Abiding in belief (1 John 4)

Are you sure you’re saved?  All of us, I suspect, have asked ourselves this question at some time or another.  If you’re anything like me, you might have prayed the “sinner’s prayer” a few dozen times just to make sure that one of your salvations “took,” kinda like sending that sweater through the wash again just to be sure that stain’s out.

We’ve been talking this week about “abiding.”  Abiding means staying close to Jesus, to immerse ourselves in his character and his teaching.  So how can we be really sure we “abide?”

YOUR OWN PERSONAL JESUS

No one, not even the Beatles, will ever be more famous or more widely known than Jesus Christ.  He is the central figure of all human history.  Even our calendars are organized around the periods of “B.C” (“before Christ”) and “A.D.” (annulus Dei, the “year of our Lord”).

But who is this man?  What do we say about him?  As much as religion has been pushed to the corners and margins of our society, it’s a pretty safe bet that your friends and neighbors might echo many of the cultural assumptions that circulate about Jesus.  From the “Jesus fish” on your minivan to the “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirts sold at Urban Outfitters, Jesus stands somewhere between fashion statement and cultural icon.  Rapper Kanye West famously appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with a crown of thorns, promoting his hit song “Jesus Walks.”

Years ago the question we were asking was: “Should we believe in Jesus or not?”  High-minded academics used to describe themselves standing at the edge of “an ugly broad ditch.”  On one side was the Christ of history.  On the other stood the Christ of faith.  They could believe in a historical man named Jesus, but…miracles?  Resurrection?  These proved too difficult to believe.  But today’s world has made the jump, it seems.  We’ve leapt across the ditch only to find ourselves in a hall of mirrors.  Everyone has “their own personal Jesus,” a personalized savior for a nation of rugged individuals. And so we find ourselves like the Roman guard of Oscar Wilde’s play about the life of Christ: “[Jesus] is everywhere,” he tells King Herod, “and we cannot find him.”

ABIDING AND BELIEF

We can’t possibly say enough about the similarities between our world and the ancient one. John was writing from the city of Ephesus.  But even the believers living in the city understood only the teachings of John the Baptist:

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” (Acts 19:1-3)

They had the part, not the whole.  Paul had to explain to them that John’s baptism only pointed toward someone greater—Jesus himself.  It was this sort of halfway-religious world that John found himself in, though John would see both Peter and Paul die while he carried on.  Perhaps motivated by this, perhaps urged on by friends, John penned a biography of Jesus that we now know as the gospel of John.  But John wrote other parts of our Bibles as well, such as the enigmatic book of Revelation and a series of letters we know as “1, 2, and 3 John.”

The first letter John wrote was about this exact topic.  The people in John’s world believed in Jesus, yes, but their image of Jesus was shaped by cultural forces and personal expectation.  If you read 1 John, you see that much of what John writes is a swirling meditation on the unity between proper belief and Christian conduct.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:13-15)

You’ll notice, of course, that John uses the same image here of “abiding” in Christ.  And what evidence does John give for knowing we abide?  Because we have the Spirit, he tells us; the same Spirit the believers that Paul had encountered didn’t even know about.  But John continues.  He emphasizes that proper belief in Jesus is the key to abiding.  To believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man—this is, according to John, the starting point of an abiding relationship with God.

Christianity is a religion of belief, not works.  We know this, and yet we may often feel tempted to think ourselves unworthy of God’s love because we lack the right credentials, or because we just don’t feel spiritual enough.  Maybe we even wrestle with repeated sins, feeling disqualified from active faith because we can never seem to get it right.  All of these things are worthy to address as we mature in our faith.  But they are not the measurements of our faith.  The assurance of our salvation is not the quality or quantity of our faith; it’s the object of our faith.  Understanding who Jesus is—that is, knowing him to be God in human skin—this is the essential foundation of our faith.  Why?  Because only God could go to the cross to offer an infinite sacrifice to pay our infinite debt, and God must do this as a human being to atone for the sin of Adam.

Faith produces confidence.  Theology—the act of studying and learning about God—isn’t just an exercise of ivory-tower academics.  It’s for all of us.  Just as food means more to those who are hungry, just as air means more to those who are choking, so does faith mean more to those who are doubting. For doubt is not the opposite of faith.  No, the opposite of faith is actually speculation, the art of bending the truth to fit our own private assumptions and felt needs.  Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but its absence.  And so in the darkness of our mind’s eye, Christ’s truth shines with clarity, with radiance, with beauty.

