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Remain in Him to Receive the Promise

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18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 20 But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. 21 I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. 22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. 24 Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life. 26 I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. 27 But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.

One thing that has become obvious in our study of 1 John is that John is not dealing with insignificant things. There is an air of urgency and seriousness in his words. At stake is the salvation of man from sin and the wrath of God. John wants his readers to know whether or not they have been reconciled to God and so have found fellowship with him.

So we have been warned about sin and the threat it is to our fellowship with God. We have been told that our response to God’s commandments is an indication of whether or not we have experienced the love of God. We have been encouraged to consider our relationships with other people and our affection for this world as true tests of where we stand with God.

The reason John has been speaking this way and with such earnestness is because there was a real problem going on in the church to which he was writing. Some were leaving the church and at the same time trying to deceive others into believing a lie. John apparently believes that this was a serious threat. So in this passage he writes 1) to warn his readers about the danger of apostasy, and 2) to help his readers form a defense against this threat of apostasy.

THE WARNING OF APOSTASY

The word apostasy refers to the willful turning away from God’s revealed truth, and especially by those who had at one time apparently received it. It is clear that apostasy happens. Yet the doctrine remains a controversial one among Christians. John’s depiction of apostasy in this passage helps us understand some very important things about it.

A sign of the times

First, apostasy should not be a surprise because the Bible clearly predicts that it will take place. In fact, apostasy will typify the current era as we get ever closer to the end of the age marked by the return of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote that “in later times some will depart from the faith” (1 Tim 4:1). He also said that “the day of the Lord” would be preceded by a great apostasy (2 Thess 2:3).

John declares that “it is the last hour,” because “many antichrists have come.” He will tell us shortly who these “antichrists” are, but notice first the connection he makes between the appearance of these antichrists and the designation “the last hour.” What John is describing here is not the precise chronology of the end of the world, for roughly 2,000 years have elapsed since he wrote these words. Instead, John wished to make a theological statement, noting that since Christ had come, the final era of human history had been inaugurated, and the end of the age was now imminent (it could come at any time).[1]

So we should not be surprised by apostasy. It will become more prevalent as time moves on. It is a sign of the times. 

Departure from community

Another thing that John points out about these apostates is that they have departed from the church: “They went out from us” (v. 19). It is not clear from this text why they left. The grammar suggests that they did so on their own. We might guess that they departed only after they had failed to win over the leadership of the church to their heretical views, for in verse 26 John says he was writing about those who were trying to deceive those in the church.

But although these “antichrists,” as he called them, apparently left the church on their own, John says that their departure resulted in it being made clear that they were really not a part of the true Church. “They went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

So one of the warning signs that John gives us about apostasy is that it will cause separation from the church. Though apostates may harbor in the church for a while, they will eventually walk away from it. Their true colors will come out. They cannot hide there forever.

Theological error

Skipping down to verse 22 we find out something else about apostasy and its dangers: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.” John now tells us why he calls these apostates “antichrists.” It is because they have denied the Father and the Son.

And how have they done that? By denying that Jesus is the Christ. In 2 John 7, we find out more: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.” We know from verses like this that John was combating a growing heresy in the church called Gnosticism. One segment of Gnosticism, called Docetism, denied that Jesus had come “in the flesh” but only “appeared” to be human. Their view of Jesus was too high: he was God but not man. Another segment of Gnosticism taught that Jesus was a human being upon whom the Spirit of God came at his baptism but left before his crucifixion. Their view of Jesus was too low: he was a man but not God.

It is not clear which of these two heresies is in view here, but in either case the problem was a Christological error. These “antichrists” held a belief about Jesus that was not right. He can call them “antichrists” because in spite of what they might say about Jesus, because of their heretical views about him they are perverting Christianity and in reality opposing Christ.[2]

For John, right theology mattered a whole lot. Although there are many theological things that we can and should debate among ourselves, there are a few things that we cannot afford to be wrong about. And one of them is before us in this text. We cannot afford to be wrong about who Jesus is. John argues in the second half of verse 22 and in verse 23 that if we deny something that is true about Jesus we have also denied the Father. To be wrong about Jesus is to put yourself at odds with God. Conversely, the acceptance of Jesus automatically leads to fellowship with God.

In other words, John calls these apostates “antichrists” primarily because they deny an essential truth about Christ. Theology matters. It matters a whole lot.

