1 John—Its Context, Purpose, and Specific Passages
(The Tests of 1 John)
The book of 1 John may be one of the most difficult books within the Bible for the Christian to understand, particularly in light of the plethora of scriptural passages in the New Testament that clearly teach that eternal (spirit) salvation (justification) is by faith alone in Christ alone, that this salvation once received by faith is not subject to change by God or man, and that even though one may possess it there is still the possibility of serious sin in the believer’s life.
It is for this reason that this discussion on the context, the purpose, and various passages of this epistle is written. Hopefully, it will fortify the Christian as to assurance of his personal salvation and will provide him a deeper understanding, not only of this marvelous book in the Bible, but in the entire Word of God.
In order to properly interpret this epistle, which is sometimes referred to as the “tests of 1 John” or the “tests of life,” three issues must be settled: (1) to whom was the epistle written, Christians or professing Christians, (2) the nature of the Gnostic heresy being confronted, and (3) the intended purpose of the book. The first two concerns may be considered as “context.”
Context refers to the events that surround the book, e.g., why the book was written, the issues that are considered in the book, and the person or persons to whom the book was written. It is fairly universally accepted that the book of 1 John was written primarily to contest the philosophies of Gnosticism as existed in that day.
From the various references within certain books of the Apostle John (i.e., 1 John and the Revelation) and the writings of the early church historians (e.g., Polycarp; Ignatius), it becomes clear that a proper interpretation of this epistle is possible only when one understands the Gnostic heresy that existed and opposed the early church. It is impossible to classify the varieties of Gnosticism that existed at that time, but at its core it was an attempt to combine Christianity with various pagan and Jewish philosophies. It appears to have come from two basic sources: Alexandrian philosophy (a distinct separation between God and the material world) and the eastern philosophy of Zoroastrianism (the world was viewed as a battleground between the good and evil spirits).
Gnosticism took the Greek opposition between spirit and matter and the Persian dualism as the basis for its system. It is difficult to impossible to fully fathom all the specific doctrinal arguments of the particular brand of Gnosticism that influenced the writings of John at that time, but one may be assured that several of the following dogmas were part and parcel to it:
· Gnostics are more enlightened, possessing a special knowledge, than ordinary Christians.
· Spirit and matter, which is evil, is strictly separated.
· Christ was not incarnate—His humanity was only apparent and His sufferings were unreal.
· Denial of personality of God.
· Denial of the free will of man.
· The demiurge—a supernatural being who created and fashioned the world and who is subordinate to the Supreme Being. Intermediate beings between God and man formed the universe and are responsible for evil; thereby, the source of evil was located in the demiurge—but it is unclear how evil got into him initially. The demiurge produced the Old Testament, who is the God of the Jews.
· Union of Christian and pagan doctrines.
· Asceticism—the doctrine that a person can attain a high spiritual and moral state by practicing self-denial, self-mortification, and the like.
· Antinomianism—maintains that Christians are freed from the moral law by virtue of grace as set forth in the gospel. It was based on the concept that the soul and body are separate entities and have nothing in common; therefore, each may go it own way and will have no effect upon the other.
To Whom Addressed
Some claim, in order to support their unique interpretation of various passages within this epistle, that the readers for which it is intended are a group of “professing Christians” and whose regeneration is dubious to John. But if the statements by John are taken at face value, this cannot be so. The following passages make it clear that John is addressing genuine “born again” Christians:
The Purpose of the Epistle
It is suggested by those who believe that John in this epistle presented several “tests” by which a person may reflect on the validity of his salvation that “this” purpose for writing the epistle may be found in his closing words.
These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God. (1 John 5:13)
However, such a view of the purpose of the epistle depends entirely on the interpretation of the tests. Are the “tests” about one’s “new birth,” or are they about whether or not one is walking in fellowship with God? In short, are they tests of regenerate life, or are they tests of abundant life? The above verse is clearly written to regenerate people (to those “who believe”). And a regenerate person cannot acquire assurance of salvation by reflecting on his works. Rather, as the immediate antecedent to “these things” states, He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself (1 John 5:10). It is not without precedent that John has used as the immediate antecedent “all that has gone before.” Note John 20:30, 31, where he does just that; but when he does, he makes it clear as he does there. In all other cases he locates the antecedent in the immediately preceding context, e.g., 1 John 2:1, which refers to 1:5-10, and 2:26, which refers to 2:18-25.
