Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (January-March 1993) 89-105.
Copyright © 1993 by
WHAT IS THE MESSAGE
OF 1 JOHN?
Gary W. Derickson
Within modern-day scholarship two distinct and
disparate views have developed concerning the message of 1
John. They have arisen as a consequence of two variant percep-
tions of the purpose of the epistle. These are the Tests of Life
(Salvation) and Tests of Fellowship (Practice of Life) views. The
purpose of this article is to describe these views and how they are
defended and to evaluate each view.
TESTS OF LIFE VIEW
THE VIEW DESCRIBED
The Tests of Life view, the older of the two positions, com-
mands the majority of scholarly support.1 The basis of this view
is the dominance given the purpose statement in 1 John 5:13 in
determining the overarching message and controlling the inter-
pretation of difficult passages. According to this view John's pur-
W. Derickson is Assistant Professor of Bible,
1 Proponents of this view include Raymond Brown (The Epistles of John, The
Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982); John Calvin (The Gospel ac-
cording to St John 11–21 and The First Epistle of John, Calvin's New Testament
trans. T. H. L. Parker (reprint,
C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, Moffatt New Testament Commentary (New
and Revelation, rev. ed. vol. 3 of An Introduction to the New Testament (
Moody, 1977); idem, "An Expositional Study of 1 John," Bibliotheca Sacra (April
1988 through July 1990); Robert Law, The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle
F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel according to Jesus (
tary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978); John R. W. Stott, The
Letters of John, Tyndale
New Testament Commentaries (
mans, 1964); and Brooke F. Westcott, The Epistles of John (reprint,
90 BIBUOTHECA SACRA / January–March 1993
pose in writing the epistle was to encourage his readers, who were
understood to be believers, to assure themselves of their salvation
by verifying the validity of their profession through tests of spiri-
tual life. These tests include doctrinal agreement with the apos-
tles' teaching and submission to their standard of conduct,
namely, loving the brethren and living righteously.
Eternal life, understood as a soteriological term, is the sub-
ject of the epistle, with Christian certainty serving as the domi-
nant theme throughout the work. Salvation is the subject of the
epistle's prologue in its focus on the "Word of Life" and the apos-
tolic proclamation of "eternal life" (1:1-2).2 With eternal life as
its central subject, the epistle develops three tests by which mem-
bers of the believing community can recognize that they do indeed
possess that life.
These three tests of the Christian life are belief (truth), righ-
teousness (obedience), and love. These indicate whether a person
has eternal life, and is therefore in communion with God, or does
not and is merely professing faith.3 Passing these tests produces
assurance of salvation, since there is a correlation between pos-
session of life and production of fruit as evidence of eternal life.4
John's purpose was not to cause his readers to doubt their salva-
tion, but to find assurance in it.5 Fruit can be used either to reveal
2 F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 37; Calvin,
The First Epistle of John, 231; Kenneth Grayston, The Johannine Epistles, New
Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 41; C. Haas, M. De
Jonge, and J. L. Swellengrebel, A Translator's Handbook on the Letters of John,
UBS Helps for Translators 13 (London: United Bible Societies, 1972), 125; Hiebert,
"An Exposition of 1 John 1:1-4," Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (April-June 1988): 199; Stott,
The Letters of John, 56, 58, 187; Rodney A. Whitacre, "Johannine Polemic: The Role
of Tradition and Theology," Society of Biblical Literature, Dissertation Series No.
67 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982), 150.
3 James M. Boice, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 14-15;
S. Candlish, The First Epistle of
J. N. Darby, Notes on the Epistles of
H. Epp, Studies
in the General Epistles of John (
the Bible Broadcast, 1957), 47-48; Jerry Horner, "Introduction to the Johannine
Epistles," Southwestern Journal of Theology 13 (Fall 1970): 49; J. A. T. Robinson,
Twelve New Testament Studies (London: SCM, 1962), 127; Law, The Tests of Life, 5-
7; Ray C. Stedman, Expository Studies in 1 John (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1980),
338. Stott identifies his view with Law's three tests "by which we may judge
whether we possess eternal life or not" (The Letters of John, 58).
4 Epp, Studies in the General Epistles of John, 5-7; Law, The Tests of Life, 208; Alfred Plummer,
The Epistles of
5 C. J. Barker, The Johannine
Epistles, Lutterworth Commentary (
terworth, 1948), 80; Bruce, The Epistles of John, 123; Stott, The Letters of John, 187;
Thusing and Alois Stager, The Three Epistles of
of Jude, New Testament for
McKenzie (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), 98.
What Is the Message of 1 John? 91
the absence of eternal life in an individual or to assure him of the
presence of that life.6
John used "eternal life," "fellowship," "to know God," and
"abiding" synonymously when describing the Christian.7 Eter-
nal life is a soteriological term, though quality of life is not com-
pletely removed from its meaning.8 Koinwni<a ("fellowship")
should be understood soteriologically so that "to be in fellowship"
is equivalent to having eternal life, or being "saved."9 Fellow-
ship means participating and having partnership in the common
possession of eternal life, not communion or relationships as one
would expect in a family. Knowing God also refers to possessing
eternal life (salvation), on the basis of John 17. Abiding is un-
derstood as reflecting the Pauline concept of being "in Christ"
rather than that of walking in the Spirit. Therefore even the af-
firmations of 1 John 1:5-10 are tests of spiritual life.10
First John was not written with an evangelistic intent as was
the Gospel of John.11 But its purpose is related to that of the Gospel
of John in that the Gospel was written so that the readers could
have eternal life (salvation), whereas the epistle was written so
that the readers could know that they have eternal life.12
6 MacArthur, The Gospel according to Jesus, 22, 33, 126, 178; Paul R. Van Gorder,
In the Family (Grand Rapids: Radio Bible Class, 1978), 57-69; Stott, The Letters of
John, 58; Homer, ""Introduction to the Johannine Epistles," 47.
