In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned the words, "Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate" (1959:47). Cheap grace means living as though God ignores or condones our sins. But forgiveness means that sin is real, and must be dealt with. We cannot ignore it, because God does not ignore it. The denial of sin is not grace: it is a lie. Cheap grace means living without the demand of obedience upon us.
And where there is no call for obedience, then all things are tolerated. "Do your own thing" becomes the motto. And so nothing can be labeled as "sinful." No act is clearly right or wrong. Thus, there is no need of forgiveness. But because John insists that God calls us to obey the com mands that have been given, he also reminds us that when we fall short of keeping them, there is forgiveness in Christ. And, to come at it from the other angle, where there is forgiveness available, it follows that cer tain actions--whether thoughts, words or deeds--can be dealt with only when one confesses and is forgiven. In short, the call to confession and the offer of forgiveness go hand in hand with the call to obedience. Cheap grace is grace without obedience, and the Elder knows no such grace. It is not the grace given to us in Jesus Christ.
Even before we come to the question, What does God want of me? many of us may begin with another question, How can I be sure that I know God? Many faithful Christians struggle with this question. How do I know I'm a Christian? How can I be sure that I do indeed know God? How can I know that I'm not mistaken? The Elder assures his readers that they can have con fidence before God. The confidence that he promises is not a subjective feeling or emotion. It is not necessarily equivalent to feeling good about ourselves. Confidence comes from knowing what God asks of us, and knowing that our aim is to live in conformity with God's standard. Now surely this sounds like a recipe to trouble souls, rather than for calming the troubled soul. And yet John speaks with encouragement and assur ance as he promises we know that we have come to know him. Where does he derive such assurance?
The statement we know that we have come to know him is the first of many such statements offering assurance to the readers of the epistle (2:5; 3:19, 24; 5:2, 15; compare 2:18, 21, 29; 3:21; 4:13; 5:14, 18-20). Here the author is surely casting a glance at those who have left the church, for they undoubtedly claimed to know God. How does one decide between such personal and conflicting claims? Anyone can claim to know God. Is there a way to begin to assess that claim?
The Elder offers the "test" of obedience as the basis of having assur ance of knowing God. Those who know God are obedient to the com mands of God. And yet such a test scarcely seems calculated to offer the needed assurance to the readers! After all, John has just finished writing of the sinfulness of all people (1:8--2:2). Can one really depend, then, on one's obedience to God's commands to give assurance of right re lationship to God? This idea is so central to 1 John that we must examine it more closely.
It is important at the outset to put knowledge and obedience in the proper order. Obeying the commands of God is not a test we must pass in order to gain knowledge of God, a prerequisite of knowing God or a condition that must be fulfilled in order to come to know God. Rather, obedience is the manifestation or evidence of knowledge of God.
In light of what the Elder has written about human sinfulness and the need for confession, we can conclude that obeying God's commands does not require perfect obedience, if by perfect obedience we mean living without sinning. But obedience to God's commands should be more than an interesting addendum or occasional accompaniment to our lives. "Obeying God's commands" points to the shape of the Chris tian life as a whole, to the consistency of our discipleship, and not to individual acts taken in isolation. What is not in view is hollow adher ence to a check list of rules or directions to be followed, as one follows a map to a destination or a recipe in a cookbook. If we try to map out obedience to God down to the last detail, then the life of faith loses its character as pilgrimage. Discipleship becomes an obstacle course to see whether we can negotiate each successive obstruction on our own. Obe dience ceases to be response to a living God, and becomes instead a check list of rules. This is a dry and sterile view of Christian discipleship. I am reminded of the student who once asked, "Do you want us just to memorize this, or do we need to understand it?" Some Christians seem to live their lives with the grim intent to "just memorize it," enjoying none of the fullness and mystery that comes with wholehearted response to the God of our faith.
Some readers may be frustrated to think that all we get by way of answer to the question, What does God want of us? is the response, Obedience to God's commands. But this is deliberate. We are not given directions, but direction. That direction can be summarized as "walking in the light," as striving to conform our character to that of God. What C. S. Lewis wrote in another context fits here: "We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules; whereas He really wants people of a particular sort" (1952:77). And the sort of people that God wants are those who hope to conform themselves to the very character of God.
Anyone who has had a hand in raising children knows about the process of shaping people of "a particular sort." When my daughter throws her food on the floor and I tell her not to do it, I am giving her a command that I would like to be obeyed. But in the end I do not want her to stop dropping her cereal on the floor just because I say so, but because she too recognizes the mess and waste it creates. Rules are given to guide behavior, but they are meant to be appropriated as internal guiding norms, not as external sanctions and prohibitions.
And yet we recognize that the words obey his commands direct the reader toward the concrete and practical. In the Elder's view, it is inev itable that what is interior must express itself in external and concrete action. "Knowledge of God" is not a sort of vague, unformed, abstract or indefinable private experience, although it may be extremely person al. "Knowledge of God" may express itself in various ways--through love and service to others, in prayer and worship of God, and so on. Here John is concerned to remind his readers that knowledge of God ex presses itself in obedience, and obedience is always measured by con crete actions. After all, Jesus' obedience was made manifest in the ulti mate sacrifice of his life on the cross.
