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FAITH CONQUERING THE WORLD
No New Testament writer makes such frequent use of the metaphors of combat and victory as this gentle Apostle John. None of them seem to have conceived so habitually of the Christian life as being a conflict, and in none of their writings does the clear note of victory in the use of that word ‘ overcometh ‘ ring out so constantly as it does in those of the very Apostle of Love. Equally characteristic of John’s writings is the prominence which he gives to the still contemplation of, and abiding in, Christ. These two conceptions of the Christian life appear to be discordant, but are really harmonious.
There is no doubt where John learned the phrase. Once he had heard it at a time and in a place which stamped it on his memory for ever. ‘Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,’ said Christ, an hour before Gethsemane. Long years since then had taught John something of its meaning, and had made him to understand how the Master’s victory might belong to the servants. Hence in this letter he has much to say about’ overcoming the wicked one,’ and the like; and in the Apocalypse we never get far away from hearing the shout of victory, whether we consider the sevenfold promises of the letters that stand at the beginning of the visions, or whether we listen to such sayings as this:-’ They overcame by the blood of the Lamb,’ or the last promise of all:-’ He that overcometh shall inherit all things.’
Thus bound together by that link, as well as by a great many more, are all the writings which the tradition of the Church has attributed to this great Apostle.
But to come to the words of my text. They appear in a very remarkable context here. If you read a verse or two before, you will get the full singularity of their introduction. ‘This is the love of God,’ says he, ‘that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous.’ They are very heavy and hard in themselves; it is very difficult to do right, and to walk in the ways of God, and to please Him. His commandments are grievous, per se; a heavy burden, a difficult thing to do-but let us read on:-’ They are not grievous, for whatsoever is born of God’ -keepeth the commandments? No!’ Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world.’ That, thinks John, is the same thing as keeping God’s commandments. ‘This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.’ Notice, then, first, What is the true notion of conquering the world? secondly, How that victory may be ours.
I. What is the true notion of conquering the world?
Let us go back to what I have already said. Where did John learn the expression? Who was it that first used it? It comes from that never-to-be-forgotten night in that upper room; where, with His life’s purpose apparently crushed into nothing, and the world just ready to exercise its last power over Him by killing Him, Jesus Christ breaks out into such a strange strain of triumph, and in the midst of apparent defeat lifts up that clarion note of victory:-’I have overcome the world I’ He had not made much of it, according to usual standards, had He? His life had been the life of a poor man. Neither fame nor influence, nor what people call success, had He won, judged from the ordinary points of view, and at three-and-thirty is about to be murdered; and yet He says,’ I have beaten it all, and here I stand a conqueror!’ That threw a flood of light for John, and for all that had listened to Christ, on the whole conditions of human life, and on what victory and defeat, success and failure in this world mean. Not so do men usually estimate what conquering the world is. Not so do you and I estimate it when we are left to our own folly and our own weakness. Our notion of being victorious in life is when each man, according to his own ideal of what is best, manages to wring that ideal out of a reluctant world. Or, to put it into plainer words, a man desires, say, conspicuous notoriety and fame. He accounts that he has conquered when he scrambles over all his fellows, and writes his name, as boys do, upon a wall, higher than anybody else’s name, with a bit of chalk, in writing that the next winter’s storm will obliterate! That is victory! The ultra-commercial ideal says, ‘Found a big business and make it pay.’ That is to conquer! Other notions, higher and nobler than that, all partake of the same fallacy that if a man can get the world, the sum of external things, into his grip, and squeeze it as one does a grape, and get the last drop of sweetness out of it into his thirsty lips, he is a conqueror.
Well! and you may get all that, whatever it is, that seems to you best, sweetest, most needful, most toothsome and delightsome-you may get it all; and in a sense you may have conquered the world, and yet you may be utterly beaten and enslaved by it. Do you remember the old story-I make no apology for the plainness of it-of the man that said to his commanding officer, ‘I have taken a prisoner.’ ‘Bring him along with you.’ ‘He won’t let me.’ ‘Come yourself, then.’ ‘I can’t’? So you think you have conquered the world when it yields you the things you want, and all the while it has conquered and captivated you.
You say ‘Mine’! It would be a great deal nearer the truth if the possessions, or the love, or the wealth, or the culture, or whatever else it may be, that you have set your desire upon, were to rise up and say you are theirs! Utterly beaten and enslaved many a man is by the things that he vainly fancies he has mastered and conquered. If you think of how in the process of getting, you narrow yourselves; of how much you throw away; of how eyes become blind to beauty or goodness or graciousness; of how you become the slaves of the thing that you have won; of how the gold gets into a man’s blood and makes his complexion as yellow as jaundice-if you think of all that, and how desperate and wretched you would be if in a minute it was all swept away, and how it absorbs your thoughts in keeping it and looking after it, say, is it you that are its master, or it that is yours?
Now let us turn for a moment to the teaching of this Epistle. Following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ Himself, the poor man, the beaten man, the unsuccessful man, may yet say,’ I have overcome the world.’ What does that mean? Well, it is built upon this-the world, meaning thereby the sum total of outward things, considered as apart from God-the world and God we make to be antagonists to one another. And the world woos me to trust to it, to love it; crowds in upon my eye and shuts out the greater things beyond; absorbs my attention, so that if I let it have its own way I have no leisure to think about anything hut itself. And the world conquers me when it succeeds in hindering me from seeing, loving, holding communion with and serving my Father, God.
On the other hand, I conquer it when I lay my hand upon it and force it to help me to get nearer Him, to get liker Him, to think more often of Him, to do His will more gladly and more constantly. The one victory over the world is to bend it to serve me in the highest things-the attainment of a clearer vision of the Divine nature, the attainment of a deeper love to God Himself, and of a more glad consecration and service to Him. That is the victory-when you can make the world a ladder to lift you to God. That is its right use, that is victory, when all its tempting voices do not draw you away from listening to the Supreme Voice that bids you keep His commandments. When the world comes between you and God as an obscuring screen, it has conquered you. When the world comes between you and God as a transparent medium, you have conquered it. To win victory is to get it beneath your feet and stand upon it, and reach up thereby to God.
Now, dear brethren, that is the plain teaching of all this context, and I would lay it upon your hearts and upon my own. Do not let us be deceived by the false estimates of the men around us. Do not let us forget that the one thing we have to live for is to know God, and to love and to please Him, and that every life is a disastrous failure, whatsoever outward artificial apparent success it may be enriched and beautified with, that has not accomplished that.
You rule Nature, you coerce winds and lightnings and flames to your purposes. Rule the world! Rule the world by making it help you to be wiser, gentler, nobler, more gracious, more Christ-like, more Christ conscious, more full of God, and more like to Him, and then you will get the deepest delight out of it. If a man wanted to find a wine-press that should squeeze out of the vintage of this world its last drop of sweetest sweetness, he would find it in constant recognition of the love of God, and in the coercing of all the outward and the visible to be his help thereto.
There are the two theories; the one that we are all apt to fall into, of what success and victory is; the other the Christian theory. Ah! many a poor, battered Lazarus, full of sores, a pauper and a mendicant at Dives’ gate; many a poor old cottager; many a lonely woman in her garret; many a man that has gone away from Manchester, for instance, unable to get on in business, and obliged to creep into some corner and hide himself, not having succeeded in making a fortune, is the victor! And many a Dives, fettered by his own possessions, and the bond-slave of his own successes, is beaten by the world shamefully and disastrously! Pray and strive for the purged eyesight which shall teach you what it is to conquer the world, and what it is to be conquered by it.
II. And now let me turn for a moment to the second of the points that I have desired to put before you, viz., the method by which this victory over the world, of making it help us to keep the commandments of God, is to be accomplished.