7 J. L. Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, Black's New Testa-
ment Commentaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 65; Andre Feuillet, "The
Structure of First John: Comparison with the Fourth Gospel: the Pattern of Chris-
tian Life," Biblical Theological Bulletin 3 (June 1973): 200; J. Ireland Hasler, The
Message of Life (Greenwood, SC: Attic, 1949), 12; Greville P. Lewis, The Johannine
Epistles, Epworth Preacher's Commentaries (London: Epworth, 1961), 48; Stott,
The Letters of John, 58.
8 Bruce, The Epistles of John, 39; C. Crain,
9 J. Allen Blair, The Epistles of John (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1982), 25; Boice,
The Epistles of John, 31; Bruce, The Epistles of John, 28; Donald W. Burdick, The
Epistles of John, Everyman's Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1970), 22; Crain,
Lewis, The Johannine Epistles, 12-13; Stott, The Letters of John, 58; Van Gorder, In
the Family, 19.
10 Bruce, The Epistles of John, 28; Darby, Notes on the Epistles of John, 13-14;
The Epistles of
11 G. S. Barrett, The First Epistle General of
Society, 1910), 206.
12 Ibid, 207; E. M. Blaiklock, Letters to
Children of Light (
Books, 1975), 103; Blair, The Epistles of John, 8; Maurice Bogaert, "Structure et
Message de la Premiere Epitre de Saint Jean," Bible et Vie Chritienne 83 (1968):
35; Burdick, The Epistles of John, 91; Robert Cameron, The First Epistle of John
(Philadelphia: Rowland, 1899), xii, 240; Epp, Studies in the General Epistles of
John, 5-6; Grayston, The Johannine Epistles, 140; George E. Henderlite, Notes on
the First Epistle of John (N.p., n.d.), 66; Hiebert, The Non-Pauline Epistles and
92 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 1993
The relationship of the Gospel of John and 1 John is evidenced
by the similar fashion in which John stated his purpose near the
end of each work.13 Since John 20:31 governs the message of the
Gospel and 1 John 5:13 is used similarly in the epistle, the latter
verse governs the message of the entire epistle, and not just that of
the preceding paragraph.14
The other purpose statements in 1 John are subsidiary to the
primary purpose of providing assurance of salvation. Thus 1:3-4
and 2:1 are to be understood in reference to assurance of salva-
tion.15 These other purpose statements should be considered
within the light of the overarching soteriological purpose.
THE VIEW DEFENDED
The principal argument used to support the Tests of Life view
is the perceived relationship between John 20:31 and 1 John 5:13.
As John 20:31 is a comprehensive purpose statement of the Gospel,
so 1 John 5:13 serves a parallel role within the epistle.16
Revelation, 201; Horner, "Introduction to the Johannine Epistles," 47; Houlden,
"Salvation Proclaimed: II. 1 John 15-20: Belief and Growth," Expository Times 93
(1981/82): 132-33; Lewis, The Johannine Epistles, 119; Plummer, The Epistles of St.
John, 120; David Smith,
"The Epistles of
ment, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 5:197; Stott, The Letters of John, 187;
C. Thiessen, Introduction
to the New Testament (
1952), 306; W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Apostle John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), 231;
William E. Vine, The First Epistle of John (Bangalore: Scripture Literature Depot, 1934), 156.
13 Boice, The Epistles of John, 167; Brown, The Epistles of John, 632; Bruce, The
Epistles of John, 122; Feuillet, "The Structure of First John," 211; Robert Govett, Govett on I
John (Miami Springs, FL:
Conley & Schoettle, 1985), 148; Plummer, The Epistles of
120; Stott, The Letters of John, 186; Bruce Vawter, "The Johannine Epistles," in The Jerome
Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968) 2:411.
The First Epistle General of
11; Brown, The Epistles of John, 91, 632; Bruce, The Epistles of John, 27; Rudolf
of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel (
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955), 2:83; Burdick, The Epistles of John, 91; Gordon H.
First John (
The Johannine Epistles, 133; Epp, Studies in the General Epistles of John, 99-103;
Feuillet, "The Structure of First John," 211; George Goodman, The Epistle of Eter-
nal Life (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1936), 8, 57; Haas, De Jonge, and Swellen-
grebel, A Translator's Handbook on the Letters of John, 124; Henderlite, Notes on
the First Epistle of John, 66; Hiebert, The Non-Pauline Epistles and Revelation,
201; Law, The Tests of Life, 405; R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of I and II Epis-
tles of Peter, the Three Epistles of John, and the Epistle of
Testament Studies, 126; Thusing and Stager, The Three Epistles of St. John, 97-98;
Westcott, The Epistles of John, 188.
15 Goodman, The Epistle of Eternal Life, 8; Hiebert, The Non-Pauline Epistles
and Revelation, 200; Vine, The First Epistle of John, 17-19.
16 Brown, The Epistles of John, 608; Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 133; Feuillet,
"The Structure of First John," 211; Goodman, The Epistle of Eternal Life, 7-8; Stott,
The Letters of John, 86.
