Eternal life means a life that can never be taken away from me 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.
These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God. 1 John 5:13
I COME AGAIN TO THIS VERSE because it does seem to me that it is such a vitally important one that we must try to gain the full benefit we were intended to gain from it. We have looked at it in general, from the merely mechanical standpoint, a kind of summary in and of itself of the entire teaching of the Apostle. We have reminded ourselves that John here is saying, “That is why I have written the letter in order that you might have this certain knowledge that you possess eternal life’; and we have considered John’s own particular tests and applied them to ourselves in order to make sure that we really do possess this eternal life about which he is writing.
Now I repeat, this matter is of vital importance. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is the great theme, the greatest theme even, in the New Testament itself. It is the whole object of the New Testament, and it is extraordinary, is it not, how constantly we seem to forget that. We are interested in forgiveness, we want to know that our sins are forgiven and that we do not go on to punishment and perdition, and we are interested in living a good life. But for some remarkable reason we tend to persist in forgetting that the ultimate thing that is offered us in the New Testament is nothing less than this very quality of eternal life. The New Testament is really a book that is, in a sense, just meant to tell us that this is what God offers us in Jesus Christ. Is not that the real object that every part of the New Testament has in view?
Why, for instance, do you think that the four Gospels were ever written? Why did the early church not just go on preaching the message of salvation and leave it at that? Now, there can be only one real answer to that question, and it was the answer given by John towards the end of his own Gospel. Having written it, he sums it up like this: ‘And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name’ (John 20:30-31). That was why John wrote his Gospel; he was led by the Holy Spirit to do so for that reason.
And what is true of John is equally true of the writers of the other three Gospels. They wrote them not only to give a portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, but also in order to give this proof and demonstration that Jesus of Nazareth is none other than the Son of God and is indeed the Christ of God, the Messiah, the one who has come into the world bringing life to men and women. You find this as a theme running right through the Gospels. Take that great word which our Lord said to the people: ‘I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10); nothing less than that. So we must be clear about the fact that He is the Son of God and that He is the one who brings life.
In the same way the book of Acts is designed to do the same thing. It has that great evidence about His ascension and about the sending of the Holy Spirit on the early church. That is the final proof, as we have already seen, of the fact that He is the Son of God, the Messiah, the promise of the Father about which the Old Testament speaks so much. At last the promise has come to us, and this is the promise of the Holy Spirit, that by Him and through Him we receive this eternal life. And all the records that you have in the Acts of the Apostles are nothing but an elaboration of that one theme. Those first preachers went around saying that they were witnesses of these things; they said, ‘We heard His preaching, we saw His crucifixion, we saw Him buried, we saw the stone rolled over the mouth of the grave. But we saw Him risen again, we saw the empty grave, we saw Him ascend, and we received this gift of the Holy Spirit.’ That is the testimony!
The Apostle Paul was as ‘one born out of due time’ (1 Corinthians 15:8). He had not been one of the disciples; he had not heard Christ’s teaching in that sense. But he was given a special sight of the risen Lord in order that he might bear his witness to the fact that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the one, therefore, who gives more abundant life to mankind. Furthermore, as I am never tired of pointing out, that is the great object that lies behind the writers of the New Testament epistles. These letters were written to people who had already believed the gospel. They were written to churches; they were not open letters to the world, but particular letters to groups of Christian people or to individual Christian believers. But why were they written? They were written because all these Christians lived in a difficult and gainsaying world. They had their difficulties; they were tempted perhaps at times to doubt; they were sometimes defeated by Satan and were falling into temptation. Various things were going wrong in various ways, and the letters were written to them in order that they might be strengthened and encouraged and helped to go forward on their journey.
And the great message to all of them is just this self-same message, that everything they need is in the Lord Jesus Christ; that they have but to realise that it is His life that they need and that without it they can do nothing. So the argument of the New Testament from beginning to end is just that Christ Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world to give us this eternal life, and this is the most momentous and the most important thing that has ever come to mankind.
In other words, we must once and for ever get rid of this idea that the New Testament is but a book that contains an exalted teaching that we are meant to practise and to put into action. Not at all! It is not an exhortation to us to rise to the level of some wonderful teaching; it is an announcement, it is a proclamation! It calls itself ‘good news,’ and the amazing good news is that God is giving this gift of eternal life to all those who have realised their need of it and are ready to receive it. That is the whole argument, and it is one that is based very solidly upon facts. So the Gospels and all the details were written in order to demonstrate to us that this is not some wonderful idea, some great dream, or some sublime thought. No; this is something concrete: a person has appeared in this world who is, in and of Himself, the bearer of this eternal life that God is giving to mankind. So the one thing to be certain about is that we know Him.