We find, according to John’s fashion, a threefold statement in this context upon this matter, each member of which corresponds to and heightens the preceding. We read thus:-’ Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world.’ ‘This is the victory that overcometh the world,’ or more accurately, ‘hath overcome the world, even our faith.’ Who is he that overcometh the world? He that believeth that Jesus Christ is ‘the Son of God.’ Wherein there are, speaking roughly, these three statements, that the true victory over the world is won by a new life, born of and kindred with God; that that life is kindled in men’s souls through their faith; that the faith which kindles that supernatural life, the victorious antagonist of the world, is the definite, specific faith in Jesus as the Son of God. These are the three points which the Apostle puts as the means of conquest of the world.
The first consideration, then, suggested by these statements is that the one victorious antagonist of all the powers of the world which seek to draw us away from God, is a life in our hearts kindred with God, and derived from God.
Now I know that a great many people turn away from this central representation of Christianity as if it were mystical and intangible. I desire to lay it upon your hearts, dear brethren, that every Christian man has received and possesses through the open door of his faith, a life supernatural, born of God, kindred with God, therefore having nothing kindred with evil, and therefore capable of meeting and mastering all the temptations of the world.
It is a plain piece of common-sense, that God is stronger than this material universe, and that what is born of God partakes of the Divine strength. But there would be no comfort in that, nor would it be anything germane and relevant to the Apostle’s purpose, unless there was implied in the statement what in fact is distinctly asserted more than once in this Epistle, that every Christian man and woman may claim to be thus born of God. Hearken to the words that almost immediately precede our text, ‘ Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.’ Hearken to other words which proclaim the same truth, ‘To as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, which were born, not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’ He does come with all the might of His regenerating power into our poor natures, if and when we turn ourselves with humble faith to that dear Lord; and breathes into our deadness a new life, with new tastes, new desires, new motives, new powers making us able to wrestle with and to overcome the temptations that were too strong for us.
Mystical and deep as this thought may be, God’s nature is breathed into the spirits of men that will trust Him! and if you will put your confidence in that dear Lord, and live near Him, into your weakness will come an energy born of the Divine, and you will be able to do all things in the might of the Christ that strengthens you from within, and is the life of your life, and the soul of your soul. To the little beleaguered garrison surrounded by strong enemies through whom they cannot cut their way, the king sends reliefs, who force their passage into the fortress, and hold it against all the power of the foe. You are not left to fight by yourselves, you can conquer the world if you will trust to that Christ, trusting in whom God’s own power will come to your aid, and God’s own Spirit will be the strength of your spirit.
And then there is the other way of looking at this same thing, viz., you can conquer the world if you will trust in Jesus Christ, because such trust will bring you into constant, living, loving contact with the Great Conqueror. There is a beautiful accuracy and refinement in the language of these three clauses which is not represented in our Authorized Version. The central one which I have read as my text this morning might be translated as it is translated in the Revised Version-’ This is the victory that hath overcome the world, even our faith.’ By which I suppose the Apostle means very much what I am saying now, viz., that my faith brings me into contact with that one great victory over the world which for all time was won by Jesus Christ. I can appropriate Christ’s conquest to myself if I trust Him. The might of it and some portion of the reality of it passes into my nature in the measure in which I rely upon Him. He conquered once for all, and the very remembrance of His conquest by faith will make me strong-will teach my hands to war and my fingers to fight.’ He conquered once for all, and His victory will pass, with electric power, into my life if I trust Him. I am brought into living fellowship with Him. All the stimulation of example, and all that lives lofty and pure can do for us, is done for us in transcendent fashion by the life of Jesus Christ. And all that lives lofty and pure can never do for us is done in unique fashion by the life and death of Him whose life and death are alike the victory over the world and the pattern for us.
So if we join ourselves to Him by faith, and bring into our daily life, in all its ignoble effort, in all its little duties, in all its wearisome monotonies, in all its triviality, the thought, the illuminating thought, the ennobling thought, of the victorious Christ our companion and our Friend-in hoc signo vinces-in this sign thou shalt conquer! They that keep hold of His hand see over the world and all its falsenesses and fleetingnesses. They that trust in Jesus are more than conquerors by the might of His victory.
And then there is the last thought, which, though it be not directly expressed in the words before us, is yet closely connected with them. You can conquer the world if you will trust Jesus Christ, because your faith will bring into the midst of your lives the grandest and most solemn and blessed realities. Faith is the true anesthesia of the soul;-the thing that deadens it to the pains and the pleasures that come from this fleeting life. As for the pleasures, I remember reading lately of some thinker of our own land who was gazing through a telescope at the stars, and turned away from the solemn vision with one remark,-’ I don’t think much of our county families!’ And if you will look up at Christ through the telescope of your faith, it is wonderful what Lilliputians the Brobdingnagians round about you will dwindle into, and how small the world will look, and how coarse the pleasures.
If a man goes to Italy, and lives in the presence of the pictures there, it is marvellous what daubs the works of art, that he used to admire, look when he comes back to England again. And if he has been in communion with Jesus Christ, and has found out what real sweetness is, he will not be over-tempted by the coarse dainties that people eat here. Children spoil their appetites for wholesome food by sweetmeats; we very often do the same in regard to the bread of God, but if we have once really tasted it, we shall not care very much for the vulgar dainties on the world’s stall.
Dear brethren, set your faith upon that great Lord, and the world’s pleasures will have less power over you, and as for its pains-
‘There’s nothing either good or bad, But thinking makes it so.’
If a man does not think that the world’s pains are of much account, they are not of much account. He who Bees athwart the smoke of the fire of Smithfield, the face of the Captain of his warfare, who has conquered, will dare to burn and will not dare to deny his Master or his Master’s truth. The world may threaten in hope of winning you to its service, but if its threats, turned into realities, fail to move you, it is the world which inflicts, and not you who suffer, that is beaten. In the extremest case they ‘kill the body and after that have no more that they can do,’ and if they have done all they can, and have not succeeded in wringing the incantation from the locked lips, they are beaten, and the poor dead martyr that they could only kill has conquered them and their torments. So fear not all that the world can do against you. If you have got a little spark of the light of Christ’s presence in your heart, the darkness will not be very terrible, and you will not be alone.
So, brethren, two questions:-Does your faith do anything like that for you? If it does not, what do you think is the worth of it? Does it deaden the world’s delights? Does it lift you above them? Does it make you conqueror? If it does not, do you think it is worth calling faith?
And the other question is: Do you want to beat, or to be beaten? When you consult your true self, does your conscience not tell you that it were better for you to keep God’s commandments than to obey the world? Surely there are many young men and women in this place to-day who have some desires high, and true, and pure, though often stifled, and overcome, and crushed down; and many older folk who have glimpses, in the midst of predominant regard for the things that are seen and temporal, of a great calm, pure region away up there that they know very little about.
Dear friends, my one word to you all is: Get near Jesus Christ by thought, and love, and trust. Trust to Him and to the great love that gave itself for you. And then bring Him into your life, by daily reference to Him of it all: and by cultivating the habit of thinking about Him as being present with you in the midst of it all, and so holding His hand, you will share in His victory; and at the last, according to the climax of His sevenfold promises, ‘To Him that overcometh will I give to sit down with Me on My throne, even as I also overcame, and am sat down with My Father on His Throne.’
John closes his letter with a series of triumphant certainties, which he considers as certified to every Christian by his own experience. ‘We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not . . . we know that we are of God . . . and we know that the Son of God is come.’ Now, that knowledge which he thus follows out on these three lines is not merely an intellectual conviction, but it is the outcome of life, and the broad seal of experimental possession is stamped upon it. Yet the average Christian reads this text, and shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘Well! perhaps I do not understand it, but, so far as I do, it seems to me to say a thing which is contradicted by the whole experience of life.’ ‘We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not’; and some of us are driven by such words, and parallel ones which occur in other places, to a presumptuous over-confidence, and some of us to an equally unscriptural despondency; and a great many of us to laying John’s triumphant certainty up upon the shelf where the unintelligible things are getting covered over with dust.
