The Certainty of Eternal Life 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
IT IS GENERALLY AGREED that the right translation of this verse is more like this: ‘These things have I written unto you, that you may know you have eternal life, that believe on the name of the Son of God.’ The meaning is exactly the same in both cases, because those who do believe on the name of the Son of God may know that they have eternal life.
This obviously is a very important verse, perhaps the most important in the entire epistle, for in it the Apostle is looking back. He has finished his letter, and here he looks back and summarises what he has been saying and reminds the people of his object when he began to write.
He has said that he was anxious that they might have fellowship with him and with the other Apostles, because the fellowship was with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. John was particularly anxious that these people to whom he had been writing should be clear as to the central purpose of his letter. That is something that is very necessary, because our danger is to miss the forest because of the trees. It is absolutely necessary to be clear about everything, but we must also bear in mind the purpose of it all; and the Apostle reminds us of his ultimate object, which is that those who are Christians, those who believe in the name of the Son of God, might know that they have eternal life. ‘These things have I written unto you. . . that ye may know. . . ’
Now there can be no question that this is the most important statement that could ever be made to a company of men and women. In John 17 this is emphasised from beginning to end. There was our Lord, immediately prior to His death on the cross, reviewing His life and praying not concerning the world, but concerning those whom God had given Him, and He says exactly the same thing. His prayer was that men and women might know God and Jesus Christ whom He had sent. He had come to bring eternal life, and in that prayer He goes on repeating His desire that the men and women whom God had given Him might possess this full knowledge and glory in it.
We have been repeating that as we have worked our way through this epistle. This is the essence of the Christian life, that we might have the full knowledge of God and that we may know we have it. In the immediate context we see that John has been emphasising and stressing a prior knowledge—that Jesus of Nazareth is really the Son of God and the Messiah. He wants the people to know for certain the truth concerning Him—that they might know for certain that they possess eternal life and the full knowledge of God. So it is important for us to understand exactly what the Apostle is telling us here, and we can look at it in a number of propositions.
This knowledge that we have eternal life is something that is possible to us. That is something that needs to be emphasised. There are those who would tell us that eternal life is something to which we attain only when we come to die and leave this world and go into the next. They suggest that it is wrong for anyone to claim that he has eternal life. Such people dislike the doctrine of assurance. ‘We do not know,’ they say, ‘and we must not seek to know. Faith means that you are always grasping at it, but it is something you cannot actually have while you are in this world.’
But that is a philosophical concept of faith that is not in accordance with what we have here. John says, ‘My whole object in writing to you now is that you may know you have eternal life and know it certainly. I want you to know that you possess it.’ You find the other Apostles saying the same thing. What was more characteristic of the Apostle Paul than this assurance? In Romans 8 he says, ‘For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (vv 38-39). ‘I know whom I have believed,’ he writes to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:12). ‘I know,’ he says. There is no uncertainty about it.
So it seems to me that to interpret faith as a kind of constant uncertainty is to deny the teaching of the Word of God that we are His children. Indeed, ‘the Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God’ (Romans 8:16). Such knowledge is possible to us. We ought to be in a position of knowing that we have eternal life, that we know God, and that we know Christ.
The second proposition is that this is not only possible, but it is possible to all of us. I have often met people who have taken up a position like this: they say that there are some special men and women who do have this certain knowledge. Yes, John wished everybody to have it, but, of course, he was in that position. So was Peter. They were unique men; they were apart. The spiritual can attain to this knowledge, but it is not meant for us all.
But the answer to that is to repeat the Scripture. There is no such distinction drawn in the New Testament. John is desirous that all these people to whom he writes may share the knowledge that has been given to him. ‘That which we have seen and heard,’ he says at the beginning of his letter, ‘declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1:3). And here he puts it quite as strongly: ‘These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know. . . ’
In the same way the Apostle Peter, writing to the early Christians, said that they obtained ‘like precious faith with us’ (2 Peter 1:1)—that is, not a lesser faith, but the same faith. And precisely the same is taught in all the epistles of the Apostle Paul. . . . .Every Christian is meant to have this certain knowledge of eternal life, this immediate fellowship and communion with God. It is possible for all.
