A Christian according to the New Testament definition by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John.” It was preached in the 1940’s and re-published as one volume (formerly in five Volumes) in 2002 by Crossway Books.
Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him. I JOHN 5:1
THE PURITANS HAD A very interesting phrase that they often employed when they returned to a verse on which they had already preached. Their way of putting it was that they felt ‘there were further gleanings that they could obtain from that particular crop.’ I think that is a very good way of referring to the abundant lessons that are to be found so constantly in certain verses we encounter in working through a section or portion of Scripture.
In our study of the previous chapter we took this verse together with the three concluding verses of chapter 4. Indeed, we indicated that in these four verses together the Apostle is winding up his great argument with regard to love for the brethren. And there is no doubt at all that his main purpose in using the words we have there was to provide a very powerful argument that is to be deduced from the family relationship, in support of his contention that as Christians we should love one another.
That was his main reason, but, as I hinted, there is a great deal more in this verse than just that particular argument. And that leads me to make a statement that, I believe, is of great importance whenever we read the Bible. Invariably in Scripture there is not only the immediate argument, but there is also something further suggested. Or let me put it like this: observe the tremendous assumption that John makes in using this particular argument with these people, the basis on which his argument rests. Or, to put it another way, observe what he takes for granted in the understanding of these Christian people.
That is what I want to consider here. He is taking it for granted that they are perfectly familiar with the doctrine of regeneration and rebirth, and it is because he takes this for granted that he is able to draw that deduction. Thus, in arriving at that particular argument by referring to a family relationship, John, incidentally, is stating this profound doctrine of regeneration. This is characteristic of these New Testament Apostles; they assume the acceptance of certain fundamental doctrines on the part of the people, so that there is a sense in which we can say that we simply cannot follow their detailed argument unless we start by accepting the basic doctrine on which everything is founded. So once more we find John apparently repeating himself. He has already dealt with this idea of being born again, being born of God, several times, and yet he returns to it. But in actual practise he is not repeating himself; he always has some particular shade of meaning, something fresh to present, some new aspect of the matter, and as we look at this verse we shall find that he is doing so once more.
Or we can look at this in another way and say that we have here, once again, one of those synopses of Christian doctrine that are such a characteristic feature of this Apostle. John was very fond of stating the whole of the Christian faith in a verse, and this is not only characteristic of John but of the entire New Testament. The Apostle Paul did the same thing; these men realised that nothing was more important than that the people to whom they wrote, and therefore Christians at all times, should always be grasping the entire Christian truth. There is no meaning, no sense in particular arguments unless they are derived from the whole body of doctrine.
I emphasise all this because I believe increasingly that the main difficulty with many people today is that they are so interested in particular matters that they fail to connect them with this whole corpus of doctrine. As a result, they find themselves in trouble and in perplexity. So if we would know something about the relationship of the Christian to politics and worldly affairs, for example, the only way to do so is not to start with a particular question, but to start with the whole truth and then to draw our deduction.
Therefore the Apostle, in elaborating the argument about brotherly love, incidentally reminds us of the whole truth. Now this subject can he best divided into two main sections, since John makes two main statements. The first is this: what makes us Christian is the rebirth; we must be born again. John more or less assumes this. He says, ‘Whosoever helieveth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.’ ‘Now,’ says John in effect, ‘I am anxious to demonstrate to you this question of the importance of loving the brethren; and, of course, it follows quite inevitably from the doctrine of the rebirth that you know all about.’
However, as I have already suggested, we live in an age when we cannot make any such assumptions, so that we have to lay this down as a proposition. Indeed, as we read words like these, must not we plead guilty in general to the charge that our ideas of the Christian position are totally inadequate and insufficient; must we not admit our failure? Indeed, I believe that most of the difficulties in this connection tend to arise from the fact that we will persist in thinking of it in terms of something that we are, our faith, our belief, our action, our good works, instead of thinking of it in the way in which the New Testament itself puts it.
To test what I am trying to convey, let us ask ourselves some questions. What is my conception of the Christian? What is it that makes one a Christian at all? Upon what do I base my claim of being a Christian? If I am asked by somebody, ‘You call yourself a Christian—what are your reasons for doing so?’ what would be my reply? Now, I am afraid that far too often we would find that our answers fall very far short of the statement that we have here in this verse, the verse that I want to show you is typical of the whole of the New Testament teaching.