So I wish, in this sermon, to try, if I can, to come to the understanding, that in some measure I may help you to come to the joyful possession, of the truth which lies here, and which the Apostle conceives to belong to the very elements of the Christian character.
I. First, then, I ask the question-of whom is the Apostle speaking here?
‘We know that whosoever is born of God’-or, as the Revised Version reads it, ‘begotten of God’- ‘sinneth not.’ Now we must go back a little-and sometimes to go a long way from a subject is the best way to get at it. Let me recall to you the Master’s words with which He all but began His public ministry, when He said to Nicodemus, ‘Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ There is the root of all that this epistle is so full of, the conception of a regeneration, a being born again, which makes men, by a new birth, sons of God, in a fashion and in a sphere of their nature in which they were not the sons of the Heavenly Father before that experience. Jesus Christ laid down, as the very first principle which He would insist upon, to a man who was groping in the midst of mere legal conceptions of righteousness as the work of his own hands, this principle,-there must be a radical change, and there must be the entrance into every human nature of a new life-principle before there is any vision, any possession of, or any entrance into, that region in which the will of God is supreme, and where He reigns and rules as King. John is only echoing his Master when he here, and in other places of this letter, lays all the stress, in regard to practical righteousness and to noble character, upon being born again, subjected to that change which is fairly paralleled with the physical fact of birth, and has, as its result, the possession by the man who passes through it of a new nature, sphered in and destined to dominate and cleanse his old self.
Then there is a further step to be taken, and that is that this sonship of God, which is the result of being born again, is mediated and received by us through our faith. Remember the prologue of John’s Gospel, where, as a great musician will hint all his subsequent themes in his overture, he gathers up in one all the main threads and points of his teaching. There he says, ‘To as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God.’ Long years afterwards, when an old man in Ephesus, he writes down in this last chapter of his first epistle the same truth which he there set blazing in the forefront of his Gospel when he says, in the first verse of this chapter, ‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.’ On condition, then, of a man’s faith in Jesus Christ, there is communicated to him a new life direct from God, kindred with the Divine, and which dwells in him, and works in him precisely in the measure of his personal faith. That is the first point that I desire to establish.
You will remember, I suppose, that this same conception of the deepest result of the Christian faith being no mere external forgiveness of sins, nor alteration of a man’s position in reference to the Divine judgments, but the communication of a new life-power and principle to him, is not the property of the mystic John only, but it is the property likewise of the legal James, who says,’ Of His own will begat He us by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures’; and it is set forth with great emphasis and abundance in all the writings of the Apostle Paul, who insists that we are sons through the Son, who insists that the gift of God is a new nature, formed in righteousness ‘ after the image of Him that created Him,’ and who is ever dwelling upon the necessity that this new nature should be cultivated and increased by the faith and effort of its recipient.
Keeping these things in mind, I take the second step, and that is that this new birth, and the new Divine life which is its result, co-exist along with the old nature in which it is planted, and which it has to coerce and subdue, sometimes to crucify, and always to govern. For I need not remind you that if the analogy of birth is to be followed, we have to recognize that that Divine life, too, like the physical life, which is also God’s gift, has to pass through stages; and that just as the perfect man, God manifest in the flesh, ‘increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man,’ so the Divine life in a soul comes to it in germ, and has its period of infancy and growth up into youth and manhood. This Apostle puts great emphasis upon that idea of advancement in the Divine life. For you remember the long passage in which he twice reiterates the notion of the stages of children and young men and fathers. So the new life has to grow, grow in its own strength, grow in its sphere of influence, grow in the power with which it purges and hallows the old nature in the midst of which it is implanted. But growth is not the only word for its development. That new nature has to fight for its life. There must be effort, in order that it may rule; there must be strenuous and continuous diligence, directed not only to strengthen it, but to weaken its antagonist, in order that it may spread and permeate the whole nature. Thus we have the necessary foundation laid for that which characterizes the Christian life, from the beginning to the end, that it is a working out of that which is implanted, a working out, with ever widening area of influence, and a working in with ever deeper and more thorough power of transforming the character. There may be indefinite approximation to the entire suppression and sanctification of the old man; and whatsoever is born of God manifests its Divine kindred in this, that sooner or later it overcomes the world.
Now, if all that which I have been saying is true- and to me it is undeniably so-I come to a very plain answer to the first question that I raised: Who is it that John is speaking about? ‘Whosoever is born of God’ is the Christian man, in so far as the Divine life which he has from God by fellowship with His Son, through His own personal faith, has attained the supremacy in Him. The Divine nature that is in a man is that which is born of God. And that the Apostle does not mean the man in whom that nature is implanted, whether he is true to the nature or no, is obvious from the fact that, in another part of this same chapter, he substitutes ‘whatsoever’ for ‘whosoever,’ as if he would have us mark that the thing which he declares to be victorious and sinless is not so much the person as the power that is lodged in the person. That is ray answer to the first question.
II. What is asserted about this Divine life?
‘Whosoever is born of God sinneth not.’ That is by no means a unique expression in this letter. For, to say nothing about the general drift of it, we have a precisely similar statement in a previous chapter, twice uttered. ‘Whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not’; ‘whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, for His seed remaineth in him, and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.’ Nothing can be stronger than that. Yes, and nothing can be more obvious. I think, then, that the Apostle does not thereby mean to declare that, unless a man is absolutely sinless in regard of his individual acts, he has not that Divine life in him. For look at what precedes our text. Just before he has said, and it is the saying which leads him to my text, ‘If any man seeth his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life.’ So, then, he contemplated that within the circle of sons of God, who were each other’s brethren because they were all possessors of that Divine birth, there would exist ‘sin not unto death,’ which demanded a brother’s brotherly intercession and help. And do you suppose that any man, in the very same breath in which he thus declared that brotherhood was to be manifested by the way in which we help a brother to get rid of his sins, would have stultified himself by a blank, staring contradiction such as has been extracted from the words of my text? I say nothing about inspiration; I only say common-sense forbids it. The fact of the matter is that John, in his simple, childlike way, does not wait to concatenate his ideas, or to show how the one limits and explains the other, but he lays them down before us, and the fact of their juxtaposition limits, and he does not expect that his readers are quite fools. So he says in the one breath, ‘If any man see his brother sin a sin,’ and in the next breath, ‘Whosoever is born of God sinneth not.’ Surely there is a way to bring these two sayings into harmony. And it seems to me to be the way that I have been suggesting to you-viz., to take the text to mean-not that a Christian is, or must be, in order to vindicate his right to be called a Christian, sinless, but that there is a power in him, a life-principle in him which is sinless, and whatsoever in him is born of God overcometh the world and’ sinneth not.’
Now, then, that seems to me to be the extent of the Apostle’s affirmation here; and I desire to draw two plain, practical conclusions. One is, that this notion of a Divine life-power, lodged in, and growing through, and fighting with the old nature, makes the hideousness and the criminality of a Christian man’s transgressions more hideous and more criminal. The teaching of my text has sometimes been used in the very opposite direction. I do not need to say anything about that. There have been people that have said ‘It is no more I, but sin, that dwelleth in me; I am not responsible.’ There have been types of so-called Christianity which have used this loftiest and purest thought of my text as a minister of sin. I do not suppose that there are any representatives of that caricature and travesty here, so I need not say a word about it. The opposite inference is what I urge now. In addition to all the other foulnesses which attach to any man’s lust, or lechery, or drunkenness, or ambition, or covetousness, this super-eminent brand and stigma is burned in upon yours and mine, Christian men and women, that it is dead against, absolutely inconsistent with, the principle of life that is bedded within us. And whilst all men, by every transgression, flout God and degrade themselves, the Christian man who comes down to the level of living for flesh and sense and time and self, has laid the additional and heaviest of all weights of guilt upon his hack in that he has done despite to the Spirit of grace, and grieved and contradicted and thwarted the life of God that is within him. The deepest guilt and the darkest condemnation attach to the sins of the man who, with a Divine life in his spirit, obeys the flesh. ‘To whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.’
