Hold On to What the Spirit Has Taught You, Because the Antichrist Is Come

Italy Pope Ash WednesdayThe apostle John writes to the Church in Ephesus and surrounding churches in 1 John 2:18-25, because he’s encouraging her members to remain steadfast in the faith they had once received. He says that they are in the last days, which is proven by the fact that there are many antichrists out and about spreading false teaching about Christ. He writes,

1 John 2:18 Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.

It is the last time. Ever since the Lord Jesus Christ died and rose again, ascended, and sat down at the Father’s right hand, his reign as Christ was inaugurated. He sent his Spirit to his disciples gathered at Pentecost, giving them their marching orders. His finished work on the cross, having been openly declared at the resurrection, was the last door to open in the hallway of God’s great plan of redemption. Ever since, and until this day, we’ve been in the last time, in the latter days. Do not let anyone fool you into thinking that there is any more revelation that is necessary. After Christ’s finished work of salvation was proclaimed by the apostles and written down in the New Testament, there is nothing left but to proclaim and obey this complete message until the Lord returns. We are indeed in the last time, and have been since Acts chapter 2.

There is one particular culminating office of Antichrist that will appear in the future, of which the Christians in Asia minor had already been taught by the apostles, certainly, and also from the prophecies of Daniel, which John refers to by the singular “antichrist.” This seems to me to be fulfilled by the pope of Rome, whose office seems to replace the power and Spirit of Christ in the Church, and who teaches another doctrine. (The Greek prefix anti- indicates something instead of or in place of, not simply opposed to.)  The doctrine of Rome is characterized by the marks that Paul writes to Timothy in 4:1-5.

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.

It is the papacy that to this day prescribes rules for Lenten fasting, and forbids priests to marry. By these marks the Holy Spirit has taught us to watch out for the culminating Antichrist, whose reign of terror was already being set up in the apostle’s day in the form of many false teachers who had gone out of the Church. This spirit of antichrist, this Christ-denying, gospel-darkening activity which sets itself up in place of Christ and his true teaching was already making rounds even while the New Testament was still being written, particularly in the form of those who denied that Christ was fully human, but merely a divine spirit and apparition. This is a fatal error because without full humanity Christ could not be our Savior, since it was required for him to be fully man in order to represent us in God’s covenant and die in our place.

19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.
20 But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.
21 I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth.
22 Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son.
23 Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also.

The apostle is assured of the abiding and eternal salvation, and the true hope of the promise of eternal life, that those to whom he is writing possess. He is writing not out of worry, but in order that these words might be an instrument of God, through the Holy Spirit, to keep them in the faith, by allowing them to continue to distinguish truth from error. God keeps his own without fail, and he also uses the means of the reading and the preaching of the Scriptures to do it. It is one of the tools in his pocket that he makes use of to keep his own faithful to him, especially by warning them of the dangers of falling away. In this way the warnings in Scripture against falling away are in perfect harmony with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, which says that no one who is born again can ever fall away, because God keeps him.

The Lord uses John’s words to encourage the Christians in Asia Minor to continue to distinguish truth from error. Those antichrists who were going about peddling lies about Christ, as they do to this day, who had gone out of the Church, were to be viewed as not having ever been true Christians. When people depart from the true doctrine of Christ and from the true Church, we can be sure that they never truly belonged to Christ, because God keeps all his own.

24 Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father.
25 And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life.

Those to whom John is writing are to hold on to eternal life by holding on to the doctrine of Christ, that is, to Christ. And holding on to him requires them to distinguish truth from error, contrasting that which the Holy Spirit had taught them from the beginning with the false doctrine of the antichrists. John’s message to them is:

Retain that which you have heard from the beginning, which the Holy Spirit has taught you, because the Antichrist will come, and many antichrists are in the world.

The prophecies of Scripture indicate that one pivotal figure or office would emerge to personify the spirit of Antichrist, noted by John’s singular use of the term “antichrist” while alluding, probably, to the prophet Daniel. The descriptions we find in 1 Timothy and elsewhere point to the pope of Rome as being the culminating Antichrist, and this has been the overwhelming majority opinion throughout the history of the Church. This application has fallen out of favor since the 19th century, when the papacy seemed to be waning in influence. But today we see that the papacy is gaining more power and influence than ever before over the minds of billions of people, and deceiving them with duplicitous doctrine that denies the finished work of Christ. And what influence it may yet have in turning more and more people away from the truth of God remains to be seen.  The papacy is on the ascendancy.

