1 Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God; and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him.
2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments.
3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.
4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith.
5 And who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
(1 John 5:1-5, NASB).
By this we know. Not only is knowledge and the processes of the mind and of memory put as front and center importance by John, but it is put there as a community activity. Not I, not you, but we know. The rest of this passage falls under this rubric. It is not an imperative, but an indicative. Not, “do this or die”, rather “by these fruits you can be assured, by this evidence you can verify the authenticity of your love.”
that we love the children of God. Isn’t this interesting? In the previous verse, the question was whether or not we love the Father, and the evidence was that the true evidence was love for the child born of Him. Here it is turned around: the question is whether or not we love the children of God. The evidence for the authenticity of our love for the children of God is that we love God.
We are tempted to make this very exclusionary. We want to think that if you lack either of these, it invalidates you. Actually, it works the other way. If either of these is true, it proves the authenticity of the other. Think about the logic of this: If you have oranges, you have fruit. If you have apples, you have fruit. The only way to have no fruit is to have neither oranges nor apples. So, if you love the child born of the Father, you love the Father. If you love the Father, you love the child. The only way to lose is to have neither of them.
We are to love the children of God. It is plural. You cannot pick and choose and say you love some of the children of God but not others. Perfect persistent eternal love loves despite setbacks and disappointments and sin and conditions. It loves despite holes in the person’s theology. In fact, good theology leads to perfect persistent supernatural resurrection love. It presses through. If we are so loved, we love in the same manner. We see people as persistently loved, as worth dying for and as worth forgiving.
…when we love God and observe His commandments. There is a time, when, when we love God. It is to be acknowledged that there are times when we forget or are inconstant in our love for God. He could have said “because we love God,” but instead he used this word “when”. If we have any burgeoning instance, any fleeting time, when we love God and keep His commandments, it is indicative of authenticity. Furthermore, just as we saw in prior verses, His commandment, His new commandment, is to believe in Jesus. Furthermore, we observe His commandments when we sin and confess that His commandments stand true despite our failure and sin.
How do we know this is the right way to interpret this phrase? Isn’t this a self-serving way for me to look at this, in order to preserve and defend my pet doctrines of grace and mercy and kindness? Am I overstating this?
Not at all. If anyone tries to say, “sin in your life invalidates your love for God and your love for the brethren,” I will say that they seem to be twisting this is a way that is out of accord with John’s context. He has already said that if we say we have no sin, we lie (1 John 1:8,10). “Keeping” and “Observing” cannot possibly mean a perfection of practice. It does mean a confession that His commands are true and right and good though we stray from them. It does mean a heartfelt desire to keep returning to the Lord, to confess, to be cleansed. There is a “when”, which means there is a frank admission there is a “when not”. Otherwise we need no confession, we have achieved perfection. Observation of His commandments certainly includes a degree of failure and confession, of straying and returning.
His commandments and love are all tied up together. You can’t disassociate them. The legalist wants to untie these and tease them apart. There is no loveless obedience. One of the clearest teachings of Jesus is that the command to love God and neighbor is the root of all the rest of the commandments:
36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
37 And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’
38 “This is the great and foremost commandment.
39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’
40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
(Matthew 22:36-40, NASB).
The context of 1 John is the gospel. It says, in this is love, not that we love God, but that God loved us, and sent His son as a propitiation for our sins. This means that the love of God and of the brethren is not to be found in ourselves as the source or fountain of love, but in the belief that He loves us. This is the tree that bears love, that bears the kind of keeping of the commandment that is not divorced from love.
His commands are not burdensome! We tend to think that what this means is that His commands are burdensome, but not quite as burdensome as we thought. They are less burdensome, but still a burden. However, that is not really what this says is it? It says His commands are not burdensome. The legalist wants His commands to be burdensome and difficult, because in believing that he fulfills them he makes himself superior to the fools who do not bear the commandments well. It feeds into the boastful pride of life (1 John 2:16) to make the commandment difficult and burdensome, but it breaks the pride of life to say that the commandment is not difficult. If it isn’t difficult then any little child could do it, and there is no merit to the man who obeys. But this is exactly the aim! His commands are not burdensome.
You can tell the difference between the command of the legalist and the command of God by this exact point: the drive to place burden. This was the distinction of the pharisees, and it is the distinction of the non-believer to this day.
What are His commandments?
What are His commandments? John has spelled the answer out for us in great precision. We’ve gone over this of course:
23 And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.
(1 John 3:23, NASB).
Belief in Jesus for someone else is loving them. Belief in Jesus for someone means you believe they are worth dying for, and that their sins do not define them. It means that their sins are soundly judged but that they themselves are not. This is the love of the brethren, and this is His commandment which is not burdensome. Belief is love and belief is the unburdening command.
Is this all a bunch of twisted crazy overly theologized nonsense? You can’t just say that commandment is belief. Well, I think you can. I think the whole problem isn’t that mental assent isn’t enough. I think the whole problem is that there isn’t enough mental assent going on. I’ve made my case from the scriptures, which I think fits with the full text of 1 John. How else could this all be true? If it is the correct way, is this not the greatest and most joyous news on earth? It is not simply a command which is somewhat burdensome, it is a command which liberates! We are very greatly loved, and so we are released into the power and unction to love. What else do you want? The Spirit and the Bride say come!