1 John 5:16-21 Final Reminders and Assurances (Rev. Erik Veerman)
1 John 5:18-21
Rev. Erik Veerman
Final Reminders and Assurances
It’s been a difficult week. Like many of you, the tragedy in Nashville at one of our sister churches has weighed on my heart. I considered focusing our worship and sermon this morning on finding hope in tragedy and evil. Instead, we’re going to do that next Sunday, Easter. Ultimate resurrection hope.
This morning, we’ll look at the last few verses in 1 John. There are some elements that relate to our hope – which I trust will be an encouragement to you.
Sometimes when I am preparing, I realize that there’s not enough time to cover everything sufficiently. Well, on Friday, I realized there was too much to work through in chapter 5 verses 16-21. Usually what I usually do is zoom out a little bit and cover the passage at a little higher level. The problem with doing that with these verses, is they contain a couple of phrases difficult to understand. I don’t want to leave you guessing.
So, I want to do something a little different.
We’re going to focus this morning on chapter 5 verses 18-21. Instead of starting with verse 16, we’ll start with verse 18.
After Easter, we’ll have 1 more sermon on 1 John. It will be to tie up some interpretive loose ends, including verses 16 and 17 as well as a couple of other verses earlier in 1 John. But the other thing I want to do in that sermon is talk through why we, at Tucker Pres, methodically work through books of the Bible rather than topical sermons. Well, at least 90 or 95 percent of the time. I think you’ll find that helpful. That sermon will be on April 23rd, just to give you a heads up.
So, let’s now come to God’s word. 1 John 5:18-21. In the pew Bible, that is on Page 1213.
This is God’s holy Word.
Reading of 1 John 5:18-21
Well, even though this is not our last 1 John sermon, we’ve come to the concluding words.
Recently, I heard a pastor say that he avoided preaching through 1 John for the first 25 years of his ministry. He wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. But then he preached it, and he said it was a great blessing. I hope and pray that this short book has encouraged you as well.
I’ve used a few analogies to try to capture the apostle John’s purpose and approach.
•Like a spiral staircase, as we’ve circled back around to common themes, but from different perspectives.
•A washing machine with different cycles, as John has sought to cleanse and purify the church.
•Or do you remember the obsidian blade, the sharpest in the word, as John carefully cut a line between light and darkness, right and wrong, good and evil, God and Satan, true belief about Jesus and false belief.
The beautiful thing about this letter has been the care and love John has displayed over and over. Even though he has been very clear about the nature of sin, and even though he has called out false doctrine, calling those who teach it antichrists, yet he has been very loving, and he has pointed to God’s love for those who are born of him. Being loving doesn’t mean compromising on truth or error or righteousness or sin. In fact, compromising is not loving. John has modelled what it means to “speak the truth in love.”
Related to that, there’s been a theme in 1 John that has come up over and over. It’s come up every chapter, almost every paragraph. You could say this theme is the glue of 1 John. If you don’t remember anything else about 1 John, I hope you remember this one theme.
The theme is assurance for the one who truly believes in Christ. Assurance of salvation. Assurance that you are a child of God. Assurance of the eternal life that God has given you. And the key word related to our assurance is the word “know.” John has written, “So that you may know.” Or “that you may know that you know.” Over and over. The two Greek words for the English word “know” are used 38 times in these short 5 chapters.
The question has been, how do you have assurance that you are one of God’s children? The answer - You know because you believe in Jesus as God’s son. You know because you seek his forgiveness from your sin. You know because your life testifies to your faith.
You see, assurance is the very reason that John has written about true belief and false belief. In order to have assurance, you have to know where the line is. John needed to be clear about faithful belief concerning Jesus’s nature and divinity versus unfaithful belief. All of it with the goal to give children of God assurance.
That is exactly how John ends his letter – a reminder of that assurance. He writes “We know” four times, here. And he concludes by grounding our assurance in Christ.
And let me say, the need for assurance is not distant from us. I don’t know of a single Christian who has not at one point or another had doubts. The Barna Group did a survey in 2020 and found that 35% of practicing Christians had active doubts about their salvation. You and I are not alone in our struggle.
Assurance is something we long to have. We want to know that we are secure in Christ. We want to have confidence that our faith is genuine – that the Gospel is true. And when we mess up, we want to know that God still loves us. Or when the world presses in against our faith and belief, we desire that sure foundation of truth and grace.