What is the Message of 1 John? 93
Brown, Cameron, and Feuillet develop their arguments for
the parallel relationship of 5:13 to John 20:31 on the premise that 1
John was patterned after the Gospel of John.17 They point to the
similarities between the two prologues as well as key vocabulary .
and grammar.18 Others holding the Tests of Life view do not see
a parallel pattern between John and 1 John and so do not use this
argument to defend the relationship of 1 John 5:13 to the remain-
der of the epistle.19
First John 5:13 states that John wrote the epistle so that his
readers might know that they have eternal life. This view of the
verse is proper because it is grammatically permissible and pref-
erable. Tau?ta ("these things") refers either to the preceding
verses (5:11-12) or to the epistle as a whole.20 In the Tests of Life
view tau?ta refers to the entire epistle because there is nothing
within the context that necessarily limits its focus "to what im-
mediately precedes."21 Law, though seeing 5:13 as governing the
whole epistle, admits that the immediate context of 5:11-12 is the
referent, of tau?ta, but he agrees with
the entire epistle.22
Another defense of the Tests of Life comes from the use of
"eternal life" in the prologue and conclusion, which indicates
that it is the subject of the epistle.23 Arguing for this pattern in Jo-
hannine thought, Bogaert points to the example of another inclu-
17 Brown divides the epistle into the following sections: the Prologue (1:1-4); Part
One (1:5–3:10): "The Gospel that God is light, and we must walk in the light as Je-
sus walked"; Part Two (3:11–5:12): "The Gospel that we must love one another as
God has loved us in Jesus Christ"; and the Conclusion (5:13-21): "A statement of
the author's purpose" (The Epistles of John, 124). Also see Cameron, The First
Epistle of John, xii; and Feuillet, "The Structure of First John," 194-216.
18 Brown, The Epistles of John, 124-25; Feuillet, "The Structure of First John,"
19 Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, xxii-xxvi; Law, The Tests of Life, 5; Stott, The
Letters of John, 61.
20 Brown, The Epistles of John, 608; Marshall, The Epistles of John, 243, n. 1; A.
E. Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, The
Critical Commentary (
Schnackenburg, Die Johannesbriefe (Freiburg: Herder, 1984), 273.
21 Haas, De Jonge, and Swellengrebel, A Translator's Handbook on the Letters of
John, 124; Plummer, The Epistles of
22 Law, The Tests of Life, 405; Marshall, The Epistles of John, 243, n. 1; Stott, The
Letters of John, 86; Clark, First John, 160; Vine, The First Epistle of John, 156.
Bogaert, "Structure et Message de la Premiere Epitre de Saint Jean," 35;
Grayston, The Johannine Epistles, 140; Law, The Tests of Life, 184; Thusing and
The Three Epistles of
when he posits an inclusion formed by John's use of tau?ta gra<fomen; in 1:4 ("We are
writing this") and tau?ta e@graya in 5:13 ("I have written this"), with 1:4 looking
ahead and 5:13 looking back at the body of the epistle (The Epistles of John, 608).
Though it is a different inclusion, it serves the same function.
94 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 1993
sion which marks off the section of 1 John that addresses false
teachers under the discussion of discerning spirits.24
John's frequent use of the word "know" argues for assurance
of salvation rather than maintenance of fellowship.25 This in-
forms the meaning of other terms related to eternal life and as-
John's theology, it is argued, focuses on soteriological issues
rather than sanctification. Thus key terms, including koinwni<a,
should be understood soteriologically. Fellowship should be un-
derstood this way because it is used by John in a manner similar
to his use of other terms in the epistle that are clearly soteriologi-
cal. Since salvation is a necessary prerequisite for fellowship,
John used the term in this soteriological sense.26
Some commentators see numerous purposes being worked out
in the epistle.27 But, as noted earlier in the description of this po-
sition, the majority of those who hold the Tests of Life view con-
sider 1 John 5:13 as stating the overarching purpose of the epistle.
Though the i!na clauses in 1:3-4 and 2:1 are recognized as purpose
statements, they are viewed as secondary or subordinate to the
purpose statement in 5:13.28 Though fellowship and joy are rec-
ognized as purposes for John's writing, they do not control the in-
terpretation of the remainder of the epistle but are related to the
message of the introduction.29 The purpose clause in 2:1 applies to
24 Bogaert, "Structure et Message de la Premiere Epitre de Saint Jean," 40.
25 Blair, The Epistles of John, 8; Boice, The Epistles of John, 12-15; Robinson,
Twelve New Testament Studies, 127; Stott, The Letters of John, 56-60; Thomas, The
Apostle John, 233.
26 Cameron, The First Epistle of John, 7-11; Epp, Studies in the General Epistles
of John, 13.
27 For example Strauss sees six purposes for the epistle, which are to proffer fel-
lowship (1:3), promote joy (1:4), prevent sin (2:1-2), proclaim forgiveness (2:12), pro-
tect saints (2:26), and provide assurance (5:13) (Lehman Strauss, The Epistles of
"(1) to enhance his own joy (1:4 . . .), (2) to keep them from sin (2:1), (3) to lead them
into an assurance of salvation (5:13; cf. 2:12), and (4) to warn them against error
(2:26)" (Introduction to the New Testament, 10). For the purposes of this study,
only those which are introduced with a i!na clause are considered, namely, the pur-
poses in 1:3-4 and 2:1, as they relate to 5:13. Thomas blends the various purposes
into one summarizing sentence and says that the epistle teaches that "we are to
have the fulness of joy because of our freedom from sinning, and this, in turn,
comes from spiritual assurance" (The Apostle John, 233). Of note is his failure to
28 Law, The Tests of Life, 20, 405; Simon J. Kistemaker, James and I-III John, New
Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 237; Plummer, The Epistles
29 Barrett, The First Epistle General of
1:14," 207-9; Law, The Tests of Life, 45-46; Plummer, The Epistles of
120; Smith, "The Epistles of John," 170; Stott, The Letters of John, 68-71.