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3 thoughts on “Abiding in belief (1 John 4)

  1. Being in Christ is to reflect in our actions. Like you I am often trying to evaluate if I am walking with God.

    The following scripture though has two important thoughts on this topic.

    18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
    19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence:
    20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
    (1 John 3:18-20 NIV)

    If we love (vs 18) then this sets our hearts at rest in his presence (vs 19) for we can see the supporting evidence of him working in us.

    Another key point is that if for whatever reason (maybe having been belittled constantly in the past) we might have a mind programmed to criticize ourselves (hearing and internalizing childhood ridicule directed at ourselves is one reason we might have learned to over-criticize ourselves) and we might doubt ourselves and criticize ourselves too much. Perhaps we grew up in an environment where failure wasn’t permitted and innovation wasn’t encouraged. Maybe then we learned to fear failure more than strive for success.

    For whatever reason a hyperactive sense of self-doubt, condemnation, self-criticism might be at work in us. And so it is good that “God is greater than our hearts” and that he may not be as critical of us as we are of ourselves.

    This leads to theological wrangling as some people think God sees just faults in people. It is remarkable though that the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector shows that the one who was full of self-condemnation as he went to the temple to pray was justified. The other one who was full of confidence and contempt did not leave the temple area in a good relationship with God.

    “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” So whether we think highly or lowly of ourselves we are not the final word. God may be more understanding toward us than we are toward ourselves.

    Paul caught a little bit of this at work in himself in Romans chapter 7. But he also explained it in a way that is helpful in that Paul mentioned that we sometimes when not walking by the spirit make a mess of things, though we are not indending too.

    Romans 7:15 shows that sometimes we don’t understand some things. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Rom. 7:15 NIV)
    This has theological implications for how God views us.

    “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Rom. 7:20 NIV)

    It kind of reminds me of when Jesus asked the disciples to stay awake with him and pray and they could not even stay awake one hour even though a major crises was bearing down on them. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” Jesus observed.

    Now something I don’t get about what you wrote in today’s devotional.
    I don’t understand what you meant, “the opposite of faith is actually speculation.”

    Is this a statement that applies to scientific inquiry or investigation?
    Joshua 3:16 (Hey maybe I can remember that scripture!) “the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho”. (Jos. 3:16 NIV)

    The Jordan for example has been blocked a number of times. I’m just wondering if this is type of thinking “speculating” that you meant is the opposite of faith. Some people might think that we should not delve deep into scripture. Anything that seems to be “new wine” is discouraged for we think we should just accept that “the old wine is better.” Maybe it requires less explanation and doesn’t require learning anything new?

    We can speculate in order to get to a deeper understanding of the truth. On the other hand when Jesus was coming up on the night of his crucifixtion he prayed about another way out of his trial and yet asked that God’s will would be done rather than his. Was this “speculating” about another way?

    Jesus, I suppose (if he wasn’t God in the flesh) could have started taking a natural inquiry as to whether he could escape the cross into rationalization about other alternatives until he convinced himself that he should do something different.

    Is the opposite of obedience, — rationalization?

    You wrote, “speculation, the art of bending the truth to fit our own private assumptions and felt needs.”

    Their is a stigma to the thoughts “private assumptions” and “felt needs.”

    Yet when are our “private assumptions” wrong or when are they are right? Christianity or religion might be stigmatized by unbelievers as being “private assumptions.” Critics might even say that religion or Christianity is set up to meet “felt needs.”

    I’m not arguing that these criticisms are “valid” or that if something meets a felt need that this means it is necessarily wrong. I am just pointing out that the collective can belittle a minority by calling their views “private assumptions” and “felt needs.”

    A major religious institution can stifle independent thinking within its ranks by using those terms. Religious critics can badger believers with those terms. An ignorant Catholic Priest (implying here a subset of Catholic Priests, not a definition or pejorative to be applied to all) or any fundamentalist preacher who MIGHT be ignorant might belittle someone who has an opinion differing from his. Respect my authority they might argue.

    Yes as I continue on struggling to understand what you wrote, “bending the truth” as you wrote, is always going to be wrong. Yet are there times when someone does not have the time to adequately describe something? Later people may try and figure out what was meant. We can talk about “sun rise” and this would seem to the ancients to fit with their perspective of the earth rising and hurrying around the earth. When the roundness of the earth was fully understood then people had to come to grips with sun rise meaning the rotation of the earth causing the appearance of the sun to rise over the horizon. Now we don’t take literally the sun rising in respect to the earth, we better understand the movement of the earth as being the key moving component in making the sun more visible to us to each morning.