Yet, ever since the New Testament was written, there have been antichrists: from Marcion, who took scissors to the Scriptures and cut out mostly anything that he thought was overly Jewish and not in keeping with his idea of the gospel, to Arius, who taught that “in the beginning, the Son was not”, denying the full divinity of Christ. This teaching is represented today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the 4th century Pelagius taught that man was born as a “blank slate”, able to save himself without needed any other “grace” than that which he had from creation, but just a firm resolve not to sin. This was in effect to deny the whole purpose for which Christ came to save sinners, and to make his office irrelevant, denying that it is Christ who saves us and not we ourselves. While not formally arguing against the personal nature of Christ, Pelagius denied his work and office in what he taught. Like Pelagius, the papacy wants to give man some part or credit for earning his salvation. It is according to Rome’s teaching that man is able to merit the merits of Christ by doing works of penance and attending to the sacraments. This is to deny the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross, and take a bit of credit for themselves. This teaching denies the true way of salvation, which is in Christ by faith alone, because he is the only one who merits salvation, and Christians are united to him by faith. At every point in history, the Lord has not left the earth without a Church.

Those who stalwartly defended the person and work of Christ against such errors have been raised up time and time again, from Athanasius to Augustine to Luther and Zwingli. The true teaching has been codified in the historic creeds and confessions of the Church, from the Nicene Creed, to the Definition of Chalcedon, to the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession of Faith. This is a means that God has given for combating errors about who Christ is and what he came to do. It is by distinguishing between truth and error, as these creeds and confessions exemplify and help, that the people of God keep themselves in the faith and lay hold on the promise of eternal life.

Those to whom the apostle is writing have been reborn of the Holy Spirit and illuminated to receive the word. God works through the word preached ordinarily. When the gospel is preached faithfully, the Holy Spirit impresses its imprint on the soul and persuades the hearer of its truth and benefits for him. In this way he enables and draws the sinner to believe the good news of Jesus Christ which is preached. Those who have heard this teaching of the Spirit, with their physical ears as well as with the heart, do not need to receive a new doctrine. They already have believed that doctrine which is their salvation. What they need is to abide in what they have received. They can abide in the doctrine they have received by being diligent to guard the true doctrine of Christ, and contrast it with false doctrine.

It is not popular in today’s culture to point out errors in religious teaching. It is considered rude or offensive to “denigrate someones beliefs.” But this is just the thing that God has told us to do to keep ourselves faithful to him. This does not mean that we go around telling people how wrong they are about Christ in the most rude, offensive, and inappropriate way possible. (Although we should not be silent, this is a topic for another time.) The intention of this passage is to teach us to distinguish truth from error for ourselves, in order to keep hold on that promise of eternal life in Christ. Giving in or calling a truce with false teaching, lies about who Christ is and what he came to do, is gravely dangerous to the soul. It is a sure road to eternal perdition.

Retain that which you have heard from the beginning, which the Holy Spirit has taught you, because the Antichrist is come, and many antichrists are in the world.

The world would prefer to pretend that there is no truth at all than to think it might be important to know which it is, given conflicting teaching on a subject. As Pilate said, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) This is the attitude we most commonly run into today. But as Christians we know that it is absolutely vital for our own perseverance in the faith of Jesus Christ, that we learn to distinguish truth from error, and error from the truth. This is one of the reasons why church history is so important. Next to the Scriptures, and subordinate to it, church history is the best teacher to keep us from error in the important doctrines of the faith. Just as it is wrong to blindly follow tradition, it’s equally wrong to pretend as if the Christian faith were born yesterday, and we’re the first people to ever understand the Bible correctly. We must sift and interpret history by the Scriptures, and we must learn lessons from it to inform us in our Christian walk today, not blindly following the fathers of the past, but following Christ as they did. We benefit from the distinctions they made between truth and error, and validate them by the teaching of Scripture. In this way we keep ourselves in the true faith, and maintain the true doctrine of who Christ is and what he came to do.

