The certainties restated
In these concluding verses John uses the words “we know” four times: ‘’We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not” (5:18) . “We know that we are of God” (5:19). “We know that the Son of God is come” (5:20). ‘’We know Him that is true” (5:20).
By doing so John concludes his Epistle on a very high note. With his closing words he gives the adversary a final and deadly thrust with the two-edged sword of the Spirit. Whether Satan approaches us in the shape of the Gnostics who assert, “We know better than you ignorant Christians; we know that you misinterpret Jesus when you say He is the Son of God—or that He is God”, or whether he comes through the medium of those agnostics who argue, “We don’t know anything for certain about God; no one can know anything for certain,” John provides us with a ready answer. Whatever device the evil one may adopt in order to test and unsettle us, our confidence can stand unshaken. With redoubled certainty, we may reply, “We know … we know … we know …” Praise the Lord, “We know Him that is true, and we are in Him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ” (5:20).
We cannot over-emphasize the importance of sound and settled convictions in these days of falsehood, deception and betrayal. In a way when the things that can be shaken are being shaken, and when the love of many is growing cold, it is good for us to consider again, and to lay fresh hold upon these blessed certainties given to us in Christ and by His immutable word. Who shall stand resolute in the storm? Who shall shine with brightness and confidence in a day of increasing obscurity and doubt? Is it not those who know? Is it not those whose knowledge is experimental and practical? Praise God again, we may know in personal experience that which is the portion and inheritance of all God’s children. Let us therefore look more closely for a moment at these four emphatic statements.
A fourfold assurance
First John states again what is one of the marks of God’s children: “We know that whosoever is begotten of God sinneth not” (5:18). He then proceeds to tell us why a child of God does not sin. It is because “He that was begotten of God keepeth him” (5:18, R.V.). Are we not intended to make a distinction between “whosoever is begotten of God” and “He that was begotten of God”? If we do, then there is an important and blessed truth here.
Let us begin with the first statement : “We know that whosoever is begotten of God sinneth not” (5:18). Here the apostle, in concluding his epistle, repeats what he said in chapter three: “Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin” (3:9). All the other matters he has discussed since then have not dimmed or altered this blessed fact. Earlier on we drew an illustration from the different natures of sheep and pigs, the former instinctively clean and the latter delighting in wallowing in the mire. The child of God is not like the pig, going on in sin, repeatedly returning to the old sins from which he has once been washed. He now possesses a new nature bringing with it a distaste for sin. He has the lamb-spirit now, and does not like the mire. The apostle says, “We know that whosoever is begotten of God sinneth not” and we should not let this conviction be undermined by the unsatisfactory lives of mere ‘professors’ who are continually and wilfully returning to their sins. The fact that a child of God who is walking in the light of God does not do this is evidence that he is born anew. “In this the children of God are manifest” (3:10).
But, returning in this way to his theme, John adds a precious word here which may be seen to account for their not sinning, and for the maintenance of their testimony as to whose they are. It is the second statement in this verse: “He that was begotten of God keepeth him, and the evil one toucheth him not” (5:18) . We have seen that the words “begotten of God” come twice in this verse. First it is “whosoever is begotten” and the second time it is “he that was begotten” (R.V.). The Revised Version rendering, which is generally more reliable, suggests that two different persons are here in view, namely: ‘whosoever is’ and ‘he that was’.
It is through John alone that we have the New Testament emphasis upon the truth of Jesus as the only begotten Son of God. (See John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18). “He that was begotten of God” in the verse before us is surely the Lord Jesus, and the fact that “whosoever is begotten of God sinneth not”, is not only explained by the believer’s possession of the divine nature, but also by the fact that “He (the only Begotten) keepeth him.” The Firstborn, the elder Brother, acts as guardian to His younger brethren. Of course, on another plane, we have this responsibility too, as we saw in the previous section (5:14-17), a responsibility to pray for one another, and the possibility by prayer of rescuing our brother from sin and it’s consequences. But here the apostle brings us to the “Firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29), “He that was begotten of God”, and says, “The younger brothers do not sin, because the elder Brother looks after them.” “He keepeth them”; (not as the Authorised Version says, “he keepeth himself”.) There are many references in the word of God to the Lord keeping us, and it is a fact to be remembered and relied upon. Peter says, of those begotten again of God, that they “by the power of God are guarded through faith unto a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3-5).
