1 John 5.20-21


One of the websites I often visit
in fact I visit there every day
is a Christian Website with a most unfortunate name.
It is called “Monergism.com”.
It is one of those websites that not many Christians would think of visiting,
especially because of its unusual and baffling name.
It's also strange because the website seems to be rooted in the past
it has pictures of people like John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Owen
and others all through it.
So it looks old fashioned
as if a web page could be old fashioned!

But what does Monergism mean?
Is it one of these silly theological words that no one understands,
like Infralapsarianism
or Dispensationalism
or Antidisestablishmentarianism (which contains 28 letters).
I don't mind big words
so long as I understand what they mean.
Monergism is one of these specialised terms.

When a person becomes a Christian,
they are placing their faith and trust in Jesus Christ as their saviour,
and committing themselves to him to serve him as their Lord and King.
Now this is what happens on the outside
it is the observable and measurable actions
that you can see when a person becomes a Christian.
But becoming a Christian also involves the work of the Holy Spirit,
and no amount of scientific research can observe or measure
the Holy Spirit's work in the life of the person who becomes a Christian
You can see that the person repents and has faith,
but you can't actually see or measure the Spirit
apart from his relationship with the new Christian.

So, let's imagine that we are Theological and Spiritual scientists
and we are examining this process.
What relationship is there between the person's acts of faith and commitment on the one hand,
and the work of the Holy Spirit on the other?
There are three basic theories.

The first theory is that the Holy Spirit will enter into a person's life
only when they have placed their faith and trust in Christ.
So in this process,
the Spirit will not enter unless the person repents,
has faith
and commits their life to Christ.

The second theory is that there is a joint process between the Spirit
and the person being converted.
This means that as the person places their faith and trust in Christ,
the Holy Spirit works with that person and enters into them.
It's sort of like the Holy Spirit and the new convert acting together
to bring about conversion
– they are both equally responsible.

The third theory is that the Holy Spirit enters into a person first
and brings them to new life.
And as a result of this Spiritual rebirth,
the person then places their faith and trust in Christ
and commits their life to them.

Now I'm trying to be simple here.
So let me summarise these three positions quickly.
Theory #1 says that a Christian is converted first and then gets the Holy Spirit.
Theory #2 states that a Christian is converted and is filled with the Spirit at the same time
they work together.
Theory #3 states that a Christian is filled with the Spirit first
and is then converted because of the Spirit's work.

Hundreds of years ago some theologians were locked in mortal debate
as to how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.
Is this one of those debates?
Now if you know me by now, you would realise that because I'm talking about it,
then I think it is important.
And it is.
As I've said, there are three theories of what happens.
What happens if you follow each theory to its logical conclusion?
One of those theories is totally unbiblical,
and will lead to unbelief and judgement.
Another theory is also unbiblical,
but it does not lead to unbelief,
but will severely restrict and harm a person's faith.
And one theory is fully Biblical and,
when understood and applied,
gives great comfort to us and causes us to worship the power and majesty of God.
Which of these three theories is correct?
Well, you'll just have to wait!

Examination of the Text

Well after that long-winded introduction,
I suppose it would be good to have a look at the text.
We're looking here at 1 John 5.20-21.
This will be our last foray into the book of 1 John
because the verses we're looking at are the final two verses.
1 John has been a wonderful book to study,
and I am glad to have spent the time working through it.
This will be my 25th sermon on 1 John
and I am sure that if I was to do the book justice
and cover every important thing,
then we'd still have another 25 to go.
Praise God that he doesn't have to rely on me for these things!

So what has 1 John been about?
Maybe you can't remember everything
after all, sicknesses and holidays over the past few years mean that you weren't there for all 25.
I have been, however,
and so I'll remind you of what I said way back on the 4th March 2001
when I began preaching at Redhead.
I said these words:

John is dealing with a crisis in the church.
Yes, that’s right. About 1900 years ago, the apostle John, who was one of the last surviving apostles of the Christian church, was faced with a church that was going off the rails.
A new teaching had spread throughout the churches throughout the world at that time, a new teaching that radically changed the understanding of who Jesus was and what he had done.
Those who were influenced by this new teaching then sent preachers and teachers to nearby churches to spread their message.
The apostle John heard about this teaching, and concluded that it was so serious that those who believed it had actually abandoned the truth.

