The Truth We Know
Three times in these last four verses the Apostle John writes of what “we know.” “We know” he says in verse 18. “We know” he repeats in verse 19. “We know” he says once more in verse 20. What do we know? “Him who is true” or “real,” he says in verse 20. “Him who is true,” he says a second time. “This is the true God,” he repeats a third time in verse 20. The reality of God that we know is, at the same time, contrasted by the Apostle with the “world,” the “evil one” and “idols” (vv 19,21).
What is true Christianity? Of what does it consist? What can we say we know (cf. 2:3-5,13-14,29, 3:2,14,16,19,26, 4:2,13,16; 5:2)? The Apostle John closes his epistle by answering this question one final time. Christianity is about knowing the truth, it’s about reality, not myths, legends, opinions, or preferences. It is about knowing a real Christ, having a real experience of God, and about real changes in people’s lives.
One can scarcely imagine claims that would put one more at odds with our world than this. Religion for the relativist is only about the conjectural and unverifiable. Religion for the materialist is only about the unreal and ephemeral. Modern people, who are pervasively both relativistic and materialistic, who believe all religions are essentially alike and their differences are irrelevant, and that the material world is all that there is, fail to comprehend how anyone could claim to know truth, truth anchored in final and absolute reality. Such claims are impolite, at best, Talabanish at worst. Yet the Apostle John does, and the disciples of Jesus still today do affirm the same.
Years ago the Savannah News Press (12/16/89) carried an Associated Press story about the decline of the Presbyterian church since 1970. At that point it had lost more than a quarter of its membership, numbering over one million people. Another quarter of to a half million have been lost since. Sociologist Benton Johnson, of the University of Oregon, studied the decline of the mainline denominations and traced its origins to the 1960’s when, as the article stated, “The concept of personal salvation was ridiculed by secular intellectual culture,” and in response “mainline churches turned to social issues to revitalize their denomination.”
Why did they do this? Because that is where the action was. That was reality. Social justice and political questions were deemed “real world” and relevant, and much more important than otherworldly and eternal issues. But the net effect, Benton sums, “has been ‘a carrot without a stick,’ leaving a generation of mainline Protestants with few compelling reasons for belonging to a church.” As the title of the article reads, “Social Issues No Match for Salvation.”
The Apostle John says, “Christianity is reality. The unseen world of God’s kingdom is the real world,” whereas this world is temporary and passing away (1 Jn 2:17). We are, as one preacher recently said, on a reality mission.
And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. (1 Jn 5:20)
The Apostle says, “we know that the Son of God has come . . .” Concerning your birth or mine we would not say, “George came in 1932.” We might say that he was born in 1932, but not that he “came.” One who “has come” is one who already was. The use of the phrase implies belief in the pre-incarnate existence of Christ and reflects his conviction that the one who came, Jesus Christ, was, indeed, the Son of God. The gnostics wanted to remove the divine Son or Christ from the human Jesus, but the Apostle John unites the two. The one who came was the Son of God, and He is Jesus the Christ, “God and man, in two distinct natures and one person forever” (Shorter Catechism #21). Regarding this, God the Son “has given us understanding,” for the purpose that, or “in order that we might know Him who is true.”
What is Christianity all about? It is about “Him who is true.” “True” could be translated “real.” The Apostle is speaking of reality. Hamilton suggests the translation “truly real.” When the Bible speaks of birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it purports to be dealing with historical fact. Jesus lived in our space-time continuum. There was a man in Palestine nearly 2000 years ago who was born in a manger, reared by a carpenter named Joseph and his wife, Mary, spent his first 30 years in relative obscurity, and for 3 years preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. This is not a fairy tale. This is fact. This is truth. If you had lived then, you could have touched the Son of God. He walked on our roads. He spoke our language. He ate food, felt pain, enjoyed companionship. Jesus was a real man and more than a man. He was the God-Man, the Son of God, God the Son. You cannot brush this aside as hearsay. This is history. He “has come.” He “is true.” This was the Apostle John’s burden from the beginning of his epistle. “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled concerning the Word of life . . . we proclaim” (1:1-3).
