How Do I Know That I’m a Christian?

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

1 John 5:13-21 | August 20 - Sunday Morning,

Sunday Morning,
August 20
How Do I Know That I’m a Christian? | 1 John 5:13-21
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Father in heaven, we ask now that You would give us ears to hear, give us hearts to feel what we ought, give us feet to move out in obedience and wills to obey. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I invite you to turn in your Bibles to 1 John chapter 5 at the very end of your Bibles. Revelation is the last book, before that 1, 2, and 3 John and then Jude. We are finishing this summer series on 1 John and this morning we come to chapter 5, verse 13 through the end of the book. Follow along as I read 1 John chapter 5, beginning at verse 13.

“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of Him.
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.”

“We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

There’s a lot in these final verses, but we’re going to focus on just one central point, and it is this: How do you know that you are a Christian?

I hope you will personalize that, whether you came absolutely sure that you’re a Christian, hope to give you assurance, perhaps you’re a student, child, young person. Maybe you’ve never really thought of it. You just go to church, that’s what you do. Or maybe this whole Christianity thing is new to you and this will be particularly relevant.

I want you to ask that question: “How do I,” don’t ask it for someone else, “How do I know that I’m a Christian?” That’s what this sermon is about and you can argue that’s what this whole book of 1 John has been about. It is nice when you are reading a book and the author states very clearly the reason for the book.

I have a lot of running books because if I can’t be great at running, I can read well about running. I have one book with this title Run Less, Run Faster: Become a Faster, Stronger Runner with the Revolutionary Three Run a Week Training Program. So there it is right there on the cover: Run less, fun faster. Some of you are saying, “I must be the fastest runner in history I am running so little.”

Maybe you’ve read the book by Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Here’s her opening sentence: “In this book I have summed up how to put your space in order in a way that will change your life forever.” Whew. I read that book – it didn’t change my life. I did throw out a lot of socks that didn’t spark joy in me anymore. You can take some comfort after she wrote the book, after she did a series of shows, she had a child and she said, “Eh, maybe I need to lighten up just a little bit.”

Or this book, some of you have read, Atomic Habits by James Clear. He says, “In the pages that follow, I will share a step-ty-step plan for building better habits, not for days or weeks but for a lifetime.”

And you go on and on, especially that kind of self-improvement, self-help genre, often gives you right there, here’s what this book is about, and they often make those kind of big promises, “It will change your life forever.”

The Apostle John is equally straightforward and his books are infinitely more important. In his Gospel at the very end, John 20:30 & 31, John writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book. 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.” That’s the purpose statement he gives very clearly at the end of his Gospel.

Then did you notice verse 13? Here’s the purpose statement for this first of his epistles: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know you have eternal life.”

Now there are at least half a dozen purpose statements in this short letter, but this last one in verse 13 nicely sums up all the others. Can you hear how the Gospel of John and this first letter of John go together very nicely? The Gospel of John, he says, “I am writing so that you might believe.” This in this epistle, he ends by saying, “I am writing to you who believe that you may know.” So the Gospel is that you would put faith in Jesus Christ.

Now there’s lots in this letter about also believing, but if the Gospel was with the explicit purpose that you might read it, or more likely someone would have read it to you, you would get to the end of it and you say, “Yes, I believe in Jesus.”

The purpose here is similar but slightly different. He says in verse 13, “I’m writing to those you do believe and I want you to know the very thing that God promised in my last gospel. I want you to know that you have eternal life.”

How do you know that you are Christian? That’s the question.

Our outline is simple. Many old sermons from the past, centuries past, followed the same pattern almost week after week and it was very straightforward. You read old sermons and they often were structured text, so preacher would give some explanation of the text, then doctrine, let’s zoom out a little bit and see what this doctrine is, and then application. Very straightforward, we’re going to take a page from the past and that’s our very simple outline with this one question in mind, “How do I know that I am a Christian?” Text, doctrine, and then at the end briefly some application.

So first I want us to think about the text of 1 John. Look again at your Bibles. This final section consists of several reminders and then in verse 21 a surprising concluding exhortation, which we’ll come to at the very end. Look at the reminders. There are six things John says we know as believers in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Verse 13 – we know we have eternal life.

Verse 15 – we know God hears us when we pray.

Verse 15 – we know we will receive what we ask of God in prayer.

Verse 18 – we know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning.

Verse 19 – we know that we are from God.

And verse 20 – we know that the Son of God has come.