If you’re here today, and it seems like the ground you are standing on is breaking apart, my prayer is that you will leave this morning with a renewed confidence in the grace and love of God… and the truth of the Gospel. Know that there are brothers and sisters who understand and who want to come along side of you in this time.
Many of you have heard of Augustine. Augustine, or Saint Augustine, or Augustine of Hippo lived in north Africa in the fourth and fifth century. Since the early church, Augustine has been the most influential theologian in all of church history. But Augustine struggled with his own doubts about his faith. He wrote this short famous prayer as he grasped more and more of God’s love for him. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We’re going to come back to Augustine’s life in a minute, but these concluding 1 John verses direct our hearts to rest in God for our salvation.
You see, having an assurance of faith is more than just an intellectual understanding of assurance. We can know what assurance is, but until we realize it deep in our soul, we will not truly rest in the assurance of God.
That’s what John is directing us to in these concluding verses. And he deals with real life. He deals with the very things that cause us to question our faith. Our own sin, the evil one, and the world. That’s verses 18 and 19. And then he concludes by grounding our assurance in the immovable rock of Christ.
So, that is how we’ll work through these verses.
Protected from Sin, the Enemy, and the World
So first, assurance in the face of the very things that cause us to question our faith! Sin, the devil, and the world.
John uses a very helpful word in verse 18: “protect.” If you are a child of God, you are protected forever from those enemies of the faith.
And I think you would agree, out of those three, the one that causes us the most worry when it comes to our assurance is our sin. Sin is one of the main reasons we can doubt our faith. Sin is when we fail to obey God’s commands or when we break God’s commands – that’s either in our hearts or our actions. When we sin, we therefore ask ourselves “does that mean I’m not a Christian? I mean, after all, I’m struggling with a sin and sin is disobeying God.” The answer from these verses is “no.” Christians still struggle with sin.
Look down at verse 18. It says, “everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning.”
“But wait a second,” you say, “I do keep on sinning. That must mean that I’m not born of God, right?”
You may be tempted to interpret verse 18 in that way, but in reality, it’s saying the opposite.
This is where it’s important to go back to what John had written earlier. Let’s do that.
•In chapter 1 verse 8-9, John wrote, “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.”
•And very similarly, in chapter 2 verses 1-2, he said, “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.”
A Christian still has the presence of sin in his or her life, but the power and the penalty of sin has been broken. As these earlier verses make clear, if you have come to God in Christ, you are forgiven of your sin – past, present, and future.
So then, what then is chapter 5 verse 18 is talking about? Well, that language is very similar to what John has also written in chapter 3. It’s talking about an ongoing practice of intentional sinning, a life marked by sin. If you have been born of God, you still sin, but your sin does not define you. Yes, some sin is very hard to overcome, like addictions. The test is whether your heart is repentant as you struggle by God’s grace to overcome it with the help of others. That is very different than an unbroken pattern of unrepentant sin. When John says, “everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning” he’s speaking of that unrepentant sin, including and especially the sin of unbelief.
Let’s go back to Augustine for a minute. His own sin was the cause of his greatest doubts as a young believer. You see, early in Augustine’s life he rejected the Christian faith of his mother. Before he came to faith, Augustine was caught up in all kinds of sin and idolatry – sexual pleasures, materialism, selfish ambitions… and he described how enamored he was with different worldly philosophies opposed to God.
But he found that they were all empty pursuits. And one day, when he was about 30 years old, Augustine was in anguish over his sin, he was reading the book of Romans, chapter 13. He read, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." Those words so overwhelmed Augustine. He described how the weight of his sin was lifted off his shoulders and how he found the truth that he had been seeking for so long.
But even after his conversion, Augustine still had times of doubt. At times he was so distraught over his past sins, and he still struggled with certain sins. He felt guilt and shame and worried about God’s judgment. All of that caused him to have doubts about his faith.
But the more Augustine studied the word, the more his faith grew, the more God gave him assurance of salvation. He began to embrace more and more that salvation was a gift from God. In fact, one of Augustine’s greatest theological contributions is his teaching on assurance from the Scriptures. God preserves his children all the way to eternity.
That is the promise of 1 John 5:18. And look what it says next! “but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” It is a promise of protection.
Now, let me say, the pronoun “he” is a little unclear. “He who was born of God.” I think it’s likely referring to Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God, which has been emphasized over and over in 1 John. So, he, that is Jesus, protects us.
It’s also possible the pronoun “he” is referring to a Christian who diligently prays for his brother or sister struggling in sin. That would be a reference back to verse 16. Either way, it is God who does the protecting, and he certainly uses our prayers as we studied last week. The point is that God protects us.
