Second, one thing that greatly bothers many who first hear this teaching is the lack of objective commands. Faith and penitence are so subjective — surely there are actual commands that must be obeyed!
Again, harken back to when we first baptize a convert. What commands must they obey to be saved? Well, often the only command we teach, at first, is baptism. And we expect them to obey what they’ve learned because they are penitent. But we don’t ask them to confess a position on instrumental music or male elders.
But, by definition, penitence means a willingness to obey God’s commands. Where does a convert learn God’s commands? Well, from the faith community that converted her and from the scriptures. And because the convert has a heart for God, we expect the convert to be willing to receive instruction from her congregation and from the Bible.
Thus, John writes,
(1 John 4:6) We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.
A penitent person necessarily “listens” to the apostles. Compare this use of “listen” to —
(John 6:45) It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.
(John 8:47) He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”
(Same words in the Greek.) “Listen” doesn’t mean “perfectly obey” or even “perfectly interpret” or even “understand all doctrine.” Rather, it means to be willing to learn and submit to what you learn. It’s just another way of looking at penitence.
Third, there is one essential, central command.
(1 John 3:11) This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
Notice the use of “hear” (or listen to). What we are expected to hear is “love one another.” We often fail to appreciate how very encompassing this command is. But consider what John actually says —
(1 John 3:14) We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.
(1 John 3:18-19) Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 19 This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence
(1 John 4:7-8) Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
(1 John 4:12) No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
(1 John 4:16-17) And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. 17 In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him.
John says that if we love one another, we remain saved. If we don’t, we don’t. Indeed, if we love “with actions” then we “know that we belong to the truth.” I’m entirely comfortable with taking John at his word.
Now, “listen to the apostles” and “love one another” are co-extensive. If you listen to the apostles, then you’ll listen to their message, that is, love one another.
We shouldn’t be surprised that John says things so starkly, so simply. Paul is no different —
(Rom 13:8-10) Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
(Gal 5:6) For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
(Gal 5:14) The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul says in Gal 5:6 that the reason circumcision isn’t necessary to our salvation is that it is neither faith nor love. As love is what God commands, those who are penitent — who listen to God — love.
Therefore, the marks of the church are faith and love, not a cappella music and male elders.
It’s important to realize that 1 John was written so his readers could determine whether they remain saved.
(1 John 5:13) I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
He offers several tests — faith in Jesus, love for one another, possession of the Spirit, listening to God’s apostles, and obedience — and says not a word about ecclesiology, that is, nothing about congregational autonomy, nothing about plurality of elders, nothing about acts of worship or “marks of the church” other than faith, love, the Spirit, listening to the apostles, and obedience. John obviously understands God’s will very differently than we do.