“The Basis of our Fellowship in Christ’s Church”

KASUMIGAOKA 2017/04/02
SERMON: 「キリスト教会としての交わりの根拠」 “The Basis of our Fellowship in Christ’s Church”
TEXT: 1 John 3:23—4:6

I. INTRODUCTION: How Can Christians Recognize One Another?
In the last chapter of this letter, in verse 13, John says, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.” John wrote so that Christians may have confidence before God that they have God’s gift of eternal life. But John also seems to have a second purpose for writing this letter. That second purpose is to give his readers assurance about their fellowship with other believers. How can Christians recognize one another? How can they distinguish between true Christians, and others who claim to be Christians, but are not? Today, for example, some people may think that Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, just as we are. I have heard members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses say that they are a Christian church. How can we know if they are real Christians, or not? This is an old and difficult problem for Christians. In fact, this is the problem that John confronts in the text that we will look at today. He is talking about the need for a “confession of faith.”
In today’s passage John teaches primarily three things. First, he explains why a confession of faith is so important. Next, he teaches us how we need to “test the spirits,” and what this expression means. Finally, John shows us three things that we can know from one’s confession of faith. Let’s look at each of these items in turn.

There are many Christians who do not like creeds and confessions of faith. Some Christians like the motto, “No creed but Christ; no law but love; no book but the Bible.” They want to welcome as many people as possible into their churches; so they do not carefully delineate the boundaries of true Christian faith. Some churches do not even keep a list of “members.” They say, “Everyone is welcome to join us, no matter what they personally believe.” But that is a serious mistake. All Christians, when they are baptized, or when they are received as “communicant members,” should know what “believing in Christ” really means. And they should know what God requires from them. We should not set up barriers to prevent true believers from joining our church fellowship. But it is the responsibility of the Church to teach her members the meaning of faith and the duties of Christ’s people. This is what John is teaching in this letter. He provides the basic outline of a “confession of faith.” He says that all true Christians will agree about these things. Christians should keep God’s commandments: “And this is His commandment,” John writes in v. 23, “that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.” Belief and love are two essential elements of true Christianity. Today we will consider what John says about the importance of what Christians believe. The content of our faith is not optional.
John uses the word “believe” for the first time in this letter in 3:23. He says that true Christians believe that Jesus is both the “Christ”—God’s appointed King–and God’s Son. That seems like a very simple statement of the content of Christian faith. It is not as detailed as the statement of faith contained in the Apostles’ Creed. It is a far simpler statement of Christian faith than we see in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Nevertheless, it is a more precise definition of faith than we hear in Paul’s promise to the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:31 “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.”
Why does John demand this “more precise” theological content in a confession of faith? It is because opponents of the teaching of Christ and the Bible have begun to lead Christians astray. Throughout history, false teaching has been the main reason for more careful theological thinking about biblical doctrine and the content of real Christian faith. Christians in every generation must think carefully about what faith in Jesus requires. We must learn what God teaches us in His word. The church must respond to the challenges of false teaching as it emerges in our day, just as John did near the close of the first century. Christ’s church should also know and agree about what teaching they reject. There are many teachings that are popular today, but false. They should not be permitted to take root in the Church of Jesus Christ. That is why churches draw up “confessions of faith” and “testimonies.” It is a way of saying, “This is what God teaches us in the Scriptures. We all believe this. We are all united in this testimony.” The word “confess” that John uses in 4: 2, 3 translates the Greek verb that originally meant “to publicly agree,” or “say the same thing.” Christians who agree about what they believe are “confessing Christians.” And their churches are called “confessional churches.”