Deceptive lies

In verse 26, we find one more truth about apostasy: it is deceptive. “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you.” So “it was not enough for the readers to recognize that there were heretics around; it was vital for them to realize that the heretics constituted a danger to themselves.”[3]

These “antichrists” were trying to deceive by propagating lies about who Jesus really was. It is important for us to realize that this is what heresy is: a deceptive lie. Why is it that thousands of people sacrifice millions of dollars to “faith healers” who cannot deliver what they promise? Why is it that almost 7 million people today actively spread the lies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses? And why is it that evangelical Christians are now re-considering some of the most basic tenants of the faith such as the virgin birth of Jesus, the Trinity, and the atonement? Deception. No one knowingly believes a lie.

And the deceptive lies of apostasy are all around us. John wanted us to be aware of the danger. So did Jesus: “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand” (Mark 13:22-23).

GUARDING AGAINST APOSTASY

So what should we do to protect ourselves from apostasy? John wrote not only to warn us of the threat of apostasy, but also to give us some hope that we will be able to overcome its deceptive lies.

Those who overcome the threat of apostasy will be those who continue in the church as verse 19 describes. They will be those who confess the Son and so possess the Father as verse 23 describes. They will be those who abide in the Son and in the Father as verse 24 says. Ultimately they will be those who receive the promise God makes to them, the promise of eternal life, as verse 25 says.

So in other words John once more describes two different responses to God. One is an abandoning of God’s revealed truth in Jesus. That is apostasy. The other is faithfulness to God’s revealed truth in Jesus. That is salvation. We will all end up being one or the other.

You have need of endurance

What is particularly troubling is that both the apostates and those who receive God’s promise of eternal life shared in the community of the church. In other words, the difference between the two groups is that one eventually abandoned the community and the faith. The other did not. So John says that the way we defend against apostasy is through perseverance. John is writing to urge his readers to continue in the faith.

So he says in verse 24, “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you.” And again, at the end of verse 27, “just as it has taught you, abide in him.” Five times between verses 24 and 27 John uses the word remain.  For John, the only ones who can be assured of receiving the promise of eternal life are those who continue in the faith to the very end.

And John is only here repeating what he learned from Jesus himself. In John 8:31 Jesus said, “if you abide [or, “remain”] in my word, you are truly my disciples.” In Matthew 10:22 Jesus said, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Listen to Paul’s words in Colossians 1:21-23:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.

The author of the book of Hebrews was very concerned about the lack of perseverance among professing Christians. In Hebrews 3:14 he wrote, “For we have become partakers of Christ, if indeed we hold firm unto the end  the original commitment” (my translation). Later he warned his readers (Heb 10:35-36): “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”

These verses and others demonstrate that what the Bible teaches about salvation is that only those who persevere in the faith to the end of their lives are truly born again and only they will receive the promise of eternal life.

The ability to persevere

So what then do we make of the Baptist teaching called “eternal security” or “once saved always saved”? And can anyone have any assurance of salvation if perseverance is required in order to receive eternal life? Does that mean that someone can lose his or her salvation?

We can answer these questions by first noticing the confidence that John seems to have in his readers’ ability to persevere in the faith. He says in verse 20, in contrast to those who did not remain in the Christian community, “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.” And in verse 27 he says, “But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you.” John is confident in his readers’ ability to persevere because he knows that there is something different about them. The grammar of vv. 24 and 27 bring this out as well. In both places John begins with something like “but you” in order to stress the fact that there is something quite distinct in some over against the apostates. What is it that makes the difference? John calls it “the anointing of the Holy One.” But what is that?

Here and in verse 27 are the only times in the New Testament we find this word. In extra biblical literature, the word mostly refers to the literal anointing of oil. It is used that way quite often in the Old Testament as well, though the anointing is often symbolic of setting things or persons aside for sacred use. When that is the case, it often refers to the receiving of the Holy Spirit who is said to empower the consecrated person for God’s service (1 Sam 16:13; Isa 61:1).

Because of what this “anointing” accomplishes in this passage, it seems probable that John is also using the word to refer to the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. In verse 27 he says that the anointing “abides” in the believer. Jesus told his disciples (in John 14:17) that the Holy Spirit would be “in” them. John also says that this “anointing” would teach his reader about everything. Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them “all things.” (John 14:26). Perhaps John used the term “anointing” because the apostates were using the term to refer to their claim of special knowledge which they thought qualified them to be teachers.[4] In any case, I think it makes good sense that when John uses the word he does so to refer to those who have been initiated into the true knowledge by being “anointed” with the Holy Spirit of truth.[5]

So John has great confidence that many within the church will persevere in the faith. And the reason he is confident of this is because he knows that many within the church have received God’s anointing of the Holy Spirit. How do they get this “anointing”? By being born again. It is the new birth that distinguishes between the apostates and those who persevere to the end.

