Faith Is the Victory

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : 1 John 5:1-12

David Bast’s series “Living in Love” is a series of studies of the three New Testament letters of John the apostle. Some of us are more used to singing than reading (1 John 5:4). “Faith is the victory, O glorious victory, that overcomes the world.” But what does this mean and how is it so?

“Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Jesus spoke those words to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and one of the leading citizens of Jerusalem. Nicodemus was himself a teacher in Israel, and a member of the Sanhedrin, we’re told, that is, he was one of the ruling body of elders over the people of Israel. He had first been attracted to Jesus by the miraculous signs Jesus was doing in his public ministry. Genuinely impressed, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. John tells us the story in the third chapter of his gospel (where their famous conversation is recorded). The timing is a significant detail. Nicodemus, though no doubt a sincere seeker after truth, doesn’t want to risk being seen with the controversial young rabbi from Galilee. So he seeks him out under cover of darkness for a bit of private conversation.

Nicodemus opened the encounter by complimenting Jesus: no one could do the miracles he had done unless God was with him in a very special way. No doubt Nicodemus intended to engage Jesus in an interesting theological discussion, rabbi to rabbi, so to speak, about the power of God. But Jesus stops him abruptly. Nicodemus was interested in discussing religious ideas with Jesus; Jesus was interested in saving Nicodemus. Nicodemus wanted to talk; Jesus wanted to give new life. So he confronted Nicodemus with the most crucial demand any human being faces: “You must be born again.”

Think for a moment about the person to whom Jesus addressed those words. This was not Zacchaeus the tax-collector, the traitor. It wasn’t the woman taken in adultery, or the thief on the cross, or several of the other people with whom Jesus had saving encounters. No, this was Nicodemus, solid citizen, religious leader, professor of theology no less! But Nicodemus has to be born again! You know, if Nicodemus can’t be saved – “see the kingdom of God” is the way Jesus put it – unless he is born again, then who can?

The answer is, no one can. It’s not enough to be a decent, law-abiding citizen, or even a religious, God-fearing one. We are all lost sinners, says the Bible, who can only be saved through a miracle of inward regeneration, to use the technical term, that is, through the experience of a new spiritual kind of birth. A contemporary of John Wesley’s, annoyed by the great evangelist’s unwavering insistence upon the necessity of conversion, asked him why he preached so often on the text, “You must be born again.” Wesley replied, “Because you must be born again.” So must we all, whether we were born into Christian homes and raised in the church, or whether we have never heard the name of Jesus in our lives.

Faith, the Evidence of Life

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God,” wrote the apostle John in his first epistle (1 John 5:1). The idea of the new birth is a difficult one to understand. I freely admit it. Nicodemus certainly struggled with it, and I do as well. Many people today are put off by it.

The phrase “born-again Christian” has become a sort of code today for a particular kind of conservative evangelical. It is believed to apply only to one specific sort of conversion experience. This is both unfortunate and misleading, because, quite frankly, born-again Christians are the only kind of Christians there are. The apostle John states that whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. (I wonder if John had been an interested eaves-dropper on that midnight conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus so long before.) At any rate, what he says is that if you believe in Christ you’ve been born again, and if you’re born again you will believe in Christ.

Being born again, or regenerated, through the inward work of the Holy Spirit is ultimately a mystery. Jesus himself compared it to the blowing of the wind. It’s not within our control. Exactly how or even when it happens, why it happens to one person and not another – “these things are beyond us. But I am certain of one thing. One sure sign of the Spirit’s working the new birth in your heart is faith in Jesus Christ. Believing that Jesus is the Messiah (1 John 5:1), the Son of God (v.5), that’s a mark of the regenerated person. It’s also the key to eternal life. “Whoever has the Son,” writes John, “has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (v.12).

One of John’s major concerns in this first letter of his is to combat the false teaching that was becoming more and more prevalent toward the end of the apostolic age, particularly in Asia Minor where John was living and working. The heresy that John confronted was an early form of what scholars call Gnosticism, from the Greek word gnosis (“knowledge”). The principal feature of this very ancient and complex system of belief was a rejection of the physical in favor of the spiritual. Gnostics looked down on and despised the material world, including the human body, and Christians who were influenced by this kind of teaching were beginning to reject the idea that Jesus was a real man, or that salvation was dependent upon his physical death on the cross. Rather, salvation was to be gained, they thought, through secret knowledge – hence the name “Gnosticism” – knowledge of the spirit world.

It is clear that John is directly attacking these kinds of views throughout his first letter, and here in chapter 5 in particular. His main concern is to link the physical life of the man who was born in Bethlehem and who died on Golgotha (v.6) with the life of the Son of God. It is the man Jesus who is also God’s Son. Anyone who denies this truth is simply not a Christian. Instead such a person, as John puts it, speaks for the anti-Christ, that is, for the enemies of the Christian faith (1 John 4:1-3).

In our day as well, there are many who deny the truth that the man Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Son of God. Some of the ideas John was combating might seem weird to us, though in fact many of them are actually making a comeback today through such things as the New Age movement. But all of us are familiar with attacks on the uniqueness and supremacy of Jesus Christ. Nothing, in fact, is more controversial today than the traditional Christian claim that Jesus is the Son of God and the only Savior of the world. But John insists that this is so. Moreover, he also insists that belief in the truth of this claim is the very first mark of a Christian.

Faith Is the Victory

So saving faith in Jesus the Son of God is one sure sign of the Spirit’s presence and work in our hearts, and of our new birth to eternal life. If we have been following John’s teaching in this letter, we have already learned as well that genuine love for other people is another such sign (see 1 John 4:7). So John has offered us by the end of his letter two clear tests to determine whether or not a person has truly been born again. The first test is doctrinal: belief in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Lord and Savior. The second is social: love for other people as a reflection of God’s love. Now John suggests a third test, a moral or ethical one. Yet another sign that a person has truly been born anew by the power of God is the desire to fight against the sins of the world and to obey all of God’s commands. John writes this:

. . . everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that overcomes the world – our faith. (1 John 5:2-4)

Some of us of a certain age might recognize the words to an old gospel song in that last verse: “Faith is the victory . . . O glorious victory, that overcomes the world.” The apostle Paul speaks in a memorable passage at the end of Romans 8 about how we are “more than conquerors” through Christ who loved us, and how if we belong to Christ nothing can separate us from God’s love. The victory ultimately results from God’s omnipotent love for us in Jesus Christ.

But when John writes about faith’s victory here near the end of his letter, he’s thinking of another aspect of this battle. Though we do rest in the assurance of God’s sovereign power and love, we don’t lie around passively doing nothing. Our faith must also be active and fighting. God gives us the strength and the will to fight against sin, but still we have to struggle. God gives us his Law to show us what’s right, but still we must do the obeying. If faith is real, it’s going to get busy and start working to overcome the world and its anti-God value system (see 1 John 2:15-17).

Maybe you’ve asked yourself some time or other this most basic question: How do I know my faith is real? Have I really been born again? Am I saved? Is the Spirit of God living in me, or is it all just an illusion? Here’s how to find out. Put yourself to the test. The doctrinal test: Do I truly believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? The social test: Do I sincerely try to love other people, with actions and not just with words? The moral test: Do I do my best to keep God’s commandments each day? If you can say yes to those three questions, then be assured. You have been born again! Your faith is the victory that will overcome the world.