And he doesn’t explain himself. Well, he explains himself, but indirectly. He seems to change the subject when he’s really tackling the question from another angle to help us deepen our understanding.
He says the simplest things–at least they seem simple–but when you ponder what he says for a while, you realize that John is quite profound.
However, at least for me, to get the profundity of what he’s saying, I have to read the entire book and add it all up. You see, John’s style is more circular than the very linear Paul. He returns to his topics again and again, shining light on them from different angles. In fact, of all the writers of the epistles, I find John the most like Jesus: pithy, insightful … and puzzling.
Walking in the light
(1 John 1:7) But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
“Purifies” is in the present tense, which in the Greek means “continuously purifies.” This is a promise of on-going salvation–but not a salvation that can’t be lost. He’s not teaching once saved always saved. But he is teaching that salvation should be continuous, not occasional.
This test is whether “we walk in the light.” But John doesn’t define this phrase immediately. Rather, as we work through the other tests he offers, we come to see what walking in the light truly is.
(1 John 1:9) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
Acknowledging our sins
The next test is whether “we confess our sins.” The promise is that we’ll be continuously forgiven if we do so. “Purify” here is also in the present tense.
The difficulty with this verse is the mistranslation of “homologeo” as “confess,” whereas in this context it actually means “acknowledge.”
John is not talking about a legalistic requirement that we confess each sin to be saved (who could meet this requirement?) No, he’s insisting that we admit our sinfulness.
Consider, for example–
(1 John 4:15) If anyone acknowledges [homologeo] that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.
The same word is translated as “acknowledge” in 1 John 4:2-3, 15; 2 John 1:7. In fact, it’s never used of confessing sin in the New Testament. Rather, the word used for confession of sin is usually “exomologeo,” as in James 5:16 and Matthew 3:6.
And this only makes sense in context. Look at the verses that bracket 1 John 1:9–
(1 John 1:8-10) If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 … 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
The obvious contrast is with refusing to admit that you sin. Therefore, the test is not whether we’ve confessed each and every sin but whether we admit that we are sinners.
After all, we can’t claim the grace of God until we admit we need this grace. So long as we arrogantly pretend to merit our salvation, we are denied our salvation.
The next test is love.
(1 John 2:3-11) We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. 4 The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
7 Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. 8 Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. 9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.
This is as frequently misused passage, and so I quote at length to avoid making the common mistake of taking verse 3 out of context.
This passage clearly parallels Jesus’ teaching just before his arrest in John 15.
(John 15:10-14) If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command.
Notice how Jesus urges his apostle to obey his “commands” but gives them but one “command”: love each other.
This is explained by Jesus and others in many places–
(Matt. 7:12) So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up [literally: “is”] the Law and the Prophets.
(Luke 10:25-28) On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
(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. 5:14) The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
(James 2:8) If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.
Jesus, Paul, and James seem to think that “love your neighbor” is the entirety of the law. It’s just one command and yet it’s every command!
John next tells us that all with faith are saved–
(1 John 2:23-25) No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. 24 See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is what he promised us–even eternal life.
John gives us one more test–
(1 John 2:29) If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.
“What is right” is better translated “righteousness” or even “justice.” “Righteousness” is a word that had a long history when John wrote it. It was a favorite of the Old Testament prophets, and John assumes that his readers are familiar with the concept.
(Amos 5:7-24) You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground … 10 you hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. 11 You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. … 12 For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. … 15 Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. … 21 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. 22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. 23 Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. 24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
This gives something of the flavor of the word. It’s not about obeying arbitrary commands: righteousness is about caring for the poor and helping those who need justice. It’s caring about the people God cares about.
At this point, John begins to make the same points again, but often with greater explanation or emphasis.
John explains why it’s so important that we acknowledge our sinfulness–
(1 John 3:3-6) Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. 4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
Jesus has no sin. We sin. But because we are in Jesus, and he has given us hope, we purify ourselves, that is, repent and grow in righteousness and love.
In verse 6, when John says that Christians don’t keep on sinning, the verb tense is again present. We don’t continue in our former sins. Rather, we repent and grow. We never defeat sin completely, but as we mature in Christ, we are putting more and more sin behind us.
(1 John 3:10-11) This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. 11 This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
“Do what is right” is really “do righteousness.” Thus, John here connects loving one another with doing righteousness. They aren’t really two different commands or two different tests. Rather, if you do one, you do the other.
(1 John 3:16-18) This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
John reinforces the point: love leads to righteousness because love requires action to help those in need.
(1 John 3:19-22) This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20 whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.
“Obey his commands” in verse 22 summarizes the teaching that just preceded: love, do righteousness.
Sometimes we wish to gain confidence or to feel justified because we have the correct number of acts of worship or pure congregational autonomy. John says: want confidence? Check to see if your actions prove that you love those in need.
(1 John 3:23) And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.
