“Pure Doctrine and Love for People” (1 John 4:1-11)
I don’t always post my sermons here, but I do occasionally, especially when they intersect with the particular interests of the Brothers of John the Steadfast. One such interest is “Defending and Promoting Confessional Lutheranism.” This sermon is from May 10, the Fifth Sunday of Easter. CH
“Pure Doctrine and Love for People” (1 John 4:1-11)
Sometimes we who insist on pure doctrine are accused of not caring for people: “You black-shirt round-collar types, all you care about is getting things right! You don’t care about people.” Pure doctrine–pure doctrine is seen as an outmoded concern. Doctrine is assumed and taken for granted. We’re even told that insistence on pure doctrine is an impediment to being “missional”: “We’ve got to stop this incessant internal purification and get ablaze with mission! Mission is Job One!”
All of this talk puts forward a false dichotomy between doctrine and mission, between doctrine and love, as though the two could not go together. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only can doctrine and love go together, they must go together, if we are going to be true to the mission of Christ.
That was certainly the attitude of St. John the Apostle. In his letter–and this is our fourth in a six-part series on 1 John–the aged apostle puts a strong emphasis on both doctrine and love. John can go from a section on “The Love That Lays Down Its Life,” like we heard last week, straight into this week’s reading, where he talks about testing the spirits and discerning the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error, and then he goes straight back to an exhortation for us to love one another. He sees no conflict or contradiction in doing that. The Apostle John emphasizes both “Pure Doctrine and Love for People.” Therefore so do we.
It all hinges on pure doctrine, the right teaching about Christ. John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Here is why you need to pay attention to doctrine: because not all religious preachers and teachers are telling you the truth. Oh, in their own minds they may think they are teaching rightly, and they may have many zealous and sincere followers, but it is possible to be sincerely wrong. And wrong doctrine can lead you in the wrong direction; it can even take you on the road to hell.
“Many false prophets have gone out into the world.” It was true then, in the first century, and it is still the case today, in the twenty-first. So we need to “test the spirits,” John says. “Test” the spirits. The word that’s used here for “test” was used for testing coins or metal, to see whether they were genuine or counterfeit. Now the thing with a counterfeit coin is, on the surface it looks like the real thing. It doesn’t look completely dissimilar. In fact, it’s designed to deceive. So it is with counterfeit Christianity. There are usually some features of false teaching that look or sound like the genuine article. The false prophets will talk about God and God’s will for your life. They may quote some Bible verses. They may mention Jesus in some way. But just that surface resemblance is not enough to distinguish the true from the false. More testing is needed.
What test do we need to apply? John tells us: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” So a good diagnostic question to begin with is, “Who is Jesus in this teacher’s scheme of things?” Or as Jesus himself once said, in front of John, “Who do men say that I am?” In other words, what does this preacher say about the person of Christ, and how central is that to their message?
“Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” Now follow this closely. A true and godly teacher will keep these things together: Jesus, the Christ, and his flesh, all in one person. Anyone who doesn’t, who pulls them apart or else puts this teaching on the back burner, is a false teacher. Let me explain.
At the time John is writing this–in Ephesus, in Asia Minor, in the late first century–there was a popular teacher in the area by the name of Cerinthus, who was drawing off followers for himself. Now Cerinthus did talk about Jesus. But he said that Jesus was a man born in the ordinary way, the son of Joseph and Mary, and at his baptism, the spirit of the Christ came upon this man Jesus and gave him the power to do miracles and attain to the higher knowledge about God and so on. But before this Jesus entered into his suffering and death, the divine spirit of the Christ left Jesus, and it was just the mortal man Jesus who died on the cross. And so you are not saved by the death of that man Jesus. No, you are saved by your attaining to the secret higher knowledge that Jesus had and that Cerinthus was now teaching.
Do you see how this kind of teaching can sound a little bit like the genuine Christian faith? It does talk about Jesus. It does take into account the events of his life. It does use the term Christ. It all sounds so spiritual. Flesh is bad. Spirit is good. You must rise above your flesh and attain to the spiritual. There is a higher knowledge to be revealed, and you can be in on it. But notice, it does not keep Jesus, the Christ, and his flesh together, in one person. In other words, the teaching of Cerinthus does not pass John’s test.