What Is the Message of 1 John? 95
the immediate context of 1:5-10 and addresses the question of how
a believer is to deal with sin in his life, which is revealed by
walking in the light.30
TESTS OF FELLOWSHIP VIEW
The Tests of Fellowship (Practice of Life) view is rather re-
cent in its development, with the earliest written representative
being Guy H. King.31
THE VIEW DESCRIBED
According to this view, 1 John was written to encourage be-
lievers to maintain fellowship with God and to provide assurance
of that fellowship through tests of spiritual communion. It was
written to believers whose relationships with God were brought
into question by false teachers whose claims to a special relation-
ship with God left common believers in doubt of their status.
The purpose of the epistle arises from the prologue, specifi-
cally from John's stated purpose in 1:3.32 He wrote to promote fel-
lowship horizontally between believers as well as vertically be-
tween them and God.33
This purpose statement, expressed by the i!na clause in 1:3,
governs the message of the epistle.34 The other purpose statements
in 1:4; 2:1; and 5:13 are secondary to the overarching purpose of
promoting fellowship between believers and between believers
30 Cameron, The First Epistle of John, 38-41; Crain,
of John, 53-59.
31 Guy H. King, The Fellowship (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1954). Other
proponents of this view include C. C. Ryrie, Biblical Theology of the New Testa-
ment (Chicago: Moody, 1959); idem, "I, II, and III John," in The Wycliffe Bible Com-
mentary, ed. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison (Chicago: Moody, 1962),
C. Hodges (The Gospel under Siege (
Absolutely Free! (Dallas, TX: Redenci6n Viva, 1989); idem, "1 John," in The Bible
Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck
(Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983); J. Dwight Pentecost, The Joy of Fellowship (Grand
Zondervan, 1977); John G. Mitchell, An Everlasting Love (
Multnomah, 1982); idem, Fellowship (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1974); and J. W.
The Letters of John, The Living Word
32 Hodges, The Gospel under Siege, 52-53; Ryrie, “I, II, and III John," 1466.
33 Hodges focuses on the aspect of fellowship with the apostles rather than with
God ("1 John," 833). Ryrie ("I, II, and III John," 1466), Roberts (The Letters of John,
24), and King (The Fellowship, 16) see the epistle as stressing fellowship with the
Father, though not without including fellowship within the church body. Cf. Ed-
ward M. Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John" (ThD disc., Dallas Theological Seminary,
34 Ryrie, "I, II, and III John," 1466; Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 161.
96 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1993
and God the Father.35 Hodges argues that 1:3 expresses the
overall purpose of the epistle.36 He says the three terms of address
in 2:12-14 refer to all the readers rather than three groups of
individuals differentiated by age or spiritual maturity.37
The controlling theme of fellowship is given in the purpose
statement of 1:3.38 Though it is not the subject of the prologue,
fellowship, not eternal life, is the subject of the epistle.39 This
subject is then discussed in the various sections of the epistle.40
The tests given within the epistle enable the readers, under-
stood as believers, to recognize when they are in fellowship with
God in the sense of communion, not whether they are His
children. The tests are not given to produce assurance of the pos-
session of eternal life, of inclusion in God's family, but of the
"functioning" of that life within the fellowship of God's family.41
Performing according to these tests does not produce a knowledge
of God in the sense of saving knowledge, but in the sense of a
growing acquaintance that results from God's self disclosure
based on the believer's obedience to His commands as revealed in
the Upper Room Discourse.42 Failing the tests indicates not an
absence of salvation, but an absence of fellowship which must be
In this view John differentiated between mature and imma-
ture believers.43 The tests provided by John detail those areas
wherein a believer must respond properly to have fellowship with
God.44 For example failure to walk in the light results in broken
fellowship between the believer and God the Father, though not a
departure from the "family."45 Thus those who walk in the light,
obey God's commands, hold sound doctrine, and love one another
are mature believers. One who fails to follow the pattern provided
by the apostolic band are immature, though saved.
35 Hodges, "1 John," 884; Judith M. Lieu, "'Authority to Become Children of God':
A Study of 1 John," Novum Testamentum 23 (1981): 213; Mitchell, Fellowship, 16-
36 Zane C. Hodges, "We Believe In: Assurance of Salvation," Journal of the Grace
Evangelical Society 3 (Autumn 1990): 5.
37 Hodges, "1 John," 890.
38 Ibid., 881; Mitchell, Fellowship, 14; Pentecost, The Joy of Fellowship, 17.
39 Ryrie, "I, II, and III John," 1466; Hodges, "1 John," 883.
40 Ryrie, “I, II, and III John," 1465-66.
41 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 135.
42 Hodges, "1 John," 888.
43 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 1-2.