Assurance can only come by one’s faith-acceptance of the truth expressed in 1 John 5:12: He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. If one looks “within” to self, assurance is never possible; but if one looks outward in faith to Christ alone, assurance is certain. In addition, in John 5:24 John makes it clear that the only condition for knowing one has eternal life is that he has believed.
What then is the purpose of 1 John? It is found where a purpose statement is often found, which is in the introduction of a document. In this epistle:
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. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. (1 John 1:3, 4)
John’s purpose in writing to these true Christians is so that they may walk in fellowship with God. He is not writing to “test” their salvation; he is writing so that their joy may be full. Jesus put it this way:
If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:10, 11).
To have one’s joy “made full” is not to become a Christian but, being a Christian already, to act like it. And this very concept was at risk as these Christians came under the influence of Gnosticism. The Gnostics maintained that a child of God could have sin in his life and still be in fellowship with Christ (i.e., abiding in Christ). So the “tests” presented in this epistle are designed to reveal to the Christian reader whether or not he is abiding in (walking in fellowship with) Christ. These tests could also be used to discern the inaccuracy of the Gnostic doctrine.
Although this study is not an exhaustive treatment of the epistle of 1 John, there are several passages within it that should be addressed in light of their misinterpretations by Christians. Such misinterpretations are anchored in the Christian’s failure to understand the tripartite nature of salvation, the manner in which the different aspects of salvation are expressed in Scripture, and the allowance of illegitimate totality transfer (the exegetical error of importing the “sense of meaning” of a word or phrase as determined in one context or linguistic setting into all uses of the word or phrase regardless of their contexts or linguistic settings). There is a distinct difference between spirit salvation (justification—past tense—based solely on a one-time exercise of faith solely in Christ and can never change), soul salvation (sanctification—present tense—based on works and which can change), and body salvation (glorification—future tense—which shall take place when the human body is changed into a glorious body like as the body of Christ). The reader is directed to the study entitled “Rule of Three,” which may be found in the topical Bible study section of www.bibleone.net, for a more comprehensive treatment of the tripartite doctrine of salvation. Without a proper understanding of this doctrine, a proper understanding of certain passages in 1 John is difficult to achieve.
But even if one fails to recognize the different aspects of salvation, one cannot fail to recognize that initial salvation, which secures heaven as one’s final state, is vastly different from spiritual growth (sanctification), which secures eventual rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Such growth leads to a position of deep fellowship with Christ and is referred to by Christ, speaking to His disciples (at the “Last Supper” but after Judas Iscariot had departed—John 13:30), in John 15 when He spoke of the vine-branch relationship as “abiding in” and maintaining a friendship with Him; and is referred to in 1 John both as “knowing that we are in Him” and “abiding in Him” (1 John 1:3-6). In fact, the discourse by Christ on “abiding in Him” (John 15:1-11, 14) should be studied along side 1 John because of it’s parallelism with the message by John in this location.
The Test of Fellowship with God
Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, "I know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked. (1 John 2:3-6)
He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:8)
The strict Calvinist interprets “knowing God” as the equivalent of possessing eternal salvation. With this interpretation one assumes that a truly “saved” person will persevere in living for Christ, i.e., keeping God’s commandments and demonstrating love. And if one does not persevere in this, he has never truly been saved in the first place. The Arminian, on the other hand, will simply take this passage as vindication for his belief that a saved person can lose his salvation. Yet both of these interpretations are products of an illegitimate totality transfer, which in this writer’s opinion leads to error.
Spirit salvation is not in question here. Soul (life) salvation, otherwise referred to as sanctification or spiritual growth, is in question. As in the Lord’s discourse in John 15:1-11, John is speaking about “abiding” in Him, which is also expressed as the love of God being perfected in the believer. This is what is meant by “knowing Him.” Here the sense is the achievement of an intimate and truly personal knowledge or relationship with God. Such a close connection with God is evidenced by a spirit-filled life, which always results in faith-obedience (as opposed to legal-obedience) to the will (Word) of God.
