Rethinking John’s First Epistle & His Assurance Quiz
First John is a series of tests whereby those who profess faith in Christ can determine whether they are truly saved or not. It’s a litmus for salvation. If you pass these tests embedded in the letter you have a basis for assurance. John’s aim is to distinguish between the saved and unsaved/believing and unbelieving by having them examine their lives.
So goes the standard explanation of John’s First Epistle. I’ve heard it explained this way so often over the years I’ve assumed (without a question) that it’s the only possible explanation, or valid angle on the letter. The epistle is put forward as a sort of salvific “disc assessment.” It’s an assurance quiz applied to John’s audience. Score high and you can have assurance. Score poorly and you’ve no basis for it. Some would go so far as to say the letter is specifically designed to create doubt in the lives of false believers within the church.
Apparently, a culture existed in the church that required John to step in and separate the sheep from the goats. Some people who professed to be redeemed actually weren’t. Their lives contradicted their professions. As a result, John breaks it down for them exposing the peril of their self-delusion. Seemingly, an outbreak of moral laxity, theological aberrance and internal conflict necessitated a letter of apostolic proportion. People who had no real reason for assurance were ignoring obvious signs to the contrary and deceiving themselves. John injects himself into the confusion and calls the false believers out. It’s a rather direct and blunt confrontation of rampant empty professions put forth in a systematic (“If not this then definitely not that”) format. The sense you get with this explanation is that of the apostle standing in-between the truth and the church with words of warning.
Based on any number of factors, you have no reason to have assurance. Here are seven characteristics that will be present in the life of true believers. If you can answer honestly to these realities than your profession is genuine.
Or, something to this effect.
That Moment Where Homiletics & Text Are Confused
According to most modern presentations – the letter breaks down around seven tests of assurance.
- Do you live in the light? (1 John 1:6-7)
- Do you confess your sins? (1 John 1:8-10)
- Dou you keep the commandments? (1 John 2:3-4)
- Do you love the brethren? (1 John 2:9-11)
- Do you have sound doctrine? (1 John 2:21-23)
- Do you practice righteousness? (1 John 2:29)
- Do you have the Holy Spirit? (1 John 4:13)
That’s a pretty standard offering. Of course, John’s syllogistic argument does not break down so simply. This above structure utilizing “tests” as an outline is merely a device used by preachers and teachers for clarity in presentation and to help people understand the letter. Such is the role of structure in preaching. But, it’s not really as if John mentions seven different things as much as he winds one central message around several interrelated themes. The same set of truths are folded into one another throughout the letter. The letter can be viewed as a funnel. Wide at the opening spiraling down pulling everything together as it goes around with overlapping themes heading towards an accumulative point. By the end of the epistle his message emerges as one succinct thought.
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. – 1 John 5:20
John’s epistle – when read at face value – doesn’t break down as neatly as we imagine. It’s a complex letter. The “tests” outline is one of those cases where a popular homiletical (delivery in preaching) arrangement has supplanted the actual structure, tone and message of the letter itself. This is not to say the above themes are not in the letter. In fact, they are. But, we all realize these “tests” are a convenient structure laid on top of the letter to aid in delivery.
It must also be pointed out that homiletics is subjective. There’s no hard and fast rule for how many “tests” one could include, or from where they could be drawn within the letter. It’s up to the preacher, or teacher to decide. It would be legitimate to add “tests” to the standard list of seven. For example, you could argue biblically from the epistle for the following additions.
- Do you believe that Jesus is the propitiation for your sins? (2:2)
- Are you living as if these are the last days? (2:18)
- Do you rest in the fact that you are God’s child? (3:1-3)
- Do the deeds in your life reflect a spirit-empowered love for believers? (3:16-18)
- When your conscience condemns you do you turn to the love of God, or away from it? (3:19-24)
- Are you allowing the love of God to cast out fear in your life? (4:17-19)
- Is your faith set exclusively in the Son of God? (5:13)
Point is, the list of tests can expand depending on the emphasis we want to give certain themes within the epistle. In certain cases, John is explicit (“By this we know…”) in identifying certain attitudes that should be present in the life of true believers. Consider the case of a condemning conscience.
By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God. – 3:19-21
According to John, a sign of true conversion (if we follow the tests argument) is confidently turning to God’s love and not away from it when our conscience condemns (cf. 3:21). This is exactly why John mentioned God’s faithfulness and justice in forgiving sinners earlier in the letter (1:9). Those who are true believers go to God and not away from Him (or towards self) in moments of conviction over sin. Leaning into the grace of God and depending on Christ by faith is a sign of real spiritual life. Since John is unambiguous on this point – it makes good sense to include this in the tests. It seems strange that such a clear statement about assurance is never included in an argument which singles out the matter of assurance.
Regardless, the greater point herein is simple:
It’s clear the modern evangelical take on the epistle – while not totally obscuring the point of the letter – has largely missed the tone and context of the letter.