44 Hodges, "1 John," 884.
45 King, The Fellowship, 17; Ryrie, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, 341.
What is the Message of 1 John? 97
The fellowship of which John wrote was directed either God-
ward or among believers.46 Pentecost represents the former un-
derstanding, while Hodges sees it promoted by John as horizonal
in nature, specifically with the apostles.47 Ryrie sees John's
purpose as promoting fellowship with both God and the apostles.48
The terms of "fellowship," "abiding," "eternal life," and
"knowing God" are related, though understood as describing as-
pects of the believer's relationship to the Father within His fam-
ily. They develop John's doctrine of sanctification rather than
regeneration. Fellowship should be understood in its natural
sense as expressing relationship or communion, rather than
merely possession of a common property. Abiding should be un-
derstood in the Pauline sense of walking in the Spirit rather than
being in Christ. This is supported in part from the Johannine use
of abiding in John 15, which need not be understood soteriologi-
cally. Eternal life refers to quality of life, as in John 10:10, rather
than salvation. Knowing God is not equivalent to being saved,
but is the result of walking with Him in fellowship.
A relationship between the Gospel of John and 1 John is iden-
tified by the Tests of Fellowship position. But this relationship is
seen in the prologues of the two books rather than their conclu-
sions. For example Ryrie says the prologue of 1 John 1:1-4 "cor-
respond[s] to the opening eighteen verses of the Gospel and three
verses of the Revelation."49
Though related to the Gospel, the epistle has its own distinct
purpose. The epistle develops the concept of the believer's experi-
ence of eternal life in the way of fellowship with other believers
and the Father, while the Gospel focuses on obtaining eternal
life.50 A parallel does not exist between the purpose statement of
John 20:31 and that of 1 John 5:13. Rather, 1 John 5:13 is under-
46 Grayston, though identified with the Tests of Life view, nonetheless identifies a
key element in the definition of the Tests of Fellowship position when he proposes
that "the writer" was promoting fellowship "between the two groups" (The Johan-
nine Epistles, 33). Though Grayston interprets the majority of the epistle from the
perspective of tests of spiritual life, his assessment of John's purpose as revealed
in the prologue reflects the "fellowship" understanding of koinwni<a. Of note is his
rejection of Johannine authorship, which he seeks to defend in part by suggesting
that Kou vla is "non-Johannine language." Houlden, also holding to a Tests of Life
view, notes that fellowship appears in John's writings only in the first main sec-
tion of this epistle "and accords well with the Johannine concern for unity in the
Christian body" (A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 54). Thus he also sees
koinwni<a being used in its broad sense of communion rather than soteriologically as
another term for salvation.
47 Hodges, "1 John," 883-84; Pentecost, The Joy of Fellowship, 17.
48 Ryrie, "I, II, and III John," 1466.
49 Ibid.; Roberts, The Letters of John, 19.
50 Mitchell, Fellowship, 13.
98 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1993
stood as a subpurpose, referring only to the immediate context,
and being written in order to strengthen the readers' confidence
in their fellowship with God through the confidence that results
from assurance of salvation.
Assurance of salvation, if its teaching is not eliminated from
the message of the epistle, is only a supporting aspect of the mes-
sage. It is introduced late and discussed as a prerequisite to
enjoying fellowship as a family member in God's household.51
Assurance of salvation is a result of maintaining fellowship with
God the Father.52
THE VIEW DEFENDED
In this view John introduced his subject at the beginning of
his work, not at the end.53 Since the epistle was written to be read
aloud to a listening audience, John logically stated his purpose at
the beginning of the writing. Johnson, though not writing a com-
mentary on 1 John, offers an argument that strengthens the Tests
of Fellowship approach to the epistle.
The subject is commonly introduced at the beginning of the text
or in some shared context with the original readers. For commu-
nication to take place, the reader must understand what the au-
thor is talking about. If the author fails to introduce his subject
somehow, then what he says has no relation to any subject in
particular. Communication of a message is thereby thwarted.54
He concludes from this that "an alert and perceptive reader will
look for the subject in the beginning of the book."55
Though 5:13 contains a purpose statement, the grammar of
the sentence relates it to the immediate context rather than to the
epistle as a whole. John's use of gra<fw ("I write") with o!ti in the
epistle argues for 5:13 being a secondary purpose statement, sub-
sidiary to the purpose statement in 1:3.56
Fellowship is based on salvation.57 Hodges says that John
wrote in order to "assure his readers that, despite anything the
antichrists have said, the believers do indeed possess eternal
life."58 Pentecost notes that, though a believer's misunderstand-
51 Hodges, "1 John," 902; Ryrie, "I, II, and III John," 1477; Roberts, The Letters of
John, 138; King, The Fellowship, 110.
52 Mitchell, Fellowship, 17.
53 Hodges, The Gospel under Siege, 52.
54 Elliott E. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction
Zondervan, 1990), 83.
56 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 156-61.
57 Ryrie, "I, II, and III John," 1477.
58 Hodges, "1 John," 902.
What Is the Message of 1 John? 99
ing these truths does not affect his eternal destiny, it does effect
his stay on earth. Further, without the comfort of the knowledge of
one's salvation, the believer cannot "enter into the peace of God,"
that is, fellowship.59 Thus it should be noted that the Tests of Fel-
lowship view has no problem seeing a focus in the last section of
the epistle on assurance of eternal life. But it must be seen as a
subcategory of the broader subject of fellowship. One must be as-
sured of his salvation in order to enjoy fellowship with God, and
so John concluded his epistle by focusing on that issue.