1, 2 and 3 John were written during a time of turmoil within the church
- a time when people were not sure what to believe anymore,
and a time when clear guidance was needed from those who were committed to the truth of the gospel.

Well, that is the context in which we read these final two verses. Let me read them to you:

We know also 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 – even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

Let's focus on that first phrase:
“We know also that the Son of God has come”.

Again let me remind you.
The false teachers that John were writing against
did not believe that Jesus had a physical body.
They believed he only had a spiritual one.
John says “no – Jesus was a physical person”.
Yet even though John thought this idea was important,
this didn't just mean that Jesus was only a man.
He saw Jesus as “The Son of God”.
In the New Testament the only figure that was called God's Son was Jesus.
It showed that Jesus had a unique relationship with God that no one else could claim.
God was his Father, and he was his Son.
Yet this was not a relationship that could be defined in purely human terms
after all, there is no heavenly “Mother”.
We learn that Jesus was there at the moment of creation
Hebrews 1.2 says that the universe was created through the Son.
We learn that Jesus was perfect – sinless in every way.
And we also learn that Jesus as the Son of God was also called the “Word”,
and in John we discover that the Word is God himself.
So who is the Son of God?
Jesus, God himself in Human form
100% God and yet 100% man.
Yet the Son is not the Father,
even though we know that the Father is God.
It is here that we enter into the problems in trying to understand and comprehend one God as trinity, and not three gods.

But John is not really concerned with describing the Trinity here
even though the actions of all three members of the Godhead are described in these last two verses.
What he is concerned with is what we can know and understand.
In verse 20 he says
We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.

So what we see here is that the Son of God
has come and has given us understanding.
Now the word “understanding” here doesn't refer to facts or figures
it refers to the ability to comprehend something.
It isn't used for discovering some new and amazing fact
it is the ability to discover things in the first place.
I use my computer a lot.
Obviously I go surfing on the net
but I also use it as a Word processor
and all my sermons are typed in directly from my head
through the keyboard and into the computer's memory.
Now a computer can memorise some amazing things.
Given the right software and information,
it can know exactly how to conduct heart surgery.
If I pop a Beatles CD into my PC
say Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band
my computer knows every single digitally encoded bit that makes up every song.
I have the Bible on CD-ROM
when I pop that into my computer the computer knows every single word of the Bible
and can recite any part of it that I ask.
And yet would you trust my PC to conduct open heart surgery on you?
Would you trust my PC to create music that the Beatles would be proud of?
Would you trust my PC to teach you about the Christian life?
Of course not.
A PC can only hold information
and it is reliant upon humans to tell it what to do with that information.

When John says here that the Son of God has given us understanding,
it is not saying that Jesus has given us knowledge.
Knowledge is part of it,
but what he has given us is understanding
– the ability to respond to that knowledge in the only way that counts.

And what is this understanding?
John says that that we are given understanding so that we may “Know him who is true”.
What is John saying here?
He is saying that Jesus has given us the ability to know God
the one true God.
Jesus doesn't lead us up the garden path.
Jesus is not leading us to death.
No, Jesus has given us the ability to approach the Father.
He has given us the ability to have a relationship with God
the Father almighty, the maker of heaven and earth.

John continues
-And we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ.
So we not only know him who is true
we not only know God
but we are also “in him who is true”.
What this denotes is intimate knowledge
it is talking about relationship,
it is talking about fellowship.
When John says that Jesus gives us understanding,
he is not just talking about Jesus giving us the ability to discover what is true,
it means that we discover our relationship with God.
It is through Jesus that we approach God,
it is through Jesus that we know God,
it is through Jesus that we love God,
it is through Jesus that we have fellowship with God.
Through his Son, Jesus Christ,
we have the most intimate relationship and connection with the one true and living God.