Then the third step is this: it is the duty of all to possess it, and I argue that in this way: it is obvious that God means us to have it. Our Lord Himself says that is why He came into the world. The work that He has now finished is to enable us to have eternal life, to make it possible for us to enter into this blessed and amazing knowledge of God. And, therefore, I argue that it is dishonouring to God for us not to possess it. Indeed, it can be said that we have no right not to have this knowledge.
But an argument put forward by people who say that they would not like to presume that they have salvation or that they know they have eternal life is that such a statement makes us Pharisees and makes us say, ‘Thank God we are not as other men.’ Yet it should not do so, because eternal life is something that we receive from God as a gift. He has offered it to us, and He sent His Son to a cruel death on the cross that we might receive it. So I repeat, we have no right not to have it. If Christian people are uncertain as to the fact that they have eternal life, they are dishonouring God, and they are bearing a very poor witness and testimony to the power of salvation.
Then let me come to a more practical and personal reason why we should have it. It is that if I am uncertain of my position and of salvation, I shall probably spend most of my time putting myself right. How can the blind lead the blind? My first business is to get right myself. In my reading of Scripture and in meditation I then shall have to be centering on myself. I am lacking in power and witness and effective testimony. The only way to be strong is to be certain about all this, and the history of the Church bears out that statement abundantly.
Read the stories of the martyrs and confessors; read the stories of those men and women who gave their lives for their beliefs, those who went to the stake and died for the truth. What was their secret? What made them so strong? The answer is that these men and women knew in whom they believed. They possessed eternal life, and the only effect of the death at the stake was to usher them into salvation and to bring them face to face with their Lord Jesus Christ. If they had been uncertain of all this, they could not have faced such a trial.
It is equally essential now. You cannot really know the joy of the Lord until you are perfectly certain that all is well between you and God. And the way to have this joy is to have this eternal life, which means fellowship with God and with His Son, Jesus Christ. This knowledge is possible, and possible for all; and it is our duty to have the knowledge before we take any other step. Therefore, let me ask you another simple question: do you know that you have eternal life; have you this knowledge? This is what is offered. This is what we are meant to have. It is this that makes a brighter and more confident testimony. Can we say, ‘I know that I have eternal life’?
So let us do what John invites us to do. Let us remind ourselves of the way in which we can have this certain knowledge that we do really possess eternal life. John has gone on repeating it, and I have reminded you of it, but let us say it all once more. How do I know I have this?
Before I touch on any difficulties there are certain tests by which, if we apply them to ourselves, we may know that we have this knowledge of God. The first is our belief concerning the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. John started and ended with this: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us).’ That is how he began the letter. He was referring to the Lord Jesus Christ, and in this chapter he says, ‘He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.’
In other words, this is something basic; we need not consider any other question if we are not right about this. The first question I must answer is: what is Jesus Christ to me? What do I think of Him? What is my view of this person, Jesus of Nazareth, the one of whom we read in the pages of the four Gospels? The whole point of this is to show that if I have any uncertainty about Him, I have no eternal life. There is no such thing as a knowledge of God apart from Jesus Christ; we never arrive at God truly unless we come through Him.
Therefore, Jesus Christ is absolutely essential to me. He is essential in my scheme and outlook. I have come to see my own unworthiness, my sinfulness, and my smallness. I have seen it deeply and can do nothing to save myself. But God has sent His only begotten Son into the world to do what I cannot do myself. How can I face God? I have but one hope, and that is that God sent His Son. He satisfied God and gave His whole life absolutely, perfectly; He has dealt with the problem of sin. Here is one who has taken my very sins and died for them on the cross, and in Him God forgives me. That is the first essential of this sure knowledge that I have eternal life. Unless I am resting my faith solely in Jesus Christ and His perfect work, I have no life, because the only way to God is in Him.
