Big Idea: If we know we’re sinners rescued by Jesus, and if this leads us to obey God and love other believers, we can have assurance that we have genuine faith.
It could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Just one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings sold for $110.5 million U.S. And a Toronto art dealer has a whole bunch of them. There’s only one problem: nobody knows for sure if they’re genuine or not because there’s no written proof that he painted them. If they’re authenticated, then the paintings are worth a fortune. If they’re not, then they’re a curiosity but comparatively worthless.
Priceless or worthless. It all depends on whether they’re real or not.
It could be worth more than the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, the gold in Fort Knox, and the investments of Warren Buffet put together. It’s certainly more enduring. Unlike the paintings or money it can’t be destroyed or stolen, and it will also last a lot longer. What is it? Genuine faith. You don’t even need a lot of it. Jesus said that if we have faith like a mustard seed – minuscule faith – that we have enough to uproot trees and move mountains. It’s not the amount of faith. You could have only the tiniest bit of faith, but if it’s genuine and the object of that faith is Jesus, then you have something of greater value than the richest person alive.
But if you have counterfeit faith, you have nothing. So today we must ask the question: How can we know if we have genuine faith? To authenticate a painting, you can check the history of ownership, run forensics, and consult with experts. How do we check the authenticity of our faith? How do you know if your faith is priceless or useless?
John tells us. He gives us three tests.
Test One: The Truth Test (1:6-2:2)
If your faith is genuine, it will believe some things to be true. You don’t need a Ph.D. in theology, but you do need to cling to some truths, not just with your mind but with all of your being.
So what’s the truth test? In the first epistle of John, John gives us a number of truth tests. They all begin with the phrase, “If we say…”
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. (1 John 1:6)
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)
If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:10)
These are all negative tests. If we hold these beliefs, John says, it shows that we’re in serious trouble and that our faith is not genuine.
So what do these negative tests hold in common? They all deny the reality and the severity of our sinful condition. I don’t know about you, but I have a serious problem. I really want life to run my way, not God’s way. I’d much prefer to be king of the universe rather than God. My life is basically a movie about me in which all of you exist as supporting characters. You’re not the point, you see. I am. I am hopelessly selfish and tend to think about the things that don’t matter rather than the things that do.
That’s me, but according to John, that’s you too. John says that if we pretend that this isn’t a problem, or if we say that it’s not a problem, then we’re in great danger. Our faith isn’t real. Our faith is worthless. Genuine faith begins with admitting the truth about ourselves: that we are sinners, and that the problem of our sin is serious and deadly.
Not only that, but genuine faith also receives their cure that God has given for sin. John explains the cure in this passage too:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)
Genuine faith understands the seriousness of sin. It also accepts God’s solution for sin: that Jesus died as a propitiation for our sins. You see, God must by his very nature be angry at sin. Even we get angry at sin. When we hear of children being sold into sexual slavery, of the rich exploiting the poor, or of someone being attacked for the color of their skin, we’re rightfully outraged.
If we are resistant to the idea of the wrath of God, we might pause to reflect the next time we are outraged about something—about our property values being threatened, or our children’s educational opportunities being limited, or our tax breaks being eliminated. All of us are capable of anger about something. God’s anger, however, is pure. It does not have the maintenance of privilege as its object, but goes out on behalf of those who have no privileges. the wrath of God is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God had temper tantrums; it is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his come to set matters right. (Fleming Rutledge)
Jesus, John writes, is the propitiation for our sins. Propitiation is a fancy word that means that Jesus satisfied God’s holy and just wrath. Jesus did what we couldn’t do: he satisfied the wrath of God and made full payment for our sins so that we could be forgiven and cleansed.
That’s the truth test. We must, John says, believe this to have genuine faith. And so let me ask you: have you believed this? Do you see the seriousness of your sin before a holy God? Do you understand that God is justly angry at our rebellion against him? Do you see Jesus as the only solution for this, and more importantly, have you trusted him?
If you have, then that’s a very good thing. If you haven’t, you can today. I urge you to take action by turning from yourself and trusting what Jesus did for you today. Don’t wait a minute later. You can have genuine faith today.
Test Two: The Obedience Test (2:3-6)
You may not know this, but I’m a bit of a technology geek. Unfortunately, my budget is pretty limited. That means that I can’t always afford the gadgets I would like, or if I do, I have to save up for a long time to get them.
When the Apple Watch came out, I knew I couldn’t afford it right away. I started looking at AliExpress, a Chinese shopping site where you can get all kinds of almost-genuine merchandise at a great price. I even found an Apple Watch-like device for US$38.40. The problem? It’s not really an Apple Watch. It can’t do many of the things that an Apple Watch does. It may look genuine, but if it can’t do what the real thing does then it’s not the real thing.