The first thing we must get rid of is this idea that what makes us Christian is anything that we have produced or anything for which we are responsible. The New Testament at once shows us the total inadequacy of the common, current version of what constitutes a Christian. The New Testament terms are regeneration, a new creation, being born again. Those are its categories, and it is only as we stand face to face with them that we begin to realise what a tremendous thing it is to be a Christian. But let me analyse that a little in the terms John uses here. The first thing, therefore, is that what makes men and women Christians is something that is done to them by God, not something they do themselves—‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.’ And then, ‘Every one that loveth him that begat.’ God, according to John, is the one who begets us; it is God’s action, not ours.
Now we need not take time in emphasising the obvious contrast in each of these subdivisions. How ready we are to think of being a Christian as the result of something that we do! I live a good life, therefore I am a Christian; I go to a place of worship, therefore I am a Christian; I do not do certain things, therefore I am a Christian; I believe, therefore I am a Christian. The whole emphasis is upon myself, upon what I do. Whereas here, at the very beginning of the New Testament definition of a Christian, the entire emphasis is not upon man and his activity, but upon God. He who begat, He who produced, He who generates, He who gives life and being. Thus we see that we cannot be a Christian at all unless God has done something to us.
But I go beyond that and say in the second place that what makes us a Christian is something that makes us like God. ‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.’ That ‘of’ is an important word; it means ‘out of God’; this is one who has received something of God Himself. Therefore, the action of God in making us Christian is not merely an external one; it does not merely touch us on the outside. And in this respect we must always be very careful in our use of the word ‘creation.’ When God created the world He did not impart Himself to it—He made it outside Himself. But in the new creation, in the rebirth that makes us Christian, the New Testament teaching is that we do receive something of God’s own nature. We have been made ‘partakers,’ says Peter, ‘of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4); we are sharers in and participators of it. So the New Testament idea of what makes us Christian is not that we happen to be born in a certain country, nor that our parents happen to be Christians. Not at all! Rather, it is nothing less than that we have been born out of God; we are those who have received something of the divine nature.
Now we have to be very careful with this doctrine; we must not think of it in any material sense. It does not mean that I receive some kind of essence or something tangible and material. But it does mean that I receive the spiritual nature and the spiritual outlook and disposition of God Himself. To be born again means to receive this new disposition; that is what is meant by ‘a new nature.’ So it is something that is done to us by God that makes us like God. Therefore, I go on to deduce that it is something that makes an essential difference to us and something that also makes an essential difference in us.
In other words, according to the New Testament, when we become Christian we are entirely unlike what we were before. ‘If any man be in Christ,’ says Paul, ‘he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). I am transformed—profound language for the change that takes place when a person becomes a Christian. I am showing you how utterly superficial the current notions are; because it is the action of God upon us, it is as profound as that. I am, yet not I; I am something essentially different, and indeed I must be if I have now become a partaker of the divine nature. Therefore, when men and women become Christians they are aware of this great difference in their lives. They can contrast their present self with their former self. Now I am not insisting upon their being able to point to a particular moment. All I am saying is that those who are Christians realise there is that about their lives that was not once the case. There is an awareness of this divine action; they are different from what they once were.
I would also put it like this, that Christians are always aware of the fact that they are essentially different from those who are not Christians. Now the moment one says a thing like that, the response of the men of the world is: ‘That is typical of you Christians; it is your spiritual pride. You say, “I thank God I am not like other people.” Well, yes, if I am a Christian at all I must say that; but the way in which I do so is of tremendous importance. The Pharisee said it in that way: ‘God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are.’ He was proud of himself, and he despised the publican (Luke 18:9-15).
Christians do not say it like that, but rather with profound humility. They say, ‘I thank God that I am not as that other poor man still is and as I once was. I thank God that He has not left me in that state and condition, that He has acted upon me and given me a new birth.’ They are not priding themselves. Their pride is in God, in Christ’s activity within them. So we must not be guilty of this false and spurious modesty. If I am not thankful to God that I am not like the worldling who is living in sin and vice, I am not a Christian at all. I should rejoice in the fact that God has had mercy upon me and has dealt with me and has made me so different from the men and women of the world who do not know Him and do not see their need of Christ. It follows of necessity that if we are born of God, we must obviously be very different from those who are not, and we should rejoice in the difference.