In this view John 20:30-31 is not a comprehensive summary
of the message of the Gospel of John. This verse refers to Jesus'
signs after His resurrection, not the book as a whole. Jesus' res-
urrection rather than salvation is the referents.60
THE TWO VIEWS EVALUATED
IS THE SUBJECT ETERNAL LIFE OR FELLOWSHIP?
Grayston's observation that I John argues a particular
lifestyle that corresponds to eternal life not only expresses the
view of the Tests of Life position well, but is quite valid. The sub-
ject of the epistle's prologue is not fellowship, but the apostolic
proclamation of the "Word of Life" and "eternal life." Thus it is
legitimate to see this as the subject of the epistle rather than fel-
lowship, which occurs in a purpose clause rather than as an object
of the verb. The subject of eternal life can be said to be introduced
in the prologue along with the theme of fellowship.
THE TESTS ARE TESTS OF EITHER SPIRITUAL LIFE OR FELLOWSHIP
As noted, both views see the epistle as including three tests.
Each view links those tests to their assumed subject. The problem
with both views is that they run into logical problems when pushed
to the limit. The Tests of Life view ends up holding that failure
indicates a lack of life. Every Christian who is honest must ad-
mit to some habitual sin, whether great or small. Yet if the prac-
tice of sin or righteousness in 1 John 3 proves the presence of death
or life, then one is forced to decide "how much is too much." Thus
arguing that John intended these tests as indicators of the pres-
ence or absence of eternal life is both indefensible and danger-
ous. The question is legitimately asked, After giving such im-
possible tests as "proofs" of eternal life, how could John then say
that he wrote to assure them of their possession of eternal life?
The tests, if absolute and if proving the presence or absence of life,
59 Pentecost, The Joy of Fellowship, 132.
60 Mitchell, An Everlasting Love, 400.
100 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1993
can only cause one to doubt his salvation whenever he sins.
The same can be said for the Tests of Fellowship view. To
support the position that a believer must pass the tests in order to be
in fellowship with God, Hodges notes that the terms in 2:12-14 de-
mand that John's readers be "genuine Christians" and that his
purpose not be their assurance of salvation. If John wrote to be-
lievers and eternal security is accepted, then he must necessarily
have addressed issues of fellowship among believers rather than
issues of salvation, since none of the readers would need to be
saved.61 This argument has merit and is difficult to reject out-
right. Further, the Upper Room Discourse gives a strong support
for this view, since Jesus addressed His disciples (with Judas ab-
sent) about issues of their relationship to each other and to the Fa-
ther, much as is indicated in the prologue of I John. Jesus gave
them the "new commandment" to love one another (John 13:34),
which then became one of the tests in the epistle. The three occur-
rences of the test of love for the brethren are in 1 John 2:7-11; 3:10-
24; and 4:7-5:5. Of note is the reference to this test being an "old
commandment" which they had had "from the beginning." As
love for other believers was not a test of salvation in the Upper
Room, but one which proved their identity to "all men" as Jesus'
disciples (John 13:35), it should not be seen as a test of salvation in
the epistle. Thus love was indeed a fruit that indicated a relation-
ship to Christ. But this relationship was that of a disciple, which
Jesus later defined as "friend" (John 15:14-15). Also, "abiding"
in John 15 is understood as referring to sanctification not soteri-
ology. This works well for the first cycle of tests in 1 John 1 and 2.
However, it does not work so well in chapter 3. Though the tests in
chapter 1 determine whether one is in fellowship or not, the con-
trast between being in the family of God or the family of Satan in
chapter 3 (as well as the mention of assurance of eternal life
through proper confession in chapter 5) indicates that these tests
do more than demonstrate fellowship alone.
It is better to see these tests serving both purposes as well as
enabling the discerning Christian to identify false teachers who
also professed faith. Rather than tests to be administered to one-
self, they were given by John to be administered to others who ap-
proached the community of faith. In this light the tests did more
than produce assurance of salvation or demonstrate fellowship.
They also served as standards by which men's teachings can be
measured to identify whether they are servants of God or of Satan.
61 Hodges, "1 John," 883.
What is the Message of 1 John? 101
DO "THESE THINGS" IN 5:13 REFER TO THE ENTIRE EPISTLE OR THE
The strength of the Tests of Life view is that, while recogniz-
ing the place of 1 John 5:13 within the immediate context, it sees
the verse as having a broader referent, namely, that of the epistle
as a whole. Also this view seeks to identify the referent of tau?ta
without doing injustice to the context of the passage within which
the term functions. Tau?ta normally has a near referent.62
Robertson relates the use of tau?ta with i!na in 5:13 to John 15:11,
and 17.63 In both cases the term clearly refers to the immediate
context. However, tau?ta in these two verses cannot be used to shed
light on John's use of tau?ta in his epistle, since they occurred in
Jesus' conversation and not as part of John's authorial com-
ments. In Revelation 10:4 and 22:19 tou<t& is also used in quoted
speech. Thus a determinative pattern of use does not seem to be
provided in other Johannine literature.
Curtis, who holds the Tests of Fellowship view, examined
John's use of tau?ta in 1 John and found that he used it three times
to "express the content of what he was writing."64 He noted that,
though the term could be used to refer to either the previous or the
following content, in 1 John 1:4 it is preferable to see it referring
to what had just been written. The use of tau?ta in 2:1 clearly has
the previous verses (1:6-10) in view and not the epistle as a whole,
especially since 2:7-8 is without a purpose clause "and the specific
object of gra<fw is the new commandment." Further, tau?ta
e@graya in 2:26 also has the previous paragraph and its teaching on
false teachers as its referent.65 Thus in 1 John tau?ta seems to in-
dicate a near referent rather than the entire epistle.
