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.