Another consideration may fairly be urged as drawn from this text and that is that the one task of Christians ought to be to deepen and to strengthen the life of God, which is in their souls, by faith. There is no limit, except one of my own making, to the extent to which my whole being may be penetrated through and through and ruled absolutely by that new life which God has given.
‘‘Tis life, whereof our nerves are scant, Oh life, not death, for which we pant; More life, and better, that I want’
It is all very well to cultivate specific and sporadic virtues and graces. Get a firmer hold and a fuller possession of the life of Christ in your own souls, and all graces and virtues will come.
III. Now, I have one last question-what is the ground of John’s assertion about him ‘that is born of God’?
My text runs on, ‘but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself.’ If any of you are using the Revised Version, you will see a change there, small in extent, but large in significance. It reads,’ He that is begotten of God keepeth him.’ And although at this stage of my sermon it would be absurd in me to enter upon exegetical considerations, let me just say in a sentence that the original has considerable variation in expression in these two clauses, which variation makes it impossible, I think, to adopt the idea contained in the Authorized Version, that the same person is referred to in both clauses. The difference is this. In the first clause, ‘He that is begotten of God’ is the Christian man; in the second, ‘He that is begotten of God’ is Christ the Saviour.
There is the guarantee that ‘ Whosoever is begotten of God sinneth not,’ because round his weakness is cast the strong defense of the Elder Brother’s hand; and the Son of God keeps all the sons who, through Him, have derived into their natures the life of God. If, then, they are kept by the only begotten Son of the Father, who, that ‘He might bring many sons unto glory,’ has Himself worn the likeness of our flesh apart from sin, then the one thing for us to do, in order to nourish and deepen and strengthen, and bring to sovereign power in our poor natures that previous and enduring principle of life, is to take care that we do not run away from the keeping hand nor wander far from the only safety. When a little child is sent out for a walk by the parent with an elder brother, if it goes staring into shop windows, and gaping at anything that it sees upon the road, and loses hold of the brother’s hand, it is lost, and breaks into tears, and can only be consoled and secured by being brought back. Then the little fingers clasp round the larger hand, and there is a sense of relief and of safety.
Dear brethren, if we stray away from Christ we lose ourselves in muddy ways. If we keep near Him, as merchantmen in time of war keep near the men-of-war convoy, or as pilgrims across a dangerous desert keep close to the heels of the horses of their escort, ‘that wicked one toucheth us not.’ And so we may be sure that ‘ that which is born of God’ will come to the sovereign power within us, and He that was born of the Spirit will cast out him that was born of the flesh.
This is the second of the triumphant certainties which John supposes to be the property of every Christian. I spoke about the first of them in my last sermon. It reads,’ We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not.’ Now, there is a distinct connection and advance, as between these two statements. The former of them is entirely general. It is particularized in my text; the ‘whosoever’ there is pointed into ‘ we’ here. The individuals who have the right to claim these prerogatives are none other than the body of Christian people.
Then there is another connection and advance. ‘Born of God’ refers to an act; ‘of God’ to a state. The point is produced into a line. There is still another connection and advance. ‘Whosoever is born of God sinneth not, ‘and that wicked one toucheth him not.’ That glance at a dark surrounding, from which he that is born of God is protected, is deepened in my text into a vision of the whole world as ‘lying in the wicked one.’
Now, I know that sayings like this of my text, which put into the forefront the Christian prerogative, and which regard mankind, apart from the members of Christ’s body, as in a dark condition of subjection under an alien power, have often been spoken of as if they were presumptuous, on the one hand, and narrow, uncharitable, and gloomy on the other. I am not concerned to deny that, on the lips of some professing Christian, they have had a very ugly sound, and have ministered to distinctly un-Christlike sentiments. But, on the other hand, I do believe that there are few things which the average Christianity of to-day wants more than a participation in that joyous confidence and buoyant energy which throb in the Apostle’s words; and that for lack of this triumphant certitude many a soul has been lamed, its joy clouded, its power trammeled, and its work in the world thwarted. So I wish to try to catch some of that solemn and joyous confidence which the Apostle peals forth in these triumphant words.
I. I ask you, then, to look first at the Christian certainty of belonging to God.
‘We know that we are of God.’ Where did John get that form of expression, which crops up over and over again in his letter P He got it where he got most of his terminology, from the lips of the Master. For, if you remember, our Lord Himself speaks more than once of men being ‘of God.’ As, for instance, when He says, ‘He that is of God heareth God’s words. Ye therefore hear them not because ye are not of God.’ And then He goes on to give the primary idea that is conveyed in the phrase when He says, in strong contrast to that expression, ‘Ye are of your father, and the lusts of your father ye will do.’ So, then, plainly, as I said, what was a point in the previous certitude, is here prolonged into a line, and expresses a permanent state.
The first conception in the phrase is that of life derived, communicated from God Himself. Fathers of the flesh communicate life, and it is thenceforth independent. But the life of the Spirit, which we draw from God, is only sustained by the continual repetition of the same gift by which it was originated. So the second idea that lies in the expression is that of a life dependent upon Him from whom it originally comes. The better life in the Christian soul is as certain to fade and die if the supply from Heaven is cut off or dammed back, as is the bed of a stream to become parched and glistering in the fierce sunshine, if the head-waters flow into it no more. You can no more have the life of the Spirit in the spirit of a man without continual communication from Him than a sunbeam can subsist if it be cut off from the central source. Therefore, the second of the ideas in this expression is the continual dependence of that derived life upon God. Christian people are ‘ of God,’ in so far as they partake of that new life, in an altogether special sense, which has a feeble analogy in the dependence of all creation upon the continual effluence of the Divine power. Preservation is a continual creation, and unless God operated in all physical phenomena and change there would neither be phenomena, nor change, nor substance, which could show them forth. But high above all that is the dependence of the renewed soul upon Him for the continual communication of His gifts and life.
If that life is thus derived and dependent, there follows the last idea in our pregnant phrase, viz., that it is correspondent with its source. ‘Ye are of God,’ kindred with Him and developing a life which, in its measure, being derived and dependent, is cognate with, and assimilated to, His own. This is the prerogative of every Christian soul.
Then there is another step to be taken. The man that has that life knows it. ‘We know,’ says the Apostle, ‘that we are of God.’ That word ‘know’ has been usurped, or at all events illegitimately monopolized by certain forms of knowledge. But surely the inward facts of my own consciousness are as much facts, and are certified to me as validly and reliably as are facts in other regions which are attested by the senses, or arrived at by reasoning. Christian people have the same right to lay hold of that great word, ‘we know,’ and to apply it to the facts of their spiritual experience, as any scientist in the world has to apply it to the facts of his science. I do not for a moment forget the differences between the two kinds of knowledge, but I do feel that in regard of certitude the advantage is at least shared, and some of us would say that we are surer of ourselves than we are of anything besides. How do you know that you are at all? The only answer is,’ I feel that I am.’ And precisely the same evidence applies in regard to these lofty thoughts of a Divine kindred and a spiritual life. I know that I am of God. I have passed through experiences, and I am aware of consciousness which certify that to me.
But that is not all. For, as I tried to show in my last sermon, the condition of being ‘born of God’ is laid plainly down in this very chapter by the Apostle, as being the simple act of faith in Jesus Christ. So, then, if any man is sure that he believes, he knows that he is born of God, and is of God.