But for John in this passage, knowing God is to walk in fellowship with Him. It does not refer to the entrance into eternal life at justification but to the continuing experience with Christ called fellowship. What is in focus here is not whether or not they are regenerate but whether or not God’s love has been “perfected in them.” God’s love cannot be brought to completion in one who does not have it at all! In fact, in 2:4 and 2:6 John equates “knowing God” with “abiding in Him.” He is not discussing their justification; he is discussing their “walk” (1 Jn. 2:6). (The Reign of the Servant Kings, Joseph C. Dillow, Schoettle Publishing Co., 1993)
John’s usage here, that to “know” God is to walk in fellowship with Christ, is also illustrated by his account of the conversation between Christ and Philip in John 14.
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him." Philip said to Him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, 'Show us the Father'? (John 14:6-9)
Although evangelicals often restrict the meaning of John 14:6 to spirit salvation (justification), it is clear that within the context Christ uses it in a much broader sense. His application is to the entire salvation experience: spirit, soul (life), and body salvation. And although Philip knew Christ in a spirit-saving (justification) sense, it is clear that he did not know Christ in some other sense. He did not know how fully the Son had manifested the Father, which knowledge comes only through faith-obedience to Him.
This same lesson is true for all believers, even the apostles, as expressed by the usage of the personal pronoun “we” (also used along with “us” and “our” some 10 times in the preceding verses) in 1 John 1:6, 7:
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
Here it is possible for even an apostle to lie and not practice the truth! Therefore, it is also possible for the truth to not be “in” a regenerate person. This means that “truth” in this verse does not refer to the seed of life but to active application (“practice”) of truth in daily experience. Being spiritually “born again” (a one-time experience like physical birth) is unlike “knowing God” (a progressive experience and a matter of degrees), just like a wife may complain about a husband: “Even though we have been married for ten years, he does not know me.”
The Gnostic followers of the time were legendary for saying that they knew God better than others, yet they did not demonstrate practical love. So John is clearly demonstrating that although a person may “know” God in one sense (eternal salvation from the exercise of faith in Christ at a point in time), he may be completely ignorant (“not know”) of God in terms of an intimate relationship (fellowship) with Christ, which is a process. This knowing of Him experientially is not all or nothing. There are degrees. True fellowship with Christ does not come at a point of time; it is a progression that continues over a lifetime and varies in intensity proportional to the believer’s faith-obedience to God’s Word. It is what the Apostle Paul meant in Philippians 3 when he said:
Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)
Did Paul know Christ in a “saving (justification) relationship”? Absolutely! But here he expresses his desire to know him in true fellowship, which comes through faith-obedience and which always produces divine good works as God’s Spirit works through the believer (as opposed to human good works—works done under one’s own power). This is what is meant by “I may know Him and the power of His resurrection,” which then results in the attainment of a special “resurrection from the dead” (here the apostle uses the Greek word exanastasis—the only time in Scripture that the word is used for “resurrection,” which may more accurately be translated “out-resurrection” and is therefore expressive of a special resurrection based on one’s life as a Christian and apart from the universal resurrection that all believers will experience as a result of their justification experience of faith alone in Christ alone).
Abiding in Christ, knowing God, and friendship with Christ are all expressions of soul salvation, the continuous process of sanctification that every born-again person may experience. A true example of an Old Testament saint who successfully achieved this friendship by the end of his life was Abraham (James 2:23).
The Meaning of the Departed in 1 John 2
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things.
(1 John 2:19, 20)
The strict Calvinist and the Arminian will claim that the “us” in verse 19 refers to all believers; yet, to be true to context, it is specifically a differentiation from the “you” in verse 20. The “us,” as the “we,” the “us,” and the “our,” in the opening verses of the book refers to the apostolic circle. The “you” are the believers to whom John is writing. The fact that these “antichrists” departed from the company of the apostles was proof that they were never truly of the apostles even though they claimed to be true apostles.
There is no statement in this passage that true believers will persevere to the end. Nor is there the statement that if a man departs from the faith, this proves he was never a Christian in the first place. What the passage conveys is that, if these so-called apostles were really apostles, they would have listened to John and would have continued in fellowship with the Twelve.
