In his first letter John draws repeated attention to the key significance of obeying God’s commands. He teaches that obedience is an indispensible factor in a number of important truths:

We know we have come to know him if we obey God’s commands – 2:3.

If we claim to know God, but do not keep his commands, we are a liar, and the truth is not in us – 2:4.

If we obey his word, God’s love is made complete in us – 2:5.

Answered prayer depends on our keeping his commands – 3:22.

If we obey his commands we live in him and he in us – 3:24.

Loving God’s children means obeying God’s commands – 5:2.

Loving God means obeying God’s commands – 5:3.

Taken the wrong way, many of John’s statements about obeying God’s commands can be understood to overturn the whole concept of grace, and make our relationship with God, our salvation, dependent upon us personally obeying God’s commands.

But that is not what John is saying. He is not making obedience to God’s commands the cause of our salvation. Rather, he understands obedience as the expression and evidence of genuine knowledge of God and faith in God:

If we really know God, we will obey his commands – 2:3, 4.

If we really know God’s love, we will obey his word – 2:5.

If we really are in him and he in us, we will obey his commands – 3:24.

In 3:21 – 23, when John states that the reason we have confidence before God and receive anything we ask, he says that this is ‘because we obey his commands and do what pleases him’. This sounds like a contradiction of the Gospel of grace. But then John clarifies his meaning: ‘And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us’.

Just as both the Old Testament and Jesus Christ summarized the whole law of God with the two commands to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour, so also John identifies two similar commands.

The first command – to believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, is the one critical thing apart from which we are still separated from God, banned from his presence, and under his judgement. Obedience to this one command is the personal cause of each individual’s salvation. If we do not believe in Jesus Christ, if we do not believe that he is indeed the Son of God, we do not have ‘life’, we are not ‘saved’. Our personal obedience to this one command is essential. Consider these texts:

To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – John 1:12.

If you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins – John 8:24.

These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name – John 20:31.

If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved - Romans 10:9.

The second command, to love one another as he commanded us, is, as we have already seen in John’s letter, and as we will see again, the expression and the evidence of the first: those who believe in the name of Jesus Christ will love one another. A life that is not characterised by love is a denial of any claim to believe in Jesus Christ, any claim to be ‘in him’. (John has much more to say about love in chapter 4.)

In summary: Unless we obey the first command – to believe in the name of Jesus Christ, God’s Son – we are not saved: we do not dwell in God and God does not dwell in us. If we have believed in Christ, and so God does dwell in us and we dwell in him, this will be evidenced and expressed in obedience to the second command – that we love one another. Such love is the evidence of true faith – John 13:35.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2022