One of the most frequent questions in theological studies as well as from people in the pew has to do with the meaning and purpose of 1 John. I received just such a question this past week. The answer that I often hear in the pulpit and read in many books is that 1 John was written to help people know if a person is truly born again. It was written to help you know or recognize who is truly a Christian.
This comes from Roberts Law, the great Scottish Presbyterian in his book entitled Test of Life written in 1909, over 100 years ago. Many pastors and many commentators still use the basic theological conclusions from this book. However, most modern technical commentaries today have stopped using the “present tense argument” to make the case for continual faith evidenced by good works as the sign of saving faith. The grammar of the present tense does not work to prove the theological point and is an example of forced exegesis.
A better answer based on the biblical text is that the book is written to help us know when we are in fellowship with our Heavenly Father. Free Grace Theology understands the difference between a relationship and fellowship with the Father. (Believing in Christ vs. Abiding in Christ)
Dr. Dave Anderson, President and Professor of Theology at Grace School of Theology, has written a book on 1 John called Maximum Joy. It is a wonderful commentary on the book of 1 John with special attention to both theological issues and pastoral implications. Listen to part of Dr. Anderson’s introduction to the book.
First John is a book about love. Another word for love is the word intimacy. If you have a growing relationship with someone, you are becoming more and more intimate with them. You are becoming closer and closer. Someone might say, “But that is why God provided husbands and wives. Adam was alone, which God said was not good. So He made Eve to take away Adam’s loneliness through intimacy – body, soul, and spirit.” I agree. Adam and Eve probably had perfect intimacy before the fall. They felt no loneliness before the fall. But our sin nature, which came through the fall, is so evil and horrid, it creates huge blocks to love and intimacy.
One of those blocks to intimacy lies at the very core of the sin nature. It is selfishness. Selfishness focuses on getting, not giving. Love, by definition, is giving, but the sin nature grabs and gets. People often confuse love and lust, but the main difference between the two is selfishness. Love asks, “How can I meet your needs?” whereas lust asks, “How can you meet mine?” So the sin nature works against intimacy because it is selfish.
But there is something else contained in the sin nature which is a block to intimacy, and that’s fear. Fear is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to opening up. You can’t be intimate with someone if you don’t open up. You can’t be close to someone if you don’t share the things that are close to you. But we are afraid to do that. We are afraid to let the other person see what is deep down inside. We are afraid they won’t like what they see. We are afraid they will simply reject us.
This fear of rejection keeps us from opening up and getting close. But there is good news. God has given us 1 John to show how to have intimacy after the fall, to show how we can have our most fundamental need for love met even though there is sin in the world, in the universe, and resident within us. That’s why 1 John was written.”
Not everyone agrees with this suggested understanding of the purpose of 1 John. In fact, it may be the most controversial book in the New Testament. Many wonderful and popular teachers of Scripture think 1 John is a book, which helps us determine whether we can know that we will go to heaven when we die. This is called the “tests of life” or “tests of relationship” view. This view did not develop out of thin air. It would be unfair to say it has been imported into the text. For in 1 John 5:13 we read, “These things I have writ- ten 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.” Most would say that John gave this verse as the purpose of 1 John, placing it at the end of the book; just as, they would argue, he gave the purpose of his gospel of John at the end of that book (John 20:31).
One popular preacher/teacher wrote a book called Saved without a Doubt. It is a book about how to be sure of one’s salvation. Here are eleven tests he drew from the little book of 1 John by which you can determine if you are a Christian:
- Have you enjoyed fellowship with Christ and with the Father?
- Are you sensitive to sin?
- Do you obey God’s Word?
- Do you reject this evil world?
- Do you eagerly await Christ’s return?
- Do you see a decreasing pattern of sin in your life?
- Do you love other Christians?
- Do you experience answered prayer?
- Do you experience the ministry of the Holy Spirit?
- Can you discern between spiritual truth ad error?
- Have you suffered rejection because of your faith?
I don’t know about you, but when I read questions like the ones above, more questions pop up in my mind. For example, what if I can just say yes to ten of these questions, or eight, or five? Will a simple majority do? Or let’s take one of these and focus on it, say, question number three. Do I obey God’s Word? If I must obey God’s Word, how much of it must I obey? How consistently must I obey it? Can I obey the big stuff and slide on the little stuff? Is there a curve out there somewhere? Since no one can say, “Yes, I absolutely obey God’s Word,” the answer must be relative, and if it’s relative, then there must be a curve. And if there’s a curve, who makes the cut?
Suppose I became a Christian when I was young, but when I was seventeen I wandered off the path of righteous living and stayed off for ten years. During those ten years, I couldn’t say yes to any of these questions. What does that mean? Did I lose the salvation I received when I was young, as some groups teach? Or as other groups teach, perhaps I was never a genuine believer at all. Do you see where this leads? Instead of helping a person to know that he is saved without a doubt, these kinds of tests only multiply doubts in the minds of introspective, thinking people. They only multiply guilt and fear.
I would like to take a different approach to 1 John. I suggest it is a book about intimacy.
If you would like a book that can help guide you in the expositional, theological and pastoral aspects of 1 John, this is the book for you.
Serving Him with you until He comes for us,
Fred Chay, PhD
Managing Editor, Grace Theology Press