Many religious people believe the way to secure eternal blessing and avoid eternal destruction is through keeping the commandments of God. Some try to keep what are called the “Ten Commandments”¹ as found in the law of Moses, and others point to the principles of the kingdom of heaven that the Lord Jesus outlined in what we call “the sermon on the mount”.² Still others believe that their final salvation is contingent upon their faithfulness in keeping all of the teachings of the apostles, variously given as commandments, ordinances, warnings, teaching, exhortations, etc. And it is certainly evidence of a godly state of soul for a Christian to be exercised about practicing New Testament teaching.
Coming closer to the essence of true Christianity, some may point to the “new commandment” the Lord gave His disciples in John 13:34, that they should “love one another”, as He has loved them. But I will be so bold as to make the claim that no one, not one soul, has ever been born again, or gained spiritual life, by keeping any commandment of God.
How is it that such an assertion can be made? As to keeping the Old Testament law of Moses, it is very clear that the Lord Jesus Christ in dying annulled “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15), and that He blotted out the “handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross” (Colossians 2:14). So that, if keeping the commandments of the Mosaic law is ineffectual for receiving divine life after the cross, keeping them could never in any age have been effectual for receiving the “life of God” from His hand.
When one pleads obedience to the teachings of Jesus or of the apostles as necessary to receiving new life from God, he disagrees with the clear teaching of the scriptures that neither the impartation of divine life to us, nor God’s imputation of righteousness to us, has anything to do with works or obedience to commandments. Abraham obeyed no commandment of God in order to be justified, and the scriptures could not be clearer on that account. He simply believed in Jehovah and His promise, and He counted him righteous.³
But what then is the meaning of the apostle John’s teaching in I John 2:4: “He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him”? I would submit that John wrote his first epistle for these two reasons, primarily:
- To give the believer in Jesus Christ the assurance that he (or she) has eternal life, because he has believed the testimony God gave of His Son, who “came in flesh” to the earth to shed His blood for the remission of sins (I John 5:6-21).
- To test the profession of those who claim to know God, but may be doing so falsely, as seen in the seven tests of profession in this epistle.°
John did not write his first epistle to give real believers any reason to doubt their profession and possession of eternal life, which they had gained by new birth and faith. If they sin, they have Jesus Christ the Righteous as their advocate with the One they already know as their Father (I John 2:1). If their hearts condemn them through some coldness or failure, they need the assurance that John gives — that God is greater than their hearts and knows all things, including the security of the relationship and how to restore the heart of His child to renewed confidence or boldness toward Him (I John 3:19-21).
We get some insight into what John means by keeping God’s commandments when we connect a few verses in this epistle. In I John 3:22-23, we find that the essence of keeping the commandment of God, what He commands, is to (1) believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and (2) to love one another, as Christ gave commandment in John 13 and 15. This twofold commandment can be understood better when we look at two more verses:
- In I John 5:1, we read that “whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God”. The sense is given even better in another version: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God”, showing that new birth is the cause of faith in Christ, rather than the result.
- Also, in I John 4:7, we are told that “every one that loveth is (has been) born of God”. Here, the evidence of new birth is a love that cannot be known or exercised by a person who is not yet born again.
So then, being born again and possessing eternal life do not come by keeping any commandments, for divine life is given when the Son of God, by the Spirit of God, communicates the Word of God to the soul of a dead, lost sinner. “The Son quickeneth whom He will . . . the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live”. The sinner does not even need to read the written word of the scriptures to receive new life, for the Lord Jesus still “speaks from heaven”, and “it is the Spirit which quickens”.* It is the power of the living, life-giving Word of God, which never varies from the written word in the scriptures, that actually effects the change in a soul that the scriptures call the new birth.
Keeping the commandments of God, as given in John’s teaching, is not a grievous or difficult thing (I John 5:3), for it is a result of having the life and nature of God. One who doesn’t believe on Christ or love the brethren is not keeping God’s commandments, and is shown to be lacking both a new birth and eternal life. This wonderful epistle was inspired and written in such a way as to provide both a true test of the profession, and a blessed assurance of the possession, of eternal life.
¹ Deuteronomy 4:13; 5:7-21
² Matthew 5-7
³ Genesis 15:6; Romans 4
° I John 1:6, 8, 10; 2:4, 6, 9; and 4:20
* John 5:21, 25; 6:23; Hebrews 12:25; James 1:18