characteristic that has been recognized.

However, for the self-deceived, the failure to keep the commandments, a characteristic and habitual failure, is a sign of the absence of grace. The claim to know Christ is a false claim, a presumption that the Apostle endeavors to undermine.

The assumption behind the foregoing connection is the transforming power of the gospel. When Christ is received by faith, dramatic change results. The benefits of redemption do not begin upon our arrival in heaven. They are immediate. We are united by faith to Christ in his death to sin and sin’s power and raised up “in newness of life” (Rom 6:3). Sin no longer has dominion or control over believers (Rom 6:14). It “shall not be master over you,” reads the New American Standard Bible. We become a “new creation” in Christ: “the old has passed away… the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). This transformation results in a love of holiness, of righteousness, and of God’s commandments. New affections take hold. New desires, new loves take root. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell within, whose power is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9). This love of God and the things of God is “shed abroad” (KJV) or “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5), results in obedience, as the Apostle John concludes:

but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: (1 Jn 2:5)

It is in those who “keep” God’s word, a more comprehensive term than “commandment” signifying all that God has revealed, that “the love of God,” meaning love for God, is “perfected,” or completed. If I love God, I will want to please Him and honor Him and serve Him. I will want to keep His word and obey Him.

Obedience is not the only sign of this perfected love and knowledge. The Apostle John also points to a host of other signs: walking in the light (1 Jn 1:7); confession of sin (1 Jn 1:8, 9); love for the brethren (1 Jn 2:7-11; 3:10, 11, 14-18; 4:7-5:2); and profession that Jesus is the Christ (1 Jn 4:2, 3; 5:1-3, 5-12). Yet all these together are in one sense but obedience (1 Jn 5:1-3), what the Apostle Paul calls “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). “Godliness and holiness of life distinguish true faith from a fictitious and dead knowledge of God,” says Calvin. This is always the case because the gospel imparts both the desire and capacity to keep the commandments of God.

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. (1 Jn 5:2)

The Apostle John’s first epistle clarifies the issues, doesn’t it? Isn’t the relation between salvation and obedience now clearer? Salvation inspires and enables, even empowers obedience. And does the connection between conversion and obedience not only give us grounds for assurance as well as guard us from presumption? And does not this connection also raise concerns for those who profess Christ and yet who defy God’s commands?

Orange County Christianity? It is of doubtful authenticity. It appears not to be the real thing. The Apostle John would warn that it is a counterfeit, made up of people who are either self-deceived or pretending. It is the glory of the gospel that it changes us. Where there is no change, there is no true Christianity. Thanks be to God that He has not left us in bondage to the flesh, the world and the devil, but has rescued us with a mighty deliverance, resulting in obedience and faithful service.

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