But you say, ‘Do you not know that men deceive themselves by a profession of being Christians, and that many of us estimate their professions at a very different rate of genuineness from what they estimate them at?’ Yes, I know that. And this whole letter of John goes to guard us against the presumption of entertaining inflated thoughts about ourselves as being kindred with God, unless we verify the consciousness by certain plain facts. You remember how continually in this epistle there crops up by the side of the most thorough-going mysticism, as people call it, the plainest, home-spun practical morality, and how all these lofty, towering thoughts are brought down to this sharp test, ‘Let no man deceive you; he that doeth not righteousness is not of God; neither he that loveth not his brother.’ That is a test which, applied to many a fanatical dream, shrivels it up.
There is another test which the Master laid down in the words that I have quoted already for another purpose, when He said, ‘He that is of God heareth God’s words. Te, therefore, hear them not because ye are not of God.’ Christian people, take these two plain tests-first, righteousness of life, common practical morality, the doing and the loving to do, the things that all the world recognizes to be right and true; and, second, an ear attuned and attend to catch God’s voice-and control your consciousness of being God’s son by these, and you will not go far wrong.
And now, before I go further, one word. It is a shame, and a laming and a weakening of any Christian life, that this triumphant confidence should not be clear in it. ‘We know that we are of God.’ Can you and I echo that with calm confidence? ‘I sometimes half hope that I am.’ ‘I am almost afraid to say it.’ ‘I do not know whether I am or not.’ ‘I trust I may be.’ That is the kind of creeping attitude in which hosts of Christian people are contented to live; and they stare at a man as if he was presumptuous, and soaring up into a region that they do not know anything about, when he humbly echoes the Apostle, and says, ‘We know that we are God’s.’ Why should our skies be as grey and sunless as those of a northern winter’s day when all the while, away down on the sunny seas, to which we may voyage if we will, there are unbroken sunshine, ethereal blue, and a perpetual blaze of light? Christian men and women it concerns the power of your lives, their progress in holiness, and their possession of peace, that you should be far more able than, alas! Many of us are, to say, and that without presumption, ‘ We know that we are of God.’
II. We have here the Christian view of the surrounding world.
I need not, I suppose, remind you that John learned from Jesus to use that phrase ‘the world,’ not as meaning the aggregate of material things, but as meaning the aggregate of godless men. If you want a modern translation of the word, it comes very near a familiar one with us nowadays, and that is ‘Society’; the mass of people that are not of God.
Now, the more a man is conscious that he himself, by faith in Jesus Christ, has passed into the family of God, and possesses the life that comes from Him, the more keen will be his sense of the evil that lies round him, and of the contrast between the maxims and prevalent practices and institutions and ways of the world, and those which belong to Christ and Christ’s people. Just as a native of Central Africa, brought to England for a while, when he gets back to his kraal, will see its foulnesses and its sordidnesses as he did not before, or as, according to old stories, those that were carried away into fairyland for a little while came back to the work-a-day life of the world, and felt themselves alien from it, and had visions of what they had seen ever floating before them; so the measure of our conscious belonging to God is the measure of our perception of the contrast between us and the ways of the men about us.
I am not concerned for a moment to deny, rather, I most thankfully recognize the truth, that a great deal of ‘the world’ has been ransomed by the Cross, by which its prince has been cast out, and that much of Christian morality, and of the Christian way of looking at things, has passed into the general atmosphere in which we live, so as that, between the true Christian community and the surrounding world in which it is plunged, there is less antagonism than there was when John in Ephesus wrote these words beneath the shadow of Diana’s temple. But the world is a world still, and the antagonism is there; and if a man will live true to the life of God that is in him, he will find out soon enough that the gulf is not bridged over. It never will be bridged. The only way by which the antagonism can be ended is for the kingdoms of this world to become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ. Society is not of God, and the institutions of every nation upon earth have still in them much of the evil one. Christian people are set down in the midst of these, and the antagonism is perennial.
III. Lastly, consider the consequent Christian duty.
Let me put two or three plain exhortations. I beseech you, Christian people; cultivate the sense of belonging to a higher order than that in which you dwell. A man in a heathen land loses his sense of home, and of its ways; and it needs a perpetual effort in order that we should not forget our true affinities. ‘We are of God’ may be so said as to be the parent of all manner of un-Christlike sentiments, as I have already remarked. It may be the mother of contempt and self-righteousness, and a hundred other vices; but, rightly said, it has no such tendency. But unless we are ever and anon seeking to renew that consciousness, it will fade and become dim, and we shall forget the imperial palace whence we came, and be content to live in the barren fields of the citizens of that country, and even to feed upon the husks that are in the swine’s trough. So I say, cultivate the sense of belonging to God.
Again, I say, be careful to avoid infection. Go as men do in a plague-stricken city. Go as our soldiers in that Ashanti expedition had to go, on your guard against malaria, the ‘pestilence that walketh in darkness,’ and smites ere we are aware, bringing down our notions, our views of life, our thoughts of duty, to the low level of the people around us. Go as these same soldiers did, on the watch for ambuscades and lurking enemies behind the trees. And remember that the only safety is keeping hold of Christ’s hand.
Look on the world as Christ looked on it. There must be no contempt; there must be no self-righteousness; there must be no pluming ourselves on our own prerogatives. There must no sorrow caught from Him, and tenderness of pity, like that which forced itself to His eyes as He gazed across the valley at the city sparkling in the sunshine, or such as wrung His heart when He looked upon the multitude as sheep without a shepherd.
Work for the deliverance of your brethren from the alien tyrant. Notice the difference between the two clauses in the text. ‘We are of God’; that is a permanent relation. ‘The world lieth in the wicked one’; that is not necessarily a permanent relation. The world is not of the wicked one; it is ‘in’ him, and that may be altered. It is in the sphere of that dark influence. As in the old stories, knights hung their dishonored arms upon trees, and laid their heads in the lap of an enchantress, so men have departed from God, and surrendered themselves to the fascinations and the control of an alien power. But the world may be taken out of the sphere of influence in which it lies. And that is what you are here for. ‘For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil’; and for that purpose He has called us to be His servants. So the more we feel the sharp contrast between the blessedness of the Divine life which we believe ourselves to possess, and the darkness and evils of the world that lies around us, the more should sorrow, and the more should sympathy, and the more should succour be ours. Brethren, for ourselves let us remember that we cannot better help the world to get away from the alien tyrant that rules it than by walking in the midst of men, with the aureola of this joyful confidence and certitude around us. The solemn alternative opens before every one of us-Either I am ‘of God,’ or I am ‘ in the wicked one.’ Dear friends, let us lay our hearts and hands in Christ’s care, and then that will be true of us which this Apostle declares for the whole body of believers: ‘Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome, because greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.’
ONCE more John triumphantly proclaims ‘We know.’ Whole-souled conviction rings in his voice. He is sure of his footing. He does not say ‘ We incline to think,’ or even ‘We believe and firmly hold,’ but he says ‘ We know.’ A very different tone that from that of many of us, who, influenced by currents of present opinions, feel as if what was rock to our fathers had become quagmire to us! But John in his simplicity thinks that it is a tone which is characteristic of every Christian. I wonder what he would say about some Christians now.
