And by this we know that we have come to know [Jesus], if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:3–6)
At first glance, you might think that this passage is simply teaching us a form of what is known as legalism: that Christianity is all about keeping a set of rules. You know the sort of thing: be nice to your neighbour; don’t steal; go to church. It’s a kind of moralism, which suggests that the way to gain God’s favour is to pile up a weight of good deeds. It’s a boy scout approach to the faith, where you show your badges to St Peter at the pearly gates and if you make the cut, in you go.
Now please understand me. I am not saying that our deeds are unimportant. I am not suggesting that Christians should give up on any form of morality and simply sin away, confident that God will forgive them anyway. The answer to legalism is not lawlessness! That is not a path which leads to God.
Coming back to today’s passage, we see that out deeds (the way we “keep his commandments”) are rather seen as evidence of something deeper. Look at the last sentence, and the language it uses: “in him”; and “abides in him”. The logic is that if we are in Christ, then we will produce Christ-like fruit. If our roots go down into gospel soil, then we cannot but keep Jesus’ commandments. We are drawing up nutrients of grace. The more we enrich the soil with prayer and scripture, the richer the crop.
The Christian life can be a struggle, but when you are struggling with something, when you find a commandment of Jesus hard to keep the answer is not sheer hard work. In those cases it is good to turn back to basics and ask yourself if you are abiding in Christ. Pay attention to the soil and roots, and the rest will follow.