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Ch. iii. 1-3.] FROM the conviction that believers are born of God, and thus are children of God, the Apostle derives the motive necessarily growing out of it, to avoid all that is sinful. This leads him to speak more at large of the dignity of the children of God, and of what is involved in it: “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he [it] shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him, purifieth himself, even as he is pure.”
There can be no more intimate and endearing relation than that of children to their Father, when this fully answers to its nature. How much 163then must it imply, when creatures separated by an infinite chasm from their Creator, when men estranged by sin from a holy God, are taken into this relation to Him. How great the love he has manifested, by coming near and imparting himself to them, in order to close this chasm, to bring them into fellowship with himself! No higher evidence could be given of the love of God towards his apostate creatures. It pre-supposes the father-heart in God, towards those whom he adopts as his children. Far more is designated by it, in the sense of the Holy Scriptures, than the relation which God as Creator holds to his creatures. It is only in a more general sense that God is elsewhere called the Father of Spirits, from the peculiar relation of spirits as such to the supreme spirit, to Him who is called, absolutely,—The Spirit; being in their nature as spirits adapted to reflect the image of the eternal, the supreme spirit, and therefore akin to Him, and susceptible of a fellowship of life with Him. It is oneness of race, a kindred nature, that unites children with parents; so spirits as such enjoy the special right, over all the rest of creation, of standing in this relation to God, and hence he is called in that more general sense their 164Father. But the race of man had through sin fallen from this relation to God; had forfeited that claim founded in their original nature, created after the image of God; were no longer partakers in that life by which they were akin to the holy God, and by virtue of which they might have been worthy to be called his children. It was therefore necessary that He, who from his nature is in the absolute sense Son of God, and who alone is such, should appear in their flesh and blood; that he should impart himself wholly to them, give his life for them, make himself entirely their own and unite them as one with himself; that as lie is the Son of God, so they, in fellowship with him and for his sake, might also become the children of God.
But the expression is here peculiar; not, they are children of God,—but shall be so called. It is an indication, how much is implied in the right to bear this name. The name is the sign of the thing, the outward expression of the inward reality. The name may be conferred in advance; the right to bear it may be given, before that which is indicated by the name attains its complete fulfilment and realization. The son, destined to succeed 165to his father’s whole property, his offices and dignities, receives with the right to bear the name of son, the certain pledge that he shall one day come into possession of all. So also in the right of believers to be called the children of God, there is more involved than in what they now, to appearance, actually are. It is their title, given to them of God, to come one day into the full possession and use of all which is indicated by this name,—as assumed by the Apostle in what immediately follows. Since the outward condition of God’s children does not here correspond to the dignity belonging to this name, to the glory indicated thereby; the Apostle therefore first directs the attention of believers to this incongruity, that when made aware of it by various painful experiences, they might not become unsettled in regard to what is thus conferred on them, but rightly understand that this must be so,—that it could not be otherwise. They are the object of hatred and persecution to the world; they are in perpetual conflict with it. Are they to be disquieted on this account? No! This is nothing less than one of the vouchers for the great right bestowed on them by the father-love of God, the right to be called 166 his children. It is one of the required testimonials, that they are truly standing in this relation to God. The dignity to which they are appointed, the glory of which they are now the depositories, is one which is hidden from the world. The world is far from surmising the exalted stand-point in the universe, occupied by the christian. The world understands nothing of that by which he is influenced and animated, and bestows on it only hatred and contempt. And wherefore? As the feeling with which we regard the father is transferred to the son, who follows the example and principles of his father; as hatred to the father is thus transferred to the son; so the disposition of the world towards the children of God, is the same as that towards God himself. As the world estranged from God cannot know Him; as even when professing a zeal for Him, it honors only that, is zealous only for that, which it has made its God, its own self-created idols; as it knows nothing of the true God, being estranged from him in the temper of the heart; so neither can it recognize the Father in his children, the image of God in those who bear it. It misapprehends the divine, for the very reason that it is divine. This temper, 167which separates it from God, is the source also of its hostility to the children of God. When, therefore, these are misunderstood, hated and persecuted by the world, they must not be perplexed and cast down on this account; but, perceiving the causes whence such treatment proceeds, must feel themselves ennobled by it. They must draw, from this encounter with the world, a more deep and living consciousness of that endearing and intimate relation to God, which places them in this position towards the world.
But how are we to reconcile with this the prayer offered by Christ as High Priest of his people (John xvii. 22, ff.), that the glory bestowed by the Father upon him and by him upon believers,—a glory consisting in the oneness of believers with him as he is one with the Father,—may reflect itself in their life, in their fellowship with one another; that they may so testify of Christ, of his divine dignity and mission, as to lead the world to the knowledge of him; that the manner in which God reveals himself in the living fellowship of believers, may lead the world to perceive how much they are the objects of divine love? How are the two things to be reconciled, that what is 168cause of misapprehension and persecution to the world, should at the same time be the means by which the world is to be led to recognize the revelation of God in his children, to awaken desire after a participation in it? In order to this, we must distinguish a twofold character in that which is called the world. That which makes it such, the source of its hostility to God and his kingdom,—this must be distinguished from that which forms in the world the transition-point to the kingdom of God, the still inherent capacity in man for receiving the divine image, the after-working of original relationship to the Divine. In virtue of the first, he is only repelled by the Divine in believers, and cannot recognize in it the Divine; while through the second, the divine glory, as mirrored in the fellowship of christians, exerts its attractive force to draw men to the Father, and to the Son who reveals him—the point of connection whereby the Father draws them to the Son.
It is only in the first point of view that the Apostle here speaks of the world; and his words have a special reference to the then existing relations of Christians to the world. It was then as 169Jewish or as Heathen, that the world presented itself in opposition to Christianity and to the fellowship of believers,—to the church of God. Something wholly new had made its appearance among men, standing in direct contrariety to the spirit by which the world was governed, to its convictions, its principles, its morals, its tastes, and to the organizations and arrangements of life originating therein. It must therefore be misapprehended, hated, and persecuted by the world. The recurrence of this same thing is still witnessed in heathen countries, where Christianity is first introduced by missions. But it is otherwise with those nations which have already long borne the Christian name; whose whole history and life, developed under the influence of Christianity, are bound up and connected therewith in an unseen, and to many, unconscious manner; nations sustained by Christianity as the life-element from which the national development and culture, the form of national life, originally proceeded. Christianity, when first appearing among a people, stands distinctly opposed to the prevailing opinions, principles, manners, and social arrangements, which had sprung from the root of a totally different 170religion. But this is not so with nations which have, as we have said, long borne the Christian name. Much which had its origin in Christianity, has become a part of the common national life, entering into its social institutions, customs. and modes of thought. Such is that general, world-transforming power of Christianity, forever at work in human history, as seen in a comparison of nations bearing the Christian name with heathen countries whether savage or civilized, especially as represented to us in the history of modern missions.
