“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:1–6 ESV)
John now shifts to a practical line of thinking. It is interesting that he says that his point in writing this is so that we would not sin – though he already acknowledged that we would (1 John 1:8). More importantly, John ties the power to walk in increasing freedom and obedience to the atonement of Jesus Christ. This has nothing to do with “do more and try harder.” This is a beautiful picture of an atoning God who welcomes you back when you fail. A good test as to whether you truly understand the gospel and its implications in your life is when you fail, do you run to God or run from Him to try to clean yourself up? He is the propitiation for our sins – that is, He is the the “sacrifice that bears God’s wrath and turns it to favor,” ESV Study Bible. This propitiation is not just available to John’s readers, but to all who will respond by faith.
John writes to tell us how to not sin (v1), but knows that we will sin and ensures us that Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins and then goes on to provide us with a test of how to be assured that we are His: walk in obedience. This is an interesting and beautiful picture that provides profound confidence in the midst of immense difficulties. As we grow in Christ like characteristics, we are all the more assured of our election (2 Peter 1:10). As we experience supernaturally transformed attitudes that flow into obedient actions, we become increasingly more confident that we are indeed elect because we are experiencing God working in our hearts and lives.
If we say that we “know him” and do not keep his commandments then we are lying and the truth is not in us (1 John 2:4). If we say we are in Christ, but have no desire to love Him, follow Him or see Him glorified in our lives then we are deceiving ourselves. Joyful obedience is the evidence of regeneration. If you can’t or won’t forgive, you haven’t experienced forgiveness. If you can’t love, you’ve not experienced the love of God. We must be cautious not to use this as fuel for the self-righteousness that reigns in all of us. This passage is far more helpful as a diagnostic for our own personal spiritual health and vitality than it is for evaluating that of others.
Obedience is the evidence of transformation. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone, but not by a faith that stays alone. As we abide in him, our walk of joyful obedience will increase – as we abide, we will bear fruit (John 15:1-10). There is an ethical response to grace that we should walk in; the degree to which we will walk in it is the degree to which we will grow in our assurance of salvation. Our love for God is perfected in our obedience to God. This love is not a fluffy feeling, but a real, ethical response to the love that God has given to us (1 John 4:19).