The Litmus Test

A litmus test is a test in which a single factor is decisive in proving the presence or absence of something. "I have eternal life," many said, as I did, but passing the litmus test determines whether someone has truly believed as the Scriptures say.

In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water." But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39)

Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water (the Holy Spirit)." ...whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life." (John 4:10,14)

So how do the scriptures say one must believe in order to have this river of living water flowing out of him? For the scriptures give us the litmus test in order that we could know whether we have passed from death to life and have truly received the Holy Spirit -- the Water of Life. John 5:24 presents the good news in very clear and simple terms:

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed out of death and into life.

But how does anyone know he is saved? Does he know because the preacher tells him so? Is it enough to hear, "I know that I know that I know I am saved"? It wasn't enough for me. I still wasn't sure. Something very deep seemed to be missing. Then I discovered, well friends showed me, the marvelous first letter of John. It tells everyone how they can know. It gives all of us the litmus test. Take it yourself. Read through 1 John, chapters one through five. Then especially consider verses 3:14, 16, and 17. They utterly disqualify mere mental belief (Gnosticism).

We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?

The Test

The criteria for the litmus test is verse 14 -- "do you love the brethren." When a person has been saved and has passed from death into life and partaken of the water of life, the inevitable result will be that "he loves the brethren." The presence or absence of true salvation will be revealed by the results of the litmus test.

"I love my brothers and sisters in the Lord," most would say, and that was my first response, I must admit. Most people would say they love, so how could that be the litmus test for true salvation?

The answer: we must define our terms the way the Bible does, and the way the Apostle John did. He gives the definition for "love" in verse 16: "we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." How did the Son of God demonstrate love? By laying down His life every day for His disciples and for others, not considering His own needs, sharing everything that He had, considering even the outcasts and the lowly, appealing to the high-minded and proud, even sacrificing His very life for the good of others. This is the love of God, and this is the factor that is poured into the heart of a person who is truly saved.1

Verse 17 defines the test results even further. If a person has something and he sees a brother in need, if he is not sharing it, it is proof-negative for the love of God being present in his heart. Selfishness, greed, accumulations of extra possessions, lacks of sharing, indicate that true salvation is not present.

We can see the proof-positive results of a people who passed the Litmus Test in Acts 2:42 - "All who believed shared all things in common... And there were no needy among them, for they shared everything in common." But later, when the letter of 1 John was written, the church was filled with many people who had a kind of belief, but it was not "saving belief," as they were not able to demonstrate, try though they might, the proving factor of loving like the Son of God had loved.

That's why 1 John was written; its sole purpose was that those who read it could know whether they had really received saving faith. For the Savior and the apostles knew that people could believe in vain2 (as I had, and maybe you have), but their heart still reached out to them. John put something special in 1 John 5:13, a provision, just for those who didn't pass the litmus tests of 1 John 2:4, 3:17, and 4:20.

Some would claim to see, even though they were blind, as Yahshua spoke of in John 9:41. Their guilt can't be removed. But those who don't claim to see, and so don't have the confidence they have passed out of death into life after reading 1 John, still have an opportunity to believe and love as their Master commanded all His disciples to love, which was just as He had loved them.3 The Authorized Version gets this very important verse right:

These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God. (1 John 5:13)

That is why John repeats the phrase twice in verse 13: "believe on the name of the Son of God." So 1 John 5:12-13 struck home to some in John's day who thought they had believed on the name of the Son, but discovered, after reading the letter, that they could not confess they had eternal life. In fact, they were now sure the love of God did not abide in their hearts. After this rude awakening, they took hope in John's promise that they could yet believe and surrender their life to the True One whom John knew.4

In every other translation you can see how they tried to make sense out of this seemingly confusing verse. But understanding the intentions of John in writing this makes it clear that he wasn't being redundant in what he was saying. So you could read it: "These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may [still have an opportunity to] believe on the name of the Son of God [if you can honestly see that your life doesn't match up to everything that was written in this letter]."

Confidence Towards God

The litmus test of 1 John reveals the presence or absence of the love of God. Paul wrote in Romans 5:5 that "the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit." The book of 1 John lets anyone know who wants to know whether this has actually happened in his life, or whether he has only the concept of love without the power to love.

My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. (1 John 3:18-21)

In these verses, John is not teaching that even though our heart condemns us for failing to love our brother in deed and truth, God overlooks it and does not hold us guilty for not loving and not obeying His word. That is why the next verse says that if our hearts don't condemn us (because we do love our brothers), then we have confidence towards God. If we are not loving as He loved, then we do not and we cannot have confidence towards God. Indeed, He knows our heart. He knows why and how we fail to love in a greater and more comprehensive way than we do. And, He does not overlook it. He is not partial.

Those Who Have the Son Have the Life

Those who had the Son had the life,5 which is the one thing I knew I didn't have, caught up as I was in the rat race, like everyone else. No matter how much I did, being part of the church council, Sunday School Superintendent, giving of my time and money, my life was just like that of everyone in the world around me. The only difference was that I did a few things in the evening and on the weekend that they didn't. The void inside of me and the lack of confidence that I was saved, never went away.

The first believers seemed to have something I didn't have. They had not only received the whole message of this new life, as the angel told Peter to preach in Acts 5:20, but they had received the life itself. And it was a life together! That was the difference. Seeing that opened up the reality of what it meant to believe.