In a sense, therefore, the New Testament says that the greatest tragedy that can ever happen is that anyone should be uncertain about this, that anyone should go on still searching or hoping or saying, ‘Of course I am not to have that while I am in this life and world; perhaps after death …?‘‘Not at all!’ says John; ‘these things I have written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God, that ye may know that ye have eternal life’—now, not at some future time.
Now, I put it like that in order that I may lead up to this question: why is it that there is anyone who is at all in difficulty about this subject? We have looked at some of what I would call the purely theological reasons. Some people, because of their view of faith, seem to think that this is impossible, and we showed how that contradicted the New Testament teaching. But I want now to give some more practical difficulties that I often find mentioned when people discuss this together. There are those who seem to be in trouble about this matter and uncertain as to whether they have eternal life or not, because they will persist in thinking of it in terms of experience, or in terms of feeling, rather than in the terms that are indicated here. That very often happens in this way. There is always this fatal tendency to standardise the experience of certain notable or outstanding incidents and illustrations.
This is something, I suppose, that is more or less inevitable. There is a tendency in mankind to pay great attention to and to concentrate upon the unusual and the spectacular. We seem to do that instinctively; I suppose it is one of the results of the Fall. Anything unusual or exceptional always attracts attention much more than the usual and the ordinary; that is why some sort of calamity or extraordinary thing in nature always attracts and interests us much more than the perpetual and wonderful things of nature from day to day. Wordsworth discovered that when he said about himself at the end of his great Ode:
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
That is right, and we ought all to put it like that. But the trouble with most of us is that because it is always there we do not marvel at it; that little flower in the hedgerow does not give rise in us thoughts that ‘lie too deep for tears.’ But if we see a tree struck by lightning we are interested because it is unusual, because it is exceptional.
Now, we tend to do that self-same thing in the whole matter of Christian experience. I attribute this to the Fall, and, of course, one must point out in passing that this is something that tends to be organised and often becomes a business. Those who produce books know that the spectacular always appeals to the mind; so they pick out these exceptional cases and give them great publicity. So we ordinary people who read about them say, ‘That is marvellous. If only that had happened to me, then I should know that I have eternal life.’ But it has not, and therefore the query arises in my mind as to whether I have eternal life or not. This is the tendency to think of it in terms of experience or feeling, something that comes to us suddenly. I may have gone on for months and years living at a certain level, and suddenly I get some thrilling experience, and I know that from then on all is well. Thus we tend to say that is the only way in which this certainty is to be obtained, and we may well spend a lifetime in waiting for the unusual and the spectacular.
But all that, of course, is just to contradict the essential New Testament teaching. The New Testament never lays stress upon the way in which this comes to us; what it is interested in is the fact that it has come. How often, in dealing with enquirers after salvation, does one have to point out that the New Testament never says, ‘Whosoever feeleth shall be saved,’ but ‘whosoever believeth.’ People often say, ‘In a sense I do accept that teaching; but, you know, I cannot say that I have felt anything.’ To which the simple reply is that the New Testament does not insist upon feeling. It says, do you believe; are you prepared to venture your all upon this? So it is sufficient for you to say, ‘I live by this; whether I feel or whether I do not does not matter; we are not saved by feeling but by believing.’
And it is exactly the same in this matter of assurance, with this question of knowing that we have eternal life. Let me use an illustration that I once heard an old preacher use. He pointed out that two men may arrive at the end of a journey with their clothes wet all through. But if you enquired as to how it happened to the two men, you might find that it happened in a different way in each case. One man might say that he set out on the journey with the sun shining brilliantly. He had not brought an umbrella or a macintosh as there was no suggestion it was going to rain; but halfway along the road, suddenly the clouds gathered and a veritable downpour took place, and in a moment he was soaked through. The other man’s story is a very different one. There was a kind of drizzle all the way through the journey, so he could not tell you when he got wet. The first man could, and the second man could not, but what really matters is not how the two men got wet, but the fact that they are both wet all through. Whether it happened suddenly or imperceptibly is utterly irrelevant.
So, the vital question is not whether I can point to some vital experience in my life in which I was given certain assurance. The vital question for me is this: as I face these tests in this first epistle of John, do I know that I have life? Whether I have the same experience as somebody else or not, as I examine the tests of life that are given can I say that in spite of my not having had that climactic experience or that thrilling feeling I must have life or I could not say yes to these questions?
Now thinking of it in terms of experience and feeling is a very common cause of trouble. God grant, if there is anyone who has been held in bondage by that kind of difficulty, that they may see the folly of it and may see that what matters, if I may so put it, is not precisely how and when we were born, but the fact that we are alive!
