At a church dinner on Sunday, I was discussing last Friday’s post with an older, wiser gentleman in my congregation. We reflected on the main measure of success for any Bible study: Do people know God better through his Son Jesus Christ? And this good man asked a great question: How do we know whether someone knows God (or knows him “better”)? How does one observe and evaluate such a thing?
The question was neither aggressive nor condescending. This kind brother intentionally stimulated further meditation and consideration of the Scripture. Thank you, Denny!
Easy but Unacceptable Answers
Of course, some answer the question in clearly unbiblical ways:
- People can’t know God unless they are members of our church.
- People can’t know God unless they adhere to every specific of a certain extra-biblical creed, doctrinal statement, or code of conduct.
- People can’t know God unless they use a certain translation of the Bible.
- People can’t know God unless they are baptized.
Now I’m no hater of church membership, historic Christian creeds, decent Bible translations, or baptism. But reacting against unbiblical abuses of such things is right and true. (For example, consider Paul’s reactions to abuses of circumcision and law in Galatians 5:2-12, 6:14-16.) And it’s not hard to come up with exceptions that disprove each proposed rule.
However, let’s not over-react with equally unbiblical conclusions, such as “I’m not God, and I can’t see people’s hearts. Therefore, I can’t know whether someone truly knows God or not. I won’t play God by even asking the question.”
Though a question as personal and invasive as this can inspire fear in the stoutest heart, let’s not hesitate to speak clearly where God has spoken clearly. What can be more helpful than to have a clear way to observe and evaluate the presence or absence of true faith and knowledge of God?
So what has God spoken on this topic?
Three Clear Tests
God gave us an entire book of the Bible to answer this very question. Consider this explicit purpose statement for John’s first epistle:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)
While John intended his Gospel to stimulate faith leading to eternal life (John 20:30-31), he intended his first letter to promote assurance of eternal life for those wondering whether their faith is true faith. As a result, the teaching of 1 John helps us test not only ourselves but also other people, including professing Christians. John doesn’t hesitate to apply his principles to the spirits and teachers within the church to call out the false prophets, devil’s children, and antichrists among the membership (or former membership). The letter’s tagline is “We know.”
John gives three clear and objective tests of genuine faith. He states them early and returns to them repeatedly throughout.
- Keeping God’s commandments: the test of personal change.
- Loving the brothers: the test of personal affection.
- Confessing Christ: the test of personal witness.
The first exposition of the tests occurs in chapter 2: Change (1 John 2:3-6), Affection (1 John 2:7-11), Witness (1 John 2:18-25). But John repeats and develops the three tests repeatedly through the letter, climaxing with his closing statements.
- Change: “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18).
- Affection: “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19). See 1 John 4:7 for John’s definition of what it means to be “from God.”
- Witness: “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:20-21).
Applying the Tests
As you evaluate whether your Bible study (or any other ministry) was a success, you’ll want to observe attendance figures, participation levels, and the faithfulness of the leaders. But please don’t neglect to ask the most important questions.
- As a result of the study, do people know God better through his Son Jesus Christ?
- How do we know?
- Are people changing to become more like Christ?
- Do they have more affection for each other, and are they acting on it?
- Are they more empowered to confess Jesus as the Son of God? Do they firmly believe it, and do they boldly declare it?
John doesn’t expect anyone to be perfect (1 John 1:8-10); neither should we. These questions aren’t concerned with people’s position as much as with their direction. We know that those who head in the right direction in all three areas have eternal life.