Appreciation for the Indwelling Holy Spirit
The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us. (3:24)
The blessing promised to the one who keeps His commandments is that he abides in Christ and He in him. The term translated abides (from the verb menō, “to stay, remain”) is one of John’s favorite words for salvation (see John 15:4–10) and is a repeated reference in this letter (cf. 2:6, 10, 24, 28; 3:6; 4:13, 16). (For more on the theme of abiding, see the earlier discussions of 2:6 and 2:28 in chapters 5 and 10, respectively, of this volume.) That shared life is possible only by the Spirit whom He has given (cf. Luke 11:13; 12:12; John 14:16–17, 26; 15:26; Acts 1:4–8; Rom. 5:5; 8:11, 16; Gal. 4:6; 5:16, 22; Eph. 1:13–14; 1 John 2:20, 27; 4:1–2, 13).
To be sure, the workings of the Holy Spirit include an element of the mysterious; they cannot be controlled or fully understood by frail, sinful human beings. Nevertheless, the results of those workings are readily apparent, as Jesus told Nicodemus by means of a familiar illustration: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). As the effects of the wind can be seen, felt, and heard, so the Spirit’s working in lives is manifest and those who see that work will know by this that He [Christ] abides in them.
It was the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9) who made saints’ spiritually dead souls alive (John 3:5–8; Titus 3:5), gave sight to their blind eyes, caused their sinful hearts to repent (cf. Acts 16:14), and drew them in faith to Jesus (1 Peter 1:2). It was the Spirit who placed them into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13) and gifted them for ministry in the church (1 Cor. 12:7; cf. Rom. 12:3–8; 1 Peter 4:10–11). It is through His illuminating instruction that Scripture comes alive for believers as they read and meditate on it (1 Cor. 2:10–14; cf. Eph. 6:17). The Spirit also energizes the saints’ prayers (Eph. 6:18; Jude 20) and intercedes for them (Rom. 8:26–27). He leads and guides Christians (8:14) and assures them that they are children of God (vv. 15–16; Eph. 1:13–14).
Salvation is not a one-time event but a way of life and entails a willingness to follow Jesus no matter the cost (cf. Luke 9:23, 57–62). The presence of genuine holy affections—gratitude toward God, boldness in prayer, submission to His commandments, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and an appreciation of the Holy Spirit’s power in their lives—all characterized and undergirded by a continual love for other believers—marks those who persevere in this true faith (cf. Rom. 2:7; Col. 1:21–23). The presence of those godly virtues gives those who manifest them true assurance (2 Peter 1:8–10; cf. Phil. 1:6; 2 Tim. 1:12b) and confidence that they have been born from above by the power of God.
The Witness of the Holy Spirit (v. 24)
In the last verse of chapter 3, John introduces two new ideas into the letter, neither of which has even been suggested up to this time. He mentions the idea of a mutual abiding, of Christ in the Christian and of the Christian in Christ; and he mentions the Holy Spirit, through whom the abiding is effected. Because of the development to come in chapter 5, the idea of the witness of the Holy Spirit is the more important of the two new concepts.
When John mentions the Holy Spirit, we might think that he is here introducing a new and subjective criterion by which the Christian may assure his heart before God, much as Paul seems to do in Romans 8:15–16. But this is not the case, for it is not as a subjective witness that the Spirit is mentioned. Here Stott concludes wisely,
The Spirit whose presence is the test of Christ’s abiding in us, manifests himself objectively in our life and conduct. It is he who inspires us to confess Jesus as the Christ come in the flesh, as John immediately proceeds to show (iv. 1ff.; cf. ii. 20, 27). It is also he who empowers us to live righteously and to love the brethren (cf. iv. 13; Gal. vv. 16, 22). So if we would assure our hearts when they accuse and condemn us, we must look for evidence of the Spirit’s working, and particularly whether he is enabling us to believe in Christ, to obey God’s commandments and to love the brethren; for the condition of abiding is this comprehensive obedience (24a), and the evidence of abiding is the gift of the Spirit (24b).
This, of course, returns us to the starting point of this chapter; for it reminds us that the cure of doubt is not to be found in some subjective experience, but rather in knowledge. It is to be found in knowledge of the workings of God in our lives and of his verdict of acquittal of sinners through the work of Christ.
24. And he that keepeth his commandments. He confirms what I have already stated, that the union we have with God is evident when we entertain mutual love: not that our union begins thereby, but that it cannot be fruitless or without effect whenever it begins to exist. And he proves this by adding a reason, because God does not abide in us, except his Spirit dwells in us. But wherever the Spirit is, he necessarily manifests his power and efficiency. We hence readily conclude, that none abide in God and are united to him, but those who keep his commandments.
When, therefore, he says, and by this we know, the copulative, and, as a reason is here given, is to be rendered, “for,” or, “because.” But the character of the present reason ought to be considered; for though the sentence in words agrees with that of Paul, when he says that the Spirit testifies to our hearts that we are the children of God, and that we through him cry to God, Abba, Father, yet there is some difference in the sense; for Paul speaks of the certainty of gratuitous adoption, which the Spirit of God seals on our hearts; but John here regards the effects which the Spirit produces while dwelling in us, as Paul himself does, when he says, that those are God’s children who are led by the Spirit of God; for there also he is speaking of the mortification of the flesh and newness of life.
The sum of what is said is, that it hence appears that we are God’s children, that is, when his Spirit rules and governs our life. John at the same time teaches us, that whatever good works are done by us, proceed from the grace of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is not obtained by our righteousness, but is freely given to us.
24 John concludes the present section and transitions toward the next (4:1–6). Up to this point, the discussion has focused heavily on what the individual must do to establish her status as a true child of God. John has emphasized sinlessness, correct beliefs, and expressions of love—all personal achievements—as the marks of a Christian. Verse 24 highlights the spiritual dimension of genuine Christian experience. Those who obey enjoy the mystical, mutual indwelling with the Father that Jesus requested for his disciples at John 17:20–23. To stress this point, John introduces a community slogan with the formula ginōskomen hoti (“we know”): “He remains [menō] in us” (NIV, “we know that he lives in us”). This proposition is validated by the Christian experience of the Spirit. John closely associates Jesus with the Spirit, so much so that Jesus will come to the disciples in the form of the Paraclete (Jn 14:15–18). The fact, then, that true believers have the Spirit proves that God is with them and that they have passed the tests. John’s implication that the Antichrists do not possess God’s Spirit suggests that belief, ethics, and union with God go hand in hand. Those who do not hold to a proper belief and do not live under Jesus’ commands cannot legitimately claim that God’s Spirit dwells in them. Rensberger, 107, notes that “although the possession of the Spirit and mutual abiding with God are interior events, they are validated by means that are … thoroughly public.”