Sometimes individuals, and even churches, think that creeds, confessions, and testimonies are too dogmatic and rationalistic. But our confession of faith has a spiritual purpose. John says that we must “test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1). How can we “test the spirits”? It is by applying the standard of our confession of faith. Spirits are invisible. But John is talking about prophets who spread false teaching in the world. They are spokesmen for “the spirit of the antichrist” (4:3). We must remember that teaching and preaching the Word of God is not just an intellectual exercise; it is a spiritual activity. In fact, it is a spiritual conflict, where spiritual forces are battling for the souls of men and women. False teachers represent the spirit of the antichrist. Preachers of the gospel represent and speak by the Spirit of God. How can we distinguish between the Spirit of God and the spirit of the antichrist? John says in 4:2, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit (or “teacher”) that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” John uses one point of the early Christian church confession of faith—belief in the incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus—to distinguish between the Spirit of truth and a spirit of error. John is giving the churches some practical, spiritual advice to help them recognize truth and error. The churches’ success depends on knowing and using the truth of their confession. If some Christians do not think a confession of faith is necessary, they will be unable to distinguish between the Spirit of God and the spirit of the antichrist. The incarnation of Christ is only one point of the apostles’ teaching; but it was a matter that was being challenged by new ideas and false teaching at the close of the first century. By remembering their confession of faith in Christ’s incarnation, the church will be equipped to reject false teaching and hold fast to Christ. It is their confession of faith that will help Christians recognize truth and error. It will equip them for the spiritual battles of life in this world.
Some Christian churches today argue that the world must be “won” for Christ by the love of Christ shown in acts of mercy and kindness. There is some truth in that belief. But Christian love must accompany the truth of God’s word. John is sometimes called “the apostle of love,” because he so often reminds us of Jesus’ command to love one another. But John is equally insistent about the necessity for confessing the truth of the apostolic teaching. This is the faith we hold in common with all true believers. To some modern Christians, even John—the “apostle of love”–may sound harsh and judgmental! He tells us that anyone who teaches a doctrine contrary to the churches’ confession of faith is a false prophet who speaks by the spirit of the antichrist. John could not be plainer. The truth we confess really does matter!

Why is the content of our faith so important? John says that our faith confession will reveal three things. First, he says in 3:24, “we know by this that God abides in us, by the Spirit which He has given us.” When we keep Christ’s commandments, we know that His Spirit lives in us. When we confess the truth that Jesus taught, we show that we believe in His name, and we know by this that His Spirit abides in us. Faith in Christ is not just an intellectual exercise; it is a work of God’s Spirit. Jesus promised to send His Spirit—the Spirit of Truth—to “guide us into all the truth” (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit is the only One who can lead us to believe in Christ’s name. I think this is what Jesus meant when Peter first confessed his faith in Jesus (Matt. 16:16). When Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father who is in heaven.” Faith to believe in Christ’s name is God’s gift to each of us. Our true confession of faith assures us that Christ’s Spirit is in us.
Second, John says in 4:2 that we can discern the Spirit of God in others by the content of their confession of faith. “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” That is, when someone confesses the truth about Jesus, that is evidence that God’s Spirit is dwelling in that person. So, the content of your confession will identify you as one of God’s children to others. And the content of others’ confession will identify them to you. We can recognize one another as children of God by the faith we confess. John mentions confessing the truth of Christ’s incarnation, because that was the issue that was being debated at the time. Earlier in the church’s history, the main question was the resurrection of Jesus. Later, other questions arose. The Church always went back to the Scriptures to understand how she should answer the new questions and errors of every generation. As the Church examined the Bible, it added their conclusions to the content of our Christian confession. The Nicene Creed, the Creed of Chalcedon, and the Westminster Confession of Faith are a few well-known examples of how the Church’s understanding grew over time. It is still growing today.
Third, John says in 4:6 that we can recognize the spirit working in a person by the way they respond to the apostles’ teaching. John says, “We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” Those who hold firmly to the apostles’ teaching show that they are guided by God’s true Spirit. This means that we must not throw away the biblical instructions for faith and life in order to embrace the latest trends in the church or society. The Scriptures are the Holy Spirit’s gift to the Church through the apostles. So, for example, even if the teaching of the apostle Paul recorded in the Bible concerning women in church offices is doubted by some today, still that is true apostolic teaching. If you abandon the apostolic teaching of the Scriptures, you are rejecting the Spirit of Truth.

John tells us one last thing about true Christian faith. That is, that Christ’s Church will triumph, if her members hold firmly to their confession of faith in Christ. In v. 4, he says, “You, dear children, are from God, and have overcome them; because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” How does John know that they are “from God”? It is by the faith they confess! They believe in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who has come in the flesh. They must not give up their faithful testimony to the apostles’ teaching. False teachers will continue to spread their misleading ideas, and the world may listen to them. But they will not be successful, as long as the Church of Jesus Christ continues to proclaim the truth. The Church will overcome every adversary, because Christ is in them. Jesus had told John and the other apostles on the night before He faced the cross, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” Christian faith in Christ is what will sustain His Church in the world. Christians united in their confession of faith are a powerful, even irresistible, force for good in the world. As long as Christ is with them, Christians have nothing to fear from the world. The victory of our faith is so certain that John says “you have (already) overcome” those who follow the spirit of antichrist. As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8: 37, “we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”

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