So the last deduction is that this activity of God upon us is something that makes us like all other Christians. ‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.’ All those who are begotten of Him must be alike, because they are all begotten of Him. So, you see, it is a simple deduction. As a Christian I am new and different from what I once was; I am different from the person who is not a Christian. But of necessity I must be like all who are Christians. There is a likeness in the members of a family; those who are begotten of the same father have the marks and the traces of the common parenthood upon them. In the same way, there is a likeness about the people of God, and this is one of the most glorious things about being a Christian. You recognise the others, you see the likeness in them; it is a very good test of whether we are Christians at all that we can recognise a brother or sister. We see the mark, and we understand it.
Now that is where, I think, we have one of those final proofs that being a Christian means to be born again. For by natural birth and temperament we are all so very different; as we were by nature, we would not recognise an affinity with those whom we may heartily dislike and with whom we have nothing in common. But the essential thing about the Christian position is that we recognise something in common with people who by nature and birth are different. So the Church is thus in herself a standing testimony of the doctrine of rebirth. In the Christian Church you have people of every conceivable temperament and psychological makeup, and yet they are all one. Why? Because they recognise this common element. They have all been begotten of the same Father, and they love one another because they recognise this similarity and likeness, this common inheritance that they share together.
There, then, are some of the deductions that we draw from this profound New Testament concept as to what it is that makes us Christians—born of God, begotten of God. Therefore, I ask the obvious question at this point: are we aware of the fact that God has begotten us? Do we know that God has produced a man or woman in us that is not ourselves and not of ourselves? As we examine ourselves have we come to say, ‘I am what I am by the grace of God. Not by my activities, nor by my interest; not by my belief, nor by the fact that I do or do not do certain things. I am what I am by the grace of God who has brought me to a rebirth and who has given me His own nature and disposition’?
John assumes that; it is the New Testament assumption everywhere about the Christian. Again I must say it—what a tremendous thing it is to be a Christian! Oh, how we vie with one another in seeking earthly honours; how we try to prove that we are related, however remotely, to somebody who happens to be great—we attach great importance to these things. Yet what the humblest Christian can claim is that he is a child of God, born of God, out of God, generated by God; that is the very essence of what is meant, according to the New Testament, by being a Christian.
The second great principle is the results, or the fruits, of the rebirth. How may we know that we are Christians in this sense? What is the first fruit of being born again? Well, according to John, it is faith, belief. Here, again, is a very important and interesting matter. ‘Whosoever believeththat Jesus is the Christ is born of God.’ You can see that He is essential. ‘Show me someone,’ says John, ‘who believes that Jesus is the Christ, and I say there is a person who has been born of God.’ John means this. There is no such thing as believing or having faith, in a Christian sense, without the rebirth. Now, all who are in any sense interested in theology must be interested in that question: which comes first—belief or being born again? Well, according to John here, and I think I can show you that it is the same everywhere in the New Testament, it is the rebirth that comes first, and then faith. The first expression of being born again is that one believes.
Let me put it to you like this: our estate by nature, according to the New Testament, is that we are dead in trespasses and in sin. Are the dead capable of any action; can a dead man believe? Surely before you believe you must be alive, and you cannot be alive without being born. Take the way in which the Apostle Paul works it out very plainly and explicitly: ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he. . .‘ (1 Corinthians 2:14). ‘But you and I,’ says Paul in effect, ‘we believe these things.’ Why? Because we have received the Spirit, the Spirit who is not of this world, the Spirit who is of God, and ‘the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:10). Indeed, we have received this Spirit ‘that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God’ (v. 12).
There is a great tragedy before us, says the Apostle to the Corinthians. The very Lord of glory, the Lord Jesus Christ, came into this world, and He stood before men. He spoke to them; He worked miracles in their presence; but the very ‘princes’ of the world did not believe in Him. They were men of ability; there is no doubt but that ‘princes’ would refer not only to royal blood, but philosophers, men who are princes in every natural sense. They did not believe on Him. And the reason for this? Because they had not received the Spirit of God; no one can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Spirit. There is no such thing as faith or belief without rebirth. ‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God’; he must be born again—he cannot believe without the new birth. There is nothing, in a sense, that seems to be so contrary to the New Testament teaching as the suggestion that as a natural man I believe and because I believe, I am given the rebirth. The dead cannot believe; the natural man cannot. He is at enmity against God; he is incapable of this. The very fact that a man believes is proof he has been born again; it is the first fruit that is manifested in the life of one who has been born of God.
