Last night, we continued our Q&A series “You Asked For It” by taking a look at the question, “How do I know my faith is real?” One of our students submitted a question wondering how we can tell if our love for Christ is genuine and real or if we’re just self-deceived. Surely, feelings of doubt and uncertainty in our faith is something that all Christians deal with at some point in their lives. The good news is that this isn’t a dilemma that’s foreign to Scripture. The apostle Paul encouraged believers to examine themselves to see if they were really in the faith, and in 1 John, John spends a great deal of time responding to a wave of false teaching by showing believers how to identify a real Christian from a fake one – an examination that needs to be performed on ourselves on a regular basis. In 1 John 4:13-21, John gives us three things to check so that we may have confidence and assurance that we are in Christ.
First, and perhaps strangely to many of us, John tells us in verses 13-15 to check our doctrine. In our modern culture, doctrine is often seen as an unimportant negative that only serves to divide. However, John saw it as absolutely foundational to our faith. He puts great importance on proclaiming Christ as the Son of God who came to be the savior of the world – a belief that was under attack in the churches he wrote to. Many were teaching that though Jesus was a great teacher and a special man, he wasn’t divine. John understands that Christ’s divinity is essential for understanding the salvation from sin he offers. So, before moving on to talk about the other important signs of a true faith, he wants us to make sure we’ve got a firm foundation. What exactly is the faith we claim to have, anyway? If it’s not informed by the Scripture, then no matter how passionately we may believe, our faith is the product of our own imagination and is useless.
Secondly, in verses 16-18, John says to check our trust. Since he’s dealt with the mental foundation of our faith, now he says that it must sink into our hearts. It’s not enough to know the promises of Christ, we have to believe them – which involves trust. John says that God’s love working in us should give us confidence rather than fear. If we believe that he has paid for our sins on his cross then we should approach God with boldness rather than with uncertainty, not relying on our spiritual performance for our confidence. Don’t be afraid when you fall, but seek forgiveness from God with the expectation that he will certainly give it, since truly he already has in Christ. Consider the advice of Martin Luther…
“If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter, are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”Luther isn’t here saying that we should seek to sin. He’s saying that we shouldn’t place our confidence in our own goodness but in God’s grace. Don’t struggle with the doubts that come when we feel we have to be good enough for God, but look honestly at your sin with the confidence that God’s grace truly is bigger.
The final command that John gives comes in verses 19-21 – check your love. John is very blunt with his words here. How we treat other people is a very objective test – it’s not internal like the first two. Our actions are out there for those around us to see, and John says that if we claim to have faith but don’t show love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we are liars. Period. The Scriptures teach that love for others is a natural outworking of true faith to the extent that James even wrote, “Faith without works is dead.” John uses a very powerful argument, asking how we can ever hope to love a God we’ve never seen when we can’t love the people right in front of our faces. This test doesn’t demand perfection (as John made clear earlier in the letter), but it does demand that if we claim to have faith we must show it by the way we live. Can you point to areas where God is growing you to look more like the image of Christ? Can you see the evidences of God’s grace showing up in your interactions with those around you? If the answer is no, then the question about the reality of your faith is one you probably need to be asking. Pray that God would give you a faith that is real – rooted in the truth of Scripture, anchored in a strong trust, and evidenced by a radical love. If you pass the test, then rejoice at God’s grace in your life and remember the promise of Philippians 1:6.