This Is the True God and Eternal Life
18 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. 19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. 20 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. 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
John closes his book by reminding his readers of three certainties that they have as genuine followers of Jesus. With these certainties in hand, it is John’s hope that his readers will not follow the apostates who have left the church but will persevere by God’s grace in their Christian faith.
Certainty of Life
The first certainty that John mentions is in verse 18. “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning.” Most modern versions make an interpretive decision in their translation. They understand John to be saying that a Christian does not continue in sin habitually. That’s why the NIV says, “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin.” But the NASB is more literal, “We know that no one who is born of God sins.”
This reminds us of what John said previously in 1 John 3:5-9.
You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.
In order to understand what John means when he says that a true Christian “cannot keep on sinning,” we have to keep in mind that “the reason the Son of God appeared was “to take away sins” or, as John says in verse 8, “to destroy the works of the devil.” We find the same concept in 1 John 5:18. “We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.”
In both of these passages we find three similarities.
- The Christian’s incompatibility with sin
- The coming of the Son of God to deal with the problem of sin
- The devil’s work to ruin the Christian by sin
Putting these together we find that the devil aims to do injury to a person by getting them involved with sin. Jesus came to earth to rescue mankind from the harm sought by the devil.
There’s only one aim that the devil has. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” But Jesus “came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The devil’s aim is death; Jesus’ aim is life.
So Jesus protects us from being destroyed by the devil. The devil tries to destroy us through sin. But John has been clear that we cannot be sinless (1:5-2:2). In what way has Jesus rescued us from sin and thereby rescued us from the evil one?
Do not forget the context of 1 John 5:18. John has just told us about “sin that leads to [spiritual] death.” While “all wrongdoing is sin,” not all sin leads to spiritual death. Why? Because when the true believer sins, “he who was born of God protects him.”
John is telling us that all sin is equally dangerous and deadly. Sin ends in death (James 1:15). If not for the intervention of the only begotten Son of God, we would all perish. But we know that “everyone who has been born of God” does not sin unto death because the Son of God has given him life. Indeed, the true believer cannot sin unto death because the Son of God protects him. How does Jesus “protect” us? By enabling us to keep the commandments of God and so by enabling us to not sin.
I hope that one of the results of our study of 1 John will be an awakening to the deadliness of sin. May we be ever vigilant to do war against the enemy of our soul. We can fight this battle with confidence of victory because the victory does not ultimately depend upon us. The devil cannot “touch us” with death because the Son of God has given us life.
Certainty of Identity
The next thing that John says we can be certain of is our identity. “We know that we are from God,” he says in verse 19, “and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”
The claim to be “from God” is offensive, because it implies that you have a different identity than other people. And when you make it explicit that those who do not share your faith are under the control of the evil one, you will be hated even more. John’s comments in verse 19 are, therefore, rather intense words.
But John is only saying what he heard Jesus say. In John 8:42 Jesus responds to some Jews who were trying to attack him.
If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. . . . You are of your father the devil . . . (John 8:42, 44).
It’s not surprising that soon after Jesus said these words, the Jews took up stones attempting to kill him (John 8:59). Emotions run high when one claims to be from God.
So John would not make such a claim without good warrant. If we have been “born of God” then we can rightly say that we come from God.” God’s love for us is so great that we are his children not in name only, but in reality. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
But John stresses our identity as children of God not to give us bragging rights but to show us once again how bad our sin is and how desperately we need a Savior. It’s not that we are from God and the world is from the devil. That’s not what John says. He contrasts the fact that we come from God but that the world is in the condition it is because it lies in the power of Satan. The only difference between believers and unbelievers is that the latter are “temporarily in the grip of the power of evil and organized in opposition to God.”
All of us are born into that kind of identity, separated from Christ, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:12). We are born as slaves to sin, unable to see God as glorious and desirable. We want anything but God. Only through the new birth do we pass out of death and into life and become free from the slavery of sin and the subsequent death of the devil.
It is only after we are born again that we can see what has really happened to us. We now know that there is a real difference between us and the unbelieving world not because of political affiliations but because of who our Father is and only because of Christ and our identity in him. I believe I am significant because of my position as a child of God.
Such a discovery should lead us only to praise. There was nothing desirable in us more than anyone else that forced God to give us life. He has chosen to do so out of his gracious and sovereign will. It is no small thing to be a child of God, but it is also an identity designed solely for God’s glory and not our own.
Certainty of Fellowship
John gives us one more certainty in verse 20 before closing this letter. This third certainty is the basis for the other two. How can we have life and an identity as sons and daughters of God? John says it is only through Christ. Because the Son of God has come, we can have a certainty of fellowship with the One true God.
Notice how John talks in this verse. The Son of God has come and has given us understanding. And the purpose of this understanding is so that we may know him who is true. Jesus has given us a personal knowledge not a theoretical one. Eternal life is about fellowship with God. It is not about satisfying your material wishes and dreams.
And the only way to know this one true God is through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is so connected to the Father that you cannot have one without the other. Jesus and the Father are not the same Person but they are both God. Fellowship with the Father is only possible through the Son. If you have true fellowship with Jesus, then you know that you are having true fellowship with God.
Final Appeal: Keep Yourselves from Idols
Having given his readers three final certainties—certainty of life, identity, and fellowship—John closes his book with these six words: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Why does he close the book this way?
If this final command seems awkward and random, it is only because we have not been listening to what John has been saying both in the larger context of the entire book and in the immediate context of the last four verses. Now that we have finished studying the entire book together, it should be rather obvious what motivation for John drives this command. John said he wrote this letter in order to help his readers enjoy fellowship with Jesus, the One who is eternal life. And if they have fellowship with Jesus, they can be assured that they are in fellowship with the true God.
But John is also concerned about the fact that there have been those who were once in the church who have since left the church. John knows that such situations are not insignificant. Everyone is a worshipper; the question is not if we will worship but whom we will worship. And our fallen, sinful nature pushes us to be worshippers of our selves.
Calvin once said that our hearts are idol factories. If we neglect our fellowship with God through Jesus, we will find ourselves worshipping something else. And that’s what an idol is, an object of worship other than the one true God. How easy it is to worship idols!
John’s plea then is that his readers not give up their fellowship with the true God in exchange for worship of a false god. That would be a foolish choice to make, but it would also be a damning choice to make. The most common sin in the Bible, the one that gets mentioned more than any other, is idolatry. So John urges his readers to “keep” themselves from idols. In verse 18 John noted that we can have certainty of life because Jesus will “protect” (or keep) us from death. Our deliverance from apostasy and death ultimately depends upon Christ’s ability to keep those who truly belong to him. But he will do just that by enabling us to persevere. We must keep ourselves as the Son of God keeps us. This is not double talk. It is the glorious truth of the Scripture.
But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity” (2 Tim 2:19).
Keep yourselves in the love of God . . . Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling . . . (Jude 21, 24).
My prayer is that every true believer who reads 1 John will deepen their assurance of life, identity, and fellowship with Christ and thereby experience a fullness of joy that will deliver them from the temptations of idolatry. All other gods are empty and destructive. Only Jesus can satisfy the deepest longings of the heart that was made to worship. May we never exchange the joy of fellowship with Jesus for the empty promises of an idol.
 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), 304.