This third of his triumphant certainties is connected closely with the two preceding ones, which have been occupying us in former sermons. It is so, as being in one aspect the ground of these, for it is because ‘the Son of God is come’ that men are born of God, and are of Him. It is so in another way also, for properly the words of our text ought to read not ‘And we know,’ rather ‘But we know.’ They are suggested, that is to say, by the preceding words, and they present the only thought which makes them tolerable. ‘The whole world lieth in the wicked one. But we know that the Son of God is come.’ Falling back on the certainty of the Incarnation and its present issues, we can look in the face the grave condition of humanity, and still have hope for the world and for ourselves. The certainty of the Incarnation and its issues, I say. For in my text John not only points to the past fact that Christ has come in the flesh, but to a present fact, the operation of that Christ upon Christian souls-’He hath given us an understanding.’ And not only so, but he points, further, to a dwelling in God and God in us as being the abiding issue of that past manifestation. So these three things -the coming of Christ, the knowledge of God which flows into a believing heart through that Incarnate Son, and the dwelling in God which is the climax of all His gifts to us-these three things are in John’s estimation certified to a Christian heart, and are not merely matters of opinion and faith, but matters of knowledge.
Ah I brethren, if our Christianity had that firm strain, and was conscious of that verification, it would be less at the mercy of every wind of doctrine; it would be less afraid of every new thought; it would be more powerful to rule and to calm our own spirits, and it would be more mighty to utter persuasive words to others. We must know for ourselves, if we would lead others to believe. So I desire to look now at these three points which emerge from my text, and
I. I would deal with the Christian’s knowledge that the Son of God is come.
Now, our Apostle is writing to Asiatic Christians of the second generation at the earliest, most of whom had not been born when Jesus Christ was upon earth, and none of whom had any means of acquaintance with Him except that which we possess-the testimony of the witnesses who had companied with Him. And yet, to these men-whose whole contact with Christ and the Gospel was, like yours and mine, the result of hearsay -he says, ‘We know.’ Was he misusing words in his eagerness to find a firm foundation for a soul to rest on? Many would say that he was, and would answer this certainty of his ‘We know,’ with, How can he know? You may go on the principle that probability is the guide of life, and you may be morally certain, but the only way by which you know a fact is by having seen it; and even if you have seen Jesus Christ, all that you saw would be the life of a man upon earth whom you believed to be the Son of God. It is trifling with language to talk about knowledge when you have only testimony to build on.
Well! there is a great deal to be said on that side, but there are two or three considerations which, I think, amply warrant the Apostle’s declaration here, and our understanding of his words, ‘We know,’ in their fullest and deepest sense. Let me just mention these briefly. Remember that when John says ‘The Son of God is come’ he is not speaking-as his language, if any of you can consult the original, distinctly shows -about a past fact only, but about a fact which, beginning in a historical past, is permanent and continuous. In one aspect, no doubt, Jesus Christ had come and gone, before any of the people to whom this letter was addressed heard it for the first time, but in another aspect, if I may use a colloquial expression, when Jesus Christ came, He ‘came to stay.’ And that thought, of the permanent abiding with men, of the Christ who once was manifest in the flesh for thirty years, and
‘Walked the acres of those blessed fields For our advantage,’
runs through the whole of Scripture. Nor shall we understand the meaning of Christ’s Incarnation unless we see in it the point of beginning of a permanent reality. He has come, and He has not gone-’Lo! I am with you alway’-and that thought of the fullness and permanence of our Lord’s presence with Christian souls is lodged deep and all-pervading, not only in John’s gospel, but in the whole teaching of the New Testament. So it is a present fact, and not only a past piece of history, which is asserted when the Apostle says ‘The Son of God is come.’ And a man who has a companion knows that he has him, and by many a token not only of flesh but of spirit, is conscious that he is not alone, but that the dear and strong one is by his side. Such consciousness belongs to all the maturer and deeper forms of the Christian life.
Further, we must read on in my text if we are to find all which John declares to be a matter of knowledge. ‘The Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding.’ I shall have a word or two more to say about that presently, but in the meantime I simply point out that what is here declared to be known by the Christian soul is a present operation of the present Christ upon his nature. If a man is aware that, through his faith in Jesus Christ, new perceptions and powers of discerning solid reality where he only saw mist before have been granted to him, the Apostle’s triumphant assertion is vindicated.
And, still further, the words of my text, in their assurance of possessing something far more solid than an opinion or a creed, in Christ Jesus and our relation to Him, are warranted, on the consideration that the growth of the Christian life largely consists in changing belief that rests on testimony into knowledge grounded in vital experience. At first a man accepts Jesus Christ because, for one reason or another, he is led to give credence to the evangelical testimony and to the apostolic teaching: but as he goes on learning more and more of the realities of the Christian life, creed changes into consciousness; and we can turn round to apostles and prophets, and say to them, with thankfulness for all that we have received from them, ‘Now we believe, not because of your saying, but because we have seen Him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.’ That is the advance which Christian men should all make, from the infantile, rudimentary days, when they accepted Christ on the witness of others, to the time when they .accepted Him because, in the depth of their own experience, they have found Him to be all that they took Him to be. The true test of creed is life. The true way of knowing that a shelter is adequate is to house in it, and be defended from the pelting of every pitiless storm. The medicine we know to be powerful when it has cured us. And every man that truly grasps Jesus Christ, and is faithful and persevering in his hold, can set his seal to that which to others is but a thing believed on hearsay, and accepted on testimony.
‘We know that the Son of God is come.’ Christian people, have you such a first-hand acquaintance with the articles which constitute your Christian creed as that? Over and above all the intellectual reasons which may lead to the acceptance, as a theory, of the truths of Christianity, have you that living experience of them which warrants you in saying ‘We know’? Alas! Alas! I am afraid that this supreme ground of certitude is rarely trodden by multitudes of professing Christians. And so in days of criticism and upheaval they are frightened out of their wits, and all but out of their faith, and are nervous and anxious lest from this corner or that corner or the other corner of the field of honest study and research, there may come some sudden shock that will blow the whole fabric of their belief to pieces. ‘He that believeth shall not make haste,’ and a man who knows what Christ has done for him may calmly welcome the advent of any new light, sure that nothing that can be established can touch that serene centre in which his certitude sits enshrined and calm. Brother, do you seek to be able to say,’ I know in whom I have believed’?
II. Note the new power of knowing God given by the Son who is come.
John says that one issue of that Incarnation and permanent presence of the Lord Christ with us is that ‘He hath given us an understanding that we may know Him that is true.’ Now, I do not suppose that he means thereby that any absolutely new faculty is conferred upon men, but that new direction is given to old ones, and dormant powers are awakened. Just as in the miracles of our Lord the blind men had eyes, but it needed the touch of His finger before the sight came to them, so man, that was made in the image of God, which he has not altogether lost by any wandering, has therein lying dormant and oppressed the capacity of knowing Him from whom he comes, but he needs the couching hand of the Christ Himself, in order that the blind eyes may be capable of seeing and the slumbering power of perception be awakened. That gift of a clarified nature, a pure heart, which is the condition, as the Master Himself said, of seeing God- that gift is bestowed upon all who, trusting in the Incarnate Son, submit themselves to His cleansing hand.
In the Incarnation Jesus Christ gave us God to see; by His present work in our souls He gives us the power to see God. The knowledge of which my text speaks is the knowledge of ‘ Him that is true,’ by which pregnant word the Apostle means to contrast the Father whom Jesus Christ sets before us with all men’s conceptions of a Divine nature; and to declare that whilst these conceptions, in one way or another, fall beneath or diverge from reality and fact, our God manifested to us by Jesus Christ is the only One whose nature corresponds to the name, and who is essentially that which is included in it.
But what I would dwell on especially for a moment is that this gift, thus given by the Incarnate and present Christ, is not an intellectual gift only, but something far deeper. Inasmuch as the Apostle declares that the object of this knowledge is not a truth about God but God Himself, it necessarily follows that the knowledge is such as we have of a person, and not of a doctrine. Or, to put it into simpler words: to know about God is one thing, and to know God is quite another. We may know all about the God that Christ has revealed and yet not know Him in the very slightest degree. To know about God is theology, to know Him is religion. You are not a bit better, though you comprehend the whole sweep of Christ’s revelation of God, if the God whom you in so far comprehend remain a stranger to you. That we may know Him as a man knows his friend, and that we may enter into relations of familiar acquaintance with Him, Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, and this is the blessing that He gives us-not an accurate theology, but a loving friendship. Has Christ done that for you, my brother?
