Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. As the Elder makes clear throughout his treatise, one of the main goals of his writing is to give true and reliable modes of discernment to the church as to where they stand in relation to the God of Jesus Christ (cf. 5:13). In a situation similar to that of Paul in Galatians, the Elder is dealing with a new teaching, indeed a new (and thus false) gospel being proclaimed by a faction in the church (cf. 2:19, 22-24). It is precisely in response to the disturbance created by the presence of these teachers that the Elder writes, to instruct those who follow Christ in how to be confident in the reality of the new life that they have been given in the Spirit (cf. 3:24).
However, at this point the Elder does not point to a doctrinal formula or codify a set of dogma from which the church might be assured of its orthodoxy and rightness (though, as we will see, truthful Christological confession is of the utmost importance to him). Rather he moves straight to the issue of obedience to Christ’s commandments. As 1 John takes great pains to lay out repeatedly, “his commandments” always and only means belief and confession of Jesus as the Son of the Father, and loving one another just as Christ has loved us (cf. 3:23).
It is love that is the commandment of Christ. Love one another just as Christ, in his death and resurrection, loved us (cf. John 13:34). For the Elder it is precisely in being given over to love one another with cruciform, self-expending, death-embracing love that we know that we belong to God. It is in the action of loving, of giving yourself away for your sister or brother that we know that we are God’s children. This is the one and only assurance that the Elder offers to the doubting minds of his flock: that in their loving one another, even unto death, they will know that they belong to God.
Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; The Elder now moves on to state the inverse of his previous assertion, in a move directly levied against the teachers he writes against. Any of those who claim knowledge of God but who refuse to give themselves over to Christ’s own mode of love, are liars. Truth and action cannot be separated for the Elder. Regardless of the content of their teachings, for 1 John there simply is no truth in those who place themselves outside of Jesus’s own concrete call to love one another unto death. In such persons there simply is no truth. For, in Johannine perspective, Christ, in all his historical singularity, is the truth (cf. John 14:6). In 1 John the utter and indissoluble unity between truth and action lies at the center. There is, definitively no orthodoxy that is not simultaneously orthopraxis, both of which are utterly defined by the cruciform identity and teaching of Jesus Christ.
but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. We do well at this point to remember these verse’s proximity to 2:1, which holds the reality and possibility of sin ever before the believing community. By virtue of Christ and the Spirit we indeed “may not sin”, but even in that hopeful statement of the newness that is opened up in Christ we are thrown back upon Christ’s own act on our behalf as that alone on which we can ultimately depend.
Thus, when the Elder speaks of the love of God reaching perfection (or completion) in the act of faithful obedience we must always remember that this is not statement about a level of spiritual achievement or formation into perfection. Rather it is to say that in the very act of obedience to Christ’s way, that is, in the act of self-expending love for the sister or brother, in that moment, we abide fully, truly, and perfectly in the love of the triune God. “Perfection” for the Elder is not a state which we attain or into which we enter in any static sense. Rather it is always and only the event of finding ourselves given over to one another in self-expending love, the love of Jesus himself.
By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked. Finally, the Elder moves on to restate again what he first articulated in 2:3, namely how we may know that we truly dwell in God. Again the answer, though worded differently is the same: we must walk as Christ himself walked. For the Elder our confidence in our participation in the life of God is grounded always in living toward one another in cruciformity.
And this encapsulates the unique dynamic in 1 John of tying together inextricably the reality of participation in the triune life of God, and the concrete, fleshly, material, particular history of Jesus of Nazareth. It is precisely by walking in the steps of the Jew from Nazareth that we are caught up into the very life of the trinitarian God. The fullness of our deification, our participation in God’s own life is always and only explicable in terms of being united to Christ’s own particular historical life of self-divesting, kenotic love. Only in him, in his complete and utter singularity of love do we find ourselves caught up in God’s life. Any other articulation of union with God, in Johannine eyes, can only be a lie of the antichrist.