And of course this is not just in some weird metaphorical, symbolic sense.
Some airy-fairy sort of way.
It is an actual, real relationship.
And this is where the Holy Spirit comes into it.
Although John doesn't speak about the Spirit here directly,
we can see in the phrase “we are in Him who is true”.
In this verse Christians are seen to be “in God”.
And yet in other verses it says that God is “is us”.
Well, both are correct.
The Holy Spirit lives in all people who are Christians,
and so we will always be close to God,
and God will always be close to us.

John then says He is the true God and eternal life.
Well, who is “he”?
If you follow the sentence and its grammar,
you will realise that John could be saying “God is the true God.”,
or he could be saying “Jesus is the True God”.
Well, the confusion remains in the original Greek as well.
There are arguments for one interpretation and there are arguments for the other.

This is what I think.
I believe that John is talking about Jesus here.
He is saying that Jesus is the true God and is eternal life.
Now I say that because if you look at the phrase “Eternal life” throughout the New Testament,
you will see that it is something that God gives to us,
and that he gives it to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
There is no verse that I have yet discovers
that talks about Eternal life outside the immediate context of Jesus and his death and resurrection.

Listen to the following verses
and see how the concept of Eternal life
and the person and work of Jesus Christ are linked.

Matthew 19.29
Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake (i.e. Jesus), will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

John 4.14
Whoever drinks of the water that I (i.e. Jesus) give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

Romans 6.22-23
But now that you have been set free from sin, and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

1 Timothy 1.16
But I (Paul) received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.

Those verses and many others convince me
that not only do the New Testament writers explicitly link Eternal life
with the person and work of Jesus Christ,
but that these instances prove that John is referring to Jesus specifically in this phrase
He is the True God and Eternal life.
With these words John articulates and cements the belief that the Christian church has had since its foundation,
that Jesus Christ is both man and God in one,
and yet is distinct from the Father.

John finishes with this rather quaint little phrase:
Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
If we look at the context of the entire book
we will realise that John is not talking here about wooden or stone carvings,
but anything that distorts and changes the truth about God.
He is saying to his readers that they should turn away from the influences of false teachers
– that what they teach is so bad that we should avoid them at all costs.

And then that's it.
No more words from John.
No goodbyes or housekeeping matters that Paul often wrote.
Just “Dear children, keep yourselves from Idols”.


So what do these verses teach us about the Christian life?
What do these verses teach us about God?

Notice again what John says in the first phrase there in verse 20.
We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.
Remember again that understanding here is not knowledge,
but the ability to discover who God is and how to relate to him.

But notice what John specifically says
the Son of God has come and HAS GIVEN US UNDERSTANDING.
In other words, we don't gain this ability by ourselves.
We don't gain understanding of God by searching.
We don't gain understanding of God through our various life experiences.
We don't gain understanding of God by anything we can do.
We do not gain true Spiritual understanding,
we are given it.
Jesus gives it to us.
Once we had no understanding of God,
and now, through Christ working in us, we do have understanding.

Imagine you are tied up in a chair.
You are blindfolded and your arms are bound.
There is no way that you can make yourself see.
Then someone comes along and takes your blindfold off
and releases you from the ropes that have bound you.
You did nothing – you could do nothing.
That is what Jesus does to us as Christians.

There are some other important verses to remember here.
1 John 2.20 talks about the anointing of the Holy Spirit that reveals the truth to us;
1 Cor 2.12 says that we have received the Holy Spirit, that we might understand the things freely given to us by God.
So we understand here that the Spirit is also involved in this understanding in our lives.

Let's go back to the three theories of how the Holy Spirit works with the newly converted Christian.

Theory #1 states that the Spirit will not enter into the convert
and bring him to new life
until he or she places their faith and trust in Christ.

Theory #2 states that the Spirit and the convert act together in unison
that as the convert acts to place their faith and trust in Christ
the Spirit acts to regenerate them and bring them to new life.

Theory #3 states that the Spirit has to bring the person to new life first,
which then allows the person to place their faith and trust in Christ.