We could spend a whole sermon on each of those statements, but they’ve been covered at various times in the book already. When John says we receive what we ask of God in prayer, he doesn’t mean that God is some sort of vending machine, you just put in a prayer and you get out whatever Snicker of blessing that you want. It anticipates that as you pray according to God’s Word, in Christ’s name, after His will, you receive.

And when it says, for example in verse 18, that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, John has said similar things throughout the book. He doesn’t mean that you never commit a sin, because chapter 1 says if we say we’re without sin the truth is not in us, so he grants that there’s no sinless perfection on this side of heaven. What he means is that we are changed people. We have a new life, a new habit, a new pattern.

You can see John’s concern quite plainly. He’s come to the end of this letter and he wants to make sure to the believers that they know what they know what they know. The book of 1 John, we’ve been arguing, is mainly about this one thing – how do you know you’re a Christian? Or, to give the theologic term, it’s about assurance. This epistle is full of help for determining whether we are in the faith or not.

I mentioned just briefly last week that 1 John has three signs. We’re going to unpack them in just a moment. Three signs. Now the word “signs” or road markers is important. These are not three things that earn your way into heaven. John is not saying, “Well, make sure you do these three things and God will love you enough and you’ll be forgiven.” No, he’s saying these are three signs that you’re to look at in your life to help give you confidence that indeed you are on this narrow path to eternal life.

We all, when we’re driving, we need signs. Even though we’ve got GPS on our phones, you need signs, and I’ve been here now into my seventh year and my wife and I will tell you that we still, when we come to 485, I trust some of you do this, too, inner and outer? Where am I going? I mean, it’s a lot. When you have a split second decision and you’ve got to think of a clock and which way is inner and sometimes it gives you the city that you’re going… I didn’t think I was driving to Columbia right now. Where am I…. More than once we have ended up trying to come home… I don’t remember that we lived in Pineville. [sound effect] Wish we lived on Lake Norman. We don’t. Turn. We didn’t get that far, but you need the signs, hopefully, they tell you you’re going in the right direction or not.

Well, there are three of these signs. The first sign in John’s letter is theological. Theological. You have confidence if you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Look at the passage from last week. Chapter 5, verse 10: “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.”

Verse 11: “And this is the testimony, God gave us eternal life and life in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life.”

You see, Jesus does not want us to be doubting, and this first sign is you believe in Jesus. What do you believe about Him? Chapter 2:22 – you believe He is the Christ. That’s not Jesus’ last name. He didn’t have a mailbox for Joseph and Mary, the Christs. Christ is an office, it’s a title. He’s the Messiah, the christened One. You believe He is the Christ, the long-awaited prophet, Messiah, king, priest, and He’s the Son of God, and you believe, chapter 4 verse 2, He has come in the flesh.

Remember, these sort of proto-Gnostic false teachers had a hard time, not that Jesus might be God, but that God could come in the flesh, in human flesh.

So you believe in God’s Son, you believe He’s the Christ, you believe He’s Lord, you believe He’s God incarnate come in the flesh.

That first sign is theological and you should look at that in your own life. Are these things I believe about Jesus?

Now notice John is not meaning that you simply like Jesus, but rather you rest in Jesus, you have received Jesus as the Christ, as your Savior, as your Lord, as the Son of God.

Too often we hear “believe” and we think, ah, vaguely pro-Jesus. You know who’s vaguely pro-Jesus in the South? Most everyone. We can be thankful for some of that, makes some things easier in a society. We all know that that’s quickly changing, but it’s still more true than in many places. People you see at work, school, vaguely pro-Jesus. If you just said “Jesus, yea or nay” not a lot of people [sound effect] Jesus, boo, don’t like that guy. But they don’t know who He is, they don’t have a real understanding. There’s not a real commitment to Him. They’re not really resting in Him.

Remember in the Gospels? Jesus had lots of fans. Lots of, you know, “You’re #1” foam fingers, lots of people, “Yea for Jesus.” The crowds were flocking to Him. His phone was blowing up. He had a bazillion followers on Twitter. He had crowds of people and He was constantly telling them, “Are you sure? Have you counted the cost? Do you really know what it is to believe in Me? To follow Me?”

Because then and now, it’s easy to draw a crowd. Jesus will fix your problems. Jesus will do miracles. Jesus will put on a show. But they didn’t know who He was.

So this first sign is important. Not just, “Do you like Jesus?” Every false teacher in the history of the Church has “liked” Jesus, or they wouldn’t even get a hearing. But the sign is theological – Do you believe in Jesus the Christ, the Lord, the Savior, the Son of God, God in the flesh?