We are awash in a mystical spirituality today, which eliminates the categories of “true” and “real,” and some of it is spilling over into evangelical circles. “Emergent” church history, Phyllis Tickle declares that the age of sola spiritus is replacing the age of sola Scriptura. Harvard Professor Harvey Cox in the Future of Faith (2009), proclaims that we are leaving the “Age of Belief,” of “compulsive creed creating” and entering the “Age of the Spirit.” The “spirit” is believed to be breaking down the barriers between religions, bringing them all together in a universal non-theological spirituality. Emergent leader Brian McLauren speaks of “Buddhist followers of Jesus.” Another emergent pastor led a workshop in which she said, “experience is higher authority than Scripture. I do not believe the Bible is the Word of God, I believe Jesus is.”
The Apostle John sees things far differently. Which is the Spirit of Christ? The one which “confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 Jn 4:2,3). The true Spirit of God leads us to specific doctrinal truths. Ours is an historic faith about a God who reveals Himself in time and space. Other religions may happily spin myths or dream up stories about God. Others may be guided by a nefarious spirit into universalism and obliterate doctrinal distinctions. Christianity may not. Christian Scripture records the revelation of God in history, and for this reason is more than just another philosophy. Of course, we should view one “religion” as being as good as the next, if religions are merely collections of religious opinions. Then one set of opinions is as good as the next. Yet if God became a man, then we are dealing with a final and absolute truth in space and time. Then “religion” becomes reality. That is the point. Religious truths may be known and distinguished from false and untrue.
There is another implication of the use of the perfect tense, “has come.” Smalley says it indicates the “continuing effects of a past event.” It indicates then, that He was here and still is. It is not that he “came” and left. Rather He “has come” and is still here. Consider the difference between your husband greeting you at the door saying, “your mother came over,” versus “your mother has come over.” The first means she is gone. The second means she is still here. The Son of God “has come” means that His historic incarnation still has an impact upon us today. He came and, by His Spirit, He is still here. He cannot be studied merely as an historic character like a Napoleon, but must be confronted as a living, present reality. Do not view Jesus like an old book to be dusted off each Christmas and Easter and then put back on the shelf. He is alive and present. We must deal with a true and living reality. This is what Christianity is all about. It is about the historic Jesus who is still with us. Do not allow yourself to leave Jesus in the manger. Do not be content with saying that, “Yes I believe there was a religious teacher in Palestine many years ago.” Go on to trust in the resurrected, reigning, living Lord Jesus Christ. This leads us to our next point.
This living Lord Jesus then must be encountered personally in the here and now. Notice all the language of personal experience. Let’s return to the phrase in verse 20, He “has given us understanding, that we might know Him who is true . . .” “The Christian faith,” says Morris, “is not a hindrance to intellectual activity but a stimulus to right thinking.” Again, the perfect tense is used. Understanding is something that God “has given.” He gave it to us and it remains with us. One commentator translated “understanding” as “the power or capacity of knowing.” We know God. We come to know God through a capacity for understanding which we do not have naturally, but which God gives. The Apostle is pointing to our conversion. Like the Apostle Paul, we all, to one extent or another, are headed in our own direction, even a direction contrary to the will of God, and then God stops us and turns on the lights. He “has given us understanding.” If I understand, I understand not because I am smart or wise or virtuous, but because God gave me the capacity to understand.
John Newton taught us to sing, “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.” Why? Because of “amazing grace.” Charles Wesley wrote,
Long my imprison’d spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Why did I awaken? Why did my chains fall off? Why was my heart set free? Because of “amazing love.” “How can it be?” he asks. At the heart of the Christian life there is an experience whereby we come to see what we had never seen before. Sometimes it happens instantaneously. Sometimes it takes place over a long period of time. Yet it does come for us all. “The eyes of the blind will be opened,” says the prophet Isaiah, “and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy” (Is 35:5,6). We who were spiritually dead are made alive (Eph 2:1ff). Dry bones hear the word of the Lord and spring to life (Ezek 37).
The result, then, is a personal knowledge of the true God. He gives us this understanding “in order that we might know Him who is true,” even that “we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ.” The word “know” (oidamen) at the beginning of the verse indicates knowledge of facts. The second word (ginoskomen) has the sense of perceiving and knowing in experience. We are “in Him,” united to Him. The Apostle John has variously described this experience as “fellowship” (1:3,6), as “knowledge” (2;3,4), as “abiding” (2:6; 3:24; 4:13ff), as well as being “in Him” (2:5). These words all point to a personal relationship with God in Christ.