Which of these is the bad one?
Theory #1.
Why is this bad?
Well, firstly because it depicts a God who is totally dependent upon a person's activity,
a reactive God if you like.
This God wants to save people,
but can't until they repent and believe.
Ultimately this is salvation by works.
God may provide the means by which we are saved,
but it is our action that ultimately saves us
the action of repentance and faith.
It is a seriously unbiblical idea because it fails to take into account one of the most terrible problems of being human
- we are sinful,
and we are spiritually dead.
Dead people cannot choose to make themselves alive again.

Now what has happened to people who have held this belief to its logical conclusion?
An ancient Heretic called Pelagius taught this belief.
How was he able to get around it?
He stopped believing in sin.
For Pelagius, everyone was capable of choosing to serve God or not.
And because he stopped believing in the power of sin,
he stopped believing in Jesus' death on the cross as a sin sacrifice.
This belief is known as Pelagianism,
and was fought fiercely by one of the early Church's greatest thinkers,
Augustine of Hippo,
during the 5th century.

So that belief is bad.
What about Theory #2
the idea that the Spirit and the new convert act together in the conversion process?
Well, this one is wrong too.
This idea is called Synergism
it's based on the word Synergy, a working together.
It's not as serious as Pelagianism because many genuine Christians hold to this belief.
It is unhelpful though,
and can seriously damage the Christian faith
especially because a person who believes in Synergism is only one step away from embracing Pelagianism.
Synergism is a way of trying to synthesise both the work of God
and the work of man together
mainly because many Christians really want to believe that they have some level of freedom of choice.

I would say that about 80% of the Christian world today
that is all people who would be classed as “Born Again Christians”
hold to synergism.
And even 80% is probably not conservative enough an estimate.
Here in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley I think it would be at least 90%.
What this means is that the vast majority of Christians are not holding on to an important part of Scripture.
Yes they are still Christians,
and yes we will one day be in paradise with them,
but the fact remains that they are being disobedient.
More than that, in order for a Christian to hold to synergism,
they need to be quite ignorant of the Bible
which means that most Christians have some very bad Bible knowledge.
And because this is the case,
they are more likely to be exposed to and influenced by false teaching
especially teaching that might come from a Pelagian perspective.

Now this may all seem strange and theoretical.
It is, however, serious.
I have heard myself the teachings of Christian leaders here in Newcastle that border on Pelagian belief
that God has given us potential and power that we just need to grab hold of.
That we can live perfect and wonderful lives.
That God will give us riches and blessings if only we do the right things and pray the right way.
These sorts of teachings come from people who have lost the Gospel
and have embraced the power of human potential.

Way back in the 5th century,
Pelagius was outlawed as a heretic by the church,
due mainly to the work of St Augustine.
But because of our nation's religious freedom,
today's modern Pelagians can continue to teach and influence Christians with impunity.
So what should we do?
I think the best thing we can do is continue to preach the Gospel of grace
and teach the word of God.
And of course we should pray for these churches
that God will give them wisdom and guidance.

But we also need to evangelise
and to plant churches where God's word is taught
without all the fluff and nonsense associated with Synergism and Pelgianism.

There is every chance that your local Pentecostal or Charismatic church is teaching Synergism
or being influenced by Pelagianism.
I won't tar them all with the same brush,
but I think we can make such a generalisation.
I know of two Baptist churches in Newcastle that are possibly teaching this sort of thing too.
My research also seems to confirm that of all the Christian schools in Newcastle
and the Hunter Valley,
probably only one has a Principal who is not encouraging Synergism and Pelgianism
– and I know that particular principal and have taught at that school.

So Theory #1
that God will not work until man has worked
is bad.
That is Pelagianism.

Theory #2 is bad too –
the idea that both God and man work together.
That is synergism.

What of Theory #3?
This is the idea that God has to work in the heart of man first –
that the Holy Spirit has to regenerate a person spiritually,
so that they have been brought from spiritual death to spiritual life –
and then respond to this new life by placing their faith and their trust in Christ.
Yes, this is the good one.
It is called Monergism.