    Jesus disciples may have lacked faith when they were speculating about what Jesus meant on several occasions. Does speculating then reflect lack of understanding rather than lack of faith?

    Maybe I think of speculating as trying to get at the truth, and you have in mind speculating as a means of avoiding the truth? I.E. rationalization trying to get away from something that is clear but difficult?

    A simple order like “Love your neighbor as yourself.” can lead to speculating and questioning as in the Bible when someone asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” The motive here for the person asking the question may not be to expand obedience, but to limit it. Scripture says the questioner was trying to “justify himself.” (Luke 10:29)

    Sorry for making a big deal about all this. Usually you are “spot on” in your thinking and writing. Normally I go through the process of writing a reply and finally it dawns on me what you meant. Right now though I am still struggling to understand these couple of sentences in today’s devotional writing.

    Might you not be perfect in knowledge Chris? Or am I still badly confused about what you were arguing? Or maybe you are not perfect in knowledge and I am still badly confused?

    Again I would probably not put others through this cross-examination but your writing and thinking is normally at a very high level and so I am looking for perfection from you. (smile)

    • As to the “love” part, you’re just a day ahead of me–we’ll be looking at a related passage from 1 John 4 on Thursday.

      As to the speculation remark, I was admittedly being glib, though my sentiment remains. Christianity at least from the era of the reformers has emphasized that faith consists of three things: knowledge, agreement with that knowledge, and trust in that knowledge (including, of course, acting on that knowledge). So faith depends entirely on the knowledge of something. This is why Paul makes such a big deal of the resurrection of Christ in 1 Corinthians 15.

      In that sense I would actually apply the word “faith” to all beliefs grounded in truth. In philosophy it’s what we would call “epistemic warrant” or a justified belief. So even scientific conclusions are matters of “faith” in that sense–though I guess we might add that if I speed down a rainy highway I have failed to live consistently with my understanding of the laws of physics and put myself and others at risk. Perhaps another example would be more helpful: if you asked how many people attend Church on Sunday, and I glance at my watch and say, “about 350,” this would be an accurate statement, but not a reasonable one–because my watch is a poor basis for making this evaluation even if I happen to be right. A belief can only be warranted if it can be connected to a broader understanding of reality.

      Speculation is typically the formation of a belief in the absence of knowledge. Now, I’ll grant you that in your examples, speculation could be part of a process of seeking the truth. In fact, in John’s gospel in particular we find Jesus’ followers grappling with a faith that grows as they spend time with Jesus; it never really crescendos until Thomas’ famous confession “My Lord and my God!” But speculation never makes the transition into faith until knowledge is acquired. So if someone states a belief in something, and they base it on their own speculation, I’d stop short of calling that faith unless it can be anchored to something else. For Christians, this means anchoring the gospel into the larger framework of the Biblical story, or the resurrection of Jesus, or Jesus’ miracles, etc.

      Perhaps in this sense I’m distinguishing between “speculating” and “exploring.” After all, we wouldn’t chide a new believer for not fully understanding complicated theological ideas or suggesting that their faith is weak. But someone whose image of God or Jesus is based on their own preferences is not exercising genuine faith, and while we might affirm their spiritual sensitivity it is worth challenging their method of inquiry, and I suppose that’s at least partly what the discipleship process is about.

      John’s gospel actually uses the imagery of light/dark to refer to both intellectual and moral darkness, and often John doesn’t distinguish them as neatly as we might like. We have Judas who goes out “and it was night” (John 13:30), and we have Nicodemus who comes at night (John 3). In John 1:5, John tells us that in Jesus “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome/understood it.” John cleverly uses a Greek word that can either mean “understood” or “conquered/overcome,” illustrating the dual nature of moral/intellectual darkness. Thankfully, John tells us, Jesus is the answer to both.

  2. If only I consulted a dictionary – the definitions at this website linked in the next sentence make clear your use of the word “speculation” verses mine.

    https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/speculation

    This page then has a first use what I thought it meant.

    “continuous and profound contemplation or musing on a subject or series of subjects of a deep or abstruse nature”

    However it then goes on to show two definitions of the word in exactly the manner you used it.

    “a hypothesis that has been formed by speculating or conjecturing (usually with little hard evidence)”

    “a message expressing an opinion based on incomplete evidence”

    So you are totally vindicated. I just didn’t understand the total breadth of how the word was used.

    I’m not trying to trip you up Chris — really!!

    Good job.

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