Do we now, in countries where Christianity has exerted its world-transforming power, find still existing this same opposition between Christianity and the world, and consequently an application here also of the Apostle’s words? Or does that spirit, which fills and animates the children of God, here find a point of attachment in everything around them, thus developed from the all-transforming agencies of the Gospel? In regard to this it will forever remain true, that no one can become a child of God by natural birth, or in general, through anything performed externally, upon the body. On the contrary, this is a work which 171must be wrought from within, through personal faith, and the operations of the Holy Spirit. The saying of our Lord: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit,” declares a perpetual contrariety between the regenerate and the unregenerate; and consequently, the opposition between the children of God and the children of the world is one which will forever continue. It matters not whether the world arrays itself in open hostility against Christianity; or whether the latter has so far extended its all-transforming power, that the world itself has to a certain degree become affected by its influence, in many respects assimilated to it under the outward form of Christian culture, and now wages against it a more covert, unavowed, in part perhaps unconscious warfare. Those who belong to God as his children, in whom Christ has been truly formed, who in their whole life and being testify of him and reflect his image, whom he has chosen and consecrated through the Holy Spirit as his instruments in representing and extending his kingdom, these will ever feel constrained to maintain a conflict with all which is of the world and not from God, in order that they may make 172it subject to the kingdom of God, may through the sword of the Spirit subdue it to the obedience of Christ. Such cannot be deceived by that outward show of Christianity, in which the world, superficially affected by its all-transforming influence, has veiled its own true character. They will therefore have to contend with all that is unchristian here, not less than among a people never before brought in contact with Christianity. What then obtained when these words were written, when even externally the heathen world was distinguished from Christians dwelling in it, must ever continue even when that external distinction has been done away. Hence we see the genuine children of God, in all ages, involved in conflict with the world. In proportion as the Father is not recognized in his love and holiness, must the children, in whom that love and holiness are revealed, be misapprehended also. They cannot but be misunderstood. Often are they despised, or hated and persecuted; and they must then find their consolation in the words here spoken, pointing to that high dignity bestowed on them by the Father, as the true ground of this antagonism between them and the world.173
This relation of the world to the children of God may exhibit itself under two forms. Those who have been affected more or less by this general influence, diffused among a Christian people, may be clearly conscious of the source of that superiority by which they are distinguished from all who belong to pagan nations; or they may unconsciously imbibe this influence as an element once introduced into the national development, without acknowledging Christianity as its source. The former are indeed deeply penetrated by a sense of their obligations to Christianity. Though far from recognizing Christ in his divine dignity and glory as the Incarnate Word, they yet acknowledge him as author of the most salutary revolution in human society. They honor and are willing to promote Christianity, as the means of diffusing through the life of every people those general moral influences which they have themselves felt. But they are unable, notwithstanding, to recognize and comprehend those who attach so much importance to Christianity, as a whole, in its own peculiar nature; who claim for it the entire life, requiring that everything should give place to the holy condemnatory earnestness of the Gospel, that 174everything should bow before it. The animating and impelling principle by which such are governed, remains to them a mystery; it becomes to them a stone of stumbling. Hence arises an opposition between these two classes; an opposition all the more bitter for the very reason, that those who are conscious of that general influence of Christianity upon the formation of their character, suppose that with this they have all they need; resenting it as a heavy offence if more is required of them, if they are not regarded, on account of what they already have, as children of God. Those who confront them with the Gospel in all the earnestness of its demands, are accused of putting something else in its place, of making the way to the kingdom of God too narrow; just as the Jews, having received so much that was akin to Christianity from the Law and the Prophets, and deeming this all-sufficient, hated him in whom they were fulfilled, and reproached him as being himself an enemy to the Law and the Prophets.
If now we turn to the second case, this too we shall find may assume a twofold form. It may be that those who share in spiritual blessings, which the people to whom they belong have attained 175only through the educating influence of Christianity, do indeed acknowledge this agency; but they suppose, the possession once secured, the nation needs this influence no longer. Though recognizing it as a means ordained by Providence for bringing humanity up to this stage of development, they believe that Christianity has now accomplished its work. Its highest mission was to make itself superfluous,—by cultivating the nations to that state of maturity and self-dependence which they have now attained. This is one case. In the other, not even so much as this is conceded to Christianity. It is not recognized as the source of those blessings, which through its world-transforming influence have become the property of the nations. Their connection with the agency of Christianity is regarded merely as accidental; and a release from its restrictive yoke would, in the view of such, be followed by a more complete and happy national development. But as the fruit of a tree can only prosper in connection with the trunk and root, and with the fruit-producing sap which diffuses itself from the root through the trunk and all its branches; so these fruits also will soon vanish, if connection with their root, 176which is Christianity, is no longer maintained and kept alive in the national consciousness. Here too will the words of the Lord be verified: “He that hath not, from him shall be taken that which he hath.” What is thus torn asunder from the root of Christianity, having become thereby something wholly different, having been deprived of its true nature and significance, will run more and more into the form of decided opposition to Christianity. The world, not being led up from that general reformatory influence of Christianity to its true inward nature, will throw off more and more even its outward appearance, and the concealed hostility will become an open one,—a result which we see fast preparing in our own day. And thus, what is here taught of the warfare between the children of God and the children of the world, and should serve as a ground of consolation in this conflict, will again find its full application in the case of each individual, so soon as he has made his choice between these two adverse forces, which are every day coming into more direct conflict.
While thus contemplating the children of God at their present stand-point of conflict with the world, the Apostle marks the distinction between 177the present and the future. He leads their thoughts to that still concealed and undeveloped future, which they bear within themselves. We have already, he says, the inward assurance of that which to us is above all else, of which no one can rob us, that we are the children of God. Herein is contained the germ of all which is to be developed in the future, in eternal life, even to the completion of the kingdom of God; but the whole extent of what is thus bestowed, the fulness of the glory of the children of God, is as yet veiled even from themselves, much more from the world which knows them not. We indeed know already, would the Apostle say, what we ARE; but it is not yet revealed what we shall be. As it is said to be a revelation of Christ, when he shall show himself openly in his yet hidden glory; so of the children of God, it is said that they shall be REVEALED, when their glory, now veiled and hidden from view, shall be brought forth to light. Of what shall then follow, the Apostle says: “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
The question may arise, to whom is the pronoun here to be referred, to Christ or to God? What the Apostle says would be strictly true, and might 178be said with perfect propriety, in either case. The two stand in close connection also,—indeed each is necessarily involved in the other. For perfect likeness to God is inseparable from likeness to Christ, through which as a mediate agency it is produced; so also, to behold God stands in close connection with beholding Christ, through which in like manner it is effected. We must consider, however,—not what the Apostle might in any connection have said, not what is in itself a truly apostolic thought and in the spirit of John,—but what in this particular connection was present to his mind. The reference to God being here the predominant one, what is comprehended in the idea of his children being the subject of consideration, it is manifestly their relation to God which is here before the mind of the Apostle. To Him, therefore, the pronoun must be referred.
As the image of the father is presented in the son, and the son is recognized by his likeness to the father; so the Apostle makes the full revelation of the children of God, as such, to consist in perfect likeness to their Father. It is implied, therefore, that the dignity of the children of God is still imperfect and obscured, because their likeness 179to God is not complete,—because they do not yet perfectly reflect the image of God their Father. This likeness to God as their Father, must indeed be gradually developed in their entire nature, after the model image of Christ, whereby everything human in them is to be transformed and glorified into a revelation of the divine nature, is to be made divine. All that has its origin in the old man, and is not yet wholly overcome and rooted out, stands ever opposed to this assimilation of believers to God. The perfected glory of the children of God is therefore identical with perfect likeness to God. That which obscures the one, stands opposed also to the complete realization of the other. In that one thing all is included. Complete likeness to God is, moreover, represented by the Apostle as the consequence of our seeing the Father as he is. We have here a promise, transcending all that the human spirit is able to conceive or hope; as that which is promised answers to the profoundest longings of the spirit thirsting and fainting after God. The immediate, perfect knowledge of God as he is,—this bewilders and confounds all finite conception. It seems irreconcilable with the infinitude of the divine 180nature, and the narrowness of finite creatures. Under the old dispensation, it had been said that no mortal could behold God; the vision of God was regarded as something, before which the elements of human nature must dissolve away. But now the Eternal Word,—He who was with God and was himself God, the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father and has alone known or could know him,—He having taken upon himself our nature, and God having thereby entered into this most intimate and endearing union with it; the chasm is now closed, which divided between God and the created spirit. Like Christ himself, shall they who stand in fellowship with him, attain through him to the immediate and perfect vision of God, to whom even here below they are united in faith and love.