In verse 22 John said we must obey Jesus’ “commands.” Now he defines “commands”: believe in Jesus, love one another. He calls these two commands but a single “command” following Jesus’ own wordplay quoted in John 15 above.
It’s all just one command stated two different ways. After all, if I believe Jesus is the Christ, then I accept that he’s the Messiah (“Christ” is the Greek word for the Hebrew word “Messiah”), the king of kings, lord of lords. How can we truly believe and not obey?
(1 John 3:24) Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
Well, now it gets confusing! Just how on earth does John expect us to know that we’re saved “by the Spirit he gave us”? Well, it’s not really fair for me to ask because I skipped the part with the answer earlier.
(1 John 2:20) But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.
“Anointing” is a reference to the Spirit (Acts 10:38; 2 Cor. 1:21-22). Luke declares that Jesus was anointed by the Spirit (Luke 4:18). Of course, “Messiah” and “Christ” mean “the anointed one,” referring most immediately to kingship and the oil of anointing ceremonially used in designating a man king.
But Jesus, as the Christ, was anointed with the Spirit, as are we. It’s a little surprising to think of ourselves as anointed to be kings, but the image is found throughout scripture.
(1 Pet. 2:9) But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
(Eph. 1:20-23) [H]e raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
(Eph. 2:1-7) … 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
(Rev. 1:6 KJV) And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
Peter calls Christians “royal.” John calls Christians “kings” in Revelation. In Ephesians, Paul describes the church as sitting on the heavenly throne with Jesus, having rule over the remainder of creation.
It only makes sense. We’re brothers and sisters of the King. But we’re actually all kings because we are united in the body of Christ, who has been given all authority!
Therefore, John is speaking of the indwelling Spirit possessed by all Christians (Acts 2:38-39) as the anointing we’ve received just as Jesus was anointed by the Spirit.
In a difficult passage, John refers to Jesus’ baptism and his death as witnesses of the truth.
(1 John 5:6-8) This is the one who came by water and blood–Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.
Of course, Jesus was declared to be Son of God at his baptism by the descent of the Spirit on him and at his death by his resurrection as well as the tearing of the temple’s veil and the other miracles that surrounded the event.
Next, to understand this important passage, we need to consider the meaning of “truth” in 1 John 2:20. “Truth” is sometimes used in the New Testament of anything that is true, but it’s also very often used as shorthand for the truth about Jesus–the gospel. This is strongly suggested by the three following verses–
(1 John 2:21-23) I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. 22 Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist–he denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
John contrasts “the truth” with the “lie,” which is the denial that Jesus is the Christ. Therefore, the truth is plainly that Jesus is the Christ.
If you take the time to search the meaning of “truth” as used throughout the New Testament, you’ll find that this is often how the word is used, making it’s use here less mysterious than at first appears.
(John 14:6) Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
(2 Cor. 11:10) As surely as the truth of Christ is in me, nobody in the regions of Achaia will stop this boasting of mine.
(Gal. 2:5) We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.
(Heb. 10:26-27) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
Of course, Christians know the truth before they are saved and so receive the Spirit, and yet the Spirit teaches the truth to Christians.
27 As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit–just as it has taught you, remain in him.
Compare this to this passage from Jeremiah quoted in Hebrews–
(Heb. 8:10-12) This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 11 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
It’s characteristic of our new life in Jesus that the Spirit indwells us and teaches us how to be more and more like Jesus–to have faith, to love in action and deed, and to do righteousness.
(2 Cor. 3:3) You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Thus, we see that John adds another test: does the Spirit indwell us? But there’s no Spirit-o-meter that we can hold up to our hearts to see if the Spirit lives there. Rather, we test the Spirit by looking for the work of the Spirit in our lives.
(John 3:8) “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Jesus told Nicodemus that the Spirit cannot be apprehended directly but only by its effects.
Returning to 1 John, John tells us how to test who has the Spirit–
(1 John 4:2-3) This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
Those who have faith in Jesus have the Spirit. Those who don’t don’t.
Acknowledging apostolic teaching
Next, John offers another test of who is saved–
(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.
Very simply, those who listen to and respect the teachings of the apostles are also from God. The apostolic teaching is the test of truth.
Now, this does not mean that those who make any mistake at all in interpreting Peter or Paul are damned! That’s most certainly not the point! Rather, John is referring particularly to the teaching found in 1 John–faith, love, righteousness, Spirit.
Those who have the truth Spirit–the Spirit of truth, that is, the Spirit of the gospel–acknowledge the simple truths of the gospel. They’ve confessed their faith in Jesus. They’ve repented. They try to live the life Jesus would have us live. And they’ve not surrendered either their faith or their penitence, as amply evidenced by righteous living.
(1 John 4:7-15) … Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. … 13 We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.
John again repeats his simple tests: love, the Spirit, faith in Jesus.
Now, as we’ve worked through these scriptures, we have surely also noticed how John also declares that those without faith, without love, without righteous deeds, or without the Spirit are lost. He says these things repeatedly.