Thus knowledge of and obedience to God are not entirely equivalent, nor are they unrelated to each other. We may best speak of "keeping God's commands" as characteristic of knowing God. " `Keeping the commandments' (like fellowship with one another, 1:7) is not the con dition, but rather the characteristic of the knowledge of God. There is no knowledge of God which as such would not also be `keeping the commandments' " (Bultmann 1973:25). We might say that the question behind these verses is not, How do I get knowledge of God? but, What does knowledge of God look like? How does it express itself? So too the child who knows her parents well also knows their expectations well. And the child who loves and respects her parents, honors their expec tations.
The idea that knowledge of God expresses itself in obedience has its roots in the Old Testament. The prophets especially spoke of knowing God, though more often they rebuked the people for not knowing God (Job 36:12; Jer 9:6; Is 1:3; 5:13; 1 Sam 2:12). The lack of knowledge of God does not imply intellectual inadequacy in comprehending God. Rather it points to a moral failure, to a lack of faithfulness and obedience. Those who know God live according to the way that God prescribes. "Knowing God" is understood in personal, intimate and relational terms.
To claim to love and know God without acknowledging God's claim upon us is simply hollow. Worse, it is a blatant contradiction in terms. Such a claim manifests a lack of relationship with God, a lack of being in him (v. 5). This phrase calls to mind a sphere in which we live our lives, a realm in which our decisions, choices, behavior and character are shaped. Those who are "in God" are those whose character and behavior are shaped by God's truth, righteousness and love (Kysar 1986:46). In fact, God's truth is viewed as something that is active, indwelling and powerful, something that shapes the person in whom it dwells. Obvious ly, then, those who have God's truth within them, and who know God, will manifest God's character.
In verse 6 the author speaks of this relationship with God with a new phrase, live in him. Live is the same word that older versions translated "abide"; other modern translations use "remain," or other variations. "Live" or "remain" strike those of us familiar with the old "abide" as colorless and flat. But the ordinary live serves well for "ordinary people." First, the term describes "the way in which a human life is determined by a fundamental relationship" (Kysar 1986:46; compare Marshall 1978:127). One lives either in the sphere of light or in the sphere of darkness. Our lives, our daily "walking," are shaped by the sphere in which we live. Second, in Johannine literature, live regularly connotes faithfulness, steadfastness, perseverance or continuing in allegiance to someone (Jn 8:31). It speaks to ordinary people of the consistency and faithfulness that is required of us. In short, the author's concept of "abid ing" points to steadfast faithfulness. This is what God wants of us.
We come then to the asser tion that if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. Two important items should be noted. First, obedience and love of God are inseparably linked. Love of God, like knowledge of God, is expressed through "keeping God's word," through our allegiance to God. Second, note what the author does not say. He does not say that the more we obey, the more we show that we love God. In other words, the Elder is not criticizing Christians for failing to "do enough." Rather, his statement is directed at those who had left the church and who may have denied the need for obedience in the Christian life. John contends that it is simply impossible to claim to love or to know God without also living in obedience to God. In obedience to the commands, our love for God is truly made complete, that is, not made morally perfect or without flaw, but lived out as it should be.
The perfect expres sion of love for God is found in Jesus' own example. And so the Elder writes, whoever claims to live in [God] must walk as Jesus did. This statement seems to raise the stakes to an impossible level. Who can live like Jesus did? All of Jesus' life demonstrated obedience to God, and that obedience was manifested above all in his death on the cross (see Jn 5:19-20; 10:15, 17-18). Again, the point is not that we must manifest perfect obedience in all that we do. Rather we are to reflect on our lives, asking whether our thoughts, words and deeds show that our primary allegiance is to the God who is light.
The point of the admonitions to be obedient, to live righteously or to follow the example of Jesus is not to get us to start doing a number of things simply for the sake of doing them. Rather such admonitions remind us that we have already charted a course for ourselves. As we walk in that course we are reminded to ask ourselves, do these actions belong in the circle of light? The key here is reflection. We are not to be made anxious, but are rather prodded to reflect on what we say and do, how we think, pray, spend our time and money, raise our children, treat our coworkers, spouses and neighbors. Our aim is to live for one master, God alone, in and with all that we do. That is walking as Jesus walked.
So can we ever be sure that we know God? Some people have deep inner peace in their relationship with God. Others seem continually plagued by confusion and doubts. In seeking peace it is wise to keep the ends and means in proper order. Those who seek God are granted a sense of God's love and acceptance of them. This is the bedrock to which they return in times of crisis, discouragement and anxiety. Those who chase desperately for feelings of assurance usually do not find what they are looking for. If we focus on God and what God has done for us, we are oriented within the circle and guided by its fixed centerpoint. If we focus on ourselves or our own feelings, even with good intentions, we drift without direction or anchor.
Click the button below to continue.
Now that you've created a Bible Gateway account, upgrade to Bible Gateway Plus, the ultimate online Bible reading & study experience!
Bible Gateway Plus equips you to answer the toughest questions about faith, God, and the Bible. There's no software to install; it's all integrated seamlessly into your Bible Gateway experience. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.