It’s the same with our faith. We are not saved by our obedience. Nobody apart from Jesus is good enough to be accepted by God on the basis of our obedience. We are saved by his obedience, not ours. We are saved by grace through faith on the basis of what Jesus has done for us. But genuine faith always results in obedience. And so John says that obedience is a test of genuine faith.
Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. 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. (1 John 2:4-6)
At first glance, this is a shocking test. The test of genuine faith is that we keep God’s commands. If you don’t keep God’s commands, you don’t have genuine faith. You have a knock-off, a cheap imitation. It’s not the real thing.
It seems that some people who had left the church saw Jesus was a source of secret knowledge who could give them secret knowledge that could help them in the afterlife. Following Jesus meant that you were set up for eternity, but you didn’t have to worry very much about how you live now. It’s more about a religious experience than a change in lifestyle.
But John is frank. If you don’t obey Jesus, you don’t have genuine faith. Genuine faith always changes hope we live. If we have genuine faith, God changes our hearts so that we want the things that he wants and want to obey God in everything.
One of the things that’s very attractive about certain religious and philosophical systems now is that they don’t make much of a demand on how you live. That was true back then too. Take Stoicism, for instance. It seems that every week I come across a podcast or business book that promotes Stoicism as an approach to life that we should all embrace. Stoicism argues that we should pursue self-mastery and become a better, more peaceful person. But it doesn’t make moral demands that require us to follow commands we don’t understand. In the end it’s more about what will help me rather than what will please God, because under Stoicism there is no god.
Contrast that to Christianity. Christianity requires obedience to a holy God who gives us commands we don’t always understand or agree with. That drives some of us crazy. I love how Stormie Omartian put it:
Trust that God has your best interests in mind and be willing to do what he asks of you, even if you don’t understand why. Obedience starts with having a heart that says yes to God.
John isn’t talking about perfection here. It’s clear that nobody has reached the standard of complete obedience before God. That’s why he wrote just a few sentences before:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
John isn’t targeting those who want to obey Christ but fail, because that’s all of us. But he is targeting those of us who only obey God on our own terms and refuse to submit in every area of our lives even when we don’t agree or understand. We obey simply because we recognize that God is God, and because of that whatever he requires is right.
So let me ask you: how are you doing with the obedience test? If you have genuine faith, it will result in your obedience. It will change the way that you live. You won’t just obey the commands that make sense to you. You will obey even when you don’t understand. You’re willing to submit to God and live as if he knows better than you do.
Keeping God’s commandments is a key piece of evidence in the chain of proof of your love for God. If you have any spiritual smarts about you, you will pay attention. Do you have an enemy? Forgive him today! Have you wronged or are you wronging someone now? Make it right today! Are you a constantly bad-mouthing brothers in Christ? Then lay off your blog or Twitter account and turn off your computer and smart phone for a while. Are you maxed out with credit card debt? Then do some plastic surgery and live on soup and chicken pot pies for a while…Are you lazy? Quit lying around playing video games and look for a job. Do you struggle with cursing or crude language? Remember, we have to give an account for every idle word we speak, so clean out your mouth … Are you a two-faced hypocrite? Then get right with God and yourself and stop the Jekyll/Hyde charade. Bring all the junk and broken pieces of your life to Jesus. He will forgive you, heal you, restore you, and set you free when you walk in obedience to his will. (David Allen)
Keeping God’s commands is a key piece of evidence that we have genuine faith.
So there’s the belief test and the obedience test. John gives us one final test to know if our faith is genuine:
Test Three: The Love Test (2:7-11)
Just when you think you’re done, John gives us one final test.
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:9-11)
Let’s keep this simple: you can have genuine faith if you love fellow believers. Again, this is shocking. If you claim to be a Christian and you’re not part of a church, you can’t claim to pass this test. You can’t know for sure that you have genuine faith. If we are angry and bitter toward a believer who has wronged us, we can’t know that we have genuine faith. If we hold racist beliefs, there is every reason to conclude that we don’t have genuine faith. If we can’t stand certain people in church and avoid them, we can’t know that we have genuine faith.
On the other hand, if we engage in the life of the church and enter the mess of genuine, loving relationship, then that is a valuable piece of evidence that we have genuine faith. A boy once walked to D.L. Moody’s church in Chicago. He passed by another church were an older man asked him, “Why do you walk so far and pass so many churches on the way?” The boy’s answer said it all: “Well, you see, sir, they just have a way of loving a fellow over there.” That is a church that seems to have genuine faith.
Three tests: knowledge, obedience, and love. If we know we’re sinners rescued by Jesus, and if this leads us to obey God and love other believers, we can have assurance that we have genuine faith.
How are you doing with these three tests? If you pass the tests, be encouraged. You have evidence of God’s work in your life. If you don’t pass these tests, then look to Jesus who not only passed all three tests but died to give you a new heart. Come to him today and ask him to give you genuine faith.