And besides our sin, there are two other things that we are protected from. Two other realities that cause us to question our faith. (1) the evil one, as he’s called here, and (2) the world. The end of verse 18 says we’re protected from the evil one. Literally, “the evil one does not touch him.” (the one born of God). Beloved, the great enemy of the faith, the devil, would like nothing more than to have you question your faith. He wants to undermine your faith and cause you to lose sight of the truth and the assurance you have. But he cannot touch you, meaning, he cannot cause you to lose your salvation. All he can do is lie.
And besides trying to use your sin to undermine your faith, another avenue through which he deceives is the world. Verse 19 connects those together. “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”
Here, the word “world” is referring to the priorities, the philosophies, the sensual desires, the temptations, and the idols of a cultures. “World,” here, is not a neutral entity. It is opposed to God. The apostle John makes that clear, the world is controlled by Satan, through his lies, his deceit, and the way he perverts goodness and truth. He uses the world to try to undermine your faith.
Yet, despite all the temptations and distractions and attacks from Satan, if you are a child of God, he will protect you. Indeed, he promises to.
Since we’re talking about great theologians, Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, felt constantly attacked by the devil. Legend has it that when he was translating the Bible into German, he was feeling particularly attacked. It is said that he was so angry at the devil that he took his inkwell and threw it at the devil. Of course, it hit the wall and left a stain. Supposedly you can still see the ink stain. The truth is, that story probably didn’t happen, but Luther did write about the temptations of the devil.
In his commentary on Galatians, he wrote, “When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: 'I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made a satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where He is, there I shall be also.'"
Protected Through Christ
That quote is a good transition to verse 20 – Because we have to ask the question, Upon what is our assurance based?
You see, the question remains, “how?” “How does God give us assurance?” In the frailty and fallenness of the human condition, what hope is there? We feel vulnerable to our sin, the devil, and the world. I mean, there’s nothing in us that deserves this protection – in and of ourselves. No, we are full of shame and guilt and deserve nothing but death. We feel that. It’s the source of a lot of our doubts about our faith.
How does God protect you from all of those things? The answer, as Luther pointed out: God protects you through Christ.
Verse 20 is a beautiful conclusion to this book. We’ll get to the postscript in verse 21 in a minute.
But verse 20 give us a blessed assurance.
Our assurance comes through Christ. Notice how many times the word “true” is used in this one verse. Let me reads, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true;” that’s the first time. It continues, “and we are in him who is true,” the second use. Verse 20 concludes, “in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” Three times, and they are all about Jesus. John concludes by emphasizing what he has been saying all along. Jesus is truly God. Fully and truly. He is the foundation to true faith.
This verse is all about Christ.
•He is the one who gives us understanding to know him. That’s the first part of the verse.
•We are in him, in Christ. We abide in him and he in us – as John has said over and over. That’s the second part of the verse.
•And the last part is also about Jesus. He is God and eternal life. In him, we have eternal life.
Past, present, and future. Our assurance is based on Christ, from the beginning of our faith through to eternity. This is why we can be assured of our assurance! It’s not based in our works or worthiness. It’s based on Christ, his work, and our worthiness in him.
And finally, the very last verse. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
It seems a little out of place, doesn’t it? Some have suggested that maybe an early transcriber added it, or that we lost a final section. However, all of the earliest manuscripts we have of 1 John or the end of 1 John conclude with this verse. Something like 200 manuscripts.
And I would say, John’s concluding words do make sense. He’s reminded his readers about the testimony of their lives. We’ve seen over and over. We do not come to faith because we are good enough, no, we come to faith through Christ, verse 20. But our lives should then reflect Christ in us and our faith. And so, John ends by calling to their attention, once last time, what true faith looks like. Keep yourselves from the very things that are contrary to God, false idols, false beliefs, false pursuits. Set them aside and pursue that which is pleasing and acceptable in his sight.
As we draw to a close, one thing is clear from the book of 1 John. The Christian life is not easy! We’ll be tempted to sin, the world with its philosophies and values will press in on us, the church will be attacked from within and from without. There’s no promise of smooth sailing through this life. Rather the promise is that through all of it, God will protect you, he will bring you through to the end, and he will do that through the power of the Gospel - faith and hope in Christ for what he’s done on the cross. And nothing can take that away from you, because it is not you, it is Christ in you. Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one.”
May we rest assured in the promises of God in Christ.