“Bad company corrupts good manners” (1 Corinthians 15:33) It is a known principle of psychology that behavior tends to impact attitudes, more than vice-versa. Let us take care that we stay in the true doctrine of Christ by continuing to gather together with like-minded brothers and sisters, at least weekly, and by avoiding company with those who deny Christ in his person or work. By having personal ties of fellowship with people who deny Christ, we may soon begin to doubt whether it is at all important to distinguish truth from error, and become susceptible to the lie and the doom that follows. Avoid those who claim to be Christians but deny the true and biblical doctrine of his person and the way of salvation that he accomplished.  So we lay hold on the way of salvation, and look forward to the promised eternal life to come, when we will enjoy fellowship with Christ forever.

Retain that which you have heard from the beginning, which the Holy Spirit has taught you, because the Antichrist is come, and many antichrists are in the world. Amen.

How Do We Know That We Know Him?

Did you know that God has given two books in order for us to know him? The second is the one that you might have in your hand. The first book is the book of creation, or natural revelation. God makes himself known to all people in that his glory and attributes are reflected in everything that he has made, even in man himself. But because of the effect of sin on our perception, man turns, twists, confuses, contorts, and obfuscates this knowledge of God which is written in his creation into silly things like gods with animal-like heads and feet, or gods who look and act just like humans, like the Greek and Roman pantheon. God in his mercy did not leave all mankind groping and grasping in the dark, without any hope of finding him. He sent his Son, at just the right time, to become human, by being born of a woman, who is Jesus Christ our Savior. In him the Father is revealed to us. Jesus Christ revealed the Father when he preached and performed miracles during his earthly ministry and he sent his chosen messengers to bear this knowledge of God by proclaiming it around the world, the apostles. During the same time that the apostles preached, after the Lord had ascended to heaven, he sent his Spirit to finish the work of inspiring the work of writing down the Holy Scriptures. For although it’s possible we might have been able to learn something about the Father by oral tradition handed down to us from those who had seen and heard Jesus and his apostles, even though many obscurities and falsehoods would have been created as well in the process of handing it down, if God had not given the Scriptures, yet he gave us his written word so that we might be assured, so that we could be certain of the promises contained in it, and certain of our own eternal life. And this great purpose of the Scriptures is something that the apostle John highlights in the second chapter of his first epistle as the reason why he wrote this letter to the church in Ephesus and surrounding churches:

1 John 2:1a My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not.

John highlights the two great ways or means in which Christians may be assured, that is, have a sure confidence that they know the Father, and the Son whom he has sent. The first he notes is “that ye sin not.” Sin, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines it, is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” The law of God that David so eloquently extols in the Psalms, is a reflection of his nature, his righteous character. It has been given to us in detail in the law as expressed all over the Bible from Genesis through Revelation, and summarized in the ten commandments, and in our Lord’s two great commandments. Anything in us, even our own sinful nature, but also all the sins we commit that flow from it, is sin. Shunning sin, that is repenting of our sin, turning away from it, and refusing to live in it, is one great way that we can be sure that we truly know God and belong to him. If a farmer owns a plot of land, he might tell us that he owns it, but we can be pretty sure he really does own it if we see him out in that field plowing, planting, irrigating, fertilizing, and harvesting. In the same way, when we see the work of grace in our lives, when God’s love exudes from us so that we love God first of all, and love our neighbor as ourselves, we can be assured that we truly know God. Just as it is not the farmer planting, fertilizing, and harvesting that actually makes that field his, it is not our keeping of God’s commandments that makes us his. It is merely evidence that we are his already, that his love has been experienced by us, that we show by loving him and other human beings when we keep his commandments.