That knowledge, if it is real and living, will be progressive. More and more we shall come to know. As we grow like Him we shall draw closer to Him; as we draw closer to Him we shall grow like Him. So the Christian life is destined to an endless progress, like one of those mathematical spirals which ever climb, ever approximate to, but never reach, the summit and the centre of the coil. So, if we have Christ for our medium both of light and of sight, if He both gives us God to see and the power to see Him, we shall begin a course which eternity itself will not witness completed. We have landed on the shores of a mighty continent, and for ever and for ever and ever we shall be pressing deeper and deeper into the bosom of the land, and learning more and more of its wealth and loveliness. ‘We know that we know Him that is true.’ If the Son of God has come to us, we know God, and we know that we know Him. Do you?
III. Lastly, note here the Christian indwelling of God, which is possible through the Son who is come.
Friendship, familiar intercourse, intimate knowledge as of one with whom we have long dwelt, instinctive sympathy of heart and mind, are not all which, in John’s estimation, Jesus Christ brings to them that love Him, and live in Him. For he adds, ‘We are in Him that is true.’ Of old Abraham was called the Friend of God, but an auguster title belongs to us. ‘Know ye not that ye are the temples of the living God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?’ Oh brethren, do not be tempted, by any dread of mysticism, to deprive yourselves of that crown and summit of all the gifts and blessings of the Gospel, but open your hearts and your minds to expect and to believe in the actual abiding of the Divine nature in us. Mysticism? Yes! And I do not know what religion is worth if there is not mysticism in it, for the very heart of it seems to me to be the possible interpenetration and union of man and God-not in the sense of obliterating the personalities, but in the deep, wholesome sense in which Christ Himself and all His apostles taught it, and in which every man who has had any profound experience of the Christian life feels it to be true.
But notice the words of my text for a moment, where the Apostle goes on to explain and define how ‘we are in Him that is true,’ because we are ‘in His Son Jesus Christ.’ That carries us away back to ‘Abide in Me, and I in you.’ John caught the whole strain of such thoughts from those sacred words in the upper room. Christ in us is the deepest truth of Christianity. And that God is in us, if Christ is in us, is the teaching not only of my text but of the Lord Himself, when He said, ‘We will come unto him and make our abode with him.’
And will not a man ‘know’ that? Will it not be something deeper and better than intellectual perception by which he is aware of the presence of the Christ in his heart? Cannot we all have it if we will? There is only one way to it, and that is by simple trust in Jesus Christ. Then, as I said, the trust with which we began will not leave us, but will be glorified into experience with which the trust will be enriched.
Brethren, the sum and substance of all that I have been trying to say is just this: lay your poor personalities in Christ’s hands, and lean yourselves upon Him; and there will come into your hearts a Divine power, and, if you are faithful to your faith, you will know that it is not in vain. There is a tremendous alternative, as I have already pointed out, suggested by the sequence of thoughts in my text, ‘the whole world lieth in the wicked one’ but’ we are in Him that is true.’ We have to choose our dwelling-place, whether we shall dwell in that dark region of evil, or whether we shall dwell in God, and know that God is in us.
If we are true to the conditions, we shall receive the promises. And then our Christian faith will not be dashed with hesitations, nor shall we be afraid lest any new light shall eclipse the Sun of Righteousness, but, in the midst of the babble of controversy, we may be content to be ignorant of much, to hold much in suspense, to part with not a little, but yet with quiet hearts to be sure of the one thing needful, and with unfaltering tongues to proclaim ‘We know that the Son of God is come, and we are in Him that is true.’
THE LAST WORDS OF THE LAST APOSTLE
So the Apostle ends his letter. These words are probably not only the close of this epistle, but the last words, chronologically, of Scripture. The old man gathers together his ebbing force to sum up his life’s work in a sentence, which might be remembered though much else was forgotten. Last words stick. Perhaps, too, some thought of future generations, to whom his witness might come, passed across his mind. At all events, some thought that we are here listening to the last words of the last Apostle may well be in ours. You will observe that, in this final utterance, the Apostle drops the triumphant ‘we know,’ which we have found in previous sermons reiterated with such emphasis. He does so, not because he doubted that all his brethren would gladly attest and confirm what he was about to say, but because it was fitting that his last words should be his very own; the utterance of personal experience, and weighty with it, and with apostolic authority. So he smelts all that he had learned from Christ, and had been teaching for fifty years, into that one sentence. The feeble voice rings out clear and strong; and then softens into tremulous tones of earnest exhortation, and almost of entreaty. The dying light leaps up in one bright flash: the lamp is broken, but the flash remains. And if we will let it shine into our lives, we shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.
I. Here we have the sum of all that we need to know about God.
‘This is the true God.’ The first question is, What or whom does John mean by ‘this’?
Grammatically, we may refer the word to the immediately preceding name, Jesus Christ. But it is extremely improbable that the Apostle should so suddenly shift his point of view, as he would do if, having just drawn a clear distinction between ‘Him that is true,’ and the Christ who reveals Him, he immediately proceeded to apply the former designation to Jesus Christ Himself. It is far more in accordance with his teaching, and with the whole scope of the passage, if by ‘ this’ we understand the Father of whom he has just been speaking. It is no tautology that he reiterates in this connection that He is ‘ true.’ For he has separated now his own final attestation from the common consciousness of the Christian community with which he has previously been dealing. And when he says, ‘This is the true God’ he means to say, ‘ This God of whom I have been affirming that Jesus Christ is His sole Revealer, and of whom I have been declaring that through Jesus Christ we may know Him and dwell abidingly in Him,’’ this’-and none else-’ is the true God.’
Then the second question that I have to answer briefly is, what does John mean by ‘true’? I had occasion, in a previous sermon on the foregoing words, to point out that by that expression he means, whenever he uses it, some person or thing whose nature and character correspond to his or its name, and who is essentially and perfectly that which the name expresses. If we take that as the signification of the word, we just come to this, that the final assertion into which the old Apostle flings all his force, and which he wishes to stand out prominent as his last word to his brethren and to the world, is that the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and with whom a man through Jesus Christ may have fellowship of knowledge and friendship-that He and none but He answers to all that men mean when they speak of a God; that He, if I might use such an expression, fully fills the part.
Brethren, if we but think that, however it comes no matter about that, every man has in him a capacity of conceiving of a perfect Being, of righteousness, power, purity, and love, and that all through the ages of the world’s yearnings there has never been presented to it the realization of that dim conception, but that all idolatry, all worship, has failed in bodying out a Person who would answer to the requirements of a man’s spirit, then we come to the position in which these final words of the old fisherman go down to a deeper depth than all the world’s wisdom, and carry a message of consolation and a true gospel to be found nowhere besides.
Whatsoever embodiments men may have tried to give to their dim conception of a God, these have been always limitations, and often corruptions, of it. And to limit or to separate is, in this case, to destroy. No pantheon can ever satisfy the soul of man who yearns for One Person in whom all that he can dream of beauty, truth, and goodness shall be ensphered. A galaxy of stars, white as the whitest spot in the Milky Way, can never be a substitute for the sun. ‘This is the true God’; and all others are corruptions, or limitations, or divisions, of the indissoluble unity.