The second sign is moral. You have confidence if you live a righteous life.

Look at chapter 3, verse 6 – “No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning.” We already talked about that, what that does and doesn’t mean. “No one who keeps on sinning has seen Him or known Him. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous as He is righteous.” Verse 9 – “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning.” Verse 10 – “By this it is evident who are the children of God, who are the children of the devil. Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God.”

So all over the place in this short letter, John is saying you ought to have confidence if you live a righteous life, if you habitually walk in righteousness rather than wickedness.

This is actually no different than what Paul says in Romans chapter 6 about God setting us free, no longer slaves to wickedness, but now slaves to righteousness. Or what Paul says in Galatians chapter 5 about the fruit of the Spirit rather than the unfruitful deeds of darkness and the work the flesh.

It’s nothing different than what Jesus said in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount about a good tree bears good fruit. That’s essentially what John is saying. Do you bear good fruit in your life? If you live a righteous life, you should have confidence.

Look at chapter 3:24 – “Whoever keeps His commandments abides in God and God in him.”

Let me pause here because I know what you’re like because I know what I’m like. You say, “Okay, the first sign, okay, good reminder. Yes. Okay. I believe those things. The second sign, however, oh, wait a minute. I don’t know if I have confidence. I certainly don’t feel like I’m living a really, great righteous life right now.”

Well, let me give you a few words to help you understand what is meant here. Trajectory, that is God’s interested in your direction, where are you headed? It’s never a straight line, it’s up and down, but is there a trajectory of ever increasing righteousness? Don’t measure that from hour to hour, day to day. Don’t check your spiritual pulse. That’s not going to work. But you do it monthly, yearly. Is there a trajectory?

Here’s another word: Victory. We say that last week. Your faith is the victory.

Remember, we looked at that important theological distinction, that there can be true obedience that is now flawless obedience. It is possible to obey God’s commands in a genuine, heartfelt way and He accepts them through Christ, even when they’re tinged with imperfection. It’s a true obedience.

So is there some victory in your life? Again, on a trajectory.

Community. There’s another word. This is really important. Assurance is a community project. No doubt some of you by nature are overconfident and you need texts of Scripture to be an alarm clock, in your ear. Then there are those of you who are overly introspective. Maybe you can change, but maybe God uses that to be a very caring person, a very empathetic person, uses that, but you just need to be aware that you may not be the best gauge of what’s going on in your life, both for good or for ill.

You may not see sins that you have and, listen carefully, you may not see righteousness that you have. We need a community, we need a body of believers. You need people who know you closely, who can speak the truth to you and tell you when you’re off the path, and who can also say, “Brother, sister, I know you’re despondent right now but I have to tell you, I see evidences of grace in you.”

If a church is functioning as it should, even a big church like this, we take very seriously the role of the elders to shepherd the flock of God, to maintain membership and discipline. That’s one way that God has instituted that the elders under God’s authority are communicating to you and to others, “We believe you to be a member in good standing in Christ’s Church.”

Trajectory. Victory. Community.

One last word to think of: Humility. Part of living a righteous life is refusing to claim that you’re without sin.

We often get so discouraged with the Sermon on the Mount. Oh, no, the Sermon on the Mount. Terrible, Jesus just like He’s slapping us around, and you forget that the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount is what? Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God. The whole thing, the lead in, is through those Beatitudes. Are you the sort of person who mourns for your sin? Who’s humble before God? Who’s seeking the face of God? That’s to give you confidence.

So is there a humility, a humble pursuit, of Christ and His ways?

Then the third sign. So theological, moral, social. You have confidence if you love other Christians.

Chapter 3:14 – We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.

It talks about Cain, the first murderer. If you hate like Cain hated his brother, then you don’t have the Spirit of Christ in you. One necessary sign of true spiritual life is that we love one another.

So these three signs, theological, moral, social. Again, they’re not ways to earn our salvation, they’re rather three indicators that God has indeed saved us. They’re road signs to tell us we’re driving on the right road heading in the right direction. Do you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God? Are you living an increasing pattern of righteous living? Are you generous and loving toward other Christians?

Or, we could put it like this, we know we have eternal life if we love Jesus, if we love His commands, and if we love His people.

Not one of those is optional. You’re not supposed to look at the signs and say, “Well, I don’t like anybody, but I’m pro-Jesus.” No, they all have to go together. We saw this last week in chapter 5, verse 2: By this we know that we love the children of God [social], when we love God [theological], and love or obey His commandments [moral].