1b: And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:

In a court of law there is a judge, there is a defendant, and there is a lawyer who advocates for him, also called “counsellor.” We are those who stand accused in our own sin before the tribunal of God the Father. We have nothing to plead of our own works, for they are all tainted by sin. In ourselves we are guilty as charged, deserving the highest penalty that God’s infinite justice can mete out, because by our sin we have offended him who is infinitely worthy of obedience. But we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is our lawyer, our counsellor. He stands up for us and declares to the Father that just as he lived a righteous human life and laid down his life in our place, so we are clothed covered with his righteousness. We are to be not only declared “not guilty”, but “righteous”, based on nothing that we have done, but only what our Counsellor has done for us. He is our assurance that all of our sins are forgiven before the tribunal of God.

2 And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

In the temple there was one day in the year when the high priest would offer animal sacrifices, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people, and enter into the holy of holies, past the holy place. In this place was the ilasterion, in Greek, or mercy-seat, alluded to in this verse by the word “propitiation”, ilasmos in the original Greek. This was the place where God’s mercy, the forgiveness of sins, was received for his people, and his wrath assuaged and erased. Jesus Christ the righteous is our propitiation. He is our mercy-seat. In him, the wrath of God against our sin is taken away; we receive mercy, grace, forgiveness, and the love of God. It is all in him. He is the place of God’s blessed and merciful presence among us. And he’s not only our Savior. He’s the Savior of the entire world. Anyone who believes in him will receive this mercy, this forgiveness. Anyone who receives him by faith will know the love of God. The Lord has his elect in every nation, who one day will receive Christ their Savior and be saved, according to God’s merciful plan made before he created the world. We do not know who they are, but we know they are numerous. Let us love all people, knowing that this love of God in Christ is offered to all who will believe, and that God has his elect everywhere, sinners dead in their sins who will one day be made new by the Holy Spirit, and embrace Jesus Christ their propitiation. This grace will be theirs based upon his death for them.

3 And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him.

If I gave you a can with a label on it that said, “Green Beans”, and I told you it was tomato soup, you’d either think that I were stupid, or a liar. So is every one who claims to know God, but who does not do what he said. All those who know his love have it working in their lives by the Holy Spirit. We are not perfect in the sense of being without sin. We still sin in many ways, and will never be entirely without sin in this live, until we die or the Lord returns. But the love of God achieves its purpose in us, in this sense being “perfected” when we love God and others, in other words keeping his commandments given in Scripture which teach us how we ought to love God and keep his commandments. God’s grace has its fruition in us when a change is shown in our lives, in that we begin to put God first above everything else. We begin to prefer others before ourselves, and seek their good as well as our own. The farmer who owns a field does good work in it, plowing, planting, irrigating, and fertilizing, but it’s not productive, it doesn’t reach his intention in buying it, until the harvest. In the same way God’s work of grace in forgiving us of all our sin is perfected in us when we love him and keep his commandments. It then achieves its purpose in us.

These two great means or ways that we can know that we know God are laid out for us in this passage: of Jesus Christ our propitiation, and by keeping God’s commandments. When we’ve stumbled into grievous sin like David, who committed adultery and murder, to where he was at the point of praying “Take not thy Holy Spirit from me,” (Psalm 51:11) he was not losing his salvation, but he was losing his assurance. He was beginning to doubt whether he truly belonged to God. This is something experienced by Christians when they have grievously sinned against God. He removed their assurance. They are not producing the fruits of repentance anymore, or showing God’s work in them, so it is right for them to begin to doubt whether they are in grace. But in this situation it is necessary to look to Jesus Christ the righteous, our advocate with the Father, who is the propitiation, the mercy-seat, our forgiveness of sins, so that we can once again be assured of our state of grace, that we are God’s beloved children. On the other hand, in those high times in the Christian life, when we feel assured of our standing, (and just feeling good about ourselves is never a valid ground of assurance, but rather deceptive), that is the time for us to “making our calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10) by being diligent to keep God’s commandments, but working up our love to God and neighbor by studying and practicing everything God has commanded us in his word to do, say, and keep. In this way we can validate and become assured, certain, that we truly know him, and have experienced his love.

Then we are not liars, when we display his work of grace in our lives by loving him and others, in the ways that he has instructed us in his law given in Holy Scripture. Let us be assured of that we know God and are his, by relying on Jesus Christ our propitiation, through whom we have obtained mercy and forgiveness of sins, and by keeping his commandments. In these two ways we know that we belong to him. Amen.