Thus it is no new thought that John is giving us, but rather a blessed reminder of the jealousy and care of the elder Brother for those whom He is “not ashamed to call … brethren.” Jude, in his grand concluding benediction says, “Now unto him that is able to guard you from stumbling, and to set you before the presence of his glory without blemish in exceeding joy” (Jude 24). Our safety lies in the certainty that He keeps all who commit themselves to Him.
“We know that we are of God.” Here is the second blessed certainty in this summary: “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in the evil one” (5:19). The second clause in this statement suggests that the fact of the gulf between us and those in the world should have the effect of establishing us more firmly in our assurance that we are of God. This may sound presumptuous, and if our lives do not clearly demonstrate our moral separation from the world, then it is presumption. On the other hand, if we are walking in the light and in full fellowship with the Father and the Son, we shall feel increasingly out of place in this world. For the whole world lies in the evil one, and there is a great moral gulf between ourselves and it. We become increasingly aware that there is much in the world with which we as children of God have nothing in common at all. It may be a comfort to us to recognise this gulf, and it may strengthen our conviction that we are of God. (“In this the children. of God are manifest”.)
“We know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we know Him that is true, and we are in Him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ” (5:20). It is Jesus who has come, and He is the Son of God. As children of God we have settled convictions regarding His deity. We know that He is the Son of God. His humanity has not eclipsed His deity, but rather served to make more manifest that He is God, and that He is true. Thus John locks together these two further certainties. The Son of God is come, and He is true.
“He hath given us an understanding”, the apostle adds. How did it come? It may have come to us in an experience such as that of Paul’s on the Damascus road, or of the disciples on the way to Emmaus. It may have come in anyone of a thousand ways. The precise details do not matter. We are occupied now with certainties that do not rest so much on the details of past experience as upon the assurance of present possession. We have an understanding; we know Him that is true, and we are in Him. This new residence in Christ which is ours can never disappoint our expectations. It finds us conscious now of an ever-growing nearness to God because “we are … in His Son Jesus Christ.”
Further, though our being in Him does in fact morally separate us from this world and all that is of the evil one in it, yet your life is not dwarfed, but rather enlarged and enriched thereby. Though without support from the world around us, we are not like withered and dying plants, cut off from their true environment. No, “This is the true God and eternal life” (5:20). The child of God may be in a desert, isolated from and deprived of all that normally supports and is felt to be necessary to sustain natural human life; but still he abounds, he rejoices, he is maintained in fullness of life, because he is “in Him that is true”. He has eternal life. This is one more mark of the child of God. In this too he has learned to “walk even as He walked.”
A last appeal
The apostle’s final word is an exhortation: “My little children, guard yourselves from idols” (5:21). Having handled such a grand theme and emphasized so repeatedly the things which we may know and possess, he deems it wise and good to conclude with this appeal: “Guard yourselves from idols.” In other words, beware of any substitute for these realities. Allow no place in heart or mind for anything other than the love of God. Give the Father an undivided heart, so that, by His righteousness and love enthroned within, it shall be manifest whose you are.
And so he concludes this wonderful epistle. The message has been stated; the holiness of God, the love of the Father, the obedience of Christ, the provision of the indwelling Holy Spirit, have been set forth in order to show what will characterise the children of God, marking them off unmistakably from the children of the devil. This message is to test us. Does our conduct tally with our creed? Do we indeed display the evidences that we possess all these riches shown here to belong to every new-born child of God? “The children of God are manifest,” says John. They should be easily recognisable in this godless world because they are in conscious possession and enjoyment of the life of God.
Here then is the believers manual for self-examination, the Christian’s touchstone of a holy and true life. Here are the divine standards and requirements for the family of God. Here are the proofs. “Hereby we know…”
Here too is unfolded the means supplied by the Father for the fulfilling of His will and the attaining in us of those high standards. As we apply the touchstone to our lives, do we find in ourselves any comparison with the Christ-likeness here set forth? In as far as we do, it is the life of God in us that is the secret. It will surely increase and become more and more apparent as we yield to His Holy Spirit. The gulf that separates the children of God from the children of the devil will become more clearly defined, and it will be true of us that in this world, “the children of God are manifest.”