But let me emphasise also what he believes. ‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.’ Here again is something of great importance to us. Men and women who are Christians are people who have been born again, and the first proof they give that this has happened is that they believe that ‘Jesus is the Christ.’ You see, John never separates doctrine and experience; they always go together. Christians not only believe in the being and existence of God. There are large numbers of people in the world who believe in God who are not Christians. To believe in God and in the holiness of God and many other things about Him does not make one a Christian. Christian faith is a specific belief—that ‘Jesus is the Christ.’ In other words, our whole faith must be focused on the Lord Jesus Christ; it is what we believe about Him that makes us Christian.
We must believe that Jesus of Nazareth, that person who belongs to history, that man who worked as a carpenter for all those years and went about preaching and healing, we must believe that He is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed of God. By this John means that it is in Christ and through Christ alone that salvation is possible to us. The Messiah is the one who is appointed by God to deliver His people. Now, the Jews thought of that in a material, political sense, and because our Lord did not prepare a great army and did not go to Jerusalem to be crowned as King, they said He was not the Messiah. But the whole teaching of the New Testament is to show that He is the Messiah, the promised deliverer, a spiritual deliverer. Thus to believe that ‘Jesus is the Christ’ really means that we say and believe there is no salvation at all possible for us apart from Him.
That is the very essence of the New Testament teaching; yet I am increasingly amazed at the failure of people to understand it. I put this question to people very frequently. I say, ‘If you had to die tonight, on what would you rely in the presence of God? What would you say to Him?’ And they tell me, ‘Well, I would ask Him to forgive me—I believe He is ready to pardon,’ and they go on talking, but they never mention the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But to be in that position is not to be a Christian at all. The first thing the Christian believes is that ‘Jesus is the Christ.’ It is to believe, therefore, that He is the Son of God in a unique sense, that He is the eternal Son of God made flesh, that He bore our sins in his own body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24), and that it is only because our sins were punished in Him that God forgives us. It is in that way that He delivers us and sets us free. He rose again to justify us; He is seated at the right hand of God, waiting until His enemies shall be made His footstool. He will return again and destroy evil from the face of the earth and introduce His glorious Kingdom—‘Jesus is the Christ.’
Thus the first fruit of the rebirth is that I believe that. And obviously, believing that is not something intellectual or something I only do with my mind. If I believe, I commit my whole life to Him. If I believe, I know I am delivered because Christ has done that for me. I see that apart from Him I am lost and undone and doomed. This is a profound action; it is a commitment; it is a banking of one’s everything upon that fact.
The second fruit of the rebirth is love for God. John’s way of putting it is: ‘every one that loveth him that begat . . .’ Christians see that they are hell-deserving sinners and that they would have arrived in hell were it not for His great love in sending His Son. They realise the love of God for them, and therefore they love God; they realise they owe everything to Him. It seems to me that this again is one of those fundamental things about Christian men and women. However good a life they may be living now as saints, they still feel that they are hell-deserving sinners in and of themselves, and that they owe everything to the grace of God; that it is God’s love alone that has made them what they are. They lose their sense of fear and a sense of enmity against God and are filled with a sense of profound gratitude to Him.
Do we know this gratitude? You see, if we are relying upon ourselves and our good life and our actions and our beliefs, we do not feel much gratitude to God because we have done it all ourselves, and we are grateful to ourselves for being what we are. But if we realise that we are nothing and that God has given us everything, then we shall feel this gratitude; we shall love Him who has begotten us.
And the final thing is, of course, that we love our brethren— ‘Every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.’ This needs no demonstration. We look at those others, and we see in them the same disposition as in ourselves. We realise that they owe everything to the grace of God, just as we do. We realise that in spite of their sinfulness God sent His Son to die for them, exactly as He did for us; and we are aware of this bond. Though there may be many things about them we do not like, we say, ‘That is my brother, my sister.’ So we begin to love them, and we are marching together to that land that God has prepared for us.
There, then, we have the fruits, the results, of rebirth—faith and belief; love for God who has begotten us; and love for those who are, like ourselves, begotten of God by His wondrous grace.
That is the New Testament idea of a Christian. How tawdry do worldly honours and ideas seem to be in the light of this; the things for which people vie and compete, the things about which they get so excited, these glittering prizes after which they run; oh, how small, how unworthy! But we are born of God; we are children of God, heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ. We belong to the royal family of heaven, to the King of kings and Lord of lords, and we are partakers of His divine nature. Let us rise and be worthy of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (565-574)