This article should be read in conjunction with Rethinking John’s First Epistle & The Assurance Quiz by Byron Yawn
At the core of this discussion, the intended use of 1 John, is confusion over the means vs. evidence of salvation. Many pastors, by prefacing the fact that they are focusing on the evidence of salvation and not the means, free themselves to speak in must-do terms. A standard is quickly brought forth for every believer to stand against. It would seem that this means vs. evidence is the loophole of Christianity. It is through this gap that pastors can mandate reformed lives, better practices, and godly living. Therefore, the believer is given a set of tasks to complete in order to confirm true repentance.
This loophole is none other than a confusion of Law vs. Gospel. Whether realizing it or not, when using 1 John as a lists of “tests,” pastors are placing the believer back under the weight of the Law and communicating that grace is only possible when reform has taken place. Pastors protest that if the evidence isn’t distinctively visible then the means can’t be valid. This is a hopeless reality for the believer to live under. Hopeless because the believer is left evaluating fleshly transformation and not resting in Christ’s finished work. The believer’s assurance is taken from what he or she has done and not from what Christ already accomplished. To use theological language, this loophole communicates that the believer can only trust in their justification when there is clear evidence of their sanctification.
Presenting this type of explanation from 1 John also takes boldness on the part of the pastor. The assumption present is that we also have completely passed these tests. A pastor can convince himself of his justification because he 1) lives in the light, 2) confesses sin, 3) keeps the commandments, 4) loves the brethren, 5) has sound doctrine, 6) practices righteousness, and 7) possesses the Holy Spirit. But who is to say we have done enough? Have we removed all darkness from our life? Have we confessed all sin? Have we kept all the commandments? The image that comes to mind when I think of these tests is a mixture between Martin Luther in the confessional and the Rich Young Ruler standing in front of Christ. They both could pass all the tests, save the last, but both were still trying to confirm their justification through their sanctification.
The standard presented is subjective at best. The message that’s preached is essentially: be better. But be better than who? Non-believers? I know many non-believers who are more self-disciplined, better humanitarians, and possess a deeper love than many Christians. Mormons are great examples of this, and they would ace the test. The answer key for this test is more relatively assumed by the pastor than objectively measured by scripture. The assumption delivered is that we, as pastors, have passed the test and so should the believer.
As a pastor, I can’t imagine standing before the Lord and trusting in the outward evidences of my salvation. I would also fear standing before a congregation and calling them to be like me in order to confirm their salvation. Regardless of how hard I try I can never be that great of an example—I’ll always be a sinner. And I would bet my ministry on the fact that no pastor, regardless of age, education level, or perceived godliness, can rise above that status. We will always be sinners. If asked why I belong in the presence of God there is nothing I can say about my actions, pre or post conversion, that will certify my right to enter into His presence. Even at my best I always fall short of His standard.
By asserting the evidences of salvation upon a weaker brother a pastor unknowingly creates a new standard for salvation, one that is based upon obedience and not faith. Physical evidences become the standard. This paradigm either encourages willful blindness or perpetual doubt in the believer. If the believer is truly honest with themself about their sin there is never a time to hope in the evidences of salvation.
A Better Motivation
This is why Christ is necessary and the Gospel is glorious. God sent His son to be our advocate and the propitiation for our sins. The good news is that our hope is found through faith. Christ fulfilled the requirements of the Law that we failed to keep. He passed every test perfectly. He accomplished all that the believer could not. There is nothing else for us to fulfill. Christ came and lived a perfect life, died a substitutionary death, and rose again so that His righteous life could be imputed to our unrighteous ones. Through faith we have been declared righteous. Through faith we have acceptance and assurance with the Father. In Christ the work has been finished.
If there is concern for how believers are living should a pastor point them toward their works? Isn’t it better rather that we remind them of Christ’s work? The motivation to obey from fear cannot compare to the motivation to obey from love. Fear is crippling. Love is rejuvenating. We should point them towards the reality of Christ’s grace and love. As 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 declares,
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”