Now why is this so important? Why does John lay so much emphasis on the doctrine of the person of Christ, that is, on Jesus as the incarnate Christ, as God come in the flesh? Because without this there is no gospel. Without this there is no Savior and no salvation. If you put in its place something else, anything else, as your main teaching and as your means of salvation, you have created another gospel, which is no gospel at all. That’s what Cerinthus did. He put your attaining to the higher knowledge in the place where the death of Christ should be.
Can you see why that sort of thing might be appealing to people? It appeals to our sense of self-esteem, more so than the apostolic doctrine does. To say, with the apostles, that it took the death of God’s own Son, come in the flesh, to deal with my sin and to save me from death and damnation–that I cannot save myself, not by trying to attain to a higher spiritual state–well, that makes me feel kinda bad about myself, like, “Are my sins really that bad? Am I really that lost of a sinner?” Yes, they are. Yes, you are. I by nature am a lost and condemned person, a poor sinful being, and so are you. You and I cannot rescue ourselves from our spiritual deadness, not by our own efforts or our own goodness or by attaining to some higher spiritual plane.
Only God could rescue us, and that is exactly what he has done in the coming of Christ into the world, in the flesh, by his sacrificial death on the cross, and by his victorious resurrection from the grave. The apostolic doctrine teaches that Jesus Christ is the Son of God from eternity, and that he has come in the flesh, “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” That is the Jesus who died on the cross. It had to be that way. Only the death of God’s Son could be enough to cover the sins of the world, to cover our sins. Nothing else would do.
That’s how great God’s love for us poor sinners is. As John says, a little later in our text, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Here we see how the person and the work of Christ are inseparable. It took the death of Jesus Christ, true God and true man in one person, to atone for our sins, to make the perfect sacrifice that satisfies God’s justice and opens the door of paradise to us.
Now do you see why we must insist on the pure doctrine of Christ, and that, front and center, taking first place in the church’s preaching and teaching and liturgy and hymnody? To substitute anything else is to deprive people of the only saving message, a message people cannot get anywhere else. Ultimately, it is not loving–it does not reflect the love of God to give people another message in place of, or even overshadowing, the one saving gospel of Jesus Christ come in the flesh, to suffer and die for our sins.
But still today “many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Like Cerinthus of old, they may pay some lip-service to Jesus and sound spiritual. But they are deceiving many people. For they are putting forward a message that does not have Christ crucified at its heart and center. Instead, they are turning you back in on yourself, like Cerinthus did. How can I discover the will of God for my life? How can I live a victorious life and follow the kingdom principles and become a first-class Christian? Law, law, law, with precious little or no gospel. It’s all about me and what I’ve got to do. And when the law becomes your gospel, then you have passed from the Spirit of truth and entered the spirit of error.
Here is the Spirit of truth. The good news is what God has done and is doing and will do for you, for the sake of Christ, who died for you that you might be forgiven and have eternal life in him. Christ’s death on the cross paid for your sins. Christ’s resurrection from the dead guarantees your own resurrection and life everlasting. This is the true gospel, and it is for you! This is real love, love from God in the person of Christ. This is how you know love and receive the Spirit, who will help you in turn to love others.
There is no conflict here, no contradiction, between doctrine and love, between doctrine and mission. Without pure doctrine, there is no mission. We have nothing other to offer people than the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Pure doctrine and love for people go hand in hand.
This past Thursday was the Commemoration of Dr. C. F. W. Walther, the first president of our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, who spoke all the time about the importance of pure doctrine, the doctrine of Christ, even as the wellspring of the spiritual life that produces love for people. So we’ll close today with this from Walther: “Pure doctrine is the pure Word of God, the pure bread of life eternal, the pure seed of the children of the Kingdom, a pure fountain of faith and love, a pure well of divine comfort–in a word, it is the clean, sure, and straight way to Christ and into heaven. Truly pure doctrine, then, is more precious than silver and gold, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb, stronger than sin, death, devil, and hell, more than heaven and earth. And pure doctrine is never an idle or dead thing: from it, and from it alone, flows spiritual, Christian, divine life.”