But the second difficulty is this: there are those who feel that before they can say they have eternal life, they ought to be perfect and sinless. They say, ‘It is a very great thing to claim that I know I have eternal life, but surely before I can claim that, I ought to be in a position to say that there is no sin and no failure in my life. After all,’ they say, ‘eternal life is a very wonderful thing, but I cannot say I have it. I am conscious of the fact that I fall and fail and sin; and surely while I am in that condition I cannot make the claim that I have it.’ That view, again, is very common.
The simple reply is that John has already dealt with that in the first chapters of this very epistle where he has gone out of his way to say, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1:8-10). The whole of the New Testament, in a sense, is constantly repeating this self-same argument. I wonder whether I can help with regard to this particular difficulty by putting it like this: not only does the New Testament not tell us that we must be able to claim sinless perfection before we can claim we are the possessors of eternal life, but I go so far as to assert that the New Testament itself teaches us quite plainly and clearly that the fact that there is a real struggle in our lives is proof in and of itself of life. ‘For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would’ (Galatians 5:17).
Now, I know that this is teaching that we may wrest to our own confusion, but it is New Testament teaching, and there is a sense in which all New Testament teaching is dangerous. I mean that its teaching is so deep that if we want to misuse it we can do so; hence you have antinomianism. So it means this: before we receive the gift of eternal life, we are dead in trespasses and in sin. There is a stage in which we are at peace; there is no struggle. Of course, we may have heard the moral teaching that is glibly applied by the world, and in our own way we may be concerned and may be striving to reach up to a certain level. But that is not the struggle the New Testament speaks of. The New Testament says that when we receive the gift of eternal life, a new man comes into us, so that we are now two men, and the two are different and contrary—the spirit and the flesh—and there is a struggle and a conflict.
Now those who are aware of that, who though they sin and fail are aware of the fact that there are these two men in them, that there is a struggle between the two—these people have given proof positive that they have received the gift of eternal life. There is no spiritual struggle in the life of unbelievers. There may be a moral struggle, there may be a struggle to live up to a certain code that they have set up, they may struggle to do certain things and if they do not achieve them they are ashamed of themselves—but I am not referring to that. I am referring to a spiritual struggle, to those who are aware of a conflict between two essential things, the one of God and the other of themselves. So you must not allow the devil to depress and discourage you because you occasionally fall into sin or because you say, ‘I am not satisfied with my achievements.’ If there is this struggle in a spiritual sense, then, according to the New Testament, that of itself is proof that you have eternal life.
Or, to put it slightly differently, there are many who do not say that we must be sinless and perfect before we can make this claim, but after reading the lives of some of the outstanding saints they look at themselves and say, ‘Can I claim that I have eternal life when I look at that man or woman?’ You must have had that experience; after, for example, reading the life of a man like Hudson Taylor you may have felt you were never a Christian at all. If you have not, there is something wrong with you, for I would regard that as the normal reaction of any Christian. You contrast yourself and you say, ‘How can I say I have eternal life when I see such a difference between that man and myself?’ and the devil would have us believe that we have no life at all.
Well, again, if we believe that, we are just flying in the face of plain, clear New Testament teaching. The Scripture tells us that we are born into this Christian life as babes, babes in Christ. John in this epistle has been writing to ‘little children,’‘young men and old men’; he has a classification and a division (see the second chapter). All that development is possible in this life, so that I think we can answer this particular difficulty by saying, and thank God for this, that a little life is nevertheless life. The baby that was born an hour ago is as much alive as I am; the fact that he is a baby does not mean he is not alive. He is not full-grown, he is not developed, he cannot think and reason, he cannot speak and express himself, but he has life. The babe is as much alive as the old man, and that is the New Testament teaching. So do not let the devil discourage you and rob you in that way; if you are alive at all, you have life.
One of the most gracious words, I think, in the Gospels is that precious word spoken by our Lord where he quotes Isaiah and says, ‘The smoking flax he will not quench.’ When you look at that flax you may wonder whether there is any fire there at all; it seems absolutely lifeless. But it is all right—there is fire, there is something there; and the smoking flax He will not quench. He will, rather, fan it until it becomes a flame. Though you may have but little life, hold on to the fact that you have life, and thank God for it.
But to sum it all up, we fail to remember that this thing is life, and life is something that shows itself in different ways. Life does not only show itself in feeling and experience—it does so in performing some of the most ordinary common tasks in life; and that is a true test to apply to one’s profession of faith. If I have this manifestation of life that John has indicated, I am not interested in feelings, I am not interested in other people’s experiences. I face the tests of life, and I see that these things are in me; therefore I must be alive, for a dead man cannot do things like that and would not be like that.