What we possess, in this glorious prospect, we best learn from contrast with two opposite errors of human opinion, between which Christianity alone shows us the proper medium. The one bearing the name of Deism, is seen in the vain effort to reach, through the idea of an unknown and far off God, the true conception of that felicity, a longing after which is so deeply implanted 181in the spirit of man. While allowing to the glorified soul progressive development in perfection, to move onward from world to world, it still leaves it forever at an infinite distance from God; the idea of such a perfect, immediate vision of God is far beyond its flight. The other error is that of Pantheism; which, knowing not the God who is at once near and afar off, the God everywhere present who is at the same time God in Heaven, mingles God and the universe into one (as does also a false mysticism); annihilating the personality of the created spirit, it resolves it wholly into God, thereby destroying likewise the idea of the living God himself, who is not a God of the dead but of the living.
On the contrary, the promise of the Gospel presents to us, as the aim of the created spirit ripening to perfection, an immediate and perfect intuition of the Divine Being, with the removal of all those temporal bounds in which our present consciousness is yet confined. It will be a knowledge of God no longer fragmentary, no longer borrowed from the imperfect mirror and the broken rays of this our temporal consciousness, but as He is in himself, in his essential nature; a knowing of God 182so immediate that, as the Apostle Paul says, we shall know Him as we are known of Him, as He is known of himself. Still, we shall remain forever distinct from him, in a glorified personal existence; otherwise, it would not be eternal life, but mere annihilation. What John here certifies is this: that in the perfect intuition of God lies the ground of our own personal perfection; that as personal existences, created in the image of God, we are to become perfectly like him. The two are placed by John in the closest connection; the perfect intuition of God and, as proceeding therefrom, a perfect transformation into his image, the oneness of life between the beholder and the beheld. The beholding of God must react upon the beholder, transforming him into that which is the object of contemplation, assimilating him to that which he beholds,—and the perfect perception can proceed only from affinity of life. It implies the removal from the life as from the perception, of all which might separate, a perfect unity between the two. Life and perception are here entirely one. So in our Saviour’s words: it is the pure in heart who shall see God; by which he too expresses the sum of all blessedness. And as progress in the knowledge 183of God, proceeding as it does from fellowship of life with God, is dependent upon the progressive purification and development of the christian life, the life of likeness to God; so at the last consummating point, are perfect intuition of God and perfect likeness to God made coincident with each other.
Throughout this Epistle promise, and exhortation to that which is made the condition of the promise, engrafting themselves one upon the other, are found constantly in close connection. So also here, upon this highest promise follows the exhortation based on the condition of its fulfilment. The present and future, the beginning and end, are united by an indissoluble bond. All which is to be perfected in eternal life must already be possessed here in the germ; and by an ever-progressive development out of the germ, must it attain to that final limit of complete maturity. Since now perfect likeness to God consists in perfect holiness, it is through progressive sanctification in this life the way must be prepared for that final consummation, the unobstructed vision of God in perfect likeness to him. Hence John says: that he who has this hope towards Him, the Father,—184the hope that through Christ’s promised grace, he shall attain to that glory of the children of God, which consists in perfect likeness to the Father and in the perfect vision of Him as He is,—he will be impelled by such a hope to become holy as Christ is holy, after the model image of Christ which is ever before his eye. He will purify himself, more and more, from all that obscures the reflection of that holy image; that when made like to him who is the perfect likeness of the Father, he may attain in him, through him, and with him, to the vision of the Father as he is.
Ch. iii. 4-7.] This exhortation is continued in the following words. “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin. Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth, hath not seen him, neither known him. Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.”
It is obvious from the Apostle’s mode of expression, when urging upon Christians this earnest striving for holiness, this shunning of all that is 185sinful,—that he must have had cause for it in the adverse influence which some were exerting, and from which there was reason to apprehend a diminution of moral earnestness, a laxity of moral judgment in the church. The Apostle is warning his brethren against certain seducers. These were the promoters of that externalized and formal Christianity, of which we have spoken in the Introduction. Already, at this early period, had such appeared in the churches. Unable to comprehend the full extent of what was included in separation from heathenism, they taught that no more was required, than the abandonment of idol worship with all that pertained to it, and a profession of faith in one God and in Jesus as the Messiah; without recognizing that the Christian life as a whole, in its entire consecration to God, belongs to this separation from heathenism. From the Jews, chiefly, proceeded these superficial and outward tendencies in religion, which rested in a mere external faith, external profession, and external fulfilment of the law. These are the vain words against which Paul warns his Ephesian brethren (Eph. v. 6), when declaring that the wrath of God comes upon the children of disobedience, 186not merely on account of idolatry, but also of all the sins connected with it. Here now the Apostle asserts with special emphasis, that all sin whatever is unrighteousness (as Luther translates it), or as it should be in accordance with the Greek original, contrariety to law, transgression of the divine law. We might naturally infer from this, that the Apostle was dealing with such as did not comprehend the idea of the divine law in its whole dignity and majesty, as embracing all which is requisite to the full realization of the divine will, as being the full revelation of God’s holiness in the mirror of its demands on man; such as explained the commands of God in a gross and merely external manner, which rendered it easy to satisfy their demands without coming thereby any nearer to the true nature of holy living. Such a conception of the Law is condemned by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. It was from the stand-point of such a superficial conception of the Law, that the rich young man in the Gospel (Matt. xix. 17, ff.) could suppose that from his youth he had fulfilled all its requirements; a conception which has often been reproduced in the church, and with the uniform effect of making obedience 187to the Law easy, of lowering the requirements of Christianity to each one’s life, and thus enabling him the more readily to appease his conscience. In christian self-examination and self-knowledge, all depends upon a right understanding and clear view of the nature of the Law, which must be ever present before the eye of the believer, as the mirror in which to contemplate himself and his life. The careful daily study of that holy interpretation of the Law, contained in our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, will above all else aid us in this duty.
Such, then, had made their appearance in John’s sphere of labor, as thus externalized and degraded the conception of the divine Law; lowering the standard of moral judgment, and recognizing only in various outbreaking sins transgressions of that law. It was necessary, therefore, that John should oppose their influence by holding up sin in its character as sin,—all sin as equally transgression of the divine Law. In judging of the moral character of men, regard should indeed be had to differences of gradation in moral development; and of this the Apostle himself will by and by give us occasion to speak. Yet is it of the greatest importance 188to a right view of the true nature of sanctification, and for that strict self-examination which is the condition of all progress therein, that we first understand the equal dignity of the divine Law in all its commands; that the obedience it requires is absolute, and embraces the whole life. There is here no distinction between great and small; all sin, as proceeding from the same fountain the depraved creature-will, that which the Scriptures call the flesh in opposition to the spirit, as violation of the divine will, transgression of the divine law, is on the same level. This is the precise point of view established by John in these words.
