sermon preached at University Church, Athens, Ga., 3/10/16.
To hear the audiofile, go here:
2 John 1:4 I was very glad to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we have received commandment to do from the Father. 5 And now I ask you, Lady, not as writing to you a new commandment, but the one that we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. 6 And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it. 7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8 Watch yourselves that you may not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. 9 Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.
Dr. Williams preaching at University Church
No biblical writings are shorter than Second and Third John. Yet, as we began to see last week, none are more packed with practical insight on the nature of the Christian walk. In this middle portion of Second John, we are given an interesting picture of the Christian life in just those terms: it is a life of “walking in the truth.” John develops his idea of the Christian walk by joining, or coordinating, three concepts. truth, love, and God’s commandments. Walking in the truth (v. 4) is walking in love (v. 5); and walking in love is walking according to His commandments (v. 6). This is all contrasted with the walk of the deceivers of vv. 7-9, so that we are brought full circle back to the issue of truth. Whether Christ has come in the flesh is not just an abstract point of doctrine, but is the key to whether we will walk in love and the commandments as well as in truth–or, better, whether we will walk in love and in the commandments as the expression of truth. Truth, love, and God’s commandments are then being presented as three facets of the single jewel of the Christian life, which is nothing more or less than indwelling truth that manifests itself in outworking love. Let us therefore examine each facet carefully.
- WALKING IN TRUTH (v. 4)
The meanings which most modern people would probably naturally attach to this phrase fall far short of what John is trying to convey. When we think of “walking in the truth,” we probably think of living honestly, living with integrity. Or the more mature Christian might add the notion of living in accordance with Christian doctrine, a true view of the world. Both of these ideas are true and important, but if we remember John’s usage as we studied it last week and think of the new teaching he will add in this week’s passage, we realize that there is much more to it than that. Living honestly and living in accordance with sound doctrine are necessary but not sufficient conditions of walking in the truth.
We must begin by remembering the Johannine concept of truth as we surveyed it last week. Truth is that which is so, as opposed to the lie. It is that which is real, as opposed to the fake. It is that which is straight or correct, as opposed to that which is bent or perverted or in error. It always has practical consequences, producing the fruit of good thoughts, intentions, and actions as opposed to sinful ones. And it is ultimately personal, in fact a Person, the person of God’s son Jesus, as opposed to Anti-Christ. It is all these meanings as summed up in the eternal, dynamic Person of God’s Son. In Orwell’s 1984, Winston worried that truth existed only in his mind, which was doomed to extinction. But Jesus is eternal. Jesus Christ as God’s agent in creation established reality and determined what the truth of that reality should be. Jesus Christ as the Father’s ultimate self-revelation, as the ultimate Prophet, gives us the definitive and authoritative interpretation of that reality and its truth. And in Christ this truth is not just a historical statement, however accurate and definitive, but also a dynamic and living Power that can abide in us, his followers, and transform our lives both now and forever.
The eternal Word
Do not misunderstand me. To say that Christian truth is ultimately “personal” is not to say that we can therefore afford to play fast and loose with historical accuracy or doctrinal precision. Christian truth, as living eternally in the Son and incarnated historically in Christ, is more than a set of abstract propositions; but it is not less. Because the Christ who is the sum of all truth is also the divine logos, the Word, truth is therefore capable of propositional statement. Were truth found anywhere but in Christ, we could possibly face a dichotomy or a division between propositional versus personal truth. But because Christ is the Word, no Christian can ever legitimately separate the two. Because Christ is the Word, for the Christian to say that truth is Personal is for him to say that it is Propositional–and vice versa.
In other words, to say that Christian truth cannot be reduced to its propositional content alone is not to say that certain propositions–the ones contained in Scripture and summarized in the Creeds–are unimportant, much less unnecessary. Understanding and affirming those propositions–in this passage, that Jesus came in the flesh–are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of walking in the truth. One of Satan’s most effective strategies is to tempt us to play one side of that equation off against the other. Let’s make sure we get our doctrinal t’s crossed and i’s dotted, says one type of believer–and as long as we do, we can be as ugly as we like to those who split their hairs differently. Just be loving, another type feels. Doctrine divides. Propositional truth is dry, inadequate to the reality of God, and boring besides, so just don’t worry about it. Both of these extremes are travesties of biblical truth because they are caricatures of Christ; they divide the integrated Reality that He is to leave one side of it behind and miss its fullness. John will have none of it. Those who don’t acknowledge that Christ came in the flesh are antichrist. But those who do acknowledge it cannot just be content to spout it. They have to walk in that truth.