There it is altogether, all three are meant to be signs for our assurance. John belabors this point over and over throughout this epistle. Do you love God? Do you love His commands? Do you love His people? If you don’t, you should be concerned. If you do, you ought to have confidence instead of condemnation.

That’s the text. I said text, doctrine, application. And each of these will get shorter.

But let’s just zoom out a little bit and talk about this doctrine of assurance, which overlaps with everything we’ve seen in 1 John, but zooms out a little farther.

Many Protestants, this is a protestant church, many Protestants think of the Reformation as being chiefly about justification by faith alone, and there’s truth in that statement. But you could also make the case that pastorally, existentially, the Reformation was first of all about assurance. Is it possible for ordinary Christians to really know that they have eternal life? As the Reformation went on, the Roman Catholic church had a counter-reformation and they had a Council of Trent which made a number of pronouncements against the Reformation, and here’s one of them: No one (Council of Trent), “No one can know with a certainty of faith which cannot be subject to error that he has of obtained the grace of God.” So they said no one can know that infallibly.

Or likewise, one modern Catholic dictionary of theology defines certainty of salvation as “a concept of Protestant theology which signifies a belief in justification so firm that this belief is inconsistent with any doubt of man’s ultimate salvation,” and this dictionary insists, well, true we should not doubt what God has done in Christ, but we cannot have absolute certainty of one’s own eternal salvation. It would be presumptive to think that you could have absolute certainty that all of your mortal, or all of your venal sins, that they were all taken care of.

The Reformation was about assurance. The Reformers strenuously opposed this repudiation of assurance. John Calvin, the Reformer, said faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us.

Memorably, the Heidelberg Catechism says true faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that God’s Word is true… Okay, it’s not just a general, yep, Bible’s true. It is also “a deep-rooted assurance” that I, too, have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation. It’s beautiful. It’s not only that this has true statements, but that your sins, your personal sins and your sin nature, have been forgiven and you know that you have eternal life.

How can we grow in this assurance? The Reformation, following on the heels of the Reformation, the Protestant church wrote a number of documents – creeds, confessions, catechisms, and they’ve continue to serve the Church well for hundreds of years. Some of you are familiar with them, some of you they may be very new to you. They’re never on par with the Bible – only the Bible is all true. But these statements have served the Church for hundreds of years to give a summary, we think a faithful summary.

So one of them comes from the Netherlands, Canons of Dort, and it says this: Assurance does not derive from some private revelation beyond or outside the Word.

So that’s saying how do you know that you’re a Christian? Well, there were some people who were saying, “Well, you’ve got to have a dream, you’ve got to have a vision, you need an angel to speak to you.” No, no, no. You don’t need that. Assurance derives from faith in the promises of God which He has very plentifully revealed in His Word for our comfort, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying with our spirit that we are God’s children and heirs, and finally from a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works.

Did you hear those three things? They don’t exactly map onto the three signposts in John’s letter because John is really thinking about kind of looking at yourself and what you believe and how you live. You might map those three onto the last one there.

But did you hear the three? And they’re actually the exact same things that are mentioned in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The Reformed tradition said there’s three ways to get this assurance.

One, from faith in the promises of God. Two, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit telling you that you’re a child of God. And three, from the pursuit. Now that’s a good word – the pursuit of a clean conscience and good works. It doesn’t say from absolutely nailing it but from a sincere pursuit.

The Westminster Confession wisely says that believers may not always experience assurance in this life. There was a debate about whether assurance was a part of the “essence of faith.” The Westminster Confession says it is not of the essence of faith. That means you can have doubts and still be a Christian. The goal is that you wouldn’t have doubts about your salvation, but as you’ve heard me use the analogy many times, you can skate out on the ice and be very fearful as you’re skating on the ice that you might sink through, but what sustains you? It’s the object of your faith, it’s the thickness of the ice, even when you have moments of doubting and wondering if you might sink in.

So these three means of assurance, these doctrinal parameters, are very helpful because they have both objective and subjective, and we need both as Christians, because maybe there are some people here that are overly presumptuous. Yep, did that, gave my life to Christ years ago, I’m on my way to heaven, and you may need to hear, “Well, are you really pursuing a holy life?”

Then there’s others of you here, you’re pursuing it, you’re doing the best you can, and you need to know that first means of assurance, the objective promises of God. Whatever you feel, whether you sense in your heart that the Holy Spirit is testifying to you in this moment, or God seems very absent and quiet in this phase of your life, we need both those objective elements and subjective.