Three times the Apostle John repeats the word “true” in connection with the God whom we know in Christ. “True,” as we have seen, can be understood as “real.” The real God is known in Jesus Christ. Through the new birth we have come to know the real God. Jesus is not one of many possible roads to God, to one of many plausible gods. Christian experience connects with reality. In Christ we encounter the reality of God. In fact, the last phrase, “this is the true God,” though debated by the commentators, may be a direct affirmation that Jesus Christ is “the true God.” It is ambiguous as to whether “this” refers back to “Him who is true” (i.e. the Father) or to the Son, Jesus Christ. The theologians are split on the question, though either way it is a strong affirmation that in Christ we know the only true, the only real, God. This, too, is one of the Apostle John’s burdens.
The Bible, in general, and John, in particular, emphatically and unambiguously teach that there are not many ways to God. God has provided one mediator who is His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. All others are idols and receive the Apostle’s closing warning,
Little children, guard yourselves from idols. (1 Jn 5:21)
What are idols? Alleged ways to the true God other than Jesus. They are “God-substitutes.” They are false gods, not true. They are unreal, not real (cf. 1 Cor 8:4; 10:19; Gal 4:8). They have no reality behind them. Recall what the Apostle has been saying:
Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also. (1 Jn 2:22,23)
and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 Jn 4:3)
He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. (1 Jn 5:12)
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” (Jn 14:6)
In coming to Christ we come to the true God. We find reality. To see Jesus is to see the Father (Jn 14:9). Christian experience is not merely subjective. Christianity is not true because it makes me feel good or because it is helpful to me. It is not true in the sense that it is “true for me” while it may not be true for someone else. It is not true because I am sincere. One can feel good about error, be helped by a lie, and sincerely wrong. It is true because it corresponds with reality, with the God who is there, not the God of our imaginations. The gospel is what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth.” We have experienced the truth, the final reality of the universe.
Have I moved from the historical, or even the doctrinal, to the personal? Have I experienced the truth of God in Jesus Christ? Do I know that in Him I have truth and “eternal life.” Our knowledge is given by God and corresponds to the truth of God. This is what Christianity is all about. Christ was “Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” “Come desire of nations come; fix in us thy humble home.”
“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tells;
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.”
Because of this encounter with the historic Jesus we are changed. There are necessary signs of conversion which John has been relating throughout his epistle. His conviction throughout has been that doctrine shapes behavior. A true knowledge of God will result in conformity to the image of God. Recall the flow of his presentation. He began by affirming that God is light (1:5). One who knows Him walks in the light, which means he confesses and forsakes sin, keeps the commandments of God, loves the brethren, loves not the world, and believes Jesus is the Christ (1:6–2:29). Then he said, God is our Father (3:1). Those who are his children act like it in that they keep the commandments, love the brethren, and believe that Jesus is the Christ (3:2–4:6). Finally he said, God is love. Those who know Him love (4:7-12), confess Jesus is the Christ (4:13-21), and keep the commandments (5:1-12). The Apostle John is saying all this again. What is the fruit of faith, of regeneration, of a true knowledge of God?
First, deliverance from sin. He says,
We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him and the evil one does not touch him. (1 Jn 5:18)
The perfect participle, translated “is born” (lit. “having been born,” as in the ESV), according to Stott, “indicates that the new birth, far from being a transient phase of religious experience, has an abiding result.” The present tense, “sins,” indicates habitual or characteristic behavior. He is not saying that Christians never sin. He is saying that the abiding result of the new birth is that sin no longer characterizes their lives (see also 3:9). The power of sin has been decisively broken. Those born of God do not “continue to sin” (NIV) or “keep on sinning” (ESV).
Second, deliverance from Satan. John now refers to Christ as “He who was born of God.” What does He do? He “keeps” us or guards us so that the devil, the “evil one,” is not even able to “touch us.” “Touch,” here, as in John 20:17, probably carries the idea of “grasp hold of.” He may trouble us. But he cannot control us. The present tenses “indicate abiding truths,” says Stott. He protects us and continues to protect us. His protection is ongoing. There is a devil out there, by which we mean a supernatural, personal manifestation of evil. He is wicked, the source and inspiration of all evil, a destroyer, liar, idolater, and murderer. He blinds the minds of the unbelieving (2 Cor 4:4). He is a roaring lion (1 Pet 5:8). But Satan does not have access to the people of God. God builds a hedge around us (Job 1:10). We are protected from him both now and forever.
Third, deliverance from the world.