Over time a point of application and delivery has usurped the purpose and context of the letter. We’ve been given this picture of John as an angry prophet coming down on a nominal church. But, he’s not in angry prophet mode. He’s in sheepdog mode. Furthermore, as will be seen, the church is not comprised of nominal people who need to be scared straight, but of true believers under siege who need to be reassured. In reality, John is not standing between the truth and the church threatening people with doubt. He’s not offering evidences (tests) against their assurance, but evidence for it.
Sheepdog Mode. Not Angry Prophet Mode.
If anything, the message of the letter is more along the lines of “You can be assured because these things are true” and not “You have no reason for assurance because these traits are missing.” The latter is simply not the tone of the letter. John is working to assure them and not trying to create a question in their minds. He’s trying to eliminate doubt, not create it. John assumes they are walking in the light, filled with the Spirit and posses evidences of true conversion.
A conciliatory tone is easily observed in the letter. Consider the classic passage from the second chapter.
I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you and you have overcome the evil one. – 1 john 2:12-14
In an obvious pastoral moment, John breaks the church down into spiritual demographics. Fathers, sons and children represent various mindsets, experiences and levels of maturity in the church. The language reveals John’s personal affection for them. Clearly, by the use of these identifiers, the apostle assumes the validity of their faith. His verb choice reinforces this. Throughout this passage he employs a verb tense that focuses on the settled condition of the subjects. For example, when he writes, “Your sins are forgiven”, he means, “Your sins have been and remain in a condition of forgiveness.” This can be applied to each subject and verb agreement in the list.
Ultimately then, the target audience in this epistle is comprised of believers, not some unidentified group of nominal professors. Other phrases and expressions throughout the epistle point the apostle’s confidence in their position before God.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1:9)
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (2:2)
But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. (2:19-20)
I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. (2:21)
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (3:1)
Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. (3:13)
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (4:10)
By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. (4:17)
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (5:14-15)
Obviously, John has complete confidence in the genuineness of their faith. It’s hard to come away with any other conclusion. First John, more than any other book in the Bible, reassures its audience of their status in Christ. It’s over the top with declarations of true faith. John goes out of his way to identify them in terms of their relationship to God. Six times he refers to them as “beloved.” Thirteen times he refers to them as “children.” Beyond this, the letter is full of expressions that drive the reader to their true status before God. “But you are.” “But you have been anointed.” “So we are.” All of this to say, the letter is replete with assurances delivered by apostolic authority, and not the lack thereof. Reassuring believers and not raising questions about assurance is the express purpose of the letter.
Take Out Your Pencils… The Test Starts Now… Good Luck!!
Most interpreters locate the purpose statement of the letter in chapter five.
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (5:13)
As this verse has typically been explained the idea behind it goes something like this:
I realize you are unsure as to your position before God, and your life is not really reflecting those traits that would give evidence to true conversion, so here are some tests whereby you can measure the genuineness of your faith and determine whether assurance is valid in your case. When you come out the other side of this letter – you can know based on your responses to these tests. Good luck.
But, when you read this passage in light of the greater context as described above, the statement is not meant to be threatening, or raise questions at all. John’s aim is unmistakable. It sounds something like this:
I wrote this letter so believers could be confident in their faith and be assured of their eternal life.
Some would assume – wrongly I think – that the Apostle is pressing for self-examination among those who have no real reason for assurance, or whose lives are contradictions. But, this makes little sense given that John identifies them as those “who believe.” He is defending and reinforcing the true faith of his audience as opposed to a group he earlier identified as apostates. These people are no longer in the church.
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 it might become plain that they all are not of us. (2:19)
In reality, there’s little evidence that the church was populated by nominally minded believers, or overrun by empty professions. In fact, it seems the remaining group – after having been abandoned by apostates – were committed to everything John wrote. These true believers – reeling from the departures – are John’s target audience. John is comforting them and not going after them.
It would be more accurate – then- to understand John as trying to accomplish the exact opposite of what’s commonly described. He is reassuring the hearts of true converts exactly because doubt has crept in under the influence of false teachers and recent departures. Ironically, the manner in which the letter is most often used by preachers (to question assurance in the nominal) is in conflict with John’s purpose and secondary at best.
That the epistle also has a polemical purpose is obvious. The author is intent on refuting the doctrinal errors that are exerting their pressures on his readers. But the epistle is not merely polemical: the false teaching confronting them are to be exposed and refuted by the very tests which establish the nature and validity of the Christian faith to which his readers adhere. By their nature the revealed truths of the Christian gospel, which save and assure the true believer, also expose and condemn the errors of the heretic. – D. Edmond Hiebert, The Epistles of John, p. 20
The specific historic situation that prompted John to write is clearly spelled out earlier in the letter, “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you.” (2:26) Very obviously, John is coming to the defense of believers who have been confused by the error of false teachers outside the church. John is confronting their errant doctrine head on.