Therefore, in John’s way of thinking, there are only two kinds of people–
|Admit sinfulness||Deny sinfulness|
|Love others||Hate others|
|Do righteousness||Don’t do righteousness|
|Possess the Spirit||Without the Spirit|
|Purify himself||Continue to sin|
|Acknowledge the authority of the apostles||Rejects the authority of the apostles|
Now, it helps to remember that John is speaking to Christians–being people who’ve come to faith, repented, and submitted to baptism. To repent thus means to admit your sinfulness and commit to a life of love in action, resulting in righteous living.
But “faith” in John’s vocabulary also includes “repent.” He sees no possibility of having faith and not having love and righteousness. It’s impossible. If you don’t love, you don’t have faith!
We often think of “faith” as mere intellectual assent to the facts surrounding Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but John–like Paul–considers faith to be something more.
Thus, when James asserts that “faith without works is dead,” Paul and John would nod their heads–not because we are saved by works, but because the Christian has committed to do works and because the Spirit changes our hearts into hearts that take pleasure in good works–
(Phil. 2:12-13) Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
Works are the product of our salvation, not the basis of our salvation. But a Christian who doesn’t do good works (absent poor health or other exigent circumstances) isn’t a Christian at all.
In his typical, non-linear way, John puts his thesis sentence near the end–
(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 doesn’t say whether you have eternal life–it’s “that you have eternal life”! John’s theology assumes that his readers are saved. They don’t so much need to know how to be saved or how to stay saved as to be assured that they are saved!
Isn’t in possible to have faith and not have works? Don’t even the demons believe and tremble?
(James 2:19 KJV) Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
Misunderstanding this verse has been the source of many mistakes. When James says the demons “believe,” he is not using the word in the sense of saving faith. Someone may admit that there’s a God and yet refuse to yield to his authority. The Gospels are filled with stories of demons who declare that Jesus is the Messiah and yet who work contrary to his will.
But this is a different kind of faith from the faith that saves.
(Rom. 10:9) That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Paul tells us that saving faith is a faith that makes Jesus Lord. John tells us that the saved love in action and do righteousness–hardly the behavior of demons!
James’ point is that what some call “faith” is not really faith at all. Works do not have to be added to faith. Rather, works prove that the faith is real.
(James 2:14-17) What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
James sounds a lot like John! True faith produces love, and true love helps those in need.
Now, there’s a subtle but very important here. Works matter. A lot. But works don’t save.
Understandably, people get confused. Some seek to overrule Paul who denies that we’re saved by works. Others deny that works have any value at all. Both extremes are error.
Rather, we are saved before we do any works. Moreover, we are saved even though our works never, ever merit salvation. Even the apostles themselves were saved by grace, through faith, not works, although that spread the truth throughout the Roman Empire and most died as martyrs. It still wasn’t enough.
Rather, works are the product of our salvation.
(Eph. 2:8-10) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
The logic works like this example. If you study hard, you’ll get good grades. If you don’t get good grades, then you didn’t study hard.
But if you got good grades, you may not have studied hard at all. You may have cheated. You may be really smart. You may have gotten lucky.
And if you don’t study hard, you just might get good grades anyway. You might be the teacher’s pet or a great test taker.
If you have saving faith in Jesus, you’ll do good works. If you don’t do good works, you don’t have saving faith. But you can do good works and not have faith at all.
Faith (which includes repentance) produces salvation, and salvation gives you the Spirit, and a penitent heart strengthened by the Spirit does good works. The works came after salvation, indeed, as a result of salvation, not the other way around.
We should never feel the need to earn our salvation. We can’t! We’re never good enough!
But we should always feel compelled to serve God the best we can, not to merit salvation, but to celebrate our salvation! To please our Savior! To enjoy the things God gives us to enjoy!
Why doesn’t John talk about baptism? Isn’t it also a test?
Actually, no, it’s not. John is talking to Christians. Baptism is a test of whether they were ever saved but not of whether they are still saved. It’s a mistake to build your confidence on your baptism rather than the character of your heart and your life.
What if I have faith but my life doesn’t show it?
Obviously, Christians often go through difficult times, times of doubt and even anger with God. Sometimes we don’t live as we should. Does that mean we’re lost? Not necessarily.
God judges us based on our heart not what we did yesterday. He knows we go through these times and is patient with us.
But there can come a time when we were out the Spirit’s patience and quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19) and so lose our salvation.
It’s very difficult for a human to look at another human and say whether he’s quenched the Spirit, but we can certainly tell that our friend is in trouble and so see the need to intervene to help a struggling brother.
What if my faith is weak?
You cannot doubt unless you have faith.
Just as our works are never good enough, neither is our faith ever good enough. Weak faith is still faith! It’s enough, but the flickering flame of faith needs to be nurtured into a roaring fire of faith or else we remain in jeopardy of losing the faith and so our salvation.