I was recently talking with someone about their spiritual journey. They said that they grew up in a Christian family, and they didn’t remember having what some people call a “moment of decision,” which is a distinct memory of their willful choice to believe in and give their lives to Jesus. You might hear some Christians call it “getting saved,” or “being born again.” It is often a powerfully emotional experience, sometimes to the point where people can remember the exact day and time of the moment, like we might ask, “Do you remember where you were when you first heard about 9/11?,” and if you’re old enough, you can tell the story. That is the experience of many Christians, but by no means is it the experience of all. Instead for many others, being a follower of Jesus is just always what they have been, even from a young child. They have never known otherwise.
As the years go by, though, most Christians call the authenticity of their faith into question. Maybe God seems distant, and they wonder, “Shouldn’t a true Christian feel closer to God?” Or maybe they’ve allowed some bad habits into their lives, or they haven’t done much to grow a close relationship with God, and they wonder, “Am I really a Christian?” It is what John describes in 1st John 4, verses 19 and 20: hearts and minds that are not at rest, that condemn us. Do you ever feel that? Do you ever wonder what it means to truly be a follower of Jesus? Keep reading!
In yesterday’s post, we looked at how God, in his love for us, made it possible for us to become his children. How did God do this? Why did God do this? Read 1st John 3, verses 4-10, because there John explains it for us.
There John tells us that “[Jesus] appeared so that he might take away our sins.” That vulnerable baby we celebrate every Christmas would grow up to be a man who would make himself even more vulnerable through his death. Jesus did that, John writes, to take away our sins. What, then, is sin? Sin is a multi-faceted concept that the Bible describes in a variety of ways. Missing God’s mark. Doing that which God does not want us to do, whether in our thoughts, words or actions. Conversely, sin is leaving undone what God wants us to do. Sin is contrived in the Bible as an evil power that we allow to take up residence in our lives and control us. Therefore sin is very much connected to our free will, such that we choose sin. Put together, I hope it is clear that our choice to sin or to enter into sin, is an affront to God. Sin results in a brokenness between ourselves and God.
Our sin needs to be taken away, therefore, because sin is like a barrier that makes it impossible for us to become God’s children. Praise God, then, that in his love for us, he so badly wanted us to be his children that he dealt with the problem of our sin through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Look at verse 8 where John describes this: Jesus appeared to destroy the work of the devil. Throughout the years on this blog, I have referred to Jesus’ death and resurrection like this, “Through his death and resurrection, Jesus defeated sin, death and the devil.” We know that from passages like this one in 1st John 3. Jesus was victorious over sin, death and the devil.
Why? Most obviously, because Jesus is infinitely more powerful than sin, death and the devil. But also, and more importantly, because God is a God of love. Look at 1st John 3:16: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”
Keep your finger there, and turn back to the Gospel of John, and look at chapter 3, verse 16. Many of you might have heard of this verse, as it is considered to be the most famous verse in the Bible. John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Isn’t that wild how John 3:16 and 1st John 3:16 are so similar???
Not surprising, really, considering that they were both written by the same guy. Coincidence or not, the important point is the message that God is love, and God initiated this love for all of us, and he clearly demonstrates his love through the gift of Jesus. This is why we make such a big of Christmas and Easter. They are like bookends on the life of Jesus. Of course God’s love was clearly evident before Jesus’ birth and after his death. But the message John wants us hear and know is that God’s love is freely given. Love comes to us without us earning it. To be a Christian, John told us, is to receive love. We do not earn it. It is a gift.
How then do we receive this gift? John wants there to be no mistaking what he means. In his letter he repeats himself numerous times. Let’s look at a few of the ways John describes for us what it means to receive God’s gift of love in Jesus.
For example, notice what John says in the rest of 1st John 3:16, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”
We receive God’s gift of love by believing in him and we show that we believe in him by doing what Jesus did. We know God loves us because Jesus laid down his life for us. Likewise, we will show that God’s love is alive and at work in us when we lay down our lives as well. Notice, particularly, how John describes the act of laying down our lives:
“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”
This is a critical passage. John is saying that we can know that we belong to the truth. We can know, John is saying, whether or not we are truly children of God. I appreciate what he says here because sometimes people wonder if they are genuine Christians or not. Maybe you have had one or more of those moments where you wonder, too.
Remember the person I mentioned at the beginning of the post? They said that when they would be at a youth retreat or other church event where people would ask the question, “Are you sure you’re really a Christian?”, they would wonder and doubt the validity of their own relationship with the Lord. So they would pray immediately, “OK, God, I’m just making sure…I want you to know I really mean it; I believe in you!” But John says we can set our hearts at rest in God’s presence because God is greater than our hearts. That’s another way to say, “Our emotions do not always tell us the truth.” Just because you don’t feel close to God, or you are doubting that you are truly a child of God, it doesn’t mean that you are not a child of God. I’d like to suggest that John gives us a far better way to evaluate whether or not we are truly a child of God. John’s is a non-emotional way to know the truth: Examine how you love.
How do we examine our love? Check back in to tomorrow’s post, and we’ll begin to see what John has to say about loving the way God desires.