In all this, it’s more accurate to understand John as providing true Christians with tests for truth to protect them from the false prophets attacking the church and not tests for assurance. In fact, the only time John uses the term “test” he applies it to the doctrine of false teachers and not the spiritual state of his audience. It’s not the genuineness of their faith he was concerned about, but the errant doctrine that might confuse their faith. It’s not “You should not be confident in your faith”, but “You should not listen to a thing the false teachers are saying. Here’s how you know they’re wrong.” This is exactly what John means in his purpose statement above. He’s writing in defense of truth so those “who believe” can be confident that what they have believed is true and that their “eternal life” is certain. They already possess true belief and eternal life. There’s no question here. This is exactly is why John writes. In the most literal sense, John is offering “tests” for truth. This is explicit in the letter.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (4:1-6)
Re-Reading First John With Nice in Mind
When you read the Epistle of First John from the perspective of an Apostle who cared deeply for his audience and was out to protect them – the tone of the letter changes from how we’ve heard it described. He’s actually standing between true believers and false teachers protecting them from aberrant doctrine that was pulling some away. (1John 2:19) Again, John does not doubt the faith of his audience. He’s defending it. John wasn’t threatening believers (as we make it seem) but defending them. He wasn’t angry at the church. He loved them and was coming to their aid. He wasn’t standing above them condescendingly, but walking beside them in love. Consider Calvin’s thoughts on John’s purpose statement.
As there ought to be daily progress in faith, so he says that he wrote to those who had already believed, so they might believe more firmly and with greater certainty, and thus enjoy a fuller confidence as to eternal life. Then the use of doctrine is, not only to initiate the ignorant in the knowledge of Christ, but also to confirm those more and more who have been already taught. It is therefore becomes us assiduolsy to attend to the duty of learning, that our faith my increase through the whole course of our life. For there are still in us many remnants of unbelief, and so weak is our faith that what we believe is not yet really believed except there be a fuller confirmation.
But we ought to observe the way in which faith is confirmed, even by having the office of and power of Christ explained to us. For the apostle says he wrote these things, that is, that eternal life is to be sought nowhere else but in Christ, in order that they who were believers already might believe, that is make progress in believing. It is therefore the duty of a godly teacher, in order to confirm disciples in the faith, to extol as much as possible the grace of Christ, so that being satisfied with that, we make seek nothing else. – John Calvin, Commentary on First John, pp. 264-65.
For Those Struggling with Sin
One of the theological errors being promoted had to do with the ongoing presence of sin (1:7-10). Apparently, there was some form of Gnosticism (reaching a higher plain of life through spiritual enlightenment) being espoused. Basically, you could attain a level of awareness in the immaterial part of man that freed you from the corruption of the material part. Not unlike in Platonism salvation was being rescue from the prison of the fallen physical existence and was achieved by reaching increasingly higher plains of spiritual awareness. Those who were able (enlightened) detached themselves from the influence of their lower natures. They were not liable for sins committed in the flesh which resulted from their soon to be discarded flesh.
Gnosticizing tendencies in the early church were derived from a dualist view of existence. Because esoteric knowledge for the initiated was all-important, the material dimension was regarded as an evil to be transcended… – Stephen Smalley, 1-3 John, p. xxiv.
Ultimately, the spiritually enlightened claimed to be sinless, but actually weren’t. This is why John writes what he writes,
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 1 John 1:8-10
You can imagine how discouraging this would be for believers struggling against the gravitational force of the flesh. To struggle with sin and then be told others had achieved a level of sinless perfection would be despairing. It might cause the “unenlightened” to doubt their salvation, or to disbelieve the testimony of the apostles. (1:1-6) This is exactly where the Apostle steps in and comforts their hearts by depicting the struggle with sin as normative. The notion of sinless perfection was (and is) preposterous. He calls their teaching darkness as a way of mocking the false teachers (1 John 1:5-7). They did not have some secret wisdom (“light”), but were ignorant (“darkness”). Jesus, not human enlightenment, was the truth. Furthermore, the remedy for their struggle with sin was not some secret wisdom, or enlightenment, or rigorous spirituality, but faith in the objective finished work of Christ. Salvation lies outside and not inside.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 2:1-2
This explains why John would say something so obvious. His point was – don’t believe a word these heretics are saying.
Ultimately, assurance is not found in ourselves, or in our obedience – relative as it is given our innate corruption, but in Christ. This is not to say there’s no fruit in the life of the believer, but our final assurance lies outside of us – in an empty tomb. Any consistent Protestant affirms sola fide. Given that John wrote the Gospel of John for the express purpose of pointing to salvation by faith in Christ (John 20:30-31), it seems unlikely that he would then turn in his epistle and offer the patterns of a Christian’s life as the exclusive means of assurance. What’s most confusing (and revealing) about the standard argument for the First Epistle of John is that faith in the finished work of Christ is always excluded as a means of assurance. In certain cases it’s never mentioned. This is a tragic oversight. According to the above argument, all essential assurance lies in the life of fallen human beings. This of course, can only lead to despair. But, in the letter itself assurance in Christ work is where the Apostle begins.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1John 2:1-2