Then, are men to go for ever and ever with ‘the blank misgivings of a creature, moving about in worlds not realized’? Is it true that I can fancy some one far greater than is? Is it true that my imagination can paint a nobler form than reality acknowledges? It is so, alas! unless we take John’s swan-song and last testimony as true, and say:-This God, manifest in Jesus Christ, on whose heart I can lay my head, and into whose undying and unstained light I can gaze, and in whose righteousness I can participate, this God is the real God; no dream, no projection from my own nature, magnified and cleansed, and thrown up first from the earth that it may come down from heaven, but the reality, of whom all human imaginations are but the faint transcripts, though they be the faithful prophets.
For, consider what it is that the world owes to Jesus Christ, in its knowledge of God. Remember that to us orphaned men He has come and said, as none ever said, and showed as none ever showed: ‘Ye are not fatherless; there is a Father in the heavens.’ Consider that to the world, sunk in sense and flesh, and blotting its most radiant imaginations of the Divine by some veil and hindrance, of corporeity and materialism, He comes, and has said, ‘God is a Spirit.’ Consider that, taught of Him, this Apostle, to whom was committed the great distinction of in monosyllables preaching central truths and in words that a child can apprehend, setting forth the depths that eternity and angels cannot comprehend, has said, ‘God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all.’ And consider that he has set the apex on the shining pyramid, and spoken the last word when he has told us, ‘God is Love.’ And put these four revelations together, the Father; Spirit; unsullied Light; absolutely Love; and then let us bow down and say, ‘Thou hast said the truth, O aged Seer. This is our God; we have waited for Him, and He will save us. This-and none beside-is the true God,’ I know not what the modern world is to do for a God if it drifts away from Jesus Christ and His revelations. I know that it is always a dangerous way of arguing to try to force people upon alternatives, one of which is so repellent as to compel them to cling to the other. But it does seem to me that the whole progress of modern thought, with the advancement of modern physical science, and other branches of knowledge which perhaps are not yet to be called science, are all steadily converging on forcing us to this choice -will you have God in Christ, or, will you wander about in a Godless world, and for your highest certitude have to say,’ Perhaps’? ‘This is the true God,’ and if we go away from Him I do not know where we are to go.
II. Here we have the sum of His gifts to us.
‘This is the true God, and eternal life.’ Now, let us distinctly and emphatically put first that what is here declared is primarily something about God, and not about His gift to men; and that the two clauses, ‘the true God,’ and ‘eternal life,’ stand in precisely the same relation to the preceding words, ‘This is.’ That is to say, the revelation which John would lay upon our hearts, that from it there may spring up in them a wondrous hope, is that, in His own essential self, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and brought into living fellowship with us by Him, is ‘eternal life.’ By ‘eternal life’ he means something a great deal more august than endless existence. He means a life which not only is not ended by time, but which is above time, and not subject to its conditions at all. Eternity is not time spun out for ever. And so we are not lifted up into a region where there is little light, but where the very darkness is light, just as the curtain was the picture, in the old story of the painter,
That seems to part us utterly from God. He is ‘eternal life’; then, we poor creatures down here, whose being is all ‘cribbed, cabined, and confined’ by succession, and duration, and the partitions of time, what can we have in common with Him? John answers for us. For, remember that in the earlier part of this epistle he writes that ‘the life was manifested, and we shew unto you that eternal life which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us,’ and ‘we declare it unto you; that ye also may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son.’ So, then, strange as it is, and beyond our thoughts as it is, there may pass into creatures that very eternal life which is in God, and was manifested in Jesus. We have to think of Him because we know Him to be love, as in essence self-communicating, and whatsoever a creature can receive, a loving Father, the true God, will surely give.
But we are not left to wander about in regions of mysticism and darkness. For we know this, that however strange and difficult the thought of eternal life as possessed by a creature may be, to give it was the very purpose for which Jesus Christ came on earth. ‘I am that Bread of Life.’ ‘I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.’ And we are not left to grope in doubt as to what that eternal life consists in; for He has said:’ This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.’ Nor are we left in any more doubt as to that bond by which the whole fullness of this Divine gift may flow into a man’s spirit. For over and over again the Master Himself has declared, ‘He that believeth hath everlasting life.’
Thus, then, there is a life which belongs to God on His throne, a life lifted above the limitations of time, a life communicated by Jesus Christ, as the waters of some land-locked lake may flow down through a sparkling river, a life which consists in fellowship with God, a life which may be, and is, ours, on the simple condition of trusting Him who gives it, and a life which, eternal as it is, and destined to a glory all undreamed of, in that future beyond the grave, is now the possession of every man that puts forth the faith which is its condition. ‘He that believeth hath’-not shall have, in some distant future, but has to-day-’everlasting life,’ verily here and now. And so John lays this upon our hearts, as the ripe fruit of all his experience, and the meaning of all his message to the world, that God revealed in Christ ‘is the true God,’ and as Himself the possessor, is the source for us all, of life eternal.
III. Lastly, we have here the consequent sum of Christian effort.
‘Little children, keep yourselves from idols,’ seeing that ‘this is the true God,’ the only One that answers to your requirements, and will satisfy your desires. Do not go rushing to these shrines of false deities that crowd every corner of Ephesus-ay, and every corner of Manchester. For what does John mean by an idol? Does he mean that barbarous figure of Diana that stood in the great temple, hideous and monstrous? No! He means anything, or any person, that comes into the heart and takes the place which ought to be filled by God, and by Him only. What I prize most, what I trust most utterly, what I should be most forlorn if I lost; what is the working aim of my life, and the hunger of my heart-that is my idol. We all know that.
Is the exhortation not needed, my brother? In Ephesus it was hard to have nothing to do with heathenism. In that ancient world their religion, though it was a superficial thing, was intertwined with daily life in a fashion that puts us to shame. Every meal had its libation, and almost every act was knit by some ceremony or other to a god. So that Christian men and women had almost to go out of the world, in order to be free from complicity in the all-pervading idol-worship. Now, although the form has changed, and the fascinations of old idolatry belong only to a certain stage in the world’s culture and history, the temptation to idolatry remains just as subtle, just as all-pervasive, and the yielding to it just as absurd. You and I call ourselves Christians. We say we believe that there is nothing else, and nobody else, in the whole sweep of the universe that can satisfy our hearts, or be what our imagination can conceive, but God only. Having said that on the Sunday, what about Monday? They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living water, and hewed to themselves broken cisterns that can hold no water.’ ‘Little children’-for we are scarcely more mature than that-’little children, keep yourselves from idols.’
And how is it to be done? ‘Keep yourselves.’ Then you can do it, and you have to make a dead lift of effort, or be sure of this-that the subtle seduction will slide into your heart, and before you know it, you will be out of God’s sanctuary, and groveling in Diana’s temple. But it is not only our own effort that is needed, for just a sentence or two before, the Apostle had said: ‘He that is born of God ‘-that is, Christ- ‘keepeth us.’ So our keeping of ourselves is essentially our letting Him keep us. Stay inside the walls of the citadel, and you need not be afraid of the besiegers; go outside by letting your faith flag, and you will be captured or killed. Keep yourselves by clinging ‘to Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless.’ Make experience by fellowship with Him who is the only true God, and able to satisfy your whole nature, mind, heart, will, and these false deities, the whole rabble of them, will have no power to tempt you to bow the knee.
Brethren! Here is the sum of the whole matter. There is one truth on which we can stay our hearts, one God in whom we can utterly trust, the God revealed in Jesus Christ. If we do not see Him in Christ, we shall not see Him at all, but wander about all our days in a world empty of solid reality. There is one gift which will satisfy all our needs, the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. There is one practical injunction which will save us from many a heartache, and which our weakness can never afford to neglect, and that is to keep ourselves from all false worship. These golden words of my text, in their simplicity, in their depth, in their certainty, in their comprehensiveness, are worthy to be the last words of Revelation; and to stand to all the world, through all ages, as the shining apex, or the solid foundation, or the central core of Christianity. ‘This’-this, and none else- ‘is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.’
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on 1 John 5". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18