So I believe this passage is very clear that only those who persevere in the faith will receive the promise of eternal life. And I believe it is equally clear that all those who are truly born again will persevere in their faith. Those who are truly born again will persevere as Christians to the end of their lives because God by his “anointing” will keep them from falling away.

Yes, I think John is teaching “once saved always saved.” But he is also saying once again that our assurance is not based upon some past decision but on our present fellowship with God. Only those who persevere in their faith will be saved. And because of the new birth, God will keep those who are truly his in the faith.

If this doesn’t sound very “baptistic” to you, then listen to these words from the Baptist Faith and Message:

All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.[6]

Exhortation to persevere

I want to guard us from two wrong conclusions from this text. First, we must not conclude that it is impossible for us to have any assurance now that we are truly in the faith if perseverance is required for final salvation. As we have just seen, it is God’s power that enables perseverance. Furthermore, John has also given us several other indicators of true faith such as the confession of sin, the keeping of God’s commandments, and love for other people.

But the second error we must guard against is a passive attitude toward our spiritual health, or assuming that we are in the faith because of some experience or behavior in the past. Those who will eventually apostatize may give many external evidences of salvation. So John does not divorce the truth of “once saved always saved” from the very real necessity of perseverance. Neither does he take perseverance for granted in spite of the fact that it is God’s power that ensures the perseverance of the true believer. Instead he appeals to the reality of God’s Spirit within his readers to give them ability to reject the lies of the apostates (1 John 2:21). He urges them to “let what you heard from the beginning abide in you” (1 John 2:24). And he concludes this passage with these terse words of exhortation, “abide in him.” Because if you do not, you will fall away and you will perish.

Let us also remind ourselves that John connects perseverance in the Christian community with perseverance in the faith. The apostates eventually abandoned the community (v. 19). But John expects true believers to remain in it. It is in community that John expects true believers to find the means necessary to persevere. While ultimately it is the Holy Spirit’s power within us that keeps us from falling away, verse 27 says that it is the Spirit’s “teaching” that counteracts the lies of apostasy. When John says that because of the Spirit’s presence, his readers “have no need that anyone should teach” them, we must not exaggerate his point, for at that very time he himself is instructing them! The New Testament places great emphasis on the ministry of teaching within the church. John is emphasizing that, because of the Spirit’s presence, there is no need for any “new” teaching that goes against what the Spirit himself teaches. But we need the Spirit’s teaching, and the way the Spirit teaches us is through the ministry of the word read and proclaimed.

So in a very real sense we can say that our salvation depends upon our participation in the community of believers. This is primarily where the Spirit teaches us to persevere in the faith. And it is here that all Christians, possessing the Spirit, “give one another mutual instruction, without which no single individual can appreciate the whole of God’s truth.”[7]

Oh that none of us would ever again take lightly the seriousness of our life together, either in corporate worship or in community life. Neither of these interactions with other believers is insignificant. Both are absolutely essential to our ability to persevere to the end. This is what is in my mind every time I preach and every time I call Matt for accountability and every time I eat dinner with our Town Group. Here are some closing, thought-provoking words from one of my favorite writers, John Piper.

One final word on eternal security. It is a community project. And that is why the pastoral ministry is so utterly serious, and why our preaching must not be playful but earnest. We preach so that saints might persevere in faith to glory. We preach not only for their growth, but because if they don’t grow, they perish. If you rejoice in the sovereignty of God in salvation, then you rest in the sure word of Christ: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:27–28).

The elect will love the Word of God, the elect will grow, the elect will repent, and the elect will most assuredly be saved (Rom. 8:29–30). But they will not be saved apart from faithful teaching. God has ordained that there be pastor-teachers not only for the purpose of edification but also for the purpose of salvation. Oh, that our preaching might have the flavor of eternity in it. For eternity is at stake every week.[8]


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[1] John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 114.

[2] Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1984), 99.

[3] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 162.

[4] H. Balz, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT), ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, 3 vols (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 3:477.

[5] Stott, The Letters of John, 115.

[6] The Baptist Faith and Message of the Southern Baptist Convention, 2000, 4.C.

[7] Marshall, The Epistles of John, 163.

[8] John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2002), 110.

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