Last week we introduced you to Dr. Gary Derickson in part one of an interview. Before we present part two of that interview next week, we thought it would be helpful for you to read some of his latest work on a most important book – First John. As many of you know, the crucial and critical issue has to do with the actual purpose of the book. Most commentaries deal with this, but the best commentaries expose the reader to all critical thinking about what is possible, plausible and probable regarding purpose. Dr. Derickson has provided such an examination.
Gary W. Derickson, First, Second, and Third John (ed. H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts; Evangelical Exegetical Commentary; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).
John states four purposes within his epistle, though they may not exhaust all of his reasons or motives for writing. In 1:3 he writes so that he and his readers may have fellowship with one another and with God. This is immediately followed by a second purpose, that he or they, or better, both, may experience joy (1:4). Then, near the end of his first section of instruction, he writes so that his readers “may not sin” (2:1). Finally, near the end of this epistle, he writes so that his readers might have assurance of their salvation on the basis of their belief in Jesus (5:13).
Interpreters often take either the first or last purpose statement as determining both the purpose and the message of the epistle. Those who interpret 5:13 as the controlling purpose often point to John 20:31, which they see as the stated purpose of the Gospel, as the pattern. The two purpose statements reflect a Johannine practice. “Whereas the Gospel of John is written with an evangelistic purpose, 1 John is penned to provide avenues of assurance whereby a believer can know he has eternal life through the Son” (Akin, 32). Similarly, arguing for the first purpose to be dominant on the basis that it occurs in the epistle’s prologue is equally unconvincing. Though one can point to the purpose of the Revelation being stated early (Rev 1:19), such a purpose statement is absent from the Gospel’s prologue, and this epistle appears to be more closely patterned after the Gospel than the Revelation (Brown, 90–91; Smalley, xxii).
Selecting one or the other purpose statement as controlling the message of the epistle has led to two approaches to the message of 1 John. The first view, and most commonly held, is best described as the “Test of Life” view. The second view, representing a minority of scholars and popular writers, is the “Test of Fellowship” view. In recent years a third approach has developed, taken by this commentary. The interpretation of the epistle should be based on its subject, the experience of eternal life, that is introducted in the prologue rather than any of the stated purposes.
Both purposes are accomplished along with John’s other two stated purposes, and none should be viewed as primary or comprehensive. Rather, the subject of the epistle can be found in its prologue, as with John’s Gospel, and should guide one’s interpretation of key passages. That being said, what follows is a sketch of the two views.
The Test of Life view identifies three tests in 1 John, which reveal whether the reader is in union with God and so has spiritual life. This approach was introduced, and so gained its name, by Robert Law in his commentary, Tests of Life. He proposed that John wrote to provide his readers three tests by which they could assure themselves of their salvation. These three tests of one’s justification include the tests of belief (orthodoxy), righteousness, and love. From then and to this day it has remained the dominant perspective for the purpose of the epistle.64 Hiebert generally concurs with Law, however at one point modified his outlook somewhat and saw John writing to provide “tests of a vital Christianity, which would promote the assurance of personal salvation in the lives of his readers and would enable them to detect and reject false teachers.” More recently, the view is expressed by Akin (115), who sees two primary tests, righteousness (obedience) and love, with perseverance as a third. John is providing tests by which a person can determine if he or she is “saved” and thereby has assurance of salvation. Failure to pass the tests indicates spiritual death, not immaturity. Reflecting Reformed Calvinism, it harmonizes the affirmations of John in the epistle with the Calvinist doctrine of perseverance. Within the Test of Life view, the absence of fruit in the life of a person indicates the absence of spiritual life (“No fruit, no life.”).67
The Test of Fellowship view also identifies the same three tests in 1 John as did the Test of Life view. However instead of revealing one’s union with God, they test one’s relationship—thus fellowship—with God. There are no tests in the epistle that determine the justification status of anyone. The purpose statement of 1:3 is central to the message of the epistle, and 5:13 relates only to its immediately preceding context. John’s use of κοινωνία is relational rather than indicating possession of or joint participation in eternal life. Its key representatives include Anderson, Hodges, King, Mitchell, and Pentecost.
The intermediate view sees neither purpose as dominant and does not see the tests being related to salvation. This is reflected by W. Robert Cook, who sees both purpose statements as controlling. Its two more recent representatives include Steven S. Smalley and Marianne M. Thompson.70 These two authors are closer to the view of this commentary, though not at every point.