So I would put it in a practical form at this low level. If you are concerned about this question of eternal life, if you feel you have not got it and if it is your greatest ambition to know that you have got it, then you may know that you have got it or you would not have this desire. If you feel that you are empty, if you feel you are nothing, if you feel you are poor and wretched and blind, if you hate your inclination to sin and have any suspicion of a feeling of self-loathing and hatred, you can take it from me that you have eternal life, for no one ever experiences such things until the life of God comes into his or her soul.
There are some further reasons why we should make sure that we have this eternal life. If only we realised the value of this, we would not rest for a moment until we were absolutely certain. Here are some of the reasons: the life that is offered us is nothing less than the life of Jesus Christ; the life you see in Him is the life that He offers. ‘I am come,’ he says, ‘that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10). It is His own life; He gives Himself for the life of the world. We must eat of His flesh and drink of His blood; that means we partake of Him, not the sacrament—we take of Him. ‘The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life,’ He says (John 6:63).
In other words, the life that is offered us is the life of God Himself. What an amazing, what a wondrous thought! Yes, but let me go further and say that this life that is offered us is an everlasting life. I know we are often told that eternal life means a quality of life, but it also means duration, and thank God that it does. ‘Eternal’ includes everlasting, and that means that it is a life that, once I have it, can never be taken away from me. Read the tenth chapter of John. If God gives me His life, and if His life enters into my life, if I am born again of that divine seed, that is an action that is irreversible. Our Lord says of His sheep, ‘My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand’ (John 10:29). To me, that is one of the most glorious and amazing things we can ever know, that already there is started in us here something that will go on for ever and ever.
Paul says the same thing, in Romans 8:38-39: ‘I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life . . . shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ This is something no one can rob us of, so that whatever may happen to us in this life and world, we have this grand and glorious security. We may be tried and tested and feel ourselves shaking and almost going under, but we have this eternal guarantee behind us.
The work which His goodness began
The arm of His strength will complete,
His promise is yea and amen
And never was forfeited yet.
This is a life that will go on to all eternity; so what we are offered here is a foretaste—these are New Testament terms. We taste the first fruits, so that here on earth, according to this promise, I can begin the great feast that will keep me through the countless ages of all eternity. What a wonderful truth, that here in this world of time I can already sit at the banqueting table and begin to partake and go on without end.
But let me remind you again of what this means. To have eternal life means, as John has reminded us in the third chapter, that I shall see God. If I have this life, I shall see Him; I shall see Christ as He is, and I shall stand in His presence. It is only those who have His nature and share His life and who have been born again who will go on to that; and those who have it will see Him and will be like Him, and they will spend their eternity in glory with Him, enjoying it in His glorious presence.
I remind you of these things, my friends, in order that I may urge anyone who is uncertain to make certain. Would you not like to know you are destined for these things; would you not like to enjoy them here and now? ‘That is what is offered,’ says John, ‘that you may know it now and not lose a second.’ But it also helps us in a very practical sense in that if I know I have eternal life already, then I know there is a great life principle working in me. ‘Work out your own salvation,’ says Paul, ‘with fear and trembling: for it is God which worketh in you. . .‘ And if He is in me in this life, He is working in me ‘to will and to do of his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:12-13). He is sanctifying me; He is getting things out of my life because He has destined me for that glory; and having destined me for that glory, He will fit me for it.
I have the assurance, therefore, that if this work has begun, the work will end. I ‘know’ that if I have eternal life, I shall stand one day faultless and blameless, without spot and blemish, in the presence of God’s glory. So as I meet temptation and sin in this world, I realise that I am not left to myself. I cease to feel helpless and frustrated. I say, ‘If God is in me, if God has destined me for that, then He will come and hold me though all hell and the devils be opposed to me.’ That was the mighty argument of a man like Martin Luther. It was because he knew he had eternal life that he could defy all those enemies the way he did, and all those who have this hope in them can say the same thing.
And were this world all devils o’er
And watching to devour us,
We lay it not to heart so sore;
Nor they can overpower us.
If we have eternal life and know that we have it, we know that God’s work in our souls will be carried on until it eventuates in that ultimate perfection and glory. As Paul puts it in that mighty bit of logic in the middle of the eighth chapter of Romans, ‘Whom he called, them he also justified; and whom’—you see the jump—‘he justified, them he also glorified.’ If He starts, He will finish, so that if the life is in me, I can be certain of the glory. Far from presuming on that in order to sin, while I am in this life and world I rather say with John, ‘Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure’ (1 John 3:3). God grant that having listened to these great inducements we all may know for certain that we have eternal life, the life of God in our souls. (645-655)