Does the relationship of 5:13 to its immediate context neces-
sarily limit the meaning of tau?ta? If 5:13 is functioning to link
verses 5-11 with verses 14-21, as
sarily tied to the immediate context and the weight of proof must
fall on any who would attempt to broaden its scope.66 That John
used linking verses is evidenced by the difficulty that commenta-
tors have in determining the proper places to divide various sec-
tions of the epistle. The prime example is the problem of 2:28-3:1.
62 H. E, Dana and J. R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament
(New York: Macmillan, 1927), 127.
63 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament (
man, 1934), 699.
64 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 161.
66 Marshall, The Epistles of John, 243.
102 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1993
Key terms in these verses serve to link the surrounding sections
by providing a "bridge" from one to the other.67 These include the
verb me<nete in 2:28, which links it to 2:22-27 where me<nw occurs five
times, and Jesus' parousia in 2:29, which links it to 3:1-3 and His
promised appearance. Brooke describes 2:28-29 as "transition-
al," since the verses are difficult to place in either section based
on their content.68 In the same way, 5:13 has transitional terms
that link it directly to its immediate context and mitigate against
its serving as a comprehensive summary of the entire book.
Specifically zwh>n ai]w<nion links 5:13 to verses 11-12, while ei]dh?te
links the verse to what follows in 5:15 and 19. This does not
disallow the possibility that the verse could serve a double pur-
pose. But it does indicate that the argument from grammar alone
is not a sufficiently strong position to necessitate a view that the
verse summarizes the entire epistle.
The argument that the epistolary aorist e@graya in 5:13 means
that John thereby referred to the whole epistle, especially when ex-
pressed as tau?ta e@graya, is also weak. Robinson agrees with
Vine and Houlden concerning the meaning of e@graya, that "the
writer looks at his letter as the recipient will."69 But does this
mean that the writer was referring to the whole epistle? The pres-
ence of similar expressions in 2:1 (tau?ta gra<fw) and 2:26 (tau?ta
e@graya), which clearly refer to their immediate context, mitigate
against this.70 The pattern John followed is that he used the
phrase when summarizing a specific section of instruction.
IS 1 JOHN 5:13 PARALLEL TO JOHN 20:30-31?
Some argue, as noted earlier, that John's use of a summariz-
ing purpose statement at the conclusion of his work is a stylistic
feature characteristic of his writings and so the two verses serve
parallel functions within the two works.71 This argument de-
pends on the Gospel of John so that, if John 20:30-31 cannot be de-
fended as a clear purpose statement covering the full scope of the
Gospel of John over against the Gospel's prologue, then neither
must the statement in 1 John 5:13 refer to the entire epistle. There-
fore two questions must be answered in evaluating this nearly
67 Kistemaker, James and I-III John, 287.
68 Brooke, Johannine Epistles, 64.
69 Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 845.
70 Hodges, "1 John," 902.
71 Boice, The Epistles of John, 167; Bruce, The Epistles of John, 122; Dodd, The
Johannine Epistles, 133; Feuifet, "The Structure of First John," 211; Goodman, The
Epistle of Eternal Life, 7, 211; Govett, Govett on I John, 148; Plummer, The Epistles
2:411; Westcott, The Epistles of John, xxxix.
What Is the Message of 1 John? 103
unanimous position held by the Tests of Life view. First, does
John 20:31 actually serve as a comprehensive purpose statement
for the Gospel? Second, if so, are the roles of 1 John 5:13 and John
20:30-31 similar? Mitchell, who holds the Tests of Fellowship
view, proposes that John 20:30-31 refers only to chapter 20, with the
signs being Jesus' appearances to Mary, the 10 apostles, and then
Thomas.72 Lenski responds well to Mitchell's position. He be-
gins by arguing that the term "signs" refers to all of Jesus' works
as well as His miracles and was linked to His discourses in the
Gospel.73 Further, the language of 20:30-31 seems to indicate,
Lenski says, far more than the four resurrection appearances of
Jesus, and the phrase "in this book" must refer to more than John
20.74 This, along with John's description of Jesus' miracles as
"signs," mitigates against Mitchell's position and argues for the
whole Gospel being in view in 20:30-31.
However, does this necessarily require that the purpose
statement be comprehensive, and therefore the controlling pur-
pose for the Gospel? It can function in such a manner only if it
can be demonstrated, that the contents of the Gospel can legiti-
mately be summarized in all that 20:30-31 contains. And this
cannot be demonstrated, since John said nothing in 20:30-31 about
Jesus' revelation of the Father (John 1:18), which, as a major
theme introduced in the prologue of the Gospel, is developed
throughout the Gospel, and especially in the Upper Room Dis-
course. Rather than looking to John 20:30-31 as summarizing the
purpose of the Gospel, one should look to the prologue wherein the
contents of the entire Gospel are clearly introduced in seminal
form.75 Thus John 20:30-31 should not be viewed as the control-
ling, comprehensive purpose statement of the Gospel, but rather as
a purpose statement secondary to the broader purpose of describ-
ing Jesus as the Word of God who reveals the Father, as well as
being the One who gives life to those who believe in Him.76 So the
argument that 1 John 5:13 is a comprehensive purpose statement
72 Mitchell, An Everlasting Love, 400.
The Interpretation of
74 Ibid., 1395; Frederic L. Godet, Commentary on John's Gospel (1866; reprint,
75 Feuillet, "The Structure of First John," 198-99; Stephen S. Smalley, John: Evan-
gelist and Interpreter (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978), 93.