What it Means to Believe

To believe means to be persuaded in one's heart of the truth by the Holy Spirit, through hearing the gospel from a righteous sent one, as the Savior spoke of in John 7:18. Such a one is true because he is not seeking his own glory, but the glory of the One who sent him. And such a one is spiritually and morally clean, for Yahshua said, "There is no unrighteousness in him."

How could anyone have truly believed in the True One without a true preacher speaking the very Word of Messiah?6 The one who is doing the Father's will must meet the one who is willing to do the Father's will. The hearer is then given the needed illumination by the Father as our Master said, "He shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God." (John 7:17) The gospel is then the power of God for salvation, and the Father communicates the "good gift" of the Holy Spirit to those who are persuaded to die to themselves, take up their cross, and do His will.

John 3:16 is probably the best known and most loved verse in the Bible, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."

But what does it mean to believe as this verse says, to put one's complete trust in the Savior of the world?7 The Scriptures tell all of us plainly, if we are willing to listen. The word believes in John 3:16 is the same Greek word as believed in Acts 2:44, which tells us two absolutely essential things about all who believe: "Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common." This was very good news to me, because when I found the people who lived the life of faith, it meant I had also found a place to belong, a place to call home -- true community.

Epistle of Straw?

Some in John's day obviously were not in fellowship with Him (God), as 1 John 1:6 says. And they were not in fellowship with John either, which is why he writes his letter:

That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3)

John, of course, knew all about abiding in Him and bearing fruit, because the love of God was in his heart. He had borne much fruit and so had proven to be one of His disciples. That was all John wanted for those who believed in Yahshua through his message. John used the word fellowship in 1 John 1:3, which is the same word translated fellowship8 in Acts 2:42. This is the Greek word koinonia, which means a sharing of all you are and all you have -- communication, distribution and participation. This is the life of faith that the early believers and the apostles shared with Yahshua and the Father.

Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. 42And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:41-42)

Many had not continued steadfastly in John's teachings and fellowship. They had fallen from the glory the church began with. John explained what this meant in 1 John 2:4, "He who says, 'I know Him' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him."

Some may think that keeping His commandments places them under the law. And it is true: trying to keep His commandments without the Holy Spirit would be bondage and legalism. Yet those who walk in the Spirit can fulfill the righteous requirements of the law.9 Others may say, "I obey His commandments and keep His word," but He said this is only possible for those who hate their life in this world, and who come to the place where He is:

He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor. (John 12:25-26)

When 1 John was read to the church, those who heard it had to judge their walk according to the litmus test of 1 John 1:7 and 1 John 2:6. That is just what we have to do today when we read it: ask ourselves the question, "Do we have fellowship (a common life) with one another because we walk as He walked?" They could not have fellowship with the Savior in heaven without having it with John, their apostle, as well. His letter did not persuade those who were not in fellowship with him. They continued to love the world, dispute his teachings, and not meet the needs of their brothers. Such "believers" effectively discarded 1 John as an "epistle of straw."

Martin Luther's condemnation of the Letter of James as just such a worthless epistle (calling it an "epistle of straw") shows how easily this can happen. Luther was upset because it threw a wrench into his gospel of being saved by faith alone, for James wrote "faith without works is dead." "The religion of a man is worthless who does not bridle his tongue, for instance, or care for the widows and the orphans in his community."10

Faced with this, Luther, a man famous for his foul tongue and fiery invective, had to make a choice.11 Was he wrong? Had he himself failed the litmus test which James had given him? Or was James wrong, uninspired -- a man of the flesh? Like the "stiff-necked" men of old Israel, Luther "stoned the prophet" rather than trembling at his word.

That is why to disregard 1 John as an epistle of straw doesn't mean to question its inspiration, authorship, or date of composition. It means to ignore, as Martin Luther did with the Letter of James, the evidence of the litmus test 1 John gives to all who claim to believe. His sheep hear His voice and do not reason it away, even when He tells them they don't really know Him or His salvation.

  • 1. Romans 5:5
  • 2. John 2:23-25, 8:30-44, 1 Corinthians 15:2
  • 3. John 13:34-35
  • 4. 1 John 5:20
  • 5. 1 John 5:12 in the NASB reads, "He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life."
  • 6. Romans 10:14-17
  • 7. The word believe (pisteuo) is #4100 in Strong's Greek Concordance. It comes from #4102 (pistis), persuasion, which is derived from #3982 (peitho), meaning to convince.
  • 8. Fellowship is in the Greek a very rich word: (#2842 from 2844); partnership, i.e. (literally) participation, or (social) intercourse, or (pecuniary, which means relating to or involving money) benefaction; (to) communicate, communication, communion, contribution, distribution, fellowship.
  • 9. Romans 8:1-4
  • 10. James 2:14-17 and 1:26, respectively.
  • 11. One example among many by Luther, which directly contradicts James 3:9: "For I am unable to pray without at the same time cursing," Luther said, "If I am prompted to say, 'Hallowed be Thy name,' I must add, 'Cursed, damned, outraged be the name of papists.' Indeed, I pray thus orally every day and in my heart, without intermission" And concerning Catholic clergy he wrote, "The Rhine is scarcely big enough to drown the whole accursed gang of Roman extortioners... cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and abbots." (Quoted in W. Durant, The Reformation, p. 418)

The Twelve Tribes is a confederation of twelve self-governing tribes, composed of self-governing communities. We are disciples of the Son of God whose name in Hebrew is Yahshua. We follow the pattern of the early church in Acts 2:44 and 4:32, truly believing everything that is written in the Old and New Covenants of the Bible, and sharing all things in common.

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