It is the only theory that fits in with what the Bible says –
especially here in these verses at the end of 1 John.
We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.
Christ, and the Holy Spirit, give us this understanding.
It is the Holy Spirit that opens our eyes to make us see the truth.
And when we see that truth,
we cannot do anything but bow down and worship our great God,
and to place our trust fully in Jesus Christ.

You see, monergism is not some theological word that academics debate over.
It is a word that explains what happens to us when we become Christians,
and it is a word that is backed up by what the Bible clearly says to us.

I've given you three big words today –
Pelagianism, Synergism and Monergism.
If in a month's time you cannot remember what each of these words mean, is that a problem?
No it's not.
But it is important for you to understand what the Bible says –
that our Salvation is from beginning to end the work of God.
It's the great secret of Christian belief –
we might think that the reason why we've become Christians is because
we chose to accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
That's what it may have seemed like when it happened,
but now that we look back what do we discover?
That it was God who chose us.

We only chose to accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour
because God chose us first,
and brought us to new life through the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
And because of this, we have assurance.
We have the assurance that the God who chose us and brought us into new life
has all power,
and will not forsake us.

You see that is the tragedy of people who teach Pelagianism.
They teach that it is we who ultimately have control over our eternal destiny –
yes God provides the means,
but it is up to us to repent and have faith.
And if that is the case then it is also up to us to maintain our faith.

I was asked by a group of year 9 students at a Christian school about smoking dope.
“Mr Cameron”, they said “If a Christian smokes dope, does that mean they are going to hell?”
What was my answer?
“Of course not!” I said.
“But that's not what Mr. Wallace told us” (not his real name) they replied.
“He said that you're going to hell until you repent again”.
Now what sort of teaching is that?
Is it Biblical? No.
It is unbiblical teaching.
It is teaching that focuses upon our works to save us.
It is Pelagian.
And it was being taught to Christian students in a Newcastle Christian School 3-4 years ago.
And it was taught by a man who acts as a youth pastor
in a growing and well-established Pentecostal church.

But we know that it is not we who discover God.
It God who discovers us.

When Jesus died on the cross,
he died so that our sins may be taken upon himself.
He died as a sin sacrifice –
God placing upon him the punishment that we deserved.
When Jesus rose from the dead he showed that death had been defeated,
and he showed that he was God.
What we have learnt from the New Testament in this area is clear –
that unless we turn from our life of sin and rebellion against God,
that God will punish us and bring us to judgement for our sins.
But if we do turn to God,
then we will repent from our sins –
we will renounce our rebellion against God –
and we will trust in the death and resurrection of Christ to forgive us our sins.
And we have the promise of Eternal life.
But we realise now that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to bring us to this point –
that, in the end, it is God who has chosen us to be his children,
rather than us choosing him to be our Father.

In 1982 I became a Christian because I spent a week at a camp for teenage guys run by a Christian group –
the Crusader Union.
At that camp I heard the Gospel,
and when it finished I made a decision to give my life to Christ while on the bus home.
But in the years beforehand I had been exposed to the Gospel through at least two other Christian camps,
as well as buying myself a Bible, which I was able to read.
It was through all these events that God had orchestrated my conversion.
It wasn't that I had finally decided that being a Christian was a good idea –
it was that God's Holy Spirit was active in my life
as I heard the Gospel call,
and heard the voice of God speak as I read and studied the Bible
and through those who taught the Bible to me.

We all have had different experiences of God's grace –
yet, in the end, all of us who are Christians have had the same experience.
God has worked his Spirit in our lives,
and has spoken to us his gospel and his Word.
And we have responded in repentance,
and we have placed our faith and trust in Christ –
but only because God chose us in the first place to hear his Gospel and hear his Word.

It is through this wonderful realisation that we can fully understand and obey John's final words to us –
Dear Children keep yourselves from Idols.
How can we keep ourselves from idols?
By remembering how great and wide and wonderful
is God's gift of grace to us in Christ Jesus.

From the Kerygmatic Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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