He then proceeds to show, how irreconcilable is the tendency here rebuked with the nature of faith in Jesus, as the Lord and Saviour; that this faith cannot maintain itself without the earnest striving for sanctification, without the shunning of all sin; what a contradiction in the very nature of things it would be, to desire still to remain in the service of any sin, while professing adherence to Jesus as the Saviour. He takes for his starting-point: Jesus has appeared to take away our sins. It is here represented as the highest aim of the appearing of Christ, to take away all sin from humanity, 189and (the same idea under the positive form) to found a kingdom of holiness in man. This thought is, in itself, a sufficient demonstration, that its origin is not of earth but of Heaven, the demonstration of its own divinity. It is a thought which could never have arisen in the sin-polluted mind of man. He who could conceive it, would thereby already have demonstrated his superhuman greatness. To be able to express such a thought, in the midst of a sinful race, involves the consciousness not only of its superhuman origin, but also of superhuman powers to achieve its realization. It marks a new era in history; that henceforth, for those who appropriate to themselves the work of Christ and enter into fellowship with him, Evil and Sin are as if they were not, as if wholly and forever taken away. Not only shall sin no longer have dominion over them, but former sin shall be as if it had not been, as if annihilated. In regard to the expression, “to take away our sins,” a comparison with the original Greek, and with John’s language elsewhere, leads us to refer the conception underlying it to Christ. It is He, who by entering into fellowship with man’s sinful nature, and thus acquiring a living 190sympathy with all the misery brought upon it by sin, became conscious in his sufferings of a connection with the sin of humanity. Through his fellowship with that nature which he had adopted, he bore the guilt by which humanity was burdened, and felt it as his own; as indicated by those words upon the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!” It was thus that he took upon himself and bore the sins of men, and therefore he is said to have taken away our sins. So the sin of the people was, in a symbolical and typical manner, laid as it were upon the sacrificial victim to be borne and expiated by it. But in order that Christ might thus take away the sins of man, it was requisite, as the Apostle subsequently indicates, that in himself there should be no sin. He must be the Sinless, the Holy One, in order as such to suffer for the sins in which he had himself no share; to take them away, and set over against them a life of perfect holiness answering to the divine law; to be able, in the fulfilment of that law, to do for all and in place of all, what all mankind should have done each for himself.
Since then it is as the Holy One that Jesus has taken away the sins of men, the Apostle infers 191that none can stand in fellowship with him, who perseveres henceforward in the way of sin. He declares, in the most absolute manner, that he who abides in fellowship with him sinneth not. To sin, and to abide in fellowship with the Holy One, who appeared for the very purpose of taking away sin, are things irreconcilable. To belong to him, is to be separated from all sin. The life which exists in fellowship with him excludes all sin. This assertion is subsequently repeated by the Apostle, in order to enforce it with the strongest emphasis, in the negative form: “Whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known Him.” This seeing indicates, as we have before noticed, not bodily sight which cannot here be meant, but inward vision, a seeing with the eye of the spirit. From the distinction here made between seeing and knowing, it is evident that something more is meant by seeing Christ than by knowing him; as indeed elsewhere John is accustomed to represent by sight a higher stage of knowledge, that immediate spiritual perception which rises above mediate knowledge. If through the preaching of the Gospel the knowledge of Christ has been attained, there will follow that higher spiritual intuition of 192Him, as manifested in his divine-human life, as He was and is. Such a living image of Christ, enchaining the soul, must be ever present to the spiritual gaze of the believer. But this can only be the case with him, whose life-walk is in harmony with this holy model. He who continues in sin, though he may outwardly have confessed Christ, can never truly have beheld this image; nay, he is still far even from knowing him as the Holy One who appeared to take away the sins of man. Such an one, in place of the true and living Christ, has devised for himself another and fictitious one.
Accordingly, John adds a protest against the vain words of those who lower the demands of the Gospel upon the christian life, representing a mere outward profession as that whereby christians are separated from the sinful heathen world, and entitled to contrast themselves as righteous with the sinners of Heathenism. He asserts, on the contrary, that it is only through the practice of righteousness, through a life-walk conformed thereto, that one can prove himself a righteous man. This, however, by no means harmonizes with the doctrine, that only through the fulfilment of righteousness, 193only through a course of action, one can become righteous. In all that is here said, there is presupposed that righteousness which has its root in fellowship with Christ, the new life proceeding from him and formed after his holy image. What he would enforce is this: that this inward righteousness,—originating in fellowship with Christ, and distinguishing the new stand-point of life from the former one,—can not be present without revealing itself in the outward life; that as the image of Christ the Righteous, the Holy, is transferred to the inner life of the believer, no one can stand in fellowship with him without showing himself, in his life-walk, to be righteous even as Christ is righteous.
It may appear strange, that the Apostle should so absolutely and unconditionally exclude all sin from the christian life; should seem to assert that it must correspond, in entire and unspotted righteousness, to the holy image of Christ. And yet, in what precedes he has given his readers to understand, that the christian life is one which still needs a purifying process. But it was here the Apostle’s first object, in opposition to that laxness of moral views, that compromise with sin, to bring before the mind the full scope of what is involved 194in the essential nature and idea of Sin and of Righteousness; to exhibit, in its whole strictness and majesty, the claim upon the christian life arising from fellowship with Christ, from faith in him as the Redeemer. This is the same point of view which Christ takes in the Sermon on the Mount. The christian life, as such, in its essential nature and idea as a life of righteousness after the image of Christ, is in itself the opposite to all sin; and in this view, no difference of moral gradation can be made, although in the actual life such gradations are found to exist. It was the first object to bring out clearly, in the full import and extent of their contrariety, the stand-point of the old and that of the new man. From such a view it will always follow, that the determining tendency of the christian life, of the will in the christian, can be no other than holy and averse to sin; that only the after-workings of the former relation of sin, of the old man, oppose themselves to what is now his determining and controlling tendency.
Ch. iii. 8.]It was here then the Apostle’s object to draw the separating line between these two radical tendencies, in reference to holiness and sin, in its full breadth and force. Hence the unconditional 195contrast in which he presents those who abide in fellowship with Christ, those who are born of God, the children of God,—and those who are of the devil, who make themselves known by their lives as children of the devil. What then does he understand by the devil? He designates him as the one who sinneth “from the beginning.” If we take the expression, ‘from the beginning,” in an absolute and unlimited sense, and follow it out to its necessary results, we must understand by Satan a spirit in his origin and essence the opposite to the holy God, evil in his very nature, in his whole being and essence the representative of evil; and consequently two original Principles of Being, a good and an evil, must be admitted. But from a comparison with the Apostle’s whole mode of conception, and with his ideas of the creation, it is clear that such a view is wholly foreign to him; for he derives all existence simply from God and his Word, and consequently can recognize no Being co-existent with God. Since, moreover, he regards God as absolutely Light, to whom all darkness is alien,—as the Holy One from whom, nothing evil can proceed,—he must, while recognizing God as sole 196creator of all existing things assume that all things as they proceeded from Him were created good. He cannot, therefore, admit that, an originally evil spirit was, as such, created by God. And farther still, the Johannic conception of sin is inconsistent with such an idea of a sinner from the beginning, of a being originally evil. For the idea of sin implies transgression of the divine law, by a spirit created to fulfil the law, one in whose consciousness the divine law was, present as a law for himself. It is rebellion of the creature-will against the divine will to which it should be subject. All this is comprehended by John in the idea of sin when predicated of man. In all this there is implied a spirit created by God originally good, who through the misuse of his own free will rebelled against the divine will. And thus also the supposition of an originally evil Principle is seen to be inadmissible. We must accordingly understand by the expression, “sinneth from the beginning,” not that the devil sins on evermore from the beginning of his existence as a spirit, but from the time when, through the apostacy of his will from God, he became what he is, the Devil; SINNING, through the steady persistence 197of his will in a course at variance with his original nature, a variance involved in the idea of sin, having become his second nature, his element of life. The expression, “from the beginning,” is justified moreover on this ground: that the origin of all sin is from the devil; that through him sin first entered the universe, and the first beginning of sin in the human race also was brought about by his intervention. Hence all sin is an imitation of Satan, a reflection of his image, the work of the same spirit, of that selfish tendency in the creature by which it renounced its natural dependence on God, made itself law, end, centre to itself, instead of referring as its destiny required the whole life to God alone, and making him its law, end and centre. This tendency having first proceeded from the Devil, he is consequently regarded as its representative; all which is done from this disposition is referred back to him, and viewed as the work of the spirit which shows itself operative in him, which first came into being in him. But it is characteristic of John to seek only the practical-religious point of view, to apprehend everything in its bearing on the christian life, its influence upon sanctification,198—and to refrain from questions relating merely to matters of knowledge without practical importance. He therefore pursues no farther the inquiry, what the devil originally was in relation to the rest of the spirit-world. He only exhibits what is here of practical weight, viz. the connection of all sin with him from whom sin first proceeded,—with that sinning of the devil from the beginning. It is no mere matter of speculation, it is something practical y important,—important in respect to the consciousness of sin—that we go beyond its present manifestation in man, and behold in Satan its essential nature. Thus while viewing sin as the act of a spirit gifted with higher powers, created originally good, we shall become more clearly aware of its true nature, as a revolt of the creature-will against the supreme will of God which all should obey, as a voluntary transgression of the holy law given by God to all rational beings. Learning thus to understand Evil in its whole fathomless depth, as guilty estrangement from God, we shall thereby be guarded against the error, so prejudicial to moral earnestness, of regarding evil as merely an infirmity, an overpowering of the Rational by the Sensual;—199as nothing more than a product of the sensual nature in man.