76 A message statement for the Gospel of John is, "Jesus, the Christ, the Son of
God, reveals the Father and gives eternal life to those who believe in Him." This
accounts not only for the role of the signs in revealing Jesus and describing truths
concerning salvation, but also for His conversations with the Jews in John 5, 7, 8,
and 10, and with His disciples in John 13–17 wherein He revealed the Father.
104 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January–March 1993
of the epistle because 1 John was purposefully patterned after the
Gospel can be answered in part by recognizing that John 20:30-31
is not a comprehensive purpose statement for the Gospel and that
the prologue of the Gospel of John presents more themes and re-
flects a broader purpose.
DOES THE SOTERIOLOGICAL EMPHASIS OF THE GOSPEL DETERMINE
THE PURPOSE OF 1 JOHN?
Does the soteriological emphasis of the Gospel of John neces-
sitate a soteriological emphasis for the epistle? Though John may
have emphasized issues of regeneration in the Gospel, he was in
no way obligated to continue that emphasis in his epistle.77 In fact
this becomes apparent in his two other epistles, which do not focus
on issues of regeneration. Since they are recognized as having
been written in the same period of John's ministry and reflecting
a situation similar to that of 1 John, their emphasis on walking in
the truth and showing hospitality to legitimate representatives of
the church should inform the meaning of 1 John more than that of
the more chronologically distant Fourth Gospel.
DOES 1 JOHN 1:3 GOVERN THE MESSAGE OF THE EPISTLE?
Some writers suggest that 1 John 1:3 presents the purpose of the
epistle.78 Curtis argues that gra<fw tau?ta ("I write these things,"
5:13) introduces "intermediate purposes." He therefore says that
5:13 plays a subordinate role and that its i!na clause ("that you
may know") is consequently also subordinate. But the i!na clause
in 1:3 ("that you may have fellowship") is not limited in the same
way.79 Curtis fails to show that this is a trait in other Johannine
writings. The occurrence of gra<yon . . .tau?ta in Revelation 1:19
does not follow the pattern of the epistle, since there the tau?ta
refers to all that follows, namely, the majority of the Book of Rev-
elation. Also tau?ta . . . ge<graptai i!na in John 20:30-31 would
seem to mitigate against Curtis's contention, since John does not
have another purpose statement within the Gospel, especially not
in the prologue. Any purpose in the prologue must be found by in-
ference rather than direct statement. Thus the argument for a
pattern in the epistle is weak since this pattern cannot be demon-
77 John's focus on regeneration is evident, not only from his extensive treatment
of Jesus' teaching on salvation and faith, but also in the statement of John 20:30-31,
which clearly serves to focus the attention of the reader on that aspect of the
Gospel before concluding with the epilogue.
78 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 161; Lieu, "'Authority to Become Children of
God': A Study of 1 John," 213; Mitchell, Fellowship, 16-17; Ryrie, "I, II, and HI John,"
79 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 156-61.
What the Message of I John? 105
strated elsewhere, and the evidence of the Gospel, which is simi-
lar in subject and pattern to the epistle, certainly stands contrary
to his contention.
The two views of the purpose of 1 John clearly differ in both
their understanding of John's purpose for writing the epistle and
the meanings he gave to key passages and terms. Whatever in-
terpretive error each view makes can be linked to their perception
of purpose and the influence that purpose is allowed to exercise
over the interpretation of difficult passages.
A more recent development, which recognizes the place of
both purpose statements in the message of 1 John, is reflected in
the work of Smalley.80 Rather than identifying salvation or fel-
lowship as the one controlling purpose, he looks to the problems
facing the church that are revealed through textual clues and sees
the author "recalling his divided community to the fundamentals
of the apostolic gospel, and answering the heretical extremes of
those who were taking too 'high' or too 'low' a view of the person of
Jesus."81 Thus each is a purpose rather than the purpose. The
word for fellowship (koinwni<a) is allowed its normal, nonsoterio-
logical sense, while assurance of salvation is recognized as an
issue addressed near the conclusion of the epistle.82
Approaching the epistle in this way—from the perspective that
the author's overarching purpose is not found in either purpose
clause—allows each passage in the epistle to be interpreted with-
out undue influence from either subpurpose. Further, it allows
formulation of an understanding of the message of the epistle to
grow out of all its affirmations rather than a single assertion.
The influence of those purposes on their immediate contexts must
be recognized and properly utilized in discerning John's in-
tended meaning, while the message of the epistle as a whole, as
introduced in its prologue, must be given its due place when ap-
proaching its other sections.
Interestingly this problem has arisen because I John is one of
the few biblical documents in which the author stated his purpose
in writing. Unfortunately John does it twice. Therefore both
statements must be carefully considered in seeking to ascertain
the message of 1 John.
80 Smalley, 1,2,3 John, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1984).
81 Ibid., 15. Others such as Brown (The Epistles of John, 632) see the same histor-
ical situation, but still find in 1 John 5:13 the dominant purpose and see the epistle
as focusing on issues of eternal life rather than fellowship.
82 Smalley, 1,2,3 John, 12-13, 289-91.
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