Reward, keep or prove? 1 John 5:11-13

     The importance of feeling secure can and should not be underestimated. Security is undeniably important for children but even for adults in many areas, for example at the workplace.

     Throughout the Bible there is an important lesson, that God can do everything better than even the best human efforts. Jesus says: ”Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13).

     If fallen, sinful people know how to do “’good” to their children, how much more will not God do for His children? Who are His children? All those who put their faith in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross (John 1:12). Good behaviour does not qualify one to become a son or daughter, only physical birth determines who is someone’s child. In the same way, we are born spiritually (”from above” in the Greek). We are then a new creation which cannot be destroyed (2 Cor 5:17). This is clearly seen in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3 of John’s gospel.

     Having said all this, we know that security about one’s salvation is noticeable by its absence in most Christian circles. My own life is a good example of this and I don’t seem to be alone in having experienced such insecurity. But it’s not feelings or experience that ultimately determine what is right or wrong.

     Many, both Christians and unbelievers, think that salvation is a kind of reward for good behaviour, or at least for having avoided the worst forms of immorality. They imagine, to put it simply, that God on judgement day weighs good and evil acts on a pair of heavenly scales. If they tip in the right direction, so that the good outweighs the evil, then their ‘reward’ is eternal life with God in heaven. Classic protestant belief rejects this false teaching on good Biblical grounds. Salvation is by grace and good deeds cannot contribute anything to God’s gift of salvation, which is by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9).

     Even if it’s natural for us humans to think in terms of rewards, this viewpoint has not been dominant among evangelical Christians. Belief in salvation as a gift has characterized at least evangelicals in Sweden and abroad. In my youth, I visited many churches, where I heard great preaching about salvation by grace alone. But directly after people had confessed Jesus as their Saviour, they were told to make sure they were ‘kept’ in this state. In other words, their salvation could be lost.

     Interestingly, those churches and denominations that believe this seem to have changed their conditions for being ‘kept’. Before, at least in the more extreme circles, a single cigarette or swearword would be enough to become lost again. Now you can live together without being married and misuse the name of the Lord as much as you like without your eternal destination being jeopardized. One could ask, has God changed or have they just realized that He isn’t so strict after all?

     Even though certain passages of Scripture seem to suggest that salvation can be lost, eternal security is a central teaching in the Bible.  These passages have another explanation, usually referring to the loss of eternal rewards or God’s chastisement of the believer. The principle is this: what you cannot deserve you cannot lose.

     He is faithful even when we are faithless (2 Tim 2:13). No-one can snatch the believer out of Jesus’ hand (John 10:28), nor out of the Father’s hand (John 10:29). We are sealed by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13, 4:30). In other words, all three persons in the Trinity guarantee the eternal nature of our salvation.

     When I discovered this biblical truth it was revolutionary, to say the least, even though it took a long time before I dared to believe it. If that was the end of the matter and we could say “Hallelujah” and begin serving Him with a glad heart all would be well, but in recent years another teaching has crept into Swedish Christianity, a variation of conditional salvation. It concedes that the believer is eternally secure, but teaches that one’s faith must be proven by good deeds or the bearing of fruit. In the Bible, fruit is expected, but not a condition for being children of God (faith alone is).

      Instead of fearing the loss of one’s salvation one is now made uncertain as to whether one’s faith is adequate or whether one is sufficiently committed, etc. This is the same fear (lack of security about one’s salvation), but from another perspective. Paul writes to the Galatians that the Spirit (God’s Spirit in us) fights against the flesh, that is, our natural life (Gal 5:17). If it wasn’t possible to be a carnal Christian how can such a battle exist? The Corinthians were carnal (1 Cor 3:3), yet Paul talks of them and to them as ”saints” (1 Cor 1:2).

     The apostle John came up against a series of heresies and often it was the certainty of salvation that was targeted. It’s not surprising then that he ends his first epistle by strengthening his readers’ trust in their salvation by saying: ”And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:11-13).

   In verses 11 and 12 it’s clear that salvation is only in Christ and it’s a gift (no grey areas here). In verse 13 confessing Christians are guaranteed that they can be totally sure of their salvation because it’s not based on works, merits or behaviour.

   What do ”these things” in verse 13 refer to? Many argue that it’s speaking of all that has been previously written in this epistle, including keeping his commandments, loving the brethren, not loving the world, and so on. The same words or phrase, translated as ”this” or ”these things”, are repeated in other verses (1:4; 2:1, 26) where they are always associated with what has been said immediately before.

     If we then look at verses 9-12 in chapter 5, we see that the noun ”testimony” is repeated six times. The believer is not encouraged to check if his or her faith is adequate, but rather to simply establish that he or she has believed in God’s testimony about his Son. In that case, eternal life is a fact, already now.

   This life is not a ‘reward’ but a gift (Rom 6:23). It doesn’t need to be ‘kept’ because it’s an irrevocable gift (Rom 11:29). Finally, we see that we don’t need to ‘prove’ anything to anyone but we can be sure that we have this salvation, because we have believed in God’s testimony about his Son.