With this aim,—to show the incompatibility of all sin with the christian life, and arouse the christian to the conscious necessity of avoiding all contact with sin, as something diametrically opposed to the position of the child of God, to the life which is in him,—John refers every sin, without distinction between great and small, to the same origin, the one radical tendency expressed in all sins, to the devil who sinneth from the beginning. By sinning, one puts himself on an equality with the devil, shows himself to be one of his adherents, to be governed by his spirit. That which constitutes the characteristic of the devil is the operative principle in all sin, viz. this same radical tendency of self-will in the creature resisting the holy ordinance of God. Since now the Apostle derives all sin from the devil, and in all sin recognizes the kingdom of the devil; as in all the evil which reigned in the human race until Christ’s appearing he sees the influence of that kingdom, the progressive working of the disorder introduced by the devil into the world; he therefore says, that the Son of God has appeared to undo, to destroy, 200the works of the devil. The expressions, “to take away the sins of men,” and “to destroy the works of the devil,” are employed by John with the same general import. After having exhibited sin in connection with the devil, these expressions could now be interchanged. As he here contemplates evil, not merely as manifested on earth, but in its more general connection with the development-history of the universe, of which indeed revelation unveils only such a fragment as is demanded for our practical religious necessities; so also does his designation of Christ’s work of redemption, include that more general reference to the history of the universe, and of the kingdom of God in its widest sense. It is here represented as the highest aim of the appearing of Christ, to destroy all which is the work of Satan, all evil,—the triumphant establishment of the kingdom of God on the ruins of Satan’s kingdom. Since then Christ appeared to do away all sin as the work of the devil; it clearly follows, that only he who renounces all sin as the work of the devil can share in the work of Christ, can receive in himself the fulfilment of the purpose for which Christ appeared.
Ch. iii. 9.] Whilst he thus shows the total contrariety between 201the children of God and the children of the devil, between him that doeth righteousness and him that sinneth, the Apostle says: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” John here first certifies a matter of fact; he states a practical proposition, viz. that he who is born of God,—as being born of God,—sinneth not. The ground of this is stated in the declaration which follows, that in such the seed of God remaineth. The figure of seed, so often employed in the Scriptures, is usually taken from husbandry. Thus in the parables of our Lord, the word of God is compared to the seed, the soul to the ground in which the seed is scattered, the difference of susceptibility for receiving the word of God to varieties of soil. But this, obviously, is not the allusion here. It is not men represented as recipients of the seed, and deporting themselves variously in respect to its reception; it is the believer begotten from the seed. The allusion is manifestly to the seed in human generation, as in John i. 13. The seed of God is the divine life derived from God and imparted through Christ, from which proceeds the 202new birth, regeneration, and which constitutes those to whom it is imparted children of God. Having by the reception of this divine life been born of God and become children of God, so long as the divine seed, the new divine life abides and continues operative in them penetrating their whole nature, they cannot but remain children of God and manifest themselves as such. Since now this seed from God stands as the exact opposite of the life which is kindred to that of the devil, to all which is sin; it is obvious that the children of God sin not, since this new life, the very thing which constitutes them children of God, excludes from itself all sin. Having stated this practical proposition, he proceeds to prove that it must of necessity be so, that it cannot be otherwise. Such an one cannot sin. It is in the nature of the case impossible that he should sin, because he is born of God; because this being born of God stands in direct contradiction with sin. Sin cannot proceed from it, can find no point of connection in it. As nothing Undivine, but only what is Divine, can proceed from the divine life, so from those who are born of God, as such, there can proceed no sin.203
Ch. iii. 10.] John now places these two classes of men in contrast with each other: “Herein is manifest who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil.” Thus he divides the whole human race between these two diametrically opposite classes, the children of God and the children of the devil. But is there, then, only this one distinction among men? Is there nothing intermediate, are there no points of transition, between the two classes? If so, it would be impossible to explain, how children of God could be formed from children of the devil, how a transition from the one class to the other could be effected. And yet John assumes such a possibility in the recognition of the fact, that such as served sin and belonged to the kingdom of Satan, to the kingdom of the world, have through faith in Jesus as the Saviour withdrawn therefrom, and have become children of God. By saying that the Son of God has appeared to destroy the works of the devil, he says virtually, that he appeared in order to make those children of God who hitherto were children of the devil. There must then exist a point of attachment, whereby those who are as yet children of the devil become susceptible to 204the influence of the Son of God. There must somewhere be a ground for the fact, that some remain children of the devil, while others receive the seed of God and thereby suffer themselves to be made children of God. Or are we to say, that this ground lies not in the previous differences of susceptibility in men, but only in the sovereign agency of God; that it is alone that it is alone the work of transforming grace whereby this difference is produced, and the children of the devil are re-created into children of God? But this is in contrariety with what John says, of the divine Father-love towards the whole human race which it seeks to redeem, of the scope of Christ’s work of redemption which takes in all humanity; that the object of his appearing in humanity is to destroy all the works of the devil, to make an end of evil universally. It is not therefore in the divine purpose taken by itself, but in the treatment of it by men themselves, that we must look for the cause why some attain, while others do not, to a participation in that which the love of God has proffered to all. John could not, moreover, have spoken of a judgment everywhere connected with the preaching of the Gospel, and going side by side with it (as in John iii. 19), if 205all men deported themselves alike towards the preaching of the Gospel; if God himself, by his almighty agency, alone made the difference between them; if this difference had not its ground in themselves, being brought to light through the judicial power of the Gospel by means of the various positions taken by men in respect to it,—the sifting process effected by the Gospel. Thus we are led. by John himself,—though he only presents in general the contrast between children of the devil and children of God, the regenerate and the unregenerate,—to add to this radical contrariety still another distinction, whereby it becomes possible that from children of the devil can be formed children of God. The Gospel of John contains many an index to the clearer recognition of these differences, these intervening steps. From that being BORN OF GOD which can alone be effected through the agency of the Gospel, through faith in the Son of God, is to be distinguished a preliminary state which is designated as a BEING OF GOD,—a BEING OF THE TRUTH (John xviii. 37); whereby is meant that susceptibility for what is divine, for the truth, which leads those who possess it, before they are yet born of God in that 206higher sense, to follow the call of the Gospel when extended to them. To this addresses itself that DRAWING by the Father which takes place in their souls made thus susceptible through the bent of the will, and by which they are led to the Son. The judgment, the sifting attributed to the Gospel, is effected simply by the development through its agency of the already existing but hitherto concealed diversity among men, in respect to the bent of the will. This is exhibited in the difference of their bearing towards the Gospel, according to the difference of their susceptibility for it; some hating and resisting the dawning light, on account of its contrariety to the darkness which they love and do not desire to forsake, and to the works of darkness which thus exposed are brought into condemnation; while others joyfully accept the light after which, consciously or unconsciously, they had already longed. (John iii. 20, 21.)