This leads me to the second test. If I believe all that, I must of necessity come to love God. As I look at Jesus Christ, I see there is only one explanation of this. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and He has eternal life. ‘In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. . . . We love him, because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:9, 19). So this is my second test: what is my attitude towards God? Is He a hard taskmaster? Let me ask myself this question: do I harbour harsh thoughts of God? Do I say when things go wrong, ‘God is against me’? But if I believe in the love of Jesus Christ, I believe that God sent Him. So I believe on Him and in the love of God.
But, also, John is very fond of putting this in terms of our attitude towards the world in which we live. ‘Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever’ (1 John 2:15-17).
What is my view of the world when I know for certain that I have eternal life? What is my attitude to the world in which we are all living, the world as we see it in the newspapers—is that what interests me? What am I anxious to obtain? Or am I more interested in these other things—these spiritual things? According to John, Christians are men and women who have come to view the world in an entirely new manner. They see that it is governed by sin. They have come to regard it as a place in which evil forces are at work and whose whole mind is but the working of the spirit of the world. They know that it is something they have to fight, something to withstand, and they realise that unless they do so they will be defeated by it.
Do I hate the world? A good way of answering is this: the Apostle Paul, looking at his surroundings, said, ‘For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). In looking at ‘the things which are seen,’ how much time do I spend in thinking about the Lord God? How much do I think about the glory which is with Him? Which do I meditate upon most—the eternal or the world?
John goes further and says that people who are truly Christians are those who overcome the world. They rise above it; they conquer it. They are in the world, but no longer of it. They are in it, but above it. They may fall into sin, but they do not dally in it; they do not gloat over it. They have been delivered out of this evil world, having been translated out of the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of God’s dear Son. So what do I really want? Do I want to cling to this world, or do I want to know God whatever it may cost me? Can I answer these questions honestly? Those who have eternal life want more of it.
Then, thirdly, as we have seen, John constantly keeps before us the importance of keeping God’s commandments, those commandments which are ‘not grievous.’ And, finally, we come to the last great test, which is the test of loving the brethren. John says repeatedly that men and women who are Christians will recognise other Christians; they will love them, they will realise that they belong with them, and they will realise that essential unity with them of which our Lord spoke in that great prayer in John 17. Here, then, is a very great test: do we love the brethren? I have sometimes put it like this: if I had the choice of spending an afternoon with a humble saint or with some great earthly personage, which would I choose? Do I want to be where God’s people are gathered together? Is that the kind of society that I desire, or is it the other society with all its show and pomp? Love of the brethren is crucial! These tests are very searching, and if we honestly apply them to ourselves we will know where we stand.
Your eternal future depends on this. You have eternal life in this world. It is received here. If you have it, you are destined for glory; but if you die without it, you are destined for perdition. Have you got this life? What is Jesus Christ to you? What is God to you? Do you want to be righteous and holy? Do you want to be like Christ, and do you love the brethren? These are the tests. Our Lord said,’. . . that they may know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent’ (John 17:3). I am not asking what you believe about God. I am asking, do you know Him? Do you believe Him to be your Father? Can you say honestly, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’ (Psalm 23:1). Can you say, ‘My God’? Is He yours? Can you say, ‘My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine’? Do you know in whom you have believed? Have you received this divine gift?
If you have, God bless you, and may you have it more and more. If you feel honestly that you cannot say that, then what you have to do is very simple. Tell God that you are not certain, that you do not know, and that you desire that knowledge above all else. And ask Him, by His Holy Spirit, to enable you to see your true helplessness, and ask Him to give you the gift. I assure you that if you do, He will not reject you, because He has said, ‘Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out’ (John 6:37). If you have not possessed this, ask Him, believing His own promise, and I assure you that He will answer your prayer. He will give you the gift, and you will know you have eternal life.(637-644)