Sam grew up in a Christian home. She placed her faith in Jesus at a young age, and she was baptized shortly thereafter. She learned more about following Jesus from her mom and her small group leader at church. She grew in her faith, and her zealousness for Christ was real. Her teenage years were rather mundane and uneventful, filled with normal teenage drama, athletic pursuits, and a yearning for more freedom than her parents allowed. Her social life primarily revolved around church activities and a small band of loyal girlfriends. All in all, her life was rather predictable: school, soccer practice, youth group, and sleep. Rinse, wash, repeat.
Upon graduation, she enrolled at a state university. She was excited about the change of scenery in her life, and she was looking forward to living to magnify Jesus as a young college student. She knew it would be challenging to live for Jesus while at college, but she felt well-equipped for the task.
More personal freedom resulted in less relational accountability. Her class load often derailed her attempts to spend time with Jesus in personal devotion and prayer. Sunday’s became a time to “catch up” on lost sleep. The faith of her youth was regularly questioned, discounted, and at times, even mocked. Professors and classmates alike ridiculed the “simple-mindedness” of her “blind faith”, especially in dialogue about science versus faith. On campus, most people agreed that religion was a social invention for the weak-minded, and Christianity was a particularly annoying superstition. Untethered from the friendships of her youth and the godly influence of faithful Christian adults, Sam’s faith began to waver. Before she even knew what hit her, her de-conversion was well underway.
By the time Sam graduated, she was living as a functional agnostic. She had not renounced the faith of her youth, but nor did she live as though Jesus was real and relevant to her life. She wasn’t an atheist in the truest sense of the word. She still “believed” in God, but she no longer saw his relevance to her life on everyday matters. She didn’t pray, read her Bible, or attend church, well, except when she was home for the holidays. When momma said, “We’re going to church,” everyone went to church.
If Sam stays on this trajectory, what would you say about her faith? Is it real? Is she a Christian? When she dies, will she go to heaven?
Sam’s story isn’t unfamiliar to most of us. We all know people like Sam, even though the details of their lives may be different. We know people who have professed faith in Jesus, walked with him by faith for a season, but then at some point in their lives their confession of faith becomes irrelevant. They don’t live to make much of Jesus, their lives don’t bear any significant spiritual fruit. I guess the best way to assess the situation is to ask, “What confirms a person’s standing with God?”
1 John was written to answer this question. 1 John is an interesting book because, if you’ve ever read it, it’s the kind of book that can make you wonder whether you are really a Christian. But John didn’t write this letter to stir up doubt in our hearts. Quite the opposite. He wrote it to “you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (4:13). John wants us to have assurance that our faith is real, that we belong to God, and that when the last chapter of our life is written, we will dwell with God forever as his people (Rev 21:3).
In 1 John 2:19, John writes, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” Who is this group of people? These are confessing believers who have left the church and functionally abandoned their faith. And it’s clear in John’s writing that this is a painful event for the church, and their departure has raised the issue of eternal security and assurance.
We feel this tension, right? We know people who once walked with Jesus who aren’t walking with him now. We feel concern for them, but we aren’t sure how concerned we should be about their spiritual state. We find some measure of hope from Bible passages that tell us no one can snatch us out of Jesus’ hand when we trust him by faith for our salvation (John 10:27-28). We find reassurance as Paul promises that God will glorify (finally save) the one he justifies (Rom 8:30) and God will finish the work he starts in us (Phil 1:6). How do we interpret 1 John 2:19 in light of these promises?
John isn’t contradicting other parts of the Bible. God himself is committed to keeping his own sheep and preventing them from utterly forsaking him. But what John is telling us is that those who truly belong to Jesus will not ultimately and finally depart from the faith. He is saying that because they left the church / faith, they are showing themselves never to have been in Christ in the first place. If a person forsakes the faith, that person was never really a part of the flock.
This, of course, raises another question in the text: “If some of our church leaders can abandon the faith and be lost, then how do we know whose faith is genuine and whose faith is not? How can we be sure about ourselves?”
The answer is embedded in 1 John. For the sake of simplicity, here’s the false teaching in the church: you can be in Christ (i.e., have faith in Jesus), but that faith does not have to produce good fruit (i.e., good works). You can be a Christian and keep loving sin. They are saying you can enjoy assurance of standing sinless before God in righteousness and light, even if you walk in darkness (1:5-9), disobey God’s commands (3:6-9), and hate your brother (3:10). That’s the false teaching John is correcting. And this teaching, of course, isn’t consistent with what John, Paul, or Jesus taught.
What, then, does confirm our standing before God? How do we know we belong to Jesus by faith?
- Those who know Jesus Christ will obey his commands. John writes, “By this we know we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (2:3). If you know Jesus, your life will bear spiritual fruit. Not perfectly, but increasingly.
- Obedience to Jesus is where we gain assurance we belong to Jesus (see 2:3 again). Let’s go back to Sam again. What assurance do we have that Sam belongs to Jesus? Yes, we have her childhood confession of faith and baptism, but as long as Sam’s life is not being lived in obedience to Jesus, we have very little assurance she is genuinely in Christ. This isn’t to say Sam isn’t a Christian. It’s simply to say we cannot say she is a Christian with any measure of confidence based on the presenting fruit (or lack thereof) of her life. What we do know is that God disciplines his children, and if Sam is truly in Christ, God himself will work to bring her back into the fold (Heb 12:7-11).
- Finally, if say we belong to Jesus, then we should strive to see that our walk mirrors his own. Notice what John says in 2:5b-6: “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
Knowing Jesus gives rise to obedience. Here we see a connection between what John says and what we learned from Paul this past Sunday morning regarding perseverance or persistence in faith. Our spiritual “before” and “after” story is proven to be true “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister” (Col 1:23).
Fiercely fix your gaze on Jesus every day. Keep pursuing him in the power of the Spirit by walking in his ways and seeking to obey whatever he asks you to do this week. And as you see evidence of his grace in others, encourage their faith by telling them what you see of Jesus in them.