We have seen that in the children of God, although their determining tendency is that which has its origin in the birth from God, that of the divine life, yet all is not as yet in harmony with this tendency. From that which characterizes them as children of God,—that which belongs to 207the animating principle in them, to their new spiritual self, their new regenerated personality,—must be distinguished that which proceeds from the after-working of the former state. So also in those, who under that general classification still belong to the children of the devil, must be distinguished something which proceeds not from him; something which is to be ascribed to their original descent from God, the obscured but still underlying image of God, which darkened though it be has not ceased to exert its influence. And according as men, through that in them which is of the devil follow the spirit of the devil, or through that in them which still proceeds from the obscured image of God follow the leading of God, will result a division among those who seem collectively to belong to the children of the devil. But why then does John make only this general distinction? For this reason: that it is of practical importance, first of all, to show in the strongest possible light the contrariety between the new christian stand-point and the former one of the old man, that each may be fully aware how he is to distinguish himself from all others as a child of God. The obliteration of this distinction has uniformly 208exerted the most pernicious influence in respect to the demands upon the christian life, to the strictness of self-examination. It is all important that we learn first to separate light and darkness, the Divine and the Undivine, totally from each other; to repel all reconciliation and agreement between these fundamentally opposed directions, as viewed in the whole strength of their contrariety. Unconditional decision is here required. It is important that we learn to recognize, in all evil, this determining tendency by which the children of the devil are manifested as such, in order that we may be secured against the danger of yielding in any manner to the evil, even when disguised under seeming good; lest hurried along farther and farther we at length wholly succumb to the power, which when first approached we did not recognize, and which now over-masters us because we did not then sufficiently resist it. It is for this reason so important to our own security, as an incitement to constant watchfulness over ourselves, that the distinction here made between the children of God and the children of the devil,—and this distinction as manifested in the outward life,—be apprehended by us in its full force and ever 209borne in mind as a matter of living consciousness. If we contemplate history, not as developing itself in gradual manifestations and with its final decisions yet concealed, but as it is presented to the divine view; it may indeed be said, that those who are adapted and destined, through their still latent susceptibility, to become children of God when reached by the preaching of the Gospel, are already present to his omniscient eye as his children. Thus contemplating what is gradually developed to human view, by the judicial potency of the Gospel, as being ever open to the eye of God, we shall be able to explain those intervening and transitional points in that general contrariety, and to find in them a distinction plainly involved in the Apostle’s view.
To bring out this generic distinction still more strongly, John now adds a specific mark by which it may be recognized: “He that doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.” The Apostle here resumes the general distinction, in order to trace back righteousness in the abstract, to that concrete which is always contemplated by him as the soul of all righteousness,—that which is in itself the fulfilment 210of all righteousness, the one thing which suffices in place of all, viz. Brotherly-Love.
Ch. iii. 11, 12.] This forms the transition to what follows, the representation of love as the distinguishing the characteristic mark of the christian relation: “For this is the message which ye have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother.”
Here again, in his peculiar mode of conception, John passes over the manifold gradations in actual life, and apprehends the moral opposites in their most sharply defined contrariety, as it is founded in the essential nature of the inward disposition. With him, this root of the inward disposition is the all in all; and accordingly he contrasts hatred with the principle of brotherly love. He recognizes no intervening stand-point. Where love is wanting, selfishness is the governing principle, making the individual the centre of all, referring all to itself; and hence the effort to remove out of the way whatever stands opposed to its own selfish interests. It can tolerate no competitor, nothing which is not subservient to itself; and hence it becomes hatred towards another, 211when through him these selfish interests are endangered. Hatred too, he apprehends at the culminating point of manifestation, since out of hatred proceeds murder; and accordingly he names, as the representative of those motives of conduct which are opposed to love, him who first actualized such a disposition, and who is exhibited in the Scriptures as the first who shed another’s blood. Thus the Apostle everywhere apprehends moral opposites in the deepest root of the disposition. To Love, ready to surrender life for another’s good, he opposes Hate, which for itself would sacrifice the life of another. Where love is not the animating principle, there rules selfishness with hatred in its bosom; and hatred, at the culminating point of its manifestation, is murder. In the germ, the disposition, murder exists there already. The germ needs only to be fully developed in order to become murder. In the want of Brotherly-love, in hatred, we behold the root whose fruit is murder. Thus the highest moral tribunal regards not the act, but condemns in its first germ the disposition out of which the act proceeds. Before this tribunal every emotion of hatred appears as murder. John here follows the 212standard of moral judgment employed by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. And thus the children of God, whose animating spirit is love, are set in contrast with those who are of the evil one, the children of the devil, in whom hate governs as in Cain their representative.
Ch. iii. 12-15.] The Apostle is led by this to contemplate Christians in their contrariety to the to the world. The transition is suggested by the contrariety between Cain and Abel. “And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous. Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.” As Abel is the type of the children of God, Cain the type of the children of the devil,, so in their relation to each other is exhibited the relation of Christians to the world. As Cain hated and murdered Abel on account of the contrariety between the godly and the ungodly disposition, so does the world hate and murder the children of God on account of the same contrariety. The world and the children of God are, like love and selfishness, in perpetual conflict with each other. Hence it need not surprise Christians to find themselves hated by the world; they must expect 213it beforehand, as a consequence of the contrariety of their spirit to that of the world. It is the stamp of the divine life, whose impress constitutes them the opposite of the world. Hence the words which follow: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. Whoso loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whoso hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer bath eternal life abiding in him.” To John, the love of God alone appears as life absolutely; and the true life of the God-allied spirit can consist only in fellowship with God, in participation in the divine life. All life apart from this fellowship,—the life of the spirit abandoned to itself, referring only to itself,—being an estrangement from that which is and can alone be the spirit’s true life, and is for the spirit Death. The world, as estranged from God, has therefore fallen a prey to death. Christians also were once, as belonging to the world, subject to the same death. Being separated from the world by faith, and becoming partakers of fellowship with God through Christ, they have passed from death unto life. While yet here below, they possess in themselves this 214true divine life; and as the seeming life of the world, which is but death, makes itself known by the want of love, by the selfish nature, hatred; so on the other hand, love is the characteristic mark of the true divine life. Herein therefore must the contrariety, between those who have attained to the true life and those who are still in a state of death, make itself manifest. He who loves not his brother, says John, though he calls himself a Christian, belongs still to the world. Love is wanting, and therefore also the divine life whereby the children of God are distinguished from the world. Such an one has not passed from death unto life: he abides in death, like the world to which he belongs. What he calls faith, is not that direction of the spirit whereby one passes from death unto life, and is not therefore what in the true sense can bear the name of faith. In John’s view, it is not by assent to certain articles of belief that genuine Christianity, the distinction between what is Christian and what is Unchristian must make itself known,—but in the life, in love. Here, however, must be borne in mind the connection of ideas peculiar to John’s mode of conception,—viz. that love proceeds only from 215faith, is something spontaneously evolved. from personal experience of the redeeming love of God in Christ. Hie asserts that where there is not love, there can be no participation in that true life in its nature exalted above change and death, containing in itself the germ of a development for eternity and hence called eternal life. And this he proves by substituting for NOT TO LOVE its equivalent, HATE; and by applying to the germ of hatred in the heart, what is true of murder, which is only the highest expression of hate. He assumes, as already known and admitted, that no murderer hath eternal life; where this disposition exists, eternal life can have no place. Perhaps John here alludes to a spiritual conception of the divine sentence, that lie who sheds the blood of another shall die the death. To him, all life estranged from God is death,—is the opposite to that true divine life which already is eternal life. What is predicable of murder is, from the standpoint of that highest tribunal which takes cognizance of the intention, to be applied to the germ of murder already existing in hatred,—in the want of love.