To walk in the truth then is ultimately to walk with Jesus Christ. To know the truth is to know (personally) Jesus Christ. You cannot claim with any credibility that you know Him if you are mistaken about the basic data concerning who He is and what He has done. Neither can you claim to be walking with Him if that knowledge is accurate but inactive. To walk in the truth then is ultimately to walk with Jesus Christ. To know the truth is to know (personally) Jesus Christ. To believe the truth is to trust (personally) Jesus Christ. And to walk in the truth is to walk with Him, in His path, hand in hand, day by day. What does this mean? Further insights are coming. We turn to the second facet of the jewel.
II. WALKING IN LOVE (v. 5)
We saw last week that one of the fruits of abiding and indwelling truth is outworking love (vv. 1-2). Because the elect Lady loves the truth, because the truth abides in them, John loves her–and so will everyone else in whom that truth abides. This is true on at least two levels. First, abiding truth gives us something in common–the most important, dynamic, and life-changing thing in our experience, no less. It sets us apart from everyone else and groups us together with each other. In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes lovers (eros) as two people looking at each other. Friends (phileo) are two people looking together at the same object. Two people who love the same thing passionately are also going, all things being equal, to love each other. So to share the experience of Christ as truth abiding in us is quite naturally to be drawn together in a very powerful way. But the second level is even more profound than this. If truth (Christ) abides in us, then we are indwelt by One who not only loves but is Love. And how does He love? “For God commendeth his love to us in this, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). A Christian is a person whose inner life is being informed as truth by that Dynamic which is the most profound love ever loved.
John–the Disciple whom Jesus loved
I say that outworking love is the natural result of being indwelt by abiding truth. But it is also the commandment which we had from the beginning (v. 5). From the beginning, the two Great Commandments have been to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourself. On these two hang all the Law and the Prophets (Mat. 22:36-40).
This commandment should come in the first place as a great relief. We are commanded to do what walking in the truth–walking with Christ, indwelt by His Spirit—should naturally make us want to do anyway: Love the brethren, love those who love the same Lord with the same love that we do. Pretend for a moment that I had absolute power (I know—it’s a horribly frightening thought!). I can tell you to do absolutely anything and you will just have to do it. I think you would be seriously worried. What kind of onerous, unbearable burden, what labor of Hercules, what unthinkable or intolerable task am I going to impose on you? And then I say [to members of the congregation], “Grace, I’ve got some articles on Ezra Pound that need to be written. David Durling, you are hereby commanded to work out piano interpretations of hymn tunes. Coly, I order you to excel in martial arts and make it an avenue of Christian testimony. Mary Delaplane, I want you to develop creative ways to make theatrical costuming part of Christian ministry. Jim Underwood–no arguments now–you are going to work with wood on a lathe.” Well, I expect we would hear some sighs of relief echoing through the room. Not that these assignments are easy–they are actually pretty challenging–but instead of having to clean out my gutters or something, these friends are all commanded to do the thing they very much wanted to do anyway, one of the things they would find more fulfilling than any other thing. And that is exactly the position we are in with the Great Commandment. To the extent that we are truly walking in the truth, to the extent that Christ is truly abiding in us, then loving God and our neighbor will be exactly the thing we would most want to do anyway, and the thing that we will find most fulfilling. Think about it. Do any of you not wish you loved God and your neighbor better than you do? Do any of you sincerely have it as a major life goal to be more hateful?
Alright then, why does it need to be a commandment? Why do we have a problem with it? First, because in this fallen world abiding Truth comes into conflict with the Old Nature, the Flesh, indwelling Sin. So even sincere Christians find themselves conflicted about the command to love. Along with the desire to do it we find also in ourselves a resistance to it. It is called selfishness. Another name for it is sin. Making love a commandment identifies that conflict and brings it out into the open so that we can deal with it, so that indwelling Truth can continue to transform us more perfectly into the image of outworking Love. And second, our Christian brothers and sisters all have the same problem of selfishness that we do—which often does not make them the easiest people in the world to love. So, sadly, love does need to be a commandment.
On Jesus’ one Commandment hang all of Moses’ ten.
Since love is a commandment, let us look at the commandment for a moment. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.” By this people will know that we are His disciples (Jn. 13:34-35). But wait a minute. How is this a new commandment? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” had already been given in Lev. 19:18. So in one sense the commandment isn’t new at all. There could be no set of commandments come to us from the God who is Love without this one being prominent. Yet Jesus said it was new. So what was new? The new part—the part which could not have been made known before He came–was “as I have loved you.” What is new is a new example of love, a new motive for love (in response to Christ’s sacrifice for us), and a new inner dynamic of love, a new ability to love. This is the love that flows from walking in the truth.
