The Threefold Secret of Life

Study Guide to 1,2,3 John
by Francis Foulkes ©


'Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?' (5:1-5).

In this last section of the letter before its conclusion (5:6-21), the three great marks of the true Christian are brought together; faith, obedience, love. They cannot remain separate. Begin with one and you must go on to the other two. Here faith is the starting point. Then faith leads to love and love leads to obeying God.

a. Faith leads to love - love leads to obedience

Verse 1 speaks of the faith that makes us Christians. If we truly believe that Jesus is the Christ, the One sent by the Father to be our Saviour and our Lord (see 2:22 and notes), we are children of God. Faith, in other words, means a family relationship. We are in the family of God. Love also is a family relationship. Faith must lead to love. We love God as our Father - we are his children. But if we love God as our Father, we must love His other children as our brothers and sisters. We would not be acting as members of His family if we did not do that. That sounds very nice, but we have to live out that love, when those brothers and sisters are very different from us, whether in race, tribe, position in life, in background, in personality.

In 4:20 John has said that 'he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen'. Verse 2 puts it the other way around. Love for God's children will only be real when we love God, and that love is shown in obedience. Jesus often spoke of that link between love and obedience. 'If you love me, you will keep my commandments.' `He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.' 'If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.' 'If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love' (John 14:15, 21, 23, 15:10). There is no love without obedience. So these verses bring together the three things of which the epistle has said so much. A true Christian life must show all three - faith, obedience, love. A balanced and growing Christian life will show growth in faith, love and obedience. A witnessing Christian life will seek to bring others to faith, love and obedience.

Now these verses have something further that is special to say about obedience and something further to say about faith.

b. Obedience - the way of blessing.

'This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.' This is God's love working in us, being 'perfected' in us (as has been said in 2:5 and 4:12). Keeping commandments might seem to make a burden of the Christian life. Is the Christian life a matter of obeying, obeying, obeying all the time? Yes, but that is very different from obeying man's laws and regulations. Obeying man's regulations can be very burdensome, as it was with the Pharisees. Jesus said about them that they 'bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger' (Matthew 23:4). The commandments of God are very different. As the apostle Paul puts it, the will of God is 'good and acceptable and perfect' (Romans 12:2). God is perfect wisdom; therefore He commands what is wisest at all times for us and for all His people. God is perfect love; therefore He commands what is the very best for us and for all His people.

Furthermore, what God commands He gives us strength to do. His commands may be very hard to obey at times Jesus never promised His disciples that the way would be easy. But for those who know that He is absolutely wise and loving and strong, His commands will not be a burden but, delight and a joy. Jesus called men and women to come to Him. 'Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light' (Matthew 11:28-30). William Barclay tells the story of a lad going to school with a smaller boy on his back who was lame and unable to walk. A stranger saw the lad and asked, 'Do you carry him to school every day 'Yes,' said the lad. 'That's a heavy burden for you to carry' the stranger said. 'He's not a burden!' came the reply, 'He's my brother.'

It is a temptation of the enemy to make it seem that God's commandments are burdensome, a temptation such as is recorded in Genesis 3. The fruit of the tree, Eve saw, was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and to be desired to make one wise and yet God had commanded them not to eat of it. The persuasion of the world is to 'the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life' (1 John 2:16). The world, as well as the devil, tries to make us think that God's commandments are burdensome. They are instead the very best way of life for us and for all people. It is deception to think that God's way is burdensome. These verses go on to speak of the victory over the world and its pressures and its deceptions.

c. Faith - the way of victory.

The Christian Church and individual Christians have had to face the forces of the world from the beginning. Sometimes they have been political forces, as in Uganda and Chad in recent years and in many Communist countries today. The Roman emperors set out to persecute the Christians, to kill them, and to destroy their Scriptures. But who won in the end? The Roman Empire fell and the Church of Jesus Christ has continued. One of the persecuting Roman emperors was led to confess, 'Thou hast conquered, 0 Galilean!' Sometimes the opposition has come from the forces of the world's thinking and the world's philosophy. We have seen how John recognized these forces and spoke of the false teaching that denied that the Son of God could have become man as being teaching 'of the world' (4:5). Yet he could say about this teaching and its power, 'He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world' (4:4). The faith of Christ has outlasted many philosophies and human systems of thought.

We have been thinking also of the pressures of the world that try to make us self-centred and pleasure-seeking and that suggest that God's commands are burdensome. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world. Faith helps us see things as they really are. Faith fixes our eyes on Jesus. Faith leads us to see Him as the Christ (verse 1), as 'the Son of God' who has entered into our life, lived it to the full, died for us and risen from the dead. This faith is not just a condition of the mind. It is not just feeling. It is the realization that once in human history the greatest thing possible has happened in our world, to change all our life if we gasp hold of its truth. God, our Creator and our Lord, has come to us. He has shown us Himself. He has shown us how live. He has made for us the way of pardon and life, given us purpose in living and (by His Spirit) He has given us power to live in the way of His wise and loving will.


'I will run in the way of thy commandments...

for I find my delight in thy commandments, which I love' (Psalm 119:32, 47).

'The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart' (Psalm 19:7-8).

'Fix your eyes on your crucified Lord and everything else will seem easy to you' (St Teresa).

For further thought and study.

1. Consider the examples of faith given in Hebrews chapter 11 as showing the victories of faith over great difficulties experienced in the world and think of such examples in our world today.

2. How do these verses show it is wrong to think that we can be religious, in having a life that is God-centred, and at the same time not showing love towards our fellows?


We might expect it to say in verse 4 'Whoever is born of God overcomes the world,' but it says, 'Whatever is born of God'. It does so to emphasize 'the victorious power' rather than 'the victorious person' (Plummer). It is the new life, the life of God in us, that makes us able to be victorious.