Ch. iii. 16.] Our attention is directed to that connection between 216faith and love, of which we have spoken, in the verse immediately following: “Herein perceive we the love of God, in that he has laid down his life for us, and we ought also to lay down our lives for the brethren.” What John designates as love, is only that which springs from inward experience of the redeeming love of God; which feels itself constrained to imitate the redeeming love of Christ, as exhibited in his life; that love to God which pours itself out in brotherly love, after the example of Christ. By this example John brings to view the true inward nature of love, and the way in which it must manifest itself in the life. What love is, says he, we have already learned in the example of Christ who gave his life for us. So also with us, must love prove itself to be true by our readiness to give up all, to sacrifice life itself for the sake of the brethren.
Ch. iii. 17, 18.] But since everything depends on keeping the distinction clearly marked between appearance and reality; since all which is genuine can be imitated in its outward aspect, and become mere appearance; John feels himself obliged to warn his brethren against this tendency, 217even in regard to that which is peculiarly opposed to all seeming, and is adapted above all else to demonstrate the true nature and the reality of the christian life, viz. Love. He contrasts that brotherly-love which proves its existence by act, by sacrifice of self, with that of which there is a mere show in words, and where the words are convicted of falsehood by the act. “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother hath need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him; how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” Where brotherly-love does not exist, and show itself by acts for the relief of others’ necessities, there love to God is also wanting.
Ch. iii. 19-22.] Having thus distinguished between truth and appearance in respect to love, requiring that love which is truth; he now connects this with the general fact, that the whole christian life must have its root in truth,—with the universal contrariety between truth and appearance. “And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him. For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, 218and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence towards God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” John has shown, by a single example, in what way the truth of the christian life whose essence is love, must approve itself. This Christ has also done in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. xvii. 12): “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets.” These words are by no means adapted to express the peculiar nature of christianity as a whole; nor should they be used for this purpose, as has been done by some through misapprehension of the nature of the Gospel, and of the import of these words in their connection. Were this all, then truly Christ needed not to have come. To enjoin the command,—this is an easy matter; but does not bring with it obedience to the command. The great point is, how to attain to a conformity with this command; and all turns upon the question, from what temper of mind does the fulfilment of it proceed. For even the wisdom of self-love could suggest, that we must be willing to do for 219 others what they desire of us, in order that we may receive the like from them. Thus it would only be the course of prudent calculation, far from that which Christ established as a law for the life. But our Lord’s design in this passage, as also that of John in the above example, is to contrast true righteousness whose essence is love, with a pretended righteousness; and accordingly he directs attention to the test, whereby the true nature of love is to make itself known, as opposed to a love merely assumed for show by such as are deceivers of themselves. The test is this: are we constrained by love to do for another, what we in like circumstances would desire that he should do for us? Such is also the test of love here presented by John. By this test, says he,—viz. when our conduct actually harmonizes with the disposition presupposed in us as christians,—we may know that we are of the truth. In the mode of conception peculiar to John, he regards truth not merely as a matter of knowledge, but as something pertaining to the moral temper and the life. Thus, as in the children of God he assumes a being of God, so does he also a being of the truth. Christ calls himself, absolutely, the truth; in him the truth 220has appeared in a personal form, and has entered into the life of humanity. His whole life is truth, the only life which is perfect truth, wholly one with itself as it is one with God. Thus believers also, in proportion as they have received him into themselves, are of the truth. In the world all is appearance; with christians all should be truth. And the touchstone here proposed, whereby they may know whether they are of the truth, is this: does their life, their conduct, really harmonize with what they acknowledge from the christian standpoint as the law of their conduct,—with what they have professed?
If now, says the Apostle, our whole life in profession and conduct is thus of one piece, is in accord with itself, we shall be able to quiet our hearts before God. Under the name of heart, John comprehends all the various capacities and modes of action belonging to the spirit, without applying the particular designations coined by more cultivated languages for the separate faculties. These distinctions have indeed their propriety; and so has also the neglect of such a division, the indivisible conception and contemplation of the spirit in the totality of all its powers 221and actions. It indicates to us how closely all is connected together in the life of the spirit. This is important for the right conception and formation of the christian life, both as it directs the attention to the inmost and deepest root of the spiritual life, all being here determined by the moral basis, the bent towards God or the world, towards good or evil; and also as it is the christian’s work, the task assigned him, from that highest principle the one determining tendency towards God, to mould the whole life in all its capacities and relations into an all-embracing unity. In this passage, by heart John understands that faculty of the spirit, which elsewhere is designated as the conscience. He speaks of a quieting of the conscience before God, inasmuch as in the conscience the voice of God our judge reveals itself; bringing us before the eye of God as the judge of our life, and making him present to the soul. It is that tribunal of conscience referred to by Paul (Rom. ii. 15), where he speaks of the thoughts of men as accusing or excusing their dealings one with another. And a condition of the inner life is here presented, wherein man can bring quiet to his conscience in view of God the holy judge; wherein he need not 222fear the accusings of conscience, through which speaks the judicial voice of God: inasmuch as conscience can convict him of no discord between his profession and his course of life, but he is conscious to himself of fulfilling the conditions of salvation ordained by God.
The Apostle then illustrates by contrast the high value of such a possession, that of a quiet conscience in harmony with itself. If our conscience convicts us of inward falsehood, makes manifest to ourselves the contradiction between our life and our profession; we must be convinced, that as we cannot deceive our own hearts, cannot falsify, or silence the voice within us, still less is it in our power to deceive God. God is greater than our heart, is the Omniscient One; and what cannot be kept concealed from our own conscience, will certainly not remain hidden from his eye, whose all-penetrating glance nothing can escape. The accusings of our own conscience thus reveal to us the condemnatory sentence of God against us. Thus the Apostle directs us to something in our inward being, from which we can obtain the surest knowledge respecting ourselves and our relation to God; by which we may be guarded against all 223corruption through the praise of others, who look only upon the appearance, against all the deceptions of vanity and self-love; something which is ever present, teaching us to distinguish between being and seeming, between the real and the apparent character of our life. It summons us to collect ourselves from all the distracting influences of the world; to withdraw deep into our inward selves, and there before that holy incorruptible tribunal, to test ourselves, to judge, and to mould our lives accordingly.
As then, says the Apostle, if our own heart condemn us, we thereby know that God so much the more condemns us; so on the other hand, if our heart condemn us not, this is a pledge that neither does God condemn us. We have the most assured and joyful confidence towards God as the witness of our integrity.
A reliance upon human righteousness, as availing before God, can by no means be intended here. This would be in contrariety with the whole teaching of the Apostle in this Letter. So far from this, he assumes the filial relation to God grounded in fellowship with Christ as already existing, and as being the source of that joyful confiding 224trust, in which the believer rises to God as his Father. Ile is merely pointing out the conditions, under which alone believers can hold themselves entitled to appropriate all that is involved in that filial relation. It is then, and only then, when their life in truth accords with this relation to God as their Father, and so all in them is truth.