Absence of Sin as Evidence of the Abiding State of Fellowship
The Gnostics taught that God was in imperfect being, a demiurge possessing mostly good and some evil, and that sin may be a matter of some indifference. For this reason, John says “that God is light [righteousness] and in Him is no darkness [sin] at all” (1 John 1:5). This declaration is very emphatic in Greek, “no . . . none at all!” By this he was countering the heresy of an imperfect God. If there is a mixture in God, the Gnostic could reason, there is also a mixture of evil and good in the creation that emanates from Him, the new man in Christ, who is at the bottom end of the emanations from the Deity. That new man, instead of being the perfect sinless creation of a perfect God, is a “blend” of good and evil. Sin is therefore not of great concern. To this John declares:
Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:6-9)
John has already declared in 1 John 1:8 & 10: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . . . If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” Therefore in this passage in 1 John 3 he must be viewing the believer from a particular point of view in regards to sin. In fact, an analysis of the Greek structure and tense-use in these verses will help to clarify John’s point of view. One of the ablest Greek scholars of the last century was Kenneth S. Wuest, Teacher Emeritus of New Testament Greek of the Moody Bible Institute. His study of 1 John 3:6 & 9 reveals the following translation:
Everyone who in Him is constantly abiding is not habitually sinning. Everyone who is constantly sinning has not with discernment seen Him, nor has he known Him. . . . Everyone who has been born out of God with the present result that he is a born-one of God does not habitually commit sin because His seed remains in him. And he is not able habitually to sin, because out of God he has been born with the present result that he is a born-one of God. (1 John 3:6 & 9, The New Testament—An Expanded Translation, Kenneth S. Wuest, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961)
John’s emphasis is actually about sin that is produced out from a nature that habitually must practice sin. From other scriptures it becomes clear that although a person may be saved, he continues in this life to live connected to the flesh (the “old man,” or “sin nature”). It is when the Christian is not abiding in Christ that the “sin nature” takes over and he is then capable of practicing sin out of habit. On the other hand, when a Christian abides in Christ, the seed (the new nature of the Holy Spirit) that remains in him and which affected his new birth can then take over, enabling the Christian to avoid sinning and to instead practice righteousness.
John is emphatically saying, contrary to the teaching of Gnosticism, that sin is never a part of the “abiding” experience. This means that sin cannot be a product of regenerate life, as the Gnostics maintained. So when anyone sins, he alone is responsible for it and the source of it cannot be the “seed of God” in him. That seed cannot ever result in the Christian committing even one act of sin. Therefore if a Christian sins, it is not an expression of the character of the new creation. When John says, “No one born of God sins,” he is saying that the person, as man born of God, does not sin. If he sins, it is not an expression of who he is as a man who has been born of God. It is not compatible with “abiding in Him” (1 John 3:6).
The Apostle Paul asserts like thinking in his Roman epistle:
Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:20-25)
Joseph C. Dillow in his book The Reign of The Servant Kings shares the following cogent remarks regarding this matter:
Paul in some sense understand that the true Paul, the real Paul, “I myself,” does not serve sin. If when he sins, the true Paul, the “inner man,” the new creation in Christ, is not the one doing it, then who, we might ask, is doing it? The answer is, of course, the whole person is doing the sin and is responsible for it. However, the source of that sin is in the “flesh” and is not in the new creation in Christ, the regenerate new nature. The first step toward victory over sin is to be absolutely convinced as Paul and John are, that it is completely foreign to our true identity in Christ.
But according to the Gnostics, sinning can be a possible expression of the born-again person, and this is the precise heresy that John is trying to counteract. To them an imperfect demiurge can create an imperfect new creation. Furthermore, sin was a matter of the body anyway and not of the spirit and could be ignored because the spirit was the only thing of importance. Since there is a strong separation between spirit and matter, the sins of the body, according to the Gnostics, do not corrupt the spirit. This interpretation allows us to take the absolutes seriously and fits well with the context and is explainable in light of the Gnostic heresy being refuted.
The same phrase is repeated in 1 John 5:18, but with a qualifying thought (he who has been born of God keeps himself): We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him. Wuest in his “expanded translation” brings forth a more exact meaning: We know absolutely that everyone who has been born of God and as a result is a regenerated individual does not keep on habitually sinning. But He who was born of God maintains a watchful guardianship over him, and the Pernicious One does not lay hold of him.
This expanded translation fits well with Dillow’s following comments regarding this passage, as follow:
When the Christian is viewed as “one born of God,” the reference is evidently to his true identity as a new man in Christ. The new man is sinless (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), and no sin in the life of the Christian ever comes from who he really is, a new creation. In Jn. 3:9 the immediate reason for the absolute absence of sin from the new creation was “because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” Now John explains the ultimate reason for the total absence of sin from the new man in Christ. It is due to the protective activity of THE “one born of God.”
