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First John

True Christians

1 John 5:1-5

One of the most troublesome divisions in Christianity comes over this: just how do I know a "real" Christian? The usual dogmatic answer is, "One who belongs to my denomination, which is the only real church. The rest of you are heathens." (Indeed, it was only in the 20th century that the Roman Catholic church promoted the rest of us from heathens to heretics). But what does the Scripture say about it?

(1 John 5:1-5 NIV) Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. {2} This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. {3} This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, {4} for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. {5} Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

Perhaps the Apostle just didn't understand the problem. Perhaps he only understood the answer.

Black Hats, White Hats

Who do you say He is?

Let us be perfectly clear: the test of the true Christian is not in the label on the door of the church. It is in the heart of the one who claims to be a Christian. The test is - I submit entirely - on who you say Jesus is (and what you do about it).

You say that He is divine? Do you then obey the commands He has every right to give?

You say He is the Christ, the Messiah? Have you then relied upon His sacrifice at the Cross as the atonement for your sins?

If you have, then you are a Christian. This is the reason we can speak of the universal ("catholic") nature of the church. All those who believe this are brothers and sisters to me, no matter what their denomination. Those who do not, are not - despite the label on the door.

But if this is true belief, then there must be action as a result of it. Chanting the right formula is magic; true belief is faith.

Result in action: love the brothers

John gives us the real test here: if we truly believe, we will love those who are Christians. The point is relatively simple:

If you love me, you will love my children. If you do a favor to my children, you do a favor to me. If you hurt my children, you can expect my wrath. Should God be any different? Shouldn't our attitude towards his children reflect this idea?

We are a family. You view things differently in a family. When the family is a loving one (and we should be) you tend to be very loyal to your brothers and sisters. You should also tend to be more forgiving - for there is a sense that "we're going to have to get along together." In our case, it's for eternity. (One should note also that if the family is not a loving one, things are much worse!)

We need to remember that this is the test not only for ourselves but for the world, for as Christ said:

(John 13:35 NIV) By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

Dealing with doubt

"But," the little voice arises, "how do I know I'm doing it right?" Good question; how can I tell the difference between a legalistic following of the rules and true love for the family of God? The answer is simple: in legalism, the internal doesn't match the external. In love, it does. John tells us that loving God and obeying his commands are the same thing:

Loving God is an internal thing - for God is invisible. But our love for God can be the cause for something external, namely,

Our obedience - which is visible to all. It is external, and it should be the effect of our love for God.

Perhaps an example will make it clearer. When Debbie was 10 years old, Mom let her "help" serve the Christmas dessert to her guests. I remember well the enthusiasm and eagerness she had; Mom had to tell her several times not to run with the plates. We saw the eagerness she had to please; we knew the love she had for her mother from it.

So there is the question: is your obedience one of enthusiasm, or one of burden?

The Burden is Light

Christ tells us his burden is light:

(Mat 11:28-30 NIV) "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. {29} Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. {30} For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

But sometimes we don't see it that way. Consider what Paul went through; a career that would have wearied Indiana Jones. It is often the way of Christ to put forward an apparent paradox and leave it to us to resolve it - so that we might understand both Him and ourselves better.

Do it right the first time

I remember it clearly - as if my dad would let me forget it. I was 13 years old, strong like an ox, and dad wanted my help in rotating the tires on the station wagon. Nobody told me that the lug nuts on one side were reverse threaded - and being 13 years old, I was in no doubt anyway. It took quite a bit of effort to put those lug nuts on the "right" way. They may have been reverse threaded when I started - but not now! (He was rather upset about it, too.)

How often we fool ourselves like that! We think we have the strength to do it our way, and therefore we "know" better than God. But do we really triumph in things of the spirit by using the weapons of Satan? Consider this: Communism has fallen - with the unique exception of those countries with whom we have been in combat.

It's still true: you do it right the first time, you don't have to do it over.

The aid of God

In a fit of boredom one night I watched a weight lifting competition. After one particularly impressive lift (I believe it was almost a thousand pounds, if memory serves me correctly) the organizers had a squad of soldiers - ten men - come out to carry off the bar. These ten men strained to lift what the one weightlifter had picked up just moments before.

We're often like that. We look at the bar and say, "Only a super saint could do that." But listen to the end of the story. The next round of weightlifting came, and the organizers wised up: they sent only one man out to pick up the bar. Of course, he had a forklift.

If God gives the command, did you really think he would leave you without the strength to perform it - if you will but ask?

Most of us don't want the strength - because then we will have to obey the command. It seems more pleasant to be spiritually weak and nurse our anger (for example) than to be strong - and forgive.

Indeed, most of us do not want to be the strong tower of God's power - for the taller the tower, the deeper the foundation of humility which must be dug. (I am indebted to St. Augustine for that one).

He ain't heavy - he's my brother

Little children are stinkers - literally. But have you ever noticed how grandmothers - who of all people should know better - seem to hover over them, even asking to change diapers on them? The key to the matter is our love for our brothers and sisters: if that is strong, the burden is light. The cost of caring for the children of an unwed mother is intolerable to good Orange County Republicans - unless the mother is your daughter. Love makes the difference.

But is love enough? It is - because our love is multiplied by God's love, and his love comes in power. Multiplied, I say - and we need to remember that nothing times anything is still nothing.

Overcoming the World

If we are to understand what John meant by this "overcame the world," we must first recall what "the world" means in his writing.

It includes the sins of the flesh - gluttony, lust and sloth.

It includes the sins of the worldly - envy, greed and wrath.

It specifically includes the sin of pride - the sin of the spirit.

These, then, are what have been overcome by our faith. But how?

Faith is the victory

Note the past tense: "has overcome." Faith presents us with the victory in past tense; all we need to do is take it. How is this?

First, faith results from overcoming of doubt - which comes of examining the facts. The facts are simple: the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have seen the past; I know who won. I can now see the future; I know who wins.

I can also look at the facts of other Christians - for two thousand years, faith has overcome the world. Christians have marched cheerfully to their deaths, knowing the certainty of the Resurrection. If they can do it, what has so changed that I cannot?

It is both past and present tense: "everyone born of God overcomes the world." God is eternal; He does not change. The victory is in Him, and therefore the victory does not change either.

Faith - in the One who deserves it

It is not just "faith in faith" - a mindless belief that all will be well, somehow. It is faith in the one who deserves it - Jesus, the Christ. His is the victory:

First, by his triumph at the Cross - where he conquered death itself, and removed its terrors for those who believe.

Next, by the indwelling of his Holy Spirit - the guarantor of our salvation and life to come.

Finally, as we shall see, at his triumphant return to judge the living and the dead.

Christian, do you want victory over the things of this world - or do you want to succumb to them? You must choose - but if you choose his way, the victory is assured. You have but to ask.

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