In addition to these two dominant approaches to the purpose of the epistle, biblical scholars also define its purpose as either polemical or pastoral.72 For example, Akin says that “John’s central purpose is to encourage his readers to persevere in their belief in the apostolic proclamation of the Christ as Jesus, the incarnate Son of God” (Akin, 54). However, Brown (48), who builds much of his interpretation on his construction of the supposed “secessionists,” acknowledges that “a theory which gives prominence to the role of adversaries in the background does not automatically mean that I John should be classified as a polemical tract.” Even so, those statements identified as polemical are aimed at both encouraging the reader to remain true to the faith while, secondarily, refuting the heretical teachings that include both ethical issues as well as christological (Smalley, xxviii). Strecker (33) notes that the issue of false teachings cannot be central to the message of the epistle since John’s focus, especially throughout his various dualistic contrasts, is ethical. This is because the “Christian community itself is continually under siege” morally and not just because there are false teachers attempting to influence it.
John’s First Epistle appears to have a double purpose, namely, pastoral and polemical, with the pastoral dominant and the polemical brought out only as it relates to pastoral concerns. Westcott describes well John’s purposes related to the doctrinal and moral issues: “His object is polemical only so far as the clear unfolding of the essence of right teaching necessarily shews all error in its real character. In other words St John writes to call out a welcome for what he knows to be the Gospel and not to overthrow this or that false opinion” (Westcott, xxxix). Bruce understands it as a pastoral letter in response to the departure of Christians and the subsequent “perplexity” this caused and that he wrote “to state the criteria of truth and life, and to help his readers to see that they, and not the seceders, satisfied these criteria” (Bruce, 27). The polemical element of the epistle cannot be ignored in favor of arguments for a purely pastoral purpose (Smalley, xxxi). The themes of Christ’s incarnation and deity clearly indicate theological issues involving christology that needed to be addressed (Brown, 48). However these issues serve only as secondary to the overall concern of the apostle to encourage his flock. Though John clearly addresses issues raised by false teachers whose salvation he rejects (1 John 2:19), often referred to as the “secessionists,” he need not address them constantly throughout his epistle any more than Paul did in his. As will be argued later with particular passages in question, what is often attributed to the secessionists need not be, and, in fact, makes better pastoral sense than polemical when recognized as addressing the faithful rather than responding to the faithless. The two main passages that clearly address the problem of false teachers are 2:18–28 (“they went out from us”) and 4:1–6 (“test the spirits”). Others, such as 1:6–10 and 2:4–11, which are usually identified as either quotations or allusions to doctrines of the opponents need not be seen in such a way if a pastoral concern is attributed to them as opposed to a polemical concern. As will be seen in the commentary of those passages, they should be interpreted in light of John’s pastoral concern unless clear evidence shows otherwise.
John’s pastoral purpose is to promote fellowship within their congregation (1:3) by encouraging them in their faith and walk with God (2:12–17). He does include in his epistle correctives to false doctrines that were appearing and threatening the faith of the church near the end of the first century (2:26). However, he does this as they relate to his pastoral concerns. Deception ultimately degrades unity, which is only possible in the sphere of Christ’s love. Though it does appear that some false teachers had arisen within the churches of the recipients of this letter (2:18, 19, and 26), they are neither the reason for his writing nor the focus of this epistle. Nonetheless, when he does turn his attention to them, John is not gentle, as evidenced by the terms he uses to describe them. He addressed them because the churches would be enabled to maintain unity of the faith and love for fellow believers (3:11) by being able to distinguish between true and false teachers. For John, one’s behavior springs from one’s belief. Also, if a believer believes the wrong things, he or she will act accordingly. All sin results from unbelief. As a result, though behavior may not prove or disprove one’s justification (contra Law’s tests of life), it certainly indicates the state of one’s sanctification (contra Burge, 96).
Several key themes are developed in this epistle. They include eternal life, knowing God, and abiding in faith. Additionally, the author uses contrasts, such as walking in the light and walking in the darkness, being either a child of God or a child of the devil, love or hate, and life or death. These contrasts delineate between true and false teachers and between those believers in fellowship with God and those who are not. However where they bring the salvation of false teachers into question, they never serve as tests of the readers themselves with regard to their salvation, only their sanctification.
This letter includes a call to remain (abide) in the truths they had been taught by John and the other apostles rather than following the new ideas of the false teachers. This is the key to maintaining fellowship with God as well as other believers and is essential to loving others as well. Orthopraxy, biblically correct living, results from orthodoxy, biblically correct thinking. Christlike living results from a correct view of Christ Jesus. One’s view of Christ is expressed in a person’s conduct of life, particularly in how he or she treats other believers. Thus John exhorts his readers to express their orthodox belief in Jesus by righteous living and practically demonstrated love for others.
Though christological issues are addressed by John, the relational issues are given greater emphasis in his first epistle. How we treat others stems from our view of Christ and God. Even so, John makes it clear that our motivation to love is based on God’s actions on our behalf rather than on Christology alone. Thus John connects our actions to a response to God’s acts and nature rather than to the Incarnation.
Although you may not agree with all of his conclusions, I hope you do see that Dr. Derickson has provided a very “full service” service commentary on the book of First John.
Serving Him with you
Until He comes for us,
Fred Chay, Ph.D.
Managing Editor, Grace Theology Press