We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 Jn 5:19)
We are “of God.” The world is not. This same Satan who cannot touch the believer has the whole world lying, as it were, in his arms. The world, humanity apart from God, is in the grip of the devil. Its priorities, its fashions, its thinking, its philosophies, its perspectives, its values are all under the dominion of Satan. Remember that the next time you’re tempted to envy the pleasures and prestige of worldlings. They think that they are living it up, being their own person, making their own decisions, enjoying what they think is autonomy, yet the whole time it is a delusion. They are “in the power of the evil one.” They are self-deceived, carrying out his wishes, doing his bidding. Imagine the foolishness of those who refuse to come to Christ because they say they don’t want to surrender their “freedom.” There is no freedom. They are slaves of the devil. Jesus said,
Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. (Jn 8:34)
You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies. (Jn 8:44)
What a blessed gospel we enjoy! Jesus Christ delivers us from sin and its power, the devil and his power, and the world and its power. These are the three enemies of our souls, a trinity of evil, an anti-trinity. These are our foes. They drag us into bondage and lure us into sin’s destructive consequences. The whole world, like obedient puppets, slavishly pursues one lust after another. The devil drags them by the nose from one vice to another. They are enslaved to their alcohol, their drugs, to sensual pleasures, to food, to power, to prestige, to applause, to material possessions, and they are all hard task masters. None of it satisfies. “The way of the transgressor is hard,” says Proverbs (Prov 13:15), but in Christ we are delivered, we are liberated. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32). We are free. Christ keeps us and delivers us and, as a result, we are free!
This is not to say that we don’t still struggle with the flesh. Our victory over our enemies is still to be consummated. But the battle has been won. The tyranny which sin and the devil and the world exercise has been broken. We have a new found liberty in Christ. We are not enticed by sin as we once were. We don’t feel the compulsion anymore. We are not so easily deceived. The world is not so alluring. Pity the worldling. He cannot but pursue exhaustively every illicit and warped pleasure that the world offers. This is the world’s vaunted freedom. It is an illusion. It is bondage. Some experience the bondage at a very civilized and sophisticated and even dignified level. Some grovel with the dogs, yet all are bound and chained by the devil and held captive by him to do his will (2 Tim 2:26).
Christianity is about the real world, God’s world, and real life, life in Him, and real freedom, freedom which He alone can grant. These are the things we know. The other world, the world of sin, is false. Its promises are counterfeits.
Little children, guard yourselves from idols. (1 Jn 5:21)
Though Christ keeps us (v 18), we are to “guard” ourselves from idols. What are idols? “They are false conceptions of God,” says Bruce. “Any conception of Him that is at variance with His self-revelation in Christ is an idol.” In particular it has to do with the false teachings of the false prophets with whom the Apostle John has been dealing all along, and with whom we have been dealing ever since. In fact, it is emphatic, literally, “you guard yourselves.” Choose Christ. That is what Christianity is all about. Do not be deceived by the world’s idols, whether they be idols of wood or stone or idols of the heart (Ezek 14:4). Don’t forfeit eternal life and true freedom in the here and now for the sake of the gods of lust and things and position. Choose Christ. Guard yourself from the seductions of the world. Choose the historic, living, reigning Lord Jesus Christ, and in Him find truth, reality, and freedom.
 Zerwick renders alēthinos as “true, genuine, real,” and the phrase as “him who is reality” (733).
 Hamilton, 85.
 The above paragraph was taken from Peter Jones, truth Xchange, 72: “Rohring down the Rails toward a Fuller Evangelicalism” at http://www.truthxchange.com/article/72-rohring-down-the-rails-toward-a-fuller-evangelicalism/.
 Smalley, 306.
 Morris, 1409.
 Ebrard in Stott, 194.
 See Stott, 195.
 Luther and Calvin took it to refer to Jesus, as does Marshall: “John declares that Jesus is the true God” (255). Calvin says, “The Father is the origin of life, but the fountain from which we must draw it is Christ” (315).
 C. H. Dodd in Stott, 197.
 Stott, 191; it “suggests the abiding results of regeneration” (Smalley, 302).
 Kruse, 195.
 “Does not make effective contact with him” (Morris, 1409).
 Stott, 193.
 “Lies” (keitai), says Morris, “is an unusual verb in such a connection and may point to the powerlessness of the world lying under Satan’s sway; perhaps too, its inertness, its refusal to assert itself against its master” (1409).
 Bruce, 128.
 Kruse, 202.