Who is the “one born of God”? The Christian is described as “one born of God,” but the verb is in the perfect tense. This second reference to one born of God employs the aorist tense and suggests that Christ is the one doing the keeping. This would be consistent with John’s view that Jesus was God’s “only begotten Son” (Jn. 1:14). The keeping ministry of Jesus Christ absolutely prevents sin in the new creation. (The Reign of the Servant Kings, Joseph C. Dillow, Schoettle Publishing Co., 1993).
But such protection by Christ may only come as one abides in Him. When this is the believer’s standing, Satan (“the evil one”) cannot touch [influence that will have a certain evil end-result] him. Satan can do nothing to any Christian that will lead him to damnation or hell, but he does have influence over the non-abiding Christian as to his spiritual progression in this life, which will have eventual results as to “rewards” at the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 2:6; Revelation 22:12).
Love of Brethren as Evidence of the Abiding State of Fellowship
Another passage often subjected to an illegitimate totality transfer is 1 John 3:14 & 15. In this passage John introduces the idea that true Christianity expresses itself in love for other believers and that hatred of a fellow believer is incompatible with the Christian faith.
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. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:14, 15)
Here John is not saying that a Christian who hates his brother is not a Christian, but, rather, that he abides in death and that he does not have eternal life abiding in him. The use of the word abide is key to this interpretation. As seen in John’s gospel and here, the word abide always refers to an intimate walk. Such a walk may be with Christ such as is expressed in John 15, or, it may be with “death,” i.e., living in the sphere from which the believer has been delivered—the “flesh” or “sin nature.”
The sister passage to this one is John 15:10-12 in which Jesus tells his disciples (saved persons) the conditional nature of the “abiding relationship”: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” His foremost command that must be obeyed if the believer is to abide in Christ is the command that John discusses in 1 John, the command to love one another. Only if the believer loves the brethren does he remain in friendship (fellowship) with Christ (John 15:14).
John confirms this conditional aspect of the abiding relationship in the following verse:
Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. . . . (1 John 3:24)
John clearly states that the abiding relationship is conditioned on faith-obedience, in contrast to the regeneration experience that comes through faith alone (1 John 5:10, 11).
Furthermore, the eternal life, in the second part of the subject passage and which cannot abide in a believer who hates the brethren, is not the regenerate nature bestowed upon a person who comes to Christ in faith; but it is Jesus Christ (1 John 1:2) Himself. To have Christ abiding in (maintaining close fellowship with) the believer is not the same thing as being eternally saved (justified). It is a conditional intimate relationship (fellowship) with Christ in which He is “at home” in the soul (life = mental and emotional part) of the faith-obedient believer. Remember that the abiding relationship works both ways: Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him (1 John 3:24).
Can a true Christian “hate his brother”? Of course he can. The phrase “one who hates his brother” is an articular present participle in Greek, which normally does not have a durative sense. Thus, it is grammatically doubtful to claim that this is the man’s habitual life-style. Rather, it may refer only to incidents of murder or hatred at a point in his life.
David is a good example of a justified man who not only hated but followed up the murder in his heart with murder in reality by killing Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 12:0). Even Peter acknowledges that it is possible for a true Christian to “suffer as a murderer” (1 Pet. 4:15), and who has not felt anger in his heart at some time and is thus, on the authority of Jesus, a murderer (Mt. 5:21, 22)?
When we harbor anger in our heart, John says, we are, in effect, murderers, and we abide in death, the very sphere from which we were delivered when we became Christians. We walk as “mere men” (1 Cor. 3:3), i.e., as if we were still in an unregenerate state. We are “carnal Christians” who are “walking in darkness” (1 Jn. 2:11) and are in danger of losing our reward (2 Jn. 8) and shrinking back in shame at the judgment (1 Jn 2:28). Jesus Christ is not at home in such a heart. He does not abide there. (The Reign of the Servant Kings, Joseph C. Dillow, Schoettle Publishing Co., 1992)
By context, purpose, and exegesis (analysis) of specific passages it is clear that 1 John is a treatise primarily on soul (life) salvation and what is necessary (i.e., the abiding relationship) to successfully achieve it (i.e., spiritual fulfillment in this life and rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ and the millennial age to come).