It follows from this commandment that love is not primarily emotional but volitional. You simply cannot command people to feel a certain way. That’s not how it works. So this love is not primarily a feeling but an attitude, not primarily passion but action, not so much an experience as a choice, a stance we adopt toward our neighbor. It is the choice to walk in the truth–that is, to walk with Christ.
III. WALKING IN THE COMMANDMENTS (v. 6)
Now, to those of us who are used to looking at the Law through the Pharisaical lens which the New Testament often assumes for the sake of argument when refuting Pharisaical legalism, this next statement might seem anticlimactic. Walking in truth is walking in love, and walking in love is walking according to the commandments? What? You mean it’s just keeping a bunch of rules? What is going on here? To walk in truth is to walk in love, to walk in love is to walk in the commandments, and the commandment we have just been discussing is the old-new commandment of love. This seems not only anticlimactic but circular too–and hence rather uninformative. But of course if we can understand what John is trying to tell us, we will see that it is neither anticlimactic nor circular nor uninformative at all.
We must begin by distinguishing the singular commandment of v. 5 from the plural commandments of v. 6. Verse 5 refers to the Great Commandment; v. 6 refers to the whole moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments. Jesus had already connected them in Mat. 22:40, telling us that the whole Law depends or “hangs” on the commandment to love. What emerges from these passages is a new way to see the Law: it is the Handbook or Manual of Love. If you try to use the Law like the Pharisees did, as a way to earn righteousness through rule keeping, it is nothing but a curse. But when the death of Christ has set you free from the Law in that way, it can then become a blessing, teaching you the way of life that pleases God.
Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
How are love and the commandments connected? How does this connection work? Suppose someone says he loves God. How can we tell? Does he love God’s word, his ways, his Church, his message? If not, what does this alleged love mean? Suppose you love God and you want to express that love. How, you ask, can I show God that I love him? Well, he has not left you in the dark. Keep His Sabbath as a special day when you pay attention to Him, put away your idols, love his other children, share his Gospel. And how do you love those other children? Well, you are going to respect their lives (“Thou shalt not kill”), their property (“Thou shalt not steal”), their families (“Thou shalt not commit adultery”), their reputations (“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”)–you won’t murder them, steal from them, commit adultery with them, or lie behind their backs.
On one level that seems pretty simplistic. It’s just common sense. But the point is that in a fallen world, common sense is not enough. Love and Hate do not come dressed in white and black hats. And it’s not just love and hate. How do you tell love from lust? How do you tell real love from rationalized selfishness? Well, the Law gives you a very useful set of checks, safeguards against false love, safeguards against serious mistakes in loving. And if we look at the commandments in terms of their positive corollaries, they become a very useful guide indeed. What do I means by positive corollaries? If I’m not supposed to murder, I’m supposed to respect, value, and safeguard your life; if I’m not supposed to steal your property, I’m supposed to respect and protect it. Etc. That makes it easier to see the profundity of the connection between the Law and love. Loving behavior is that which respects, nurtures, supports, and protects the lives, property, families, and reputations of our neighbors. So in this sense, it is actually very helpful to know that walking in love means walking in accordance with the commandments.
Earlier we rejected any dichotomy between personal and propositional truth as being an option for a faithful Christian. In the same way, and for the same reasons, there should be no dichotomy, no conflict, between love and the Law. It is not enough for us simply to do what feels loving. Neither is it enough to understand love in the abstract. We must walk in love. You cannot walk in love by mechanically trying to follow the Law considered as a set of rules; nor will acting on loving feelings necessarily produce a life in accordance with the Law without our thinking about it. It is only in Christ–through faith–that the true integration which is walking in the truth is possible. The Christian life is one in which walking in truth, walking in love, and walking in the commandments really are simply different facets of one unified jewel, which is the life of Christ.
It is of tremendous practical significance that walking in truth is walking in love which is walking according to the commandments. How can we live the Christian life effectively without understanding this? No one can love God or his brother without the living Truth abiding in him, energizing the truth of God’s Word until it is “digested,” as Richard Sibbes would say, “into affection, will, and practice.” That is what it means to walk in the truth. May we be enabled to do so to the everlasting Glory of Christ. Amen.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia. An ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America with many years of pastoral experience, he has spent several summers training local pastors in East Africa for Church Planting International. His most recent books include Mere Humanity: Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006); Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (Chalice, 2007); The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice, 2008); Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays Toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd edition, revised and expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012). Material on literature, theology, the inklings, and apologetics can be found at his website, http://doulomen.tripod.com. He blogs at www.lanternhollowpress.com and http://thefivepilgrims.com/.