Against presumption, we ought to see if we have evidences of grace in our lives, and against unhealthy introspection, we must go to the objection promises of God.

Which leads finally to our application. Three simple points of application. Text, doctrine, application.

One. Consider if you are a Christian. Is it possible that though you’ve been familiar with Christianity, though parents, grandparents were into Christ, though you’ve maybe even been around the church, maybe you went to Christian school, is it possible you’ve been fooling yourself? You grew up around Christianity but you’ve not really submitted your life to Christ. Maybe you’ve never really understood who Jesus is. Perhaps, if you’re honest, and you can put away the phone sometime this afternoon and go on a walk, or sit in a room by yourself and really think and reflect, you would understand that you have not had a real pursuit of godliness. There has been no real love for the commandments of God. You do not care for the people of God. Jesus has been an afterthought, just a vagary out in the distance. You want to consider if you are really a Christian.

Second point of application. Take comfort, Christian, that you have eternal life. Take comfort. You see verse 13? If I made this sermon mainly about, “Hey, are you seeing the signs? Are you a Christian?” Now that’s a fair question, but if I made that the point of the sermon, it’d be missing the point of verse 13. You see what John says: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God.

If that’s you, “Yes, I believe in the name of the Son of God,” this letter, and God Himself, wants you to have confidence.

Some of you may remember at the end of 2 Corinthians, Paul’s writing there and he says “test yourselves to see whether you’re in the faith.” He’s writing that because he’s trying to defend his own apostleship. One of the defenses of his apostleship is “I ministered to you, and if you’re real Christians, I must have been a real minister of God’s grace to you.” In other words, when he says “test yourselves,” he expects them to pass the test.

Sometimes in church we feel like if there’s any sort of test, the real spiritual thing to do is to flunk every test. I feel like I’m a Christian, but probably the best thing to do is to walk out of here and just, nope, not a Christian. I should fail the test.

John expects you to pass the test. Yes, I believe in the Son of God. Yes, I’m pursuing His commandments. Yes, I want to love the people of God. Then know you have eternal life. We are meant to live in the knowledge and joy of God’s abiding love for you, not just that sometime later you get to heaven, yes, and that in the meantime God’s just tsk, tsk all the time, but now He loves you and is your heavenly Father.

Again, the __ of Dort says, about assurance, “If God’s chosen ones in this world did not have this well-founded comfort that the victory will be theirs and this reliable guarantee of eternal glory, they would be of all people most miserable.”

Sometimes there’s Christians who just put upon themselves the worst of all possible combinations: “Okay, I don’t get to do any of the fun things the world does (p.s., it’s not really fun and it doesn’t make your life better, but you think of it that way), but I guess I’ll be a Christian and I’ll get to heaven and I won’t know any real joy until I get there.” That’s not the way God means for you to live.

At the end of one of his meetings, the evangelist Dwight Moody met with a man who told him that he didn’t feel saved, and Moody said, “Let me ask you a question – was it Noah’s feelings that saved him in the flood or the fact that he was in the ark?”

Your feelings are not always a reliable guide. Take comfort, Christian, that you have now in your possession life that never ends.

Here’s the third and final application. It comes somewhat surprisingly in verse 21. The third application: Keep yourself from idols.

Number one – consider if you are a Christian. Two – take comfort you have eternal life. Three – keep yourself from idols.

It seems like, “Come on, John. You had a great ending at verse 20, a real crescendo. Who’s true? Jesus. True God, eternal life. Just sign off, your best friend, John. Uncle John. Just sign it off. Then you ruin it? You had all this gospel and now you get law?”

Why does he end this way? Well, for good reason. This book has been about assurance. It’s about this question, “How do I know that I’m a Christian?” What he wants them to know is you’re a real Christian. So of course it makes sense. He’s told them in so many ways. He wants them to have confidence and you conclude you are the real thing, therefore don’t go after phony gods.

In other words, he’s bringing to bear in this final exhortation everything he’s been talking about in this book. Stay away from imposters, don’t chase after the things of this world; that’s the moral test. Don’t cling to your earthly possessions when there’s brothers and sisters in need; that’s the social test. And don’t run after other gods other than the God-man Jesus Christ; that’s the theological test. He is the true God and He is eternal life.

So as we close this letter, and God wants you, Christian, to have the joy and the knowledge, the certain faith and conviction that you belong to Him and will live forever, and as you are true in faith in the true God, keep yourself from all that is fake and phone and false.

Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we give thanks for Your inspired, inerrant Word and all that it has to teach us. Work this deep into our hearts, now, throughout the week, and throughout our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.