The Apostle then dwells particularly upon one of the privileges belonging to that filial relation, and in which it is specially recognized, viz. the position towards God as their Father in which believers stand through prayer,—the filial relation in prayer. As sons, whose filial relation has suffered no interruption, can with childlike trust and confidence ask all from their father; so believers, whose life is of the truth, who are conscious of no disturbance of their filial relation to God through unfaithfulness on their part, can ask all with childlike trust and confidence from God their Father. And as the child knows beforehand, that the father will grant to him all that is conducive to his best good; so do believers also, while in this temper of heart asking God their Father, know that he grants all they desire, leaves no request unheard. It is all the same as if they already had 225what they ask. By such a certainty of being heard is their prayer accompanied. The ground of this certainty, according to the Apostle, is this: that they obey the commands of God, and,—as he more exactly defines it,—do those things which are well-pleasing in his sight; that is, what is truly good, what appears such in the sight of a holy God. This has reference not merely to the external act, but to that also from which alone the practice of righteousness in external acts derives its true significance, the disposition of heart from which the act proceeds. It must be a disposition corresponding to the divine law, such an one as God desires, well-pleasing in his sight; one which has God for its end and aim, which has no object but his glory. It is clear, therefore, that the connection of prayer with the christian life as a whole is here presupposed; that prayer is not something isolated and distinct from the rest of the life, but proceeds from the same holy disposition which governs the whole life, and expresses itself in every action. In order that the whole life may be of the truth, it is necessary moreover that this disposition, this direction of the spirit towards God, since it proceeds from fellowship with Christ, 226should in every work show itself as something derived through him.
What we have now said removes an objection, which, without a more careful consideration of the words, might arise from the unconditional promise that every request shall be heard. For the object of prayer might be something, which would not really promote the salvation of him who desires it; something not in harmony with the councils of God’s universal government. Shall aught therein be changed by the caprice of man? But this difficulty is at once relieved when we contemplate prayer in the connection here presented, prayer as proceeding from the whole filial relation to God, from the disposition which determines and controls the whole life. This is no other than the spirit of filial submission to God, of concord between the human and divine will. The condition, which is afterwards expressly insisted on by the Apostle, follows of itself from this connection. Prayer too can be reckoned among the things well-pleasing to God, only so far as submission to his will accompanies every request; and. hence the absolute promise that it shall be heard. Moreover, a relation so intimate of believers, to God as their 227Father is presupposed, that from the same fellowship with him in which their whole life has its root, proceed also their prayers. The believer prays, in fellowship with Christ, for that which Christ himself would have prayed for in his place; for that which the spirit of Christ, in moments of peculiar spiritual elevation, discovers to him as suitable, and impels him to ask. The same God, who through his Spirit inspires the prayer, grants also the fulfilment of it. All has its source in the same reference of the life to God. This is what Christ designates as prayer in his name; and the hearing of such prayer is therefore promised unconditionally.
Ch. iii. 23.] Having previously spoken of obedience to commands in general, the Apostle now resolves the whole into obedience to that one command in which all is contained: “And this is his commandment; that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.”
The law of the Old Covenant began by instituting commands for the conduct. But the power so to conduct was wanting; and this no law could impart to man. Hence the Law could serve no 228other purpose than to bring man to the consciousness of his moral inability, of his discord with God and with his own better nature, to the consciousness of spiritual death. Here now, on the contrary, all commands are resolved into one; and this has reference not to a DOING, but to a BELIEVING,—the command of the Father that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ; should believe on him in the relation in which he is presented to man by God as his only-begotten Son, as He through whom alone we can come to the Father, the Redeemer from sin, the Lord to whom henceforth should belong the whole life. So Christ, when asked by the Jews what they should do that they might work the works of God, gave no other answer than this: That they should believe on him whom God had sent; implying that in this was contained the source and sum of all. (John vi. 29.)
Belief, however, is a matter of conviction. How then can it be commanded a man, to make this or that an object of conviction to himself? This stands not within his own power, it depends not on his own will; for conviction is an involuntary thing. God would have instituted no such requirement, 229had not He, who is to be the object of belief, so corresponded to the requirement in his appearing and his life, as necessarily to become the object of belief to every truth-loving, salvation-seeking spirit. In this command there is presupposed the impression, which the whole life of Christ must make upon him who contemplates it in the right spirit; the impression of Christ as designated and accredited by God himself, through the manner in which he dwelt in him and wrought in him. So also in the words of Christ just referred to, this is alleged as the ground on which God can require faith in him: “For him hath God the Father sealed;” the works which the Father had given him to perform being the tokens of that sealing. While it is here assumed on the one hand, that God has thus accredited him in whose name he requires belief, and therefore can require it; it is also presupposed that he has so formed the nature of men as that He cannot but make on them this divine impression,—cannot but reveal himself as He to whom their God-allied nature attracts them, and in whom alone they can find satisfaction for all their higher wants; of whom their God-related nature itself bears undeniable 230testimony, that to him they belong, that he alone can free them from sin and all their misery, can alone impart that true life which they need. There is presupposed the original and continued connection of the God-related soul with the God in whom it lives and moves and is; and hence that drawing of the Father by which the souls of men are led to the Son. This command of God is, consequently, no other than what arises of itself from the relation of Christ to the human soul. It is no arbitrary requisition. What is required by the truth itself, by those divine historical facts, according as they do with the capacities and laws of human nature, with its deep-implanted wants,—this here takes the outward form of a command of God. All this, however, whereby this command is shown to be the expression of an inward divine necessity, could be presupposed as already known, and needing no farther confirmation. For the Apostle was addressing churches already long established in Christianity; who had found, in their own experience, manifold evidences of the inward necessity of this belief. To such personal experience the Apostle makes his appeal in many passages of this Epistle. They had long 231known this as a command divinely enstamped upon their souls, constraining them to believe on the name of Jesus. Now as in this One command all others are included; so of necessity, as single commands to be enjoined each by itself, they are made superfluous. In that one command was bestowed, moreover, the ability to obey all others,—the motive-power for the fulfilment of all which the Law requires. Thereby had the Law been converted from an outward to an inward law, having its root in the inner life. The Apostle, therefore, expresses only that one command; which, having for its basis faith in Jesus who had offered up his life for the salvation of man, contains all others in itself and renders them superfluous,—the one command proceeding from Christ himself, LOVE ONE ANOTHER!
Ch. iii. 24.] As it is by keeping the commands of Christ that faith in him must approve itself, so also is this the condition of abiding in fellowship with him. “And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in Him, and He in him: and hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the spirit which he hath given us.” Thus it is by obedience to the commands of Christ as contained 232in that one command, we attest our voluntary abiding in fellowship with (Christ; this being the necessary condition on our part, in order that we may continue to enjoy the communication of Christ, and that he may abide in fellowship with us. This reciprocity is always presupposed; the keeping of the commands of Christ as depending upon that mutual fellowship, and as being also the condition and the evidence of this continued fellowship.
The Apostle then appeals to that, whereby this continued fellowship manifests itself to the consciousness of each; to that internal fact, of a conscious divine life, imparted by Christ through the Holy Spirit. That we live in fellowship with him, we know by the spirit which he has given us,—that invisible pledge, manifesting itself to the inward experience, of uninterrupted union with. him. Thus when about to part from his disciples, no more to be with them in his personal bodily presence, he promised that he would be invisibly near and present among them, no less truly than during his earthly manifestation. The proof of this his actual presence among them, should be the communication to them of his Spirit. This 233should be the medium of union between believers and their Saviour, until vision takes the place of faith; till that immediate view of Christ, enjoyed by his disciples in the familiar intercourse of his earthly life, is restored in heightened glory to believers. It is to this inward experience that the Apostle makes his appeal with these churches, and to it the inward experience of believers in all ages bears witness. Here, then, are conjoined two characteristic marks of fellowship with Christ which cannot be dissevered from each other; the one inward, perceptible to the immediate inner consciousness,—the other belonging to the outward life, but presupposing the former, of which it is at once the outward expression, and the condition of its continuance. The first is,—Participation in the Spirit promised by Christ; the second, Obedience to his commands, which is the fruit of that Spirit’s agency, and in which such participation makes itself apparent. This being the Spirit’s work, is also, as the evidence of this work, the condition of its continuance; all divine gifts being conditioned upon the faithful use of what is bestowed, according to the words of Christ: Whoso hath, to him shall be given.234
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